Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Vineyard

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit;  (John 15:1-2,5a)

Most of us have some familiarity with these verses.  Talk of a vine, branches and fruit, along with the vinedresser who takes care of his vineyard.  How do we apply this to our lives?

Bruce Wilkinson, in his book Secrets of the Vine, does a fantastic job in delving deeper into this topic.  I highly recommend this book.  I am not going to try and recreate it here.  I just have a few ideas I would like to share.

If you are unfamiliar with these verses, here is a quick summary:
Here we find Jesus talking to His disciples, using the metaphor of a vineyard to describe our relationship with Him and God the Father.  In this relationship, Jesus is the vine which feeds the branches.  The vine is the trunk that grows up out of the ground and ends in a large gnarl from which the branches grow.

We are those branches which will produce fruit by our actions in serving Him.  The branches are fed from the vine and grow along a trellis. This is where the vinedresser focuses his efforts because that is where the fruit is produced. 

God plays the part of the vinedresser who tends to the vineyard.  The vinedresser lovingly tends to the branches so they will produce as much fruit as possible.  Basically the fruit represents our good works.  Thoughts, attitudes and/or actions in which God places value because they bring Him glory.  We bear this fruit when we allow God to work through us to bring Him glory.

So why do we need tending?  What keeps us from developing and bearing fruit?  The easy answer: Sin.  The sin in our lives makes us sick and dirty and therefore unable to bear fruit.  So we just need to stop sinning, right?  Now it isn't quite so easy.  If we are truly seeking God, we are striving to lead sin free lives; the problem here is that we are not perfect. 

Even with the best intentions we still fall short and find ourselves dealing with sin in our lives.  Yes, God understands we are not perfect and gives us grace.  But sometimes it is not so much the sin as it is some other underlying issue to the sin. 

Here are a few issues that may be standing in our way.  Disagreement with God in regards to something in our lives, this may manifest itself in many ways including: doubt, fear, worry, hate, anger, impatience, and lust just to name a few.  How about harboring unforgiveness in our heart?  Selfishness?  Resentment?  Maybe just something bad from our past we just don’t want to give up; some vice we try to convince ourselves is ok to have if the rest of my life is good.

Fortunately for us, God love us too much to just stand by and not do anything.  If we are truly striving to better ourselves, God will be there to pick us up, clean us off and support us.  This puts us in a better position to bear the fruit that brings Him glory.  This is where He may start the pruning process.  Think scissors, gently trimming away the bad stuff to help us grow.

It’s when we are not necessarily looking to Him that He may actually start taking steps to address the issues.  He may start with some gentle prodding but if necessary he will start taking drastic, sometimes painful measures to get our attention and move us toward repentance.  This is commonly referred to as discipline.  Think God starting up His spiritual weed whacker and diving in to remove the bad stuff from our lives.  This will continue until we stop doing whatever we are doing that is drawing the attention of God’s weed whacker.

Pruning is the cutting away of dead or dying material or even trimming back the branch in favor of increasing its health and vitality, thereby increasing its ability to produce fruit.  In our lives this is cutting away immature commitments and lesser priorities or removing the parts of our lives that drain precious time and energy.  This is all done for our benefit. 

Sometimes we invite the pruning into our lives.  Have you ever asked God to help in addressing a problem in your life and then suddenly you feel like your life is going all topsy-turvy.  Areas of your life that are not related to your prayer are upended.  Now we panic.  Our next prayer is, “God, my life is going from bad to worse, please make it stop.” 

The problem here is that God was in the process of answering our first prayer. And the what-the-heck-just-happened-to-my-life is God pruning.  We need to remember, God knows what we need, much better than we do.  So when this happens it is because He is trimming what we need trimmed, not necessarily what we expected, or maybe even wanted in the process of answering our prayer. 

The good news is the pruning does not last forever.  The pruning will last until God is done.  I’m not going to say that the pruning doesn't cause pain, in fact the closer to the core of who you are, the more intense the pain will be. 

I will admit there have been times it felt like there couldn't possibly be any more that could be trimmed away and I felt like I had been cut back to nothing more than a stick.  The key is how you respond to the pruning.  We can fight it or we can trust that God has our best interests in mind through the entire process and allow Him to work.

