My Life as a Tree

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 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. 

                       –  John 15:5-8

I grew up in a very legalistic church and attended a very legalistic school.  As a result of that, I received two things:

  • I know all about the “Rules”.
  • I deal with a lot of guilt.

I’m not going to sit here and say that Fundamental Baptist churches are cults or that they are warping the minds of those who attend them.  I am sure there are a lot of them that are doing great things, and that God is being glorified through them, but I am going to say that many are so overwhelmingly governed by legalism that they are harming the children that grow up in them.  The focus on rules and guilt takes the truth of God’s Word and twists it into something that does not bring a desire to know God or to be in close relationship with Him.  Instead, it drives them to perform in order to pacify an angry God that desires nothing but obedience and withholds His love until He gets it.

OK. Enough of that soap box.  That was just said so I can say that this passage used to scare me to death. My belief as a kid, based on what was presented to me as truth, was that this passage meant that if I did not regularly lead someone to Christ, I would be taken from earth.  God would end my life.  I was not leading anyone to Christ.  I didn’t really even know any “unsaved” people since I was in a Christian school and that is where all of my friends were.  Can you see how this would make me a little nervous?

As I got older, I had someone explain something about the care of grapes and vines and all of that, and that did shed some light on the truth of this passage, but I still struggled with portions because I still could not really relate to the word picture that Christ was giving here.  In reading the Bible for myself now and getting a better and deeper understanding of the person and mission of Christ I know that there is nothing about Christ that would defend that abrupt and cold finality that I had been presented.  That would not be the act of a Savior.

I came across this passage in my devotions the other day, and I felt that old guilty feeling hit me again.  As the day went on I continued to mull it over in my mind and a different picture began to show up in my head. I might not understand much about vines and grapes, but I do have a very good understanding of Christmas trees.  So, I’m going to take what I understand about the nature of Christ and the act of tree pruning and use Christmas trees as a word picture.

First off, I know. Christmas trees do not produce fruit as we would consider it.  For the purpose of this example the tree itself is the fruit.  The whole purpose of that plant is to grow it to maturity, and that maturity is where the value is realized.  The purpose to the grower is to sell it for a nice profit as a Christmas tree in a few years, but if cannot be used for that purpose they are forced to wait until the tree is very large – 30 years or more and then sell that tree for pulp and make pretty much the same profit.  It just takes more time.

We have all seen Christmas trees.  The nice ones have a conical shape without a lot of holes.  The branches are strong and spaced so the tree has places to hang ornaments.  A lot of people don’t realize that trees like that don’t just “happen”.  There are varieties of trees that will produce a passable version of it, but usually those trees are very large, old trees, and their sheer size makes it look like it has that perfect shape.  Imagine the tree at Rockefeller Center.  If you look at that tree closely, you will see huge gaps in it.  It is not something you would want to see in a small tree, but its mass covers the flaws.

The growth of a Christmas tree is dictated by the conditions around it.  The slope of the land, the type of soil, the prevailing winds, the rainfall, and insects will all determine the growth rate and the shape of the tree.  If a tree is left to itself, especially a pine tree, the tree will have vast differences in growth from year to year, and there are times when that tree will have parts that will just die off altogether.  The result is a tree that has no value for its intended purpose.

So, the grower must step in.  The grower will put things in place to give the tree a good chance to grow well.  A nice, flat area with sandy soil works quite well.  Space is provided for the trees to grow without crowding each other.  Sometimes a deep furrow is used to prevent grass and weeds from choking the tree out when it is very young.

Then the grower starts looking at the harmful damage of outside forces.  Insects, fungi, and parasites can have damaging effects on the trees, so the grower will provide sprays that will help keep that damage at bay.  Sometimes they work, but sometimes they don’t.  Sprays are often washed away by a rain that will allow the pests to still invade.

The most direct method a grower has to make sure that things grow properly is to prune.  To get right into the tree and physically examine it for its problems and determine a course of action that always requires a pruning.  Not to cut back and harm, but to promote healthy growth.

