“In the whole plant world there is not a tree to be found so specially suited to the image of man in his relation to God, as the vine. There is none of which the fruit and its juice are so full of spirit, so quickening and stimulating.

But there is also none of which the natural tendency is so entirely evil–none where the growth is so ready to run into wood that it becomes utterly worthless except for the fire.

Of all plants, not one needs the pruning knife so unsparingly and so unceasingly. None is so dependent on cultivation and training. But with this none yields a richer reward to the gardener.”
Andrew Murray in Abide in Christ

♦◊♦

————-
Parables of wise pruning [with thanks to various gardening websites]

Prune most of the growth
“Standing in front of a mass of tangled grape vine and wondering what to do with it can be a scary experience for the novice or even for the more experienced pruner. Don’t be afraid to cut. When you finish, about 90% of last year’s growth will be cut.”
Lesson: It’s best to trust the Master Pruner and give Him free rein.

Watch out for too many shoots
“In many areas with deep soils and high nitrogen content, grape vines are very vigorous and produce too many shoots. Even when vines are not too vigorous, some shoot thinning is usually needed to take out unproductive shoots with no fruit clusters, or those that are too closely spaced. This is called canopy management. The aim is to balance the productivity of the vine and the amount of leaf and shoot growth.”
Lesson: Since we generate more possibilities than we can do, it’s best when we let the Gardener decide which ones to keep.

Don’t crowd the growth
“Each grape shoot needs 14 to 16 well exposed leaves to properly ripen a grape cluster. If too many shoots are crowded together, the leaves do not get enough light for effective photosynthesis. It is important that all the leaves get good sun exposure, because shaded leaves only function at about 6% of their capacity, and may not be contributing at all to ripening the grape cluster.”
Lesson: Less can be more. God doesn’t stuff.

And watch out for suckers

This sucker has to go.

This sucker has to go.


“Suckers are like a new baby plant that has suddenly come into being connected to the relatively massive root system of its older parent: in short, it is young, vigorous, and has a lot of food. For this reason suckers are able to grow very, very fast, easily many feet in a single season. They are your toddler outgrowing pairs of shoes. Your teenager stealing the credit card and going on a spree. Suckers are ravenous nuisances” robbing energy from the main plant.
Lesson: The most vigorous shoots are not necessarily the ones God will keep.

♦◊♦

If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
John 15:5-6

Getting rid of good stuff

August 20, 2014 — 2 Comments

Recently I came back home after a trip away and discovered my eyes could see much better than before. No, I didn’t get new glasses. It was simply the clarity that comes from time off.

As I unpacked, I saw what I am usually blind to: closets stuffed to the gills in the bedroom, in the hall, in the kitchen; an appalling amount of flotsam and jetsam that I’ve allowed to take up residence on the front hall table, the bedside table, the family room side table [are you seeing a theme? Perhaps if I just got rid of my closets and tables, the barnacled clutter would disappear...]

Untouched photo of the bedside table (I had to resist the urge to make it look neater!)

Untouched photo of the bedside table (I had to resist the urge to make it look neater!)

It’s not just my closets and tables though. The floppy days of summer seem to generate an overabundance of ideas and possibilities:
places to go, people to see, movies to watch,
books to read, recipes to try, websites to explore,
blogs to follow, social media to track.
I can wander through hours and hours of free time like a happy lost puppy, utterly clueless as to where I am going.

It was clear I needed a serious bout of pruning. So riding on the post-vacation wave of good intentions, I set to work on a hall closet that resembled a vertical junk yard. I took everything out and spread it all over the guest room.

Each day I’ve been spending a half hour figuring out what I should keep, what I should throw away, and what I should give away. I’m happy to report it’s going remarkably well because the limited time means I never reach the point of brain fatigue when everything ends up in the ‘decide later’ pile.

Making progress! [fortunately I failed to take a 'before' picture of the closet in its full chaos.]

Making progress! [fortunately I failed to take a 'before' picture of the closet in its full chaos.]

Pruning my life
Pruning back my schedule has been much trickier. It’s hard for me to let go of possibilities which don’t require any space and don’t cost any money. All they require is a bit of time. But unfortunately I have a limited supply.

Whatever I say yes to is also a no to a hundred other ideas. But what to let go of? None of the possibilities are bad. Unlike the old rusted paperclips I easily tossed in the trash, it’s hard to discard perfectly good options.

But on a grape vine, fruit comes from saying no even to healthy shoots because the branch can only feed so many clusters. It’s the same with the branch of my life; it can hold only so many projects. I have to decide what to say yes to and what to put in the ‘not in this lifetime’ box.

Healthy, pretty but sapping life and heading to becoming an overgrown mess

Healthy, pretty but sapping life and on its way to becoming an overgrown mess

So I took a mental hacksaw and tried to trim back my schedule. It did not go well. I became paralyzed when I considered all the appealing activities. To get rid of any of them felt like cutting off a limb[!]. I gave up and the next day I took another stab at it . After a few more days of failure, I realized there was only one solution. I had to give my pruning shears to the Gardener.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit,
while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes
so that it will be even more fruitful.
John 15: 1-2

 

Note the cuts on the vine which enabled the luscious cluster of grapes to grow:

Note the cuts on the vine at the top of the picture which enabled this luscious cluster of grapes to grow
 

It may sound like this is over-spiritualizing the problem. Do I really need to involve God in the mundane choices in my life? Does the Master of the Universe care if I spend another fifteen minutes on Facebook? And do I really need His help weeding my creaking, overcrowded bookshelves?

