The Master Gardener

photo by z

photo by z

Those who know me would readily bear witness that when something catches my focus, I attend to it with great zeal.  Okay, they might say obsession!  This summer three things have captured my attention like never before: family, fishing, and gardening.  This post involves all three.

The kids and I were on our way to go fishing when to my pleasure, James my 6 year old, said he wanted to read the Bible on the way and asked for my pocket New Testament which I gladly provided.  It only got better.  James just opened it up and started reading aloud, struggling over a few words but doing pretty well.  The ‘random’ passage he read:

“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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will 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 am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 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. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:1-8, NIV)

I cannot tell you the joy and the excitement when I realized the teaching moment that my 6 year old had initiated.  I paused James to ask him what I did every morning and the first thing I did when I came home from work.  He quickly answered that I watered the garden plants and looked at each one, carefully looking for new and developing fruit.  I explained I also take care to ensure there are no signs of disease or insect pests.  Each day making sure there is the right balance of nutrients, the soil is not too dry nor too wet, etc.  And even pruning back the branches that did not have signs of fruit.

I then had the opportunity to relate that same care to Jesus, the Master Gardener, whose care and attention to detail in our lives makes my own garden care appear like blatant neglect.  All three kids got it.  Yet another day that God has granted me in this life was overfilled with His amazing grace!

Jesus, knows our every need and when we remain in Him, nourishing our souls on His word and drinking deeply of His Holy Spirit, we will bear much fruit.  He will always see that we receive everything we need to bear fruit for His Kingdom and His Glory!  All praises be to our Master Gardener!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.” (Hebrews 13:15, NIV)

Soaking up the Son – and loving life!

“For you will go out with joy And be led forth with peace; The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12, NASB95)

photo by shazam791

photo by shazam791

For any who may be wondering – I have not abandoned this blog.  I intend to keep posting, but with summer vacation here and a wonderful peace in my soul that I am truthfully unaccustomed to – I have been more inspired to play with the kids (fishing, biking, swimming, etc.), play with my mobile garden (spicy salsa and chile rellenos in our future), and reading as opportunity provides (in the middle of 3 books now with a growing want to read list).  I can only say that it is very well with my soul.

Last weekend we came through a nasty storm that produced at least two tornado touchdowns on our way home from the farm.  We stopped to watch for funnel clouds (ranks right up there with chasing a black bear in my Game and Fish days) then drove on.  We came through what seemed like a wall of rain and then just as suddenly as the black storm clouds had met us, we were met with clear blue skies – beautiful!  Like the storm had not even occurred.

This is the only way I can describe the contrast between last summer and this summer.  Just as fast and unexpected as last years stormy trials appeared – a peace and rest from God has overtaken me.  God always more than compensates for faith during times when the sun seems blocked.  I intend to soak up every blessed ray of sunshine He is sending down upon me right now!

I pray God’s blessings on each of you who routinely checks this blog and that you too will soak up all God has for you today.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16, NIV)

One True Identity, One True Community

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26a; 27, NASB95)

Photo by Laurence and Annie

Photo by Laurence and Annie

Within these two very first verses speaking of man’s creation so much applicable insight is found to our one true identity and one true community.  Here we see the Godhead Himself as the plural ‘Us’ and further creating man in ‘Our’ image and Our ‘likeness’.  Without attempting a comprehensive analysis of image and likeness here, it will suffice to point out that there exists a sense of community acting in harmony for a creative purpose within God and that that image and likeness was intended to be reflected in created man (comprising both male and female).

That image of God as community, inherent to man, has been fractured as a result of the fall and has resulted in an alienation and separation (death) that spread throughout all of man’s relationships.  The first relationship fractured is with God and then secondarily with all other members of the human race.  While fractured and distorted, all members of the human race, still bear the image of God.  Although broken, God still loves His creation and though under no obligation to His creation, He continues to rebuild our broken relationships and to rebuild a new community rooted and built up in Christ.

In the final analysis, says the Christian ethic, every man must be respected because God loves him.  The worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of his intellect, his racial origin, or his social position.  Human worth lies in relatedness to God.  Whenever this is recognized, “whitness” and “blackness” pass away as determinants in a relationship and “son” and “brother” are substituted.

– Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the defense of a philosophy of integration, 1962

God loves each and every one of us.  We are all members of the one race – the human race.  But the fall makes us prone to identify ourselves first and foremost by whatever we perceive separates us, whether it be color, ethnicity, culture, class, or country, rather than by what unites and unifies us in community.  Rev. Howard Thurman goes further in his reflection on identity and identifying beyond man’s natural distinctions:

To experience oneself as a human being is to know a sense of kinship with one’s total environment and to recognize that it is this structural relationship that makes it possible for one to experience himself as a human being.  Being white or black becomes merely incidental and is of no basic significance….

