He Grows Hope Slowly {The Heart of the Loving Vinegrower}

If you find me in the garden, you will find me in my sacred place.

In the garden I am reminded how hard the life of growing things can be. We plant, we water, we prune, and yet sometimes for no explainable reason, new life refuses to flourish. I know God understands the pain of planting a garden plagued by frustration and death. When my heart is hurting, it is in my garden that I best hear God’s voice.

Today I needed to hear the hope of the Master Gardener, so in the early hours of the morning I ventured out to walk with him wrapped in my cool blanket of grief and disappointment.

My Father is the Vinegrower” (John 15:1), Jesus tells us. I look at the overgrown rose vine welcoming visitors to my front door with its thorny branches positioned to strike anyone who ventures too closely. It had been planted to frame the archway with beauty and fragrance, but in my neglect I allowed it to grow attended. It branched without form and for months has dared me not to get too close. Overgrown and thorny. I will get hurt if I attempt to address it. Let it be, I tell myself.

unnamed

My Father is the Vinegrower,” I hear again. Then why is this thing so gangly and dangerous? As I survey it, I realize this moment isn’t about the rose anymore. It’s about other overgrown and thorny places in my life. It is about places in the Vine that overwhelm me. Abiding in Christ alongside the other branches isn’t alway fragrant, nor tender. There are topics, like this rose that rather than welcome others in, they wound and exclude.

Father, if you’re the Vinegrower then why is this vine such a mess? Why aren’t we what you envisioned for us to be? 

Enough of this, I sigh. Grabbing my ladder, twine, and pruners, I climb up to begin the work. At first I just try to force the vine onto the trellis, but the newer growth is too tender and it breaks off. My heart sighs, “That would have a been a beautiful bud someday!” So I go for the more mature branches, but they are inflexible and won’t be guided. From this perspective I can see where the vine itself wears scars from its own thorns. Some branches are discolored from the darkness of too much shade, being hidden like they are under the larger, more aggressive branches. It doesn’t take long to discover I will only be able to guide this vine to express its desired form with slow and gentle precision.

After an hour only the vine will know I’ve been there; to others it will look unchanged. But the training has begun with nudges, cuts, and tie-backs. Bearing the scratches and thorns of the work, I hear the words my heart set out to find, “My Father is the Vinegrower.” He grows it slowly and with his tender touches. He avoids the tugs that will break the tender; he knows the cuts that will give the vine the shape it needs. He know it will take time; but he will not neglect his work. He loves the Vine and delights in every last branch as they grow to reveal his beauty. We won’t alway see his work, but he is there–careful and attentive. Our Father is the Loving Vinegrower; his heart is good, his will is perfect, and his ways are tender.

Indeed, He is. My heart knows it full well.

If your heart is discouraged or despairing in a less-than-flourishing place today, take heart. Our Father loves us. He sees. He knows. He grows hope slowly, but always faithfully. He may take his time, but he is the Master Gardener. Wait for it–we will hear his voice in the garden declaring yet again,  “It is very good!” One day.

Getting Dirty: Making Way for the Beautiful

“Do not fret because of evildoers, be not envious toward wrongdoers.  For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herbs.  Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land cultivate faithfulness.  Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.  Commit your ways to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will do it.  He will bring forth your righteousness as the light”  Psalm 37:1-6.

I hadn’t planned on getting dirty.  

Yet, the mud caked under my fingernails.  Thorns from nearby roses embedded under my tender haven’t-gardened-yet-this-season skin.  Misguided roots persistently blocked the patch of ground selected for the new plants.  I’d forgotten how much work gardening can be, especially in land that has suffered seasonal neglect.

Flowers sat on the side awaiting their assigned seating in the garden.  When purchased them at the nursery, I had only imagined them planted with heads prouldy reaching for the sky.  I only saw their beauty.

I hadn’t planned on getting dirty.

Beautiful things compel us to dig in and wear pain.  Pain makes a place for beauty to dwell.  It’s true in the garden and in life.

