It feels silly to confess this, but I’ve always aspired toward ‘greatness’. A vague term, but to me, meaning: being well-known, having a deep and lasting influence in the world, leaving a legacy. Simply put: to be famous.
Of course, this desire will never be fulfilled in my lifetime. (How could it?) There is no amount of fame or recognition that would satisfy me indefinitely. Which is, perhaps, why such a longing leaves me lifeless and breathless, forever panting after something immaterial.
While I wish that scripture always had immediate power to change my attitude and perspective – or perhaps, a better way of putting it is – while I wish I was always self-aware enough, and in tune with the Spirit of God speaking to me through his word, I am not. While words like, “Whoever loves his life loses it,” should lacerate my pride, I am, rather, anesthetized under the knife.
Thankfully, God has not given up on me. He speaks in a number of ways to get my attention.
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Recently, in reading a book called A Different Kind of Luxury, By Andy Couturier, this concept (losing life to gain it) was rekindled. He relays the story of Atsuko Watanabe who lives in on Shikoku island in Japan with her husband and two daughters. They live a simple, quiet life, providing for their basic needs, while also fighting for social and environmental justice. At one point, the author remarks,
I remember that she once told me she wanted to be like plants are, producing an uncountable number of seeds, or like wildflowers in a meadow, not thinking of herself as so unique and special. “I admire how they simply sacrifice themselves, hundreds of thousands of seeds, and only a few grow into plants. I’d like to be more like that myself.”
What a release of self-important, I think to myself. (p. 76)
This reminded me of that same passage in the John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
To produce thousands of seeds, and only a few bear fruit. Often, that thought scares me. To work for a lifetime and not see the fruit of my labors? For most of it to lie dormant?
I wonder if previous generations struggled with this as much. I wonder if the digitization of everything causes me to feel that all must be recorded and praised (or liked). Every dinner I make must be posted on Pinterest. Every moment with the children captured on Facebook. Every memory written down and capsulized for eternity.
In other words, there is constant temptation for me to capture or capitalize on every moment. It can be very difficult for me to ‘just be’ with my children.
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Sunday mornings are stressful because daddy needs to get to church on time. The morning is ruined because of my sour attitude, and our hearts not prepared for worship. (One of many examples showing that the clock has me wound around itself.)
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Another over-familiar Jesus saying that has, to some extent, lost all meaning for me is, “Do not resist the one who is evil.”
Again, I saw this in fresh perspective in reading about Kogan Murata in the same book. Murata, after saving up enough money to travel, spent a number of years in India, people watching, eating, and learning Hindi. Murata says:
“At first I would get angry so quickly. It’s hot there, right?” He’s looking straight at me across the table. I know what he’s talking about now: the constant battles with taxi drivers or shopkeepers, each attempting to get more money than was initially agreed.
“Oooh,” he says, using one of my favorite Japanese idioms, “my stomach stood up!” Murata growls, “I got so like this”; demonstrating, he crunches up his face, all the muscles red and tight, squinting with one eye, the other one wide open with the eyebrow up over it, and his hands in fists above his head.
“And I started to think, ‘This is pointless.’ And I got tired. Incredibly tired… I must have lost twenty pounds in my first month there. So then I decided, ‘This is a total loss.’ After all, the argument was usually over five or ten rupees, I figured, ten or twenty yen [about 10 – 20 cents]. So I decided, ‘Forget it. If they overcharge me, I just pay it.’”
“Really?!” I say, leaning back in disbelief.
“Yeah, they’d raise the price, and I’d give it to them, and buy them a cup of chai too. We’d talk for a couple of hours. And then,” he says, with a satisfied grin on his face, switching to English, “Everything is getting peaceful! I was relaxed, all the time. Can you imagine letting you head and heart get like that? ‘You bastard, you lied to me!’ and all that. So I’d give him the money, and then go and get tea for him. ‘Drink some chai. Take some time. Drink, drink!’ Really, it’s an incredible coincidence to meet this rickshaw driver. And then he would say ‘Thank you’ to me. That’s better, isn’t it? I just thought back to my old way, fighting with them all the time, and I thought I was just such an idiot! Ten or twenty yen!”
