Slump

Posted on April 3, 2011

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Nobody in the world is cockier than a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Your average person, when approaching a busy street, has a healthy attitude of caution.  Their brain analyzes the variables and flashes two thoughts on to the cerebral JumboTron:

1)  Those cars are moving very fast.

2) I remember what roadkill looks like.

So most people plan their street crossings with the precision of a jewel heist.  At any given time at a busy intersection, the tactical planning at work makes the Joint Chiefs of Staff look like a flash mob.  If Starbucks could harness this strategic power, they would finally perfect a way to graft espresso makers onto our thighs and then debit our bank accounts for it.

But inside a crosswalk, normal street traversers become Kanye West pedestrians, drunk on the power to halt multiple tons of steel with a single step.  The magic of the crosswalk turns what was a Frogger-esque jaywalk across three lanes of danger into an asphalt Lazy River.  Instead of sprinting for their life, people float from one side to the other, at rest in the knowledge that, if any car touches them, they will lawyer up and feed that driver’s life savings to the pinball machines.

This is the cockiness that makes people hate pedestrians in crosswalks.  And it’s the cockiness I hope you’ll forgive when I say this:

I just don’t go through slumps.

Other people do, or so I’m told.  I don’t know what that feels like.  I’m sorry.  I can’t empathize with this phenomenon of “going through a slump”.  I’ve only ever heard rumors that such a thing exists.  Sometimes friends will confide that they have had periods where “things didn’t go quite right”, but the concept eludes me.  My entire life has been an uninterrupted symphony of winning, and there are no decrescendos in the movements.  Slumps?  I make Pixar movies look like Dragon Ball Z.  I can’t fathom them.  Je ne comprends, mon frere.

Sure, there was that stretch from elementary school until senior year of high school where any social contact with girls was a little erratic.  But that was mainly due to watching ‘Say Anything’ and assuming that it was an instruction manual on courting ladies, when it is completely the opposite**.  There was also the 2.7 GPA from my career in higher learning, a hiccup I could have avoided had I not tried to go as long as possible each semester without buying any textbooks.  And I’m definitely not counting the forty one consecutive games of online Risk I once lost to my friend Matt, because I was supposed to be working at the time.

**- Young men, take note.  If I ever become rich, I want to establish the Foundation for Men Whose Game Was Radically Damaged By John Cusack Movies.  The meetings would fill up the Pontiac Silverdome.

But I’m ignoring all that.  The point is that slumps happen to other people, not me.  Specifically, athletes.

Athletes are our best examples of slumps because so much of what they do is quantifiable, and, like the first American colonists, results alone dictate their success.  In the sports world, you’re either getting it done or you’re not.  There’s not much room for argument.  A three-point specialist sporting an 0-20 streak from beyond the arc can’t debate the numbers.  ‘0-20’ doesn’t mean he’s a bad three-point shooter, but at the moment, he’s doing a good thing badly.  His current performance is falling short of his usual standards.  He’s in a slump.

Facing some kind of slump, everyone’s first instinct is to change something in the way they play, unless they are a United States Congressperson, in which case the solution involves borrowing massive sums of money from China.  But in fact, changing approach is the fastest way to prolong any kind of slump.  A basketball player who counters a poor shooting streak by altering his shot mechanics always prolongs the agony.  Any baseball player who overhauls his swing to combat a slump just compounds the problem.

In both cases, the player misunderstands the nature of what is happening.  Generally speaking, the way out of a slump is not changing everything.  The way out is persistence.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, he ends with a section dedicated to encouraging the Galatians to live rightly.  After instructions on correcting another wayward believer (gently, he says) and how to evaluate their lives (pay attention to yourself, not to others), he caps the section with an agricultural metaphor:

… You will always harvest what you plant.  Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit.  So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.

Christians flip out a little bit when we get to the parts of the Bible that tell us to do good things.  It seems like half of us are fleeing from a legalistic religion, and the other half of us are determined not to go that way ourselves, which leaves us a little uptight. 

For example, when I was in college, a professor almost didn’t show up to give us a final exam.  In classic “this could only happen at a Christian college” fashion, after 20 minutes of professorial absence, all 50 students remained in the classroom.  Not one person left.  No one moved a single Birkenstock-ed toe.  Anywhere else, the students would overrun a hapless TA, like rioting serfs, and hogtie him as a warning to the administration.

We couldn’t contain our growing delight.  Was this really happening?  What are the rules here?  No professor, no final, right?  We all knew we were dodging a bullet- the course had been difficult, and the final was reputed to be a pure assassin.  But soon our inexperience showed.  We didn’t know what the next move should be- stay or go?- and conflict soon harshed everyone’s buzz.

We divided into factions and bickered about what to do, mostly speaking in action movie cliches.  ‘We have to get out of here, we’re running out of time!’ But if we do this, we’ re no different from anyone else!  It doesn’t have to end this way!’   ‘Look, if we want to survive, we need to leave right now!!  Just STAY TOGETHER!’

But after an hour we were still there, all of us.  Half of the allotted test-taking time was gone.  The stand-off ended when, under cover of argument, someone slipped out and called the professor at home.  He arrived, disheveled from over-sleeping, and promptly administered the exam with no bonus time and no grading curve.

And that’s how Christians feel when we stumble onto the parts of the Bible telling us to be good.  It’s like thinking we had a free pass on a final exam, only to find out that we have to take it after all- and knowing it will demolish us.  It’s discouraging.

Life compounds the discouragement.  The most common feedback the world has for our good actions is indifference.  It may be true that no good deed goes unpunished, but it’s more true that most good deeds go ignored.  Worse yet, accumulation of good deeds seems to have no correlation to avoiding life’s calamities.  ‘Rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike’ as the Psalmist says.  So absent any visible cause-and-effect, where’s the payoff?  How can Paul honestly encourage the Galatian church, and us by proxy, to persist in doing good?

He can do it because God owns the soil.

Paul’s use of farming language echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 9, where he refers to God as the “Lord of the harvest”, alluding to the many people that were ready to hear Jesus’ teachings and be saved.  Later, in John 12, Jesus foretells his death by saying that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  By persisting in obedience to God, all the way through Gethsemane to his death, Jesus secures the salvation harvest by being the seed which falls to the ground.  God was pleased to sow Jesus into the spiritual soil of the world, and after his resurrection Paul calls him “the firstfruits” of God’s kingdom- a farming term.  Because Jesus died and rose again, God owns the soil.

Likewise, when we sow our good deeds into the world, as Paul tells us, we sow it, not into hardpan that yields thistles and frustration, but into rich loam that Jesus’ obedience unto death has tilled to fertility.  “Don’t tire of doing good…” Paul says, and he can say that with confidence, because Jesus drains the word ‘tire’ of its power in every facet.

1)  Exertion.  Because Jesus’ death means that our salvation is secure, He removes the physical fatigue of racking up good work after good work in an effort to earn it.  We can stop the frenzy of activity that surrounds trying so hard to please God, and catch our breath.  He’s pleased in Jesus, and that’s enough.

2)  Patience.  Just as Jesus’ resurrection secures the harvest of salvation, it also secures a harvest of blessing.  This promise removes the taxation of our mental strength that comes from thinking that our actions are futile.  Whether we see it or not, there is nothing wasted in God’s economy, least of all the things we do.  Your attempts at obedience are not lost, or in vain.  So when the slumps come where nothing goes right, don’t stop doing good.  Keep trying.

In both cases, discouragement is banished, and encouragement reigns.  Though obeying God seems like a daunting task, we can do it, because, through Jesus’ persistence, God owns the soil.  Or, as the old hymn says,  “…This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

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