God knows

I find myself getting depressed/aggravated/twitchy at the long lingering effects of the stroke. The lack of dependable balance on my feet. Hands and fingers that wobble, feel numb, fail to move when and where I need them. Double vision. Difficulty swallowing anything but soup. The voice that earned me a living, that I used in order to record audio editions of my first books and read the Gospel at my church, reduced to a muttered croak.

I formed a poster in my mind.


I mulled over whether to post it or not, since it mostly grew out of a sad, complaining spirit.

The Lord helps me deal with that practically every day as Melanie and I review our prayer list at meal times. The list has expanded to cover both sides of a letter-size sheet and keeps growing. I really wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone on it. Their needs provide me harsh perspective on how much pain and fright people are facing while Melanie and I continue in relative security, together still.

As I thought about the poster statement that had formed in my mind, the Lord checked me.

“You don’t get it. You aren’t reading it correctly.”

I looked at the second sentence again. Instead of hearing it as a sarcastic, morose complaint, I suddenly heard it as a grace-filled revelation. It said a prayer of Jesus was being answered.

“Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name — the name you gave me — so that they may be one as we are one… I pray… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us….” John 17:11, 20, 21

Was this what God was doing with my life? And simply because Jesus asked Him to? I didn’t understand the way to this goal. I can’t say I really understand the goal itself. But would Jesus ask for something pointless or of no value considering what it cost him? Would the Father ignore that request, considering what it cost Him?

I am the one feeling discomfort and pain at the moment. But I am in no better position to argue with God about what He’s doing than Job was. Not even as good a position as Job  was in, with God bragging about him in Heaven. (Job 1:8)

Jesus said, “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31) Jesus said I would show my love for him when I obey what he said. And one thing he said was, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1)

So, if I believe God knows what He is doing with my life, I should recognize that what He is doing is making us one, a relationship like He already enjoys with His Son, our Savior, and simply because Jesus asked Him to.

I don’t have to understand it, now or ever. I’ll just get to enjoy the relationship forever.

After I was taken out by the stroke, I struggled with how I should answer the question friends regularly put to me: “How are you?”

I got a solution watching the way Fr. Peter Owen-Jones answered his mentor, Fr. Lazarus, after spending three weeks in isolation up in the mountains rising above St. Anthony’s Monastery in the Egyptian desert.

“I’m getting there,” Fr. Peter told him when Fr. Lazarus returned to his mountain cave after 21 days.

So am I. God knows how. But it’s enough that He does.

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Filling in gaps

This week I expect to finish writing a series of daily devotionals on St. John’s Gospel to be published in The Journey in 2019.

As I have been reading and thinking about John’s account, several trains of thought have taken off in my imagination concerning some of the people introduced there. I do not think these speculations carry any particular theological weight. I cannot prove anything here. But I want to share them as mementos of my summer focus on this study.

John, who never identifies himself by name, outlived the other disciples and was the last one to write down his memories of Jesus. He was originally a follower of John the Baptist. He was with Andrew the day that John the Baptist pointed out Jesus, who was walking by, to them. They are the first followers of Jesus in John’s recital of events. (John 1:35-37)

John and his older brother, James, were fishermen. So it is puzzling, when John later narrates how Jesus was arrested and taken to be interrogated at the high priest’s home, to read that it was John who got the gate keepers to let Peter into the courtyard there. (John 18:15, 16) How did John get in such a position where he would be let in and now could vouch for a fellow disciple? I wonder if it was because he had become friends with one of the members of the Sanhedrin and was already a known visitor himself because of that friendship? Who might that be? There was one member of the Sanhedrin who had become a secret believer in Jesus Christ. He gets mentioned twice by John: Nicodemus.

The first story is about a late night visit Nicodemus pays to Jesus. (John 3) John does not mention that anyone else was present to hear that conversation, but the encounter does not show up in the other Gospels. Presumably, the nervous Nicodemus would have been hesitant to speak as he did if there were any witnesses apart from Jesus’ companions. Maybe Nicodemus had approached John, youngest of the disciples, practically still a boy himself, to take him to find Jesus that night. That would explain why Nicodemus spoke so frankly in John’s hearing and why the visit stayed vivid in John’s memory. Maybe they stayed in touch. It would explain why John later had contacts at the high priest’s home.

