Monday, July 31, 2017

What We Need in the Long Run

The scriptures referred to are Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

My wife and I got our first microwave when our first child was born. And while they were young, our kids thought that all meals could be prepared in a jiff. If it took more than 3 minutes, it felt like an eternity to them. Which was unfortunate because my wife is such a good cook. One time we stayed in a motel and my son was worried how we would eat since there was no microwave there! Today they both know how to cook, mostly because they don't want to be like me. But now I see a similar thing happening to our grandkids. When I was a child, you could only watch TV shows when they were first shown on network TV. If you missed an episode you would have to wait until the summer reruns. (Certain classic series might be repeated in syndication, but not till long after they were over.) And if you missed a movie in the theatres, you'd have to wait till it came out on TV—years later! If you wanted to find out about a specific subject, you had to go to the library, find the right book and look it up. But today all of those things are available instantaneously and on a device you carry in your pocket. I am afraid that our future generations will have a hard time learning patience.

I'm not a particularly patient person and that was one of the problems I had to deal with while in rehab, waiting for my legs to recover enough that I could start to learn to walk again. They had told me it would take 12 weeks after my last surgery before I could put weight on them. That was 84 days of being bed- and wheel-chair bound. Altogether I was in the hospital for 40 days and in the nursing home for 100. And even when I was discharged I still could only walk 150 steps using a walker. I had to arrange for outpatient physical therapy and it took an additional 4 months for me to progress to the point where I could walk without even a cane. And here I am back to using a cane but this time for different reasons. Frustration doesn't begin to describe what I feel.

I wish healing broken bones was as easy as it is in the Harry Potter books and movies, where all it takes is a chocolate bar and a swish from Madame Pomfrey's wand. I wish it took no more time than it does to download that series onto my Kindle. But it took decades of work to develop these technologies that save us time today. And those movies we blithely stream on our devices are usually followed up by a good 10 minutes of credits, representing thousands of man-hours spent rendering the 100 minutes or so of entertainment you watched. Good things take time.

That's one of the main things Jesus is illustrating in our gospel today. When we hear the parable of the mustard seed, we usually think about how little things can yield big results. But the fact is that it takes a long time for that seed to become the 20 foot tree or shrub that birds can nest in. Similarly it takes a while for yeast to cause bread to rise. That's why the Hebrews were told to eat unleavened bread at the Passover. They weren't going to have the time to wait for it to rise before they would be leaving Egypt. And of course the process of selling all you have and having it converted to the cash you need to buy a field or a pearl would take a lot of time. Fishing is an activity that requires a lot of patience. To achieve anything significant it takes time and lots of it.

The pictures Jesus uses of the kingdom of God all tell us it won't happen overnight. And since the kingdom of God is within us and among us (Luke 17:21) that means our becoming the people God wants us to be is a process that will take time. We will not be instantly perfect. If it takes 10 months to fix broken legs so they can walk unaided, it will take a lot longer to fix broken people so they can walk in the Spirit. As I said, good things take time.

They also take patience, persistence, passion, and purpose.

We have already talked a bit about patience. In the King James version of the Bible it is sometimes translated “longsuffering.” That word really spoke to me during my long recovery. Sometimes all you can do in a bad situation is wait for it to be over, as you would a storm. But even when you are not suffering passively, when you are undergoing the pain of trying to make a change, you need patience. Progress is not primarily measured in leaps and bounds but in increments. And of course there can also be obstacles and plateaus and even setbacks. These are part of the process and we just need to recognize that and be patient.

Jesus made things with his hands so he also knows how long building something well takes and all the things that can go wrong and slow things down. Sometimes his patience was tried by how long it took his disciples to understand what he was teaching and showing them. So we can turn to Jesus for help when we are running out of patience. Prayer is a good way to bolster your patience and, as Paul reminds us in today's reading from Romans, the Spirit helps us pray when we are at a loss for words. Even if our prayer is a strangled cry of frustration and bewilderment, like Charlie Brown's “AUUUGGHH!”, the Spirit knows what's in our heart and how to express it to our heavenly Father.