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The Lord of the trivial and mundane
As I think about it, the answer is yes. By His redeeming love I am attached to His vine, and He has become Lord of all my life, not just my soul. He rules the trivial as well the profound.

This means He is the Master of my internet use.
He is the Director of my free time and my social life.
He is the Lord of my to-do list and my I-want list.
He is the Landscape Architect who sees the whole design of my life and how it fits into His grand scheme.

The gardener doesn't just think about one branch on one vine. He keeps the whole orchard in mind.

The gardener doesn’t just think about one branch on one vine. He keeps the whole orchard in mind.

 
If He truly is the Gardener in charge of my life, I need to let Him prune every twig on my branch. Especially since I don’t have a good pruning track record when it comes to how I spend my time. Invariably I choose what is most comfortable and most convenient for me. I never make painful cuts.

unfruitful and overgrown from lack of pruning

unfruitful and overgrown from lack of pruning


 
Letting the Master Gardener go to work
That’s why if I want to deal with my overstuffed hours, the best place to start is sitting at His feet, exposing all the stems that grow off of my main branch: my work, my relationships, my service, my health. This often requires untangling the overgrown shoots that have gotten twisted into knots.

Then, I need to listen for His guidance about what needs to be trimmed, what needs to be cut off, and what can be saved for the ‘maybe later’ pile.

However, identifying what to say no to isn’t the end. The final step is to open my heart to the Spirit’s scalpel and actually cut the unneeded suckers and shoots. That’s the hardest part for me. I start to balk at God’s plans. I second guess His choices.

But the Gardener doesn’t work against my will. He doesn’t force me to expose my branches and give them to Him. He doesn’t demand that I submit to His pruning. He waits patiently. But if I’m wise I will let Him remove whatever He wants: the good growth, healthy options, and pleasant possibilities that take life-energy away from the work of the vine.

 

A grape vine that has been faithfully pruned each year.

A grape vine that has been faithfully pruned each year.

 

It’s a painful process but the results are good. I find I can breathe more easily. I have space to grow. My hours aren’t crowded out. I have time to focus on His best for me. And this in turn produces abundant fruit, fruit not destined for my own consumption but fruit that He will use to help feed a hungry world that is starving for true nourishment.

What about you? Do you have branches in your life that have become overgrown? Are there shoots that need to be cut back to produce rich, abundant fruit? When will you spend some time with the Gardener so He can go to work?

…work out your salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13

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Singing worship songs is another way I stay connected to God when life becomes busy. I often turn to one of the Seeds albums, but sometimes nothing is as satisfying as an old hymn. The ones below often pop up in my internal playlist as I meditate on God’s care, the anchor of our faith, and God’s abiding presence with us.

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
When I think of being held by God’s loving care, this hymn written in 1887 comes to mind. My favorite rendition is by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the band that sang with Paul Simon on “Graceland”.

1. What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Refrain
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

2. O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
O how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Refrain

3. What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Refrain

♦◊♦

“My Anchor Holds”
This 1902 tune falls under the “they don’t write hymns like they used to” category. I love the lyrics but I also love how the music in the last line of the refrain evokes a steady anchor. [Note: I prefer to sing this at a faster tempo.]

1. Though the angry surges roll
On my tempest-driven soul,
I am peaceful, for I know,
Wildly though the winds may blow,
I’ve an anchor safe and sure,
That can evermore endure.

Refrain:
And it holds, my anchor holds:
Blow your wildest, then, O gale,
On my bark so small and frail;
By His grace I shall not fail,
For my anchor holds, my anchor holds.

2. Mighty tides about me sweep,
Perils lurk within the deep,
Angry clouds o’ershade the sky,
And the tempest rises high;
Still I stand the tempest’s shock,
For my anchor grips the rock.
Refrain

3. I can feel the anchor fast
As I meet each sudden blast,
And the cable, though unseen,
Bears the heavy strain between;
Through the storm I safely ride,
Till the turning of the tide.
Refrain

4. Troubles almost ’whelm the soul;
Griefs like billows o’er me roll;
Tempters seek to lure astray;
Storms obscure the light of day:
But in Christ I can be bold,
I’ve an anchor that shall hold.
Refrain

♦◊♦


“Abide with Me”

I don’t remember ever singing this during a worship service, only at a funeral long ago in a small town. But when I went to church in the states last month, we sang it to a new tune from Indelible Grace which may help resurrect this comforting hymn.

1. Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

2. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

3. Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

3. Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

4. Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

5. I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

6. I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

7. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Speaking of being held

August 12, 2014 — 2 Comments

My dear friend, Michael Prewitt, who died one month ago today, wrote often during his illness about his experience of being held by God:

“What I have experienced in this time is a sense of security and being held by the power of a loving God who, whatever the outcome of this, cares for me.”
October 11, 2012, three weeks after being diagnosed with an aggressive malignant brain tumor

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“I end this post with the word that remarkably has defined this time for me: Gratitude. For all your thoughts, cards, emails, prayers. For the love and embrace of my family. For the constant protective presence of the mystery we call the God who comes to us in our need. Praise God from who all blessings flow.”
October 27, 2012

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“That restful sleep is the product of a comfort that I cannot explain, that beyond the state of the art medicine and attentive, loving care of family, I am held and protected. It has nothing to do with what I am able to think or do or even pray.”
January 1, 2013