Early on Good Friday, all the disciples abandoned Jesus. John showed up where Jesus was taken that night, and became the only eyewitness to the trial by the priests and Pharisees. Later, he stood with St. Mary at the cross, where he became the only disciple to receive a personal word and assignment from Jesus as he hung on the cross. (John 19:25-27)

Perhaps he and the other women were all still there as Jesus died, and kept a vigil over their Lord’s dead body. Thus, they would have been present when Joseph of Arimethea, another secret believer on the Sanhedrin, came with Nicodemus to take down Christ’s body. John is the only one to mention that Nicodemus helped Joseph. John, having the confidence of Nicodemus, could have learned from him then of the plan to take the body to Joseph’s own tomb. All the other disciples were in hiding. Who else but John and these woman would have known that Pilate had taken the unusual step of releasing the body of a criminal executed by the government into the hands of a private citizen? (For that matter, would Pilate have allowed anyone else except members of the Sanhedrin to take the body? “You guys have been a headache to me all day about this so-called king. Take the body and be gone!”)

Speaking of Pilate, in comparing John’s account of Good Friday with the other Gospels, I noticed a detail that had not gotten my attention before. The only one who reports on the nightmare Pilate’s wife had, and the request later from the Sanhedrin that Jesus’ tomb be sealed and guarded, was St. Matthew. Matthew is also the only one to report that Pilate, frustrated by the hostile and unruly crowd accusing Jesus, ostentatiously washed his hands to declare his disagreement over their demand for Jesus’ death.

Why did Matthew have these inside tidbits from Pilate’s private, inner council? He wasn’t there to see any of it.

It dawned on me that Matthew was the only one among the disciples who had held a government job. In my research, I learned further that the role of a Prefect over a province of the Roman Empire was mostly to oversee the collection of taxes. And Matthew had been one of Pilate’s tax collectors before Jesus recruited him.

It is reasonable to assume Matthew had a network of contacts and co-workers in this financial job for the government. The first thing he did after Jesus called him was to invite all his friends to a banquet so they could meet the man for themselves. (Matthew 9:9-10) I can imagine, especially after news of the resurrection got around, that these friends, who knew Matthew back in the day, would have told him the inside gossip from Pilate’s office that transpired on Good Friday. These were not the kind of stories anyone would have been repeating to anyone but an old acquaintance from the office. (“You became a follower of that Jesus, didn’t you, Matthew? Did you ever hear about the dream that frightened Pilate’s wife that day…?”)

As I said, none of these possibilities can be proven. But, as I thought about these moments, as I was praying and writing about them, I couldn’t help but wonder.

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Patron saint nomination

I have been writing an assignment of daily devotionals on the Gospel of St. John. It is scheduled for publication in a couple of years. I am surprised at how often I am surprised by where I end up with my comments on the scripture passages. It happened again today.

I was writing about the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate on the morning of Good Friday. I had done some background research. Did you know that some parts of the Church, in the Orthodox family, have declared Pilate to be a saint? I reflected this might be, in part, a recognition that, after a string of efforts to compromise with the Jews who were accusing Jesus, Pilate finally stood his ground when they complained about the inscription he had posted on Jesus’ cross. He identified Jesus as the King of the Jews. And he said to those objecting, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:22) When he stopped compromising, by God’s mercy he had reached the truth at last.

And that’s when the thought occurred to me that, perhaps, St. Pilate would be a good candidate for Patron Saint of Writers. That declaration of his certainly makes a good motto if you’re a scribbler.

Of course, there is already a more conventionally recognized patron saint for writers: St. Paul. He wrote the greatest number of books in the New Testament (though St. Luke’s two books contain more words). Calling on St. Paul would probably certainly raise fewer eyebrows than calling on St. Pilate.

