Of Donne and Dessert

Every time I have my best intentions to eat a more healthy diet, chocolate chip cookies get in my way. Yes, chocolate chip cookies are my kryptonite. Tonight, I attended a meeting at which one of the marvelous attendees brought cookies. They were still warm from the oven. I ate two, although she urged me to take more home.

What on earth do chocolate chip cookies have to do with Richard Baxter’s questions to guide reading choices? I’ve already gone over questions one, two, and three, so it seemed appropriate to land on number four:

Does this book increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come?

So again, what does that have to do with cookies? Here’s my first thought. I can read any number of things. They’re not terrible. They won’t ruin my life or wreck my witness. But are they beneficial? I’m reminded of Paul’s comments about food.

“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be mastered by anything.–1 Corinthians 6:12

Baxter seems to be acknowledging that he could read a huge range of different things. In his own day, he might have read the works of the poet John Donne. He could read Donne’s mildly naughty early-life poems, for example. Nobody’s going to be cast into the outer darkness for reading “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” even as it goes into a great deal of poetic detail on a woman undressing. But is there a positive good to come from it? Is that poem apt to “kill my sin”? Is it likely to increase my love for the Word? On the other hand, Donne’s later “Batter My Heart,” despite its sexual imagery is a powerful spiritual text. Even if neither of these is a harmful thing–and we could actually argue that–why would I consume the empty calories of the worldly stuff at the expense of the spiritually nourishing?

By the same token, why would I stick a chocolate-chip cookie in my mouth when I could enjoy a nice piece of broccoli? Did I seriously ask that question? Why? I would do it because the cookie is a delight in my mouth while the broccoli is . . . well, broccoli.

But of course there’s a payoff to eating right. My payoff for eating the cookie is right now. Those two cookies I ate a couple of hours back aren’t giving me any benefit or enjoyment now. The broccoli that I didn’t eat, however, could be providing useful nutrients for the long haul.

Similarly, the junk food media that I might consume, whether it be book, film, TV, or something else, is a short-lived pleasure. Do we ever say, “Wow, I’m really glad I watched those twelve episodes of Kimmy Schmidt today”? But what of the things that draw us closer to God, that prepare us for a life here and hereafter dedicated to Him?

Someday, I will manage to say “no” to the well-baked chocolate-chip cookie. Someday, perhaps, I’ll get over my zombie problem. Until then, I suppose, Richard Baxter’s four questions can keep me evaluating my choices.

A Penny Saved Is . . . Not Much

My mother is a little bit obsessed. Apparently now Taco Bell tacos are too expensive for her. Last night, when I called her to ask if she’d like me to bring her a couple of tacos, she couldn’t get past the price. “I used to buy two of them and they were $.39 each.”

I resisted the temptation to say, “Yes, and you earned $12.50 a week working at Sears in 1940.” Instead, I just told her I’d bring my supper to her house and eat.

Once I arrived there, having changed my plan to Subway, she brought up the price of tacos again. Happily, she didn’t care what a meatball sub set me back.

We’ve had discussions of money before. She’ll pick up pennies from the pavement from her walker. Honestly, I think she’s just proving that she still can. Yesterday, I paid $1.14 for something at QuikTrip. Handing the cashier $1.15, I said, “I don’t need the penny.” Please don’t tell my mother. Out in the parking lot, a moment later, I saw a penny on the ground and let it lie. What’s wrong with me?

Of course, I joke about her obsession with small prices, coming up with things she could do if she really wanted to economize. How about getting rid of that car you don’t drive anymore? But I have my own hang-ups. Why in the world does my son drive miles away from his home to buy premium cups of coffee? It’s extravagant in both time and money! Shaking my head, I mutter, “It’s his money.”

I suppose that pennies do add up to make dollars, but what can you do with a single dollar these days? Am I being wasteful and a bad steward? After all, didn’t Jesus say this?

Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much.–Luke 16:10

And didn’t he criticize the guy who took a single talent and buried it to keep it safe? Don’t forget that he had the disciples pick up all the leftovers after feeding 5,000. Maybe my mother is on to something here. Whatever we waste is what we will not have in the future. Whatever we abandon won’t be on our balance sheet going forward. If I waste (or pass up) money, time, or other assets, I’ll not have their use tomorrow. This is the truth behind the Broken Window Fallacy. You can’t build the economy long term by breaking things. Time and possessions represent money, so wasting them is wasting money.

