The Vine, the Vinedresser, and me

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. ~John 15:5

Have you ever felt worthless in God’s kingdom? You look at your body of work and all you see are errors, mistakes, sins and defeat? You cannot get a handle on your tongue; you are not patient with your family; every time you turn around you are faced with another way you have sinned against another or God.

We have a child who right now is in a crisis of faith. They are in a season of pruning, but they believe they are in a season of failure. They look at the way their sin seems to explode all over the place, and they want to hide it, stuff it back in, cover it up with niceties or retreat. Poke them a little bit about one of these errors, and they may explode in anger. There is apathy, a mask they wear to act as if they don’t care how many areas are in shambles. And when you tread just a little through these first layers of defense, there is profound discouragement and fear. The aching knowledge of their inability to “do it” and concern over being perfect, checking the boxes they have laid out for themselves, creates a huge emotional chasm. And only Jesus Christ Himself with all His grace, His mercy, and His love can fill it. The Gospel must become a lifeline, not just for salvation but for daily, minute to minute life.

Salvation for this child is not in question. They are completely secure in knowing Jesus Christ paid the penalty for their sins, and they would absolutely tell you how vital He is in their life. But just like a Galatian from years ago, they have decided that their walk everyday is theirs to do, to somehow muster up the right combination of fruits either to prove to God how much they love Him or to add to their salvation. The wrecking of their carefully ordered life exposes the limits they have placed on God’s great grace, as if it is merely that little bit more we need to get over the hurdle when added to all the good acts we do.

Many times I too have walked in these ruts of the faith, tripping as I focus not on Him but on what I carry, making sure I don’t drop anything, or dirty these clothes I have placed over my clothes of righteousness. And when I see my life wrecked, I wonder how He could love me. But just like this child, it is an opportunity to once again see the depths of His love for me, the grace that gushes like a tidal wave, and to tightly hold to the One who is at work, refining and changing me more and more into His image.

Pruning is an important part of the walk of faith. Jesus draws the parallel boldly in John 15 – He sets up very clearly that He is the Vine, his Father is the Vinedresser, and we are branches. A vinedresser has one goal with his plants – to maximize the fruit as he shapes its growth. In pruning vines, the goal is to maximize the amount of one year old growth or wood because only in 1 year old branches is fruit made. Older wood produces only leaves and shoots. A vine dense with older wood has little fruiting wood and poor air circulation which leads to fungus and disease. So every year 70-90% of growth needs to be removed in the winter. Also the vinedresser wants to shape the vine’s growth on a structure conducive to the harvesting of the fruit.

God actively prunes the believer, slicing through lies, cleaning off dead or nonproductive areas, shaping our hearts and minds. He uses hardship, suffering, crises of faith, but through all of these events, he uses His living and active Word. Hebrews 4:12 says that his Word discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We can trust that God desires us to be completely dependent on Him, not just for salvation, but for everyday walking with Him. He prunes us back, tightly leaving us right up against Jesus the vine, in the position of abiding, clinging to the source of life. And it is the position that is most desirable because in the pruning I learn anew that I don’t have to perform or carry the right things to Him. His love flows through me, His truths become my own, His ways of righteousness grow in me creating fruit for His kingdom and His glory. So my child, welcome the pruning for this is where your intimacy with Jesus will grow, and be glad He cuts away your self sustenance. Let the truth of His love and grace flow through you, filling you with peace as you rest in Him.

The Need to Meet

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. ~Hebrews 10:24-25

 

As a mom I have the privilege of walking with my children in the deepest parts within if they will allow. In a conversation with one of them the other day, when they were brave enough to crack open their heart and lay out their battles, I was struck by how common the battle really is. This one was aching, churning, and warring within over the lack of spiritual fruit and the feelings of worthlessness and doubt.

In this passage from Hebrews, the author has just stated that we can come before God confidently because of Jesus Christ’s blood shed for our sin – our faith is assured, our hearts clean from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with His water. We are to hold tightly to the Gospel because Jesus is faithful. He who justifies will continue to sanctify us, and one day He will return and we will be with Him eternally. But it’s easy to waver. It’s easy in the moments of the day to see sin, to see failure, and accept the enemy’s lies of defeat or discouragement.

