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Shelf Life

milkbadIt wasn’t supposed to look like that.

It certainly wasn’t supposed to smell like that.

Opening that can of sweetened condensed milk was an unforgettable experience I have no desire to repeat.

A glance at the expiration date explained the condition of the contents. It had been sitting on the shelf way too long. No longer even resembling the original product, it was unfit for use. Life on the shelf had not been good to it.

I know how that feels.

For nearly fourteen years, I sat on the shelf. Unused, unproductive, unengaged. Set aside as if my value had expired and my usefulness had passed…at least that’s how it felt. With gifts unopened, potential unfulfilled, talents untapped and dreams unrealized, I lived out-of-pocket and out-of-touch for well over a decade.

Shelf life.

No one puts the good stuff on the shelf. But I was damaged goods. After nearly 20 years of apparently productive ministry with externally recognized success, failure cut my legs out from under me.

Public failure readily creates intense desire to isolate in obscurity.

Honestly, when you’ve been run through the mill, shelf life can seem attractive and feel like relief. For a while.

I was glad to be out of the spotlight and off the main stage. The experiences of both success and failure had left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. I was just fine sitting unnoticed among all the other castoffs.

The pain of enduring accusation, the struggle of answering questions, the agony of facing failure, the discomfort of dealing with the past…all made the relative anonymity of being on the shelf preferable to the risky visibility of being in the public eye.

But god did not create us to sit on the shelf…it is simply no place to live.

He enables us with gifts and ennobles us with desires that when neglected will make their presence felt in un-ignorable ways.

God has never designed anyone to be benched by brokenness.

In modern commerce, extensive intellectual energy and expensive frontline technology is employed to extend the shelf life of products. The idea behind all this effort is too keep goods usable and visible for consumers until they are sold.

Our middle son, Caleb, is an assistant store team leader for Whole Foods, a company known for its unbending allegiance to sustainable, natural, organic products. I asked him what other grocers had to do to produce food-stuffs that lasted so long on the shelf. His answer was startling.

Food quality is compromised in direct proportion to product longevity. In other words, the longer it lasts the further it gets from both fresh and live.

There is a careful reduction in the real and a calculated insertion of the artificial in order to create false freshness–it looks real, lasts long but barely resembles what it was in the beginning. Carefully controlled environments and specially designed packaging seal the product off from the effects of the real world.

Shelf life is sustained by the artificial and unreal. Chemicals, fillers and preservatives are added to keep the product from decaying. The longer the shelf life desired, the higher the proportion of artificial ingredients.

Sitting on the shelf results in degraded quality. Products lose their health and nutritional benefits. They simply wind up taking up space and losing value. Inventory rotation is interrupted so that newer, fresher products aren’t reaching customers.

Far from fresh and alive, these products are sad imitations of the real thing.

And in spite of all the precautions, let a product sit on the shelf too long and it will eventually and inevitably becomes unfit for use–useless.

Sitting on the shelf for such an extended season nearly robbed me of any sense of life and fruitfulness. As I wasted away in obscurity, an epic truth finally snapped me out of my self-imposed, death on the installment plan.

I was not punishing myself for my past. I was robbing God of my future.

Like the servant who buried his talents, it was the Master who was losing His investment and potential. My false sense of condemnation wasn’t reparation for failure while trying. It was resistance to trying again.

To live, I had to get off the shelf. To get off the shelf, I had to accept that I still had value.

But this meant a death of sorts. A death to the hidden, riskless and controlled life into which I had allowed myself to sink. I had to take the risk of leaving the spiritual witness protection program and offer my gifts to God and His people again–even if there were some who believed I should never get off that shelf.

That is what Jesus meant when he said, “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.” (John 12:24, MSG).

So I decided to trade my canned, tasteless, inoffensive mode of existence for the fresh, savory, challenging life of creative productivity again. It was a courageous and crazy decision to put myself back into circulation in God’s Kingdom economy before it was too late.

You see we all start out with an expiration date.

Until we reach that moment, God wants us to offer to our world the fresh life of bold living. We are to be “salty salt”–salt that hasn’t lost its flavor. We are neither designed nor destined for spiritual storage.

No matter where you have been, what you have done, how you have failed or who you have hurt…grace renews your life and reuses your story.

I choose to live the risky adventure of serving others because I know for a fact I was not meant for the…

…shelf life.


One comment on “Shelf Life

  1. Thank you for putting into words the knowing I held in my heart and didn’t know how to express.


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