How To Dilute Your Own Message and Get Burned Out (or, What I Learned From Making Maple Syrup)

IMG_08352:00am. I got up off the sofa and meandered into the kitchen. I hadn’t thought this whole process would take so long, but there I was, middle of the night, boiling maple sap in five pots and pans on our stove top, trying to turn it into maple syrup. I was skeptical. When I started boiling the twelve gallons, it was clear as water. By 2am, nine hours later, it looked tan, but nothing like syrup.

I went back and sat on the sofa. The whole house was hot and humid from all that boiling down, adding more sap to the pans, boiling down further. I thought back over the last week, since I had stopped getting on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I have to admit: it’s been a peaceful week. My mind feels much less cluttered and there’s a freedom that comes from not feeling like I always have to check my phone, share this thought, post this photo.

But there’s also been some ego-checking at the door. 70% of my blog traffic comes from Facebook, so without getting on there and promoting my blog, I’m probably headed for a drastic decrease in traffic. It can be hard to come to terms with fading into the shadows. It can be hard to let go of an audience.

It’s difficult to diminish.

“He must become greater. I must become less.” (John 3:30)

I went back out to the kitchen. Enough of the water had boiled out of the sap that I could start pouring the smaller pots into the larger ones. Soon I was down to two large pans. Then one.

That’s when the realization hit me, the metaphor hanging thick as the steam in the room.IMG_0836

Diminishing is hard work. It’s like boiling down maple sap. The heat, the long process, the whole thing is about becoming less and less and less, smaller and smaller, until twelve gallons of maple sap is boiled down into less than two quarts of golden liquid.

I watched the thermometer carefully as it crept upwards. 214 degrees. 215. 216. 217. 218. By now the small saucepan was full of a dark amber liquid. I took a spoonful, scalded my tongue, but the taste was heavenly, like liquid caramel.

219 degrees.

219.5 degrees.

I turned off the heat and the boiling stopped. That was it. That was all that was left of my 12 gallons of sap. Somehow that tasteless, worthless sap, full of ants and bugs, had been concentrated down into pure deliciousness.

When we constantly promote ourselves, when we shout from the rooftops, “Look at me!”, when we say more and more and more…we end up diluting our message. We join the noise, and we try to shout louder, but we can never shout loud enough, and the striving burns us out. It’s all rather exhausting in the end. IMG_0838

It would be like taking a quart of maple syrup and adding twelve gallons of water. Yes, we have more of it. Yes, twelve gallons takes up a considerable amount of space. But you wouldn’t put it on your pancakes.

Diminishing is painful for the ego. Deliberately stepping back from influence, taking a break from leadership, fading gracefully into the shadows stage right: these things do not come naturally. But if we can make space in our lives for seasons of diminishing, all of the flavor will rise to the top. All of the empty water will boil away, and what’s left will be concentrated and rich.

“But he said to me, “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I was doubting my decision this week. I have important things to say, I told myself. I really shouldn’t stop promoting my blog. I shouldn’t stop shouting.

Then I received this email:


I’m writing to let you know that I found your blog this week–several days after you decided to stop promoting it.

…for lots of reasons I made two decisions: a) to walk away from Church and b) change careers and go into medicine.  11 years later I’m an Obstetrician just about to finish residency.  A father of two.  And still don’t go to Church.  

It’s an amazing job.  Delivering babies is wonderful.  But there’s the other half–the stillborn babies and lost pregnancies and ovarian cancer.  Despite the fact that sometimes the suffering and grief are almost unbearable, I find such privilege in taking care of people in those moments.   And that’s why,  when I’m on call late at night, I go searching for people who write about faith in a way that acknowledges suffering and loss.  Most days I don’t believe in God.  But I haven’t given up on faith.  I’m grateful to have found your recent post.  And the post about miscarriage.   And I’ll keep reading.  And wondering.  And will remain grateful for your writing which will make me better at my job.

I thought you should know–that I’m out there learning from your writing–no promotion necessary.

