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.
Quite a few years ago, a friend received thirty-six flowers from her husband to celebrate their thirty- sixth wedding anniversary. The flowers were beautiful long stemmed roses, wrapped in green paper. She had never received flowers before and absolutely adored them. She was intent on helping them survive as long as she could. She trimmed the stems and extra leaves. She even placed them in fresh water, which she changed daily. She purchased and used special products advertised to “prolong the beauty of fresh flowers.” A couple of weeks later, she remarked to her husband about how beautiful the flowers still were after two weeks. He began laughing and pointed out that the flowers for which she had been meticulously caring were not real, but expensive silk. They were so beautiful crafted and appealing that it was nearly impossible to see that they were fake.
Flowers are not the only imposters in the world. Everything under the sun can be imitated…even Christians. Christianity is more than a name or title. It is a faith, a hope and a lifestyle. Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).” Our faith and hope in Christ is expressed through our relationships with everyone. Real Christianity is patient and kind. It is not self-seeking but God serving. We serve God best when we support and trust one another. Ours is a faith that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres and rejoices in the truth (I Corinthians 13:1-13). This does not mean that real Christianity tolerates just anything. It means that real faith is expressed not through compliancy, but in actively pursuing and encouraging what is JUST and TRUE.
The month of February sees St. Valentine’s Day and the beginning of the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. It makes it a great time for us to reflect upon our faith journey and intentionally examine the leaves and petals that make up our lives for areas in which we might become more authentic. My friend adored her husband when he brought home the flowers until she found out that they were fake. They were still jus as pretty as before, but they were not real. The beauty and glamour of the gift was found in the reality of life, not its imitation. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (I Corinthians 13:13).”
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.
I seem to be aging at an alarming rate. Just a couple of years ago, I was excited to find out that a new group for Young Clergy was being formed, and then I was told that I was no longer a “young clergy.” It seems as if it was just yesterday when I looked into the mirror and saw my fifteen year-old face staring back. Now my father seems to be impeding my view each morning when I look in the mirror. If that wasn’t enough, there is this young man, who is taller than I am, walking around my home claiming to be my son. And somehow, the little baby I brought home from the hospital just a couple of years ago is in college.
Last week, my eleven year-old informed me that it was now his job to take care of me because I was old. After my initial shock, I asked him how he could possibly be qualified to take care of himself, his mother and me. Without missing a beat, he said, “Not a problem daddy. You taught me everything you know.”
In Deuteronomy, Moses is explaining the essence of the commandments to the people of Israel (chapters 10 and 11). In doing so, he tells them to embed God‘s words in their hearts and teach them to their children so that they and their children “may live a long time…on the soil that GOD promised…” In chapter four, Moses reminds the people not to forget what they saw God do, and to make sure they tell the children so that the children learn what God is capable of doing.
There seems to be an invisible line that we cross unknowingly when we move from the primary role of student to that of teacher. Although we never lose the need to learn, we must be willing to pass along that which we already know and have experienced. It is so easy to become too immersed in what we want to experience and learn that we fail to bring children and others along with us on the journey. If we don‘t hold open the door and teach, the truth dies with us. Our experiences and the lessons we‘ve learned will fade away. The real legacy that we leave will not be measured in what we‘ve learned and accomplished ourselves, but in the success that we have made possible by what we have taught to those who come after us.