In the summer of the year I turned thirteen, we moved to a small tobacco farming community. One of the farmers in church with teenagers near my age, invited me to their farm to learn how tobacco was harvested. The next morning I woke up at what I thought was early…especially for summer vacation. I dressed in my favorite white shorts, white t-shirt, white socks and white shoes, and rode my bicycle down the road several miles thinking I would be early. When I arrived I found them already hard at work – as they had been for the last three hours. They were unloading a trailer full of freshly harvested tobacco into a large curing box. The farmer immediately made room for me as he said… “The best way to learn is to do.” As we worked, I learned how to harvest and cure tobacco.
I will never be able to describe the joy that I felt when we finally emptied that trailer, expecting that we were on the verge of a break. My smile quickly faded as the empty trailer was pulled away so another full one could take its place. And so it went all day. For nine hours we worked (twelve for those who were on time), stopping only for lunch. By the end of the day the farmer had to load me and my bicycle in the back of his truck to haul me home because I was too tired to walk, much less ride. I was so filthy; my mother stopped me at the door and washed me off with a garden hose. The amused farmer jokingly said “I’ll pick you up at 6 am tomorrow so that you won’t be late.” I think to his surprise and mine, I said “Thank You. I’ll be ready.” He picked me up at 6 am every weekday for the next five summers.
We are surrounded by work that needs to be done, differences that need to be made. We are often hesitate to get involved because we may not know what to do, or maybe we don’t think that we have the time. Deep down we may even be reluctant because we are fearful of making our own lives too dirty or complicated. Many times I’ve heard individuals claim to be waiting for someone to teach them before they get involved. One of my favorite Bible verses is James 1:22, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” It reminds me that we are called to express our faith through action.
It is only when we cast ourselves totally into the journey that we really begin to personally know Christ. Even then our journey should be more than an effort to know Christ. It has to include making Christ known. If we continue to wait until our personal and spiritual lives are perfect and tidy we will forever be on the sidelines. In life and faith, we learn best by doing and ‘getting our hands dirty.’ That first day on the farm taught me a lot about farming and faith, neither of which are spectator sports. I think the most important lesson I learned was that if at the end of the day your hands are clean, you probably did not make a difference. Live life to get dirty and make a difference.
Each year everyone in our family chooses a new Christmas ornament. We all have our own special, personal box in which we keep our ornaments between seasons. I always enjoyed watching the children open their boxes and pull out their ornaments. It seems like Christmas Day to them as they are reminded of those special memories that surround each ornament.
A few years ago, I noticed something unusual as we began decorating our Christmas tree. Our sons were their usual exuberant selves, but our daughter seemed distracted. Later that night she told me that she had found a thank you note which she had written the year before to one of her grandfathers. Somehow the note fell into her box and was never sent. She was troubled that she didn’t get to properly thank her grandfather before he died earlier that year.
The word Advent means ‘coming’ and the season of Advent is intended to be both a celebration and preparation for the coming of Christ, personally and communally. Throughout his life, Jesus restored relationships with God. He said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39b).” Jesus understood that the way we relate to one another is a reflection of our relationship to God. Typically, those who neglect their earthly relationships also tend to neglect their spiritual ones. God uses us as symbols and examples of His love, acceptance, forgiveness, and presence in the way we relate to others. The influence we wield in our relationships can either encourage the advent of Christ in their lives, or discourage it.
It can be so easy to neglect relationships that really matter. Sometimes we get too busy for others, or we convince ourselves that there will be plenty of time to be with others when we have retired – been promoted – earned enough money – or even after the holidays when things slow down. Pride can also cause us to neglect relationships. Are we too proud to make the first reconciliatory move when a word has been misspoken, or a misunderstanding has been left unresolved? Everyone knows someone who needs to know that God is present with them, cares for them, and loves them. This is a message that is better exemplified than spoken.
The Advent and Christmas seasons are the perfect times to reach out and begin to restore or even strengthen our friendships as we prepare for God. The best gift one can give to God is trying to actually ‘give’ God to those around us. And time is always short. The old saying is still true, “A single rose to the living is more beautiful than a wreath to the dead.” Even if they have another Christmas, you may not.
One of the most frustrating things about raising children would have to be the habits they learn from you. A few years ago, it seemed as if every time I reminded one of my children of something that needed to be done they would respond “I’ll do it tomorrow.” I reminded one that a project needed to be finished and he said, “I can do it tomorrow.” I asked my daughter if she had taken her vehicle to be serviced and she said, “I’ve got time tomorrow.” I even received the same response when I asked my then seven-year-old if he had done his home work for the week. It was absolutely frustrating…until my son asked me to play a game with him and my response was “Maybe tomorrow.”