But if you are always going to seek the approval of readers with what you write, St. Pilate may be your man after all. Certainly, writers know all about editing, changing and rewriting their way through draft after draft, trying to please editors, or their own inner critic. But both Paul and Pilate also finally learned how to stand up to a crowd, and take the heat. Something writers finally need to know how to do, too, I would think.

So I’ll stand by my nomination of St. Pilate.

After all, sometimes it’s fun, as a writer, to raise a few eyebrows.

There. I’ve written it.

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God’s love language

A friend came by to visit and pray with us. This friend has seen several miraculous answers when he has prayed for people over the years. I have seldom heard his voice shake as it did while he prayed for Melanie and for me. We await your answer, Lord.

We are still waiting, not to be coy about it. At least, waiting for the healings our bodies need.

But it could be that we have already received another gift from the Lord that our friend brought us. This friend, while seeing a number of remarkable answers to prayer over the years, has also known spiritual struggle and failure. At one point he divorced his wife and married another woman who had also been raised as a Christian (her father was a pastor). That marriage also failed after awhile. Our friend concluded he would live out the rest of his life single. But, in a story I’m not here to tell today, he and his first wife came to a remarkable point of reconciliation and, finally, they remarried.

One of the things that helped restore their relationship was a book that came out over twenty years ago and has been a hugely popular book in marriage counseling ever since.

The book is The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Dr. Chapman works off one of the results of the division of languages by God at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). After God scrambled man’s languages, the symbols of language communication took on different meanings for different people. This is true even when people think they are speaking clearly to each other in the same language.

Now, Dr. Chapman doesn’t go into this background. He simply focuses on the challenge of learning and understanding a language that is not your “native tongue” when it comes to expressing love.

From his years of marriage counseling he tells of couples confounded by each other’s behavior. There is the husband who keeps the lawn mowed, starts the dinner each night since he gets home before his wife, washes the dishes after supper, and his wife thinks he doesn’t love her. There is the wife who watches her husband talk to their friends at parties and dinners but who never says a word to her in the car going home. She thinks he doesn’t love her.

These examples demonstrate that symbols and actions don’t always mean the same thing to different people. And I found a joke that perfectly illustrates this.

An 85 year old man is out on the lake, fishing from his boat. He hears a voice saying, “Pick me up.” He looks around but doesn’t see anyone. The voice comes again. “Pick me up!” This time the man looks at the bottom of his boat and sees a frog. “Are you talking to me??” he asks. The frog says, “Yes! Pick me up and kiss me and I’ll turn into a beautiful bride for you!” The man picks up the frog and puts it in his pocket. The frog says, “No, no! I said kiss me and I’ll turn into a beautiful bride!!” The old man says, “Naw, at my age I’m not interested. I’d rather have a talking frog.”

Symbols and actions, promises and words: they don’t always mean the same thing to different people. That can be frustrating.

If you have not seen Gary Chapman’s book, here are the five kinds of language that he says communicate the message of emotional love between people, even if the three words “I love you” are never spoken.

1) Words of affirmation; 2) Acts of service; 3) Receiving gifts; 4) Quality time and attention; and 5) Physical touch.

Melanie and I soon found Dr. Chapman reading the audio edition of his book online and we spent our mealtimes listening to it all weekend. After hearing Chapman’s presentation I got to wondering, if these are the languages we humans understand when it comes to love, is this how God also speaks to us?

I went over the list again and tried to think of any words from the Bible that might express the principles.

Words of affirmation

At the Last Supper, after Judas left, Jesus told his remaining loyal disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) That’s a wonderful affirmation.

Acts of service

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commented, in passing, about God’s generosity to all, regardless of whether they deserved it. “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God meets our needs even when we don’t say, “Thank You.”

Receiving gifts

The simplest statement of this would be one that is familiar to all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) God so loved that He gave. Check.

Quality time

We’re so small and He is so busy. Can we expect God to actually pay any attention to us? We have a direct promise for this.  “Call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:12-13)

Physical touch

This one, at first,  seems a less likely language for God to use at the present time. But there was a time. John did say, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (I John 1:1) Thomas was invited to dispel his doubts by touching Jesus. Jesus laid his hands on many he healed, including even “untouchables” like lepers. But can we ask or expect that touch now, while Jesus is in Heaven and we are on the Earth? Well, I do think he sends vicars, or deputies, to carry out ministry in his behalf. When I pray for people, I often do so while touching them or holding their hand in mine. I have put my arm around people who needed comfort. So even if it is “just” an ambassador doing the touching, it is done on the King’s behalf for a loved member of his kingdom and family.

