Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Learning is Messy

I love learning. Making new discoveries. I got to help some of my students feel the thrill that follows after something finally clicks inside your brain, and I was honored to be a part of their learning. To those of you who know me best it might come as a shock to know that I helped them with their math homework. Math has never been a strong subject for me—many tears were shed during my k-12 years over confusing math homework. Helping kids make sense of something I have struggled with myself was even better! I was better able to sympathize with their frustrations and encourage them to keep trying, because the feeling of accomplishment that follows is always worth the hard work.

I’m experiencing something similar in my own life, completely unrelated to math. (Thank goodness I am done with that part of my life!)

To my women readers: correct me if I’m wrong, but does it seem like we are wired to compare ourselves to others? Growing up (and as adults!) we compare our bodies to others, we compare our academic performances, we compete against each other in sports, and there just seems to be an undercurrent of “I need to be the best. I need to be better than her.” Maybe it’s just me. I know I struggled with this issues as a teenager, but not to the extent that I am now. Now that I am married, getting to the end of my college career, and have my own place, the desire to “be the best” seems to have tripled in my life. I find jealousy welling up in me because of the most ridiculous things—people getting engaged makes me want to go back in time to that exciting time of dreaming and planning. People posting their wedding photos makes me want to go back to my wedding day and experience that tremendous joy all over again. Even things like scrolling through Pinterest and seeing all the cute and clever things that people find can cause jealousy! (I was almost too ashamed to write that! How ridiculous!) I can be really hard on myself for these feelings, but these last few weeks have been such an encouragement to me.

I’ve been going to a Bible study at my church where we’ve been studying Jesus’s parables, and it has been so eye opening and wonderful. The leader shared a bit of her own struggles with comparison as she told me about the jealousy she feels when she visits other people’s houses and sees their decorations. She shared that she’s always thinking about “the next thing” she needs to make her house complete. The sad thing is, though, that “the next thing” is never the last thing. There’s always something else that fills in that spot, and we are constantly thinking about “the next thing” we need to satisfy ourselves. I could relate so completely, and I found encouragement that I’m not the only one with a “next thing” on my list!

Realizing this was all fine and dandy, but what to do with this revelation? I’m a “doer.” I don’t like to sit back and let life happen to me. If I feel like something’s not right in my life, I try my hardest to fix it. (That’s what being the middle child does to you…we are fixers!) But God stepped in and reveled something so spectacularly simple to me: You can’t fix yourself. Only I can do that.

It came to me after reading through two parables that I have read and reread many times. Just like my math homework, I didn’t quite get it until much later. It is just finally starting to click in my mind. Most of you are probably just as familiar with the parable of the four soils, but here is a refresher for you:

Mark 4: 1-9

“Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crows soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore. He taught them by telling stories in the form of parables, such as this one:

‘Listen! A farmer when out to plant some seed. As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and chocked out the tender plants so that they produced no grain. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thurty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted.’”

In my arrogance I always thought that a person’s heart can only be one kind of soil forever, that you were just given what you got and I of course am the good fertile soil. I just recently learned that our heart responds to things in different ways. Sometimes what God teaches us lands on good soil, ready to be received and put down deep roots. But other times what God is telling us lands on the packed, hard soil—we are unwilling to let the seed grow and change. Sometimes we receive his word quickly, but the rock underneath prohibits growth—our worries and current struggles get in the way of growth. And other times unseen weeds choke out what God is trying to say to us. For some reason this was lost on me all the times I read this passage. Jennifer Kennedy Dean, the author of the Bible study, wrote this: “Even good soil has to be prepared. It has to be plowed. When the Lord is turning over the soil in your heart, don’t try to pat it back down and make it nice and even like it used to be. Let the Lord prepare the ground for the seed He wants to plant there. ‘Break up your unplowed ground.'  (Jeremiah 4:3). God has a promise for you.”

I realized that there is nothing I can do to “fix” myself. I can’t make myself stop comparing myself. But God can. And he is. He is plowing up the unwilling, selfish soil and preparing it for the seeds he has planned for me. The farmer, God, is doing all the work in my heart. I am just finally being willing, and recognizing that patting back the soil to seem put together isn’t going to help. While plowing looks messy and feels painful, the end result is always worth it.

Jennifer Kennedy Dean also touched on the life of a seed. John 12:24 says “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, It remains alone. But it’s death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” She explains it like this: “Where is the life in a seed? It’s in the seed’s embryo, which contains the blueprint for life. The husk, the tough outer layer that encases the seed, must be broken down so water and oxygen can reach the embryo, the life center. The outer layer must die so the life contained within the seed can emerge.”

Jesus isn’t sugar coating anything with these teachings! Following him means our hearts will be plowed. It means we have to die to ourselves to let his blueprint guide our life. And we are pretty powerless in this situation! Besides being open to his word and allowing him to do his work, we can’t do much to change ourselves.

I’m pretty thankful for a God who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Who is willing to plow up the messes I get myself into and plant his Word, his blueprint for life, into my heart. 

Take a listen to this new song by Sidewalk Prophets. It has been by prayer for the last week.