The impact upon the individual when he experiences himself as a human being is to regard himself as being of infinite worth…

It is total, it is unified and unifying.  It is not the experience of oneself as male or female, as black or white, as American or European.  It is rather the experience of oneself as being.  It is at such a time that one can hear the sound of the genuine in other human beings.  This is to be able to identify with them…

When I identify with a man, I become one with him and in him I see myself…

The religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives…Through the years it has driven me more and more to seek to make as a normal part of my relations with men the experiencing of them as human beings.  When this happens love has essential materials with which to work… a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another.

– Rev. Howard Thurman, excerpts from The Luminous Darkness (1965) found in A Strange Freedom.

Mark Deymaz in his book “Building Healthy Multi-Ethnic Churchs”, insightfully points out that Christ is exalted when we transcend diversity in our love for one another.  When we transcend the separation and alienation which divides and segregates fallen man and are truly able to come together as one body, one ‘brotherhood’, through the Spirit and love of Jesus Christ, God is glorified.  Deymaz points out that Jesus’ own prayer for the church emphasize this unity as being key for His future witness in the world:

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:20-23, NASB95)

We must learn the discipline of distinguishing between learned relational culture and true identity.  As one with some cross-cultural experience, I have learned that cultures are like clothing within a wardrobe.  The more exposure to cultures that we experience, the larger our wardrobe becomes.  But in the end, the saying is true, clothing does not make the man.  Culture should not make the identity.

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NASB95)

Through Christ we share One true identity, we share One journey, we share One destination – One true community.  It all begins with a restored relationship with Jesus Christ.  To restore right relationships with other human beings, man must first enter into a restored right relationship with God, His creator.  It is freely available – all one must do is repent of sin, receive forgiveness, and walk in reconciliation (more on that to come).

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:19-20, NASB95)

Forgiveness – the battle of cutting free

photo by trying2

photo by trying2

Why do certain past events or circumstances seem to pull us backwards.  There can be many reasons, but in my experience it means something has been left unresolved, some hurt, some wrong dealt with, or dealt out.  Forgive and forget is the saying – but it seems we often try opting only for the latter.  But to do so is simply allowing a scab to form over an infected wound. As time goes on we may actually tune it out, assuming the problem is in the past.  But covered wounds get bumped and we feel the pain all over again.

Forgiveness can be a prolonged process.  Often we must scrape off the scab and look at an issue again. Difficult because there is still the instinct to leave it in the past, forget about it, man up and move on.  But that is like ignoring cancer.  No, we must dig deeper and apply Christ’s healing balm of forgiveness at the deepest most painful source.

I mentioned that the forgiveness can go both ways – sometimes we must forgive an offender, other times we must seek forgiveness for ourselves.  The first step is confession.carrying

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16, NIV)

While no one apart from Jesus, can truly comprehend and feel our pain, we are not called to walk alone.  Allowing others to come alongside can be an essential healing step.  Often a brother or sister in the faith can provide the added strength to get you to the foot of the cross, where the true healing occurs.  It also allows others to witness God’s grace at work in our lives, even through our failures.

There is an incredible scene in the movie ‘The Mission’ where Rodrigo Montego (Robert De Niro) plays a man overwhelmed with guilt from having killed his own brother.  It is ironic that in the film God uses the indians that Montego had hunted and enslaved for profit – to be his instruments of grace, assisting Montego break free from the burden.

Pennance will not do. It is essential to spend time at the foot of the cross, laying it all out before the One who already paid for the sins, regardless of whose sins.  He will remove the burden from you.

photo by Michael Wray

photo by Michael Wray

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, NIV)

But there is a spiritual insurgent. One who even though disarmed will use every thought and every emotion to convince you that the territory still belongs to him and that true forgiveness cannot be achieved.  But the insurgent is a liar who only seeks to kill, destroy, and to steal (John 10:10) what Christ has freely granted. For this reason we are commanded to take every thought captive and put it in submission to Christ, and Christ alone.

While forgiveness itself is obtained immediately, this battle to align our own thoughts and feelings with that spiritual reality often takes both time and diligence.  But with steadfast dependence upon Christ, the victory is assured.

