Gardening Tips: Tilling The Soil

Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. – Matthew 13:5-6

There is not much that I have eaten in this world the matches a tomato fresh from the vine.  Rich, sweet and tangy, tomatoes have a unique and satisfying flavor.  They are a reward for the hard work.  Growing tomatoes has a different flavor – tough, sour and dirty.  One of the difficulties we have faced growing tomatoes in our neck of the woods is the heat.  This has been a mild summer for us with only a few days reaching over 100 degrees, but it is normal for us to go a week or two of triple digits.  This is not good on tomatoes.

In the parable, the seeds are on rocky soil, but the real issue is that they can’t sink their roots deep enough to get to the water.  There are a lot of variations that can put a tomato plant at risk, but one of the most important is the moisture level in the soil.  No moisture = scorched and shriveled plants.  I wonder if the parable of the seeds is about the importance of discipleship.  I know that raising tomatoes takes a lot of intentional, purposeful and consistent work.  You can’t just drop some seeds on the ground and check in a few weeks later.

Evangelism is a beginning, but is certainly not the end.  In growing tomatoes, as much work goes into preparing the soil as tending the plant once it has sprouted.  The soil has to be the right mix, with nutrients, density and absorbency all coming into play.  If you aren’t going to prep the soil, you can’t expect the right results.  Maybe we need to spend more time preparing the soil than just scattering seed.  Maybe we need to invest intentionally, purposefully and consistently in the lives of those around us who need the Word of God.  Maybe love and grace will change their hearts from jagged rocks to fertile ground.

Lord, help me to be a tiller of soil in the hearts of those you bring my way.  Give me the words to
speak into their lives that will prepare their hearts for Your Word.  May I have a passion for evangelism and a will toward discipleship.  Amen.

Gardening Tips: Follow the Sun

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:2-3 (NIV)

We have attempted a garden this year with some success; zucchinis, tomatoes, butternut squash and others. Each plant has an unique and incredible differences.  One of our biggest and most anticipated is a giant sunflower.  It has reached about 8 feet in height and a single flower is beginning to emerge.  In watching this flower develop, one characteristic stood out; it follows the sun.

This is actually a common trait among many plants, but the sunflower has the amazing ability to reset for the next day.  Once the sun has set, the sunflower turns back to the east to wait for the sun to rise. It isn’t just drawn to the light, but has an expectation of the light returning.

This is a good patern for us to follow as people of God.  We need to keep our eyes on Jesus, but sometimes we lose sight of Him.  The darkness of this world, our situation or even our bad choices block our view of Him.  In those times we need to reset our perception to look with anticipation for His light to shine on us again.  We need to position ourselves to receive His
light and love.  So follow the Son and live in such a way that even when He seems out of sight, you are still living like
He is coming back.  If a sunflower can do it….

The Shepherd and the Sheep: Introduction

A psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake. – Psalm 23:1-3

The scriptures are occupied by numerous shepherds.  From Abel, the favored son of Adam, to Abraham wandering from Ur; from Jacob earning the right to marry to Moses learning the right way to lead God’s people, shepherding has been an underlying theme in God’s history with His people.  Why does God hearken to the relationship between shepherd and sheep so often?  Why does He use such ignoble beasts to represent His children?  What does it mean to be people of His pasture?

David wrote psalm after psalm with pastoral themes.  Isaiah’s prophetic writings are strewn with this same imagery.  Ezekiel commits a complete chapter to shepherds and sheep and what God intends for both.  Finally, Jesus reveals Himself as the Good Shepherd to His disciples.  It is obvious that God wants us to get this relationship settled in our minds and hearts.

Psalm 23 is probably one of the more famous scriptures in the world.  It is the lyrical picture of our heavenly shepherd guiding us through life, the terrain of this world, and a reminder of all that the shepherd provides.  David makes the case that the life of the sheep is dependent on the shepherd for sustenance, protection and contentment.

For the next few weeks, we will look at some of these writings on shepherds and sheep and search out ways to be content, secure and fulfilled in the pasture of God’s love, grace and mercy.  We are people in need of a shepherd and the Good Shepherd does not rest in calling his wandering sheep back to the comfort of His care.

The Discipline of Presence: Praise, Prayer and Grateful Living

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NRSV)

Paul presents in this passage the hat trick of living in the present.  A trinity of disciplines that seem almost impossible, but “nothing is impossible with God.”  Paul is not unaware of how difficult life is in this world; in fact, he is intensely aware of the pain, suffering and despair afflicting his audience in Thessalonica and nothing has changed in humanity since then.

