Stay Connected

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Jesus said:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also 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 you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are 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 done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8, NIV)

“Remain in Me”

The word “remain” means to linger in the present moment – to be mindful to ourselves and our situations and stay connected. It is to have continual unbroken fellowship with Jesus.

To have a connection, there must be two ends to connect. The Jesus connection is consistent. It’s always there. We are the other connection. And, frankly, we can be flaky – pulling away and coming close. Which is why Jesus gives a repeated invitation to keep the connection. Here are a few other translations of John 15:4….

Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. (CEV)

Live in me, and I will live in you. A branch cannot produce any fruit by itself. It must stay attached to the vine. In the same way, you cannot produce fruit unless you live in me. (GW)

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (NKJV)

Stay connected to me, and I will stay connected to you! A branch cannot produce fruit on its own but only if it has a vital connection to the vine. In the same way, there’s no way you can produce fruit, at all, unless you have a meaningful connection with me.

Jesus (John 15:4, own translation)

Our task as Christians is to remain connected to Jesus. So, the question is: How do we keep the connection without breaking it? How can we be fruitful?

Focus On the Relationship

Christianity, at its core, is about a living relationship with Jesus. Yes, doctrine is important. And it is necessary to know the basic tenets of Christian faith. Yet, any knowledge and understanding we gain about Christianity is to be channeled into developing the relationship.

Bible trivia is only as good as the understanding we apply to build the relationship. Knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others. While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Christ’s redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, death, resurrection, and ascension are all meant to restore a severed relationship with humanity. Therefore, knowing doctrinal truth is not the same as using the doctrines to connect with God in a loving relationship.

As with all relations, it takes planning, dedication, time, and effort to grow and maintain our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we fail to use our time and energy on that relationship, then the leaves on the branch begin to wither.

Scripture, silence, solitude, community, prayer, giving, and fasting have always been at the center of Christian practices which are designed to put us in a position to hear and receive from God.

Relate Well to the Other Branches

The church is a community. Christ and the church have a vital union with each other. We are a living growing community. I used to live in a place where there was a tree that had grown up next to an old fence post. The tree grew tall and engulfed the post to the degree that now you can only see part of the fence post.

To try and remove the post, you would need to remove the tree. The two have become one. And the tree is still growing. Not only are we connected to the trunk, but we’re also connected to each other. We are all part of the same vine. We aren’t separate vines. So, we all need to do our part in the system of the vine.

Keep Close to the Vine

My grandmother had a grapevine in her backyard when I was a kid. I have firsthand understanding that the best grapes are located closest to the trunk of the vine. The sweetest, juiciest, biggest, and best tasting grapes are found in the middle, securely next to the vine’s trunk.

If you’re into sour grapes, then pick the ones at the end of the branches. Show me a sourpuss Christian, and I’ll show you a Christian who is not close to Christ. Show me a sweet Christian and I’ll show you a believer who daily works at their connection with Jesus.

Pruning is Necessary

Healthy vines need to be pruned, at least once a year. Ideally, twice a year, in the Spring before budding; and in the fall, after the harvest. To ignore pruning is to compromise the vine’s ability to produce both good grapes and lots of grapes. The branches of a grapevine need to be kept short because the nutrients are concentrated in and near the vine. Long branches compromise the harvest.

Pruning hurts. From the perspective of us branches, pruning feels like judgment. But it isn’t. Even though pruning is painful for us, it makes us healthier and tastier. It’s better to do a few things well, rather than try and do a lot of things for which we have limited time and energy. It is a good practice to do some pruning twice a year.

Know Why You are Connected

Christians are joined to Jesus. Yes, we are connected so that we are saved from sin, death, and hell. And, yes, we are also linked with Jesus to experience life to the full. Yet, the goal or the end of the connection is to produce succulent fruit.

If there are no grapes on the vine, the vine is useless. Then we get rid of it. Grapevines exist to produce grapes. Christians and churches exist for the life of the world, to produce the fruit of righteousness consistent with our Christ-connected union: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

The church is not an end in and of itself. The church exists for the life of the world. Jesus said:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16, NIV)

Pray

If we live in union with Christ, and if the words and ways of Jesus live powerfully within us—then ask for anything, and it will be done. Prayer is both an event and a process. It is something anyone can do, as well as a spiritual practice that needs growth and development.

God’s Word, the words of Jesus, are the nutrients for our spiritual life. When those words find a home within us, there is a divine/human conversation as well as a mystical union. Christ promises that if we just ask, it’s ours.

As our relationship with Christ grows, we learn to be thoughtful about our asking. Flippantly or selfishly asking for things disrespects the connection we enjoy with God. Claiming or demanding answers to prayer demeans the relationship. However, we can also dishonor God by simply not asking, at all.

