Tuesday, July 14, 2009

HOW HEAVY IS YOUR BURDEN? (Spiritual formation on the run)


I have been wanting to blog on chapter 21, Renovation of the Soul for a long time but there's too many questions and issues that first need to be "resolved". So here's chapter 23 instead ... though it was / is not exactly an easier chapter to reflect on.

First the chapter, then some of my reflections / ramblings.

HOW HEAVY IS YOUR BURDEN?

There is an old story about three men and their sacks. Each man had two sacks, one tied in front of his neck and the other on his back. When the first man was asked what was in his sacks, he said, "In the sack on my back are all the good things friends and family have done. That way they are hidden from view. In the front sack are all the bad things that have happened to me. Every now and then I stop, open the front sack, take the things out, examine them, and think about them." Because he stopped so often to concentrate on all the bad stuff, he did not make much progress in life.

The second man was asked about his sacks. He replied, "In the sack in front are all the good things I have done. I like to see them, so quite often I take them out to show them off to people. The sack in the back? I keep all my mistakes in there and carry them all the time. Sure they are heavy. They slow me down but you know, for some reason, I cannot put them down."

When the third man was asked about his sacks, he answered, "The sack in front is great. There I keep all the positive thoughts I have about people; all the blessings I have experienced; all the great things other people have done for me. The weight is not a problem. The sack is like the sails of a ship. It keeps me going forward. The sack on my back is empty. I cut a big hole at the bottom, and put in all the bad things that I can think of about myself or hear about others. They go in one end and out the other, so I am not carrying around any extra weight at all."

What we carry around affects our spiritual life. The writer of Hebrews used the metaphor of a runner to illustrate the spiritual life. Living the spiritual life is like running a race. We cannot imagine a marathon runner running with a sack on his or her back. That will hinder the running. A runner will do everything he can to reduce the excess weight. The writer of Hebrews advised us to "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles" in order to run the race (Hebrews 12:1).

Unfortunately, many of us are like the first man. We keep before our eyes all the bad and horrible things that have happened to us - our poor relationships with others, our bad experiences and unfulfilled expectations in church, and the horrible events that have scarred our lives. What is out of sight is out of mind. We do not remember the good that others have done for us. Our focus is on the bad things that crowd our thoughts, causing anger and bitterness. It is hard to run forward when there is so much negative emotional burden. The heaviness of these burdens causes some of us to drop out of the race, like those marathon runners falling by the roadside. Once down, we are contented to stay down and refuse to get up. Others leave the church, not realising that they are bringing their sacks with them. Still others seek spiritual growth yet do not bear fruit and make progress because their souls are being poisoned by bitterness and unforgiveness.

The second man keeps his achievements and the things that make him feel good in front of him. He revels in his accomplishments, his wealth, his fame, and in his sacrificial service for the church. He always reminds others of his contribution to the church, and the favours he has done for people. He turns a blind eye to his mistakes, his imperfections, his idolatry, and his pride. All these he throws into the sack behind him so that he does not see them. Unfortunately, what the eye does not see remains in the subconscious. The prick of conscience is a constant thorn in his side and the sacks remain heavy. Such people need great effort to run. Some can hardly walk. Every step is a struggle because of the weight they carry.

The third man fills his front sack with positive thoughts, gratitude and appreciation for people around him, and the blessings he has received. As for the gossip, slander and bad experiences, he forgives and forgets. He throws them into the sack on his back that has a big hole at the bottom. The back sack is empty, and he is freed from bitterness, hatred and anger. He feels only the goodness of this life and the blessings of God. All these make his sack act as a sail. The Holy Spirit, who is like the wind, blows at the sail and helps him forward as he runs the race. Running the spiritual race is so much easier if we get rid of bitterness, unforgiveness and anger. That is what Jesus is helping us to do when He offers us His yoke. Many of us are running like the first or second man. Our sacks are heavy with our burdens and they wear us out. Jesus offered, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

Being yoked with Jesus is like the third man. He is like Eric Liddell, an Olympic runner in the movie, Chariots of Fire, who said, "God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure." For Eric Liddell, however, the Olympics were not the ultimate race. The son of Scottish missionaries to China, he saw his whole life as a race: a race for the kingdom of heaven. That is why two years after taking the Olympic gold, he sailed to China to become a missionary himself.

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I like good stories. And this one about the three men and their sacks is an old but beautiful one. The telling and interpretation of the story has not always been the same. But that's nice too and another story for another time.... I like Alex's "interpretation" as it pretty much says what needs to be said.

It speaks to me because my mind tends to be over active. I tend to set high standards for myself and the mistakes I make tend to remain in my mind for far too long. I realise that I typically fall into the category of people that can get fixated on the one negative thing rather than the nine positive things. I think I have matured a lot in this area over the years as the ratio is not so severe now. :-) But I really have to focus hard so I do not regress. I realise that I slipped back a bit when I could not sleep properly thinking of my upcoming "performance review" despite the fact that I had no reason to think there was anything negative. And even last week when I was asked over for lunch with a group of people to discuss some ministry concerns, I had strange dreams! Progress I think ... as at least this time I was able to sleep and just my subconscious mind acted up. :-)

How does one do that? I can think of no better advice that works than that given by the late Henri Nouwen. It came out of an interview transcript (early 80s). The context is about battling temptations but it sure applies to so many related things. I have no idea now of his original words as what he said has become so ingrained in me that it is now part of me. For the lecturers and academics out there ... all I can footnote is that I am indebted to him and that I first got the concept from him. :-)

Nouwen spoke about how many make the mistake of trying to fight temptation by focusing on fighting the temptation. We should rather focus on Jesus and how wonderful He is. When we focus on fighting the temptation, we are essentially thinking of the temptation and often it becomes stronger. But when we focus on something better than more wonderful (and what is more wonderful than Jesus!), then the temptation loses its allure. When you have the best, the second best is pretty unattractive.

In practical terms I make it a habit to regularly "count my blessings". Really helps in a myriad of ways. I also make it a habit to show appreciation to those around me who have been a blessing to others just like the "third man" in the story. It's a good attitude and habit and it does make life as a whole so much more brighter "for you and for me and the entire human race ..." oops, a line from a MJ song just "sang" into my mind... :-)

I agree that being yoked with Jesus is like the third man. I like Eugene Peterson's rendition of Matthew 11:28-30. My first introduction to the Message was through this verse read out years ago at a seminar

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Peterson, Eugene H.: The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo. : NavPress, 2002, S.

"Unenforced rhythms of grace".... I love that phrase and that's what I wish would become part of my life. Walking even skipping in rhythm with God's grace. Living free and lightly where "in with the good, out with the bad" comes as natural as breathing...

Okay got to go. Have a blessed day!

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