Fruitless

The grape vines have grapes.
The raspberry bushes have raspberries.
But, alas, the apple trees have no apples.

PB planted a few apple trees in our backyard seven years ago. They have not blossomed once, so we went back to the place we bought them to get some advice. The plant lady listened to our sad story, nodding her head as if she had heard it all before.

“Here’s what you do: get a baseball bat and give the trunk a beating. That tree is lazy and you need to wake it up.”

After an awkward pause, PB said, “So…whack the tree with a baseball bat?”

“Or a two by four,” she said.

Reluctantly, one night after dark, my man went outside, baseball bat in hand. I couldn’t watch. After the dirty deed was done, he came back in looking guilty. We didn’t talk about it.

Since that notorious night, the old apple tree has clearly perked up, growing several feet and branching out. There are no apples yet, but make no mistake: that tree knows we mean business.

I understand that tree. It has a comfortable plot of ground that feeds it nutrients daily. The roots are down just deep enough to keep it from toppling over in a wind storm. It has a pole next to it, propping it up and keeping it from having to work too hard to stand up straight. There are friendly butterflies and bees and other plants to keep it company. Life is good. But there’s no fruit.

Here is my question:
Is an apple tree truly an apple tree if it never produces apples?

Lord, wake us up from our complacency
and help us bear fruit like true disciples.

“The fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness,
gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.”
Galatians 5:22

Sink or Swim (or Walk)

Almost two months ago, I left Peter precariously sinking
and Jesus joyfully reaching. (See last post.)

Looking back, I think I wrote that because I was in the same boat.

On June 30th, PB and I stepped out of full time ministry after serving churches for 35 years. We weren’t sure how to walk into this new thing called retirement. The solid ground of schedules and Sunday services and cyclical seasons gave way to uncertain footing, wind and waves included. Two months have passed and although we haven’t sunk, we still feel a bit precarious, so I finally returned to Peter to see what happened after Jesus reached out His hand and caught him.

“And when they climbed into the boat…” (Matt. 14:32)

Think about it.
Jesus pulled Peter out of the swirling waters.
And then they walked together back to the boat.
On the water.

They didn’t swim back to the boat. Why would Peter dog-paddle when Jesus was standing there, holding his hand, smiling? Of course they walked back to the boat! On the water! In the wind!

“And when they climbed back into the boat, the wind died down”.

All of this change and restructuring of daily life will eventually die down. We will get the hang of this new season. In the meantime, wind and waves won’t take us down if we are holding on to our Life Preserver. Instead of focusing on the uncertainties, we will fix our eyes on Jesus and walk with Him wherever He leads.

Sink

I’m glad Peter stepped out of the boat and walked on water.
He showed what it looks like to walk by faith.

I’m even happier that Peter began to sink.
He demonstrated what to do when faith falters.

But when he saw the wind,
he was afraid and,
beginning to sink,
cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Matthew 14:30

We don’t know if Peter took two steps or twenty.
We aren’t told how far he got from the safety of the boat.
It is not reported if the water came up to his knees or his neck.

All we know is that Peter panicked and thought he was going down.
So he shouted that magnificent prayer: “Help!”

“Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and caught him.”
Matthew 14:31

Immediately.
Jesus caught the fisherman.

And He did it, according to this artist’s rendering, with a smile on His face.

There is no tsk-tsk-ing, no disappointed sigh, no frown of rebuke.
Instead, Jesus rejoices in any step of faith, even if we flounder.
He smiles and catches us so we can try again.
And again. And again.

In my distress I screamed to the Lord for his help.
And he heard me; my cry reached his ears…
He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
He drew me out of deep waters.
Psalm 18:6, 16

Jump In

I’m not a swimmer.

Although I took swimming lessons as a kid and spent lots of summer afternoons at the pool in town, I avoided the deep end and certainly never dove off the diving board. I attribute this to the fact that I couldn’t wear my glasses in the pool. Due to my extreme nearsightedness, I had trouble keeping track of my friends and I was a little scared I might jump in the wrong end. And drown. That would be embarrassing. So I hung out on the edges of the pool, admiring my buddies who could cannonball with wild abandon. (I couldn’t see them, but I felt the splash.)