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“More and more, I realize that the gift of healing that I’m looking for, may not involve a physical healing at all. Somehow the healing that I’ve been given, the healing that we are promised by God, is a greater healing that deals with our assurance that we are indeed in God’s hands, and that mystery is a great gift to me, whatever the final outcome of my physical healing.”
September 9, 2013

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“You know that other people probably would get depressed by this state of affairs, but I do not feel that way, and, if anything, the feeling that I’ve had of being held and protected is as strong as it was slightly over a year ago. It all is such an incredible gift. Why have I been given this way of handling this? I don’t know, but I am grateful for it every day.”
October 31, 2013, after landing back in rehab again

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“My spirits are good and I continue to have this feeling that I am being held, and often times, during a day or a week, I feel like I’ve really been able to be in touch with God in a way that does not involve a specific prayer, just this feeling of being held and that is enough.”
May 18, 2014, two months before Michael died

Speaking of roots

August 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

My blessing is on those people who trust in Me,
who put their confidence in Me.
They will be like a tree planted near a stream
whose roots spread out toward the water.
It has nothing to fear when the heat comes.
Its leaves are always green.
It has no need to be concerned in a year of drought.
It does not stop bearing fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-9

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“The tree on the mountain takes whatever the weather brings.
If it has any choice at all, it is in putting down roots as deeply as possible.”
Corrie ten Boom

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“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

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This year for the first time in a decade, I had the opportunity to enjoy my native New England’s summer. It was wonderful to see oaks and maples and elms and ash trees in full leaf. Every day I marveled at the magnificent extravaganza of broad, tall, green limbs reaching to the sky.

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During those five weeks, we had only two or three days of rain, yet the trees didn’t shrivel. Their vast network of roots drew in moisture stored deep in the earth. Even when the lawn began to look parched, the woods remained vivid in all their shades of green.

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I experienced another kind of abundance during my time in the states: our whole family was together for the first time in two years. My days were filled with trips to parks and ponds, museums and villages as we reacquainted Sam and Jeff to life in America. I spent hours staying with 20-month-old Nora as she explored the world. I took almost daily runs to the grocery store, and cooked meals for the crowd. I watched Lucy and Clara play soccer with their cousins.

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However, all this feasting on family meant I had little time for reflection and quiet time with God. I hung onto my daily anchor of reading The Divine Hours and sometimes added a prayer from Scotty Smith’s “Everyday Prayers”. It was like taking a few quick sips from a water fountain and then dashing off.

Frankly, grabbing five minutes to straighten my soul before I plunge into the day isn’t enough to sustain me over the long haul. But for a limited period of time, I survived. My soul didn’t wither away; it drew on the roots I had laid down in calmer days when I had time to soak in God’s word without being interrupted.

Some days I was just hanging on like Nora.

Some days I was just hanging on like Nora.

I was gratified how these roots held me and fed me, especially because the regular daily time I spend with God at home usually doesn’t feel spectacular or exciting. It often doesn’t feel particularly nurturing either. But I keep plodding on, reading, praying, and reflecting even when I can’t see any visible signs of growth.

I’ve learned that this patient faithfulness, what Eugene Peterson calls ‘a long obedience’, does make a difference. Even if I’m not aware of any immediate pay-off, the time I spend with God grows roots in my soul that I can draw on during a spiritual drought. It creates a vast network of underground branches that feed and sustain my spiritual life.

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We need these roots not just during our happy vacations, but for the harsher storms we go through. A dear friend of ours spent the last two years battling brain cancer. During the ups and downs of surgeries, physical therapy, setbacks, and treatments, the faith he had nurtured over the years fed him with an amazing peace and an abiding sense of God’s presence.

Whenever Michael spoke to people about his illness, he shared how he felt held in the hands of God’s loving care. He didn’t always have the mental strength to read and reflect but his roots sustained him all the way to the end. A week before he died, his pastor came to visit and asked how he was doing. Michael slowly brought his hands together.

That quiet confidence didn’t spring up over night. Faithfully through the years, Michael sunk his spiritual roots down deep in Jesus–deep enough that this self-described Type-A personality was able to lean back into the arms of his Father during his final challenge.

His life was a witness that by faith and faithfulness, our trust becomes stronger that our loving Father will hold us safe all the days of our life. As we stay by God’s stream and drink deeply every day, we become anchored in His grace.

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That’s why as I settle back into my home routine, I’m not skimping on spending time with God each day. Once again I’ve taken up the long obedience to foster my attachment to the Vine so my roots can be replenished and continue to grow. When storms come or the sun sears down, I want strong roots to keep me from crashing to the ground or turning to a crisp.

How about you? When do you carve out time during your day to sit at the feet of Jesus?

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians 2:6-7

“If roteness is a danger, it is also the way liturgy works. When you don’t have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.

Put differently: I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find, at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism. Though meaning to commune with or reverence or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour. I worry about my mother’s health, or I stress about money, or (more happily) I bop up and down with excitement about good news or sunshine or life in general, but I never get much further than that.

It is returning to my prayer book that places me: places me in words that ask me to confess my sins, even when I can’t think of any red-letter deeds recently committed; words that ask me to pray for presidents and homeless Charlottesvillians and everyone in between; words that praise God even on the mornings when I wonder if God exists at all.