So I guess an argument could be made that, yes, God uses the “love languages” identified by Dr. Chapman when He talks with us. They are languages we humans speak, and which speak to us. But are any of these truly God‘s chosen “love language?”

Go back to the Last Supper. Jesus made God’s expected “love language” very clear that night.

John 14:15  “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

He repeats himself a moment later.

John 14:21  “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” 

And again.

John 14:23 “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

Jesus states this is the basis for his own love for his Father.

John 14:31  “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.”

He begins to connect the dots.

John 15:10  “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.”

Jesus raises the bar of significance for using this language with God.

John 15:14  “You are my friends if you do what I command.”

And finally Jesus ties it all together.

John 16:23  “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
24. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
25. “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father.
26. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf.
27. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 

God’s “love language” consists of watching to see if we will do what He has asked. And He is prepared to respond to the same “love language” from us.

I thought about the mechanics, the dynamics of speaking to God in this language. I wrote a book that examines The Mystery of Faith. There I explored the relationship of Faith to the two other principles that Paul said “abide forever” with Faith: Hope and Love. (I Corinthians 13:13) I made the argument that Hope is initiated in us when God speaks to us, giving us a promise or direction, a commandment. We act in Faith when we take a “He said it, that’s good enough for me” approach, without demanding any additional proof or demonstration before we agree to act. This is “living by faith, not by sight.” ( 2 Corinthians 2:7)

And Jesus has told us our Love is demonstrated when we do what he has asked us to do. Hope, Faith, Love. It is the way to understand and speak God’s “love language.”

Once you see this, it becomes clear this is how God has been talking to us all along. He begins with the Hope that we want to please Him. He speaks to us before we have shown any evidence of that, in other words, by Faith. Then he watches to see if our response will show any Love for Him. He has given us free will, the right to choose our response. He watches, with all Creation, to see what we will choose.

I have assumed for a long time that, once we get to Heaven, many things will finally “make sense” to us. We’ll be able to say, “NOW I get it! NOW I see what You were doing when I thought You weren’t paying attention and all those painful disasters were happening in my life and all around the world…!”

But now I’m not so sure it will be like that. I rather doubt God is holding His breath, waiting for me to finally review and approve how He’s been handling things.

If Faith, Hope, and Love are truly the language of Heaven for all eternity, why should I expect the language to change over to my familiar dialect when I get there? Why shouldn’t I, instead, be expecting to be the one who will speak and think and act in an entirely new way? A different way? A way that is “native” to my new home?

If it really is God’s Kingdom, why shouldn’t I expect to find that God keeps speaking in His native “love language?”

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The crying baby

I was listening to a retreat on Ignatian spirituality. Margaret Blackie (nicknamed Mags), the woman conducting the retreat, is a spiritual director and university professor. She began by asking the group gathered for the retreat to turn off their cellphones, so everyone could concentrate on the purpose for their retreat, i.e., to pay attention to what God wanted to say to them in their time together, without interruption or distraction.

I’ve asked exactly the same thing in years past when I taught groups at church or seminars. It makes perfect sense. It’s a courtesy to others who are not there to listen to your collection of ringtones. On the recording you could hear the soft shuffle as people without hesitation dug out their phones to mute them. The room grew quiet again as Mags got ready to speak.

And from somewhere in that classroom, the clear, unmistakable sound of a fussy baby was heard. “You’re kidding,” I thought. Why would anyone bring a baby to an event where the purpose was to escape distraction for awhile? They call them retreats out of recognition that noisy, daily life makes it hard to concentrate, especially when you are already straining to hear God’s still, small voice. The idea is to clear a space of quiet, not drag noisy distractions in with us.

