Tractor Time with Pastor Tim

Steel Mule tractor

A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver at a high tractive effort (torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of hauling mechanized implements used in agriculture.  The word “tractor” comes from a Latin word, trahere, which means “to pull.”  Tractors, like people, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors – exuding both resilience and strength in their existence.

The Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the most unique and oddest-looking farm machines ever built.  First built in 1913, it was like a cross between a steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Bates Machine Company had the following advertisement for their Steel Mule tractor: “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses.”  In other words, you could operate the tractor by sitting in the implement seat, not the tractor seat.  The Steel Mule survived until they became one of the many victims of the Great Depression in 1937.

My grandfather (whom I never knew – he died when I was a year old) owned and operated a Steel Mule tractor (not the particular model shown above).  There was once a picture of him in the local paper using his tractor (I have it packed away somewhere and am still looking for it).  Grandpa was known for being the guy who would try new things and buy unique machinery – all in the quest for better farming methods.

The Steel Mule seems to represent my current state of ministry.  Like Grandpa, I have a drive and a desire for improving my pastoral craft.  I am open to trying new things and entering into a new way of being with the hospital patients I serve as a chaplain, as well as my peers, other staff, and really everyone I encounter throughout a day.  Yet, at the same time, I stubbornly hold to the past – sitting on the implement and not quite ready to fully embrace the new era of machinery instead of horses.  Which brings me to the whole point of this circuitous rambling of Tim’s Tractor Time:  What holds me back?  And, in so asking this question of myself, I also as it of you: What holds you back?

Yes, what does hold you and I back from taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open with our lives, instead of fearful, anxious, and hesitant?  What holds us back from collaborating with others?  Consulting before acting?  Consulting after acting?  Divulging our emotions and not just our thoughts? Speaking without always measuring and analyzing each word before we say it (or write it)?  As a seasoned minister, I can plow deep furrows with my Steel Mule into others’ lives – so, why not let others do the same in my field?  What is it I’m really pulling in that field?

Perhaps it is fear.  When Charlie Brown came to Lucy for a bit of practical psychosocial help, Lucy spouted a litany of various fears which she wondered Charlie Brown might possess.  Finally, she expressed that maybe he has “pantophobia.”  “What is ‘pantophobia’?” Charlie Brown asks.  Lucy responds, “The fear of everything.”  To which Charlie Brown demonstratively pronounces, “That’s it!”

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

Could be.  Could also be anger.  After all, anger often lurks in the shadows our hearts with a combination of it getting expressed in an unhealthy way or becoming twisted into depression.  There’s plenty of anger under the surface of the topsoil ready to get turned over and exposed.  Too much of it turned inward.  Certainly, it needs some plowing and cultivating, that is, processing outwardly with others… maybe… if we’re brave enough.

Then there’s this thing called liminal space – the space in-between where we can’t go back to the way things were ever again, yet, we aren’t quite where we want/need to be. It’s awkward being caught in the nexus between the past and the future.  Does this hold us back?  Or maybe it’s the fear of imperfection, of not doing something with utmost excellence?  Are we apprehensive about opening up because we don’t understand ourselves fully, so, therefore, I won’t (like a stubborn old Steel Mule) utter half-baked ideas or fragments of thoughts or, God forbid, emotional musings?  Like the Steel Mule, perhaps we are crossing over into a new era with the past very much there with it.

So, perhaps the greater question is: What are you and I really feeling, in this moment?  Figures it would take me all this thinking type verbiage to get to the emotional universe of feelings.  If we’re honest, we all are a diverse jumble of emotions – presently feeling overwhelmed; sad; happy; angry; hopeful; confident; scared; hungry; tired….  Oh, well, let’s just say we’re feeling everything.

Like the interlocutor in the book of Ecclesiastes, the conclusion of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I hold back because of me.  You are hesitant because of you.  Nobody is twisting my arm.  That old enemy of our souls, the Adversary, would like nothing more than to keep us feeling weak and insecure so that he can keep us under his evil thumb.

No one is forcing you to use the Steel Mule tractor.  Quite the opposite.  In truth, there is nothing holding us back.  Nothing is stopping us from pulling our emotions out and discovering new ways to express them with confidence in healthy redemptive ways.  Nothing outside of our power to act is preventing us from the courage to do what we already know deep in our hearts we need to do…. Nothing.  So, then, I’ll look for you in the next tractor advertisement doing your unique, wonderful, and amazing work which comes from the depths of your love for God and others.

Let It Out

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Courageous, brave, bold, and strong – it seems most people do not characterize themselves this way.  I suppose it makes some kind of sense in our minds as to why this is: Every one of us can readily recall a time or several events in which we wilted with fear; did not speak up; or, were not assertive.  The many conversations we will never have that take place in our heads are testament to our supposed withdrawal in the face of adversity.  In other words, we have far too many discussions with ourselves of how something should have gone and way too many brave retorts for someone whom we really have no intention of saying those words toward.