As an adult, I continue to be a toe-dipper, ever-so-gradually working my way into a pool. Since having lasik eye surgery over 25 years ago, my excuse is invalid now, yet the lack of confidence remains. Pretty sure I wouldn’t last more than a few minutes in the open sea.

Peter and I have a lot in common.
When Jesus invited him to walk on the water,
Peter hesitated for good reason.
Jews didn’t swim.

The Israelites were more at home traversing the desert than taking a dip. Seas represented chaos and symbolized unpredictable evil. The “deep” was a place where monstrous creatures lived, namely Leviathan. Jews in ancient times didn’t spend their days off at the beach.

Fishing, in particular, was considered an extremely dangerous profession since it required proximity to water. It wasn’t uncommon for fishermen to fall overboard while pulling in nets filled with fish. Drowning accidents took many lives, further proving the vile threat of the murky, watery depths.

Jumping out of the boat,
Peter walked on the water to Jesus.”
Matthew 14:29

For Peter, stepping out of the boat onto the turbulent waves was akin to a death sentence if Jesus didn’t do something miraculous. Peter wasn’t trying out a “Jesus-trick”; he was demonstrating the length his faith would go to obey the Lord. If Jesus said “come”, then Peter would put his life on the line to go. Maybe this was the point when Jesus knew: Here was a man with enough guts to go into all the world, make disciples in every nation and build a church.

One disciple got out of the boat while the other eleven watched.
Lord knows, there are enough of us observing from the safety of our boats.
Sink or swim, let’s jump in.

“Guard my life, for I am faithful to you.”
Psalm 86:2

Jump

Can anybody give me a jump?

This is what I think I need.
I sit and wait for some kind of electrical spark to jolt my words back to life.
I hope for a new form of inspiration to come along and charge me up.
I assume that a transfusion of external energy is the answer.
I think I need a jump.

But maybe this is what I really need.
I need to jump.

What does it mean to jump? Author Shelene Bryan defines it like this:

Jumping is an act of your will to use your God-given gifts to affect others. It is an action, a choice followed by movement, a decision resulting in moving feet. Jumping involves moving from a state of inertia. If you are not using your God-given gifts to help others, you’ve got to expend some energy to get moving. You have got to jump.

Love Skip Jump, Shelene Bryan

Since my last post in February, I admit I have been in a state of inertia. That happens to me when I’m in the midst of major change – I freeze. And PB and I are smack dab in the middle of a big one. We are moving out of our home of 18 years and moving into a whole new season of life. It’s exciting and terrifying.

I usually don’t like to write about things until I’m safely on the other side, having thought it through and figured it out. But for four months now, I’ve been pondering and processing what this thing called “retirement” means and I’m not even close.

So I’ll dive back into my “small drop of ink” with no answers, but loads of curiosity about life and faith and family. I’m ready to jump.

“My times are in Your hands.”
Psalm 31:15

I Like You

PB and I exchange cards on Valentine’s Day.
That’s it.
No flowers, no candy, no fancy dinner out.

Even buying a card seems extravagant these days. Next year, I’m going to take my love to Walmart and peruse the valentine section, pick out a card, have him read it, then put it back on the rack. I may even give him a kiss right there in aisle three. We might hold hands as we walk out to the parking lot. With the money we saved, we could pick up a burger and fries and eat it in the car on the way home. Sounds perfect.

This year, however, we did splurge on cards
and PB found just the right one for me.

Forty-two and a half years ago,
we promised to love and cherish each other.
I’ve never once doubted PB’s love for me since that day.
We never promised to like each other though.

And there have been many days since August 25, 1979 that I’m pretty sure he didn’t like me too much. I know that because there were some days I didn’t like him either. But we loved each other still.

Love is a given.
We vowed to love each other
and every day we choose to make good on that promise.

But to be liked?
That’s different.

It means he would choose me for a friend even if we weren’t a couple.
It means he appreciates my quirky ways, even finding delight in them.
It means he’s genuinely interested in what I’m doing and where I’m going.
It means he would rather have me along than go somewhere alone.

He doesn’t just put up with me.
He likes me.

I think it’s possible that my Valentine card is a reflection of Divine Love.
Sure, God loves us. He has to. He promised He would.
But I also think He really, really likes us.
He chooses us,
delights in us,
is interested in us,
desires us to join Him.

