Saturday I saw a man working to prune four crepe myrtles that I have been privileged to see grow and bloom for years now. I am not a gardener by any stretch, despite my many failed attempts, so I'd have never noticed their need for pruning. But I saw the result of his work on a couple of trees, before he'd reached the last. The difference was stark. The pruned trees looked stout and sturdy, with many strong branches ready to produce the leaves and flowers that will come when the weather turns. At their base were piles of small, scrawny branches. The remaining tree to be pruned looked unruly and wild. I could see how those wild and unruly twigs could eat up nutrients while not being prepared to grow produce as much as the stronger branches below. It was a passing glance at the work this man was doing, but it was certainly noticeable that he was serving a purpose in pruning back the waste.
Then on Sunday, in our study on the Gospel of John, this:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 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. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in 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. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples." John 15:1-8 (ESV)
We had an interesting discussion on the process of pruning and purification that we go through as we work to abide more in Jesus. It is never easy. It is often painful. Let's face it--we have used our nutrients-- be it time, energy, money--to grow those weak branches, and despite the lack of return, it is hard at the time to see them be lopped off. Even when we know logically that the fruit we will bear will be bigger, richer, and more pleasing to God, it can be hard to contemplate taking the knife to them.
I've had two different careers that I've had to prune out of my life in order to be more fruitful. As a Highly Ambitious Person, it was not the easiest thing to give them up. I really loved my work, in many ways. There are still times when I'd love to be in a newsroom covering something important or interesting, or when I see a wedding I'd have photographed differently. But then I look at Galatians 5. Working the long and often overnight hours of television robbed me of my patience and much of my self-control. It was hard to cultivate goodness when I was surrounded by images of destruction and sorrow. Constant, ongoing competition to book weddings was never a place of peace. Never. Both took precious time from what I could have been spending helping my marriage and working with my children--easily the most visual potential fruit I have been given stewardship of, not to mention the ability to study more or to help others.
Another example: This past weekend the Grammy's were on. I know this not because I watched them, but because my Twitter feed was blown up with commentary on them. Quite honestly, I had no desire to watch them as I didn't want to assault my eyeballs with...whatever they were going to dream up to assault my eyeballs with that I could not then un-see. But in fact, I couldn't watch them even if I'd wanted to because we no longer have cable. (Full disclosure: I think there is a way for us to tune in at least one or two local stations, but about the only time I do is for storm coverage.) Cable was a hard-ish thing to give up, as I feared what I would be missing out on both in entertainment and in the ability to take part in discussions on the entertainment. However, the benefits of this pruning have been many. We have more money in our monthly budget. When we do watch TV, we watch whatever is available on Netflix. That means no commercials, and you know what happens without the commercials? You don't want all the non-essential stuff that is advertised so well as must-haves! My husband and I really don't watch much of what's on Netflix at all, and since it's always available to be continued, we are free to go to bed earlier, get up earlier, and have quiet time to study, write notes, plan our budget, go for a run. All of which, I think it's safe to say, are far more able to produce love, joy, peace, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit than oh, say, anything that comes on in prime time.
The pruning process can look different depending on the individual, of course. Those are just two examples of what I personally have been through in recent years as I've been pruned and made more ready, I pray, to bear fruit. I know there is more waste that needs to go. Other things that I and those I know have cut off in an effort to be more ready to serve: friendships, romantic relationships, job promotions, expensive houses, styles of dress, social media (and even the internet all together), team sports, cars, extracurriculars... I'm sure there are more but those are some examples.
I can tell you this: Every time I've gone through the process, what is left afterward has been so much better than what has been cut off. The way I spend my time now is so much better than how I spent it before. More faith in God, more knowledge of scripture, more time to devote to guiding my children's hearts--honestly, even more rest!-- trumps less money, far less status, and less to contribute to a conversation about what was on TV in spades.
I hope, that if you are in the process of being pruned that you will look forward with hope at the fruit you will bear instead of looking down at the fallen twigs with despair. It is for this that we were made--to bring Him glory. And He knows best how to bring it about.
I love technology. I was looking recently at a history of the Apple brand of computers in history and chatting online with my dad about the different computers we'd used when I was a kid. I still love it when my tech-geek husband comes home and tells me about new technologies.
One of the most useful technologies I can think of is the ability to stream audio and video. I love being able to listen to a good podcast or piece of audio while I'm fixing lunch or dinner and the girls are playing. Also, living in Atlanta, we spend a LOT of time in our cars. Probably a lot of you do, too. And even if it's not a big chunk of your routine, you have probably found, like me, that you have to work pretty hard to find something that's decent to fill your ears and mind with.
Time really is one of those things that we either take charge of or that simply gets away from us. We are not always in control of how we use it, but we can at leasIn light of that, I wanted to start linking to some audio that I think is useful and beneficial for redeeming the time that otherwise might not be working to build us up.
We were recently treated to a series of three sermons on God's grace that I found to be extremely uplifting and inspiring. I don't know if you're like me, but I don't remember hearing a whole lot about grace growing up, and some people I knew always seemed skeered to talk about it. After I was grown, I realized why--lots of grace rhetoric is just wrong. You know the kind I'm talking about--it gives the subtle (or not-so-subtle) implication that because of grace, we get to do whatever we want! "God forgives--lighten up!"