If this all sounds like the convoluted musings of a wimpy kid, that’s not far off the mark.  When we get bullied, even as adults, it can be easy to wilt, or to take it, or to simply find a way to avoid the bully.  With some folks, we even create elaborate internal reasons why it’s our fault someone is upset with us.  In such times, bravery and courage seem a long way from our true selves.

Faced with a daunting task at work, at home, or at school, we may wonder if we really have the internal stuff to pull it off.  We feel that maybe someone else would be better suited to do it.  What’s more, given a set diagnosis with some disease looks a whole lot like a circumstance that is way above our emotional pay grade.  It isn’t only the added hard situations of life that make us look fearful; it is the crippling losses that can leave us feeling anything but strong and brave.

Yet, what if I told you that you are, indeed, brave, strong, and confident?  What if I insisted that courage resides within you, even if you yourself cannot see it right now?  And, what if I told you that bravery isn’t something you must go on a quest to find, but that it’s been in you all along?  If so, you only need to let it out.

You intuitively know I’m on to something here.  After all, the most common exhortation and assurance in the entirety of Holy Scripture is to not be afraid because God is with us….

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9, NIV)

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6, NIV)

“So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NIV)

“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6, NIV)

Believe it, or not, the Bible tells us 365 times to not be afraid.  Maybe that’s not a coincidence that we can quote a verse every day of the year about our own fearfulness in the face of so much of life’s cruel junk.

Yet, the tack I want you to take in the great litany of fear we daily face is that bravery is not something that is so much commanded as it is a calling forth of something which is already within you.

Parker Palmer

Now, before you go thinking I’m some New Age huckster, hear me out.  Right from the beginning of the world, in God’s creative activity, the LORD did it all by calling forth from within himself.  What I mean is this: God did not simply command everything into being; instead, he said, “Let there be…”  God let out what was already there in his very Being.  It was almost as if God belched-out from the great depth of his Being and let out all this wondrous creation.

I also find it interesting that when it comes to fear and bravery God does not so much command us to be courageous, as he wants us to draw from the great reservoir within.  That is, he has already created us strong, as creatures in his image.  We just need to get in touch with what is already there.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus to his disciples because he knew his followers had it in them to walk in his way without fear (John 14:6, NRSV).  “Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful,” said God to the prophet Jeremiah in the face of a terrible destruction that was about to unfold against Jerusalem because the LORD knew that his servant could face what was going to happen (Jeremiah 51:46, ESV).

When it comes to genuine Christian spirituality, we can act with boldness because Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation.  He is the One which enables us to draw from the deep well of courage….

“So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:14-16, NLT).

When I say that you are brave, you are strong, you are good – those are not words meant to make you believe something which may or may not be true, as if I were trying to convince you to take some panacea to feel better.  No, I say it because it is true.  You really can face the immense mountain in front of you and climb it.  You can actually surmount the adversity you are in the middle of – not because of some words I say, but because you were created for courage.

So, how do you let out the bravery and let the boldness shine?  That seems to be the million dollar question.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you already know the answer to this.  Yes, you possess the answers to your own questions.  You have all the knowledge you need to face your problems.  So, the real question is this:

Will you let your bravery come out to play, or will you keep it hidden beneath layers of insecurity?

It’s a whole lot easier to let me tell you what to do than to draw from what you already know deep down how to handle that troublesome something.  So, I’m not going to give you a simple three-step process out of fear and into courage because you already have been endowed with the process.  This certainly isn’t a sexy way to end a blog post, but it just might be the most effective and lasting.

The Need for Courage

 
 
People are not naturally courageous.  Ever since the fall of humanity, none of us has to work at being afraid – but we all have to work at being brave and having the courage to face our fears.  Sometimes we adults think we have to teach kids not to fear because we believe they are afraid of the dark, high places, and monsters in the closet.  But I think most of that is our own adult fear projected on kids.  Actually, I think it is the other way around.  Some of the bravest folks I have ever known are children.  They do not understand near as much as we adults do, yet they conquer their fears every day by facing the world with courage.  If you were to go to any children’s hospital today, I believe you would be amazed at the kind of courage you would find amongst kids.  It seems to me that adults have a whole lot to learn about being brave because:
 
We have become far too sophisticated in hiding our fears and avoiding courage.
 
            This is why the most repeated exhortation is all of Holy Scripture is to not be afraid.  We all need courage to live life in the way that God wants it to be lived.  Jesus had to remind his disciples to not be afraid; and, God the Father himself had to exhort the fearful followers of Jesus to have the courage to listen (Matthew 17:1-7).  We all need courage to listen well to God the Father; to live by the words and ways of God the Son; and, to follow God the Holy Spirit wherever he prompts us to go.
 
We need the courage to love people without needing their kudos (John 2:23-25). 
 
Jesus did not get carried away with his own press.  Whether people responded to him by the hundreds, or whether they refused him altogether and tried to throw him off a cliff, Jesus was consistently always the same.  He did not need people’s response or the lack of it to do his mission on this earth.  He continually loved people and did not do things in order to get them to love him in return, like insecure and fearful people do.
 
            The most read book in my library is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  It was written five-hundred years ago by a Dutch priest who was training others in the ministry of Christ.  The reason I keep coming back to that book again and again is that Thomas understood the need for the courage to love the unlovely.  He understood that perfect love casts out fear.
 