There are times that trees will take off and grow fast.  I have seen them grow as much as 18 inches in a year.  That sounds great when you are trying to grow a tree quickly, but when it is allowed to do that, the tree will not fill in properly and have that desired shape.  It must be cut back so it can fill in and be complete.  There have been times that I have felt a real desire to take off and do things for God. I feel like I have grown and now I am ready to tackle things that are good for God.  But I lack in other areas that are going to leave gaps in my life.  If allowed to continue, I will not be as effective in my purpose God has for me, so He will put hard things in my life as a way to prune me back so the weaker areas have a chance to develop so I am ready for the next step in life.

Some years a tree will have almost no growth.  When that happens the tree will put on a lot of buds.  If the conditions are good the next year with rain and temperature, that tree will go absolutely insane with growth, but it will be misdirected.  The grower must get in and pick out those small buds that could lead the tree to grow in the wrong direction.  It takes an understanding of the final product.  During the times in my life when I feel like I am not growing spiritually I often feel like there are numerous little things that draw my attention from God.  I’m distracted from the important to the immediate. Those times in my life scream for me to be in the Word.  I need to have the truth of it in my mind, to have the Holy Spirit speak to me about the things that I am allowing to pull my attentions from the example of Christ.  When I find those things I have to remove them.  They will take me the wrong way.

Sometimes the top of a tree will just die.  A bug will get inside the crown of the tree and destroy it.  When this happens a tree will lose its shape entirely unless the grower does something radical.  The top of that tree contains a branch called the “leader”.  If the leader dies, a new one must be selected that is close to the center of the tree and looks stronger than the surrounding “potential” leaders.  When that leader is found, all of the others need to be completely removed.  If they aren’t, they will keep trying to take over the spot as leader and the tree will need to go through the same process for several years until that leader is firmly established.  This also results in a setback to the tree that can take a couple of years to overcome.  It’s a setback, not a death.  Sin is like that in my life.  There are choices I have made that have changed the direction of my life.  Sin that must be removed.  Directions I thought were clear and established are no longer there because of my actions.  But God is good.  He has taken the time to identify the other things in my life that have value and potential.  I might not get where He wanted me without some extra scars or as quickly, but He is faithful to keep working on me to bring me to maturity.

I know that an analogy of a tree does not hold all the way through as a picture of the life of a Christian, but I can see very clearly how those instances have presented themselves in my life.  In all of them, God’s plan was not my destruction, but my growth – a Relentless Growth.  The pruning was not to hurt, but to bring me where I needed to be.  A place where I can grow straight and strong.  I’m at a point now in my life where I have enough of it behind me that I can see some of these patterns emerge.  The beauty of it is that I am recognizing this work more quickly now.  Some of it is a willingness to look at my life honestly, but more of it comes from a willingness to listen to the truth that God speaks through close friends.

So, I’m not sure if this meant anything to you, dear reader, but I know that this is true in my life.  I hope it helps at least to spark a thought into what the pain of trials and struggles might be doing in your life as it is in mine.

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Alligator Mouth

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And the king of Israel answered, “Tell him, `Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.’”                – 1 Kings 20:11

I read this verse in my devotional the other day, and at first it made me laugh because I like sarcasm, and this is one of those really neat verses in the Bible that has a really important lesson wrapped up in a sarcastic comment.  The king of Syria was boasting that he was about to wipe the floor with the army of Israel, and King Ahab (not usually one we would look to as a fount of wisdom) basically tells him not to count his chickens before they hatch.  The lesson in there is that we should not promise on a delivery that we are not certain we are able to make, or as my Dad often said to me, “Be careful that you don’t let your alligator mouth write checks your canary butt can’t cash.”

So, why do we do it?  Why do we puff ourselves up and say that we can deliver on things and then promptly forget about them and fail? (I place myself firmly at the front of the line in this.  Remember this is where I write to figure things out that I mess up regularly.)  I think there is a strong hint in the following quote:

“In a world where everyone thinks they are great or exceptional, we think that we can accomplish more than we actually can.”

Is that wrong??? I know that when you listen to the stuff you hear in schools and on the kids soccer fields today, you would hear a message that would validate the first part of the statement.  How often do you hear, “Everyone is a winner,”  “You can do whatever you want to do,” There are no limits!”  In a word, that is pure hogwash.

