• Philip Sasser
Posted in Sanctification
In late February, we were in Macon, visiting Kate’s dad and grandmother. Macon is like other cities of its age and size: there is an old, grand, historical downtown caught perpetually between neglect and revitalization, then sprawling miles of cement and asphalt filled with Dollar Generals, gas stations, and metal-roofed Pentecostal churches. The house we stay in when we visit is in a neighborhood between these extremes: neither grand nor poor.
In one way, though, it is historical, because at the bottom of the hill, about a hundred yards from the Ocmulgee River, there is a small park with a little creek that runs through it. It’s called Jackson’s Spring, because Andrew Jackson and a troop of his soldiers once camped there. We spend a lot of time at Jackson’s Spring because Graham and Laurel like to float empty water bottles down it. They decorate them and call them boats and hope that theirs gets to the finish line first. They do this for approximately eight straight hours each day we are there. My job is to adjudicate disputes and to dislodge their boats with a long bamboo stalk whenever they get stuck, which is often. It’s not an overly burdensome task, and lends itself to contemplation.
What I contemplated
Here is some of what I contemplated. When observing a creek, the water running over the rocks and meandering in its sawtooth way appears to move so effortlessly. The water just finds a way to keep going, no matter what gets in its way. From the outside, that’s what the Christian life can look like. The Christians we know seem indomitable, indefatigable, steady, ever flowing, ever progressing. Like water in a stream, they never go backward. They never get stuck or stagnant. Their progressive sanctification might not be pretty all the time, maybe not always a charming bubbling brook with willow trees on its banks and girls in old fashioned pinafores dangling their feet in it, but it’s moving, and that’s what matters. That’s what impresses us, inspires us. Maybe even depresses us a little.
When Graham and Laurel put their plastic-bottle boats in the water, they expect their little crafts to flow like that, like the water, skimming over the rocks and shooting around the bends. But of course they don’t. They get stuck. A lot.
The Christian life, lived and observed from the inside out, is not water in a stream. Our friends and mentors might look like that, but you and me? We’re like the bottles. Always getting stuck.
There are five ways for a boat made out of a plastic water bottle covered in unicorn stickers and hearts to navigate the shoals and shoot the rapids of Jackson’s Spring down to the great Ocmulgee River: stay deep, remove the obstacles, have a friend with a bamboo pole, hope for rain, and have patience. These are good strategies for the Christian life, too.
Even Graham could discern the strategy, here, heaving his bottle with careful aim into the middle of the stream. Friend, stay deep. Don’t immerse yourself in the various pop permutations of Christian or Evangelical subculture, but in the ordinary, but potent, means of grace given to us by God: prayer, reading scripture, participating reverently in corporate worship, submitting to the preaching of the Word, meditation, fasting, and confession of sin. Those are the deep waters and the swift current that carries us fastest.
Remove the obstacles
In addition to adjudicating disputes between the competitors, I did what I could to make the creek more hospitable to toy boat racing. I cleared out the trash and tree limbs and leaves and sandy shallow spots. Friend, look up stream and see what’s coming your way and get rid of it before it snags you: smartphones and bank accounts and hobbies and misplaced priorities. To use language recently covered in our sermon series on 1 Corinthians, these are the things that can aid and abet our sexual immorality, our greed, our idolatry, our reviling, our drunkenness. Tear ‘em up. Root ‘em out. Chuck ‘em up onto the creek bank and pray that we would receive the illumination that was denied the idolators in Isaiah 44—to know that “there’s a lie in my right hand.”
Friends with poles
Ah, but of course we don’t root ‘em out, or can’t, or only mostly do. “Lord, make me chaste…but not yet,” we pray with St. Augustine, and so snag ourselves in the weeds until someone with a long bamboo pole can dislodge us again. Friends, we should arm one another with bamboo poles and give each other permission to dislodge us. It’s painful, it’s a little humiliating, but our lives depend on it. Who in your life has a bamboo pole? Who in your life has been assigned the task, not just of watching out for little boats, generally, but over your little boat, specifically? Encourage them in their task and give thanks to God for them.
In Macon, we were fortunate in sailing our toy boats that it had rained recently. Alot depends on the rain. The more it rains, the higher the water rises. The higher the water rises, the easier it is to skim over the rocks and shallows. The water moves fast and even a little plastic water bottle can crash through obstructions. Friends, much depends on the Holy Spirit’s continued, regular, sousing of our souls. Pray for it. And when it comes, relish the speed with which you are carried forward and onward into Christ. And when it is absent or rare, commit yourself all the more to clearing away the debris and laying aside every weight that clings so closely. The more shallow the water, the more vigilant our piloting must be.
Then, there were the times when it wasn’t the foresight to clear the creek or the effort to poke the boat with my pole that freed our little watercraft, it was simply patience. Sometimes Graham and Laurel would be absolutely sure that their boat had been hopelessly stuck in some eddy or up against a rock and plead with me to free it. Sometimes my answer to them was to just wait and watch. Even when the boat wasn’t moving at all, the constant push of the current was having an effect. Seconds, even minutes, would pass with no apparent change, to the eyes of flesh it was just the same old bottle, the unicorn stickers and hearts all but washed away, being beaten repeatedly against a rock. But then, suddenly, whoosh, off the boat would go again!
Here’s what it takes to keep a plastic boat afloat: put your boat in the deepest part of the stream, remove obstructions, have a long pole, hope it’s rained recently, and be patient.
Here’s what it takes to live a fruitful Christian life: avail yourself of the common means of grace and of public worship; be watchful and make no provision for the flesh; seek out correction; pray for the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and have faith that he who began a good work in you will surely bring it to completion.