Lazy

Picture this: you’re sitting at the kitchen table and need a paper towel from the roll on the counter.  Rather than simply stand up and take the one step to reach it, you try to stretch from where you are.  Why get up if you don’t have to?  Only you can’t…quite…reach…  So you scoot the chair back, tipping back precariously on the hind legs as you stretch.  The tips of your fingers just reach the edge of the paper towel and you yank with a satisfied snapping motion.  But instead of tearing off one sheet, the whole roll flies from the holder, bounces across the counter and streams onto the floor.  Sigh.  With no other options now, you are forced to stand up, pick up the roll, re-wind the loose paper towels, replace it on the rack, and tear off the one you need.

It is at this point that my father would remark, “The lazy man works the hardest.”

I was thinking of this the other day.  Not because I was reaching for a paper towel (fortunately my table is now far enough from the counter that it is no longer tempting to try), but because it struck me just how amazingly lazy we as a society have become.  And how some of these seeming conveniences lurk with unforeseen consequences.  Take something simple.  Like soap.  Have you noticed the preponderance of foam soaps in public restrooms?  Gone are the days when you had to scrub your skin raw with some hard yellow bar to make some bubbles.  Instead, the soap comes at you already sudsy.  All you have to do is rinse.  And to rinse, all you have to do is hold your hand under a sensor.  Provided it works, of course.  You may instead find yourself walking from sink to sink with a handful of soap trying to find one that recognizes your predicament.  (And after about the third sink, you start realizing just how convenient that old fashioned hand pump in the back forty really is.  At least you can get water out of it!) 

Here’s another one of my favorites: Google.  How wonderful it is to be able to type in a search word and be presented with an organized list of related web pages to explore.  Long gone are the days of card catalogs and book indexes.  And now, (even better!) the moment you type the first letter into the search box, Google begins to guess what you want to know.  Not only is it easy to find the answer, you don’t even have to know your question!  Just show up, and Google will suggest one for you. 

We live in a society that glorifies fast and easy, but sometimes fast and easy is not always the best way.  Posted signs now warn us to count to 20 while washing our hands – apparently we’ve made hand washing so quick and easy we have to now reverse the trend.  And if you rely too much on Google’s suggestions, you may spend half a day reading interesting but irrelevant facts about artichokes when what you really needed to know was how to prepare for your trip to Argentina.  Like stretching to grab that paper towel, sometimes being lazy can lead us into a complicated web that winds up being more work than if we had just put forth a little more effort to begin with.  The Bible has another way of saying this.  “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns,” Solomon wrote in his proverbs. 

Have you ever been out hiking and trampled through a “shortcut” that has been overgrown with thorns?  If so, then you know taking the easy route is not always the easiest route.  Like soap, and Google, and reaching for a paper towel.  Sometimes it is better to put forth a little extra effort right from the beginning, because it is often the lazy man who ends up working the hardest.

The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway. Proverbs 15:19

 

Speeding

I have received two speeding tickets in my life.  (According to Murphy’s Law, I suppose I should add the caveat “so far.”)  The first one was well deserved.  I was driving back from a conference in Connecticut to my apartment in western New York.  I’d stopped to visit my parents and left way too late.  It was getting close to midnight, I still had two hours to go, and I was flying low along the New York thruway.  When those blue lights pulled up behind me, no amount of tears was going to get me out of that ticket.

The second one was more recent.  I was driving to the Indianapolis airport through that never ending construction on 465.  As I merged onto the highway, I dutifully slowed down.  A little.  It was one of those stretches they had actually completed.  All the lanes were open, traffic around me was still moving close to 65, and slowing down to 45 would have been suicide with traffic barreling down behind me.  Then, as we came around the corner, there was a whole string of special patrols.  I watched as an officer released the car he was done with and aimed his radar gun right at me.  Here I was, trying to go slow, traffic passing all around me, and yet I was the one getting a ticket.  (I was just a tiny bit upset.)  But here’s the kicker.  As unfair as this scenario seemed, the fact is: I was speeding.  It didn’t matter that those around me were going even faster.  It didn’t matter that slowing down would have gotten me run over.  When it was me and the officer face to face, the only thing that mattered was how fast I was driving.  The posted speed limit was 45; I was going faster than 45; I deserved a ticket.

