Why mowing the lawn was good for my soul as a pastor

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Why mowing the lawn was good for my soul: A reflection on the dash between two dates

May 9, 2023 -

A man mows a green lawn. © By romaset/stock.adobe.com

A man mows a green lawn. © By romaset/stock.adobe.com

A man mows a green lawn. © By romaset/stock.adobe.com

One of my favorite chores as a pastor was mowing the lawn. The reason was simple: I could see what I had done after I had done it. The before and after were clear and demonstrable, in contrast to nearly everything else I did.

I spent much of my week preparing and delivering sermons and Bible studies that had no ontological status, no independent reality that the world could measure. I spent the rest of my week speaking words into the air, so to speak, at staff meetings, counseling sessions, funerals, weddings, and so on. When I was not delivering words to others, I was trading words with God—my prayers and his Scriptures, my feelings and his Spirit’s promptings.

There were tangible results, or so it would seem—people professing faith in Christ, joining our church, attending activities, and so on. But I would be hard-pressed to prove causation rather than correlation. How much of their response was the direct result of my words? How much was the consequence of our church’s other ministries, the work of the Spirit in their lives independent of my influence, and so on?

A neutral observer would be justified in watching my week unfold and wondering what good I was doing in the world. There were many weeks when I wondered the same.

Perhaps you know the feeling.

King Charles and Saint Monica

I offer these reflections in light of two recent events.

One is the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla that has dominated the news in recent days. If you’re looking for tangible evidence of a person’s influence, this would qualify. The pomp and circumstance, attendance of potentates and celebrities, and focus of the world’s journalists all substantiate the historic nature of the event and its royal participants.

The other is a brief biography I read recently in an Anglican devotional guide. Monica is known to church history as the mother of St. Augustine. She died in the fourth century in the coastal town of Ostia, Italy, thirteen miles west of Rome, but her relics were moved in the fifteenth century to the Basilica of St. Augustine in Rome.

Unlike her famous and voluminous son, Monica left no writings. She built no buildings and led no institutions. And yet her influence and intercession were instrumental in the conversion of Augustine, widely considered the most influential theologian in Christian history after Paul.

George Clooney on heaven and hell

Empiricism has taught our culture that seeing is believing. Logical positivists claimed that we can trust only what we can verify through rational or empirical means (paradoxically, this assertion cannot be verified by such means). Materialists believe that the material world is the only world we know to exist. Existentialists teach us to focus on our individual existence in the moment.

The actor George Clooney spoke for millions when he said, “I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I don’t know if I believe in God. All I know is that as an individual, I won’t allow this life—the only thing I know to exist—to be wasted.”

In this worldview, you and I are wasting our time by praying, reading, speaking, and writing words that seek to produce eternal results. Since such secularism dominates the culture in which we live, it is implausible to believe it will not affect us. Consequently, some of us see ourselves as “running the church” (by this we mean the visible institution). We measure success by such tangible markers as buildings, budgets, and baptisms.

Add the fact that those who evaluate us—elders, trustees, deacons, or whatever your governance includes—typically work in secular business and culture and measure us as they measure others.

A great definition of greatness

And yet, the temporal is temporal and the eternal is eternal. This world is the dot before the line, the dash between two dates on a tombstone.

Consequently, we are urged to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). When this life is over, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

How do we keep our focus on “the things that are unseen”? How do we use the temporal for the eternal in a culture that rewards the former and ignores the latter?

One: Remind ourselves and those we serve of the eternal calling we serve together.

Paul told his Roman readers that he was “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle” (Romans 1:1), then he told them they are “loved by God and called to be saints” (v. 7). He offered similar reminders consistently in his letters and larger ministry. We cannot expect our congregations and leaders to measure success biblically unless we teach them to do so. Since we and they live and work in a materialistic culture, this must be a consistent strategy on our part.

Two: On discouraging days, pray for the faith to have faith.

If Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, even knowing he would soon raise him back to life, we can weep in times of temporal pain even while we believe in eternal gain. When our success is measured less in this world than in the world to come, we should expect discouragement in this world. At such times, we can name our frustration and ask God for the strength, hope, and joy of his Spirit. And we can turn to trusted friends and colleagues as well.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead suggested that great people plant trees they’ll never sit under. By his standard, Monica was truly great. We pray King Charles will be so as well.

What trees are you planting today?

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