If I can encourage you in one area, it would be to listen intently and pray fiercely in moments of discipline with your children. Be willing to be up long past your bedtime in order to allow the Holy Spirit time to hack off the calluses on your child’s heart to expose the soft tenderness underneath in which He works. Dwell with your children there in their exposure, not as the one who has it all sorted out but as a fellow sinner redeemed by His grace, seeking to walk out the faith He has given in the daily mess of life.

I am not one who is quickly convicted and repents with vigor; the Holy Spirit is patient, often tender, and works with me on my sin to bring me to repentance on issues. So why do I think that my young believing child is going to do an about face in ten minutes? I shouldn’t because I fully believe that most of the time they will hide behind an apology without delving into the motivations of their heart and allowing the ugliness of their sin to be seen and met with grace. Many days I have to remind myself to slow down and take the time to ask probing questions and really listen to the answers. Invest the time.

This verse is a bedrock verse for me in terms of discipling my children. I know we often quote this in order to support going to church, but I think it aptly applies to parenting and discipling anyone.

  • Let us consider – In the Greek, the meaning here is to think up and down, exactly, attentively; to fix your eyes or mind upon. Let me consider my child, let me spend the time praying for the Holy Spirit to enlighten me to the climate of their heart, the winds of doubt or fear that may be blowing, the storm that may be quietly occurring underneath a thin layer of protection.
  • how to stir up one another to love and good deeds – to stimulate or incite in another the agape love solely based in the Holy Spirit and from which actions flow. Parenting and discipleship are not about behavior correction. It’s about pointing or directing that child to the truth of the Gospel in direct opposition to the lies of this world and calling them to walk in faith.
  • but encourage one another – parakaleo in the Greek; to make a call being up close and personal; to admonish or exhort; there is a legal connotation to this word – to make an exhortation from a close place that stands up in God’s court. This encouragement must come from intimacy, and intimacy grows with time invested.

So I want to encourage you – if we were across from each other at coffee or lunch, I would exhort you to spend time with the One who intimately knows your children, seeking His truth for their lives. Fight the impulse to make other things more important than seeking the heart of your child. Ask the quiet questions about their faith and listen intently to what they know and what they believe. Point them to the Word, to direct truths that meet their doubts or fears. We do not grow their faith – that is the work of the Holy Spirit. But we can walk together with them in their journey, encouraging and cheering them on. The laundry can wait.

 

 

What not to wear

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace ~Ephesians 4:1-3

Do you remember the tv show What Not To Wear? The premise of the show is observing this poor, slovenly wreck of a woman who cannot dress or does not care what she wears.  They tape her for a few weeks to prove her pathetic state and then surprise her with the news that, while she is living in bad clothes state, someone was planning and desiring to help her. She only has to agree to go to NYC, give up all her clothes and buy new clothes that fit her correctly and flatter her.  A credit card is freely offered with all the money she will need to do this. Does she want to go?  Well of course she does! She cannot wait! So she packs up every piece of her closet and brings them into a room where they are all placed on a rack for scrutiny. Every episode I have ever seen then shows the same phenomena occur – the poor woman begins to defend and long for her old clothes. No matter that she has just heard how ugly they are, seen footage proving this, or felt excited at the prospect of changing and updating. Now that the moment of trashing them (for this is the plan – there is a huge trashcan into which each piece must go after criticism) has come, she cannot let go and even clings to them wanting them for a multitude of reasons. She has to stand in a mirrored room and observe the ugliness of them as outfits, yet her defense continues to mount. Typically the woman is by this time so offended by the hosts she usually vents in private.  

Then she is shown the right clothes to wear to make her look good and sent out to make purchases. Armed with this knowledge she strides into the first store and almost immediately gets confused by what she is used to buying versus what she has learned she needs now for the new self.  So the hosts swoop in and rescue her, reminding her of what she needs and helping her assemble her wardrobe.  Finally the transformation is completed with hair and makeup, and the big reveal of the new self is done both privately for the hosts and then publicly for all her friends/family.  and every one of the recipients attests that this transforming experience was so worth it!

