Feeling the Cut

I’m just coming through a season I’d describe as “pruning”. I had been pursuing a particular objective — stretching my branches in a direction I assumed would be incredibly fruitful. But at the very moment I’d hoped this new growth might begin to bear fruit, it was cut off. Quickly. Painfully.

I wish I could say I immediately saw God’s purposes in all this. But the reality has been that I’ve needed both time to heal and the help of others to gain perspective.

During this season I’ve reflected on Jesus’ words, captured in the first part of John 15.

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. … No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

Jesus’ words have reminded me of several truths:

  • God is a gardener — so I shouldn’t be surprised when pruning happens!
  • Every branch will be cut — either because it’s fruitless or because it should be more fruitful.
  • I can’t produce fruit on my own — I must remain connected to Jesus.

The goal of my life is fruitfulness. I don’t want to be a dead branch. And I especially don’t want to be a leafy branch that looks healthy but doesn’t produce anything that’s truly life-giving.

That’s not just my goal — it’s Jesus’ purpose for my life as well. When you keep reading in John 15, Jesus states: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

There are questions, however, I must wrestle with while the pruning is taking place:

  • Can I trust Jesus to get me where I need to go?
  • Do I really believe he has a better perspective on my life than I do?
  • Will I stay connected to Jesus, even when his pruning blade is cutting in to my life plans?
  • Is my faith secure in him, even when I’m in pain?

But if the “wounds of a friend” can be considered faithful, how much more the wounds that come from the ever-loving, nail-scarred hands of the Gardener? His job isn’t to coddle me — it’s to cut back everything that’s not producing fruit.

While it’s true that all pruning is painful, pain isn’t an indicator of God’s absence or his anger. It might just be a pointed reminder that he’s at work, shaping me for greater fruitfulness.

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NOTE: Not all pain is evidence of God’s work! Sometimes it’s a result of our own poor choices — and other times it’s a result of the sin of others spilling over onto us. But in his grace, God can redeem every situation, no matter the origin of the pain.

A Hydrated Life

Dehydration isn’t a mystery. We know exactly how it happens: moisture leaves our bodies more quickly than we replenish it. This can happen slowly over time, or because of exertion and environmental extremes, we can dry out to dangerous levels rather quickly.

My son, Brennon, who recently ran the Honolulu Marathon, attests to the dehydrating effects of running in the heat: debilitating cramps, nausea, dizziness, and extreme fatigue.

While most of us aren’t running marathons in the tropics, much of what we experience in day-to-day life can leave us with soul-dehydration. We are dried out through:

  • busyness — extended seasons without rest sap us to the core
  • relational struggles — even brief tensions can wear us out, but prolonged relational strain can take a serious toll
  • carrying others’ burdens — even positive care for people can eventually leave us depleted
  • sickness — when our bodies are broken we are taxed in ways that are much more than just “physical”
  • loss — grieving what we’ve actually lost or even the hope of “what could have been”
  • pressures at work or school — when we don’t meet others’ expectations, frustrations soar and life can feel empty
  • acting on addictive impulses — every negative choice reinforces the drying effects.

Any one of these can sap our energy, our creative juices, emotional stamina, or spiritual reserves. Cumulatively, they leave us cracked and dry, in desperate need of soul-hydration.

Into our parched reality, God spoke through his prophet, Isaiah…

Tell fearful souls, “Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs. He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”
Blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer, the voiceless break into song.
Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness, streams flow in the desert.
Hot sands will become a cool oasis, thirsty ground a splashing fountain.
Even lowly jackals will have water to drink, and barren grasslands flourish richly.
Isaiah 35:4-7

I need God’s soul-hydration today — his steams flowing through the desert of my life. How about you?

How do you access God’s thirst-quenching streams when you feel at your driest? Post your thoughts below.

Wrestling with Continuity

I previously wrote a blog on the “Beauty of Discontinuity“, and since then this topic has been swirling around my imagination. I’m convinced that God is intent on interrupting our lives to capture our attention, to bless us, and to redirect us onto new paths — and that he calls his followers to live discontinuously with the values and priorities so often seen in the brokenness of the world.

If that’s the case, then should “continuity” play a role in our lives? Absolutely. Continuity is essential to life and has its own kind of beauty. We see healthy continuity…

  • Daily — waking, eating, working, relating, resting
  • Weekly — school, work, projects, worship, weekends
  • Annually — seasons, holidays, vacations.

Without any continuity we’d be lost. Life would be a like a box of random events, constantly being shaken about (like a never-ending episode of “24”).

Though a certain level of continuity is crucial for a healthy life, it seems that our human tendency is to eventually succumb to these patterns so that they take over much of our existence. We can become so entrenched within these “normal” patterns of life that continuity eventually turns into bondage. The rhythms of my life begin to take on a treadmill-like reality, so while I’m going through the motions, no progress is being made. I’m no longer getting anywhere I haven’t already been — no new discoveries, no more breakthroughs, no new beauty.

It’s been said that a rut is nothing more than a grave with its ends kicked out. And that’s a good picture of a life of continuity that isn’t punctuated by moments of significant discontinuity.

