Keep your roots in good soil

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tomato-in-soil  The zucchini failed, the cucumber baby plants did not thrive, but our container garden yielded tomatoes.

These tomato pots have shown me over the past 4 months that if the soil is good, and God provides adequate sun and water, that is still not enough to produce a crop.

All vegetation, if it is to yield fruit, must have its roots planted in the soil.  That is crucial. (yes, I have heard of hydroponic cultivation!)

Aren’t we Christians the same?  According to Jesus, we will grow naturally, without working at it, if we are immersed in His Word, sucking up nourishment because it satisfies like nothing else.

John 15:4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I recently noticed in this verse that the verb Jesus uses is to BEAR fruit. We don’t GROW the fruit ourselves.  We just let fruit sprout and flourish.

As the Holy Spirit gives growth, He causes our new nature to develop characteristics like joy and patience, gentle responses and kind actions, to name a few.  This Holy Spirit fruit in turn feeds and fertilizes us, resulting in deeper and sturdier roots and an ongoing yield.

I like how the inspired psalmist described the process in Psalm 92: 13-14: 

Planted in the house of the Lord,
They will flourish in the courts of our God.
[Growing in grace] they will still thrive and bear fruit and prosper in old age;
They will flourish and be vital and fresh [rich in trust and love and contentment]; (Amplified Bible)

I’ve noticed some dying leaves on my October container plants, but I’m still getting salad tomatoes. How encouraging for all of us in a Western society that abhors and tries to hide from aging.  Since we don’t have to rely on ourselves to ‘add value’ we can relax and allow God generate all and any good yield.

Lost in thought – musings about abiding in the Vine

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Lost in thought

 

 

 

John 15:5

 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

I came across my friend, lost in thought. He didn’t hear me approach. Reaching out gently, I touched his shoulder so he wouldn’t jump. “Where ARE you? You look deep in thought!”

Don’t we sometimes refer to the content of our thoughts as a place?

At the very least, this illustration from ordinary life helps me to understand and apply what it means to abide in Christ.

Pondering again the whole viticulture analogy Jesus uses to differentiate HIS role from ours yielded some clarity.

If Jesus is the vine (think: TRUNK) and you and I are branches growing out of the vine, we are dependent on nourishment from the trunk. We need to stay connected, no matter how forceful the storms of everyday life blow. Our ‘soul’ survival and our spiritual vitality while inhabiting this current Earth depend on our on-going union with Jesus.

What role does the Father play? God the Father is the farmer, the vinedresser whose job it is to (superin)tend HIS garden. That means He sometimes cuts away new growth if it isn’t headed in the direction He deems best. His pruning sheers clip away the dead stuff as well. And He occasionally transplants us somewhere we didn’t choose, sometimes in soil that doesn’t seem to suit! But apparently, in His wisdom, He knows this particular dirt is rich and will cause us to produce more. I don’t always like the TASTE of His nourishing compost piles. There’s other plant food I would prefer, (namely, my COMFORT)!

Not only does the Master Gardner govern our physical setting, His Son as the vital vine, instructs us in how to be a ‘good branch’. Seems the only job He assigns us is to ‘abide’ in His Son, the vine.  But what does THAT mean? And how are we to do that?

Remember my lost-in-thought friend? We actually abide wherever our thoughts go. If we want to stay connected to Jesus, then we need to think often and hard on what He says in His word. Applying a quote from my favorite puritan, William Gurnall, we must ‘suck hard at the breast of the Covenant’. I think the idea is to be like a dog, working over a bone, aiming to get every last drop of tasty meat and residual flavor that he can.

In the same manner, I want to make it my chief daily activity to turn over Jesus’ promises, His deeds, His words, in order to gain as much nourishment and joy as I can.

What about the Holy Spirit? What role does He play? Ah, this is what is cool and encouraging. God’s Spirit is the One who actually produces the grapes, that is the fruit, through us.

Until recently I thought that ‘bearing fruit’ meant PRODUCING fruit. It doesn’t! It means to be the living stalk attached to the trunk from which the 3rd member of the Godhead grows the fruit. Our branch mission or job, therefore, is to focus on Jesus and His living Word.

This is actually work? Just pondering and thinking?   I know, I know, it’s pretty humbling, isn’t it! We think we’re to do GREAT things for Christ. But remember how Jesus actually addressed our labor?

John 6:28-29 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.

That’s all! Think on and believe what Jesus says.

If it is we who produce the fruit, then we could claim credit and look for glory. The way God has set it up, He alone gets the credit. Well, what about us? At least we get the fruit, right?

