A month ago I borrowed a chain saw and pruned our church trees. If you want to know why, I need to tell you about my job.
I work Saturday night to Thursday night, which means that my Friday night is your Thursday night, and that my week’s biggest presentation is first thing “Monday morning.” Like teachers, I do very little that gives observable, measurable results. Engineers make things; doctors heal people and deliver babies. I grew up on a construction site and could see results at the end of every day. Come to think of it, even teachers have standardized tests. That month I was feeling the weight of not seeing results.
And so I trimmed trees. Noticeable, measurable, appreciable results. It was something I could do when I felt out of control. And I didn’t even lose any limbs when I did it.
Trimming those trees reminds me of the Texas Relief Sale, a fundraiser my church hosts that gives 100 percent of the profit to world development and relief in the name of Christ. Our world is so big and her problems so profound, but there is still something that we can do. I can bake bread; I can make a craft; I can ask local businesses for donations; I can buy a quilt. In a world that feels out of control, we can still do something!
I’m surprised how out of control Jesus seems in the wilderness story (Matt. 4:1-11).
He’s drug along to a place he didn’t want to go, forced to stick around until he’s nearly dead, then bombarded by outside forces tempting him to compromise his values and give up self. This, by the way, is exactly how I feel every time I go to the mall.
Jesus didn’t give up 40 days of chocolate. He felt the hunger pangs of famine and homelessness, lack of clean drinking water, and the uncertainty of when it would be over.
When Homo sapiens walked out of Africa and filled the earth, they walked right through this exact same wilderness and did so primarily as mammals — as part of nature with bodies and needs and susceptible to weather and famine. Today as people in the Middle East are pushed and pulled through this same wilderness by forces out of their control, they too are mammals — part of nature with bodies, needs, and susceptible to weather and famine. I can quickly Google the stats of world hunger today and find the stories of countless Jesuses emaciated in the desert. These are people who understand the temptation to turn stones into bread.
I can Google Houston hunger and homelessness and be perplexed and paralyzed by what I find. And yet, when I shop at HEB or Kroger, I’m challenged by an entirely different food problem. GMOs, MSG, kids’ products with known carcinogens, farm-raised fish that devastates the ecosystem and chocolate made with slave labor.
Thinking about solving these food and famine problems feels like picturing 200 million pinto beans.
And yet, in this world that feels out of control, I can do something. I can buy fair trade items, I can commit to buying shade-grown, organic, fair trade coffee. I can refuse to give away slave-chocolate at Easter.
At no other time in human history has so much news and so many faces been thrust upon us. Social media has shrunk the world, putting ISIS, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and the NATO-Russian cat fight right along … Cute cats and bumper-sticker politics and birthdays. Everything can’t be THIS important, can it?
Speaking of politics, several of you mentioned to me this week your worries about politics. We now have news about all the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:8). News about corruption, greed, Super PACS, about how we give power to people based on wealth, not wisdom. We worry about leaders who want to take us back in time to a supposed golden age. “Take back America!” “Go back to when life was simpler!”
The more Google brings all politics to your pocket, the less empowered we seem to feel. Or maybe it’s the less interested we are to participate in a fundamentally terrible system. It’s just too much noise; like I’m standing in front of 40 TVs at Best Buy.
On top of all the bad news, we increasingly feel bad news about the bad news. The new social media normal is desperate negativity, angry bashing and vileness — none of which we’re used to dealing with on our living-room couches.
Before we close, I want to point out something central to this story. Notice that God doesn’t save Jesus. Once he’s led into the wilderness, it’s up to him to act. Jesus does the heavy lifting in this story. The devil tempted Jesus to create a terrible crisis, and then wait for God to fix it. Jesus refused to play this crazy game.
It sounds crazy, but it’s not. During the Cold War, far too many Christians denied the possibility of nuclear annihilation and species extinction because God, they said, is the only one who can destroy our planet. The father of the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, said, “Behold, I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” And he was right.
The same is true today of climate change. We’ve created a terrible crisis and are waiting for something or someone to save us: God, or the invisible hand of the market, or the government. Some deny the crisis altogether. God didn’t save him from the problem, but Jesus did do something.
Go with the flow
I’ve talked about feeling out of control — about the incapacitating knowledge of the flat world; about not seeing tangible results of our lifestyle. One church member this week told me, “As one person, I am so small that my actions don’t matter.”
I want to close by challenging you: When you feel out of control, live out of control. Faith is, fundamentally, giving up control. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).
This is God’s story we’re living in, not our own. So live by God’s values. Do what you can today, and let God worry about the rest.
We can’t choose to change the world. But we can join in what God is already doing and go with the flow. We won’t stop injustice, but we can partner with the God of justice and #blacklivesmatter to protest racism in its latest and greatest forms.
We can’t make Houston or other churches more accepting of LGBT brothers and sisters. But we can help make our church more accepting.
We can’t save the homeless, but we can feed those we meet.
God is already at work, you need to find out where and go with the flow. Ask yourself:
- What are you passionate about?
- What do you want to do?
- What does your mind or search engine keep coming back to?
DO THAT!!! Do what you’re most excited about God doing.
So pick up your saw and prune some trees. Choose to give more to the church than you do to Uncle Sam. Bring your cloth bag to the store. Reduce, reuse and recycle. Uber, Metro or bike.
See what God is already doing, and choose to do something.
Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount and writes at blog.chron.com, where this post originally appeared. He tweets @thepeacepastor and is on Facebook.