“This is what the Lord says… You are mine.” Isaiah 43:1

How sweet it is to be liked by You. ❤️

An Ocean of Ink

Last week I came across the words of an old hymn,
“The Love of God”.
It was written by Frederick Lehman in 1917.

Lehman pastored several churches in the midwest, but what he really loved to do was write songs. At age 50, he came up against some hard times and moved his family to California where he got a warehouse job packing oranges and lemons into wooden crates. After hearing a rousing sermon on God’s love one Sunday evening, he couldn’t sleep. Words to a song began to form and he continued composing as he packed fruit the next morning. Soon two stanzas were complete. He felt it needed a third verse, but nothing came.

Several days later, he opened a book and a handwritten poem fell out. It had been a gift from someone who explained that the poem had been found 200 years earlier, written on the cell wall of a prison. One of the guards had found it after the prisoner died and he jotted the words down before painting over it.

When Lehman read the poem,
he knew immediately it was his third verse.
It was a miraculous, perfect fit.

Later, it was discovered that the poem dated back to 1000 A.D. and was written by a Jewish Rabbi. Somehow the Hebrew was translated to English and found its way to a prison cell. Somehow it was preserved by a guard and passed through hands until it landed in a book on Frederick Lehman’s shelf. Somehow the rhythm of the poem matched the meter of Lehman’s song exactly.

The hymn was completed in 1917, while these world events were being played out:

  • America declared war on Germany, sending the first combat troops to France
  • A world-wide influenza pandemic struck, killing 20 million by 1920
  • 15,000 African Americans silently walked down 5th Avenue in New York to protest racial discrimination

Things haven’t changed much.
We still need the love of God desperately.

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every tree on earth a quill,
And everyone a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure;
The saints’ and angels’ song!”

10 Things I Learned in January

As much as I love the start of a new year, I don’t mind waving bye-bye to January. It’s cold. It’s dreary. It’s too soon to think about digging in the dirt. The fun holidays have passed. However, I do like sitting by the fire with a book on a winter’s night so it’s not all bad.

Here are a few things I learned (or re-learned) in January.

1. Spending a whole week in isolation wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. One morning in January I tested positive, so I packed up a boxful of books and left PB at the parsonage and went to the house in the woods. After four days of feeling miserable, I perked up and expected to relish hours of quiet. What a surprise to find I missed people, especially PB. He seemed to fair much better, enjoying control of the TV remote way too much. Never again. Next time, we get sick together.

2. We’ve given away the same $75 nine times. Back in 2014, PB and I loaned Costa Rican Juan Vicente $75 through Kiva, a nonprofit organization that helps people in underprivileged areas get a business going through crowd funding. Juan needed fertilizer for his coffee crop. When he paid his loan back, we sent it out again — this time to Soelia in Columbia. She needed a cow. The same $75 keeps making the rounds: Farilia in Haiti, Yesinia in Nicaragua, Grace in Kenya, Reynaldo in Peru, Tigran in Armenia, Nelly in Kenya. Nelly is a single mom who needs to buy some milk cans so she can sell the milk from her cow. Best $75 I’ve ever spent.

3. Trees can live without people, but people can’t live without trees. I’ve been reading a lot about trees this month. They are much more amazing than I ever imagined. Author Matthew Sleeth points out that trees provide the oxygen our lungs need to breath. What we didn’t know until recently, is that God created our lungs to look like trees.

“Have you ever looked at an image of the bronchial tubes and branches of a lung? A cast of our respiratory ‘tree’ is indistinguishable from the shape of a bare oak tree. Yet for almost all of human history, we hadn’t a clue that we are actually breathing trees.” (Reforesting Faith, Matthew Sleeth) 

4. Green velvet is not my style. We are storing a couch for our son in our living room. It is mid-century modern and did I mention it is covered in green velvet? Nothing about this piece of furniture appeals to me. I tried to cover it with a white blanket, but the green still showed. Lately, I’ve been looking at it a little differently as I’ve had two people walk into our house and offer big money for the “awesome” sofa.

