All the World's a Classroom
All the world’s a classroom.
When I wrote out my goals for 2011 about seven months ago (new year’s resolutions – remember those?), one of the things I listed was discomfort. I have become aware that my life has consisted mostly of things that I am already familiar with. I feel a need to expand my world, and expose myself to more discomfort.
At this moment, I am less than 24 hours away to fulfilling one of my goals this year: going on a mission trip. The destination is El Suyatal, Honduras and what I’m feeling right now is pure, unadulterated excitement. I have never gone on a mission trip before, so this is kind of a big deal, and like a dry sponge I’m going to soak up everything about this trip. Ten days without electricity sound remarkably liberating.
I have been saving for this trip since January and this is no doubt going to be the highlight of my year. As I’m preparing my mind and heart on this Sabbath day and trying to reflect on why I wanted to go, I can’t think of a logical or profound answer to that question. I just wanted to go. Am I doing this with a pure motive? Not sure. I love adventures, and I freely admit that I’m looking at this with misty eyes. I know I want a radical experience in my spiritual life. I want to experience something different than campus ministry.
Of course a mission trip is designed for the people there, but my mind is incredibly limited in imagining the things that can happen in 10 days. Cynicism? There’s perhaps a little bit of that. Low expectations? Maybe some. I think, though, that it’s mostly narrow-mindedness. I’m sitting here in front of a computer screen trying to imagine what can happen in a foreign place, without any reference whatsoever. All I know is that the one who will benefit the most from this trip is me. And at this point, all I can talk about is the limited view from my window. See what I mean by “a small world”?
I do have expectations. I expect God to expand my vision, of life, the world, and His kingdom, to something much larger than the life (physical and spiritual) that I have known. I am looking for something without knowing what it is, and I’m ready for whatever God has for me there.
Ah Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee. Jeremiah 32:17
And the LORD said unto Moses, Is the LORD’S hand waxed short? thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not. Numbers 11:23
In our life here, earthly, sin-restricted though it is, the greatest joy and the highest education are in service. And in the future state, untrammeled by the limitations of sinful humanity, it is in service that our greatest joy and our highest education will be found—witnessing, and ever as we witness learning anew “the riches of the glory of this mystery;” “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Colossians 1:27. Education, p. 309 [emphasis mine]
For the next 10 days El Suyatal will be my classroom. My teacher, the Infinite One, and the field of study…I’m about to find out. =)
In the life of a tree, at one point it breaks through the soil and shows the first visible evidence of its existence. It would then move on to grow into a massive, gargantuan tree, soaring up into the sky, sturdy and unmovable. But even the oaks, sycamores, and the Redwoods have their beginnings, and these beginnings do not happen when they emerge to the terrestrial surface; they happen long before that, in the depths of the earth.
There in the secrets of the dark underground, the seed lies in silence, dormant at first. Moisture then diffuses in, the chemistry of life kicks in, and then, un-witnessed by any human eye, the seed germinates and becomes a tree.
Talking about faith, Heschel writes:
Men have often tried to give itemized accounts of why they must believe that God exists. Such accounts are like ripe wheat we harvest upon the surface of the earth. Yet it is beyond all reasons, beneath the ground, where a seed turns to be a tree, where the act of faith takes place. Man is Not Alone, p. 87.
The display of faith, whether seemingly great or small, that’s visible to the public eyes all begins in the same mysterious place deep inside the soil of the heart. Somehow, a seed is planted there, dormant at first, then infused with life. It is in this secret place that a Christian is born, and born again.
Men may marvel at the greatness of a tree that’s displayed above ground. That is all what they can marvel at. But the strength of a giant tree lies in the depth of its roots, the part that is unseen. So is with the Christian life. It is from a secret place, no witnesses, no flattery or ridicule, that the nourishment and refreshment come. The mysterious reactions in the heart, in obscurity, always precede the public persona, both in the life story of a Christian and in his daily life.
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. Psalm 1:1-3
Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8
The question then is, in my secret place where only God can access, am I truly a Christian? Forget the fronts, the displays, and profession, when it comes to the greatest victories that I can gain, the ones in the audience chamber with God, are these my experience?
There are many who have given themselves to Christ, yet who see no opportunity of doing a large work or making great sacrifices in His service. These may find comfort in the thought that it is not necessarily the martyr’s self-surrender which is most acceptable to God; it may not be the missionary who has daily faced danger and death that stands highest in heaven’s records. The Christian who is such in his private life, in the daily surrender of self, in sincerity of purpose and purity of thought, in meekness under provocation, in faith and piety, in fidelity in that which is least, the one who in the home life represents the character of Christ—such a one may in the sight of God be more precious than even the world-renowned missionary or martyr. Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 403.
Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.
Revisiting the burning out phenomenon, especially burning out in ministry.
If I could distill the answer to “how to live a meaningful life?” to something simple, based on my short life thus far, I think it would be the imperative of doing and being well. The two components have to always be present simultaneously, because losing one of them will result in the feeling of meaninglessness. They’re imperative in the sense that it’s the simple, unavoidable need of the soul.
There’s a deep need in every soul both to do and to be, and out of these two we glean a sense of meaning and fulfillment in life. It seems to me that burning out often is caused by the absence of either one of the two components; a person gets saturated with only one component and atrophies. The saturation points from doing and being too much look different though. (Yes, I do think that one can get saturated in “being.”) And again, I think I have been to both ends of this spectrum as well.
The Need to Do
What makes the last day of finals, graduation days, and deadlines so exciting? One word – accomplishment. Deadlines may be associated with much negative sentiments, but they are only scary when you’re looking forward to them. Once you’ve passed them, they are actually quite sweet, especially if you know that you’ve done well.
Accomplishments are exhilarating. There’s worth and value in working, expending tireless efforts towards a goal, and obtaining what you had set out to do. Nothing boosts the morale like getting something done.
The danger lies in going too far on this “doing” track that you derive self value and worth solely from what you do. I feel like living in America, this is often the case. One of the first questions people ask is, “What do you do?” We measure people’s worth by how productive they are and how hard-working they are. While this does reflect a certain aspect of people’s character, it’s not the end of the story.
Perhaps because I come from the Eastern part of the world, I used to find it strange when people answer the question “How was your day?” with “It was productive.” It took me a few years to get used to that, because somehow in my mind, productivity was not a measure of how good a day is. If someone had asked me that question in Indonesia (and I don’t know whether this is still true today or not) and if I had answered “It was productive”, the person would look at me and say, “So? Is that good or bad?” A busy and productive day is not necessarily a good day, since a vacation day when I don’t have to work would be better! Few people work for work itself; people work for vacation. Now things have changed quite a bit – I’ve grown to put value in productivity, and whether that’s good or bad is debatable.
Too much work and not enough “being” will cause bitterness, because you’ll feel that others only want you for what they can get out of you. If you work in any secular setting especially, this feels like your reality. The world doesn’t care about your soul, only your productivity. You get rewarded for your productivity. In most cases, you’re not entirely indispensable and you’re not irreplaceable either. It’s sad, I know (don’t get depressed just yet though).
It is impossible to get the highest level of fulfillment from this machinery model. Bitterness, or a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with work, is what I consider the saturation point in “doing.”
The Need to Be
If you’re at that first saturation point, it means that you need some time to rest, spend some time in quietness, and just …be. I don’t mean being in a vacuum, but being with God, the One who knows the purpose of your life and the true value of your personhood. Keep the Sabbath. It is a powerful cure to counter the grip of the world on your life, it will restore and replenish the drying well of the soul. No one should work nonstop at the expense of his soul.
Yet, the need to be is even deeper than this. We don’t need to rest because we’re tired; we need to rest because it’s part of thread in the fabric of humanity. The history of humankind begins with resting and being with God; man’s first day was the Sabbath day. They rested not because they were tired; it was purely to be with God, to experience wonder and to be awed by the glorious Creator. We need rest, a rest in God, because that’s just how we’re made to be.
I feel this need in a very real way. Even though I love what I do, especially in the context of ministry, I need to know that I’m appreciated as a human being, appreciated for who I am. It means that even if I bombed and completely failed in my work, it’s not like I’ve lost all reason to exist and someone can just exterminate me. This is why the Sabbath is glorious. God wants to spend time with me; He appreciates me for who I am.
In the book, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion by the ever so insightful Abraham Joshua Heschel, he writes:
Animals are content when their needs are satisfied; man insists not only on being satisfied but also on being able to satisfy, on being a need not only on having needs. Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: Am I needed? There is no man who has not been moved by that anxiety.
That need to be needed is true not only in the realms of work, i.e., one is needed to fulfill a job, but also in the realms of being, i.e., one is needed just for his presence.
Yet, there is a saturation point for this too. “Being” too much = nothing gets done. It may be a cop-out for laziness, and while it may feel great at first, it will get boring after a while and you’ll feel useless. That feeling of uselessness is one of the most demoralizing things ever.
When we work together, especially in ministry, I think we need to ensure the well-being and the well-doing of each other. It means that we cannot excuse laziness, because it is in a person’s best interest to actually accomplish things in his life. We need to motivate each other to do and find fulfillment in the tasks that pertain to ministry, but appreciate the personhood of each individual at the same time. How’s that to be done? Something to think about…