I like how Michael DiMarco put it in his book God Guy:  “You gotta understand the job of the vinedresser in order to really get the full impact.  His goal is not to stress out the vine or the branches.  He’s not grabbing the stuff in anger and just pruning willy-nilly, chopping haphazardly.  He’s not even cutting just to make things look better.  He’s working with a purpose, and each move he makes has one goal: to improve the production of the plant.”

In Philippians, Paul tells us God is going to work in our lives.  “Being confident in this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”  (Phil 1:6)  Don’t be afraid to allow God to work in your life.  This is another demonstration of how much He loves us.  He knows what he is doing.

He is tending His vineyard.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Going Beyond Everyday Service

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58)

As Christians we are called to serve others.  We are called to serve God (1 Sam 12:24, Deut 13:4, Jn 12:26, Rom 12:11), our family (1 Tim 5:8), our neighbor (Mk 9:35), even our enemies (Lk 6:27-28).  Some find service comes naturally to them; others, and I think most of us fall into this category to some degree or another, have to work at it.

Service comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are people and places to serve in the world.  Here are a few ideas:
Volunteering at a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen
Long or short term mission trips
Walking a pet
Visiting the elderly or shut-ins
Helping out at your local church
Washing a car
Running errands for a friend
Shoveling snow or mowing grass
Auto repair
Teaching new skills to others

And this is just a scratch on the tip of the ice berg.  My point here is that there is no shortage of opportunity to serve and we all have skills and gifts can make us a great fit for something somewhere.

When to serve is as varied as how to serve.  There is not a set time or place in which to best serve.  In fact, some of the best experiences are when the opportunity arises with little to no warning.  Something amazing happens in our hearts when we are able to take our minds off of ourselves and step up and take action to help another person.  There is also something to be said if you can do something for someone where they don’t know and won’t know who did it for them.

The attitude we have while serving is important because it is not just an individual or group we are serving but first we are serving God.  Paul tells us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col 2:23-24).

The other day while reading the devotional Reflecting the Glory by N.T. Wright, another concept in serving others jumped out at me from what he said concerning John 15:12-17.

John 15:13 reads, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.

It is not uncommon to here this verse referenced at the memorial service for a member of the military who died protecting his fellow soldiers or who gave his life in service to his country.  This strongly touches my heart because one of my grandfathers was killed in action over France in World War II.  You may have also heard this verse referenced in discussions of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us when He died on the cross for all of humanity. 

Take a look at the author’s take on this verse:

“Jesus is talking about the self-giving of an entire life, minute by minute, day by day, year by year.  It is easy for us to be cynical about genuine love, to imagine that people are acting merely from a desire for status, for good reputation.  What Jesus is describing goes deeper than any self-seeking, deeper than any self-serving.  It simply wants to do the utmost possible for the beloved, up to and including the point of giving its own life.”

Although this verse is talking about making the ultimate sacrifice for another, it also points us to another level of service.  I think this gives a new and higher meaning to putting others before yourself. 

As we continue in our journey in this life we never know if and when we may be called to make the ultimate sacrifice for another but until that time may come we can definitely serve others on a higher level.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever!  Amen. (Rom 11:36)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.  “For as the Heavens are higher than the earth so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)

Are you expecting something from God?  Healing from some injury or disease, the salvation of a loved one, a new job, a mate, a restoration of a broken relationship?  There are so many things we look to God for and so many promises He has made.  Then why do we so often find ourselves waiting for an answer?

Let me start with the answer no one wants to hear.  Sometimes the answer is no or not yet.  I am not going to pretend to understand this myself, but this is one place that faith comes into play.  We need to believe that God wants the best for us and in His understanding He will come through in the proper time (Jer 29:11; Phil 1:6; Rom 8:28; Ecc 3:11). 

Remember, even Paul received a “No” in answer to prayer, “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.  Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.   And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor 12:7-9).  

Some of the answers we are waiting for are the fulfillment of promises made by God.  Scripture contains thousands of promises which God has made to us.  We also receive promises God makes to each of us as we continue our journey with Him.  Abraham stands out as a great example of holding on to a promise made by God, regardless of how long it takes before the promise comes to pass.  To reflect the importance of the promise He made, God even changed his name from Abram to Abraham (Gen 17:5). 