“But if the motor rickshaw driver charged you twice the price, you just gave it to him?!”
“Sure! I’d say, ‘You want it? OK, here it is. No problem.’” Murata’s voice is now utterly sunny and happy. “Over something small like that, getting all…” he makes his face of mock fury again, eyes bulging out… “like that, it’s just a bad bargain. So I changed. My way of thinking turned all the way around.” (p. 109)
Interestingly, in letting go of control over the situation, and ‘turning the other cheek’, he stopped getting so angry, and was instead peaceful and happy.
In the words of the author, Murata espouses “the gospel of taking it easy.’
As I read his story, it occurred to me, that I am not much different than he in regards to my children. It’s not just getting to church on time. It’s doing everything on time. I have the American disease of hurry, hurry, hurry through every moment of the day just to go to bed and do it all over again until you go on vacation for a week. Everything from making breakfast, to taking a walk, to putting the kids to bed becomes a headless frenzy of short answers, scarfed food, and toothbrushes jabbed a little too far into the back of a child’s throat while barking out orders.
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These stories have been ruminating in my head, along with those words of Jesus, over the past several weeks. They’ve inspired me to conduct a little experiment this past weekend, called Not Looking At The Clock And Just Enjoying The Moment.
Hypothesis: If Jesus words are true, then I should 1) experience much more peace of mind and joy if I pay less attention to my own agenda, and 2) simultaneously have time for what is needful, as well as the things that God has given me desires for.
Goal: To be less like headless Martha, and more like submissive, worshipful Mary.
Here were the four, loosely laid out rules:
- Don’t look at the clock or your phone as much as possible
- Don’t think about the next thing but be fully present
- Let the kids (reasonably) interrupt you
- Say yes as much as possible
- Don’t take pictures
It started Saturday. A leisurely breakfast, then several hours spent outside putting up a fence and building a door for the garden entrance. Rache took the girls out to look for shoes, while Emeth stayed with me. When it’s just he and I, he talks almost non-stop, alternating between conversations with imaginary drivers of his cars, and questions to me about everything he sees or thinks of.
After cutting off a few ends of a board, Emeth asked, “Are these for me?”
A few minutes later he came back with the pieces piled on top of one another, “Daddy, can you nail these together like this?” He wanted to make a ‘car’ out of them. So, I stopped what I was doing (though I desperately didn’t want to), got some nails out and started hammering.
Then, seeing some spare washers lying in the hardware box, I asked, “You want some wheels on here, too?” (Thinking of, ‘And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”) And proceeded to screw on some shiny ‘wheels’. This process went on for a little while as more pieces dropped onto the ground, and as he’d run back and forth, to and from the sound of the circular saw. Little boy was happy as a bee in spring.
Rachel and the girls got back late from shopping, and went inside to prepare lunch while the kids played outside. I think we ate around 3pm.
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Sunday. Called The Best Day Of The Week by one of my pastors. I prefer to think of it as the Most Challenging And Anxious Day Of The Week. The day I am supposed to slow down and rest. Something I find nearly impossible.
To complicate things, we were going to visit the in-laws church about an hour away. We are already usually ten to fifteen minutes late to our ten o’clock service (on a good day). Their service starts a half hour after ours, so we had some wiggle room. But we also had to pack extra supplies of food and clothing.
I didn’t set my alarm the night before. We woke up sometime around 7 am. Exercised, then showered. When I finished, Caela and Emeth were awake. Oh no! No time to just sit, read and drink coffee. “Can you read to us?” Caela asked. I’d prefer to make breakfast, I thought to myself. Instead, with my eyes lowered so as not to see what numbers the clock hands were on, I grabbed the hymn book and Bible, and we sang and read.
We went through our morning routine of food prep, packing and modest kitchen clean up, got into the car, read to Rachel on the way up, interspersed with yelling answers to inquiring children in the back seat, wind blowing through the wide open windows.
I finally checked the clock when we arrived. Just a little before 11 am. Not bad! I thought. We arrived happy and peaceful.