There are far too many ways for us to be anywhere but where we are – technology, daydreaming, internal conversations, fixation on past wounds or future wants – and all of them can kill the joy of the Lord.  All of them can silence the ongoing conversation with God that He desires.  All of them can uproot the gratefulness that should be at the center of our souls each day.  They steal the abundant life right out of our hands and replace it with cheap imitations and shoddy substitutes.

God has given us the means to abide in Him in our present circumstances through rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving.  They are critical disciplines that help us keep our branch from falling off the vine.  They each require us to focus on God and they each help us step back from our worldly perspective to recalibrate our view.

“Rejoice always” may be misconstrued as positive thinking, but it is much deeper and richer than sun-shiny optimism.  When Paul exhorts his readers to “Rejoice always,” he is asking them to remember where their joy is anchored.  He is asking them to remember that the source of their joy never changes even if everything around them does.  Rejoicing reminds us that we serve the God who was, is and is to come, the God whose love is limitless, whose grace is boundless and whose patience is unquenchable.  He is the joy we anchor our hearts and minds in so that the roughest day does not sink us in despair.

Prayer without ceasing seems like a tall order.  While I like to think I can multi-task, it just doesn’t seem feasible, but that is just my flesh trying to keep me from something profoundly important – an underlying conversation with God throughout my waking hours.  I heard a song at church this past Sunday and one line stuck with me: I don’t want to talk about You like You’re not in the room. (Dove’s Eyes by Misty Edwards)  It struck me how often I talk about God instead of with God.

I believe that what Paul was getting at is a conscientious recognition of God’s presence throughout our day.  If we are living each moment with the understanding that He is right there with us, prayer becomes a natural part of our inner conversation instead of the distracting thoughts that bring our eyes off of Jesus.

Giving thanks in all circumstances almost seems like a cruel thing to encourage others to do.  When you are in the middle of tragedy, loss or pain, the last thing on your mind might be thanksgiving, but that is exactly where Paul is trying to steer us.  The problem lies between two words: for and in.  The passage actually reads “Give thanks IN all circumstances,” but often it is taught and understood as “Give thanks FOR all circumstances.”  In the first (and original) version, we are instructed to be thankful in the midst of our circumstances, while in the second (and misleading) version, we are cornered into being thankful for things that happen which may not be good.  While Romans 8:28 promises that God can bring good from bad, nowhere does he say we have to be thankful for bad things.

God asks us to remain thankful for His work in our lives even when circumstances aren’t good, when the fallen nature of the world is in full bloom and the enemy is at the door, God still reigns in heaven and the hearts of those who call on His name.  That is reason to be thankful.

Paul has the resume to put forth this counsel.  He has suffered persecution.  He has seen the church in turmoil, ravaged by sinful forces both from the outside and inside.  His health had endured challenges, his reputation had been attacked and his friendships had been tested.  In the midst of all these obstacles, he calls the church to rejoice, pray and give thanks.  My testimony in this area is borrowed from Paul: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12)

I pray that I will learn what it is to rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances.  I want to live the life abundantly by keeping my eyes on what God is doing.  Lord, help me to seal these disciplines in my heart and grow in me the desire to rejoice, pray and give thanks.  Amen.

The Discipline of Presence: History Lessons

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” – Exodus 14:10-14 (NIV)

I wish I could read this story and not be able to relate to the complainers.  I wish I could say the thought had never crossed my mind that sometimes it would be easier to not be a follower of Christ.  The reality is that I can fall into the unmerciful grip of the-way-things-used-to-be far more easily than I would like to admit.

Israel had seen the unmistakable power of God revealed through wonders, signs and plagues, and yet just a short time after the taste of freedom is in their mouths, they are willing to spit it out and eat the sour grapes of slavery.  But this story is not a window, it is a mirror.  I see myself and the ugly scars of my past misdeeds and am warned by the words from Moses, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today… The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

It comes down to understanding the redemptive power of God.  What the Israelites did not yet understand, and what we forget too often, is the power of being redeemed.  When God redeemed His people from Egypt, He didn’t go half-way, but their doubt in His ability to protect them doesn’t affirm this truth.  I have waned in my trust in God’s ability to be my redeemer in this present day.  I get stuck on thinking it would be better to go back to my life before God asked me to move forward.  I forget about the promised land on the other side of the raging waters and the barren desert.  At those times I need to rest in the power and presence of being still.

Being still is less about lack of activity and more about our attitude.  It is the absence of anxiety and busyness. It is the ability to exist in an atmosphere of calm despite how the winds in the world are whipping.  It is not easy, but life without being still before God is far more difficult.  The way to the Promised Land for the Israelites might have taken weeks or months, if they had found their satisfaction in that place of stillness.  Instead, it took them forty years.