I watched three loved be baptized this week.   As I listened to them describe their journey to the water’s edge, I thought about the pain they each had endured to make way for the beauty of Christ to be displayed in them.   It hadn’t been an easy for any of them.  For each, they had dug through hardened dirt, twisted roots, and painful thorns to stand before their community of friends alive in Christ, their Healer.    Yet rolling up their sleeves, with the help of Christ His glory went proudly on display; heads held proudly and hearts humbled tenderly.  From the pain there was a joyful harvest of beauty. 

I think about my own journey, most notably my journey of late.  There’s been much digging into hardened ground.  The muscles have fatigued and the heart has frequently fainted.   There are days when I think the ground is too hardened for flowers.  There are others when I think I am too soft to finish the planting.    There have been too many days where it seems that all I have to show is mud-caked hands.

I never planned on getting dirty.    Yet, this weekend reminded me that the beauty is worth the pain. 

Are you tired?  Trust in the Lord.  Cultivate faithfulness.  Make way for the beautiful.

Can People Trust You?

Trust (noun):

reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence.

Trust is something for which most of us long.  We treasure those in our lives that we know speak the same of us when we are not in the room as they do when we are.  We esteem those whose are good for their word.  We understand how rare it is to be surrounded by others who we can put full confidence in their transparency; their support; their faithfulness.

Unfortunately,  I find it more and more common for trust to be as old fashioned as grandma’s party line telephone.  (My grandmother actually had a party line…oh the eavesdropping we did…but that’s a story for another day.)

Why is mistrust such a prevalent theme in life. With all the increased means of communication and visibility (via the internet, primarily), one would think that we would have higher levels of trust.  Yet, it’s not the case.

Do you think it’s because we are all living with so many hiding spots and loopholes?

Think about how many hiding spots exist.  Social networks allow you to create a online personae that can be completely disconnected from your real self.  Who of you will have any idea if what I write about here finds any reality in my life? Hiding spots are more than just staying out of the public eye.  Hiding spots can be self-promotion of exaggerated egos, false humility, feigned friendship, secrets, and undisclosed agendas.

If a hiding spot can’t be found, you can avoid personal authentication through a loophole.  One ramification of living in a litigious society is that we have all learned that no matter the responsibility, a loophole can always be found to avoid ownership.  Nobody has to get pinned with anything.  (Which is really so silly since “I’m sorry” is just not that hard to say.) Common loopholes are blaming, staging, pretending to have not understood and playing the victim.

The problem is that hiding spots and loopholes find a way of seeping down into our personal relationships.  Like foam that rises to the top, our relationships suffer from the weakness of integrity and moral ambiguity that our hiding spots and loopholes nurture. We stop speaking honestly and genuinely.  Hard conversations get avoided because parties understand commitment to relationships are no longer needed.

I’m concerned about what this is doing to our churches.  The early church was marked by their sincere and devoted love to one another.  We still say we do that.  But we’ve made it too easy on ourselves-we let online definitions of ‘love’ and Hollywood superficiality define what the church should be defining for the culture.  How many people in your church can biblically define the love Jesus commanded?  If so, can they point to its substance in their life?

Would you agree that part of the reason the ‘world’ doesn’t trust the Church is because there’s no integrity in the love they espouse?   (And yes this probably includes your church, don’t deceive yourself…I talk to too many people and read too many blogs of those who are see right through many of the slick lines.  People know when they are loved.)

I don’t trust people whose words don’t match their actions. The apostle Paul has a habit in his writings of using the phrase, “here is a trustworthy saying…”  He then goes on to describe the actions of the subject of his writing.   (Usually the subject is Jesus, but one time it is the elders of the church.)

It matters that people trust us. The responsibility of being a trustworthy person falls on you…on me.  We need to be done with our talk (especially our double speak) and we need to start connecting the dots of our beliefs with our everyday, hiding spot free, and loophole absent actions.

Where will you begin?  With whom?

Are You Sleepy?

It’s easy to get sleepy.

I have long since discovered that the circumstances of an event in no way condition my attentiveness to them.  I can be reading the best book and still nod off.  I have fallen asleep on the most entertaining of speakers.  No matter how close to the edge of my seat a show may lead me, it’s not uncommon to find myself waking up the next morning wondering how it ended.  I always pass judgment on the disciples for falling asleep on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but He and I both know how often I have repeated their folly. 