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The rest of the day, more or less, went on like that. Attempting to be fully present, undistracted by all of the things tugging at my mind, enjoying the slowness and beauty of it all. I think we arrived home around 8:30 pm. The kids were (understandably) hungry since they were distracted playing with their cousins all day. (Food, a distraction from the real fun.) I laid down the law: No Food Later If You Don’t Eat Your Food Now. I intended to enforce it, but realized (again) I was trying to control time, wanting to get the kids down as quickly as possible so I could go to bed as anxious as possible and with my stomach in knots.
Whether or not I did the right thing by going back on my word, I do not know, but the evening was peaceful and full of laughter as Rache and the kids sat around the dinner table, drinking milk, snacking on nuts dipped in butter and salt, while I washed up the remaining dishes.
Typically, on those late nights, I’ll rush through the bedtime routine as a last resort to save some time for myself. My tendency is to lay down more rules to keep order in the bedroom, but it usually turns to chaos. (Everyone, get in line! March up the stairs! Lay down! Blankets on! Quiet!)
Instead, that night we let them sit or lay wherever they pleased, or for Annie, to walk around with her blanket tied around her head, arms lifted as she sang.
By 10:30 pm, the kids were down. Rache and I were tired, but not frazzled. Again, we felt peaceful. We spent a little time reading in bed, then, to sleep.
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I tried doing the same thing this week, as I prepared breakfast and got ready for work. Usually the last ten minutes are an insane whirlwind of scarfing food, abbreviated ‘shower’, getting dressed, packing lunch and snacks, and deciding which book(s) I want to read on the train. Usually I forget something crucial, like deodorant or a wallet. Instead, I kept my eyes off the clock, did everything I needed to, kisses and hugs, walk to the train, etc. I got to work on time Monday, and was even early the rest of the week. (I usually get in at the last second of the last minute of the ten minute grace period they give us.)
* * * * *
It seems that in everything Jesus said, he is trying to turn my perspective upside-down and inside-out, helping me to see that there is more to reality than I can calculate. While I didn’t do much different this past week, while the events were nothing short of mundane, I was happy and peaceful. My attitude was different, and I fought less with the kids. I wasn’t anxious. Perhaps because I was continually reminded to relinquish control over things I have no control over. A way of letting God build the house, or watch over the city (Psalm 127:1-2). Walking the line between lazy trust, and laboring in vain.
Perhaps this is just a taste of what it means to walk in step with the Spirit. Not rushing ahead, but also not lagging behind. Is this what God means when he says, “Cease striving, and know that I am God”? (Psalm 46:10 NASB) Or to fall into the earth and die, like a seed, that I might bear fruit? Is that when I will begin to experience true life?
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There is a phrase Murata wears around his neck while alms playing, “Without existence, without extinction.” I think there is some wisdom to it. Jesus continually taught that I should not be aware of myself or my needs. Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Pray in secret. Do no be anxious about what you will eat, drink or wear. Give to the one who asks of you. Do not exact revenge, but turn the other cheek. All of it, a call to continually die to myself.
Does not experience and observation tell me that living like that is more joyful than always pushing for what I want? Am I not happier when I don’t hold a grudge, or exact revenge? Does not my marriage thrive more when I don’t grumble and complain when I feel our responsibilities aren’t evenly divided, or when I let go of what I think I deserve?
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I fear dying, it’s true. But only when I fear being nothing. But Jesus calls me to be nothing. Not to not exist, but to take no thought of my life. To be like the flower that disburses thousands of seeds without caring how many take root and bear fruit. Maybe this is another dimension of the parable of the sower. Disbursing seeds upon all types of soil. Some is choked, some eaten, some thrives.
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Father, you have made me in your image. You are the Creator. I am the created who loves to create. You have designed intricate beauty at the depths of the sea, at the microscopic level of the earth, and in the farthest corners of the universe that man will never see. You care not whether it is seen and worshipped. May I not care whether my creations, my seeds of sacrifice, my investments of time, love, and energy bear any fruit at all. And if it does bear fruit, may I not care whether anyone is even aware that I was the one who cast the seed. Make me unaware of myself. Make me nothing, just as Jesus was made nothing. Empty me of myself. Amen.