Let’s face the facts that we aren’t all winners.  *Collective sharp intake of breath courses through the internet.*  Every person on the planet is gifted in certain areas, and not in others.  There are things I can do very well, and others that I have done, currently do, and will continue to fail at.  This does not make me a failure.  This proves that I am human.  Sometimes no matter how hard we struggle to grasp the brass ring of success, we will find ourselves coming up with the plastic swizzle-stick of competence.  That’s not a bad thing – if we are giving out best effort.

The real lesson I am pulling from this is not being able to understand if I should try out for nose tackle for the Detroit Lions this year just because I wear the color blue as well as they do (maybe even better as I have been told it brings out my eyes).  It is that I need to watch what I say I can do so I can be sure to deliver on what I say.  Alligator-Canary lesson.

There was a very good question posed at the end of the devotional that prompted this blog.  Actually it is two questions, and I recommend you give a knee-jerk answer to the first and then ponder the second for a bit.  I’ll wait…

“Would people say that I do what I say I will do?”

“Who would be a good person to have give an honest answer to that question?”

Welcome back.  If you are like me, the answer to the first was a hearty yes!  It made me feel great to say it, and it was so easy!  I always want people to believe me when I say I will do something.  Who wouldn’t want to feel that way.  Why, there probably isn’t anyone I know that would answer otherwise about me!  Oh, you want names?  Sure let me work on that list for you.

Well, probably the best would be my wife. On second thought, she knows me too well, and hey, I should be able to be let things go occasionally with her, right?

My kids! No, that probably wouldn’t work very well either.  How many times have I had to cancel something with them that I had told them we would do.

My employees! Yeah.  We won’t go there…

My friends.  But which ones?  Well, when I think about it, I’ve let a lot of them down too after saying I would come through for them, but I didn’t.

When it comes down to it, that second question just flat kicks my canary keister.  Why?  I want to be a man of my word.  I want people to depend on and believe that the things coming out of my mouth are trustworthy things. I will do what I say I will do!  So why don’t I?

Time – Frankly, I am overdrawn on my time account more often than I want to admit.  In order to give time to the people I love, I have to pull time from the things that I promised other people I would do for them and vice versa.  The reasons for it are usually good – wanting to help, wanting to serve.  Too often thought the reasons are not good – avoiding guilt, making myself look good.  That leads to the next reason.

Image – Honestly, I want people to like me, and people tend to like you when you tell them you will give them what they want from you.  Great concept, but it always, and I do mean ALWAYS comes up short in the delivery.  You’d think I would be smart enough to avoid falling back into that trap. Still in process on that one.

Fear – Fear of failing.  Fear of guilt. Fear of myself.  Fear of what comes next if I don’t make the promise.

There are more things that enter into it, but I think those are my top three, and I would imagine that they would be right up there with a lot of people.  So, as my friend Lou would say, “What are you going to do about it?”

The best thing I can do about it is to ask God to help me with it.  Ask the Spirit to keep it at the forefront of my mind.  I tend to follow through more on the things I keep thinking about. I know, strange concept, but it’s true!  Looking to God for help should always be my first step.  He knows me and my weaknesses better than I do, and He wants to help.

I need to continue to watch my priorities too.  Sometimes it is the things I promise others, but at times it comes down to things that I decide I would rather do.  I need to look at my time as a more precious commodity and spend it wisely.  There are times to be on the go, but there are times that are best spent being still.  I need to get better at deciphering when each is appropriate.

I need accountability.  There are a few people I need to ask give me some feedback on that first question.  There are probably some that would love to get in that line!  I don’t think I need to go very far to find the truth in it though.  There are probably fewer than 10 people I need to ask, and their answers would likely be similar to my own.

I want to be better.  I’m going to work on that, and with God’s grace and help. I will get better.  I’ll never be perfect though.  May alligator part will beat out my canary part from time to time, but my prayer is that I will get things balanced out a lot better.  If you are reading this and have the same problem, I’ll be praying for your canary butt too!

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Getting Higher by Staying Lower

bigstock_Teamwork_Help_Up_Bar_Graph_1665977Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.