Essentially, Jesus said to his disciples, “Go ahead, try me!” Prayer is the delivery system for our nutrients. And prayer is also the means of delivering the blessing of succulent fruit so that the world might live.

Jesus modeled prayer for his disciples, and for us. Those prayers are grounded in connection and unity with the Father. Just as God is One, we are to be one:

I am not praying just for these followers. I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me. I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.

I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. Then this world’s people will know that you sent me. They will know that you love my followers as much as you love me.

Father, I want everyone you have given me to be with me, wherever I am. Then they will see the glory that you have given me, because you loved me before the world was created. Good Father, the people of this world don’t know you. But I know you, and my followers know that you sent me. I told them what you are like, and I will tell them even more. Then the love that you have for me will become part of them, and I will be one with them. (John 17:20-26, CEV)

Conclusion

We are to live and to pray consistent with who we are and what our mission is. The church is to be one as God is one. Christians are to pray for unity because our triune God is always united. Believers everywhere are to remain and abide in Christ through a vital connection of loving God and loving neighbor.

1 Corinthians 7:32-40 – Relational Worries

 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (NIV)

Everyone experiences worry and anxiety. It is part of our human condition in this broken world. You may have even woken up this morning with deep furrows of anxiety about the state of your life – and maybe God was lost somewhere in your worry. The Bible addresses worry many times, and the Apostle Paul brings it out here in our New Testament lesson for today.

Throughout the letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul dealt with several issues effecting the life and health of the church. One of the topics of discussion was the prospect of marriage for unmarried persons (sounds like Paul spoke at a lot of college campuses). Paul went back and forth with the people as if he had a daisy in his hand giving a pre-marital counseling illustration of “she loves me, she loves me not” as he pulled petals off the flower.

“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.”

thomas merton

Paul vacillated between whether to get married or not because of his larger concern about individual and congregational anxiety. The Apostle wanted everyone in the church to be free from worry. This, then, becomes a sage grid from which to make an important life decision: Does being unmarried create worry and anxiety within you, to the point that you cannot think about pleasing God? 

If that is the case, then drop the long engagement and get married, or put yourself out there to connect in a relationship. If being unmarried does not cause one to worry, then Paul would say to stay in your current state and be unconcerned for pursuing a marriage relationship. Instead, use your station in life to serve God freely, liberated from the worry of caring for a spouse.

Pleasing and serving the Lord is Paul’s highest good. If we are in life circumstances which make it difficult for us to serve God, then we ought to work to change the situation so that we can focus better on Christ. This is one of the most simple and wise ways of making decisions for the Christian devoted to Jesus, and discerning God’s will.

Having said that, it is important not to overthink this – because it only adds to the anxiety and really goes nowhere in making sound decisions. When it comes to issues about marriage and relationships, some folks get paralyzed wanting to make the “right” decision, and so, get too scared to even talk about their worry with others. Throw into the mix a possible underlying anxiety about being rejected, and decision-making can get quickly stymied. If we are too nervous to voice our concerns, we will likely miss out on the opportunity to potentially get reassurance and help.

Whenever we experience decision-making anxiety, there are some ways to address it…

  • Breathe. Take some deep breaths and feel your feet on the ground. When you have an internal conflict, it creates inner drama, and we easily get stuck. Take a deep breath to take the edge off.
  • Be curious. When we are conflicted on the inside, be curious about what you want or need. Explore your true intentions without judgment. It is when our inner-critic chimes in with the harsh rhetoric of judgment that we often become anxious and worried. It is okay to identify and express what we really need and want.
  • Write it out. The act of writing not only helps clarify our thought process; it also calms our brains and our spirits – which allows us to calmly ask ourselves: “What is the best move at this point?”

May you blessed because you care. Although relational anxiety can vex our spirits, it is a sign that we want what is best for ourselves and others.

Gracious God, you in every way want me to be healthy and content. Help me not to be overcome by anxiety, and in all I do direct me to fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, along with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tractor Time with Pastor Tim

Steel Mule tractor

A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver at a high tractive effort (torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of hauling mechanized implements used in agriculture.  The word “tractor” comes from a Latin word, trahere, which means “to pull.”  Tractors, like people, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors – exuding both resilience and strength in their existence.

The Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the most unique and oddest-looking farm machines ever built.  First built in 1913, it was like a cross between a steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Bates Machine Company had the following advertisement for their Steel Mule tractor: “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses.”  In other words, you could operate the tractor by sitting in the implement seat, not the tractor seat.  The Steel Mule survived until they became one of the many victims of the Great Depression in 1937.

My grandfather (whom I never knew – he died when I was a year old) owned and operated a Steel Mule tractor (not the particular model shown above).  There was once a picture of him in the local paper using his tractor (I have it packed away somewhere and am still looking for it).  Grandpa was known for being the guy who would try new things and buy unique machinery – all in the quest for better farming methods.