Sure, sometimes it is great when, in prayer, we can express to God just what we feel; but better still when, in the act of praying, our feelings change. Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims. It repoints the person praying, taking him somewhere else.”
Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline

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“I saw more clearly than ever that the first great primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord . . .
not how much I might serve the Lord, . . . but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished.”
George Muller

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“Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, You have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with Your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of Your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.”
The Divine Hours

The freedom of ritual

July 16, 2014 — 5 Comments

I grew up going to a Lutheran church where every week we followed the liturgy in the red service hymnal–though I don’t ever remember actually opening the book because by the time I could read, I knew the liturgy by heart. Over the years, it became so engrained in me, I could recite it without having the words penetrate my consciousness. Many Sundays I was like a sleepwalker, mumbling the responses with the rest of the congregation.

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that when God became real to me as a teenager, it was not in the liturgical tradition, but in a more free flowing style. The minister made up prayers on the spot, responsive readings changed every week, the language was less formal. I couldn’t coast on autopilot. I loved the freshness, the newness, the variety, the freedom. I turned my back on all things liturgical, viewing them as stodgy, dead, meaningless, and mechanical.

It took a very long time, but eventually I came to appreciate the use of liturgy in worship. I think the first time was on a visit back to the states when I spent a month at an artist’s colony without a car. In the town of 20,000 people, my worship options were limited to a half dozen churches. [And one has to live in a city of two million people that has only *one* English-speaking Protestant church to understand the irony of the phrase 'limited to a half dozen'.]

I chose the Episcopal church because I had confidence the liturgical service would be a solid, Christ-centered worship experience. I knew what I would be getting–not unlike opting to eat at an international restaurant chain rather than risk the local greasy spoon.

I’ve had the same experience on a personal level as well. Several years ago, my friend Lynette gave me a set of the Divine Hours, with its three-times a day liturgical prayer format. The brief office draws on the Psalms for different elements and includes a short reading, usually from the New Testament, ending with the Lord’s prayer and a concluding prayer [which I've now memorized so I have to really slow down and think about what I'm saying rather than just rattle it off]. For a while, I followed the Divine Hours every day, in a lapsed Lutheran kind of way, not reading it at a fixed time and usually only doing the morning office.

There are still times when I go back to the Divine Hours. When I’m traveling, it becomes a devotional anchor for me. I use the online version run by the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church, which allows you to localize the hours for your time zone. ** I don’t have to come up with what I want to say to God, I don’t have to think. I ‘only’ have to tune my spirit in harmony with the words on the page.

Once during a period where liturgical prayer was my life line, I came across this question in a devotional: “Do I relate to God through a specific ritual/routine or do I approach Him as a person, confident in my identity as His child?”

Not only did this question seem to assume that ritual is bad, it also struck me that it wasn’t helpful to put routine and spontaneity in an either/or framework. A child’s life is not all free play. It is also full of routines and rituals. Not just mealtime, bathtime, bedtime, but also special little rituals, sometimes using a game or a song.

The issue really isn’t routine vs. freedom, but distance vs. intimacy. And while it’s true that if I fall into an autopilot mode, rituals can put distance between me and God, it’s also true that freedom can bring distance. I can end up indulging my own whims or never quite get around to confessing my sins. I can conveniently overlook certain aspects of God’s character. Following a liturgical prayer form like the Divine Hours can bring me to places I would never go to on my own.

**Link
Divine Hours online

“A nineteenth-century teacher in the Celtic world, Alexander Scott, used the analogy of royal garments. Apparently in his day, royal garments were woven through with a costly thread, a thread of gold. And if somehow the golden thread were taken out of the garment, the whole garment would unravel.
So it is, he said, with the image of God woven into the fabric of our being. If it were taken out of us, we would unravel. We would cease to be. So the image of God is not simply a characteristic of who we are, which may or may not be there. . . . The image of God is the essence of our being. It is the core of the human soul. We are sacred not because we have been baptized or because we belong to one faith tradition over another. We are sacred because we have been born.
But what does it mean to be made in the image of God? In part, it is to say that wisdom is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done or become. It is to say that the passion of God for what is just and right is deep within, deeper than any apathy or participation in wrong that has crippled us.
To be made in the image of God is to say that creativity is at the core of our being, deeper than any barrenness that has dominated our lives and relationships. And above all else, it is to say that love and the desire to give ourselves away to one another in love is at the heart of who we are, deeper than any fear or hatred that holds us hostage. Deep within us is a longing for union, for our genesis is in the One from whom all things have come. Our home is in the Garden, and deep within us is the yearning to hear its song again.”
J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts

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“When confronted with suffering that won’t go away or with even a minor problem, we instinctively focus on what is missing,…not on the Master’s hand. Often when you think everything has gone wrong, it’s just that you’re in the middle of a story. If you watch the stories God is weaving in your life, you… will begin to see the patterns. You’ll become a poet, sensitive to your Father’s voice.”
Paul Miller

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“Almighty God,
who wonderfully created us in Your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
in Your Son Jesus Christ:
grant that, as He came to share our human nature,
so we may be partakers of His divine glory;
who is alive and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Christmas Collect

“Corrie Ten Boom often worked on needlepoint while she talked to people about being in a World War II concentration camp where her father and sister died. When she was finished speaking, she would hold up the backside of the needlepoint and show the audience the jumble of colors and loose threads with no discernible pattern. She would say that is how we see our lives. Then she would turn the needlepoint over and show the beautiful picture, saying,”This is how God views your life and someday we will have the privilege of seeing it from His point of view.”