–          I Peter 5:6-7

I read this passage today, and it is a message that resonates through the New Testament.  James and Paul offer similar instructions in their letters.  Why would God want this message repeated?  Why would Peter, Paul, and James all offer the same advice?   Short answer – Because we need to hear it over and over again because we don’t remember the importance of it when we are hurting.

For some time now I have been struggling with a situation.  During this struggle that has been going on for a couple years I have had things said about me that were untrue. I have had people go out of their way to tear me down and set me up for failing.   I have been ignored, dismissed, and doubted.  As all of that has gone on, I have also been placed in a position where defending myself and bringing out the truth of the situation would have had some dire consequences.  Not a place I like to be.

Another part of this that has added to the problem is that I really struggle with a sense of personal justice.  I don’t need life to be fair for me.  I am not so dense as to think that the world is fair, but I really have a streak of pride in me that almost demands that when I am right in something I must be heard.  I am not willing to give up that fight.  I’m not proud of it because I know it has brought me a lot of trouble over the years.  It brings out anger and a bitterness that can ruin relationships and bring division.  It has.  I’ve had to make amends with some.  There are others I may never be able to, but I will continue to try.

So, back to the story.  As I have been struggling through this trial, I have had it pointed out to me that I am where I am in order for God to reveal something in my spirit that needs to grow.  Not what I want to hear.  I am more concerned with getting my reputation unsullied and things put in the order that they should be in.  I am a little too busy complaining about my circumstances and trying to get people to see my side of things to be looking for some lesson God has for me.  I know, very mature.  I’m so proud of me too.

As time goes on I keep hearing this same advice. I keep getting told things like how I should pray for this person.  Again, this is not something I want to hear.  I’m hurting, and I am floundering, but I am supposed to pray for the people that are bringing me that much trouble?  I am being maligned, but I am supposed to extend grace and mercy?  Who do they think I am? Jesus?

Jesus.  Whoa.  That is exactly what He did.

Christ was mistreated, misrepresented, ignored, dismissed, maligned, persecuted, and more.  He never railed against those who punished Him unjustly.  He did nothing but extend mercy. He prayed for them. He spoke kindly. He humbled Himself in the hands of His persecutors and let them do with Him as they wished.  Why?  Because He lived to serve, and He was in submission to His Father.

I am a Christian.  I am called to serve God.  I am supposed to be living my life to bring honor to Christ for What He did in my life by trying to live like He did.  If I was going to do that, I would have to start doing some things differently.

The first thing was to get humble and say that I am willing to serve.  It might not be noticed.  It often would feel unappreciated, and it would almost always mean that I would be doing far more than would be “fair”.

Next I had to start talking to God.  I think that was the key.  As I shared my struggle with God and read His Word I began to see how He really was interested in my life.  He spoke to me through the passages I would read. I felt comfort after praying and sharing my frustrations, and my fears. He showed me that He loved me and He would carry me through it.

Then I just had to settle in and keep going and waiting on His timing.  It’s hard to wait on God, but it’s harder if you are waiting on Him by yourself.  You are better off waiting on God while clinging to His Word and His Spirit and His people.  Having solid friends I could share my struggle with was so important.  To hear them pray for me brought even more peace and strength.  When I would read the Bible I would see others who struggled and were misunderstood, but they carried on with God and they made it through and were rewarded.

It was very interesting how this week, when I was least expecting it, I was brought into a conversation that changed things.  It looks like the struggle may be coming to an end.  I see there are still things that are going to require some hard work and a bit of humility as I work some things out, but I was lifted up and given praise and honor that I had resigned myself to thinking would never come.  There is a reward that appears to be coming, and I am very thankful.

I think the part of this that means the most to me is not that I have been proven right.  That may shock some of you who know me well.  The thing that means the most is that when I finally gave in to doing the right thing instead of being right, the truth became evident, and things are looking up.

God cares for me.  I know He does. He wants to lift us up, but too often we are so busy looking into ourselves for the solutions to our problems.  That is what I was doing.  If I were to do more or say this, or prove that, I would be vindicated.  That would have just led to me believing I had fixed the problem.  When I looked up, I began to see that God was reaching out to me and that He wanted to bring me to a better place, but I had to out my agenda aside for His.