5. I can paint. Back in 7th grade, we had the choice to either go to art class or skip it and go to study hall. I chose study hall. Mrs. Z was relieved. My stick men didn’t even look like sticks. It was clear I didn’t have the gift. Fifty some years later, I’m rethinking that snap judgment. A group of ladies gathered for a fun afternoon with canvas and paint. I surprised myself. My moon looked like a moon. My hill looked like a hill. My trees even looked kind of like trees, with sticks. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

6. My word for the year is a doozy. “Hesed” is a Hebrew word that is basically inexpressible and untranslatable. The best we can do in English is “lovingkindness”, but that doesn’t really come close. Tim Keller says hesed is “the steadfast love of a covenant God who cares for us, not because we are perfect but because He is.” Michael Card spent ten years studying this word and this is his definition: “When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing, gives me everything.” Gotta think about that for a while — like maybe a year.

7. Speaking of Michael Card, he has an album called “To the Kindness of God”. After writing a book about hesed, he wrote nine songs about hesed. Go listen to “That Kind of Love”. I mean it. Go do it.

8. Losing hurts worse than winning feels good. The Packers lost yet another playoff game to the 49ers. This was supposed to be “the” year. Oh well. I refuse to allow 11 men who make millions of dollars running around on a field affect my level of happiness. I choose to focus on the 11 little people who run around in my house from time to time. That’s a whole other level of happiness.

9. The word “retirement” feels weird coming out of my mouth. PB announced his coming retirement to our congregation and he only choked up a few times. The process has begun. It’s the right decision but it feels monumental, scary and a little exciting.

10. Jesus used the word “love” 29 times in His final message to the disciples, as recorded in John’s gospel. I think they got the point. I hope we do, too.

Love Mandate

“A new commandment I give you: Love one another.” John 13:34

Mandates are not real popular these days. It seems nobody likes being told what to do. Some people expend enormous amounts of time and energy either supporting or opposing mandates that come down from places of authority. The debate rages on between standing up for our individual freedoms and laying down our rights for the good of others. I’m not about to wade into those murky waters. Our silly arguments pale in light of Jesus’ final words to His followers.

The night before Jesus was killed, He issued a mandate to His disciples:
Love one another.

Growing up Jewish, the disciples were used to commandments. They knew the Big 10, they were well versed in the 613 precepts found in the writings of Moses, and the hundreds of added Pharisaical laws were familiar to them. There hadn’t been any new commandments for hundreds of years. The people had their hands full trying to obey all the old ones.

This command was different.
It was not a suggestion.
(“You guys might want to try getting people to love each other.”)
It was not based on emotions.
(“Love people when that ooey-gooey feeling overtakes you.”)
It had no conditions.
(“Love people, but only those who are lovable.”)

This command was new.
Love was to be the distinguishing factor in the movement that was about to take over the world.

This begs some questions:

Can you command someone to love? Apparently, yes.
Do we need to be commanded to love? Evidently.
Does Jesus have the authority to command this? Yep.
Is this commandment optional? No siree.
Who are we commanded to love? Other believers.
Why do we need this commandment? Because it’s not our natural default.
Does God expect us to obey this mandate? Absolutely.
Where can we find an example of this? John 15:13

Do Christians have the right to not love?
I say no.

What say you?

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

I once read a true story about a mom and her three sons. She had a terminal illness and before she died, she wrote each of her boys a letter, to be opened in private after her passing. Each message held her special thoughts about each son. All three letters ended with the same line: “Don’t tell your brothers, but you were my favorite and I loved you most.”

Five times in John’s gospel, this mysterious phrase pops up: “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The fact that those words aren’t used anywhere else in the scriptures raises suspicion that John may have been referring to himself, while trying to stay humble. Why does John tag himself as that disciple Jesus especially loved?

John’s Gospel uses the word “love” 39 times, more than the other three gospel writers put together. (Matthew–15x, Mark–7x, Luke–14x) But John doesn’t use the word until the third chapter. In the middle of a discussion with a Pharisee about the Kingdom, rebirth, and believing, Jesus drops an astounding truth. God loves humans. “God loves you so much,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “that He gave you Me.”

God loves the world, yes.
But somehow, He also loves each of us.
So don’t tell anybody,
but today He wants you to know this:
you, who are especially loved by the Father,
you are His favorite.
You are the disciple whom Jesus loves.