It’s very easy when we are cruising along a highway to ignore the posted speed limit and go with the flow of traffic.  It’s equally easy to cruise through life ignoring God’s commands and following the actions of those around us.  But just as that officer did not care how my speed compared to everyone else, so God is not impressed with our relative position among humanity.  When you are face to face with a speeding ticket, the only question is, “Did you break the law – yes or no?”  And when you are face to face with God, the only question will be, “Did you break my law – yes or no?”

The Bible is very clear that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  None of us, by our own power, can perfectly obey the laws which God has set for us.  But the law serves an important function.  It is through God’s law that we become conscious of sin (Romans 3:20), and this awareness of sin shows us our need for Jesus. 

When we use other people as our speed limit, we will always find those more sinful than us, and we will fail to see the depths of our own sins and our desperate need for a savior.  But when we look to God’s speed limit, we can find both our weakness and our salvation.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). 

Belief in Christ begins with a daily acknowledgement that we cannot obey God’s speed limit alone.  We need to invite Jesus to become not just an occasional passenger, but the main driver of our life.  It is only through belief in Jesus that on the day when our car is pulled over, God will shine His light in the window and instead of our sins, He will see the perfect life of Jesus. God will say, “The speed limit I set for you was to live as perfectly as my Son Jesus Christ.”  Make sure He can continue: “I do indeed see Jesus Christ in you.” 

Today, take your eyes off the people around you, and look instead at the example of Jesus.  Invite Him to be your driver.  There is no other way to obey God’s speed limit.

For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)

Vacation

I gleaned a bit of wisdom recently from one of those “Take This Quiz” articles stamped in the midst of a check-out line tabloid.  The quiz wanted me to guess when the greatest benefit of a vacation was realized.  Before?  During?  Immediately after?

Having recently returned from a vacation, I can tell you the answer is not immediately after.  Vacations are splendid.  Returning from a vacation is not!  What I found interesting, though, is that according to the psychologist interviewed in the article, the greatest benefit is seen not during vacation, but up to two months before the vacation.  The vacation itself may be good, but for a real pick-me-up, nothing beats the thought of some upcoming R&R. 

This seems to suggest we should all bankroll our vacation funds and spend our time just thinking about vacation instead.  Unfortunately, I suspect we could only fool ourselves for so long before we caught on.  The real solution, of course, lies not in thinking about some transient travel, but in placing our focus on the one source of R&R that will never experience a post-vacation slump.  “Come to me,” Jesus says.  “All you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Jesus is the ultimate vacation.  Getting, there, however, is sometimes a challenge.

I have a quote lightly paraphrased from Rick Warren pasted to the wall above my keyboard at work.  “Do not let what is most important be displaced by what is urgent.”  The words are a lesson – a warning – that is much easier to read than to do.  In fact, the stacks on my desk have gotten so high it has obliterated my view. 

And so tonight, when I feel like I’ve been spun in a twister and shaken like a dust rag, I try to heed the warning.  I don’t know what else to do, so I look for Jesus.  And I find him, getting into a boat (Matthew 8:23).  Along with his disciples, I follow Him, and we begin to sail across a vast lake.  Suddenly, a furious storm comes upon us.  Giant waves are sweeping over the boat.  The boat is filling with water.  I and the other disciples begin to bail.  The water is icy; the wind is whipping.  For every bit we manage to bail, twice that amount is pouring in.  We work with an urgency to match the storm.  As it twists us, we push back with the paddles.  As it douses us, we slop the water back over the side.  As it beats the sides of the boat, we brace against it.  It is relentless.  We are losing!

