Spinning Plates

If you are old enough, you might remember variety shows like the Ed Sullivan show.  These shows featured singers, comics, dancers, and one my favorites: plate spinners.  The plate spinner starts plates spinning, one after another, atop flexible rods.  To keep each plate spinning he had to manipulate the rod before the plate slowed down to the point that it came crashing down.  As the number of spinning plates increased, the performer had to rush from place to place, giving each rod a little jiggle to keep the plate going.  He was barely able to keep each plate going.  Here is a video clip of a plate spinner in action.

It can be entertaining and a little exciting to watch, but many of us live our lives as plate spinners.  We have many “plates” we are trying to keep going.  For example, we might list  spouse, job, children, friends, and so on. Each of these can become a plate we need to attend to—to keep spinning. When we think we’ve got these under control…..we might be tempted to add a few more, for example: hobbies, volunteering and fitness.

Our lives can become a frantic rushing from plate to plate.  We give each enough attention to prevent a disastrous crash, then we rush off to the next plate that is in danger of falling.  We make our lives more and more frantic, hoping that with this one last plate spinning in its place, it will finally be enough — we’ll be happy and satisfied.

Do you ever feel like a plate spinner?  Maybe you hear yourself saying or thinking things like:

  • I really need to spend some time this weekend getting this project at work caught up!
  • My wife and I haven’t been out together in a long time.  If we don’t get away soon I don’t know what will happen.
  • I am starting to feel like I don’t know my daughter  I need to spend some more time with them.
  • I am really getting out of shape! I have got to carve out some time to get the gym.

IF those sound familiar, you might be a plate spinner! We think if we can just manage to keep all the plates spinning — make sure none of them come crashing down — then we will be happy and contented.  Yet, even when we do manage it, usually for only a very short while, we end up feeling exhausted and unfulfilled.  We realize that our “win” is temporary at best.  Soon some of the plates will start to slow down and wobble, demanding our attention again.

The plates become our masters.  We become imprisoned by the need to keep the plates spinning.  They command our attention.  We can feel like we have no choice but to keep them all going. But let’s suppose we have managed to reach some kind of equilibrium, we’ve got all of our plates spinning along nicely, we have it “under control”.   We are tired at the end of the day, and sometimes some of those plates are getting pretty wobbly, but we’re managing.

And then…we realize that God wants something of us as well.  Oh great!  One more plate to keep spinning! We make our lives a little bit more frantic by trying to work our “God obligation” in along with everything else.  Daily devotions, Bible reading, volunteering at church: More plates to try to keep spinning. Needless to say, we generally end up a more stressed and frazzled and tired!

Is that what Jesus had in mind?  Does he come to us so that we can feel more hectic, more scattered, more worn out?  No.  Of course not.  Jesus says just the opposite.  He said following him will give us rest for our souls.  In the Gospel of Matthew, 11:28-30, he says:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew 11:28-30, Message Translation

Something isn’t adding up here.  Adding a few more spinning plates, albeit “God” plates, does not feel like a real rest.  It doesn’t feel like I’m living freely and lightly.  I am still running around trying to keep all the plates going.  It feels like anything but an unforced rhythm of grace.

We approach the “God plate”   the wrong way.  We often look at it as another plate or set of plates we have to keep spinning along with everything else.  We need to come to grips with the idea that the God Plate is really the one worth attending to above all else.  It is not another plate – it is THE plate.

In Chapter 6 of Matthew, verses 33 and 34, Jesus says:

Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
Matthew 6:33-34, The Message.

Jesus is not saying that all the other things, all the other plates, aren’t important.  What he is saying is that we should soak ourselves in that God is doing, right here and right now.  We ought not to be particularly concerned with all those other plates.  We should trust that the Lord will take care of them.  We should trust that our Good Father will give us the good he intends.

Don’t take me wrong.  I am not suggesting that you not neglect your spouse and children or you not bother showing up for work tomorrow.  Jesus is saying we should not worry about those things.  We should not wear ourselves out frantically trying to make sure everything is going just the way we think it should.

Only one plate that matters.  That is where we get stuck.  Do we really trust God to take care of us and our needs or do we rush away from him so that we keep all the other plates spinning?

Whether we think much about it or admit it to ourselves, we usually act as if any good is going to come out of some situation, we have to get out there and keep those plates spinning.  We rarely look at a situation and say, “hmmm. I wonder what God might be up to here.  I wonder what he wants me to do.”

