Cultivate Greatness

The beginning of this year has seemed manic, a congeries of experiences, meetings, readings, writings, death, life, and everything in between. There is movement all around, and oftentimes, I have questions about the purpose of it all. This seems large and existential as I type it, but I want to take a minute to reflect on the first half of this year. Maybe it’s the heat, but things seem to slow things down towards the summer and allow space for one to muse on the turning point of the year and look ahead in hope. If I could condense what the summer stands for in two words, today I would choose “Cultivate greatness.”

The summer is when athletes begin to train ahead of the next season. The summer is when farmers faithfully water crops in anticipation of the harvest. The summer is when teachers prepare their next lessons and students rest their minds and (hopefully) do pre-reading. The summer is when families take trips to rest and reconnect with the ones they love. The summer is an opportunity to cultivate greatness. Yes, the summer is a special time.

Cultivate greatness is a two-word way of saying, “set a long-term goal and work towards it.” From a Christian perspective, this looks like seeking a deeper relationship with God and better ways to serve people. The “greatness” part is about a goal beyond oneself. The “cultivate” part implies that it will take a significant amount of time.

Much of what I have observed in the few years that I have lived has related to the passage of time. Time is a gift. The duration of our time is not guaranteed, but what one does with their time determines the course of their life (There’s probably some Andy Stanley influence in the second half of that sentence). Moses prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). This is our motto text for 2017 here at Lancing Tabernacle. It has been a weekly reminder that God knows what is going on and that I need Him to teach me. He is a patient teacher.

So, listed below are a few things that I am learning about time. I don’t claim superior wisdom. It feels weird to say anything about time or wisdom. The thoughts that I’ll include in this post are not necessarily my own, but have been proven true through the years. These principles will seem simple, but they can pay massive dividends if applied appropriately.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. — Psalm 90:12

Choose how to (not) spend your time.

One of the books that I’ve enjoyed this year is A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. John Woods recommended it to me as I wrote a paper about grace-fueled discipline in the church for my schoolwork at Union. In the book, Vanauken (Van) gives account of his relationship with his wife, Davy, and his journey of faith during their time together and his time after her death.

Throughout the book, he details the way that he spent his time, either in specific activities or for specific seasons of his life. There is a keen awareness of the passage of time, its limited nature, and the value of making sacrificial choices with time. The eponymous chapter explores both time and eternity, although the whole book thematically contrasts the two. C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to Van, “You have been treated with a severe mercy.” Even after her death, Davy’s faith echoed so much so that it might be a mercy if her absence led to deeper faith for others.

This book offers massive lessons to be gleaned about life in its various seasons, prioritising time, timelessness, viewing time on earth as ephemeral, and sacrifice. Perhaps one of the most important lessons is that time spent in the Word and in prayer is time well spent. Davy spent much of her time reading and praying for Van. It influenced him to know God like she did, even after her death. She knew the value of choosing to spend time with God. This is a book worth reading.

(The parenthesis in this heading is the shadow of this point. If we are to choose how we spend our time, we are also choosing things on which we do not wish to spend our time. Gardeners water plants and pull weeds. We should avoid things that distract from the end goal.)

Invest your time.

Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time. — Ellis Redding — The Shawshank Redemption

Red was talking about Andy’s long journey to freedom. The physical distance was not great, but the planning and preparation took years of quiet, meticulous work. Like geology, Andy needed pressure and time to achieve his sojourn to freedom. He needed to make small investments over many years to arrive at the end goal.

Now, the Shawshank Redemption is not the first story to highlight the significance of dirt and time. The prophet Isaiah includes this thought about pottery: “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘He has no hands?’” Isaiah 45:9.

When I was younger, my dad got into making pottery with his friend Chris Ray. Sometimes they would do raku firing, and it was a spectacle to watch these objects turn from earthen tones to brilliant colours after a trip through the fire. Occasionally, one of the pieces would break in either the raku process or the conventional kiln. If there were any air bubbles left in the clay, they would explode under the pressure of the final process.

The first thing that happens in the pottery making procedure is a thorough kneading of the clay. This ‘wedging’ action involves intense handling of the clay, and is the most important step in the process. It ensures that there are no air bubbles to ruin the end result.

There is something special about the waiting/preparation times in our lives. We have no idea what the future holds. We have no idea what God could do with our lives. We do know that He is making all things new. pause. I wonder if the moments in life where it feels like the very air around us is disappearing is part of a bigger plan. I wonder if the trials in our life are an investment that shapes us for when the fire comes.

