Practical “Right Things”

After writing blog posts about “right things” (see Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Right and Doing Right Things), I was asked by a couple of people that I mentor what doing right things has looked like in my life over the years. Hmm…great question! I sat down one day a month ago and jotted down things that came to mind. What a great experience! I am going to list them below in bullet form without a lot of explanation and in the order they came to mind (which is roughly chronological, because us engineering types tend to think linearly)…

  • Spontaneous dates with my wife, Barb.
  • Shopppppping with Barb, as opposed to just shopping – i.e. it’s about the hunt, not the capture. (Thank you, Gary Smalley)
  • Regular times of Pondertude – usually at coffee shops, scheduled and unscheduled. (Pondertude is my term – a combination of pondering and solitude)
  • Continuous reading of the Gospels.
  • “Stopping what I’m doing to play catch” – point being, if my kids wanted time with me, I tried to postpone what I was doing if at all possible.
    • Similarly, “Let my kids crawl on me while fixing the dishwasher” (and now, my grand-kids!).
  • Camping with the kids. I often took each of our kids camping one-on-one for a 24 hour overnight – no agenda, no plans (we usually stopped at the grocery store on the way for the necessary supplies!).
  • Incorporating a mantra (Abba, I belong to you) into the rhythms of life. (Thank you Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and others)
  • Create memories. (Thank you, Tom Scheuerman)
  • Go to our kids’ (and now, grand-kids’) stuff. (Again, thank you, Tom Scheuerman)
  • Just show up. (Thank you, Young Life)
  • Lead from a servant’s perspective. (Thank you, Robert Greenleaf)
  • Focus on a few things, do a few things well.
    • Likewise, focus on a few people – The “Jesus way” (He poured most of his effort into a few – Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha).
  • Keep learning. (Thank you, Dad)
  • Know Him and make Him known.
  • Be good news to those around me.
  • In more recent years (i.e, the last 15-20 years):
    • Learn gratitude
    • Learn submission – I don’t need to be right, I don’t need to get my way. (Thank you, Richard Foster)
    • Pay attention to the other – People that are culturally different, the one that doesn’t look like me.
    • Talking to God about what we are doing together – best description of prayer ever! (Thank you, Dallas Willard)
  • Everything’s a surprise – Allows for spontaneity and is theologically accurate.

I noticed a few things as I went through this experience. First, most of these items have a faith and family focus and are not outcome-based. However, as I pondered this, I recognized an integration of the practices into all aspects of life – faith, family, ministry, job, career, etc. And any outcomes were up to God (see the Seed Scattering post).

Secondly, please know that I have not practiced all these for the past 40 years. If someone had shown me a list like this 40 years ago, I would have thrown up my arms in surrender, knowing I couldn’t incorporate all these into my life. In reality, they showed up as needed and, I assume, as God deemed them necessary (here I think of Acts 15:28 – it seemed right to to us an the Holy Spirit). Simple math tells me that one of these right things showed up every couple years.

Finally, I discovered that over time, a number of these practices have become second nature, to borrow a term from NT Wright. I was watching the Twins game the other night, noticing the right things players did that had become second nature, things they didn’t need to consciously think about anymore. (One could argue that Rocco Baldelli’s success as a manager has been the encouragement of players to do the things that have become second nature for them.) Same thing when we practice doing right things (the operative word here is practice). To be clear, some of these practices are NOT second nature for me. They still take a lot of thought, intentionality, and practice on my part. Maybe, just maybe, 20 years from now a few more will have become second nature.

Note: I am fully aware that the explanations for these right things are brief. I can can certainly expand on any of them – just ask and I will do that (after all, it was a couple people’s asking that led to the creation of this list).

Fruitfulness

Mark Johansson, PhD, wrote an email to a friend after a conversation over dinner regarding the seed scattering parable of Mark 4:26-28. Following is the contents of his epistle. This is one of the most freeing things I’ve ever read…

26He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  27Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  28All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

As a follow up to our dinner conversation regarding usefulness/fruitfulness: It seems to me that our functional, utilitarian, productive and measurement-oriented world of work often misleads our own sense of worth and significance. Against these “measures of the world” we are often left feeling inadequate, falling short, wondering what we actually accomplished and how productive we really are no matter how hard we may try.

