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We Will Never Be Efficient Enough
Early one morning, while sitting in the New Orleans International Airport, I made an amazing discovery: "The orange juice arrives in the middle of the night." You may not think this is as momentous a discovery as I did, but of course I was sitting in the airport in the middle of the night when I came to this important realization. (There was little else at the time to serve as entertainment!) As the squeak of the wheels of the orange- juice cart woke me from my sleep, part of me was just happy to see another living soul. I had come to the airport eight hours earlier to pick up my wife and daughters from a flight from Chicago. Because of bad weather, their flight from the Windy City continued to be delayed. Finally, they took off around 1:00 A.M. with a projected arrival time of 3:00 A.M.
Louis B. Armstrong Airport, the official name of the New Orleans International Airport, is a busy place for eighteen hours of the day, and it is considered to be one of the most-used airports in the country. For those other six hours late at night, however, things come to a screeching halt—with the exception of the orange-juice cart. Of course, I had never thought about it this way before—how each new day, travelers from around the world will descend upon the airport, some attending events in the city, some coming home, and others only passing through on their way to another destination. They will stop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner as they make deals by phone. They will grab snacks while they text-message and check their e-mails. They will prepare for the next "stage" of their life as they meet new people and say goodbye to old friends. Apparently, they also will drink orange juice. It suddenly occurred to me on this occasion, that as the world goes by in its hustle and bustle, and while folks grab their orange juice on their way to the important events of life, someone is responsible, at 2:15 in the morning, for bringing the orange juice to the kiosk. It wasn't the pilot, the flight attendant, the janitor, the parking attendant, the gate rep, the TSA officer, or even the terminal manager. No, at 2:15 in the morning, a gentleman charged with pushing the orange juice beverage cart to its appointed place, at the appointed hour, did his job.
No matter how important our job may be, none of us can make sure everything is done. We simply are not that efficient. Of course, most of the time, no one will ask who is getting the job done. No, most people the next day will take their orange juice and simply take for granted how it got there. But without that 2:15 A.M. delivery of not just orange juice, but of all the beverages, folks would simply be thirsty.
Efficiency is a simple concept. It is the ability to expend the minimal amount of time and energy to get the job done. But the unstated facts of this definition are important. To allow for the "minimal" use of time and energy points to the fact that there is a limited amount of both to be used in our world. Given the nature of our time and space, and with relativity still a theory, we can be in only one place at one time, and to accomplish everything remains a physical impossibility. No one can be that efficient.
God understood this about us, not only in terms of the physical world, but also in regard to the emotional and spiritual capacities of our lives. Proverbs 3:5-6 is a perfect explanation of how God views our world and the understanding of how we are best when we learn to get beyond our own finite gifts and abilities.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight. (NIV)
If we take a closer look at that passage, we learn several lessons.
First, we are most inefficient in our understanding of "why" we can't accomplish everything. From the beginning, when Eve believed the Adversary, the question has been "wouldn't you like to be your own god?" The notion that we can accomplish everything has been a "heart" issue, because it has been the primal tension between wanting to be our own god and actually allowing God to be that part of our lives God was meant to be and for which we were created from the beginning. The writer of Proverbs says, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart"—not part of your heart, or just at certain times, but with "all your heart."
Second, this passage tells us, "Lean not on your own understanding." Eve's propensity to believe the lie was to trust her own understanding first. She saw the truth, the answer to Satan's question, from her own limited point of view. God knows that we are most inefficient because we cannot know everything, and certainly we cannot understand the full scope of all the issues we encounter. Thus, God entreats us to "lean not on [our] own understanding."
Have you ever seen someone grow frustrated when he or she cannot get the answer to a question? I'm sure we all have been in that situation. The result often is that not only do we still not get the answer, but sometimes we also grow angry and make rash decisions that lead to other frustrations in our lives.