The Steel Mule seems to represent my current state of ministry.  Like Grandpa, I have a drive and a desire for improving my pastoral craft.  I am open to trying new things and entering into a new way of being with the hospital patients I serve as a chaplain, as well as my peers, other staff, and really everyone I encounter throughout a day.  Yet, at the same time, I stubbornly hold to the past – sitting on the implement and not quite ready to fully embrace the new era of machinery instead of horses.  Which brings me to the whole point of this circuitous rambling of Tim’s Tractor Time:  What holds me back?  And, in so asking this question of myself, I also as it of you: What holds you back?

Yes, what does hold you and I back from taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open with our lives, instead of fearful, anxious, and hesitant?  What holds us back from collaborating with others?  Consulting before acting?  Consulting after acting?  Divulging our emotions and not just our thoughts? Speaking without always measuring and analyzing each word before we say it (or write it)?  As a seasoned minister, I can plow deep furrows with my Steel Mule into others’ lives – so, why not let others do the same in my field?  What is it I’m really pulling in that field?

Perhaps it is fear.  When Charlie Brown came to Lucy for a bit of practical psychosocial help, Lucy spouted a litany of various fears which she wondered Charlie Brown might possess.  Finally, she expressed that maybe he has “pantophobia.”  “What is ‘pantophobia’?” Charlie Brown asks.  Lucy responds, “The fear of everything.”  To which Charlie Brown demonstratively pronounces, “That’s it!”

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

Could be.  Could also be anger.  After all, anger often lurks in the shadows our hearts with a combination of it getting expressed in an unhealthy way or becoming twisted into depression.  There’s plenty of anger under the surface of the topsoil ready to get turned over and exposed.  Too much of it turned inward.  Certainly, it needs some plowing and cultivating, that is, processing outwardly with others… maybe… if we’re brave enough.

Then there’s this thing called liminal space – the space in-between where we can’t go back to the way things were ever again, yet, we aren’t quite where we want/need to be. It’s awkward being caught in the nexus between the past and the future.  Does this hold us back?  Or maybe it’s the fear of imperfection, of not doing something with utmost excellence?  Are we apprehensive about opening up because we don’t understand ourselves fully, so, therefore, I won’t (like a stubborn old Steel Mule) utter half-baked ideas or fragments of thoughts or, God forbid, emotional musings?  Like the Steel Mule, perhaps we are crossing over into a new era with the past very much there with it.

So, perhaps the greater question is: What are you and I really feeling, in this moment?  Figures it would take me all this thinking type verbiage to get to the emotional universe of feelings.  If we’re honest, we all are a diverse jumble of emotions – presently feeling overwhelmed; sad; happy; angry; hopeful; confident; scared; hungry; tired….  Oh, well, let’s just say we’re feeling everything.

Like the interlocutor in the book of Ecclesiastes, the conclusion of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I hold back because of me.  You are hesitant because of you.  Nobody is twisting my arm.  That old enemy of our souls, the Adversary, would like nothing more than to keep us feeling weak and insecure so that he can keep us under his evil thumb.

No one is forcing you to use the Steel Mule tractor.  Quite the opposite.  In truth, there is nothing holding us back.  Nothing is stopping us from pulling our emotions out and discovering new ways to express them with confidence in healthy redemptive ways.  Nothing outside of our power to act is preventing us from the courage to do what we already know deep in our hearts we need to do…. Nothing.  So, then, I’ll look for you in the next tractor advertisement doing your unique, wonderful, and amazing work which comes from the depths of your love for God and others.

Abide with Us

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“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me….  If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” –Jesus (John 15:4, 7)

Today, as I look out of my office window, there are the signs of life everywhere.  A gentle rain is falling; the earth is slowly drinking the water; the flora of elm, maple, and oak trees support an animated fauna of robins, finches, squirrels, and the occasional white-tailed deer.  Evidence of the night stalking of raccoons, skunks, and possums are left in the soft mud.  Beyond what my eye can see, I also realize there is a vast unseen world of organisms thriving within that small patch of nature.

The ecosystem outside my little world is connected to the much larger world of massive earthly movements of seasons, weather, and people.  They are all connected in this immense and vast place we call “Earth.”  When we live and move and have our being in alignment and connection with God and his big world, we are truly blessed, enjoying God’s stamp of approval.

Perhaps we all feel some connection to this world because we originally came from the humus of the earth’s dirt.  In an impressive display of creation, God breathed into the people he made and they came alive to their Creator and the creation which surrounded them.

We were born for connection.  Inherent to our very design and nature, God made us in his relational image and his communal likeness.  We exist to have meaningful and enjoyable connection with God, his creation, and his people.

