Saturday, August 22, 2015

Pruning the Privet

As I was pruning the privet in front of our home I pondered the difference between informed and thoughtful pruning versus thoughtless and uninformed whacking. In our region a great example of this is how people prune crepe myrtle. With crepe myrtle there is pruning designed to nurture the health of the tree and then there is “crepe murder”; the latter is when the tree is radically cut back every year to stimulate blooming, the problem with crepe murder is that it does not promote long-term health nor does it enhance the natural growth of the tree.

Sometimes we are so intent on producing blooms that we sacrifice long-term health, in which instance we sacrifice long-term blooming for short-term blooms. Society has a short-term blooming mindset, the church has a short-term blooming mindset, we are tempted to live in a short-term mindset.

I’m afraid there have been times I haven’t understood pruning; times I haven’t taken the long-term view with people; times I have pruned too radically; times I haven’t pondered limb structure and growth pattern and appreciated the development history of the tree or shrub.

When working with the privet I used a pair of electric hedge trimmers, a large lopper, and a small lopper; each tool had its particular use. The hedge trimmer was for general shaping, the large lopper for pruning large branches, the small lopper for working with small branches. A cut here and a cut there, a pass with the hedge trimmer, more cuts here and there, another pass with the trimmer. I used the small lopper to work with the natural growth of the privet, this required attention to detail, to growth patterns – it required an appreciation of the plant’s history. We all have a history, we all have patterns – while there are times we may require radical pruning, long-term sustained health is best served with frequent detailed pruning. Submitting ourselves daily to the working of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God places us in a position where our kind heavenly Father can shape us into the image of our Lord Jesus. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Brothers and Friends

As I reflected on this morning’s small group I thought; “In this army everyone is wounded, the good news is that we don’t all have the same wounds and so we can help each other.”

Sometimes we see our wounds, sometimes we don’t; sometimes we might even be in denial that we have wounds, sometimes we might resist treatment, sometimes we might recoil at the wounds we have been asked to treat…but since we’re all wounded… hopefully we’ll stick together and see life through together. I often remind folks that the letters of the New Testament, including the Apocalypse, were either written to groups of people (churches) or to individuals living within groups of people – life in Jesus Christ isn’t to be lived in isolation. Too bad we tend to read the Bible as if it was written to us as isolated individuals – we lose the rich texture of the words, we lose the fellowship and friendship of others, and…oh yes…we lose the accountability.

We are accustomed to practicing cubicle Christianity; show up on Sunday, sit and stand and pass the peace, maybe sit in a classroom, and leave without exposing ourselves – leave without knowing others and being known by others. Who am I? Really now…who am I? And if you don’t mind the question, really now, who are you? And perhaps more importantly, who are we? Are we friends and brothers?

Much of my past understanding of Christianity was behavioral. Act a certain way and you’ll be okay with God. The thing that I didn’t understand was that simply acting a certain way and reckoning that as Christianity was about the same as a deaf man watching someone dancing to music and then imitating the dance without hearing the music. I’ve done a lot of imitation in my life; and I’ve missed a lot of music. Even worse, much of my life I’ve expected others to dance the dance I was taught…whether or not they or I heard any music. That makes about as much sense as growing artificial plants.

Now don’t misunderstand, I deeply believe we are called to obedience to Jesus Christ and that we are called to lives of purity and self-denial – but as Jesus challenges us, purity begins within us – if we allow our Lord Jesus to work with us internally then we’ll see outward fruit.

When I was in basic training at Fort Bragg I was intrigued by the men who came from places I’d never been to, and this intrigue continued throughout my time in the Army. I always thought that Philadelphia was Philadelphia, but boy was I wrong. The guys from Philly let you know right away which side of Philly they were from, South Philly, North Philly…there was more to Philadelphia than I knew. There were Indians from the Upper Midwest and the West, Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico and from New York City, and the list went on and on. They had different customs, different ways of speaking, different slang, even different profanities. Some were educated, some were functionally illiterate. Some drank. Some smoked. Some prayed. Some prayed and drank and smoked. Everyone prayed I imagine when crawling under live fire on the obstacle course – and we all prayed for sure when the drill sergeant was looking to make an example of one of us. It was a rich experience.

The New Testament is pretty clear that we are to be kind and longsuffering toward our brothers, and that we are to put our brothers first. The principle is clear – the execution isn’t so clear, at least not to me. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get it quite right before I leave this life on earth, and maybe that’s why I was thinking this morning that, “In this army everyone is wounded, the good news is that we don’t all have the same wounds and so we can help each other.”

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about things, and I guess that’s okay as long as we work through it and not ignore it. You never really know what you have in a relationship unless the relationship has been tested – hopefully we love each other enough to work through one another’s wounds – as putrid as they might be. Your wounds probably don’t stink…that’s nice…mine are pretty nasty – would you really love me if you got a good whiff of them? Don’t answer too quickly. I can’t stand the smell myself and I can’t imagine others could work through it – I am one stinky polecat. Just hang one of those automobile air fresheners around my neck and see if that helps.

I know we like to pretty things up – why we even try to pretty the Bible up – we pretty the English of the Bible up so we don’t offend sensibilities. A friend of mine likes to argue that we are afraid to quote what Paul really meant Philippians 3:8 (I don’t know that I agree with him, but he makes a good point). And take a look at Ezekiel Chapter 23 and ask yourself what the raw picture is that God is painting – talk about God offending our sensibilities. If we have to pretty the Bible up so as not to be offended then it makes sense that we think we have to present ourselves in a certain way so as not to offend others – thereby hiding our wounds. Hearts come first, then behavior…maybe one day I’ll actually understand that.

I love being with men who are men, who will take the risk of exposing themselves, who will take the risk of working past the wounds of others, who will take the point when needed and who will protect the flanks and rear when that is called for. Accountability is what saves a squad or a platoon, in a less dramatic fashion it is also what wins football games. A baseball player in a batting slump is a fool to turn down the observation of a coach or fellow player that the slump started when he changed his batting stance.

But even more than accountability, what saves a platoon, a squad, or a group of Christian friends and brothers is love. Psalm 133; John 13:34 – 35.

Did I mention that this morning I thought, “In this army everyone is wounded, the good news is that we don’t all have the same wounds and so we can help each other”? 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Titmouse and the Hummingbird Feeder

A young titmouse was watching hummingbirds at the hummingbird feeder on our deck. When the hummingbirds flew away the titmouse flew to the red feeder and tried to feed; the titmouse tired and tried, but of course the openings on the hummingbird feeder were too small for the titmouse to draw any nectar. After numerous attempts the bird gave up and flew away.

Not knowing the cognitive ability of birds I have no way of knowing to what degree the titmouse processed the experience – other birds were getting something from the feeder, their behavior was feeding behavior, why couldn’t the titmouse eat from the feeder? Hopefully the young titmouse will emulate the habits of its parents as opposed to trying to be something it is not – a hummingbird.

How often do we try to be something that we are not? Just because others are getting nourishment from a feeder doesn’t mean that the feeder is meant for us. If the titmouse insisted on getting food from the hummingbird feeder to the exclusion of all other food sources it would die.

Suppose some hummingbirds succeeded in convincing the titmouse that it was a hummingbird and that it needed to feed as a hummingbird? The titmouse would die.

Here is a sense in which the titmouse is smarter than people. The titmouse quickly realized, as perplexed as it was, that the hummingbird feeder was not for him.