I posed the question here yesterday about how to stop evil without becoming evil.  This was a question generated by my study of the Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat.  (If you’re not familiar with the text, see my previous post.)   No one would contest the fact that there is evil in the world–we see it in every new’s medium, and occassionally confront it on our own hearts. 

So how should disciples of Jesus live, those who for the present struggle with life in the tension of the is and not yet kingdom reality?  How do they respond to evil? 

One response formulated by the parable is obvious:  Understand that evil is for God and His agents to judge.  Know that there is a coming judgment. 

That comforts me.  Yet within the whole counsel of truth, I understand that I don’t just exist for my own comfort.  So, the parable begs another question:  Do I sit back with no response to evil just because I know that judgment is coming for those who do evil?  Furthermore, the parable has an omnious warning:  The wheat and weeds can look identical.  In fact, if not carefully discerned, the weeds would be harvested by a farmer and he would not know it until the weeds molded his flour. 

The careful reader–and the respondent disciple–must take this warning seriously.  Kingdom living in the not yet fully present kingdom requires alertfulness.  Note carefully, Matthew 13:25–

But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went away.

Parables teach us about the kingdom, so I don’t believe that this is in reference to a physical sleep–but a spiritual sleep; a drowzy approach to life that the apostles frequently warn against in the New Testament writings. I believe the church, especially in America, has fallen into a it-can-never-happen-to-us induced coma. 

I’m not usually one for doom and gloom.  Yet I have been reproached by the Spirit this week for my own casualness.  I have been watching the ticker tape of prophetic warnings go unnoticed by many church leaders.  The weight of this is such, that I feel compelled to speak up…even if at the risk of you thinking I’m becoming theatrical.  Trust me, I don’t want to be this messenger.  I like California Casual; where it’s “all good” and everyone goes with the flow.

It’s easy to get sleepy.  It’s dangerous to mistake our circumstances wrongly.  Maybe we think that because we’re going to church on Sunday, or helping the poor, or we’re a leader in the church that we’re all doing everything right.  That all the problems belong to those weeds–the other guys.  We get sleepy with our standards for ourselves–we justify, we rationalize, sometimes we might even spin the truth to make sure that no one wakes up to what’s really going on.  And while God’s men sleep, the enemy plants seeds.

So what do we do?

1) Identify where you are prone to sleepiness.  In discussion with my dear friends on Friday we made a list of our own areas of apathy–those things/conditions in life that lull us into a false sense of safety or immunity.  We included pride & arrogance, comfortability, busyness, luxuries, self-righteousness, and rationalization.  How about you? 

2) Get alert!  Listen to emphatic exhortation of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians:

While they are saying “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.  But you, brethren, are not in darkness that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of the light and sons of day.  We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober…But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. ~I Thessalonians 5:3-8

 Don’t get me wrong:  I do proclaim the sovereignty of God.  I do trust in His coming judgment.  I am confident that He will one day set right all that is wrong.  But these truths cannot be responded to passively.  They ought to wake us up!  Call us to action!  Judgment is not ours…but we ought to live as those who will be judged. 

We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  See that no one repays evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.  ~I Thessalonians 5:14-15

Whatever you do, dear friend, don’t doze off!  I need you to be awake; to help me stay alert.  For the sake of one another, we all need to have our eyes wide open.  

Are you sleepy?

Greater than Our Forgetfulness

I’m prone to forgetfulness.

Mind you, I never forget useless trivia, failures, and disappointments.  These details of life get worn around my heart like tarnished trinkets on a bracelet.

My forgetfulness is much more dangerous.

I forget the words of truth…and those whose speak them, the victories won, and the faith-that-moves-mountain moments.  I forget that I have been “drawn with chords of love.” 

When I do, I falter.  I feel alone.  I feel defeated.  Actually, inside I faint and hide my fear behind screens and excuses.  Profound fear that God will not come through. 

And faith shrivels up a thousand deaths as I let my circumstances condition my convictions about God.

