Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Sluggard Goes to the Ant

Recently I ran into two people in one week who described themselves as "plodders." The great missionary pioneer William Carey used that word for himself. Asked how he was able to accomplish as much as he did, he said:

"I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything."

Carey's many and long-lasting accomplishments suggest a certain brilliance, but he relied less on genius than faithfulness. He worked hard, stuck with it, loved, forgave, and partnered with others, and persevered through all kinds of obstacles: When his young son died. When his wife had a nervous breakdown, became insanely jealous, and tried to kill him. When a fire destroyed the manuscripts that contained decades of his work. When he got to the place he felt he had to resign from the mission he'd given so much to begin.

I suppose many do not think their lives can, or should, accomplish great things. Yet when we do find within ourselves the desires to do great things and change the world, do we pursue them, and how?

It seems our styles, talents, and positions matter less than our consistent availability to God. Is that what Eugene Peterson means by the title of his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction?

Studying through so much of the Old Testament last semester I saw this theme come out again and again. Even when your leaders are corrupt, when the society around you is going in another direction, in times of lawlessness and chaos, you have a choice. Follow God; make him your master. Keep on plodding.

By the time we reached the book of Proverbs, I was ready to take the verses about "the ant" to heart. These statements about universal, practical truth say little about God, but much about the power even the powerless have if they know what they are to do and persist in it. Nobody has to make them do it. Consider...

Proverbs 6: 6-8
6 Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
7 It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
8 yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.

Proverbs 30: 24-28
24 “Four things on earth are small,
yet they are extremely wise:
25 Ants are creatures of little strength,
yet they store up their food in the summer;
26 hyraxes are creatures of little power,
yet they make their home in the crags;
27 locusts have no king,
yet they advance together in ranks;
28 a lizard can be caught with the hand,
yet it is found in kings’ palaces.

Ants? They are extremely wise. So says Agur son of Jakeh, who first penned or uttered this second list of proverbs. Don't know much about him. Was he a guy who sat around philosophizing, or did he, himself, do the work on an ant?

After just a few months of grad school I'm reminded that study and thinking themselves can be hard work, but I appreciate those thinkers who enmesh themselves in community and get their hands hands dirty with other kinds of work as well. After all, as another proverb I read recently has it, "When all is said and done, far more will have been said than done."

I want to be someone whose thinking - and speech - furthers the effectiveness of what is done.

I think that line about the locusts holds another key. "Locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks." Insects are communal creatures, aren't they? In many cases they die if they are alone, yet accomplish amazing things together.


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