by Julie Ball
My husband and I are hooked on the TV show “Once Upon a Time.” If you’ve never seen it, it tells the stories of favorite fairy tale characters with countless twists and complexities. One night, as we were catching up on episodes from the show’s second season, we met a new family of characters: the giants. You know, the ones who live at the top of the beanstalk. The giant brothers were gathered around their enormous dinner table, discussing their magic bean garden (yes, the magic beanstalk kind of beans). The youngest and smallest of the giants, affectionately known as Tiny, spoke up in that curious and slightly whiny way that younger brothers tend to have: “But why do we keep growing [the beans], if nobody ever uses them?” The oldest and wisest brother, Arlo, answered him: “It is the labor that makes us who we are, not the fruit that it yields.”
When I heard that, I had to rewind my Hulu player and listen to it again. I even wrote it down. As a blogger and amateur theologian, I’m always looking for little things that have some spiritual or life lesson in them, and I just knew there was something good in that line. “It is the labor that makes us who we are, not the fruit that it yields.”
It wasn’t immediately apparent exactly what was in it, though, so I let the words tumble around in my mind for a few days. We are, after all, a society that highly values results. Even if you shift the value from the results to the labor, shouldn’t the quality of the results match the quality of the work? Perhaps because the original line was spoken in the context of a garden (and because I am descended from two long lines of NC farmers), I couldn’t completely stop thinking about it in agricultural terms. Although no gardener can control everything, the amount of care she gives to her plants will normally be reflected in the fruit. Not to mention that she can’t plant a bean and expect to grow corn. So I kept ruminating on the idea, trying to find the nugget of truth I was still sure lay within.
Just a few days later, as my two sons and I sat around our own dinner table, the younger one suddenly announced, “I gave Intern Adam a hug at Bible School today.” (“Intern Adam” is the nickname our church’s youth and children oh-so-lovingly gave Adam McDuffie, our summer college intern.)
“That was nice,” I replied. “I bet that made Adam very happy.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t looking at his face anymore after that,” he explained. Inside my ever-churning brain, Arlo’s statement clicked.
Who knows what goes on in the hearts and minds of five-year-old boys, but something (the Holy Spirit, perhaps?) moved mine to show love to a particular person, and he did it. As soon as he acted on that impulse, he was done. The result – Adam’s reaction – didn’t matter to him. He did the labor without concern for the fruit.
As soon as I understood the labor as love rather than anything of a more earthly nature, I understood the deeper meaning in Arlo’s quote. The job God calls us to do is love, and that is what makes us who we are. Yes, giving love will yield results, but those results are not up to us and do not define us. The results are up to those whom we love and the Holy Spirit.
About a week later, I was lucky enough to be sitting in a hotel ballroom in Greensboro, NC, listening to several Cooperative Baptist Fellowship personnel and ministers introduce “Dawnings,” the new CBF-sponsored process designed to help churches discern their specific callings. Bo Prosser, CBF Coordinator of Missional Congregations, took a few minutes early on in the presentation to define the word “missional.” On the projection screen appeared two similar definitions: the basic definition (“participating in the ongoing mission of God”) and Prosser’s own definition (“empowering people to share their passion on purpose to be the presence of Christ in the world”). But as he spoke, Bo tacked one more phrase onto the latter: “whether anyone joins our church or not.”
I don’t know how anyone else in the room reacted to that last phrase, but I was physically nodding my head in agreement as the lessons from a wise giant and an impulsive young boy rose to the top of my mind. Living missionally is not about results; it is about following God’s call.
When we do things for God, when we act out of love – either individually or as a church group – are we motivated by God’s call or by the results we hope to achieve? Now, I don’t suggest you take my son’s example too literally; to be oblivious to someone’s response to a gift of love might be to rob him of the opportunity to give love back. I am suggesting that we should examine our motives carefully and often. It’s gratifying to hear someone say “thank you,” and it’s wonderful when new people join our church, but if those are our true motivations, we will be disappointed and question the value of our work. The true value of our work lies in the fact that God calls us to it.
Living missionally means responding to God’s command to love one another, no matter what the results may be. That’s my definition.