God never breaks His promises (Ps 89:34), it just may take longer than we want to see for the promise fulfilled, we just need to believe what God has promised will come to pass.

When we seek answers from God, obviously we do this with expectations that God will come through with an answer.  The question here is; are we placing the expectation in the wrong place?  Are we placing too much expectation on how God answers rather than on just the expectation of an answer?

As you read through the bible you will see God has a knack for not always doing things the same way twice.  Moses was given two different sets of instruction on getting water from a rock when leading the nation of Israel (Ex 17:1-7; Num 20:1-10).  God did not have the nation of Israel use the same battle plan for each city they took when they entered the Promised Land (Joshua 1-11). 

Even Jesus followed this pattern in the miracles He performed during His ministry.  In healing the blind, He touched the eyes of two blind men (Mt 9:27-30), Jesus spit on the eyes of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-25), the man born blind was healed when he washed the mud Jesus made with His spit on the ground and rubbed on the man’s eyes (Jn 9:1-7).  And this is just one example.

Here is an example from my family:

In 1988, shortly after her 15th birthday, my sister was diagnosed with a type of seizure.  Needless to say this was a little distressing to the family.  Family and friends prayed for her and that she would be healed.  Different treatment options were tried and in the fall of 1991 she was scheduled for brain surgery.  The morning of the surgery, the surgery was cancelled due to results from a Wada test that brought up concerns on how the operation would affect her short term memory.  Definitely not the answer we were looking for.

I was in living in Washington at the time and through the treatment program she was part of my sister was able to transfer her treatment to a clinic in Seattle and come live with me in the spring of 1993.  The program she was in dealt with experimental medications so we didn’t have to pay for the treatment, but there were other challenges.  Adverse side effects which brought about trips to the Emergency Room and the seizures never stopped.  There were a few periods she went seizure free for a few weeks at a time but it got to the point she would experience a 2-3 seizures a day, two days in a row, every 5-7 days.

Early in 1997, her doctor started talking to her about the possibility of surgery.  After what had happened before she was not too excited by the prospect.  A few weeks later she experienced a grand mal type of seizure.  This freaked us both out and prompted her to discuss the surgery option with her doctor. She went in for a Wada test, the same test that canceled the first surgery; with changes in technology the results were more defining and positive, so the surgery was scheduled.

Through a slight change in schedule the date for the surgery was moved up from September to May 27th, the Tuesday after Memorial Day in 1997.  When she asked the surgeon when she would be able to go home, he told her the earliest anyone had gone home after a Tuesday surgery was Sunday night, normally it was on the following Monday.  She told the surgeon that she would be out of there Saturday, he didn’t commit to anything; he just said something to the effect of. “We’ll see.” She was in the Operating Room for about 8 hours and our parents and I were able to see her for a couple minutes in Intensive Care after the surgery.  She doesn’t remember this but she cracked a joke in the few minutes we talked to her, much to the amazement of the ICU nurse that was in the room.  The nurse said, “That never happens.”

What happened of the next few days was nothing short of amazing.  Every Day when we came in to visit she kept looking better and better, even when we would go to lunch and come back just a short time later we could see significant improvement.  The doctors and the nurses were all amazed at her progress.  Friday afternoon the surgeon came in with a small group of interns and he was all smiles, he could not have been happier by her progress and he told us she would be able to go home the next day.

Once she had agreed to the surgery my sister completely trusted that God was going to use the hands of this skilled surgeon to take care of the seizures and that she would have a rapid recovery.  And that is exactly what happened.  I discussed her recovery above and she has been seizure free since that time.  So we did see an answer to all the prayers, just not the way or in the time frame initially expected.

Whenever God answers a prayer, fulfills a promise, or preforms a miracle in our lives it is going to be done in a way that brings Him glory (Is 43:6-7; 1 Cor 10:31; Rom 11:36).  If we expect God to provide our answer the same way He did for another person, it robs Him of the glory to which He is due.  It is good for us to look to God with expectation of an answer from Him, just make sure you are not robbing God of glory because you expect it to be answers in a specific manner. 

We need to step out in faith and expect to see the wonder and majesty of the glory of God as it manifests itself in your life.  That is what my sister did and the results were amazing to see.