Friday, February 25, 2011

The Wise Horticulturist

"Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit."--John 15:2
Jesus frequently compares people, Jews and Gentiles alike, to plants--trees and branches, vines, wheat and chaff. This is a picture that is very much in line with the Biblical view of man and his salvation (and thus, opposed to the way all other religions and even a lot of evangelicals and others who have attached Jesus' name to their beliefs view salvation): we are grown by God, we are chosen, made into what He wills and for His greater pleasure. I've been reading through John after a brief series of events involving a conversation with a couple Jehovah's Witnesses and this verse in particular stuck out to me for a myriad of reasons. All of Scripture is like a diamond that reveals different things when viewed at different angles, so I just want to take a moment and look at the facets here.

Firstly: who are the branches? We are, and God the Father is the one who is maintaining us--but Jesus, God the Son, is the vine from which we are growing, as the preceding verse says. This is remarkable to me because it reminds me that God did not throw me out here alone and without support, but rather He is both the One who planted me here and the One in whom I am growing and deriving strength from. He has placed me into the perfect spot and God both watches over me and nourishes me. Yet that by itself is insufficient for a look at this verse because it makes it seem like God made me for my own sake, which is certainly not true in light of the first part of verse two: the branches that don't bear fruit, He removes.

This is pretty harsh to us in modern evangelical America. God removes us? And as verse 6 says, those branches are burned? Isn't it God's fault that those branches didn't bear fruit?

But in examining the Word we see that there is a much deeper element to what God is doing in the whole world. He isn't just looking at humanity and saying "you were good, you go to heaven; you were bad, you go to hell." He's creating something that reveals our intense need for Him; branches that wither were not deprived by God of nutrition except in that He gave them over to their heart's desires. And even that is not done except in hope of reconciliation.

The second half of the verse gives me a lot of pause, because lately I've had a lot pressing on me while I've been going through the recovery/step studies process at my church. Not bad things, but just stuff working me and pushing on me serving to crush pride; my endurance through it has been by God's grace in providing strength and a community of Godly men around me. Branches that produce fruit--people that display Christ through the way they live their lives and fight against their sin--are pruned. Pain is a difficult thing but its presence is not an indication of God's punishment, but rather that God is cutting out the parts of us that inhibit growth into the fullness of life in Him. It's joy and it's hope even for those who are suffering and struggling.

I'm very thankful that it's not my will that saves me, but God's grace and the faith He imparted to me as a gift I don't deserve. What I pray is that more and more, I would display the fruit of the Spirit in my life, in my words and way of being. I pray to walk in that and to be refined into a man who fights the enemy at every turn by the way that I am. I want to be a Christian hedonist.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Idolatry vs. life: to die is gain

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.--Philippians 1:18b-23
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."--Mark 8:34-38
Today is a huge day of worship in the United States. Together we raise our hands and voices in joy at the celebration of victory and curse defeat just as readily. I speak, of course, about the big game, the battle that was waged a scant fifty miles from where I sit now.

I don't want this to come across as some kind of anti-football or anti-sports line. I watched the game like everyone else, in the company of friends as is the general way of things. But it is interesting to me to see how people react to things and how visceral and, perhaps, unwise people can be in their reactions and words, myself included. I didn't really have a dog in this hunt and in general I've never been terribly sports-oriented, but I always enjoy watching games with others just for the fact that frankly, this is the sort of thing we're wired for: coming together in celebration of something big and grand, bigger than ourselves. And yet so many put their worship into things that, while big, are ultimately unfulfilling because they were never intended to fulfill, only to point to something bigger.

The glory we see in the Superbowl points to God's glory, just as when we gaze into the vastness of an ocean, the size of a great mountain--or, when we contemplate the microscopic world beyond normal human sight that perpetuates our lives in ways only recently knowable. It is rather silly that we worship football or performers or anything else earthly, yet it is a natural outgrowth of what we were designed to do, twisted by sin towards something never designed to receive it. But when we are saved, when Jesus opens our eyes and our hearts to Himself, that worship suddenly terminates on Someone who sustains and does not disappoint. Coming home I felt...unsatisfied, and I knew why: I had expected fulfillment of something, on any level, and there was none to be found no matter the result.

After coming home from watching the game, I ran across this article about an Afghan man who is facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity. He lost one of his legs in a close encounter with a landmine and spends his days now helping others who have had similar experiences adjust and learn to live with their new disability. Christianity is being oppressed even as American forces still fight in the country against the Taliban, and he has been forced to ask a question so many American Christians never have to ask themselves: do you value your life more than you value Jesus?

Of course, we do face that in small ways all the time, but it's easy to live in America without facing up to the Big Question at the same level that people throughout history, beginning with the apostles and those who followed them, have had to face it. Said Musa's answer to the question has been a resounding echo of Philippians 1:21--"For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain." My own prayer is a heart that can be as bold and strong in that same answer. Yet at the same time, I know it isn't my strength on which such an answer lies, except in that God provides such strength at the exact time it's needed. So I pray, and I hope, and I long for the day when hoping is replaced with knowing. In the meantime, I look to the apostles for an example and I pray that God strengthens Said Musa in this time of trial.

I do not want to lose my worship in idols and foolish things that are gone as quickly as they arrive. I want to worship Jesus as my Lord and Savior and be unshackled from all the things that distract me.