This is it, isn’t it? It’s not about the number of hits. It’s not about the page views or the ad income or the number of comments.

What is it about?

I’m not sure. But I know one thing – it’s not about me.

He must increase. I must decrease.


23 Replies to “How To Dilute Your Own Message and Get Burned Out (or, What I Learned From Making Maple Syrup)”

  1. I love those types of moments. I find that whenever I put my complete trust in God the whisper of doubt only gets louder, but then, right before I give into the noise He comes through with a simple message like the one you received, an unexpected check in the mail, or an encouraging voice mail.

    They are never a coincidence.

  2. beautiful once more Shawn. I just love how you mix everyday life we can all relate to in your messages. I was led to you by a friend. but i stay because you speak simple truths.
    thank you.

  3. I love this post and what it teaches! Keep writing and may we all grow a bit smaller as He grows larger in our lives.

    1. Growing smaller is a difficult thing, I have to admit. It’s painful and uncomfortable and makes me squirm a bit. But there’s something very freeing about it as well.

    1. Thanks, Larry. Actually, I was hoping no one would listen to that :) But maybe it helps you have a better understanding as to why I am not on Facebook anymore.

  4. This is wonderful, wonderful. Love the image/metaphor of the diminishing to produce glory. And the email? Powerful and good. Makes me want to keep telling the truth, to encourage lament and grief and anger and frustration when we talk to God, to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Thank you.

    1. Keep going, Diana. We simply cannot worry or even think about the size of our audience. This, I think, is where I’m trying to get. I don’t want to be a writer – I want to be what Henri Nouwen refers to as “the Beloved,” and I want to dwell in that identity. Not in how many clicks I got this week. Thanks for always reading.

  5. Great post–found it through my friend, Diana. And Diana, that diminishing bit is connected to retirement as well, right? (Thinking about your earlier post!)

  6. Great message! Especially meaningful for those of us approaching retirement or old age. There’s a book entitled “On the Hallowing of Diminuation” and the words come to mind often.
    “He must become greater; I must become less” are words to live by Thanks, Shawn!

    1. I think growing older simply forces us to realize something that is easy to ignore in our youth – that our lives are short and that we will be forgotten on earth. So where does that leave our ego? Where does that leave our sense of worth? In the end, we must, as Henri Nouwen says, embrace our identity as God’s beloved. That is all we have.

  7. Some books for the doctor:
    Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller.
    Insurrection by Peter Rollins
    The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins (this explains well why Christianity (mostly American evangelical and mainline has become some kind of quick fix ointment to the soul)
    As well he should read all the Christian authors of Europe back in the middle of last century, people like Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Barth, and friends.

    It is sad what watered down evangelicalism has done to Christianity that some can’t even see the way suffering is addressed in the ENTIRE Bible. This is where I have found existentialism very helpful in confronting human existence. It eventually doesn’t really give a fulfilling answer and I have sort of found my way back to God in some kind of fashion. It’s hard to figure that out with so much evangelicalism in my bones.

  8. A quote from Bonhoeffer in a book I’m reading:

    “try unhistorically to find an eternity after death…[For them] redemption… means redemption from cares, distress, fears, and longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave. But is this really the essential charter of the proclamation of Christ in the gospels and by Paul. I should say it is not. The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends [a person] back into… life on earth in a wholly new way…The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself…he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one.”
    -From Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison

  9. I doubt you’d remember it; I don’t even know if we formally met that day, but I posed the question to the panel of established writers/bloggers at the writer’s breakfast you organized. I had wondered aloud how one can keep writing frequently without losing depth. Without diluting. I think only one Man had that ability, and even He needed to pull back, pull away, go and be quiet.

    So, I’m very pleased with your counter-cultural move; it’s always an encouragement to see integrity.

  10. I was (Am? Not sure yet.) disappointed with the oft-dreaded blog stats yesterday in my little corner of the WWW. Trying to work on writing this morning, and ended up checking out your blog as I was wondering what you had to share this week. And I’m *so glad* I did. Thank you so much.

    And now I want pancakes with maple syrup.


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