Besides patience we need persistence. We need to keep at it, keep plugging away, keep trying different techniques and considering different solutions. We need to keep in mind the difference between what is actually impossible and what is merely very difficult. TV programs, being 30 or 60 minutes long, rarely show the virtue of perseverance. Detectives and science fiction heroes rely on sudden flashes of inspiration or hunches to solve the most complicated problems and make scientific breakthroughs in short order. The crew of the Enterprise could save whole planets in just an hour, including commercial breaks. The people who make these shows are afraid if they approach such things in anything like a realistic manner, people will get bored and turn it off. But it is that plodding dedication, that tenacity that gets things done. You don't build a pyramid or a software package or a church without perseverance. Doing anything well takes commitment and a willingness to put in the time to get the work done. Experts say it takes about 10,000 hours to master something. That's the equivalent of 40 hours a week for 5 years. If you want to be a professional athlete, a good musician, a skilled writer or a disciple of Jesus, you need to be persistent.

To put in that work you have to have passion. You have to really want to succeed or see something happen and be excited to work on it and bring it to fruition. Steven Spielberg used to make home movies as a kid using his siblings and playmates and the family camera. That passion is a key part of why he's such a good filmmaker. J. K. Rowling was so inspired by an idea she had during a 4 hour delay on a train trip that she started writing the first book of the Harry Potter saga as soon as she got home. She was so passionate about the story that, though unemployed, divorced and the mother of an infant, she wrote in cafes whenever her child fell asleep in her stroller. Decorated World War 2 veteran, journalist and devout Roman Catholic John Howard Taylor was so passionate about learning what racial prejudice was like that in 1959 he had a dermatologist work with him to darken his skin so he could pass as an African American and then go undercover for 6 weeks in the segregated South. His book Black Like Me opened a lot of eyes to the reality of what it was like to be black in America.

Most people sleepwalk through their lives. Passion can awaken you to aspects of the world that intrigue and fascinate you and it can motivate you to put in the hard work of getting really good at whatever it is you do. I think a major reason for the decline in the church is that we have too few people who are passionate about following Jesus. Where are the successors to Paul of Tarsus, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or Mother Theresa? Pope Francis is getting favorable attention in the world but has yet to make substantial changes in the Roman Catholic Church. And we need Christians in local churches who will passionately follow Jesus in feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming outcasts and outsiders, making peace, making disciples, and spreading the good news of God's love and forgiveness.

Passion usually derives from having a purpose. Having a reason for living helps you get up in the morning, fuels you to accomplish your goals and has some surprising health benefits. It can increase your tolerance of pain, reduce your risk of cognitive decline, protect you against stress and give you a longer life. Having a goal in your life gives you a direction in which to channel your energies and a motivation to discover your strengths and to develop self-discipline. Instead of living an aimless existence, it gives you a mission and makes your life an adventure and turns any adversity you encounter to a challenge to overcome.

As Christians our purpose is to love God and each other just as Jesus showed us. We are to manifest that love in our lives for the good of others using the gifts the Spirit has given us.

And while we have a common goal, we each have different talents and skills and approaches. So the purpose of one person is to use their musical talents to praise God and reach people emotionally. The purpose of another person is to use their medical skills to promote health, prevent disease, relieve suffering, and restore people to health. The purpose of another person is use their ability to understand a subject and communicate it effectively to educate others. The purpose of another person is to use their ability to research and think clearly and creatively to delve into the causes of and generate solutions to the problems in a given field of human endeavor. The purpose of another person is to use their powers of organization and human relations to create and run projects for the common good. And the purpose of another person is to use their ability to study, understand and communicate the Bible and theology to preach the gospel. Nobody can do it all but together we can. We all have abilities which point to our purpose in life. And having a purpose in our life gives it meaning.

Of course we all have several different roles in life and we use different skills to manage them. We have a family, an occupation, an avocation, and a role or roles in the church. Each of these has separate objectives but we have one overriding purpose. In all of them we need to figure out how to manifest God's love and our love.

Jesus told us that planting and nurturing the kingdom of God and becoming a productive citizen of it was a long process. To work within that process takes patience, persistence, passion and purpose. But how do we know that the whole thing is worth it? Jesus told us that it was would be hard. He told us we would have to take up our crosses and follow him. He told us we can expect trials and troubles and temptations along the way. Sure, the cause is good and noble but why should we put ourselves through all that? I'll let Paul answer:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is he who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

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