Yes, that summarizes my recent days pretty well.  And I’m sure your days are not so different than mine.  There are good ones.  There are bad ones.  There are just plain crazy ones.  There are days that go so slow we think they will never end, and days that speed by in twos and threes so fast we can’t believe they’re over.  If we’re not careful, whole chunks of time fly by, and we accomplish all that was urgent, but miss all that was important.  How do you stop urgently bailing long enough to focus on what is important?  How can you consider bailing “not important” when the boat is being swamped? 

I don’t know.  But tonight I have this image from the Word of God (Matthew 8:23-27).  Of Jesus, asleep in the boat in the midst of the storm.  Of Jesus, rebuking the winds and the waves.  Of Jesus, chastising his disciples: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”

Perhaps the storm is an illusion.  Perhaps the boat will not swamp if we pause in our frantic bailing to see if there is something more important that we should be doing.  Perhaps it is time to stop bailing and have a chat with Jesus.  Perhaps it is time for a real vacation. 

The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”  He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”  Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.  Matthew 8:25-26

Word Shower

Have you ever been walking along the road on a blistering summer day and been overtaken quite suddenly by a cloudburst of rain?  There is hardly a cloud in the sky big enough to dictate a rain shower, but here it is, giant drops of rain splashing down all around you, barely strong enough to make it through the leafy trees but large enough to create definite splashes on the pavement.  And your first thought is: relief!  Relief from the beating sun and the heat of the pavement that has been threatening to burn through the soles of your shoes.  You wait with great anticipation for those first drops of cool rain to splash your face.

 But then something unexpected happens.  Instead of relief, the drops actually seem to make it worse.  The rain hitting the pavement creates a stifling barrier through which you now walk.  The steaming asphalt creates an invisible, choking cloud.  Where before there was just blistering heat reflecting up against your feet, now a sticky, smelly heat rises up all around you.  You breathe asphalt; the drops of rain feel like humidity itself. Ugh.

One of two things happens then: either the rain stops quickly and you are left muddling along a now humid, tarry road, or the rain continues.  And as the rain continues, the road cools to the point where it no longer steams, the humidity begins to dissolve, a faint breeze stirs the asphalt smell away, and you are left with the cooling relief you have come to associate with rain.

I had an experience like this not too long ago, on one of our intensely warm mid-western days.  It occurred to me how this rain is like the Word of God.  It can overtake us when we least expect it, and in its embrace we find the promise of relief.  After all, Jesus tells us that the water he gives us will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” (John 4:14) 

But sometimes the relief doesn’t come immediately, or in the way we anticipate.  Sometimes it even feels as though we can smell the burning sulfur under our feet even as the drops of God’s Word are hitting us.  We hear stories from all around the world of the persecutions that occur because of faith in God’s Word.  Jesus himself warned us, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew10:34). 

For any Christian, whether you are just beginning to learn about Jesus or whether you have grown accustom to finding relief in God’s presence, this unexpected lack of relief can range from disconcerting to faith shattering.  And the unexpected conflict does not have to be external.  God’s Word often confronts each one of us personally with our deepest sins, our greatest fears, our biggest weaknesses.  The intuitive reaction is to “Stop!”  Clearly the rain is making it worse – make it stop!  Clearly this foray into God’s Word is making it worse – make it stop!

Unfortunately, drawing away is the exact wrong reaction.  Just as it takes time for the rain to cool a blistering summer pavement, so it takes time for God’s Word to envelope and strengthen us.  We cannot stop reading God’s Word and reaching for his presence simply because it initially makes us uncomfortable.  Reaching to God and then stopping is like the rain shower that stops too abruptly – it leaves you in a sulfurous steam bath.  Understanding God’s Word takes persistence and patience.  We must continue to study his Word, just as the rain must continue to hit the pavement.  And just as the breeze that eventually comes will stir the humidity away, so God’s spirit will eventually stir in us, guide us to a deeper understanding and a closer relationship with Him, and bring the relief that we are seeking.  One drop, one word, at a time.