I don’t want to keep hitting my head against the same wall.  I want to know what it is to be still before God.  I want to take that stillness with me through each day, resting in the peace of God.  Paul gives the best advice in moving toward this goal: “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:16)  The Israelites were willing to regress in order to feel safe again, but Paul encourages us to keep moving forward, bolstered by what we have already experienced, learned and gleaned.  Paul challenges us to be perfectly who we are today so we can build one more layer tomorrow.

I am praying for a mind and heart that hunger for stillness.  I am praying for discipline to build on all that has come before to live perfectly in the present.  I am praying for faith that testifies, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

The Discipline of Presence: Forgiveness

Matthew 6:9-15 (NIV)
“This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

It is interesting that the only part of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus clarifies is the section on forgiveness.  Not God’s will, not daily bread, not temptation – just forgiveness.  It is the only prayer that is answered based on our success in doing the same for others.  Jesus is clearly speaking to the human propensity for holding a grudge that keeps us in our little kingdom-of-me instead of the Kingdom of God.

We have been doing some gardening behind the house the last few years and one thing is abundantly clear: you must tend the garden every day.  We learned this by watching horn worms devastate our tomato plants.  We took this to heart when weeds became so entangled with cucumber plants it was hard to tell them apart.  If we wanted our garden to bear fruit in season, we had to be disciplined everyday in its care and maintenance.

Condemnation, anger, arrogance and even hate can take root in our hearts if we do not tend the soil each day.  God wants fertile ground for the seeds of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (and) self-control.”  If we allow offenses to go unforgiven, our hearts are full of weeds that will not allow the fruitfulness God desires.  The ill-will we hold toward those we think have hurt us is like a worm eating at the vine that keeps us abiding in God.

Forgiveness is a daily discipline like weeding the garden. With God’s help, we can pull out the bitter roots and free up our hearts for the work of the Spirit. Forgiveness breaks the chains of judgment, pride and hate that can choke our growth in the Lord.  Forgiveness gives us eyes to see the wormy thoughts that eat away at the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is one of the ways we remain present in our walk with God.  It allows us to have an attitude toward others that reflects the attitude our heavenly Father has toward us:

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23

Is your compassion renewed each morning?  Do you begin each day by wiping the slate clean for others?  Maybe it is time to weed the soil of a heart that is broken and weary from the fruitless toil of anger and pain.  Maybe it is the season to prepare for new seeds to be planted, nurtured and watered with the work of the Holy Spirit.  Maybe today you can pull up one of those especially deep-rooted weeds that is keeping you from moving forward.  Maybe today is the day to move from being forgiven to being forgiving.

The Discipline of Presence: Being About Today

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:25-34 (NIV)

It is clear from the gospels that Jesus understood humanity.  He was fully aware of our failings and flaws and into this world of imperfection He spoke words both compassionate and confrontational.  If we want to be fully present in the lives God has given us, we need to soak in the truth of this passage.

Worry, fear, anxiety and doubt all arise from a lack of trust or misplacing our trust.  Christ is reorienting our view to the one who is worthy of our trust.  He asks us to give up what if-ing our life to death and take hold of the truth that God will take care of us.

If we want to live life abundantly, we need to be about today.  When we exert our emotions and will to grasp for control what has not happened yet, we enter into a cycle of frustration and disappointment.  We can feel like the universe is out to wreck our plans, or even think that God is punishing us when things don’t go our way.  What if instead of trying to control the future, we worked on being prepared for the day we haven’t passed through yet?  What if rejected the idea of things going our way and partnered with God in seeing things go His way?

This isn’t about getting rid of your calendar, or not setting goals.  This is about having a different attitude in how you get to tomorrow.  When you are confidently giving all you have to today you avoid the regret and feelings of failure that worry, anxiety, doubt and fear leave in their wake.  When you step into each day available to the will of God, you become a tool in the Master’s hand, perfectly fit for His work in you and the world.  When you are rooted in the truth of His love

In the world of addiction recovery there is a saying that seems appropriate for this passage: One day at a time.  The reality is that we are all addicts – recovering sinners, if you will.  We have been set free, but we have a hard time living like we are no longer slaves to sin.  It is easy to fall back into the mentality that we know better what our future holds than the one who created time.

Jesus wants us to take one day at a time on our road to becoming like Him.  He wants us in that place between “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” (Philippians 3:13)  He wants us living in today.