She wrote a poem about this:
My life is but a weaving between my God and me,
I do not choose the colors, He works so steadily,
Oft times He weaves in sorrow, and I in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper, and I the underside.
Not till the loom is silent, and the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful in the Weavers skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.”

One thing that impresses me as I read through the Old Testament is the two-way relationship that takes place between God and individuals. And the fact that the two-way relationship is between the all–holy, perfect Creator and an imperfect and rebellious human being. In spite of this, God is still willing to engage with these people.
Take Hagar for instance, a woman who has the flaw of looking on Sarah and her barrenness with contempt. Sarah in her turn treats Hagar so badly that Hagar runs away.

But an angel of the Lord encourages Hagar and says to call her son Ishamel which means God hears. After this encounter, she begins to call God “El Roi which means “God sees me“. Then she asks herself a question: Have I truly seen the One who sees me?

I stopped short when I read that because it showed me that it’s not only helpful to ask God questions but it’s also good to ask ourselves questions.
God sees me. Have I seen Him?
God hears me. Do I hear Him?
God acts. Do I notice?
God blesses. Do I thank Him?

Too often my life with God does not reflect this two-way relationship. Instead, I tend to view it more as a box of puzzle pieces for me to fit together. Some pieces are those hard-to-answer questions I’m trying to make sense of.
Other pieces are the seemingly contradictory aspects of God’s character: loving and just, accepting and judging, graceful and lawgiving. Still other pieces are the stormy spots of my life that seem to make no sense to me. I can’t understand why He would let me go through such a terrible trial.

What I want to do is to figure it all out and then sit back with the satisfaction of knowing every piece is in its place.

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But what I see in Genesis is that it’s not a puzzle but a tapestry with warp and woof. Hagar’s question reveals the dynamic that goes on between me and God: He hears me, He sees me. And then it is my turn to draw close and see Him. God speaks , and then I respond. He calls, and I act in faith. It’s a give and take like a weaver’s shuttle going back and forth through the taut threads on the loom. Without my response, God can’t weave in my patch because He doesn’t force Himself into my life. It is up to me to listen and trust and obey.

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I don’t often see the larger picture as the Master Weaver chooses the colors and makes His pattern in my life. But day after day, month after month, year after year, the shuttle goes on, back and forth in our relationship.
And the tapestry He is weaving is even bigger than I can imagine. For my life is just one tiny spot in the master tapestry of the Master Weaver, which He began before time.
Yet, think how the smallest snag in a thread can bring a flaw to an entire piece of fabric. The beauty can be interrupted by a little jagged hole.

My tiny place counts. So does yours. Rather than thinking that it doesn’t really matter how I respond to God, I need to remember that I have an important spot in His magnificent, beautiful tapestry. I need to partner well with Him. I need to listen to Him and respond in faith.

What about you?
Where do you need to hear God and respond to Him?
What is He weaving into your life these days?

What we should marvel at is not the few instances where God strikes down many people,
but that He withholds his divine wrath from us most of the time.
Aubry Smith

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“If we can judge God’s word instead of be judged by it,
if we can give God as much or little as we like,
then we are lords and He is the indebted one,
to be grateful for our dole and obliged by our compliance with His wishes,
if on the other hand He is Lord, let us treat Him as such.”
Hudson Taylor

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C.S. Lewis on the mystery of communion:
“The command was ‘take, eat.’ Not ‘take, understand.'”

Were you there?

June 4, 2014 — 4 Comments

Two years ago, I started following a plan to read through the Bible chronologically. One reason I started doing this was so I wouldn’t avoid unpleasant parts. There are passages in God’s Word that puzzle me and disturb me, and left to my own, I skate past them.

Now I haven’t been following this plan faithfully. Most of the time I focus on studying an individual book of the Bible. But every so often I come back to the plan. At my snail’s pace, I’m almost done with the Pentateuch section.

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This explains why I recently read the sobering story of Numbers 16–a chapter I would prefer not to read.

Korah, [a Levite], Dathan, and Abirham, along with 250 other men rose up against Moses and opposed him, saying he had gone too far and was setting himself above the Lord’s assembly. Korah, not satisfied with being just a Levite, wanted to be a priest too, like Aaron.

The next day there was a showdown at the Tent of Meeting. The Lord wanted to put at end to the entire assembly, but Moses and Aaron interceded. God relented and had Moses warn the assembly to move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abirham.

And then comes one of the saddest verses in the Bible: “So they moved away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abirahm. Dathan and Abirham had come out and were standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents.” [Numbers 16:27] The image of those little ones standing with their parents plucks my heart.

Then the earth split apart and swallowed them and their households. They perished.

It’s hard not to be disturbed by that story. God’s judgment sounds too harsh. And many people have said, “I could never believe in a God who would kill innocent children.” I can sympathize that it’s difficult to accept this.

But there’s a Native American proverb that says, ‘Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” [or shoes, or flip flops or babouches]. So when was the last time you tried to make a holy nation? When was the last time you led 603,550 men [Numbers 1:46] through the Sinai peninsula? And that doesn’t include the women and the children which would make a grand total of about two million people.