I listened intently to hear how Mags would handle it. She was all poise, grace, and warmth. I could almost believe she wasn’t aware of any problem at all. Because I’ve been in similar spots, I assume she had a whirl of thoughts going through her mind. That’s what it’s been like for me. But she just went on, serenely. The welcome to all present remained unruffled.

Yes, I was instantly imagining sympathetic reasons that mom might have had no alternative to bringing her baby along that day. I could imagine how her weary spirit must have gotten thirsty for some quiet time with the Lord after months of joyful noise and the need for constant attention by her beautiful, beloved new child. I’m serious.

I can also imagine the mom had experienced moments — brief moments! — when the fussing baby came close to meeting His Maker a little earlier than expected. No doubt there had been some discouragement or disappointment that no sitter was available to care for the baby for a few hours, or she had no extra money to pay for such a luxury and still attend the retreat.

The retreat organizers would have wrestled with similar dilemmas when looking at the difficulties of providing child care to help the adults attending that day. I’ve been in planning meetings for special church services where the question comes up. Do we pay for child care staff when we don’t know if anyone would even think about bringing small children to a midnight mass?? Don’t we want to remove every obstacle possible to ensure a welcome is made available for everyone? Yes, we do.

But when resources are already stretched thin, sometimes the only way forward is to ask everyone to be patient and accepting of a noisy child or two in a church service. Or a classroom. Even when quiet is supposed to prevail. The cost must be paid. Either the mother pays the cost of a sitter, or does not attend the event at all because she can’t leave the child. Or others attending pay extra to cover the cost of separate child care during a meeting. Or everybody “pays” in extra patience and concentration to hear above the distraction of the crying baby. But someone must cover the cost.

It so happens that Melanie and I had heard a homily by Bishop Barron this past weekend. His topic was the parable of the wheat and tares, weeds tossed among the farmer’s good seed. We ended up listening to it twice because I was struggling with the lesson Bishop Barron was drawing. He was saying sometimes it’s a good thing for us to struggle with weeds. “Some goods simply would not exist unless paired with certain types of evil.”

I have written an entire book about the parables. I took the farmer’s refusal to uproot the weeds in this parable as a precaution against harming the wheat, accidentally uprooting it. An uncomfortable situation for the wheat trying to grow, but an understandable safeguard. The bishop was going farther. He said the effort to withstand the weeds and their competition for nutrition and sunlight actually made the wheat stronger and better. He cited extreme cases of martyrdom, a grace that would not appear in the absence of the evil rejection of Jesus Christ.

Thank you for realizing I am not calling babies-crying-in-church “weeds.” But I had to think again about the possibility that, at least sometimes, their presence might be doing me a favor. I had to try harder to listen when there was distraction like that. If I worked harder at listening, perhaps I would be more likely to hear and remember. And why else was I making the effort to be present at all? Was a little more effort “too much?” And in the case of crying babies with embarrassed, frazzled moms, wasn’t it an extra blessing to be able to reassure them both that they were welcome and not a problem? Would I be grateful to receive such a welcome if the roles were reversed?

Not that I can remember ever crying and disturbing a church service when I was a baby. I was cute and a special case. That’s what I was told later.

Anyway, thanks for the unexpected extra lesson from your retreat, Dr. Blackie. I remember waking in the middle of the night here in America while the retreat was already underway in South Africa that day. I prayed the Lord would be speaking to everyone in your retreat about whatever was on the Lord’s agenda for them.

I guess He did.

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After posting my last blog (on the Gardener and His vine and branches), Melanie and I watched another gardening program. The host spent a few moments with his grapevine growing in a greenhouse. He was there to prune the perfectly healthy bunches of grapes, to thin them out, so there would be room for the remaining grapes to grow bigger and fatter. The TV camera did one shot of the ground around the base of the vine stalk. The sacrificed grapes were falling and laying there. There was no suggestion they were going to be retrieved. I assume they were to lay there, shrivel up, and refertilize the vine.

I thought, he only pruned the fruit, not the whole branch. And I went to bed.