I don’t want to be spread out over days, weeks and months.  I don’t want to feel thinned out by the ticking hands of a clock stretching me beyond the moment that God has prepared. I want to be a man about the business of today.

Prayer for this week:

Lord, help me to be about your work each day.  Let me live in the space between what has been and what will be with integrity and purpose.  Help me be fully present in my life with you, my family, friends and those you bring across my path.  Amen.

The Discipline of Presence: A Place to Start

16 So Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. – Genesis 4:16 (NIV)

We are wanderers in this world.  We are born disconnected, separated from the one who made us.  We are like Cain, living in a wilderness away from the Lord’s presence; and we would have no hope of changing this miserable circumstance if the Lord had not provided a way out.

Through Christ we are no longer wanderers in the world, we are the beacons, the lights on the hills.  God can now be present in our lives, or maybe it is better to say that we can now experience God’s presence in our lives.  It is not as if God wasn’t present before, but we were ill-equipped to perceive and understand it in our unredeemed condition.

So now we have walked through that door of salvation into the grace and love of God, granted access to His presence through the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t always feel like God is present.  Our similarities with Cain do not die easily.  We struggle with experiencing God’s presence because we struggle with being whole people.

Our fragmentation and inner divisiveness come from inside us, even though we might try and blame the world and others and even God.  It is this fragmentary living that causes us so much pain and heartache, and I believe that at the root is a lack of love.  In the tragedy of Cain and Abel, Cain is driven by hate for his brother, himself and even God (or at least Cain’s idea of God).  If at any point leading up to spilling Abel’s blood Cain had allowed love to rule his thoughts and actions, Genesis might have been a different story.

When God commands us to love others as we love ourselves, we sometimes forget the loving ourselves part.  If we want to be fully present in the lives of others as God is present in ours, we must love ourselves.  This is not a call to selfish love, but a First Corinthians 13 love.  Read that chapter and see if it describes how you treat yourself and how you think about yourself.  I know for me the answer is “not yet,” and that is why I struggle to love others in the same way.

When my wife needs me to be fully present with her in a conversation or in silence, I need to love myself enough to love her enough.  That is a place to start…loving yourself.  Love that is defined by God, delivered by the Holy Spirit and purchased by the blood of Christ.  Love that heals and grows and mends.  Love that allows light into all of our dark corners so that God can do His work.  It is not just okay to love yourself; it is the doorway to loving others and being present in their lives.

As we learn to love ourselves the way God loves us, we become capable of greater love for others and more skilled at being present in their lives.  Take some time this week to ask God to search out your dark corners in the light of His limitless love.  Meditate on the love described in I Corinthians 13 and ask God to help you have that love for the person you see in the mirror. Pray that God will help you see yourself through His loving eyes.

The Discipline of Presence

I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Knudsen, taking roll each morning to tally our attendance.  We would raise our hand and say clearly, “Present!” when our name was called from the list, signifying that our day at school had now begun.  However, there were mornings when my hand rose, and my mouth spoke, but my heart and mind were elsewhere.  I was anything but present.

While circumstances have changed, I still find myself proclaiming my presence while not really experiencing it in the moment.  It happens at work, in conversations, at home and even during prayer.  I am elsewhere.  Thankfully, we are assured that God does not suffer from this malady; He is ever present, at all times and in all places.

It causes me to wonder if this is something I am supposed to reflect in my own life.  If this is one of the characteristics of my heavenly Father, shouldn’t I try to be like Him?  When I show up, do I truly bring all of myself to the moment, or do I do whatever will get me by?

In today’s world, it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are more connected and present with others because of the vast amount of technology we buy for that purpose.  We email and text and chat and call at home and work and play, thinking this brings us closer together.  I believe that just the opposite is occurring.  It is all breadth and no depth.  With each email, phone call or text message we convince ourselves that we are strengthening our connections when in reality we are becoming less and less capable of being present in the moment.

It is not that technology is evil or a tool of the devil; it is that we do not develop the discipline of presence in our society.  And it is a discipline.  Or maybe it is better to say that it is the result of other disciplines.  We have to make ourselves be someplace, to focus our will on what is at hand.  How many marriages suffer from “You never pay attention to me” syndrome?  How many drivers have near misses or cause accidents because they were on the phone, putting make-up on or wandering around in their head to a song on the radio?  When was the last time you found yourself going through a list of things to do during prayer at church?

I want to learn how to be present, to be fully engaged in my life as it is happening in the place that it is happening, immersed in what God is doing.  This series will explore ways for us to become better at being present in the moments of our lives.  I hope that you find the upcoming posts useful and edifying.