I know we are all struggling with something.  I’m not done with this yet, and I probably have at least a half dozen other things I need to get in order even before I go to bed tonight!  I’m working on this, and I know God is there and He cares enough to help me through because I am His child, and He is the perfect Father and I  know He delights in me.

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Answer the Question!

questionHe said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” – Matthew 16:15

“This is the most important question you can answer: Who is Jesus Christ?  The way we answer that questions alters everything.” – James MacDonald

This was the topic of my quiet time yesterday, and it has really stuck with me.  It has made me really think about where I was, where I am, and where I am hopefully going.  It really comes down to the quote by MacDonald.  The answer to the question alters everything.  What I saw in myself in the way that I answer it is revealing something in me.  As I mulled it over for a few hours I started to really see how that answer has changed for me, and it gives me a bit of conviction about how I would like to answer it.

When I read this my answer was immediate, “Jesus is my Savior, my Redeemer, my Advocate and my Friend.”  It is really how I feel about Him.  I am so thankful that He was willing to die for me, that he has bought my life with all of its faults and has cleansed me and presented me to His Father as something desirable.  He stands before the Father and He prays for me and He covers my sins with His grace.  This is very vivid in my mind, and that is why it comes to me so quickly.

The thing is, it wasn’t always like that.  Even as few as 5-6 years ago, my answer would have been different, but just as quick.  I would have said, “He is the Son of God!  He is the Creator of the Universe, and He came to save the world from itself!”  All very true, very factual, just like you would read it out of a book.

So, what has made the difference?  He hasn’t changed.  He is exactly the same, so why is my answer different?  It is because I know Him better now.  I see Him differently because of the time I have spent in His Word.  I have spent time talking to Him, developing a relationship.  I have become tender to the fact that I caused Him to suffer.  I put Him on that cross, and He would do it again and again.  He does.  Every day I do something that is wrong – sin.  And He loves me still. Time and again I will sin and He will cover it.  Time and again I will choose myself over Him, and he forgives me.  Time and again I will lose control, and He welcomes me back.  He redeems me.

I’m so thankful for this view of Christ and who He is to me, but this is not where I am supposed to stay.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there needs to be another progression.  I want my answer to be immediate and honest one day when I answer that question by saying, “He is the Lord of my life.”  I’m not there yet.  I have a long way to go to really get there.  Basically because I still have way too many areas in my life that He does not have rule over yet.  Some of them are on purpose because of selfishness, but some of them are for other reasons.

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct;   – 1 Peter 1:14-15

I like the use of the word “passion” here.  It is referring to action without thought.  Another translation uses the word lust, and as the verse continues it is talking about the ignorance of our sinful nature.  This is a warning to guard against just acting without thinking.  We are called to be holy, set apart in our conduct.  This is the picture of a servant giving thought to his actions before his Lord.  I don’t think it means that mistakes won’t be made.  We are human, and we are acting out of the knowledge that we have, and sometimes that is not accurate or complete, but are we acting out of what we know or are we letting our feelings take over?

I want to be able to sit down at the end of the day and say, “I might not have gotten it all right.  I learned some things today about how I should act, but today I thought of God in all of the things that I did.  Not because I am afraid of His power and how He might punish me, but because I am His servant, and I want Him to be glorified in all that I do because He is a good and kind Lord, and I am blessed to be in His service.”

I don’t want to do anything that will bring shame to my Lord, so I need to change my behavior.  I want people to see my life as one that is devoted to Jesus Christ.  I don’t want them to think that I am going through motions or just trying to build a reputation or a following.  I don’t want to be a poser or a self-promoter.

So, I want to say publicly, if you see me doing something that is not right, that does not seem kind, loving, or in any other way unbiblical, that is all me.  People say that Christians say one thing and do another, and too often that is true, but it should not be a reflection of the God that we serve.  It is us.  It is me.  Christ died for my sins, but I don’t want Him to take the blame for my reputation.  That should fall on me.

So, if you haven’t been giving it any thought, ask yourself, “Who is Jesus to ME?”  When you have your answer, ask yourself “Why?”  Then take it farther and ask, “Am I satisfied with this?” and finally, “What am I going to do about it?”  That is where Relentless living begins. If I can be a help or an encouragement, let me know.  We’re all in this together.

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