The Mystery of Growth

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Pastor Rudy preached this past Sunday on one of my favorite parables. It is brief and so I will quote it in full:

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29, NIV)

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One of the things Rudy observed was the unusual character of Jesus ministry. If he was going to introduce the “kingdom of God” into the world, he seemed to have an odd way of doing it. He calls a group of followers from the margins of life–working class guys, tax collectors, zealots–not the best and the brightest by worldly standards. Instead of marshaling political power or training a militia, Jesus preaches the fulfillment of God’s covenant law and promise to Israel in his person, and exemplifies it through healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and caring for those on the margins. He succeeds in forming a ragtag group of followers and so provokes the powers that be that they kill him. What kind of growth strategy is that?

It’s the strategy of someone who trusts in the mystery of growth, who knows that he is sowing good seed, and that it will result in a harvest. Jesus knew that the words that he had sown, his investment in the Twelve, and the sowing of his own life (cf. John 12:24) was good seed. As crazy as it seemed, as mysterious as the growth process might be, growth and a harvest were inevitable.

Rudy explored our anxieties about growth in the life of the church. At times we can be fearful where we see decline or nothing seems to  be happening. Sometimes we lose heart and just circle the wagons with the few and faithful. Equally, our anxieties can move us to driven and frenetic activity that assumes that if we do the right things, we can make the church grow. Neither is appropriate for people who have the good seed of the good news of the kingdom.

Rather, like good farmers, we keep sowing, and keep tending the farm. We understand what our part is and what is God’s part in this growth process. There is a place for both faith and faithfulness. Good farming involves hard work and yet no farmer considers a harvest guaranteed simply because of having done the hard work. Harvest comes through the mystery of growth. I’m struck with the phrase, “whether he sleeps or gets up.” Farmers know they have work to do in the day, and trust the process of growth as they sleep each night. And they are watchful. They expect a harvest and watch the crop for that moment when it reaches the proper ripeness.

This is a word I need in several ways:

1. I’m actually part of a “growth” initiative in the ministry I work with. I need to remember that the message of the kingdom of Jesus is good seed and that the strategies we pursue reflect faith and faithfulness in looking to God for growth. This frees us from the pressure of “making it happen” that releases us to the faithfulness of hard work and the trustfulness that rests in the mystery of growth.

2. Like the farmer, I need to remember that growth takes time. I’m struck that it is easy for me to be tempted to give up too soon when I don’t immediately see growth. Instead of faithfully tending the work, it can be tempting to try the latest “new thing.” Sometimes this is like plowing over a field just when seedlings are emerging. Similarly, the Word takes time to grow in people. It sure has in me!

3. Finally, this parable raises the question of expectancy. Am I looking for the growth of the kingdom, whether it is the ripening understanding of the gospel that results in a person coming to faith, or the growth of a community in the depth and breadth of its work as it listens to and enters into the words and life of Jesus?

We all live toward some vision of the good life. Rudy’s message encourages me to live toward the mysterious yet inevitable growth of the kingdom of Jesus that challenges me to the hard and expectant work and the carefree rest of someone who trusts the good and powerful King.

Boundaries

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My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. (Galatians 6:1-5)

Rich’s message this week called us to have integrity in our dealings as Christians in any situation we might encounter. He gave us three principles to help us in this: claiming our time, self-differentiation, and establishing disciplines. They’re all related to intentionality and to keeping Christ at the center of our lives. We need to live all of life in light of who we are in Christ and what Christ has called us to do.

Brenda Account PictureI was particularly struck by the call to self-differentiation. It was all about boundaries—setting clear boundaries so we know what is ours and what belongs to someone else—so that we aren’t defined by others, but by Christ, and we aren’t trying to make others into the people we want them to be but allowing them to find their own identity in Christ. We once spent an adult education class reading the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend that made some of the same points. I recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it.

Along the way, Rich warned us about dumping our anxieties and misery onto other people, wanting to make them as miserable as we are ourselves. Conversely, we should have a strong enough sense of our own identity not to be engulfed and swept away by the problems of others. Neither of these situations is healthy for anyone involved.

I pondered this for a while. What’s the difference between going to someone for help and dumping our problems on them? What’s the difference between empathetic listening and losing your way in someone else’s problems? These lines can be a bit tricky sometimes, especially in close relationships that may have a lot of baggage.

There’s an old saying that misery loves company. We may know people who are exhausting to be around because they drain our emotional resources. They demand our sympathy, but we know from experience that nothing we do or say will make any difference. They are so immersed in their distress that they can’t take an interest in other people’s lives. Maybe we love someone like this. Maybe we are someone like this.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about people who are in crisis or who are struggling with a long-term problem. All of us fit into one of these categories at some time or other. But there’s a difference between being in crisis and wanting everyone else to be in crisis because we are.

So what’s the difference? If we’re the one in crisis, maybe it means honestly asking for help. That can be hard to do, but we all need to do it sooner or later. That’s one of the reasons the church exists. Pretending to one another that everything is fine doesn’t honor the intimacy Jesus wants to create among his people. Venting to a trusted person is okay. But while everybody needs to vent once in a while, doing it all the time doesn’t respect the other person, who no doubt has problems of their own. Once we ask for help, we need to consider it honestly and respectfully when it’s offered—even when it may mean changes or hard work on our part.

We should also be sensitive to the person we’re sharing our burdens with. If they’re tired or burdened themselves, it may not be a good time to call on them. Sometimes, when we do call on them, we may just need to let them share their burdens with us. Where we can, we should foster genuine two-way relationships that bless both parties.