Kind of Like Marriage

My hunch is that many marriages end due to the drudgery of continuity. We enter the “long slog” of doing what we’ve always done, to the point where even natural rhythms take on a nerve-racking drip…drip…drip. Even something “bad” might be welcomed to break up the monotony of life. So affairs happen. Addictions begin.

To keep healthy, vibrant relationships, a good mix of discontinuity is needed in the pattern of our lives.

What could that look like in marriage? Occasional flowers would be nice. Weekends away once in a while would be amazing. Even a surprise love note can add a beautifully discontinuous moment to an otherwise way-too-continuous season. Anything that reawakens us to what is real, true, and beautiful about life and relationship can provide the stimulation of discontinuity.

My Comfortable Life

So do I welcome discontinuity, or do I hate interruptions? When God wants my attention, does he have to rattle my cage, or do I lean into his whisper? How about when it’s my wife, my kids, or others who want my attention? When life shifts gears do I look for new opportunities and insights, or am I too busy whining about the change to notice what’s now possible? Do I cling so tightly to the past that I can’t embrace the hope of a new future that is unfolding around me?

If I don’t keep wrestling with continuity, it’s power of persuasion will eventually wear me down and float me gently down the river of comfortable predictability — then over the waterfalls of boredom and lifelessness. We have to fight it!

And for those of us who get somewhat rattled by the thought of change and discontinuity, God has given us the promise that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God himself is our constant. And when our feet are firmly planted on him, the Rock, it’s a lot easier to stand strong, enjoy the winds of change, ready for the next adventure.

The Beauty of Discontinuity

I’ve read that Elton John likes flowers. A lot. In 2000 he testified in court that in a 20 month span he’d spent £293,000 on floral arrangements (that’s over $30,000 a month in today’s US dollars).

That leaves just one question in my mind. What do you buy Elton for Valentines?

For most people, receiving flowers is quite special. The blend of surprise, thoughtfulness and beauty interrupts their day and warms their heart. The gift is beautifully discontinuous with everything that is mundane and normal about life.

But for Elton, he’s constantly surrounded by flowers. They are part of his normative, to-be-expected, day-to-day reality. It would take something substantially different to positively capture his attention.

Jesus seemed to understand this human dynamic. He knew that people needed to be jolted out of their everyday expectations, so he acted in ways that were beautifully discontinuous to the world around him. He surprised people with conversation and action in ways that completely arrested their attention. He touched the leper, he forgave the sinner, he fed the hungry, he raised the dead, and he spoke not just with wisdom and authority, but with real love.

Jesus was shockingly redemptive, but shocking nonetheless.

That reality is captured in a story of Jesus shattering the ethnic and gender barriers of his day by having a conversation with a Samaritan woman. He began by simply asking her for a drink of water, then we read…

The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?” John 4:9

And Jesus continued to surprise her, a stranger, by telling her about her life and relational brokenness. That beautiful discontinuity jolted her from the routine of her daily pain and struggle and proved to be a key for her to find real freedom.

We also discover that Jesus taught his followers to live in ways that are shockingly discontinuous to the norms of the world as well. He taught us that by shattering the world’s expectations in redemptive ways, we’ll show that we are truly his.

If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.
Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.
You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor’”and hate your enemy.
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!
In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:39-45

When is the last time I surprised someone with a redemptive act? When have I broken free from the mundane continuity of my own day-to-day existence to shock someone with blessing? When, by my actions, has someone thought I look anything like Jesus?

I don’t know about Elton, but I can’t wait until Valentines to surprise my wife. The flowers are coming today.

Good Gifts

I admit it. Sometime when I read the Bible, I skim over the parts that seem almost like “throwaways”. You know. The genealogies, greetings and the sort. They can seem like the obligatory copyright and table-of-contents before you get to the start of a story.

This was happening the other night as I started to read the book of Ephesians. The first couple verses read like, “Paul…blah, blah, blah…Ephesus…blah, blah, blah…grace and peace…blah, blah, blah.”

But after reading a bit further, my eyes flitted back to “grace and peace”. I read verse two over several times…

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It was as if Paul was just handing out gifts to the readers of his letter — reaching in to a spiritual bag of presents, looking for what would be most needed and appreciated. I can almost hear Paul saying, “Here’s some grace for you. And some peace for you. These are from Dad. He thought you’d like them.”

Before Christ came, it was primarily angels and prophets who spoke such blessings. But after Jesus gave his Spirit to us, we are the ones who are charged with declaring grace and peace to the world around us.

Some of the most profound gifts I’ve ever received have been blessings from Christ, spoken by another. And these were not just words — they were animated by the Spirit of God himself to become life to me. They were just what I needed. “You are forgiven.” “You’re going to make it.” “I love you.”

This Christmas, maybe the greatest gifts we’ll pass out to others won’t be those wrapped with bows. They’ll be the ones spoken from the heart, prompted by God, to meet a need of the soul.

Is there someone in your life — a neighbor, a child, a parent, a co-worker, an enemy — who desperately needs to hear Christ’s heart for them? Will you speak it, write it, text it, sing it?

“The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry.” Proverbs 25:11 (MSG)

Spread hope this Christmas!