Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We Will Reap

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6.9-10)

Our Capacity for Thankfulness

Before everything goes red and green, with tinsel and lights draped stem to stern, we in America pause in gratitude for our blessings. The bountiful goodness we’re accustomed to is, well, less bountiful. Many will bemoan reduced means and no doubt table talk will flare with political swipes at one side or the other. But, on the whole, we can’t deny we’re truly blessed. While we enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, over a million Haitians in tents will eat what they’ve been able to obtain, as will hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by floods and Sudanese refugees fleeing ethnic violence in Darfur. This Thursday—indeed, every day—it’s essential we remain mindful as tough as things have got, they’re not so tough compared to hardships abroad.

Still, it stretches us to abstain from grumbling about tough times, having led unduly prosperous, relatively easy lives. Convenience and wealth not only have made it difficult to be satisfied; they’ve greatly diminished our capacity for thankfulness. In the US, as well as Canada and other countries that observe a national day of thanksgiving, the holiday is framed as a harvest feast symbolized by a horn of plenty overflowing with vegetables. Yet in this age of corporate-run, industrialized farming, “harvest” is an abstract concept that diminishes our ability to be grateful for food that sustains us. We invest none of the toil and attention required to produce healthy crops. We don’t fight pests that destroy months of labor overnight. Droughts and floods, heat waves and early frosts don’t threaten our livelihoods or survival. Though we intellectually recognize what goes into reaping a harvest, we have little if any practical experience of the exertion and uncertainty attached to it. This limited ability to appreciate what we’ve been given applies to most everything we own—our clothing, our goods, the homes we live in, and the cars we drive. Though we work hard to acquire these things, very, very few of us work hard to make them. As a consequence, our “harvest feast” loses significance it once held. While we’re grateful we can afford what we have, earlier generations were thankful to have anything at all.

Keep Working, Always Trusting

Modern removal from agrarian culture also deprives us from the full impact of the Bible’s farm metaphors. We hear Christ’s parables or psalmists' poems about sowing, cultivating, and harvesting without fully absorbing the care, diligence, strength, and patience they demand. Our comfort with convenience invites us to reduce them to the equivalent of “Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.” You plant. You water. You harvest. We get it. But we get far less from the Bible’s farming allusions than pre-modern readers—country and town dwellers alike—who were keenly aware of the growing process. They knew “in season” meant waiting to harvest fruits and grains at the proper time. They realized untimely drought or excessive rain could delay availability of certain kinds of produce by a year or more. They learned to make do until the due season finally arrived. We miss this aspect of the metaphors—the fragile interplay of time and uncontrollable conditions that require us to wait longer than we like to reap harvests of seed we sow. When we can buy fresh-picked apples in February and strawberries in December, it’s a challenge to relate to metaphors that implicitly tell us to keep working, always trusting our labor will reap rewards when the time comes.

That’s Paul’s message to the Galatians, a Celtic tribe in central Asia Minor. Based on what we gather from the text, a group of Jewish converts, known as “Judaizers,” have joined their ranks. They believe all Christians—including former pagans like the Galatians—must obey Mosaic Law. This doctrine contradicts Paul’s teaching of salvation for all through grace for all. The letter rings with urgency to hold fast to the true Gospel, cherish freedom in Christ, and remain united in compassion for one another. Having been enamored with legalism, Paul knows the Judaizers will be stubborn; the problem isn’t going away any time soon. So, as he wraps up, he reaches for a farm metaphor: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6.9-10) We read this as a “hang-in-there” message. But the Galatians catch subtleties we miss. They hear, “You’re in the midst of a process. Keep working, always trusting your labor will reap rewards when the time comes.”

While We Wait

Our harvest table—any holiday table—spreads before us tangible reminders each of us is in the midst of a process. The good seeds God planted in us are growing. Becoming impatient while our harvest ripens only frustrates us further. Becoming weary with cultivating God’s goodness in our lives only reduces blessings we’ll reap “at the proper time… if we do not give up.” Our harvest is affected by time and factors beyond our control. While we wait, we make use of the delay and conditions by seizing opportunities to do good to all people. In light of the Galatians’ crisis, we find added piquancy in Paul’s stressing “especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” He’s telling his readers (and us) not to exclude the excluders among us. “All” means all, even those who malign and reject us as unfit for God’s calling and unworthy of His grace.

Prior to encouraging the Galatians to keep working, he introduces the harvest idea with a shocker. “Do not be deceived,” he writes in verse 7. “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” What we think and do while our harvest ripens most assuredly impacts what we reap. Wasting time and opportunity we have to sow goodness into others’ lives will decrease our harvest and may even delay it. In the midst of our process, we refuse to get weary. We don’t give up. We keep working, always trusting our labor will reap rewards when the time comes.

Our table spreads before us tangible reminders we are in the midst of a process. We will reap its rewards when the proper time comes.

Postscript: Let Us Not Be Weary

Over 25 years ago—so long ago, it feels like another lifetime—I played keyboards with one of the nation’s leading black gospel groups, Pentecostal Community Choir. One of our most popular songs was “Let Us Not Be Weary,” drawn from the KJV translation of Galatians 6.9. I’ve taken the song and married it to the farming metaphor in today’s post to help us visualize what Scripture is teaching us. I trust it will inspire you. We will reap a harvest of blessings.


claire said...

We will reap... We will each reap something different because we each have different talents, different callings. All this makes it an exciting harvest...

Blessings, ami Tim :-)

Tim said...

Precisely, Claire--a cornucopia of God's goodness in the making inside us! What a marvelous thought you've given us to start the day!


Sherry Peyton said...

Gosh, I'm so glad I didn't miss this post Tim. It's just so wonderful. I so agree, that we do miss the deep richness that the 1st century listens heard when these stories were told. Even here in farm country, the mechanization has done much to blur the realities.

I wrote a silly post today about tips to get the big dinner on the table. Then I went to Lisa's blog and then I wanted to take down my post and cry. It's so sad, how so few have so much, and how many have so little. I know I have riches beyond compare when I look to those in Haiti, Pakistan, and here in my own country, among people I know.

Tim said...

Sherry, I'm convinced we in the West--and the up-and-coming East--have spent two decades amassing riches of the world and lost touch with the richness of life. I'm praying that the reductions we're experiencing will get us back to that, to finding goodness in people rather than possessions.

Come Thursday, we plan to center the thanksgiving around our table on the people in our lives, not the comforts we've been given. For if all our goods were stripped away, our friends and loved ones would remain. They and God's gift of grace are what we should be thankful for. And remaining patient for those seeds to yield their fruit is a lesson that will get us into better touch with how truly rich we are.

Blessings--and wishes for a most joyful, moving Thanksgiving holiday!