If we’re the one ministering to someone in crisis, we need to set healthy boundaries. We are called to sympathize deeply with one another, to bear one another’s burdens and weep with those who weep. But if we lose our way in depression or despair, we can’t help ourselves or anyone else. We have to remember that in Christ we have a place to stand. Despite all the trials of life, we have hope; we have the Spirit, the Scriptures, and the church. This is what we have to offer one another when life gets too hard. Sometimes we just have to hold on to these things.

In Galatians 6, Paul says that we must bear one another’s burdens, but we must also carry our own load. Burdens are meant to be shared, but we must take responsibility for the “load” of our own lives. Figuring out which is which can be difficult sometimes, but we owe it to one another to try. With God’s grace, mutual forgiveness, and a sense of humor, we can sort it out.

“DON’T PANIC”

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According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the reasons the book of that title was so popular was that it had the words “DON’T PANIC” in big friendly letters on the cover.  If you had the Guide, and if you knew where your towel was, you were well prepared to face whatever galactic disasters might come your way.

The sermon this week at Smoky Row Brethren Church was about the Christian and fear. Rich talked about worry, fear, anxiety, and panic. These feelings can be caused by many things, from brain chemistry to poor choices. To deal with all of them, however, we need to have a deep sense of God’s love for us and God’s faithfulness to us, as well as an awareness of the resources we have in Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the church.

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I’m no stranger to this topic. Worry runs in my family, generally on the female side. My mother worries about a lot of things, which usually leads to a phone call to me. I worry about my mother. I try to keep on top of my worries and do what I can about them, before they escalate into nastier forms—anxiety and panic. I’ve had experience with those, too.

Sometimes we need that flood of adrenaline—to get out of a burning house or to grab the toddler who strays into the street. But for some of us, our “crisis meter” is broken, and we get a flood of adrenaline at inappropriate times—or we just can’t shut if off.

I’m pretty sure that I inherited a tendency toward anxiety from my mother (and hers). Add to that the perfectionism I absorbed while growing up, along with seasons of hormonal changes, and you get a recipe for nail-biting, floor-pacing stress. We perfectionists tend to take on responsibility for things we can’t control, which is a no-win situation. (Not to mention that our sense of being in control is mostly an illusion anyway!)

For me, anxiety starts as an elevated worry about something in particular. If I don’t attend to it—think it through, find an appropriate response, and commit it to God—it can escalate to anxiety about everything. It’s as if the anxiety is a virus trying to replicate itself; it starts looking around for more things to attach itself to. At this point, thinking no longer helps, because I just keep thinking obsessively about all the things I’m anxious about. If I get to the point of feeling trapped and overwhelmed, I’m susceptible to panic. Now it’s a fight-or-flight situation, but there’s nothing concrete to fight and nowhere to run. Breakdown!  Fortunately for me, I haven’t had any panic attacks in a long time. I’m usually able to manage an anxiety outbreak before it gets to that point.

Everybody’s situation is different, but here are ten things I’ve learned that might help somebody else.

  1. If you’re having severe anxiety, don’t try to “gut it out” and handle it on your own. God has given us the church for a reason, and we don’t get extra points for machismo.
  2. Examine your circumstances. See if you can change something that would reduce your stress. Maybe you should start looking for a new job. Maybe that relationship isn’t worth it. Maybe you just need a vacation!
  3. Go to your doctor. Find out if there are physiological factors causing or contributing to the anxiety. Medical intervention may help you manage the anxiety or at least calm you down long enough to figure out what’s going on.
  4. Get wise counsel. Find out what personal, interpersonal, social, and spiritual factors cause or contribute to your anxiety. Maybe your friends or your pastor can supply this counsel, but if anxiety is a frequent problem for you, you probably need to talk to a professional counselor.
  5. Go back to basics. Remind yourself that God loves you, is for you, and is with you. Go to Scripture to remind yourself of God’s character and promises. Whenever you find something that’s especially helpful, write it down and look at it if you find yourself getting anxious again.  Keep a journal of the things you learn.
  6. Learn how to pray. Prayer isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, praying desperately for God to remove the anxiety may only make you more anxious. Knowing where the anxiety is coming from will help you to pray more specifically. Praying through Scripture, such as the Psalms, can be helpful. The Psalms help us cry out to God within a framework of trust. I have sometimes been led to pray against spiritual attack, although I don’t believe that all anxiety has a spiritual cause.
  7. Identify your resources. See point 1, above. One of the most damaging effects of anxiety is the self-fulfilling fear that it will happen again. It helps to have your resources set up beforehand. Your pastor, doctor, counselor, and friends can be an important source of support. Even knowing they’re there can help, because you know you’re not alone.
  8. Get enough sleep. You can’t deal with anything if you’re exhausted. If you’re having trouble with this, talk to your doctor.
  9. Get some exercise. Work off some of the tension; it does help. Going outdoors gives you the extra bonus of sunlight, which helps with mood.
  10. Eat right. Remember to eat, even if you don’t feel like it. Try to eliminate stimulants, like caffeine, and cut down on carbs. This makes a big difference for some people.

These are just suggestions. There’s no shame in having anxiety, and there’s no easy formula for dealing with it. But God is still there, and help is available. I hope Smoky Row will be a place where we can be honest about our struggles and help one another with them.

What about you? Are you ever troubled by anxiety? Have you found anything that helps?