Thursday, September 3, 2015

Either Getting Better or Getting Worse

A friend was talking about an experience he and his wife had canoeing. It was a fun, just-the-two-of-us time for them, a respite from their very full lives. “Canoe-dling” he called it. In the process, my friend gained an “aha” experience. They were in constant motion, whether they liked it or not.

Whether we're in a canoe, in a raft
or some other watercraft, we can
choose to either paddle
or "go with the flow."
When they were paddling, my friend and his better half were headed in the direction they chose. But when they stopped paddling, they continued to drift, although not always on the course they preferred. So they had a choice: Either continue paddling and go where they wanted to go, or just drift and see where they would wind up.

I’ve never traveled in a canoe, maybe fearful of experiencing the dreaded “up the creek without a paddle” dilemma. But I’ve been on a raft and inner tubes on lakes and in the ocean, so I’ve experienced this paddle-or-drift phenomenon.

Once I was sitting in an inner tube at a beach in New Jersey, and laid my head back to relax to the bobbing of the waves. A few minutes later I opened my eyes and realized the shore wasn’t so close anymore. Wisely at that moment I opted to paddle rather than drift. Who knows where I would have ended up?

A principle behind this applies to any facet of life: You’re either getting better or getting worse. You’re either making progress toward your chosen direction, or you’re drifting away from it – and it might take considerable effort to get back to where you want to be.

Woody Hayes, the legendary coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes (did you know college football season is upon us, finally?), was the first person I ever heard making that statement, although many have repeated it since, and it might not have been original with him. No matter, it’s true.

To achieve anything worthwhile, whether it’s to launch a business, achieve a rewarding career, build a thriving marriage, raise successful children, or enjoy a prospering spiritual life, takes work: Consistent, determined effort constantly aimed at desired goals.

I’ve seen this repeatedly over the years I’ve been striving to follow Jesus Christ. Sometimes I have sensed I was drawing closer to Him, enjoying a deepening relationship with my Savior and Lord. And other times I’ve been drifting away, maybe not dramatically but subtly and steadily.

One of the seven churches described out in the Book of Revelation, the church at Ephesus, apparently had this problem, so it’s nothing new. A passage commends believers in that ancient city for “your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men…. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:2-4). Sounds good, right? Except then comes a but. Rather, a “yet”:

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Clearly these people were doing some good things. But they had “forsaken their first love.” Maybe they’d grown complacent, self-satisfied in their service. They could have been on the brink of becoming “weary in well doing,” as the apostle Paul termed it in Galatians 6:9. Perhaps they had become prideful, patting themselves on the back for all they were doing in the name of Christ. It could be they had become so busy doing the right things they had started to neglect the right relationship.

Jesus had told His followers, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In other words, even good deeds performed in our own strength rather than the power of His Spirit are of little value.

Maybe they had just quit paddling, started basking in their accomplishments, and failed to realize they were drifting away from an ever-deepening, abiding relationship with Christ. There’s no such thing as status quo for maintaining a healthy spiritual life.

This seems to be the case with the Church in the 21st century as well, don’t you think? We’re overwhelmed with activities and programs, good things mostly, but despite all the effort it seems comparatively little is being accomplished – at least of eternal value. Could it be that we, too, have “lost our first love”?

Maybe it’s time we tried to find it again. Could be we’re so busy “doing for Christ” that we’re leaving Him behind.

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