In the middle of the night I woke up and God began to dazzle me with science. The picture of those grapes laying on the ground flashed into my mind. The Lord said, “Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

I know, I know. Hang on. I’m not sure I understand this myself, but I want to write down what began to come to mind there in the dark.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics (hereafter 2LTD) can be seen in action any time you try to pour all the Coca-Cola out of the can and into a glass. There will always be a few drops that stay behind. They’re “wasted,” in the sense that they won’t easily join the rest of the liquid you’ve tried to pour out. What began in one, neat place has become scattered and less neatly gathered. Spilled liquid goes all over, not back in the glass. A stone will roll down hill but not up hill.

God made the Creation to work that way. The growing disorder is called “entropy.” A spilled glass has more entropy than the full glass on the table. The only way to regather and reorder things, from molecules to exploded buildings, is by putting work, or energy, into the situation.

[This is why saying God made things makes more sense than saying everything just fell together on its own, through evolution, for instance. But that is not the argument I want to get into now.]

I began to see that the principles of God’s Kingdom reflect this Law that God has used in the Creation. The Parable of the Sower describes a farmer throwing seed everywhere, without first checking what the soil is like. The seed that began all together in his bag (low entropy) is soon scattered everywhere (high entropy). The Sower is content to come back and harvest the seed that landed on good soil. He ignores the rest.

The Gardener prunes back good branches because he expects the vine to pour in the work and nutrients that will make the branch grow back better than ever. He gladly “wastes” the original branch for the stronger replacement. (Notice that it is only connected branches that get the necessary resources to regrow.)

Another thought came to me. What if we saw the seeds being tossed all around by the Sower as “days,” units of time being supplied for the growing season? Ground that began as hard and trampled down, or covered with thorns and weeds, could be made ready to grow a crop after some preparation. Each season that the farmer returned it would have a chance to do better. The “wasted” seeds (or days) would have served to draw attention to where the land needed that work.

I began to think of Jesus’ teaching that we were not to forgive seven times but seventy times seven. I started to think God was ready to lavishly “waste” forgiveness and kindness because that is a Kingdom principle. He is giving us all time for second chances and 1002 chances. He waits patiently, while watching for prodigals to return home.

I remembered how the Israelites were commanded not to harvest their fields all the way out to the corners. That land along the edges was to be “wasted.” Whatever grain had spilled there was to be left alone for the poor to glean. David’s great grandmother, Ruth, a foreigner, staved off starvation for herself and her widowed mother-in-law that way.

When Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes, he always “over did it.” He ended up with basketfuls left over, “wasted.” Or was it simply surplus, more than enough? Like when David marveled over how his cup was running over? The extras provide for needs we didn’t recognize or plan to meet at first.

2LTD carries implications of God’s grace. The gift of Free Will requires room for spills, waste and missed targets. The God who put 2LTD unto the fabric of His Creation is clearly prepared to deal with the results. Did we fall down at first try, or, worse, turn away entirely when He called? He calls again. He doesn’t seem worried that we’re taking so long. It’s not easy for us when we are learning to walk. But God is ready to take the time, to “waste” the time on us. Because He doesn’t consider the time wasted.

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The Gardener

This summer I have been writing some daily devotionals from the Gospel of St. John, on assignment from the editors at The Journey. The series is scheduled to appear in 2019.

Doing the assignment has me reading slowly, a few verses at a time, with time to think and reflect before starting to write. The slow pace is a blessing. It has given me time to see some details and connections I hadn’t noticed before. Often, when I awaken in the middle of the night, thinking about the next passage, the Lord has sorted out certain points for me to write up later.

Today I wrote about the passage where Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 15:5) The chapter leads off with a similar statement where Jesus makes a further identification: “My Father is the gardener.”

This imagery is different from the parables that were the usual teaching tool Jesus used with the multitudes that flocked after him. (Matthew and Mark both note that Jesus never taught without using the form. Matthew 13:34, Mark 4:34)

Parables draw parallels, saying one thing is “like” another. In private, following their final Passover meal, Jesus used a metaphor in talking to his disciples. In that form, one thing “is” another, not merely “like” it. A metaphor doesn’t change the subject under examination. It assigns new names and labels to it. Hence, “I am…, you are…, my Father is….”