Yes and no. The fruit isn’t primarily meant for the branch that holds it up, that bears it; it’s for others. Nonetheless, we get the privilege of being part of God’s provision to the Church and the confused world. And when God’s fruit grown in us nourishes others, we ourselves are replenished! What a good deal!

Proverbs 11:25b ….those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

Bottom Line? What we think about matters!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stages – or confessions of a ‘has been’

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The spotlight has moved on. Mike & I and our two boys used to be at the center of everyone’s attention……especially at Church

We were part of that vital segment of society called young family; we were important.  Only thing is, we didn’t realize it at the time.

I wasn’t aware how much a sense of identity and belonging I enjoyed & derived from that role.

To be honest, do we ever TAKE time to process and evaluate when we’re in the midst of dancing from one school/sport/music/XYZ activity to another?   On the surface, as one mom to another, we might have shared common complaints, but it was from a place of feeling VITAL and NEEDED.

For the most part, Mike and I have adapted well to the “Empty Nest”.  We work our jobs and we look forward to nesting in the evenings, sharing dinner and conversation.  We rejoice when we talk to and visit with our kids and grandkids.  But they live plane-rides away. We find ourselves now at the margins of their lives, when before we shared center-stage with them.  Apparently that is normal, but it does take some mental & emotional adjustment. And a going back to God’s Word to gain our new bearings.

Mike read the other day that parents always love their kids more than their kids love them.   Ouch! Guess I didn’t think how my parents felt when Mike and I struck off on our own.  How did THEY feel when ‘Act II’ opened for them?

I must have missed the Entre’Act – that segué when the stage-hands physically create a new scene.  So last weekend was revelatory to me.  Loud and clear, came the news that cameras were rolling for this next Act in my life.

I participated in the PCC Women’s retreat 9-10 February.  (PCC is the church which houses my school – I’ve enjoyed taking part in about 4 of their retreats in past years.  I know some of the gals and they are a friendly group, willing to take in a non-member).  What struck me this year was how, at age 55 with adult children no longer living in the area and grandkids that we see only occasionally, my roles have changed.

I am now one of those OTHER women!  You know that group; the older gals who are supposed to guide and instruct the younger women?  My job description got updated and I didn’t see it coming!  My gifting, bequeathed to me upon my arrival at the shores of menopause,  is to be interested in/ help out/ listen well to the ‘younger moms’ who are right in the thick of life with little kids and husbands, etc.

I guess I felt envious. (Forgive me, Father!) And I wasn’t anticipating this insight.

The couple of days that followed the retreat were difficult. Tears & emotions that burbled out all over my surprised husband came from not having accurately articulated to myself some newly discovered truths.  (Preach the Gospel to yourself daily!)

But thanks be to God, Gospel truth for this new job description has begun to sink in and guide me as I study how to “Abide in Christ”.  Too slowly obviously, ( but forward, nonetheless!) I am making baby steps and learning the lines for my new role.

Picture a triangle with “Abiding in Christ” safely in the middle.  Security-Identity- Belonging are the 3 corners.  If you are a new creation because you have been divinely and spiritually seeded by the 3rd member of the God-head, then you are safe in the Triune Refuge.  The key is to do life from THAT position..and not to wander outside looking to create one’s OWN identity and purpose.

I’m going to have to get used to my new role. Meanwhile, in the midst of dabbling in self-pity this week, I was reminded of a profound truth, one that CS Lewis has articulated –

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

I take that to mean that if we have a longing that leaves us with an empty ache, then surely satisfaction is coming.  Knowing that, I can wait for that sure, yet future, GLORIOUS fulfillment by God in heaven.  One day, I WILL rest secure at the center of love and belonging-ness with family, but in a way that is tailor-made for me.

So even though, in THIS life under the Sun, Mike and I are on the tailing end, the best, the INFINITE best is yet to come.

As Robert Browning penned in Rabbi Ben Ezra:

 

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand

Who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

 

Security Triangle

What’s a grape to do?

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But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23a

For every tree is known by its fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns; nor from a bramble bush do they gather the grape. Luke 6:44

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. John 15:5 (the Message)

So how do you grow, if you are a piece of fruit? I’ve bounced back and forth between thinking that to grow fruit, you have to work at it:  you know, the whole sanctification process.  Sure God is the one who regenerated me, but now it’s up to me to lead the life of a disciple.  That means I have to work at and make a conscious effort to read my Bible, do acts of unselfish charity for those around me, sign up for committees at church ( no matter my interest ), all in hopes of becoming more Christ-like.  However, once in a while, I catch a whiff of a much easier way, the way of simply resting in what God has done through Jesus on the cross.  After all, fruit doesn’t do anything but simply sprout and hang onto the branch.  Almost convinced, I’ll start to think about how joyous and liberating that would be, if it were true.  That would TRULY be good news.