Only after we have brought our wounds to the light are we able to cut free.  Leaving us finally freed for the journey with the true lover of our souls, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, NASB95)

Faithfulness, forgiveness, and freedom

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” (Matthew 18:15-16, NIV)

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV)

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. … I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.

-Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a letter from a Birmingham Jail

I have still been contemplating the deep words Rev. King wrote and found an interesting intersect with the message Pastor Jeff preached to Cornerstone last weekend on forgiveness.  Rev. King as I have asserted elsewhere was first and foremost a minister and servant of God.  His letter was one prompted by the printed criticism by his peers of his recent actions.

I cannot fathom the daily humiliations he had been subjected to during those dark days of segregation and overt racism in our country.  It is enough to find yourself alone in a jail cell for standing up and doing what your convictions tell you must be done.  But to add insult to injury, other ministers criticism of his actions were being publicized.  I suspect that these blows, delivered not by political opponents, but by brothers in the faith cut much deeper.

Rather than launch an attack, Rev. King modeled the exhortation found in Matthew 18:15.  He wrote a very long letter detailing not only the rationale and biblical justification for his actions, but his painful disappointment in the criticism they had made publicly against him.  Having made his points he concludes with tremendous insight.  If he was wrong and had overstated his case against them – he asked for their forgiveness.  If he had come up short – he asked for God’s forgiveness.  He was simply trying to be an obedient servant, faithful to God’s Word.

Their words of criticism not only hurt him personally, but also undercut the momentum gained by the sacrifices made by him and so many others.  He did not allow that to eclipse his view of them as fellow brothers and followers of Christ. He pointed out their sin against him at the same time demonstrating forgiveness.

Far too often as Pastor Jeff pointed out – we don’t even take the first step of love towards those who offend us.  We go directly to step two but not seeking others to aid in correcting and forgiving a brother or sister, but rather to build a coalition against the offender.  I know I have done this far too often to the detriment of the body.  This must change.  Another’s sins against us never justify our own disobedience to God’s commandments.

photo by Meltwater

photo by Meltwater

If we are to demonstrate true loving correction to the lost of this world, we must first be able to demonstrate the same to those within the family of Christ. As you contemplate these words, Rev. King’s example, and that of Jesus, I urge you to take some time and consider those who have sinned against you.  If you find some hatchet handles sticking out of the ground – it’s time to make amends.  It’s never too late for repentance and healing.  Remember, it has less to do with them as it does with you.  You must be faithful and obedient – and who knows, they may surprise you.  Either way – it’s a burden Jesus never meant for you to carry and forgiveness frees us from our own self-made jail cells.

Of course, we must all start with asking forgiveness of Jesus.  He paid the highest price that can be paid, His life, for our sins.  And He now offers His forgiveness freely, to any and all who will humble themselves enough to ask.

“Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”” (Acts 10:43, NASB95)

I will rise…rise with me

Twenty years ago, Jesus saved my life.  My life is His and I will rise…rise with me.

Refugees like me…

photo by mindgutter

photo by mindgutter

O Lord my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me, or they will tear me like a lion and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me. O Lord my God, if I have done this and there is guilt on my hands— if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe— then let my enemy pursue and overtake me; let him trample my life to the ground and make me sleep in the dust.Selah Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice. Let the assembled peoples gather around you. Rule over them from on high; let the Lord judge the peoples. Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O Most High. O righteous God, who searches minds and hearts, bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure. My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart. God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day. If he does not relent, he will sharpen his sword; he will bend and string his bow. He has prepared his deadly weapons; he makes ready his flaming arrows. He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment. He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head. I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High.” (Psalm 7, NIV, emphases mine)

What a great reminder that when we cry out for judgement – we must seek it for ourselves first. It is not a ‘me against them’ or ‘us against them’ – it is us against the Lord. It is easy for pride to drive us to to respond wrongly (sinfully) both in situations where we are innocent and the more common case where we are also at least partially guilty. I long for the day when my kids will respond rightly to the ‘sins’ of their brothers or sister against them – by the time  their cases come before me – there is rarely an innocent party anymore!

This psalm puts it in perspective. When wronged, anger and self-righteousness are the usual byproducts. When another’s sin is so clearly in view, it is easy to forget or minimize our own. It is easy to desire punitive punishment and to be the means of it rather than true justice from the Lord. But we are not the measuring stick or plumb line – the Lord is. For me those cries for justice when combined with honest self-evaluation end up tempered with a desire for mercy. Mercy of course is meaningless without a clear understanding of justice. Lord, help us to do justly, love mercy, and to humbly walk with You.   You are our refuge from wickedness and evil.  Help us to see injustice as opportunity for Your fire to purify us first, as we also remember to make room and opportunity for other refugees – like me.