            This is what Thomas had to say about loving others:  “We should not only love our brothers and sisters, but also not consider ourselves better than them.  Instead, we should show compassion and acceptance to others.  We want to have others strictly reprimanded for their offenses, but we will not be reprimanded ourselves.  We are inclined to think the other person has too much freedom, but we ourselves will not put up with any restraint to our freedom.  There must be rules for everyone else, but we must be given free rein.  It is seldom that we consider our neighbor equally with ourselves. Yet:
 
 If everyone was perfect, what would we have to endure for the love of God?
 
            Thomas is always good for a solid spiritual slap to the sinful flesh.  Hear him again:  “Look at yourself and see how far you are from real love and humility.  It is of no test of virtue to be on good terms with easy-going people, for they are always well liked.  And, of course, all of us want to live in peace and prefer those who agree with us….  However, in this mortal life, our peace consists in the humble bearing of suffering and contradictions, not in being free of them, for:
 
We cannot live in this world without adversity. 
 
Those who can suffer well will enjoy the most peace, for such persons are brave, courageous, not afraid of pain, have Christ as their friend, and heaven as their reward.”
 
            Imagine yourself, fully aware of the mission and vision God has placed in your heart to advance his kingdom in this world, yet held hostage to phobias, irrational worries, and destructive fears of failure, harm, or rejection.
 

 

If you and your church don’t fulfill the mission God assigned to you, who will?

Confronting Courage

 
 
David and Goliath is one of the best known stories in the entire Bible (1 Samuel 17:1-50).  It is a classic example of what can be accomplished through one person who chooses to exercise the courage of faith.  This story has served as one of the greatest inspirations for believers down through the centuries to see God give victory to his people against dramatically overwhelming odds.  The New Testament exhorts us to live by faith; but this Old Testament chapter demonstrates to us what can happen when a person of faith chooses to put that faith into action.
 
            In the ancient world, a typical tactic of warfare was that, when the battle lines were drawn, a champion from each side was chosen and they would fight together, just the two of them, on behalf of the entire army.  It was a fight to the death, and the losing side would submit to the winning side.  This was a way of preventing the terrible carnage of war.  It also created some incredible individual champions.  A champion would be selected not only for his ability to fight, but also for his impressive stature so that there was an intimidation factor to it all.
 
            Saul was the King of Israel.  He was the logical choice for the combat since he was a head taller than all the other Israelites, and was a rather impressive looking soldier.  But compared to Goliath, Saul looked like a midget.  The intimidation factor worked.  Saul was downright afraid and was not about to put himself out there to face a giant.
 
            The explanation for the two contrasting responses between David and Saul toward Goliath is simple:  David was brave because of faith in God; Saul was fearful because he was not a man of faith in God.  The opposite of faith is not unbelief; it is fear.  As the muscle of faith grows and develops through trusting God in the daily stresses of life, fear begins to melt away.  The development of faith is a process, and it takes much time.  Through daily spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer; and, putting what we read into practice; the faith muscle begins to grow large and strong so that God is preparing us to face down some pretty big giants.
 
            Men, in particular, need to confront two great fears:  being found inadequate; and, being controlled by another person or circumstance.  Those two fears were evident in Saul.  He felt inadequate because he compared himself to Goliath.  He felt controlled by the situation because the Philistines were picking a fight.  So, he did nothing.  There are many men who would rather do nothing in the church than be labelled as inadequate or controlled.
 
            David, in contrast, had practice at facing down foes, the bear and the lion, who threatened the sheep.  David was often out in the countryside all by himself as a shepherd, and his skills were developed in the place where no one was looking.  So, the way to deal with our development of faith is to be assertive in owning our relationship with God on a daily basis, as well as stepping out and serving the local church with courage. 
 
            It was not just Saul that was intimidated by Goliath; the entire army of Israel was hiding behind the battle lines cringing in fear.  In contrast, David discerned that there was no reason to avoid a big bullying blowhard.  It appears that David was the only person able to see Goliath as he really was:  a small person in comparison to a big God.  By faith, David understood that Goliath is no match for God.
 
            One person full of faith can accomplish the improbable while an army full of fear cannot accomplish a thing.  We might have a tendency to think that everything in church ministry has to be large with a big splash to it.  Somehow if we had an elaborate program with lots of people, then we could accomplish big things for God.  Yet, we need to step out in courageous faith.  Oftentimes we want an army of people because then we can still hide behind other people’s bravery while continuing to nurse our secret fears and insecurities. 
 

 

            Here is a reality check:  No other person can do our faith and relational work for us.  The Beaver Cleaver philosophy of life works something like this:  if I get in trouble or in a pickle of some sort, I’ll just ignore it and hope it goes away.  But Goliath is not going anywhere.  He will still be there tomorrow.  But if we will own the spiritual boot camp that God wants to put us through, then we will be prepared like David to take on the giant.  The greatest single element every church needs is people full of faith who have the wisdom to confront the true problems it faces.  Let that one sink into your forehead….