 O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD! (Jeremiah 22:29)

Do It

I am a total Harry Potter fan.  I have read every book (multiple times) and frequently find myself pondering one brilliantly penned scene or another.  Recently, I found myself contemplating the complexity of a scene at the end of book three.  A swarm of dementors are descending upon Harry and his friends, ready to deliver the “dementor’s kiss” – an act where the dementors suck the very soul out of their victim.  Suddenly, a lone figure from across the lake fires his wand and scatters the dementors.  In the glow of the firing wand, Harry sees the face of their rescuer, and thinks it is his dead father.  As impossible as he knows that is, he cannot shake what he saw.  It looked like his dad.

The story progresses in that wonderful J. K. Rowling manner, and a couple of chapters later we find Harry travelled back in time and watching these same events unfold from the other side of the lake.  He is now only steps away from where their rescuer had appeared, and he still cannot shake the thought that it was his dad.  Despite the dangers of being seen in his back-in-time state, he creeps forward to look.  He watches from his hiding spot as the dementors swarm upon his earlier self across the lake.  Any second their rescuer will appear.  He knows it will happen because it has already happened.  But where is he?

Harry watches as the light across the lake flickers and fades.  Still, no one appears to rescue them.  The dementors are leaning in, Harry and his friends have completely succumbed, they are seconds away from receiving the dementor’s kiss…

And suddenly Harry realizes: it was him that rescued their earlier selves!  It was him he saw from across the lake and thought it was his father.  And leaping to his feet, he draws his wand and shoots the powerful rays that scatter the dementors.  All along he had been waiting, but it was him that had to do it.

Have you ever watched as something needing to be done sat untended?  Or waited for someone who never showed?  Did it ever occur to you that it was you who was being called to act?

Maybe we don’t have to fend off dementors, but there are certainly times when it feels like it.  There are times when we would really like someone else to come along and rescue us. But we can learn something from this fantasy tale.  Even at the point when the dementors were descending, Harry was also standing safe across the lake.  Even as he saw the light flicker, he knew their rescuer would come to save them, because their rescuer already had. 

So, too, are we already saved.    Maybe we can’t travel back in time to save ourselves, but there is Someone else who can.  And already has. Our God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross and thus pay in full the debt of our sin.  Because of Jesus, we can be assured of our safety.  Even when we are crushed under the weight of the world, we know that in the end we will be saved.  Our job in the meantime is to get through it.  Our job is to do the task at hand.

The Bible tells us that God has prepared in advance good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).  Sometimes this is carefree acts of every day life.  Sometimes this is lonely acts of desperation.  We may not always know what work is at hand, but God does.  And he will place us in the exact right place at the exact right time, ready for us to act.  Jesus has already done the saving, but when it is time for the wand to be fired, you will be there, assured of your safety, wand in hand.  You just need to recognize, when there is no one else showing up, that it is up to you to do it.

 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might… (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

Leave It

One of the first commands I ever taught my puppy was “Leave it!”  Like a toddler’s newfound use of the word “no,” “Leave it!” quickly became an echoing refrain.  Leave the garbage, leave my shoes, leave the cord to my cell phone…  It wasn’t long before she knew what it meant.  Acting accordingly, however, was a different matter. 

She’s well through the puppy stage these days, and I stack my shoes by the door without worrying that they will be shredded.  The garbage, on the other hand, is still kept securely in the cupboard under the sink.  And there are plenty of times when we are out hiking that she comes across some unmentionable delicacy along the trail.  Sometimes she eats it before I even realize she has found something.  Sometimes she pauses and gives me “the look.”  Have you ever seen that look cross the face of a toddler when they know they are going to get in trouble for doing something but are about to do it anyway?  Have you ever felt that look cross your own face?