Where is the hope?

photo by KM&G-Morris

photo by KM&G-Morris

“Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us. The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people. And that’s where our hope is in this country. And that’s where our hope is in life.” – Charles Colson

In the Lord I take refuge. How then can you say to me: “Flee like a bird to your mountain. For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them. The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates. On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot. For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face.” (Psalm 11, NIV)

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? This is a question that has not left my mind in sometime. With an all out assault being waged on the sanctity of life, the determination on the part of our government officials to become the indebted servants of China, and the recent judgement handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court redefining marriage, it is clear that the foundations are indeed being destroyed.  A big temptation is to respond in the flesh and seek political solutions to these political problems.  Satan would love for us to devote all of our energy and focus there in a futile attempt to bring about righteousness through political action.  But as a follower of Christ, I know that these are spiritual problems being expressed as political problems.  We mustn’t focus on symptoms, we must go deeper to the disease.  So what can the righteous do?   The best answer I know:

1. pray – pray that God’s people would radically align their lives to Jesus Christ and that God would turn the hearts of our leaders towards righteousness;

2. purify – no more ‘tolerance’ of sin in our own lives; we must search our own camps and cast out all idols – idolatry is as subtle as it is seductive and it has permeated even the church.  A genuine relationship with Jesus Christ, the creator and lover of our souls, and a radical alignment to His will is attractive to those His spirit has prepared.  We must focus less on being attractive to the world and more on a authentic following of the Christ.

3. proclaim truth and repentance – now more than ever we must have the courage to stand boldly and speak truthfully to all those around us, with everyone who will listen.  We must speak as those who know full well the fury of God’s wrath and also as those who know full well the fullness of His mercy.  What we are seeing now is both the hardening of hearts AND a failure of God’s people to make true disciples even within our own families.  There is no such thing as cheap grace as we will soon see.

As citizens of a free country, we do have civic responsibility to engage and seek just laws, that uphold human dignity and protect human life.  We should not neglect these duties, but our first priority must be to proclaim God’s truth with encouragement towards repentance and reconciliation with Jesus Christ.

When asking what can the righteous do – the quote from Charles Colson is excellent grounding.  If we want to restore the foundations, if we want real change, we must be God’s instruments to change hearts.  Church, it’s time to get praying, purifying, and proclaiming like never before!  It is true that “our hope is in God working through the hearts of people.”  Let’s give Him permission to move through our hearts to those of others.  And remember, no matter how ugly it gets, in the end…Jesus wins.

Forgiveness…the essential first step.

This is so timely:

I found this video today on a friend’s facebook page.  I love God’s little ‘coincidences!’  It is especially timely as I had been entrenched the last couple of days in a blog dealing with racism.  Within the thread(s) I finally expressed my own frustration with attempting to address the issue and concluded that it could not be done without going to the root and addressing the underlying sin issue.  There is only one cure for sin and that is forgiveness.  Since all sin ultimately is against God – we must come to Jesus Christ, the means of His forgiveness.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV)

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” (Luke 23:34, NIV)

We must realize that we all have sin and come to Jesus to receive His forgiveness.  Then we are able to go and give the forgiveness that we have freely received.

Forgiveness does not deny past or even present injustice.  But when we fail to forgive we build our own prison, and will not be happy until every one else is in there with us – and even with company in our misery, we still are miserable.  But having an attitude of forgiveness puts us in a place where we are able to move beyond, to establish relationship through reconciliation.  We are freed.  Then we are able to move forward seeking justice together.

Immaculee gives us a tremendous example of forgiveness overcoming horrific injustice.  It all began with prayer:

“This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’” (Matthew 6:9-13, NIV)

And then Immaculee realized that hate was trying to grow in her own heart, then a conviction, and then a simple decision not to hate but to overcome hate with forgiveness.  Wow!!!  God’s grace grows and flows in the midst of hatred and  injustice.

Forgiveness is the essential first step towards true reconciliation and to overcoming racism and injustice in our world.  Freedom comes through forgiveness.  It is the essential first step.  And it begins with Jesus Christ who forgave us at the peak of His pain so that we could be free.  Freely we have been forgiven, freely we must forgive.

You have made known to me the path of life

A miktam of David. Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge. I said to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” As for the saints who are in the land, they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods. I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips. Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16, NIV)

May we Bless the Lord and choose the path of life for ourselves and those who cannot choose it for themselves.  Choose blessing and life today!

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