The closest I’ve come to this experience is the time I co-led ten teenagers on a week-long backpacking trip in the White Mountains. All we had to contend with were mosquitoes, poorly marked trails, bad food, and rain. There were no enemies trying to kill us. But it still wasn’t easy. There were blisters and some dicey interpersonal dynamics. People got grumpy. People complained about decisions we made. At the end of the week it was a relief to finish the journey and go back to our soft beds.

There’s another saying people are fond of: “Who am I to judge?” Usually we ask that question when a person is doing something that has no effect on our own life. But if a leader makes a decision we disagree with that effects us, we’ll change our tune to: “I could never follow a leader who…” When we read a story of God’s harsh discipline or judgment, we’re tempted to question His wisdom.

But it’s funny how I’ve never complained about God sacrificing His Son to save me. On Good Friday we sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” I wasn’t there, but I don’t grumble about God’s mercy. I don’t doubt His grace. I don’t question His wisdom in sending Jesus to die for me.

I still don’t fully understand why the little ones of Dathan and Abirahm had to be killed. I don’t understand God’s instructions to destroy all the people of Ai (Joshua 8). But I’m not God. I don’t have the whole world in my hands. I’m not all-powerful. I’m not all-knowing. And I’m definitely not all-loving. I walk by faith, not by understanding.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”

Romans 11:33-34

What about you? Where do you need to trust God’s unsearchable judgments?

“Set the peace of God as a sentinel in my heart and mind.
Great King of glory and grace, guard and protect my heart
from the lies of Satan,
the whisperings of gossip,
and the cynicism of naysayers.
I pray with hunger and hope,
in your most trustworthy name.” Amen.
Scotty Smith

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Only be careful,
and watch yourselves closely
so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen
or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.

Deuteronomy 4:9

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Be sober-minded; be watchful.
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion,
seeking someone to devour.

I Peter 5:8

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Do not be anxious about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Watch out!

May 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

A few years ago after several houses were broken into and robbed, our neighborhood decided it needed to increase security. A guard house was built at the entrance of our cul de sac. But more importantly, guards were hired to watch out for thieves, one guard for the night and one for the day.

The guard house and the house for the watch dog.

The guard house and the house for the watch dog.

That came to mind as I’ve been reading through the gospel of Mark because I’ve been impressed by how many times Jesus tells the disciplines to watch out:

Watch out that no one deceives you. [Mark 13:5]
Be on your guard. You will be handed over…[Mark 13:9]
You must be on your guard! Be alert!… Watch! [Mark 13:33]

And then in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus urges Peter, Watch and pray so you will not fall into temptation. [Mark 14:38]

A high watch tower

A high watch tower

Unfortunately, Peter promptly fell asleep again. Even though Jesus predicted Peter would deny Him three times, Peter didn’t see any danger at the moment. He was confident he wouldn’t, so confident that he insisted emphatically.

The problem with temptation is that it tends to sneak up on us, especially if we’re feeling strong and confident. When things have been going well for a long time, it’s easy to get complacent like Peter. The houses in our neighborhood that were broken into were all locked at the time. People thought they were invulnerable. But the thieves managed to pry bars away from windows and break down doors.

I think the same happens in our spiritual lives. If we’ve been walking with Jesus for a long time, it’s easy to think we have everything under control. We begin to assume we’re immune from temptation. But like a thief, Satan doesn’t give up. He waits until we aren’t watching. We think we’ve mastered pride, fear, anger, and we let down our guard.

Recently I experienced this in my life. I thought a temptation I was prone to was gone for good. Instead I discovered it had gone underground, leaving seeds in the soil of my heart which were waiting for the right conditions to sprout again.

It shouldn’t have caught me by surprise. As long as we live, evil–in whatever form we’re most susceptible to–will tempt us. It’s not if I’ll be tempted, but when. That’s one of the few guarantees we have.

So the time to watch out is not when we can see danger coming. The time to pay attention is before. By listening to God’s word, examining our hearts, and then putting His word into practice, we keep watch on our lives.

I know I need to spend some time reflecting on my signature sins and see where I’ve gotten lax and where I need to post some guards.

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What about you?
Where do you need to be on your guard?
What temptation do you need to watch out for?

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From Ashley Cleveland’s memoir Little Black Sheep:

“My experience of surrender is not a tidy line in the sand, it is more like: let go, take it back , let go, take it back, let go. The day that I will it and the day that I do it are rarely the same day. “

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“I had learned in treatment that the gateway to recovery was willingness—willingness to admit my powerlessness, willingness to admit the unmanageability of my life and circumstances, willingness to surrender to God’s care. I needed the will to be willing, and I began to tell the Lord that if He wanted me to turn my wineglass over to Him, He needed to supply me with the will to do it.”

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“I had a pastor for many years who forbade us to sing “I Surrender All,” because he said it was a crock. He said no one surrenders all and that most people, if they are honest, aren’t even qualified to sing “I Surrender Some.” I am solidly in that camp. I know all about selective surrender and cherry-picking my life before handing it over to God’s care: “Here , You can have this. I didn’t want it anyway.” God knows all about it too, but here’s the thing: a little bit of surrender is a lot of surrender.

By the same token, a little bit of hope is a lot of hope. A little bit of faith is a lot of faith. All of these things have the same source: a heavenly Father who is so entirely counterintuitive that He delights in investing His power in tiny things like mustard seeds and broken fools like me. I don’t really foresee a day when I will let go without a fight, but it’s helpful to remember that I am not, as Richard Rohr says, “giving up but giving to.” There is an enormous difference.”