“Leave it!” was also the first command that God gave to the human race.  The Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

In other words, leave it!

The echoing refrain of this command is seen throughout the Bible.  The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are filled with the order to “leave it.”  Turn away from that idol.  Stop using profanity.  Do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie.  Do not be envious or desire anything that belongs to someone else.  Leave it! 

Jesus took these commands one step further.  Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:22, 28).  We are called not just to leave sin in the physical sense – I didn’t actually do anything wrong – but to leave sin in the intentional sense as well.  We are to leave it completely, with both our bodies and our minds.  

This isn’t just to make our lives difficult.  God knows, as anyone who has ever watched a toddler knows, if we sit and think about breaking a rule, it won’t be long before we glare defiantly over our shoulder and cross the line.  Paul addressed this same principle when he wrote to the church at Corinth, I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).

Sin begins in the mind.  We are presented first with a small desire, and it is at that point that we are faced with the uphill climb of resistance or the slippery slope to sin.  It is at that point that Jesus is warning us that letting our emotions go unchecked or letting ourselves consider something sinful is the same as actually committing the sin.  Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14).

Temptation is all around us in this world.  It is not a question of if we will be tempted, but when. And, more importantly, how we will respond when we are enticed by the desires we find along life’s trail.  We have the choice to defy God’s word and allow our desire to conceive sin, or we have the choice to obey God’s command to leave it.

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12).

Bird Talk

Sometimes God speaks to me through birds. 

I don’t mean in some mystical fashion.  A brilliantly plumed creature has never perched upon my shoulder and shouted prophesies. But on more than one occasion, I have felt the nearness of God when looking upon one of his feathered creations.

There was a time several years ago when I was going through a particularly dark stretch.  While driving cross-country to visit some friends, I stopped at a rest area, and there, in a small tree outside the door of the low stone building, were dozens of sparrows.  This is certainly not an uncommon sight in a rest area, but for some reason the sight of the fluffy little balls flitting from branch to branch filled me with peace.  The moment was even notable enough to mention it later when telling my friends about my drive.  “I’m not sure why it was significant,” I said, “but somehow it felt like it was.”

I expected the conversation to end there, but to my surprise, one friend answered, “Perhaps I can add some insight. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”(Luke 12:6-7).

Wow, I thought.  Wow.  God had been speaking to me, and I almost didn’t even know.

There have been numerous other times, when I have been sitting alone at a picnic table or walking along a trail, when the trill of a cardinal and a flash of brilliant red stops me in my tracks.  It always causes me to take a deep breath, and remember.  It is almost as though God is sending me a feathered little postcard: I’m thinking of you!  And in return, I find myself thinking of Him.

Like the sparrows at the rest stop, cardinals are not uncommon in the places I have seen them.  Their native range covers all the regions I have lived.  So it is not like God is sending me a miraculous sign.  I have never seen, for instance, a flock of wild pink flamingos strutting through Indiana.  But to me, the impact is the same.  It is in these common, everyday sightings that I am reminded of God’s presence.  And why shouldn’t I be?  Our God does not hide out in the far reaches of the world.  He is not accessible only on occasion, in special circumstances, or in far off places.  Our God walks next to us all the days of our lives, even in the common, everyday occurrences.  “I am with you always,” He tells us, “to the very end of the age(Matthew 28:20).

I read once that faith is like a bird singing while it is still dark.  I think of these words often during this time of year.  My morning walks are still covered in darkness, but they are accompanied more and more by the sound of birds calling excitedly about the coming day.  It could still be the middle of the night as far as the moon and the stars are concerned, but the birds tell me otherwise.  “It is time to be up and about,” they are saying.  “A new day is approaching!  All is well.  God is with us.”