Yet, the world, as we also see evidenced in innumerable ways, is fundamentally broken.  Separation and anxiety rule far too many people’s lives and infect all kinds of human systems of institutions, corporations, and governments, and even families.  The current separation of immigrant parents and children on the U.S. border is not only reprehensible and morally repugnant, but serves as an overarching metaphor for a world that experiences a profound disconnect with their Creator.

The work of Jesus on this earth was to reset the brokenness; restore the dignity of humanity; renew and revive body and soul; and, redeem lost persons from the bondage of misguided ways resulting in agonizing separation, division, and disunion.  In short, Jesus came to heal his treasured people through helping others to reconnect with God.

To abide with Jesus is to remain with him, to be present with him.  God took the initiative to foster healing by sending his Son to this earth.  Jesus, in close connection with his Father, enabled and established a vital re-connection with God.  The Father and the Son graciously sent the Holy Spirit to help us abide with Jesus and know the joy of genuine healing and spiritual health and vitality.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.” (John 15:16)

Think about what you need most today, perhaps even this moment.  Give some feeling to what they world is in desperate need of.  Maybe you are in physical pain.  It could be that your heart is broken over a severed disconnected relationship.  Perhaps someone is abusing you verbally, or neglecting you.  You might be separated from a loved one through geography or death.  Or, you might just know in the depths of your soul that something isn’t right – that your banal mundane existence in the daily grind lacks any real meaning or connection to the earth and its people.

Peace in the world, if and when it ever gets any traction, is little more than two groups of people not verbally decapitating and/or killing one another for awhile.  The earth is sick with dirty water and soil erosion, mirroring humanity’s erosion of internal virtue.  Love is sought in all the wrong places and lands lonely people into spiritual brothels of pain and disappointment.

In all kinds of ways, we each experience some sort of issue(s) that are askew, askance, and twisted.  We long for the ability to be a human Gumby who can bend back into some kind of normalcy.  We hunger to be noticed in a world of division that seems to notice nothing.

The good news of Holy Scripture is that the satisfaction of basic human needs will come through abiding with Christ.  Remaining with him enables one to ask and receive because God has conspired within himself as Father, Son, and Spirit to grant us deliverance from disconnection, and establish a loving kinship with those who have experienced the unlovely and ungracious elements of this world.  Jesus said:

“You are my friends….  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is laboring behind the scenes to make things right one human being at a time.  We look for miracles, yet the work of God is mostly to be found in the spiritual flora and fauna of the unseen ecosystem of the soul.  There, in the depths of our heart and our gut, the Lord does a wondrous work of connection which heals and restores to life.  In turn, we become Christ-like, being a mini-Jesus who points others to the re-alignment of body, soul, spirit, and all creation.

Based upon how Jesus interacted with others, and how he deals with you and me, we are to bless the individual who is right in front of our face in three simple ways:

Acknowledge the person through being fully present with them.

God blesses us, and we bless others when we affirm the sacredness of the people around us.  This enables us to provide focused and curious attention to the person God has before us.  We are to be “present” with them, giving our full devotion to listening, asking thoughtful questions, and being okay with hearing their musings on life.  As we abide with Christ, we learn to abide with one another.

Affirm the person’s inherent worth of humanity through validating their feelings.

Emotions are emotions.  Feelings are feelings.  You will not find an account in the New Testament Gospels of Jesus dismissing another’s feelings and telling them they shouldn’t have certain emotions.  To invalidate someone’s feelings is to shut them down and create an even wider disconnect and separation from the source of Christian healing and wholeness.  Instead, the human virtue of compassion sinks-into an abiding relationship when we affirm feelings as windows to the soul.

Act with the love and grace of Jesus toward the person through giving them the gift of fellowship and friendship.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, people just want to be heard.  They want to know that someone is listening.  They don’t want to feel forgotten, neglected, or dismissed.  They want a friend who will give them the time of day.  We all need friends.  We all need love.  The problem comes when too many persons have such a severe love deficit in their lives that they can’t give anything to anyone.  When we are all just trying to take, we are on survival mode and we end up hurting others instead of healing them.

One of the reasons we have burned-out people is because too often 20% of the people are doing 80% of the relational work.  Proper boundaries and a greater awareness of self and self’s needs is a much needed discipline today.  Spiritually healthy people bring hope and healing.  Spiritually sick people trying to do more is only a recipe for more separation, division, and disconnection because they’re running their engines with no oil of blessing on what they’re doing.

Abide with Christ.  That is our first and foremost task.  It isn’t our job to fix or save the world; that’s God’s job.  Our work is to remain in love and obedience, and simply point others to the vine of life through the blessing of respectful acknowledgement, emotional affirmation, and gracious action.  When our desires align with God’s desires, prayer becomes an organic response to basic human need, and those prayers will be honored.  The garden of the soul can hold and sustain life.  When it is shared with others it brings integrity and joy to all creation.