So what does this have to do with Ephesians 4 & 5? I think this show unknowingly displays some aspects of my walk with Jesus. 

I too was a poor wreck of a sinner, dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked, But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved me, even when I was dead in my trespasses, made me alive together with Christ – by grace I have been saved (Eph. 2:4-5) Dressed in the rags and torn garments of sin, before I ever sought Him, He sought me. He saw all my ugly clothes, all my inadequate ways to cover myself and make myself look presentable, and He offered new clothes of His righteousness! The cost for these clothes is without measure, and yet he has paid it for me!

And honestly, I jumped at the salvation offered! I knew, looking at my tape of all my horrific, sinful clothes, that I was hopeless to ever clothe myself in a manner worthy of the King and was so grateful that He offered me his salvation. But just like the woman on the show, I often see myself standing there with all my dirty rags on hangers, trying to defend or justify what I see.

But that is not the way you learned Christ! -assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. ~Eph. 4:20-24 

On the day of my salvation, I was given the Holy Spirit who began to sift through the clothes I choose to wear, seeking to purge and reclothe me in His righteousness. Yet I cling to what is familiar, what has worked before, or what I like. There are many moments when the trashing of my sinful nature is the most painful experience, and I’m not sure I can bear the stripping away of it. Then there are the times when I look at myself in His mirror and see the rag for what it is and willingly give it up to the One who clothes so beautifully with grace, compassion, love and kindness.

Often I will be like the women as they go out, resolutely armed with a list of what to purchase for their new wardrobe. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love (Eph. 5:1-2) Oh! I want to dress like the daughter of the King that I am! And yet I can quickly be overwhelmed with obstacles, confusion, the pull towards the familiar clothes I used to wear. I have a tendency then to run to what I know despite having been told by Him that those clothes are binding, ill fitted, and worthless.

And I forget who walks with me, who has been given to me as my Counselor. The Holy Spirit has been given to me as my teacher, my guide, to lead gently and convict lovingly that I may slowly accumulate the wardrobe of righteous living. My righteousness is not in question; His death was payment or ransom for all my dirty rags. But there is a daily clothing that either reflects my position as redeemed or hearkens back to my natural choices.  Putting off of the old sin nature and a putting on of the new sanctified nature bought and paid for by Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection happens as I walk with the Spirit.

But the difference between the show and my true life is who is central. In the show, it’s all about the woman and her change. But in my life, true change occurs when it’s all about Jesus Christ. He is the One who begins our transformation and He is the One who will carry it out to completion. I will stand before Him dressed in his robes of righteousness washed white because of his blood. For now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (Eph. 5:8-10)

 

 

On the prowl

Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. ~1 Peter 5:8-9

We are at war. We are in the spiritual battle of our lives, not with each other or our husband or children. No, we are at war with an enemy so skilled at combat, so determined to defeat, divide, or discourage us. And many days I forget this. I am offended and furious that so many women are battling, and the enemy is using the same tactics with each one of us. Peter compares our enemy to a roaring lion, so let’s study how a lion behaves and draw parallels.

The lion closely observes its prey long before it attacks. Interestingly, it hunts most often in cover of darkness where it can easily observe and stalk without threat of detection with a final burst of speed at the end. It is incredibly adept at hiding and phenomenally patient.  Lions have been observed  to return again or remain in the same spot where they have had success with a certain herd, and interestingly (or not) the herd of prey does not seem to make adjustments to prevent loss. They will circle the herd and slowly begin driving the prey in a direction with the effect of separating or isolating one or a few from the herd. Finally the straight-line roaring pounce or a paw that swats and knocks the prey off balance allows the lion to suffocate the animal.