I admit there is a good part to holding oneself accountable to results and standards, to giving ones best effort.  But at the same time, as believers, we live in a dual reality; we are part of an invisible if not so apparent second kingdom that is just as real as the first. It is by all accounts more important given its timelessness and eternalness.

Our discussion on Tuesday threw me back to the above scriptures. Our function in the second kingdom is “throwing seeds”, recklessly throwing seeds and then trusting the powers of heaven to bear fruit. To be honest this activity seems random, often capricious and not very measurable to be sure. There appears little cause and effect and certainly there is no control. Nonetheless we are called to live in this manner, throwing seeds.

What is this activity of throwing seeds which (like the mustard seed) seem so insignificant? A smile in the elevator hardly seems the most important thing I do in a given work day; after all my professional job objectives call me to supposedly much more important work than smiling.

However, a journey into the world of complexity theory and quantum theory ironically helps me appreciate what Jesus means by scattering small (and insignificant) seeds. Complexity theory reminds me of the importance of the butterfly effect, those tiny wings of the butterfly potentially impacting large scale weather patterns on the other side of the world. Tiny and even mundane beginnings often have the biggest outcomes.

Nuclear theory tells us one small raisin has enough stored atomic energy to light up all of New York City for several days, if we only knew how to unlock its power. A smile (in Jesus name) can be a spiritual raisin, a mustard seed yielding immeasurable fruitfulness. A gentle word of hope, taking time to give direction, a word of encouragement, an empathic touch, a listening ear, just being with, acting kindly, etc., etc., are “nuclear” acts when unlocked by God yield stunningly explosive results.

We will “wake up” one day (in the next life) and ask “what happened?” I never did that! God responds, “Yes you did!” God has used each of us in stunning ways, no doubt. We just do not have a clue what scattered seeds were used and how God accomplished what He did. It is sometimes easier to see the fruitful outcome in the lives of others. We cannot see it in our own life. God will rarely grant us that insight.

There is something terribly humbling about all of this. We are easily captivated and think too highly of “great” human achievements. Our egos are quite vulnerable to the seductive praise of persons. We often wrap those “smaller” things in life with disparagement. I think it part of God’s humor and delight to use things inconsequential to keep us grounded in spiritual reality and dependence upon Him.

So on those days (and there are more of them than not) when we feel inadequate, less than useful and unproductive we can take comfort in the little things we do realizing again and again that living in the second kingdom challenges our own values, our own sense of effort and calls us into a fundamental dependence upon the Lord to use us as He wants.

We are called to recklessly scatter seeds anywhere and everywhere often in spite of doing our more “important” duties. There can be a joyful and palatable tension we feel while called to live in this world but not of this world when we ultimately integrate His reality.

However, just maybe, those smiles in the elevator, the widow’s coin, that cup of water given in Jesus name are not so insignificant after all. We just do not see the fruit. But on the other hand our human eyes are quite limited and trained to notice human activities. Those large scale majestic events in the second kingdom triggered by those “insignificant” seeds do occur but are hidden from human view. Our eyes of faith are meant to help us see our participation in the divine cosmic drama, to hear the crowd of heaven roar its approval.

Within the second kingdom is found sacred multiplications beyond our own human doings. It is the spiritual mechanism of fruitfulness. Here is a fruitfulness that requires only the smallest and most vulnerable of beginnings as if anything more would choke its’ own creative process. It is the authentically simple things offered to God that fuels the mysterious explosion of fruitfulness.

Seeds by their very nature are unimpressive, small, simple in appearance and to some degree valueless in their original state. It is, however, seeds that we are to scatter, the simple little and unimpressive works of love. Anyone, at any age, of any ability can manage to throw seeds. That is the point is it not? God’s work is available to anyone to do. We shy away, however, seeking more complicated and “important” ways of doing his will: And in doing so we no longer scatter seeds but often scatter unusable objects and things; things that cannot be reproduced; things that cannot be buried and die; things that cannot grow into unmeasureable life.