The Individualist Branch

branchI consider myself a pretty blessed branch. I wasn’t always so nicely situated as I am now. I started off on the wrong side of the vineyard, growing up on a vine that just wasn’t going anywhere. Thank God He saved me from that dead-end and grafted me in to the Living Vine. Without Him I don’t know where I would be.

Of course, nothing in life comes easy. God has given me so much. The least I can do is take the potential He has invested in me and make something of it. I want to live up to His expectations and do Him proud. That’s why I pay close attention to His standards and strive for excellence in all I do. I never want Him to regret having picked me.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. … Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:1-5

After all, I understand that the point of being a branch is to bear fruit. I’d be a pretty worthless branch if I didn’t! So I make every effort to fulfill my calling. I avoid the things that would compromise my output quality, and I rise each day determined to produce the best fruit possible. I groom, discipline, and develop myself, ever pushing to squeeze out an admirable and plentiful crop.

I have come a long way from where I started, and most people looking at me would say I am an admirable success of a branch. But if they examined me closer up, they would notice the bitter or blighted fruit that often pops out on me. I scramble to cover it with my charming leaves and other presentable products, but I still know it is there. And that disturbs me.

If I’m really honest, I’d have to admit that sometimes I fake it. In some of my places I look and see no fruit at all. I know the kind of fruit He expects, but it just doesn’t automatically pop out on me like that. What’s a branch to do? So I hold out last season’s fruit, pretending like it is fresh and real. I simulate a healthy, thriving branch while all the while I know that I am shriveling from the inside out.

What’s wrong with me? What am I missing that other branches seem to get? I see them fresh and green, bearing beautiful fruit in season while I push and groan trying to pop out a few decent deeds. What do they have that I don’t?

Sometimes I suspect it might have something to do with that Stream they root themselves close to. Or perhaps the way they all cluster around the Vine gives them an extra advantage.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:9-13

But I’ve never placed much stock in going with the flow or running with the pack. I enjoy the challenge of making my own way, maintaining my freedom rather than being confined by the group. I want to bear good fruit, but I’d rather do it on my own. I’ve carried on this far with the sap-transfusion that the Vine conferred on me when He transferred me in. But perhaps that isn’t enough.

Perhaps there is something to this whole communal connection thing. I may be designed for producing fruit, but I can’t produce my own sap, too. And though I prefer connecting to the Vine in my own, personal relationship, I’m beginning to recognize that being a solitary branch falls short of His purpose for me. Only as I conform myself to the greater plant, investing myself in the other branches and allowing them to impinge on me, will we together realize our full organic potential.

If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit…
John 15:6-8

I suppose there isn’t really any room on this Vine for a stand-alone branch. If I want to stick around, I’ll need to stick closer to Him and to my fellow branches. Interdependence may strip me of my independence, but it will fill me with more of His life-giving self.

After all, fruit bearing is a team effort.

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Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

The Slog to Glory

IMG_0587My family and I set out to climb a mountain last weekend.

Let’s just say that the idea of making it to the summit of a Highland munro was more glorious than the reality of actually doing it. Images of the Von Trapp family cresting a grassy, Alpine peak to soaring strains of “Climb Every Mountain” came back to mock me as we slogged across the prerequisite boggy plain. At times our lofty goal was reduced to simply trying to take the next few steps without being sucked down in the mud. And that beautiful vertical ascent I had imagined involved a lot more back-and-forth trudging (to the tune of whining children) than climbing from glory to glory. Despite our burning lungs and quivering calves, the top of the mountain seemed to loom even farther overhead than when we had started. In frustration, my youngest child finally expressed what I was feeling:IMG_0613

“Why are we even doing this?”

If I’m brutally honest, I have to admit that permutations of this question have risen in my mind at different times during my long walk of faith. And I witness the same deep disillusionment in other discouraged believers, trying to find a positive spin on why their lives and ministries have not turned out as they had expected .

IMG_0584We set out with glorious expectations of victorious living and mountaintop experiences with God. We are fortified with stories of great heroes of the faith who seemed to effortlessly leap over challenge after challenge, buoyed up by their overcoming faith. And yet when we get hit in the face by crisis after crisis, or bogged down by the life-sucking sludge of everyday struggle, we are tempted to lose heart.

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Hebrews 10:32-34

We begin to wonder why we work so hard to accomplish so little, why one hard-won step forward inevitably results in a downhill slide back. Doesn’t God want us to make it to the top? Why does the path have to be so steep, our struggle to climb it so constant? In the face of so many insurmountable odds, we are sorely tempted to sit down and settle for spiritual mediocrity.

Why are we even doing this?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”
Hebrews 10:35-38

No one forced us to choose this difficult path of faith, and no one is forcing us to keep moving forward in ministry. We chose it because we believe in the One who called us. Yes, we believe in the miserable outcome for those who do not respond to Him in obedient faith. But it’s not really fear of hell that motivates us. It is love for God, and an overwhelming desire to see that look of delight on His face when we finally crest the last summit.

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.
Hebrews 10:39, 11:26-27

The truth is that we really are members of that great cloud of witnesses, ones whose very transformed nature it is to keep going despite ourselves. They kept going not because it was somehow easier for them to keep believing or because the trials they faced were any less daunting, but because their deeper longing for God won out over their immediate desire for comfort and security.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. …If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

When I look for what earned these “faith hall of famers” a spot on the list, I don’t find major accomplishments or grand success stories. In fact, most of them died long before they reached the top. Abel got killed; Enoch simply kept walking. Noah got up each day and added a few more planks to the most futile project anyone could imagine. Abraham meandered as a refugee in a land he would never own; and Moses died gazing at it from a distance.

They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Hebrews 11:37-39

What set these men and women apart were not their heroic feats of faith but rather their unsung refusal to quit. By any human standard, they lived their lives as losers, people who had very little to show for all they had invested. And yet they looked to God for their stamp of approval. And He deemed them worthy. In fact, He is proud to be called their God.

God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, …let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 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 11:40-12:3

The same Spirit that kept these saints of old going is now at work in us, prodding us to keep putting one wobbly foot in front of the other. They cheer us on as we finish what they started. Yes, the slog is slow and mucky, but it is taking us somewhere. Our victory is not in how quickly or easily we make the summit, but in how faithful we are to take each inglorious step along the way.

Why are we even doing this?

For the joy set before us.IMG_0641

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