I forget the mighty acts of God in my life.  His voice grows faint behind the thick wall of other’s opinions.  His favor gets lost in the sting of other’s betrayals.  I shove His truth into such a small box that I can’t find where I sat it down. 

I have been camped out in this dangerous wilderness of forgetfulness.  Lost.  I believed I had penetrated the deeps of the forest so no search and rescue could find me.   Yet…you can run from truth, but He will find you.

When He does, He will tell you what you need to remember.  What you must recall to get back on the path.  He will remind you of who you are, what He has done for you, and what He requires you to do.

His remembrances always speak a greater truth to our forgetfulness.  Always. 

“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, proceed on your journey…’  Now, what does the Lord require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding for your good.  Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it.  Yet on your fathers did the LORD set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day…For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the LORD of lords, the great, the mighty, and awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.  He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.  So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.   You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.  He is your praise and He is your God, who has done great these great and awesome things for you which your eyes have seen”  (Deuteronomy 10:11-21).

Like a child, my heart shouts, “I know, I know, I know!”  And I do…but I forget. 

Thank you, LORD, for being my remembrance!  Help me to walk out of this foggy forest in the strength of Your truth.

Struggling Not to Struggle: Change is Hard Work

It has been 42 days and twelve hours since I had my last Diet Coke.

…and I still instinctively reach for one at least three times every. single. day.

I gave up Diet Coke for the obvious reasons.  Anything that contains ingredients you can’t pronounce without getting tongue-tied is inevitably going to be bad for you.  As I have spent the last several years trying to get the upper hand on an autoimmune disorder, I was well aware that the three to four cans of Diet Coke I was drinking daily were not helping.

Yet there was another reason I gave up the Diet Coke:  One day it dawned on me that I was not drinking it because I was thirsty, or liked the flavor, or needed a caffeine boost.  I drank it because it was a habit. Around 11:00 every morning I would zombie up myself and stumble for the nearest can I could find. Quite simply, I drank Diet Coke because I had been drinking it for years and the brain was on auto-pilot.

Since trying to awaken myself to a new habit of not drinking that can of obsession, I have spent an inordinate amount of time reflecting on habits, change, and what it takes to be the best version of one self. Where else in my life are bad habits whittling away family relationships, work performance, and most importantly my devotion to Christ?

Through this, I’ve determined if you want to be the best version of you–whether that’s you personally, or you as the representative of a family or organization–it’s going to take hard work to change.  In the development of habits, the ones that are unhealthy are the ones of which you are least aware.  What are the things you find yourself just doing because you do them?  Are those actions contributing toward the person you want to be?

If you are looking to be healthier in your personal world, your work world, or your social world, you will need to take some radical steps in a different direction. Your make-over won’t just happen.  Even if you take a step in the right direction today, you must resolve to take that step every single day. Once is not enough.   You will need all the courage and conviction you had on day one and you will have to exert constant energy toward your goal. If you’re really making a change from old to something new it should feel like you’re rowing up-stream.  Are you struggling to keep pointed in the direction of your goal?  Or are you just floating along with the current of old habits?

It’s so easy to slip right back to where you started.  No difference.  No change.  Just the status quo…no matter how unhealthy that may be.

Where are you needing resolve?  To what are you inclined to slip back into?  My little can of Diet Coke is teaching me what a mighty big challenge change can be. I understand your weariness and frustration.  I get how silly it feels struggling not to struggle.   But don’t give up!  Keep going!  Give it all  you have got!

The God of Your Assurance

I spoke today at a women’s retreat.   [Now if you know me, go ahead and pick up your chin off the floor.  Yes, I know I don’t usually attend women’s retreats, let alone speak at them.  God changes things and people.  Get over it.]

Women’s retreats are interesting places for reflection, which is good if your life is in need of some time and space to examine the things you might otherwise overlook.  But…if you’re asked to speak, then you feel just the tiniest bit of pressure to be an agent to help provoke some of that reflection.  So I went in thought up, studied up, and prayed up.  I went ready.

Or so I thought…

When you’re the last speaker of a retreat you second guess everything.  I. mean. everything.  By yesterday afternoon I had rewritten everything.  By nightfall, I was once again ready.

