Through the Waters

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
 For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Isaiah 43:1-3a

Hello, dear readers.  I know you’re not used to hearing from me this frequently, but I need to remind myself of a few things as this challenging year draws to a close, and I thought you might need a reminder as well.

Bad News

After months of staying out of the crosshairs of Covid-19, my daughter and son-in-law contracted the disease last week, sending me into self-quarantine and separation from my elderly parents. I’m thankful their cases have been mild and that none of the rest of us have developed symptoms so far.

But then, within the space of an hour yesterday, I received news that:

  • More members of the church I attend tested positive for Covid-19, while others had possibly been exposed to the virus, at church and elsewhere.
  • Cases of Covid-19 had popped up at the rehab facility where my friend’s mother is receiving care.
  • A longtime friend had been diagnosed with cancer.

I barely had time to process one communication before another reached me. The coronavirus isn’t a distant threat anymore. It’s affecting people in my everyday circles. And old enemies, like cancer, are still very much present.

As I mulled over the morning’s messages, a ditty from the old TV show Hee Haw came to mind. In Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me, the comedians proclaimed, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” I tweaked the refrain: “If it weren’t for bad news, I’d have no news at all.” Unlike the minstrels of the catchy tune, I found no humor in the situations facing my friends and family. Concern for them furrowed my brow and troubled my thoughts.

Shifting Focus

I needed a spiritual pep talk, an attitude adjustment, a change of perspective. The shift began when a Facebook memory reminded me that yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of Mom’s emergency triple bypass surgery. I pondered the events of that day, how a catheterization two days after her heart attack revealed three life-threatening blockages. The images are still fresh all these years later: the nurses on either end of Mom’s bed who wouldn’t meet my gaze as we waited for the doctor to tell me the devastating news; the haste to prepare Mom for surgery; how our eyes locked lovingly for what I wondered might be the last time as they took her back to the operating room and the doors closed behind her.

Those ruminations led me to contemplate another health scare last spring at the same hospital after Mom developed a severe case of pneumonia. Late that night, when I left her with the emergency department’s capable caregivers, she was attached to all sorts of contraptions to help her breathe.  Once again, I parted company, not knowing if she’d be alive the next time I saw her.[1]

But she was. And she still is, blessing my life and that of many others, thanks be to God!

Sometimes the unexpected plot twists don’t end the way we would hope, though. On the evening of April 19, 1997, I received a phone call informing me my 39-year-old husband had been transported to the hospital by ambulance. My mind raced as I drove. Clenching the steering wheel, I prayed I’d find him alive. But I didn’t. Unbeknownst to me, we’d said our last goodbye hours earlier when he’d left for work.

Gains and losses. We can trust God to work them all together for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

The Best News

This time last year, as we were getting ready to bid farewell to 2019 and welcome 2020, we had no idea what lay ahead – a pandemic, social unrest, political discord, personal challenges and triumphs of various sorts. The truth is, we don’t know what the next hour holds, much less the coming year. But, unlike my edited version of the old Hee Haw song, there is good news, the most excellent news: we belong to the One who does know, the One who ordains the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10). And He’s promised never to leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8). That’s what we just celebrated last week – Immanuel, God with us.

I’ll close with two quotes I came across recently. I pray they’ll encourage you as they do me. As we enter a new year, may we endeavor to remind ourselves and each other daily of God’s steadfast love.

“God’s grace is sufficient, and his grace is specific. When it’s time to age, he gives aging grace. When it’s time to suffer, he gives suffering grace. When it was (my husband) Gene’s time to die, the Lord gave dying grace. And now he is giving me grieving grace.” Susan Hunt [2]

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’” Minnie Louise Haskins[3]

Dear Lord, what a blessing to know that no matter how deep the waters or how hot the fiery trials we may face, we have nothing to fear because You’ve promised to be with us. Please help us to turn to You each day for the grace to meet our needs, knowing Your mercies are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness!

[1] You can read about both of these experiences in more detail and find more encouraging verses in “Through the Night” and “Encourage One Another” in the May 2019 archives.

[2] Sharon W. Betters & Susan Hunt, Aging With Grace, Flourishing In An Anti-Aging Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 26.

[3] From Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem, God Knows, aka The Gate of the Year, written in 1908.

A Post-Christmas Meditation

Merry Christmas, dear readers. I pray you have found renewed hope as we’ve celebrated the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. As I write, various piles of  Christmas-related items are beckoning, but this post is begging to be written, so the clutter will have to wait as I  compose this meditation.

209I bet it wouldn’t surprise you to know I read Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth each Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-20). I’m guessing many of you do as well. No matter how many times I ponder it, I’m overcome by the depiction of that long-ago night. The angel of the Lord declaring the glorious news. Startled shepherds, who nonetheless went immediately to investigate this thing the angel proclaimed. And the Baby in the manger. The second person of the Trinity, a helpless babe, the Word made flesh. How amazing! No wonder a multitude of the heavenly host joined the herald angel, praising and glorifying God!

Now, what if I told you I also read Isaiah 53 each Christmas Eve? Would you think it incongruous, too dark a chapter for such a night of rejoicing? I read it because I want to remember the joyful news of peace on earth came at the price of Jesus’ very life. Take a look at the first six verses:

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Jesus knew what it would cost Him, and He came anyway. The Apostle Paul wrote, one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7).

