Prospering on the Plains

Emotion is one of our culture's favorite currencies. Emotion sells cars and churches, lawn care and luxury vacations. Marketers and ministers use it like salt in every sentence, seasoning the most mundane of things with emotionally-supercharged jargon. Maybe you've noticed this already; we pastors and church leaders often feel the need to use the word "excited" and its synonyms for literally everything the church does.

"So excited to gather this week!"
"Pumped for the new sermon series we're about to kick off!"
"Stoked for worship today!"
"Can't wait for our outreach this weekend!"
"We're thrilled for announcements this morning!"

What's behind this linguistic impulse? We could point to lots of pressures and factors behind this near universal urge towards emotionalism, but one that is probably pushing hard is this: Every descendant of Adam harbors a secret aspiration to godhood, and we know that gods aren't average. We want to be extraordinary and we want everything around us to be extraordinary. Not normal. Not average. God forbid! Our identities are so wrapped up in the personally extraordinary that we can't help but despise the plain, the small, the mundane, the normal. We think our middle name should be Zeus and every day our own private Olympus. 

Enter the demoting grace of the Gospel. Enter reality. Enter sanity. God saves us in Christ from self-destructive delusions of godhood and radically reorients our lives around the worship of the true God. He lovingly demotes us. We get a new identity—not divine, but made in the image of the divine. We find that there is more joy in this than in all the self-worship we can manufacture before our counterfeit divinity.

Stark Mountains.jpg

But even once we realize we're no Zeus, our lives no Mount Olympus, we still want to stay on the mountaintop, don't we? We're still Peter, hoping to pitch our tent there and bask in ecstatic glory forever. But when reality grinds its way in (and it seems to arrive quite promptly each day by mid-morning), we realize that we haven't yet reached the part of the journey on the other side of the "Well done good and faithful servant," the part where we will forever be called to "Come further up! Come further in!"

We find that most of our lives are lived on the plains, not the peaks; the valleys, not the mountaintops. Monotony is a steadfast companion here under the Sun. So what we do so often is to make-believe that the plains are actually peaks, throwing out "Excited!"s and "Stoked!"s until the words have as much meaning as a Nicholas Sparks novel.

How could we escape this tyrannical obsession with the counterfeit extraordinary? How can we find some steadiness in these seas of shifting emotionalism? What does prospering look like on the plains? Is there an inoculation available against the pretend extraordinary? Three places I think we might begin:

1. Know that your screens are liars.

Maybe you don't know this, but the pixels on your screens are damnable liars. They're bawling out half-truths in wide-gamut color. To prosper on the plains, we have to start with the assumptions that our screens are fluent in deception:

"Her house is permanently Pinterest-worthy!"
"His kids never whine!"
"Her husband is always helpful!"
"Her dining table is always full of organic, non-GMO, farm-to-table, professionally-plated, 3-Michelin-starred food!"
"His wife is always happy!"

"Their church never struggles with community!"

It's so easy to know in your head that these things aren't true. But our hearts believe them, don't they? The pictures from the pixels sneak right past our heads and poison our hearts; they breed covetousness, despair, depression, noxious comparison. But friends, your screens are liars! The lives you see on the screen is curated and incomplete at best, deliberately deceitful at worst. Don't believe them! Your friends are no more little gods than you, their lives no more extraordinary. They, too, dwell in the house of mundanities. They, too, find that their latest Amazon Prime purchase wasn't soul-ravishing. 

2. Don't misdefine prospering.

If we're to prosper on the plains, we have to get a good definition of prospering. Maybe we should start with some bad definitions: For example, prospering isn't living in a state of continual emotional ecstasy. Prospering on the plains isn't transcending the limitations of normal human emotions and achieving Nirvana. Prospering on the plains isn't pretending plains are a figment of my imagination.

No, prospering means being human, being what God created us to be; no more and no less. It means being what we are. What that means is that you can take up this question like a sieve and sort all of life through it: Does this make me more fully human?

Strange question, I know. But if God created humanity, redeems humanity, and sets a New Humanity on a course for glory, then God must have some kind of idea for what that humanity should be like. He gets to own the dictionary entry labeled "human." And if he owns our entry in the dictionary, then he gets to define what prospering looks like for us, doesn't he? Well, what does he tell us about it?

"I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." -John 15:5

These two sentences from Jesus have powerfully restorative grace for us. They tell us what we are not (the Vine) and what we are (the branches). They tell us what we were created to do (bear fruit). And they tell us how to not do that and how to do that. According to Jesus, the pathway to not-bearing-fruit is to believe that you're something you're not and then act in accordance with that wrong belief. Just pretend you're a vine and then try to bear fruit alone and you'll manufacture precisely no fruit.

But abide in the true vine, embrace your branchness, embrace your limitedness, your neediness, your sap-dependentness, and you do what you were made to do: bear fruit. See what that does for all of the exhausted vine-pretenders—the tired god-imposters—among us? It lets you sigh with relief and be a branch, be human.

3. Reject hyper-introspective navel gazing. 

And so how can you screw this whole "being a branch" thing thing up really fast? By trying to find life, joy, fruit, peace—anything really worthwhile—by gazing deeper into your own navel. Friends, it's not there. It's just not. Don't make the mistake of embracing the kind of hyper-introspective navel gazing that tells you all of your issues will be solved by going deeper into you.

No, all of your problems will be solved from without, not from within. They will be solved by hands that aren't attached to your wrists—Jesus' hands! So we don't look to our own souls for salvation and restoration, but to our glorious Christ! We preach to our souls about him rather than look to our souls for our help. We become like Jesus by beholding Jesus in his divine glory (2 Corinthians 3:18), by looking to Jesus in all of his Viney glory.

What I'm saying is that you are not your own Promised Land; nor are your emotions, your thoughts, your strength, your anything. Christ is your Promised Land. He is your hope on the horizon. He is you feast, your joy, your wine, your Manna, your all in all. We're all either pilgriming our way to God by way of Christ or towards Hell by way of self.

So set Christ as the polar star towards the Promised Land, your compass bearing to joy. You will find that he is overflowing with milk and honey. You'll find rest under him as your very own vine. You'll find feasting on his branches like an evergreen fig tree. He is what you're not, and this is called Gospel.