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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Strange Math

I saw myself in a seedling today.

The girls and I keep trying. Keep trying to grow something in the city. We planted some seeds indoors. We put romaine lettuce and celery stumps in water to resprout. We keep trying. But it's winter. The sun has stayed mostly hidden. It has been overcast, skies full of snow and more snow. The light can't seem to penetrate the darkness for long.

So I have some very leggy spinach seedlings, and some romaine that looks branchy rather than bushy.

Today the sun came out. I carried all my pots and loaf tins outside to the deck. Reach! Reach for the sun, little seedlings! Photo-synthesize to your hearts' content!

I expected to come back to find them lush and dark green and robust. But the opposite happened.

After stretching so long and so hard in the oppression of indoor incandescence, they simply wilted and fell over in the presence of The Real Thing.

And I saw me in those weakling seedlings.

As a new believer, I burst forth from the old and into the new with a robust vigor. But life being what life is, it always wants to get in the way of fervor. We blow on a coffee cup to cool it down. Pressure in a balloon rushes to get out, rendering that delightful toy a flaccid remnant of uselessness. And darkness always tries to smother light. I knew it was the Light I craved, and I reached and reached and reached for it, even in life's oppressive darkness that shrouded so much of it from me. So while the seed was strong, I too soon got  covered over, and I couldn't get the Light I needed to grow strong. When tested, I wilted like today's new green did.

When did I thrive? When I was a new believer in the world. When did I stretch and shrivel? When I was a young believer in a closed-off Christian subculture. Christian job. A loyal and beloved but small assortment of Christian-only friends. Very conservative church which emphasized retraction from the greater culture and community rather than engagement of it.

It occurred to me today that like the occasional cold weather out of doors functions to harden and strengthen the young plant so that it can stand strong, so also interaction in the real world strengthens the believer for life's hardships as they come--and confidence to stand and not wilt when they do. 1 Peter 1 speaks of the "tested genuineness of your faith." Testing proves to me that my faith is real. And so, perhaps the "always indoors protection" for the seedling, which lets it sprout and grow but not in vigor and strength and fortitude to survive is rather like the "always protected" covering of the Christian ghetto, never letting one's faith be strengthened with the fortitude to be the iron in the spine needed to face the reality of the Light that shone into the depths of darkness, exposing all for what it really is.

Some years ago, I had an email correspondence for a time with a children's book author named Paul Owen Lewis. He had, by choice, become something like a modern-day hermit, and it was rare, I was told by his publisher's representative, for him to correspond with anyone. But I bought thousands of copies of one of his children's books, a visual masterpiece called Grasper, about a young crab who cannot grow as long as he stays in the shallow water protected by rocks at the edge of the surf. But when, one day, against all advice, Grasper ventures up to the top to look out over the rocks, he finds a magnificent world, full of color and activity and challenge and danger. His friends think he has lost his mind to venture out. But when he comes back, he has grown. He is much, much bigger. They can't understand it! When he risked the outside world, he grew. When he stayed in certain safety, he didn't.

Mr. Lewis said the book was a parallel for his own spiritual journey. He knew he needed to get out of the rocks of his own life, which were holding him back. He knew it was good not only for himself but for others. And yet, his fear was great. So he taught through books what he hoped others would learn and he thanked me for promoting his heartfelt message.

A few weeks ago, the daughters and I went to see the movie Frozen. As a general rule, I dismiss most Disney princess movies, and only endure them because I have daughters, who have friends and dress-up clothes and on and on and on. But this one was different. The character Elsa has a gift that doubles as a curse. In her immaturity, the trait, untrained, unhardened by testing, can be dangerous. But rather than guide her through careful testing toward growth, her frightened parents instead suggest that she simply close herself off from society, from the world, to protect her from judgment and protect others from harm. Much later in the story, when she MUST come out, it becomes clear that she doesn't have the needed strength to function, and things get far worse before they get better.

Testing and being challenged are necessary for real growth. The idea that we should shrink away to live in safety, it seems, may be the very worst thing we can do for ourselves. It is true that "we have this gift in jars of clay." We are oh, so fragile! But our focus is wrong. We say, "We have this gift in Jars Of Clay," and focus on the jar and the clay--me, me, me. I am weak. I am molded dust. I am nothing but dirt with a pretty glaze on the outside.

Instead, however, should we not say, "We have THIS GIFT"? The gift is ours. It is not going to be retracted. What is the gift? Permanent, unalterable, unmerited favor. God's shield for us, against absolutely everything we could encounter that would harm us, from the inside or the out, is his favor. Psalm 5:12 says it: You cover him with your favor as a shield. Ephesians 6 reiterates the power of that shield: powerful to extinguish every flaming dart that is shot against us.

Why do we fear, then? Why do we hide away in our sheltered places, as if anything out there in life's challenges might soil or damage us? We have THIS GIFT: God's permanent favor. We can't mess this up, but if we are to be strengthened, we must see for ourselves how very strong he is, his promise to hold and keep us, to always provide for our needs in the moment of need--in the fiery trial.

I don't want to be a weak seedling, lapsing back into the soil because I could not reach the light when I needed it to grow. I don't want to be a tiny crab, miserably molting but never growing, and missing the opportunities of life more abundant out of self-protective fear. I don't want to cover my challenges so that I never mature to meet them. And I don't want to hide the Light that is in this jar of clay under a bushel so that others too may never know it for themselves.

Funny, isn't it, how in God's economy, so much is upside down and out of what we think the order ought to be? One must lose his life to save it. One must venture out of safety to mature. One must take chances and depend on something bigger than one's own self to know one's self fully.

It's strange math.

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