Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Plastic Fruit & Poison Ivy

We’re praying this so that you can live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way: by producing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God
                                            Colossians 1:10

Two years ago we had pole beans in our garden. They grew well and had lush green leaves but we only got a handful of beans. We also had some scrawny tomato vines that produced an initial flurry of tomatoes, leading us to think we would have great production all summer, but because they were such weak vines, they quickly perished in the heat.

Neither plant was an asset to the garden. What we want are plants that both grow and produce fruit. That is what God wants from us as well. I can apply myself to knowledge about God, participating in Bible studies and analyzing scripture. If that is the extent of my effort, I am nothing but an educated fool, a big empty sack of information, all head but no heart. I may know scripture, but I use it as a weapon against others, a sword that divides instead of a balm that heals.  In contrast, if I devote myself only to service, I may produce fruit, but it is fruit that comes out of my own strength and ability, and I will likely burn out. The folks that say “I’ve done my share of church work” are a good illustration of fruit without growth.

Fruit production, if it is to be sustained and Kingdom-bringing, has to be augmented with growth, and vice versa. There has to be inward growth in faith and in intimacy with God (knowing God, not just knowing about God). We don’t force the fruit. We focus on being connected to the Vine. If we do that, the fruit production takes care of itself, by God’s action in and through us.

I believe that a significant reason the institutional church does not appeal to folks is that they don’t see us growing and producing fruit. Often, the growth people see is knowledge that defends and excludes. When the focus of our “knowledge” is on condemning instead of understanding, on certainty instead of mystery, on proving ourselves right instead of recognizing our own blindness, then what we proclaim as growth is poison ivy.

In our efforts to keep Christianity “pure,” we produce vapid fruit—perfect and pretty to look at, but devoid of taste—like a Red Delicious apple. Our fruit just looks like one more activity for people to add to their already overstuffed lives. Without passion that is cultivated through a growing relationship with Christ, church gets dropped from one’s to-do list.

I would rather be part of a church filled with characters—misshapen, odd-looking fruit—than a church that looks like a bowl of plastic fruit. I want to be with those who hunger and thirst for more of Christ, who live hopeful and faith-filled lives instead of lives of pessimism and gloom. I want to be part of a church that is a living, breathing, growing plant, where fruit production is the result of being rooted and grounded in Christ.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Everything that is in the world—the craving for whatever the body feels, the craving for whatever the eyes see and the arrogant pride in one’s possessions—is not of the Father but is of the world.  
1 John 2:16

Craving is a strong word, tied closely to the idea of consuming. Consuming has taken on a new meaning for me after reading A Place at the Table by Chris Seay. What we crave, we tend to consume or devour when we are able to get our hands on it.

Craving for whatever the body feels conjures up so many images for me—food, leisure, exercise, and sex to name a few. Pleasure-seeking is huge in our culture, even if we have different ideas of what it is for us. For some, gluttony toward food is how they meet their craving. Alcohol or drugs attract others. Some are obsessed with fitness, while others are addicted to TV or the internet. Still others crave beauty, and may be fixated with the latest fashions or with constant redecorating of their homes.

It is not sinful to enjoy one’s food. In fact, it would be sinful to fail to appreciate what we eat (which, I am afraid, we often do). Both exercise and rest are good. Beauty, music, and pleasant surroundings are all portals to God when one is God-aware and uses them as acts of worship.

And that is the key. When physical gratification is self-directed, it is self-indulgent. When it becomes an act of worship, a way to glorify God, then it is a path to a deeper awareness of the presence of God in the world. Attentive and loving meal preparation, with gratitude for the blessings of abundant and healthy food, is worship. Taking the time to notice beauty, both in nature and in created objects, can call forth praise to God. Exercise can be a recognition that our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Rest can be the heeding of the instruction to be still and know that God is God.

Maybe worship is the opposite of craving, or maybe worship could be defined as a craving for God. What is the object of my praise, adoration and desire? What do I crave? In our pleasure-seeking, consumer culture, these questions are important ones to ask.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Evil of Sarcasm

Self-centered and evil people really fear the good. They express their fear by mockery, cynicism, and, when circumstances allow, by active persecution.   J.B. Phillips in Your God is Too Small

Sarcasm and mockery, I am sad to say, were part of my upbringing. For much of my life, I did not recognize their incompatibility with a life of discipleship. It was not until I tuned out most radio and television that I began to notice how awful sarcasm sounded. It’s a lot like having a white shirt that has grown dingy. You don’t see the dinginess if everything else is dingy, but if you get a new white shirt, suddenly the old shirt no longer looks white at all.

I now notice sarcasm acutely and it is so prevalent in our society. Even programming aimed at children is not immune from denigrating comments toward others. Mockery, cynicism and sarcasm are so commonplace that we don’t even associate them with “evil.” Political candidates and those who follow politics, even those who claim to be Christian, believe such acts are justified. “It is just the way things are. You’ve got to fight fire with fire. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

But it doesn’t stop with politics. Our delight in mocking celebrities is just as bad. We spew our attacks, piercing the soul of another even while waving Scripture like a banner. James observed the irony of such behavior when he said:  People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.  Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!  (James 3:7-10)

And Jesus, in one of his teachings that raised the bar on the Ten Commandments, said: “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

The cynic’s voice, the mocker’s wrath, always seems to draw more attention than the voice of love and gentleness. And persecution settles on the one who has the courage to respond in love rather than by maligning another. It requires greater courage to live a life of gentleness and love than to live a life of cynicism and mockery. It takes more time and energy and patience to seek to understand, to engage in honest self-reflection, than it does to kill another with our words.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

God: Good to the Last Drop

If you stray to the right or the left, you will hear a word that comes from behind you: “This is the way; walk in it.”                                                                                                              Isaiah 30:21

Isn’t this what we crave from God if we are seeking to live a faithful life? I know people who have heard God speak and I am grateful for the occasions when I have heard a direction from God. If I am to hear such a word from God, a word that gives direction to my path, I cannot cram my life full of my own agenda. God’s word comes to me as a gift I receive by slowing down, doing one thing at a time and living with full attention devoted the task at hand.

One of the unexpected fruits of accepting the Lenten challenge to drink only water as our beverage has been the appreciation I now have for a cup of coffee. Prior to Lent, drinking coffee was often a mindless exercise, a habitual practice that failed to get much of my attention. Sure, I like smelling the freshly ground beans or the freshly brewed coffee. On a cold morning, I looked forward to a cup of hot coffee upon returning from my morning walk. But when I drank it, I usually was also doing something else and the coffee was not the center of my attention.

Slowing down to appreciate my coffee actually helps me pay attention to God. Chris Seay, in the book A Place at the Table, calls what we chose to give up for Lent “extravagances.” To think of coffee as an extravagance has given me a new appreciation for it. He challenges us to remember that all we are given to eat and drink is a gift, a miracle from the hand of God.

To drink a cup of coffee with attention and appreciation is a sacred act of worship and this discipline of doing one thing at a time heightens my ability to hear a word from God. Being fully present in the present moment allows me to see things I would otherwise miss, and prepares my mind and heart to be fertile soil for the word that God wants to plant there. Both literally and figuratively, I can taste and see that the Lord is good!