All of this is true, but I think it is an argument built on an unexamined premise. Should all of stewardship be expressible in terms of dollars? Is the bottom line truly a quantity of currency? Let’s say that it’s not. If that’s true, then what is its measurement?

Now my brain hurts. It’s so much easier to turn off unused lights and shop the sales at the grocery. And Taco Bell? Those tacos aren’t $.39 anymore!


The Sabbath-Driven Life

News Update: I have not mowed the grass on a  Sunday since my previous post on the topic. I’m feeling good about that, but my wife and I are planning on driving a very long way on this coming Sunday.

Back to the matter at hand, though. At the beginning of this summer, I had a great lawn care plan pop into my head. Typically, I need to mow the grass for the first time in April and do it roughly once a week until about October. If my records are correct, I average twenty-four mowings per year. So this April, I decided to work ahead. I mowed on April 10 and then on April 12, April 13, twice on April 14, and once a day until I reached twenty. I figured that I could do the remaining four mowings on some cool October Saturday and call it a season.

This seemed like such a great plan, but then the guy from the city waded through the two-foot-tall bluegrass to come to the door and issue me a citation. Clearly, our civic leaders have no vision regarding alternative work patterns.

The reality of lawn care is that no matter how much work we try to do ahead of time, the task is never done until we don’t own the lawn any more. It doesn’t matter how many times I mowed last month, I still have to do the job this week and next week, and next month, and next year.

Similarly, we cannot complete our obligations to God ahead of time. I can’t observe “Sabbaths” seven days in a row and then have nearly two months to spend as I want. I can’t work my tail off serving God for a couple of years and then declare that I have “done my time” and go into retirement.

God has given us lives that we’re to work through just as surely as we care for our lawns. Ignoring the work to be done is not an option. Working ahead is not a real  possibility. Instead, we are to continue serving  and stewarding until relieved.

Paul understood this, although I don’t think he owned a lawnmower. In 2 Timothy 4:7, he doesn’t speak of running hard for part of the race or of struggling through part of a fight. Instead, he sees himself nearing the end of life but pushing through the finish line or the final bell.

I have mowed the good grass? I have finished the yard? Yes, but only until it needs it again.

A Briggs and Stratton Sabbath

A couple of weeks ago, I went outside during the evening to mow my grass. I really didn’t want to mow the grass–who ever does?–but I knew that it needed to be done. The temperature on that evening was mild for summer in Kansas City and the next several days promised the sort of blast-furnace peaks that June and July have delivered this year. Clearly, I needed to lace up my grimy shoes and drag the mower out.

But here’s the deal. That coolish evening was a Sunday. Sure, I’d done all of my Sunday obligations–gone to church, served in the children’s ministry, spent time with my family, all that–but I still couldn’t help remaining completely aware of doing non-essential work on the Lord’s Day. After all:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. –Exodus 20:8-11

That’s the fourth commandment, the longest of the ten. Jesus never got accused of murder or idolatry, but he was hit with accusations of violating the Sabbath right and left. It’s true that this commandment was the only one of the ten not reaffirmed in the New Testament, but I couldn’t shake the thought that I was pushing my mower back and forth on Sunday when I could have done it easily enough–although with more sweat–on Monday or Tuesday.

Back in Exodus 16, we encounter God’s message regarding the Sabbath via the provision of manna. You get a single ration every day except Friday when you can take a double ration to last you through Saturday. The message was clear: Trust God.

Shouldn’t I have trusted God better with my lawn mowing? Couldn’t I have trusted him to see me through mowing in the beastly heat on Monday?

This isn’t really just a question about the lawn or even about the Lord’s Day. Instead, it’s a question about trusting God to give me enough of everything in the time (or money or skill or whatever) allowed. I don’t think it was strictly an ecological thing that led God to declare the sabbatical year every seven years in Leviticus 25:4:

But there will be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year, a Sabbath to the Lord: you are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard.

Instead, he wanted the Israelites to do something harder than working, which was not working. He wanted them to realize that even though they hadn’t done the agricultural work that had served them (hopefully) so well in the preceding six years, the land would still produce sufficient crops to support them.

I’d like to spend some time developing this idea of trusting God in the time and resources allotted. I think it will lead into some surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.