We have an enemy who is very real. He is at work, and his chief desire is to destroy. In the life of a believer, he cannot destroy for eternity, but he can sideline. The implication in these verses is that satan as this roaring lion is functioning in a full frontal attack, coming in for the kill. That kill may be persecution like we see in many areas in the world that would push believers to compromise their faith for safety, but here where true persecution is rare, the compromising of our faith happens because of hard life circumstances, doubts, fears, mental anguish, illnesses, isolation, etc. Faith is the only lifeline, and in case you forget, faith too is Spirit given. (Gal. 5:5)

I need the power of Gospel-based community. I need the body corporately and individually pouring into me the truth of the Gospel. So that when I am slammed with doubt, fear, discouragement, or shame, the truth of Jesus’ redeeming work at the cross covers those lies with His victory.

Discipleship is essential to mature the believer as well as heal the believer. The importance of discipleship becomes apparent when we apply these hunting tactics to our enemy. He delights in separating and isolating us. He studies us and has studied mankind for centuries to really know our patterns of thinking. While he cannot read our thoughts, he watches our pattern of behavior and is keenly aware of our insecurities, doubts, and fears. So the desperate need we have to hide ourselves within the Gospel must be understood to be exactly that – a paramount need. On my own I simply cannot navigate the waters of my life. A key component in discipleship is living life in community with other believers.

We need to stop the isolation. Culturally we are isolated – behind screens, within schedules so filled there is no time to sit and share, in distance,  and in belief. We have been sidetracked with issues and left the pursuit of the gospel so that now we are distracted. Titus 3:9 warns us to “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” But the truth of the Gospel is this: when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7) I am so convicted that I don’t create enough space in my own life for engaging my friends purposefully in light of the Gospel, encouraging them in their Kingdom work here with their family and other areas of influence, and rejoicing or praying with them over the places God may be refining. I know it is hard to create that space. My calendar is always full. But there are things, good things, and then there are eternal things. And I cannot allow the fleeting things of this age to usurp the eternal.

As I have studied this truth for the last few months, God began to really convict me of my busyness. I had very little margin and very little active pursuit of other women for the sole sake of the Gospel – to encourage them, hear what God is doing, pray for them and with them, or challenge them. He began to germinate an idea of women dining together with the express purpose of encouraging one another in our personal walks with the Lord. Rarely do I get to enjoy a slow, relaxed dinner with girlfriends in which we cut to the chase of God’s activity in our lives, confessing our sins or praising His works. We are often interrupted by children or hurried by schedules, or we just don’t get past the layers of small talk about the work we do and the craziness that is life. So my daughters blessed us with a wonderful meal, slowly served so that we could talk around a beautiful candlelit table. Some women had to meet other women first, but the rules were set from the beginning. All conversation needed to center around what God is doing in your life. Purposeful from the outset, meant for encouragement, it felt a little scary, I must admit. Often God is working on the ugly in my life and so it looks ugly in the journey. But the time was beautiful, hearts were encouraged, and I will be purposefully doing this again.

We need to fight with and for each other. We have all seen the Youtube video of the Battle of Kruger – The buffalo are walking to the water and spot the lions near the water. The baby calf is attacked and rolled into the water by the lions, a crocodile tries to steal the kill, and then the amazing begins! The herd returns to protect its own. We watch rooting for the calf, desperately wanting to see the 4-5 lions defeated. The buffalo at first slowly approach as if unsure what to do for their struggling one. Then 1-2 begin to sling and chase – it’s a clear strategy – sling them off and chase them away. Finally the last 2 lions are removed as other buffalo pull the baby back into the middle of the herd. Twice the lion starts to return for the injured baby, and one large buffalo turns fearlessly back to stand and face the predator before returning to the herd.

We have many weak and weary women, struggling on the edge of either drowning by the crocodile or being consumed by the lion. And when we all stay separated, we strengthen the destruction the enemy can bring. Instead we need to function as encircling buffalo, battling with and for our weaker members, standing firm against the enemy in prayer and encouragement, and willing to be at risk, soberminded and alert. The promise at the end of this passage is amazing! God does the work, He provides the faith, He does the healing and restoration needed because of His Gospel truth that Jesus Christ in grace redeemed you. To all of us who have been the baby buffalo or who are walking with a baby buffalo right now – And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. ~1 Peter 5:10-11.