During this time of year when birdsong is once more filling the air, I encourage you to take just a moment to listen.  You might be surprised to find that the birds are talking to you, too.  Reminding you that our heavenly father is walking here beside us.  Reminding you that even during the darkness, there is the sound of singing.  Immanuel: God with us.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”(Matthew 6:26, 31)

Lest We Forget

Not too long ago I read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.  It was perhaps the most horrible book I have ever read.  I highly recommend it.

If you think that is a contradiction, it is not.

The book sat on my bookshelf for several months before I raised the gumption to open it.  I knew instinctively what kind of horrors it would hold.  Of course, as one friend commented, “It’s not that hard to figure out.  It says right on the back ‘a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality, and fear…endurance tested beyond their worst imagining.’” 

I honestly didn’t know if I would ever read it, but one night almost on a whim I pulled it off the shelf and read the first page.  And once the cover was cracked, the story would not let me go.  Two nights of staying up way too late and it was done.  There were parts I’d squeeze my eyes shut only to peek back through one eyelid to keep on reading. I didn’t want to read the book.  I read it anyway.  Perhaps it was like the proverbial car wreck that you don’t want to see but somehow can’t keep from staring.  I likened it to something vaster: The Holocaust. 

Surrounding the dark periods of our history we often hear the phrase, “Lest We Forget.”  The phrase is used to remind us of the importance of remembering our history, in part to pay tribute to those who have gone before us and in part to be on guard against repeating the cataclysmic horrors that our history contains. During this Lenten season, the phrase should also remind us of something else.

There are certain things in the world so horrifying that I really don’t want to know about them.  I don’t want to read about them, I don’t want to talk about them, I don’t want to think about them.  And yet, I have an indescribable need to do all of those things.  The Holocaust is one example; the tale of Mariam and Laila in Hosseini’s novel is another.  It is as though by acknowledging the deep and unyielding suffering of another, I somehow share some small part in it.  As though by sharing in the suffering in even this small way – the tears, the sickening of the stomach, the pure and vile nausea at the hell of it – as though by acknowledging its existence, by staring it in the face and being duly horrified, I become a little more… human.

Paul explained this phenomenon another way.  We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…if one part suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Corinthians 12:13;26). He also said, Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

We are the Body of Christ.  Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this tenet is seen when we bear witness to the suffering of another.  It is in sharing each others suffering that we enact Christ’s trip to Calvary.  It is in bearing one another’s burdens that we are reminded of Jesus Christ, who carried the ultimate burden when he bore all of our sins to the cross.  When we are faced with the horrors of this world, we are reminded how desperately we need a Savior, and how graciously God provided one.

Through our suffering, God reminds us to lean on Him and to have faith in Jesus Christ and the salvation that He brings.  There are times we must stare the horrors of this world in the face and remember how human we are and how desperately we must cling to our Savior.  During these times we must join together as the Body of Christ and look to the cross.  Lest we forget.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17).

 

Do Something With It

In the last couple articles, we looked at the amazing things that occur when we start with what we have and then give it to God.  What we haven’t looked at yet is how, in this cycle of receiving and giving, God also expects us to do something with what He gives us.

I never understood the parable of the tenants (Matthew 25:14-30).  A man goes on a journey and gives three servants varying amounts of money: five talents, two talents, or one talent.  The servants who receive five and two talents put the money to work, and when their master returns they are able to give him not only the small amount he had given them initially, but also what they had earned.  The first servant returns ten talents and the second servant returns four talents; both receive the reply, “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things: I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!”  The third servant, however, does not fare so well.  Fearing his master’s anger if he were to lose the single talent he had been given, he buries it in a hole, and when his master comes home, he returns the single talent to him.

I never understood why this was such a bad thing.  It’s not like this third servant squandered away the talent on wild living.  He had merely kept it safe and returned what he had been given.  Seems reasonable to me.  But the servant’s master was furious.  “You wicked, lazy servant…you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.”