But then I’ll hear a sermon, or spot the title of a new book or read something about a super-duper Christian and I’ll go back to thinking: ‘No, it can’t be that easy. It’s all about self-denial, picking up my cross and leading a painful life.’

Fortunately, there are two facts that keep me coming back to the notion of rest and NOT having to do anything.  First of all, there is the nature of fruit.  Fruit is a by-product of a healthy tree.  Fruit sprouts automatically.  Jesus, himself, gives his disciples a Botany 101 lesson. Picture this scene as the guys are walking across the countryside:

**

Jesus:  Hey, fellows, look at these olives, what kind of tree do you think this is?

Precocious Peter:  could it be….an olive tree?

Jesus:  Spot on!  Wow.  How about these pinecones?   Where did they come from?

Tentative Thomas: maybe a pine tree?

Jesus:  Bingo! and they said you guys were just dumb fishermen! 

Eager Matthew:  Jesus, remember those rotten figs back in Jerusalem?  What about them?

Scornful Judas:  that’s easy, Dufus!  They’re rotten because the tree is dying.  It’s too close to the Temple Outhouse…..

**

It’s obvious; fruit doesn’t do anything but stay connected to the vital, sap-rich, nutrient-providing tree.  Given the right food and weather and protection from pesky bugs, the tree will grow and do what trees do naturally, sprout fruit.

Even Jesus found it axiomatic (i.e. – you don’t have to prove it) that good trees produce (after their own kind) good fruit.

The second argument for choosing the simple yet liberating concept of just hanging onto the branch comes from Jesus’ response to a crowd.  Recall a lengthy and difficult teaching by Jesus to the ‘always hungry’ 5000.  It’s the day after the miraculous fish and loves meal and the curious want more food.  Jesus advices them not to work for food that will be quickly eaten and digested, leaving them still hungry.  So they ask the reasonable follow-on question, “Well, if we can’t count on you to feed us like yesterday and if we don’t work to support ourselves in the traditional way, what kind of work are you talking about, Mr. Spiritual?”

Jesus stunningly shoots back in John 6:29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

That’s it?  That sounds so simple, too minimalist and easy.  But the more I understand God’s grace and His good gifts and all that Jesus has DONE; I believe THIS is exactly what God calls us to do!  Just believe.  “Well, well, what about good works?  Where do they fit in?” you might be sputtering.

It’s a good question.  The Christian life DOES involve good works, just like trees produce fruit.  But look at the role of the fruit and the trees.  The fruit naturally appears and grows, just by hanging on and having the ‘good fortune’ to be part of a healthy tree.

If you believe the TRUE biblical Jesus (not the Jesus you make up), trust Him, cling to Him, and absorb the truths He teaches from Genesis to Revelation, then you will grow naturally.  And if God wants you to be a grape that ends up in Kellogg’s Raisin Bran or a grape that floats and sloshes around with other fermented grapes in a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, that is up to God.

Experientially, I know this is true.  I am not someone who has set out to DO Christian works.  I have followed my passions as they have grown naturally from being fed good food (true Bible teaching).  Remember making those pencil marks on a doorframe, measuring your growth as a child?  When you look back, you can see the proof of your change in height.  Yet all along, you probably were unaware of the lengthening of your skeletal structure. So it is in the Christian journey.  Fifteen years ago, I met a fellow mom who struck me as one of those ‘goody-two-shoes Christian ladies’, totally unlike me and certainly not someone I aspired to copy.  Then I joined Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) and started to study the Bible for the first time.  One day, with a start, I realized that God had changed me.  I no longer found this gal off-putting.   We were actually pretty similar.  It was I who had been transformed, all due to that Jesus life-sap I was soaking up as a connected piece of fruit.

Recently, I have spotted another change in me, one that is very encouraging.  I did nothing to work on it, no new DISCIPLINED habit .  Six months ago I read a book about initiating Gospel conversations with people one encounters naturally throughout the day.  My first reaction was how selfish I am STILL.  Unlike the author, I had no desire to make my day be about looking for opportunities to talk to people about ultimate, eternal matters.  After all, my day is about how much time I can cull for Maria to listen to podcasts, read books and exercise.