But these sermons really flip that concept on it's head. In fact, if you truly understand God's grace, you will be more moved to work for the Lord, to spread the word about what His son has done for you, than ever before. What He has done for me and you is amazing, you guys, and other people need--desperately need-- to be exposed to, shown, and taught about it, because He did it for them, too!
So, if you want to stay comfy and cozy and keep God all to yourself, don't bother clicking on the links below. But if you want to be challenged, listen in.
The Gospel of Grace, Ben Hall
Radical Grace, Ben Hall
Grace on Mission, Ben Hall
Well, it's January. Deepest, darkest January. (I'm pretty sure you are already aware of that.) I don't know about you, but I struggle with January. There are times I feel like I am in hand-to-hand combat with January. In ways, it is so nice to get back to a routine after the constant amusements, delights, drama and stress of the holidays. In other ways...it's January. Gray. Cold. Bleak.
I can tell I'm not the only one struggling, this year in particular. Lots of people I've spoken with have expressed that they are having difficult times right now, for any number of reasons, many of which go far beyond the mere fact that it is winter. I know of those currently struggling with marriage difficulties, the deaths of parents and grandparents, discouragement because of unfaithful loved ones, despair over spiritual leaders who are not walking right, job problems... you name it, and this winter does not seem to be a kind one to many of us.
I had a friend directly ask me this weekend for a blog post, because, she said, she needed encouragement. So today, I would like to encourage you to do three small things that I think will bring some much-needed uplift to your day. They are small, easy, and effective.
1. First, read Ephesians 5:15-21.
"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
2. Second, consider which of the things from the above scripture you can do today that would be wise in light of how dark, dreary, even evil these days might feel. I don't claim to know all the reasons why we are commanded to do what's listed here, but I can tell you there are clear benefits we can gain before from practicing them.
So first, make a plan. Walk carefully, Paul says (v. 15). That means, with care. If you are deep in despair or depression, it can be so hard to get out of the fog and actually do something. The first step I am suggesting is to carefully, mindfully, resolve to change something--and for now, make it just one thing. Anything grandiose may overwhelm you. Make the best use of your time (v. 16) in one small way today. Get that accomplishment under your belt, then let momentum from that spur you on. There are a number to choose from:
a. Understand what the will of the Lord is (v. 17). Get in the scripture and search for understanding. This never fails to bring focus and guidance for your day, even in very small doses, if that's all you can muster right now.
b. Do not turn to a source of comfort that is not going to aid you spiritually, and especially one that can harm you greatly (v. 18). Resist the temptation to wallow, or to use a comfort aid that is not God-approved. It will only hurt you in the long run, so steer clear. Paul has listed here several other clear methods listed here that will help you, and, believe it or not, even help others, through your tough times.
c. Reach out to someone, with spiritual encouragement. If you take the time to look up something that will encourage someone else... guess what? It will likely encourage you, too. As I'm writing this, I think of my childhood friend Polly sitting beside me at church, and the joy on her face when the song leader would choose "Sing and Be Happy." If the skies above you are gray, you are feeling so blue... She would look over at me and her obvious happiness would make me happy. I honestly can't imagine calling up a friend and singing to them, but maybe I should. I can certainly think up a few encouraging psalms and hymns though, and could pretty easily email or text the words to them. Finding them, writing them out, sending them, and then discussing them with a friend... really, how could that not be encouraging? Or having a cheerful tune or uplifting words stuck in my head the rest of the day and actually singing them aloud while I'm making lunch or driving to an appointment? It certainly beats wallowing in my thoughts right now, y'all.
d. Give thanks to God (v. 20). One of the most beneficial exercises I've begun to practice when I'm feeling low--and even when I'm not-- has become saying a prayer of complete thanks. No requests allowed. Just thankfulness and praise. When you really get down to brass tacks with the Lord and all He's done for you, despite current circumstances, it's probably not going to be a short prayer, and it can be a major mood-lifter and attitude-adjuster. You may be in a place where you have requests of God, and certainly He wants to hear them, but try doing a prayer that contains only thankfulness and gratitude and see if it helps. My hunch is, it will.
e. Call and see how someone else is doing--without revealing your current struggle. Trust me--someone else out there needs your help. This is an act of submission--putting down your desire to talk it out or vent and instead listening to and aiding someone else. Not only does it help them and glorify God, but it will be a few minutes spent not dwelling on whatever is plaguing you (sweet relief!) and may give you more perspective still on your problems. I am not at all saying that what you are dealing with is not legitimate and that you don't need help dealing with your own challenges. This is just one suggestion of many that might bring you comfort and get you out of whatever winter rut you may be stuck in.
3. Now take the one thing from the above list and do it. Just one. It can be small. But mindfully, carefully resolve today to do one thing different than what you have done so far this January--especially if what you've been doing hasn't been working for you. If you need to do more--do them! Do all of them if you can, whether it's today or over the next few days! The practice will bring you joy and help you through this time.
Show January who is boss. God is the boss, and you have strong guidance from Him on how to handle discouragement. So do it. And while you are, remember, spring is just 66 days away.
Encouragement Spoken Here
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." Proverbs 25:11