As I reflected on this familiar passage, I had a growing sense that this was the most important metaphor the Lord gave to us to help us grasp the nature of our lives in the Kingdom of God. I saw three major points contained in it.

The first point I saw was an echo of something I had just noted while writing devotionals from chapter 14 of St. John’s Gospel. In that chapter, Jesus had stressed the vital connection that he said existed between the disciples and himself.

John 14:20  I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

Now, speaking of vine and branches, he repeated that fact.

John 15:5  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 

Jesus drove the point home, saying any branch not connected to him was dead, fit only to be burned. “I am… the life….” he had told Thomas. (John 14:6)

“Bearing fruit” was a point related to the distinction between vine and branches. The vine was not there to bear fruit. It was there to feed and support the branches. “Bearing fruit” was the job assigned to the branches. But this could not happen, and neither one could fulfill its role, if they were not connected.

The second point that stood out for me was the unspoken reality about growing anything in a garden. It doesn’t happen all at once. There is a waiting time while different seasons unfold. There is a seed time; a time to water the buried seeds and, later, the fragile shoots; and, finally, a time to harvest what has grown. There is no rushing or skipping any of this. Each job must be done in its season. Each season takes time.

These first two facts offer a tremendous insight into our life in God’s Kingdom. We can’t make any progress or contribution if we are not connected and aligned with the Gardener’s plan. It’s silly, if not insulting, to ask the Gardener to find fruit on parts of the plant not assigned that role. And it’s all going to take time. From day to day it may be hard to see progress. If the Gardener is just keeping the identity of the plants in His head, with no labels provided by the plant rows, His expected crop may remain a mystery to others until harvest time arrives.

There is one more factor Jesus discussed about the way the Gardener inspects the vine’s branches. Speaking as a branch, it is my least favorite.

Since a stroke mostly confined me to our home, Melanie and I have made it a practice, any night we did not have visitors coming by, to retreat to my office for a “date.” On these dates we watch TV, old program favorites like The Saint and Rockford Files, or documentaries and travelogues I find on the internet. Since Melanie enjoys her small vegetable garden outside the kitchen, I have kept my eye out for programs on gardening. I was never a gardener myself, but I have enjoyed watching these shows from a comfortable chair in the air conditioning.

One of the gardening terms I have learned from these programs is “dead heading.” Apparently this is the widely accepted practice of pinching off faded flowers from the stems so they don’t damage the stalk or keep new buds from blooming. Sometimes, the garden hosts briskly encourage viewers to bravely cut back entire plants, sometimes all the way to the ground. “They’ll grow back,” we’re told. That’s suppose to make it all right.

Jesus spoke of similar behavior by his Father the Gardener.

John 15:2  “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.”

Gulp. I say that, speaking as one of the branches. “Every branch, Lord? Even if they’re already bearing fruit?!”

If Jesus hadn’t said it so plainly, I would get nervous every time I saw this loving Gardner come close, industrial strength sheers in His hands. It makes me nervous anyway. It makes me think that, sometimes, it may not just be a matter of making me “more fruitful.”

I’ve watched those TV gardeners. Sometimes they go around cutting back perfectly healthy branches simply because it suits some bigger garden plan, so everything will look even more nice and orderly. The onlookers are always impressed at the gardener’s eye for final results. I still squirm a bit in my chair.

Melanie just nods in approval. She did some garden pruning herself this week. On Monday she noticed that, with the extra rain, her drenched hibiscus leaves were showing mildew. She cut them way back. Today, four days later, she reports seeing dozens of new green stems sprouting on the plant.

And Melanie reminds me of an example we’ve both heard. What would you say if you saw a woman laying there, unconscious, while a masked man with a knife in his hand bent over her and began cutting her body open?

Would it make a difference to you if you knew he was a doctor doing surgery in a hospital?

Intentions make a difference. Jesus is telling us now to help us understand the Kingdom. “I am the vine. You are the branches. My Father is the Gardener.”

Yes, the One with the giant sheers in His hand.

John 15:8  “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

In other words, no matter what I think, the pruning is for my good.

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