Bethel communicates this investment idea in a worship anthem called “Take Courage”:

Slow down take time
Breathe in He said
He’d reveal what’s to come
The thoughts in His mind
Always higher than mine
And He’ll reveal all to come
Take courage my heart, stay steadfast my soul
He’s in the waiting, He’s in the waiting
Hold onto your hope, as your triumph unfolds
He’s never failing, He’s never failing

Invest your time in something eternal.

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. — Psalm 90:2

Ten verses before the “Teach us to number our days” request is this perspective-changing statement of awe. Somehow, Moses has a glimpse of the eternity of God. It is this unchanging nature of God contrasted with the brevity of man’s life (“seventy years- or eighty if we have the strength,” says verse 10.) that leads to the plea for instruction on how to number one’s days. God is eternal; we are not. We need to learn wisdom from Him.

Another book that I have enjoyed this year is Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty. Reading this book itself is an investment in something eternal and a pursuit of wisdom. It combines testimony, depth, and literary analysis into layers that present a prism of thoughts for reflection. The influences and investments are many years deep, rooted in an eternal theme. On one surface it is a response to Shusaku Endo’s Silence, but it is also so much more.

The title itself is layered. The author says, “The three critical themes in understanding Silence are hiddenness, ambiguity and beauty.” He clarifies by refining the definition to “a specifically Japanese understanding connected with death and sacrifice.” Even the Japanese character for beauty, he later explains, comes from a layering of “great” and “sheep.” Isn’t there a beautiful, eternal theme involving the sacrifice of a “great sheep?” Think about that.

Mako is an artist himself and what he says of his own artwork in the introduction is also true of the book: “Such a contemplative experience can be a deep sensory journey toward wisdom. Willingness to spend time truly seeing can change how we view the world, moving us away from our fast-food culture of superficially scanning what we see and becoming surfeited with images that do not delve below the surface.” I may have said too much about this book, but I’d encourage you to do as Mako does and observe how the ephemeral things around you relate to the eternal.

As we ruminate the idea of using our short days well in relation to eternity, let me share a quick reflection on gardening. As I have lived with John and Anne Woods for the past several months, I have enjoyed the fruits (and vegetables) that they grow in their allotment. A prominent man in our church died recently. He was known for his encouraging smile and also his gardening. One day, as we observed the funeral spray wither, John asked if I would bag it up for compost at the allotment. The symbolism was overwhelming as my hands touched this picture of the Gospel. Here was a man known for giving life, making one last contribution to a garden to help other people.

Conclusion: Be like a seed.

A seed. Conceptually, a seed holds all of these ideas together. A seed is limited, it can only be planted in one place at one time. That requires choice. A seed is an investment. A seed is an investment in something beyond itself.

Switchfoot has a song that says, “Every seed dies before it grows,” and I’m pretty sure that it is a reference to Jesus’ words in John 12:24. There is a Mexican proverb that says, “They tried to bury us. They did not know that we were seeds.” Jesus told his disciples, “if they had faith as small as a mustard seed…” (Matthew 17:20). The imagery of the seed is all around us. It is very familiar, but sometimes we lose sight of the end goal.

When life buries us and all we can see is darkness, maybe we are being gently planted in the dirt. When clouds appear, maybe there is refreshing in the rain that we did not anticipate when all we could see was the shadow of the storm. When it seems like months go by with no visible progress, maybe we are just taking root, waiting for the growth to come. There are countless seed examples that could be made here. Remember the purpose of a seed: to grow food for others.

If we are to cultivate greatness, we need to have patience. If we are to connect spiritually, we need to make good choices with our time. If we are to endure trials so that we can serve others, we need to persevere through the kneading process. If we are to invest in something eternal, we need to become familiar with the idea of sacrifice. If we are to be a seed, we need to be planted and spend some time underground.

Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” We are living with a limited amount of time. Awareness of our end prepares us for how we are to live our lives. Cultivating greatness will require painful sacrifice. Choose how to spend your time. Invest your time. Invest your time in something eternal. Be like a seed.

— Andrew

Helpful links:

If you’d like to follow up on some of the things that I mentioned in this blog, I’ve included a list below.

Psalm 90

Andy Stanley podcast series on Time

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

Bethel Album with “Take Courage” (While we’re on praise music, both Hillsong and Elevation Worship have new albums this year that are great.)

Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura

Silence by Shusaku Endo

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.