But today came and as I sat, waiting for my turn, fear and uncertainty rolled into my heart like a freight train.  It was all wrong.  All of it.  Somehow I had heard wrongly in all my preparation and it was too late to do anything about it.  All that could be done was to pray…and pray…and pray. 

It was in this moment that I looked up and saw what the worship artist in front of me had been painting–a child bowing on their knees. 

You have to understand that Carole, a precious woman who paints & sketches during worship, prays diligently about what she should paint.  I had no conversation with her about my topic.  She wasn’t provided a cheat sheet.  She showed up and sketched only what she believed the Lord had a placed upon her heart and it captured my topic perfectly.  Unbeknownst to her the very thing I was doubting was the point in my outline that said, “Where are you standing your ground with God where He is asking you to bow?” 

The moment my heart saw it, it was captured by the goodness of God’s provision for the topic in my hand.  Doubt fled. Conviction rose to the  occasion.   I was subdued by the knowledge that God had been leading me. and leading others, so that He might be greatly glorified in our hearts and minds. 

I spoke with Carole afterwards and thanked her for being so faithful to seek the Lord about her art.  Her response, “I felt so weird about this picture because I had no idea what a bowing child had to do with theme of the retreat, but the minute I heard you speak about bowing I knew.”  We both entered with doubts.  We both left with a confirmation that indeed God is in our midst!

Why do I share this with you?  There are times in each of our lives that we are desperate to know that we are hearing the voice of the Lord in our lives.  We are so apt to let the buzz of doubt, confusion, and other people’s opinion drown out the conviction that can only be found in that which the Lord proclaims to a trembling heart.  I don’t know what you might be going through, but if you are doubting or searching, know that God sees you and it is His heart’s desire to confirm His wise plans and purposes to you and through you.  Self-confidence isn’t enough.  The affirmation of friends will only get you to the mic.  But God.  Oh, how many times we read that in the Scriptures!  But God,  He can make the trembling heart steady into the perfection of His plans.   Look for His hand.  Rest in the assurance that He will not forsake you in your seeking of Him.

Wine, Ideas, and the Problem with Relevance

What a curious conversation I had this week.  I was browsing through the wine section of a store while I waited for a large item to be delivered to the front.  A happy-go-lucky salesman came by to offer assistance and in the course of the conversation he asked me what I did for a living.   I always hesitate when I answer this question–It’s a difficult answer for a lot of reasons, but how do you boil down into the fewest possible words what my job is?  However, I sensed that this time was going to be more awkward than usual.  “I’m a pastor.”

Long pause.  Very long pause.  Long enough for the smile to drop from his face and the engagement in his eyes to pack its bag and run out the door.

“I sell wine. You sell ideas.”

I looked at him rather confused.   I hadn’t noticed “sell ideas” on my job description.  Sell ideas?  I sure hope not!

As I confessed here last week, I’m struggling with the tension between faithfulness and relevance.   And I’m concerned that more churches don’t seem to be doing so.   Instead, they seem to pitch their tent at one or the other and call it a day.

Furthermore, my most recent observation about the emergent movement and those seeking to have greater cultural relevance is that the catalyst seems to be for the comfort needs of those who already know.    Those on the inside need something different than their papa’s liturgy.  So many have been burned by the legalism of their upbringing and a fresh expression helps them to feel better and more at ease.  But does it make the gospel more relevant to those who don’t understand it?  Does it draw the lost in and if it does, to what are they being drawn?

And so the wine man may be right.  If we lose our faithful commitment to the person of Jesus Christ and we strive for too much relevance we sell ideas.  People don’t need more ideas.  Thanks to the internet there are already far too many of them.  What they need is relationship.  They need truth.  They  need love.  Relationship is the most relevant thing we have to offer.

“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.  This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.  The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him.  We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us”  I John 3:18, 24.

We are not called to ideas–no matter how interesting they may be, they do not have arms and legs.  On their own they accomplish nothing.  They may entertain our time, but they don’t have the power to turn a cold heart warm.

I hope that I don’t sell anything.  What I have, I have been freely given.  May you and I be faithful to freely give what we have been given.

You are well loved, so love well today!