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And a quote Cleveland quotes:

“Every day is a completed whole. The present day should be the boundary of our care and striving. It is long enough for us to find God or lose God, to keep the faith or fall into sin and shame. God created day and night so that we might not wander boundlessly, but already in the morning may see the goal of the evening before us.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Recently on my Sabbath day, I read Ashley Cleveland’s memoir, Little Black Sheep. She’s a Grammy Award-winner singer and songwriter, with a throaty voice and the rhythms of black gospel music although she grew up white in the refined, rich, and religious south of the United States where going to church was what nice people did–along with living secret broken lives.

Ashley tells her journey from respectability to grace, with a whole lot of detours in between. When she was a teenager, she decided to follow Jesus, but she kept stepping off the path. Again and again, she gave in to her particular temptations: drugs, sex, alcohol. Again and again, she’d return to God and ask forgiveness. Again and again, God took her back. For years, her life was one endless zig zag. Zig onto the path, zag off the path.

Occasionally I would have a brief period of sobriety. I would begin to feel a tiny spark of hope; I would clean the house, swim laps in my friend Constance’s pool, and start a diet. I would offer a few tentative prayers . I would call my mother, confess everything (very bad idea), and tell her that I was turning a corner, that I could feel it. Then on an ordinary weeknight, I would find that I could not sit still, that my skin prickled and tingled, that I could not bear my own company, and I would be out the door, heading to downtown Petaluma or down the street to the drug dealer’s house.

Along the way, she got pregnant and kept the baby. Again she turned to God, and again she returned to drinking. Again she hit bottom. Then she went to treatment and stayed sober for seven years.

I knew I couldn’t continue as I was and survive, but I didn’t feel relief; I felt beaten. I thought, even then: I don’t think I want to live without a drink. But I did want to try for Becca’s [her daughter's] sake. I wanted to know that I had done everything within my power on her behalf.
…I found an AA meeting before I left Knoxville and at the end of the meeting went forward to receive the silver chip that is also called the Desire Chip , indicating the crossroad to choosing a new way of life.

Usually, that’s where the story ends. Or at least that is where we want the story to end: in glorious victory and triumph as another testimony of God’s loving power, another miracle of God’s great redemption.

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But after seven years of freedom, Ashley started to drink again and entered into the long dark abyss once more.

Drinking occupied the bulk of my thoughts. It was the first thing I thought of on waking: “I had two glasses of wine yesterday. Will anyone notice if I have three today?” It was the last thing I thought of at night : “I think I’ll skip it altogether tomorrow, or maybe just one beer … Yes, just one.” In between, my awareness of my thirst lingered on the periphery of the entire day.

…I began to have small encounters with God in my morning devotions. In my efforts to cloak my descent back into my addiction, I would make a show of wholesome activities like prayer and Bible study: five o’clock in the morning., and all is well! I would feel His still, small voice break through my prayers with a simple: “Give Me the drink.”

If I were her friend or a member of her family, this would be the point where I’d give up on Ashley. I’d say, “Look how many times she has screwed up. She takes grace and then she falls away. She’s obviously not serious about putting her life back together. It’s time to shake the dust off our feet and leave her behind.”

But God never gave up on her. God never shut the door. He kept knocking. He kept wooing. He kept waiting.

And then,

“…one morning, for no particular reason, I walked into an AA meeting. I hadn’t drunk myself into a stupor the previous night, I hadn’t been back to jail, I don’t remember what prompted me to go, only the ordinariness of the day. Perhaps the recent vacation where my pronounced detachment from my family and desire to be alone with the wine bottle had done it. Perhaps the fact that the liquor-store clerks recognized me now had done it. Perhaps the prayers …

Thirty years of zigging and zagging, and God’s mercy never failed Ashley. This time, she was truly ready to begin the long, slow process of rebuilding her life through the power of the Holy Spirit. And He was there.

I awoke to find my Savior was wooing me with such tenderness and love that I couldn’t resist. I awoke to my marriage and found that my husband was ready to jump in and do the heavy lifting (and letting go) that a union of value requires. I awoke to find my children.

The story of the continuing grace of God in Ashley’s life gives me great hope. First, it gives me hope for myself, specifically for those deep-rooted flaws in my character that continue to send up their shoots trying to strangle my heart. When I need to go back and ask God to forgive me for the millionth time, I sometimes hear the accuser asking me if it’s really worth to keep struggling; how is it possible that He would take me back again? The story of Little Black Sheep demonstrates that indeed all things are possible with God. He never, ever gives up. And He gives enough grace for the day. Like manna, His mercies are new every morning.

Second, it gives me great hope for the other broken, sinful people in my life. God waits for them too. It is not my place to write ‘the end’ on their stories. God asks me to be as patient with them as He is with me. He asks me to be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving others as He has forgiven me. And He gives me the power of His Holy Spirit which is really the only way I can give this supernatural love to others.

What about you?
Where in your life do you need to zag towards God for the millioneth time?
And who do you need to hold out hope for?