Okay, so maybe putting the money in a savings account would have been wiser than burying it in a hole.  But then again, in this age of crashing banking systems, there are days I think burying your money in a hole isn’t such a bad idea.  It certainly doesn’t seem wicked or lazy to me.  And it certainly doesn’t seem to deserve what happens next.

“Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents,” the master said.  “And, throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Wow.  What is that all about?  Does God really care that strongly that we all put the money he gives us into savings accounts?

After years of struggling with the seemingly conflicting messages in this parable – why is it wrong to keep safe what God gives you?? – I once heard this parable summarized like this: The talents in the parable represent all the gifts God gives us.  Money, education, friendship, talents, abilities…  These gifts are not meant to be hidden away.  These gifts are meant to be put to use. 

In other words, God wants us to do something with what He has given us.  As the body of Christ, we are the servants who have been equipped and sent forth to do the good work God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).  But this work will not get done if we choose instead to bury in the sand all the money, the education, the friendships, the talents, the abilities God has given us.  We have that choice.  And the devil is alluring in his call.  It is safer, the devil whispers, to hide what God has given us.  It is better, the devil whispers, if we keep this for ourselves, if we don’t share it, if we keep it safe.    But the parable tells us what happens if we choose to bury it.  It may seem safe to hold on tightly to the gifts God has given us, but the gifts God gives us are meant to be used.  If we choose not to use a gift, He will take it away and give it to someone else.  Someone who will do something with it.

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:6-8)

Give it to God

Do you know what I love most about the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand?  I love the boy with the fish. 

We know this story so well.  We know how crowds of men, women, and children followed Jesus until he stopped to speak with them.  We know how the day grew late, the crowd grew weary with hunger, and the disciples asked Jesus to send them away so that they may find something to eat.  But Jesus tells them to feed the crowds.  “How many loaves do you have?”  He asked.  “Go and see.” (Mark 6:38).

The boy is almost a footnote in the story.  He is not even mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  In those, the disciples merely reply to Jesus that they have only five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:17; Mark 6:38; Luke 9:13).  But in John, from the pen of the apostle of love, we read where the loaves and fish originated: “Here is a boy,” John writes, “with five small barley loaves and two small fish…” (John 6:9).

Imagine what it must have been like to be that boy!  How terrifying and exhilarating to be pulled from the crowd and placed before Jesus.  The account gives us no perspective for what the boy was feeling.  Was he honored to offer up his meal to the service of these men?  Or was he afraid, knowing that he, as nothing but a boy, was about to lose his meager meal and return home hungry? 

And then, how amazed he must have been – amazed and bewildered – to see his small meal pouring back out of the basket, feeding one group of hungry men after another.  What did he think when that basket passed back to him with an offering far bigger than what he put in?  An offering so big, in fact, that he ate until he could eat no more, leaving pieces of bread on the ground.  How amazing it must have been to watch the crowds around him also eat until they could eat no more, leaving more pieces of bread on the ground which the disciples picked up, filling twelve baskets.  Twelve baskets!  “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14).

And yet, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is not merely the story of this miraculous sign which marveled the crowd.  It is also about the boy, who teaches us the second of our three principles: Give it to God. 

We see this same lesson modeled by the widow whom Elijah visits (1 Kings 17).  At Elijah’s instruction, she uses the last of her flour and oil to make a small cake of bread for him, leaving nothing for her or her son to eat.  And yet, her offering too was returned to her with such abundance that “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah” (1Kings 17:16). 

In the natural world, there are finite resources.  We have limited time, limited energy, limited money, and limited possessions (although when housecleaning I sometimes feel as though possessions multiply behind closet doors!)  It is only when we give it all to God, as humbling and terrifying as that is, that He is able to use it for His good purposes – both for others and for us.  I read once that in opening our hands to give, we are also opening our hands to receive.  Truly, when we open our hands to God, we receive far more in exchange.  God is our infinite resource, but first we must start with what we have, and give it to God.  He can do far more amazing things with it than we can.

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13-14).