I am quick to throw off the gentle and easy yoke of discipleship and jump back into the hard and difficult yoke of works. When God tells me he has something good in store for me, I am quick to doubt, unless I can understand how that good will come to pass and, most importantly, what I NEED TO DO to make it happen.

As an example, I believe God wants me to write a book; that it is important for me to do so.  But I find myself asking the Lord things like:

  • Really, important? How so?
  • How will it be important? How important will it be?
  • Is it important that I write it or that people read it?
  • Will it be important for one person?  Ten people?  Thousands of people?
  • How will it impact me personally?

God does not seem inclined to answer my questions. In fact, he reminds me that my desire to know all the answers is not faith.  Wanting to see the whole path I am to going walk and the specifics of the destination is not faith.  It is me wanting to choose.  It is me wanting to evaluate what God is planning on doing so I can decide if it is a good plan, if the path is one I want to walk, and if the destination is one I would choose.  If it all looks good to me, I want to make sure I know how to “Make it Happen”. I want to decide if I want to start spinning one more plate or not!

I want to apply my reason and judgement over and above faith. I want to apply my reason to decide if I should start spinning one more plate. It may seem that faith and reason must oppose each other, but that is not the case.  We are created to reason and to have faith.  Indeed, faith requires reason.

In the book Interior Freedom, author Jacques Philippe talks about the relationship between faith and reason:

Faith cannot do without reason; and nothing is more beautiful than the possibility given man of cooperating in the work of God by freedom, understanding, and all our other faculties. Those moments of our lives when our minds grasp what God is doing, what he is calling us to, how he is teaching us to grow, enable us to cooperate fully with the work of grace.

That is as God wants it. He did not create us as puppets but as free, responsible people, called to embrace his love with our intelligence and adhere to it with our freedom. It is therefore good and right that we want to understand the meaning of everything in our lives.
Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Kindle Ed. Loc. 527

So, maybe it is OK for me to want to understand everything?  But Philippe is not saying we need to understand everything and every detail.  We need to recognize and be able to cooperate with what God is doing.  So I may be on shaky ground with my application of reason:  wanting all the details, so I can decide if I like the plan or not.

Philippe continues…

The motives behind our desire to understand may not always be upright. The thirst to know the truth in order to welcome it and conform our lives to it is completely in order. But there also is a desire to understand that is a desire for power: taking over, grasping, mastering the situation.

The desire may also spring from another source that is far from pure: insecurity. In this case, understanding means reassuring ourselves, seeking security in the sense that we can control the situation if we understand it. Such security is too human, fragile, deceptive—it can be wrecked from one day to the next.

In other words, it is good, even necessary, that I can use my reason to hear and understand what it is that God is calling me into, writing a book in my case, and I can choose to cooperate freely in his plan, using my reason.  Using our reason is not the problem.  Why we use our reason can be the problem.  Do I want to choose what I think is best for me, or will I trust that God’s good is best for me.  Do I want to understand so that I take control of the process, to make sure it goes the way I want it to, or do I want to understand so that I can fully cooperate with God’s purposes?

In my case, the desires to know all the “whys” and “hows” and “wherefores” of God’s plan is exactly what Philippe warns against.  I am seeking to understand so that I can I can control how the plan unfolds. I want to be the one calling the shots and making the decisions. I make God’s plan one more plate I have to spin and I want to decide if I should even bother to start it spinning.

Being in charge is very distracting.  Trying to keep all those plates spinning necessarily pulls our attention away from God, away from what he is doing right here, right now.  We become disconnected from whatever it is God is up to at that moment; and he is always up to something!

The only time we have any control over is the present.  When we are concerning ourselves too much with the future, wondering which plates I need to attend to next, we remove ourselves from whatever is happening right now.  Yesterday could have been a disaster and tomorrow may look pretty dicey, but the only time we can connect with God is now.  We need to break out of our prisons of spinning plates.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the desire to be the one that keeps all the plates going, the desire to be the one making all the decisions about the course to follow is really something that limits our freedom. The more we try to take on for ourselves, the less free we become. Taking the reins limits us to what we can imagine and work out for ourselves.  We reduce God’s initiative, the good he plans for us, to our size.  That is a pretty small size for God.

Make no mistake, it is hard work, this trusting God to give us the good he intends for us—especially when we are in a hard place.  It requires us to realize that most of the plates we have spinning are not really vital and pale in importance when compared to God’s desires for us.  If they should fall they can be taken up again if need be.  There is that one plate that matters.  If we don’t attend to God, to our interior lives, if we don’t attend to our souls none of the rest of it really matters. We will continue our exhausting and frantic lives as plate spinners.

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