But thanks be to God who changes our desires.  I wrote last week about Caitlin, my student from school.  She is the teen who has taken up the challenge from this same book and has been initiating conversations with Wal-Mart clerks and gas station cashiers.  I was shamed into actually taking the plunge out of my comfort zone.  Astonishingly, I have been having fun!  This is evidence that I am not the same Maria.  But why should I be surprised?  Paul tells the Corinthians that once they have been regenerated, they have an entirely new nature.

Bottom line – the Gospel continues to be great news.  Just hang on to the right branch and soak in His word and let God do His gardening thing.  He has already done the hard part of grafting you into the right tree: the rest will follow.

Daily C-Rations and Getting the CAR in gear – a metaphor

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I like to simplify doctrine down to mnemonic devices I can easily recall.

The other day I was thinking about what I need to remember, to feed on each morning to reorient myself for the day.  There is something perverse about a night’s sleep.  I tend to lose a correct theology somewhere in the wee hours of the night. I can go to bed being thankful to God and conscious of Him and then wake up in the morning a ‘worldling’ again, living as a functional atheist.  So each morning, I have to RECALL deliberately what is true about God and about me.

The other day, as I was walking and reflecting about how to be more automatic in God-thoughts, the picture of C-rations sprang to mind.  These days, the prepared meals for an Army in the field are called something else, but you know what I mean. I thought about how a soldier might draw his daily C-rats, enough calories and nutrition to provide him with energy for his 24 hour duty period.  Jacob prayed for spiritual C-Rats for his son Asher:

As your days — so shall your strength be.” Deuteronomy 33:26

Being consistent with Moses, I imagined what spiritual C-rations we should draw.  For fun, I came up with lots of C-words to illustrate God’s gifts.  As I ran through some of these God-given daily provisions, I was reminded of what Paul says.

The apostle emphasizes in his letter to the Ephesians that we have been given every spiritual blessing in Christ.  What are some of these daily spiritual ‘C-rats’ issued to us and available for our sustenance?   As His covenantal children, we are entitled to help ourselves to gifts such as Charity, Compassion, Courage, Character, Control over self, Companionship of Christ….you get the idea…think of your own C words.  What is key is that God provides what we will need for the trials and tasks of the day, not more, not less, but just what is necessary.  (Remember how the Hebrews tried to stash some away, “just in case”, but it rotted?)

But life is more than drawing food or getting equipped for the day.  As I was ruminating about my C-rats plan, it dawned on me that there were some daily actions I could embark on first thing in the morning and then with God’s help sustain.  I came up with three and they too begin with the letter C J.  Here’s an acronym – CAR.  C stands for CASTING all my CARES on Jesus, not only as an act of humility (so Peter exhorts us) but also so I don’t have to carry them around.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due     time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Pet 5: 6-7

If I heave them onto Jesus, He can handle them, fix them, and imbue them with grace.

The A stands for ABIDE.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  John 15: 4-5

Now I must admit, the How-To of abiding is a challenge.  But I heard Andrée Seu (columnist from World magazine) give a simple tip on how to abide.  She recommends thanking God as a method for keeping one’s mind on Christ.  Now that makes sense.  If all of a sudden I ‘wake up’ and realize I haven’t been abiding in Christ, I can look around and thank Him for something right at hand.

Today, I caught myself not even aware of God while on a walk with my husband.  It was Mike’s birthday AND Memorial Day, so we were out enjoying a 5-mile wooded trail.  When I startled and it dawned on me that I wasn’t abiding in (i.e. thinking about) Christ, I looked at the textured bark on the trees and thanked God for His design and creativity (another C word!)   That one observation led to other delights and all of a sudden I was abiding.  My momentary appreciation and love for God grew.

What about guilt for the hours that had passed without thinking of God?  The 3rd letter of CAR reminds us that we get to REPENT each time we catch ourselves distracted about worldly concerns with no thought toward God.  I’m so grateful for the gift of frequent repentance:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

Now applying the CAR metaphor a bit further, I imagine an engine with pistons that operates on a continuous 3 stroke cycle (we have to S-T-R-E-T-C-H the analogy a bit, I know! My husband has explained that cars have either 2 or 4 cycles).  I cast my cares on Christ, I abide in Him and when I FORGET about Him I come to my senses. Then I get to repent and thank Him for gently bringing me back to my senses. And so it goes.  The car engine won’t function unless the pistons are moving up and down.  Neither will I function well as a Christian unless I am continually Casting, Abiding, and Repenting.

So what’s the plan when you wake up tomorrow morning? We’ll draw our C-Rats for the day and put the CAR in gear.  Let me know what other C blessings make a difference in your day.

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