Procrastination is not a new problem. In the eighth chapter of Exodus the second plague befalls Egypt, the frogs. Now this might not sound like a devastating act of God but Exodus tells us that there were so many frogs swarming the banks of the Nile, they came up into the houses and were found in ovens and even beds. The land of Egypt was overrun by frogs. When Pharaoh had enough, he called for Moses and begged that he pray to God to remove the frogs. Moses agrees and asks Pharaoh when he wants the frogs gone, to which Pharaoh replies, “Make it tomorrow.” Not today, but tomorrow.
The dictionary defines procrastination as “to postpone habitually.” Sometimes fear of the unknown or even a desire for the perfect conditions will motivate us to procrastinate. Many times it is simply laziness. What often happens though is that apathy soon follows and we seem to lose the zeal and zest for the moment and life and all of its opportunities to slip by. We live as though we can expect tomorrow to be better than today, but Proverbs 20:1 says “Don’t brag about tomorrow, since you don’t know what the day will bring.” We waste opportunities because we think we’ll have a better or easier shot tomorrow.
Life is a divine gift that should be lived in the moment to celebrate. The best time to get started working on our problems is now. Ephesians 5:16 says “make the most of every opportunity….” As the new year begins maybe we should try to live as if today is the only day we have. It may be the only opportunity to fix what is broken, to right what is wrong and to enjoy what God has given. One thing is for sure, if tomorrow ever got here, it would be the busiest day of the year.
Early in our ministry things were tight for our family. My wife and I had both been working hard and rarely seeing one another. So one night we sent our children to their grandparents, and made reservations to celebrate our anniversary at a nice restaurant. It was something that we both looked forward to doing. Just before we left, a teenager from church walked up our driveway with tears in his eyes. His grandfather had died, and he simply wanted to be in our company. My wife and I spent the next several hours of our anniversary gladly playing monopoly with a grieving teenager.
It was a night of compassion and ministry. Occasionally I would remember it, and wonder how that young man’s life had turned out and if we had been of any influence. Last week, I received an email from that same young man after he had tracked us down. It seems that he had experienced some difficulties in life. He said that at one point when he was near the bottom, he remembered the last time he felt so low. It was the night when he wound up playing monopoly with a preacher and his wife who were all dressed up. He went on to describe an awaking of grace in his life as he remembered that he was loved. Eventually he found his way back to church. His note was not necessarily to reminisce, but to invite us to his ordination. He wanted to spend the rest of his life in ministry making others feel as loved as he felt that night so long ago.
Sometimes you never really know how much of a difference you are making in someone’s life. It can be discouraging to invest your time giving and doing and not see any dividends. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the Sower. In it he describes a farmer scattering seeds on different types of ground, and how the condition of the soil either helps the seed grow or prevents its. In this parable Jesus reminds us that God’s grace is lavishly scattered, but the conditions of a person’s life and heart can become obstacles to that grace. Our role in life is to remove as many obstacles as we can from the lives around us with our love and service. God does the rest. Every act of service and love, no matter how small, becomes an investment in God’s kingdom…whether we see it or not.
A few years ago, while picking up our then seven-year-old from school he handed me a coupon he had received for being a good citizen. He explained that he had done something nice and this was given to him. While I was telling him how proud I was of him, he interrupted me saying, “But I don‘t deserve it. Mommy does” He said, “This is for people who always do nice. I did one thing; Mommy is always doing nice things for me.” When his mother came home, he gave her his award. She didn‘t need the coupon, but she did need to know that she was appreciated.
Most of us would have been content to simply recognize that someone else deserved recognition. Some may have even offered some verbal praise. It was important to him that he actually give. Of course he learned that from his mother. Even at such a early age he had learned the importance of compassion and goodness towards everyone by watching his mother. He had learned that he was part of a much bigger picture than what he saw when he looked in the mirror.
It is easy to fall short when we are focused more on our self than the big picture. This is also true in deeper aspects of life. James 2:15-16 says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” Thoughts and words are not enough. Faith has to be put into action. We must respond to the needs around us with more than words.
We are surrounded by people with many and great needs. To meet those needs we must look beyond ourselves. We have been blessed in many ways, and if our faith is real it will motivate us beyond words and into action. The other aspect of living out our faith in visible ways is that others learn to do the same by watching and experiencing it from us. God still feeds the hungry, helps the hopeless and teaches others how to be compassionate through us.