Instead, the writer of Proverbs says, "In all your ways acknowledge [God]." In other words, stop trying to be the final answer, and admit that you are unable to answer or know or understand everything. Look what happens next: When we do this, the writer says, then basically we are able to get out of our own way, and God is able to take the confusing, crooked paths of our lives and make them straight. I love this part, because it is such practical advice.
Think, for instance, of a man who is lost but won't stop and ask for directions. The result is one of two possibilities. Eventually, he will miraculously find the way or he will become so lost that there is no choice but to ask for help. What happens in the meantime? It is not pretty. There is a lot of anger and frustration that happens in working our way through a period of lostness. In these times, we are most aware of our inefficiency. Most important, we wander our way through life. If someone were to chart our path over the course of those experiences, the map might look like a bow tie, with many turns and twists. That is not God's intention for our life. God wants our paths to be straight.
Inefficiency leads to broken paths, broken hearts, broken relationships, and broken goals. Often we expend a tremendous amount of time and energy before we ask for help. Sure, we may end up at the right place eventually, but how long did it take us to get there? How efficient is that?CHAPTER 2
We Will Never Be Versatile Enough
1 Corinthians 15:58
Martin is shy and introverted. He is also incredibly kind. A nurse by trade, Martin works for a medical supply company and spends most of his time traveling from one clinic to another making sure doctors have the right equipment. He forces himself to be personable, though he would much rather be at home with a good book or spending time with his wife.
Martin's life has been filled with many obstacles, including family problems and broken relationships that for many years kept him far from church and from God. When Martin was in his late twenties, God sent a series of individuals into his life to help teach, heal, and guide him through the next paths and journeys. What Martin experienced was a much closer walk with God and, although such an introverted spirit, an incredible love for sharing his faith with others. Martin also became active in various mission projects and teams, including trips to Central America and ministries for the under-resourced in his local community.
I met Martin while serving part-time at a local church as the teaching pastor for the modern service. Immediately, I was drawn to his humble and gentle spirit. Several weeks after meeting Martin, he told me of a dream he had had a few days earlier that had made a profound impact on his spirit. (The dream was much like one the Apostle Peter had; see Acts 10:1–11:18.) However, unlike Peter's dream, Martin's dream was not about evangelism but about thankfulness. It started a chain of events in Martin's life that made me reconsider the way I say "thank you" to those I love.
In his dream, Martin was standing in an open field, looking up to heaven. Coming down from heaven a chain had been lowered. It was strong and shiny and well kept. The chain was both sturdy and beautiful—"not your run-of-the-mill chain," Martin kept saying. The chain was connected to Martin on one end and to heaven on the other. It was being used as a tether to keep Martin balanced and stable in the storms of life, and throughout the dream Martin saw one instance after another where the trouble and disappointments of life would blow through, but the chain would hold him steadily in place. Though the winds raged, Martin remained stable and in place.
Martin said that the chain was a source of great peace and encouragement, because it was a symbol for how he was connected to God and for how God would never let him go. Another interesting thing about the chain was that on each link was written the name of someone whom Martin had known in his life. On one link was the name of Martin's grandmother. On another, the name of his long-time Sunday school teacher. On another link was the name of the pastor who had baptized Martin, and on another, the name of Martin's wife. Martin informed me that my name was on a link, and I remember feeling very proud and honored.
The point was that the image of how Martin was connected to heaven, and to God, was a chain whose links represented the people who had loved, taught, and cared for him over the years. No matter how strong or good or knowledgeable Martin had been throughout his life, he had trusted and counted (even when he didn't realize it) upon the strength of those relationships with loved ones and friends to hold him steady.
This is a beautiful image of how we are intimately connected to each other and of how the value of those relationships, created in the image of God, is more apt than what we can know.
Of course, the opposite is too often true. We find ourselves trying to be everything to everyone, especially within these most sacred relationships. But no one, not even a dedicated, faithful soul like Martin, can hold tight through the storms alone. It takes a person willing to connect to others and to trust that he or she alone is not enough, but that together we are.