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“Little Black Sheep” by Ashley Cleveland

“The boy told the shepherd: there’s a fearful storm
So I went out to the field to drive the flocks home
I counted every lamb into the keep
All except for one
That little black sheep

Chorus:
Little black sheep, little black sheep
In the howling wind with no relief
In a cold, cold world nothin’ sounds so sweet
As the voice of the shepherd to a little black sheep

Little black sheep, he ain’t nothin’ but trouble
He’s not worth much and he’ll cost you double
Shepherd says he knows but he won’t sleep
He’s gonna go out and find
That little black sheep

Chorus

Now the little black sheep was the wandering kind
But the shepherd brought him back every time
Mama says: child, when your pride starts to creep
You best remember we all just
Little black sheep

Chorus”

“There is no safe investment.
To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.
If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.
Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change.
It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.
The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
–C. S. Lewis

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“Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side,
Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.
No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye at mysteries so bright.”
–Matthew Bridges

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“We will go before God to be judged and God will ask us,
‘Where are your scars?'”
–Allen Boesak

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“The gospel of Jesus is not a message that we can be trained to run faster and jump higher in a race of moralism. The cross of Jesus stands because we cannot possibly meet God’s standard of righteousness and goodness. Jesus’ love for us can only be received as a gift.” — Makoto Fujimara

Getting burned

April 23, 2014 — 1 Comment

In last week’s post, I included pictures of a wooden circle. It’s a Cradle-to-Cross wreath and I bought it a few years ago from Ann Voskamp‘s children who make them. [Now is a good time to get one if you want, before the Christmas rush.]

Every year it starts as an Advent wreath with a figure of Mary on a donkey, traveling day by day, 24 days in all. I put it away for a few months, then I take it out and add two extensions to make the circle big enough for 40 days of Lent, with a figure of Jesus carrying His cross.

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Now it remains for the 40 days after Easter, which will take us to the ascension of Christ back to heaven.

But there’s a deeper story to this particular wreath.

A few summers ago, friends of ours generously let our family stay at their beautiful vacation cottage–six adults and four children under the age 6.
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I bought little things to help occupy the kids, including sets of markers for each of them.
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You can imagine how mortified I was when I discovered that one unsupervised child had taken the black marker and then proceeded to use the couch for a canvas [a child, I should add, who had not yet reached the age of reason--or even the age of speech. So if someone is to blame, you could go back to the person who provided the implements of destruction.]

Imagine this black on the pretty white and pink chair...or on the matching couch. Take your pick.

Imagine this black on the pretty white and pink chair…or on the matching couch. Take your pick.

I tried and tried to get the stain out. But it was still visible. Our friends were gracious when I told them what happened. “Don’t worry about it,” they said. Such is grace.

I have a couple hundred pictures of our family time together, but not surprisingly I don’t have pictures of the colored couch. When we take pictures, usually we want to capture beauty, joy, happy memories. We don’t want to expose the flaws and brokenness in our world.

That’s what I did last week when I took pictures of our wreath.

Here's the same wreath--notice anything different?

Here’s the same wreath–notice anything different?

Last Christmas, the wooden wreath suffered a small accident when friends were staying in our home. That’s what happens when life gets lived, and I know I could have easily been the one to forget the candles were burning.
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When people visit, sometimes plates and glasses and beautiful vases get broken. Sometimes a couch gets stained. Sometimes furniture get scratched or marked. There are always spills to mop up.

But it’s not just the furniture that gets damaged when people come into our lives. Love is messy and life is full of flawed people. Let someone in and chances are your heart will get broken in a small or big way. Reach out in love and you may get burned by misunderstandings, unkind words, disagreements that turn into angry arguments, needs that turn into demands, apologies that are rejected.

Even when God’s forgiving grace heals a wound and brings reconciliation, the scars can remain.

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How fitting it is then that our Cradle-to-Cross wreath now bears the marks of friendship. We do plan to sand down the charred wood and put some wood putty on it. It will never look new again but that is alright.
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We will enjoy it all the same, treasuring the reminder that at the cross our brokenness meets the full forgiveness of the One whose hands and feet bear the marks of His love.

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Friday’s a comin’

April 16, 2014 — 5 Comments

There’s a well-known riff on Holy Week by the preacher S.M.Lockridge with a refrain that crescendoes, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s a comin.”

But today, mid-week between the enthusiasm of Palm Sunday and the joy of Easter, I thought, “It’s Wednesday, but Friday’s a comin’.”

The sun may be shining now, but a cross will be raised up on Friday, casting a long shadow on the world. And though Easter will come on Sunday, the shadow of the cross will remain.

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Yes, it will be Easter Sunday and we will celebrate the resurrection and the cancelled debt of sin. But Friday will be coming again for there are many more crucifixions that are needed in my life.

There are a thousand little deaths to come as I follow after Jesus, a million little denials of my self. To be His disciple means that I am a cross-carrier. Every day I pick it up. Some mornings, it feels like a ton of bricks, and other times, I find it surprisingly light. Either way, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” [II Corinthians 4:10]

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So here are some Friday, cross-carrying thoughts:

“On the other side of death is freedom, and no one is more free than a dead man. Jesus had much to say about death to self, and on the journey to the ‘me you want to be’, you will have some dying to do.”

John Ortberg

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“The cross is laid on every Christian. It begins with the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death… we give over our lives to death… When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.

It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time… death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at His call. That is why the rich young man was so loath to follow Jesus, for the cost of his following was the death of his will. In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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“The church is not made up of spiritual giants;
only broken men and women can lead others to the cross.”
David J. Bosch

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“Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and love.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of You.
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.
Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as You shine, so to shine as to be a light to others.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta

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