What usually happens, though, is that we spend time trying to be versatile enough. Versatile? A friend of mine says that we are most successful when we learn to be the most flexible in life—in essence, when we learn to be versatile and adaptive. One person alone cannot assimilate the full scope of all the issues and difficulties that life will throw our way. It takes other links in the chain to give us the flexibility of movement and the response to handle what life throws our way.
I love the chain image, because so many people throughout my ministry have tried to handle life on their own, to the point that they become so rigid, not necessarily by choice but because they can field only one issue, mistake, opportunity, or relationship at a time. Think of one person, alone, being like a metal rod. Sure, there may be some flexibility, but it will never compare with what is found in a "chain"— many people together—with many links. Also, anchor that metal rod to the ground in a time of storm, and it will hold only for as long as the strength of the rod in its current form and structure can stand. In essence, it will be only as strong as it is flexible. A chain, on the other hand—well, it can move and yet still be anchored, as long as the connections on either end are sure and true.
Strong and Steady
That is why I love what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:58 as he finishes his comments to the church at Corinth:
So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and steady, always enthusiastic about the Lord's work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (NLT)
The church to whom Paul is speaking has been through a great deal, much of it at its own hands. The result is a fractured church that has lost its way in many regards. Of course, Paul has scolded and rebuked the church members for many of their practices that have led them away from the basics of the faith. In these final words, though, Paul offers them words of hope and encouragement.
Basically, Paul says, "You can't do it alone.... You are not enough." He says, "Together, as brothers and sisters in Christ, you can be all you need. You will be strong enough and steady enough, and it will affect even your joy and relationships. But," and this was the most important part, "remember that what you do for God is useful. Useful enough and important enough not to take it for granted. Give it your attention, work together, enjoy the moment; but more than anything, don't miss the chance to be all that God needs for you to be."
Learning to work together brings three things that we cannot experience to the same degree alone. First, when we work together, we experience strength. I learned as a kid roaming the woods of South Mississippi that one stick, which most anyone could find lying in the woods, could be broken with enough sawing, pulling, beating, or ingenuity. But tie six, seven, or eight sticks together into a bundle, and you change the dynamic dramatically.
Second, when we work together, we experience a steady spirit. A mountain-climbing friend of mine once explained the unique silence of the mountain at night. He said it was one of the most beautiful sounds you would ever want to experience ... for a short time. To have that be your only existence, however, would be another story. Our spirits are wired to need other people. We are meant to bend and go with the flow, but ultimately our DNA is meant to respond to interactions with others. The Greeks called it perichoresis, the need for humanity to be engaged. When talking about the Trinity, the early Christian theologians borrowed the term to describe how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit need one another. We understand this form of life, this intrinsic need for others, because deep down, it is how God has formed us. Without it, we are unsteady, out of balance, off our game.
Third and finally, when we work together, we find joy. We are meant to have joy. Jesus prayed for it. So did Paul. So did Peter when he talked about the early church. I believe that most churches in the United States today do not have enough joy.
Several years ago, there was a church that was about to split over whether the sanctuary walls should be painted. Yes, you heard me right. They were going to shut the doors of the church because they could not agree as to whether to paint the walls.
A friend of mine who is a church superintendent called me and asked if I would serve as the mediator in the conversation to resolve the problem. When I arrived, I found a long table with one group, the "pro-painters," as I called them, on one side, and the "anti-painters" on the other. They were sitting there, as I was a few minutes late, just staring at each other. I noticed two people at the end of the table carrying on casual conversation across the magic dividing line, but I later learned that they were the secretary and pastor of the church.
I sat listening for nearly forty-five minutes as the pro-paint group discussed the obvious need to paint the sanctuary. It had been nearly thirty years since the sanctuary had been painted. I had looked at the sanctuary, and, yes, it was in need of some improvements. Of course, so was the entire church facility, which had seen its better days. I believe the pro-paint group missed the mark in thinking that painting the walls would make a difference in whether people attended church or not. But that was a different argument.
Excerpted from You Can't Do Everything ... So Do Something by Shane Stanford. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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