Having humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross, Jesus accomplished His mission and returned to the Father’s right hand (Hebrews 10:12). There He sits, interceding for us.  And we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Therein lies our hope for today and for eternity. Jesus knows what it’s like to walk this earth, to be acquainted with grief and sorrow, to be tempted. Our compassionate Savior understands. He gave His life that we might draw near to the throne of grace – not in fear, but with confidence –  to receive the mercy and grace we so desperately need as we await His return.

Christmas decorations will soon be stored away, piles sorted, boxes and paper recycled. But the greatest gift ever given will never lose its luster or wear out. It’s to be embraced and cherished every day of our lives.

Dear Jesus, Luke wrote that the shepherds returned to their flocks glorifying and praising God after they’d seen You. They found everything just as the angel had told them. Thank You that we too will find every one of Your promises and proclamations to be true. Thank You for giving Your life to make it so.

The Baby in the Manger

Setting up my Dickens Village is one of my most beloved Christmas traditions. My late husband, Ray, gave me the first pieces in 1989 and added to it each year until he passed away in 1997. I’ve continued to do the same, until now, 31 years later, the village has spread to three rooms of my house. Setting it up requires many hours across multiple days, but it’s a labor of love, one I look forward to every November. [1]

As you might imagine, I’ve developed a system over the years to make constructing the vast display more manageable. I usually begin in my small living room, which houses the fewest pieces, to build momentum. Inevitably, tears punctuate the initial opening of boxes as I think about Ray, both how thankful I am that he started the village for me and how much I wish he were here to see how much it’s grown.

035The living room holds not only some of my oldest Dickens pieces but also a Precious Moments nativity. It, too, is a long-ago gift from Ray that elicits tears. But the tears that well up as I carefully place the pieces – various animals, a shepherd boy, Mary and Joseph, wise men, and angels  – around the tiny figurine of the baby in the manger spring from wonder and amazement. And deep-seated gratitude.

Think about it. Jesus’ suffering didn’t begin when He was arrested or mocked, beaten, and nailed to the cross. It commenced when He willingly left His Father’s side, took on flesh, and proceeded to endure all the temptations and brokenness of this life during His earthly sojourn. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords came to earth to save us, to give us the gift of eternal life, a priceless gift we could never earn or buy for ourselves.

Just like it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite Dickens piece, I can’t pick a best-loved  Bible passage, but verses from the first chapter of John are near the top of the list:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-5, 14

My heart fills with joy when I read that beautiful description of our Savior. The assertion that the darkness has not overcome the light gives me peace.  The world was a dark place when Jesus was born. There is darkness now, and there will be until He returns. Sometimes shadows are personal, resulting from private grief or suffering; sometimes, they’re widespread, like the pandemic we’ve endured this year. Regardless of the source of darkness, God assures us that the Light of the World will outshine it, providing eternal hope for His children.

I pray you’ll join me in meditating on this glorious promise this Advent season.

O, Lord, how I thank You for sending the priceless gift of Your only begotten Son, the Light of the World, to redeem us. We have the assurance that no matter how dark things might seem, the darkness will never overcome the Light of Jesus. May that be our hope now and in the coming year.

[1] If you’d like to read more about my Dickens Village please see “It’s All in the Details” in the November 2016 Archives.

A Book Is Born

094

Dear Readers,

It is with great joy that I announce my first book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden, went live on Amazon this morning. I want to write something profound about the process and journey of getting to this point, but I’m feeling so overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude that God has allowed me to fulfill this dream that I can’t get the words to line up in my mind or on the page. There’s just a happy jumble of thoughts and emotions tumbling around in my heart as tears of amazement well up repeatedly and blur my vision.

So, for now, I’ll share the author’s note from the book and say a sincere, “Thank you!” to all of you who’ve read my blog posts, encouraged me to keep writing, and prayed for me as I labored over Be Still. I pray the Lord will use my stories and my efforts for His glory.

Blessings to you and yours as we enter into this Advent season.

Author’s Note

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Matthew 11:28-29

Scattered. A word I often use to describe my thoughts, my activities, and my days. Numerous distractions and responsibilities vie for attention. They scramble my mind and weary my soul. But there’s a place I can turn to for solace, a place where I spend some of my sweetest times with the Lord – my garden. There I’m reminded of the first garden and the promise of a new, redeemed garden. I see Jesus’ parables come to life as I observe the flowers and birds, the seasons and soils. My spirit soars as I behold God’s tremendous power, yet is quieted by the assurance that the One who cares for all creation also cares for me.

Several years ago, the lessons I’ve learned in my garden met up with my love of writing, and I began a blog, Back 2 the Garden (patsykuipers.com). I longed to share what God had been teaching me and to tell others of His great love and faithfulness.

As my portfolio of stories grew, so did the dream to compile them into a book, something that will be around for my children and grandchildren even after my blog and I are not.  Five years in the making, Be Still is the fulfillment of that dream.

I’ve arranged the 35 devotional readings in Be Still in five categories, with distinct yet intertwined themes:

  • Glimpses of Glory – evidence of God’s love all around us
  • The Benevolent Gardener – God’s protection and provision
  • Planted Together – principles for life-giving relationships
  • Cultivating Holiness – disciplines of spiritual growth
  • Transformation – God’s work of sanctification

Each entry begins with a passage from the Bible and ends with a brief prayer. In between, you’ll find the timeless truths of Scripture wrapped in simple stories. I pray they will encourage you to slow down and open your eyes to the wonders all around us, to be still and draw near to God.

Bearing Fruit

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6:43-45

Identifying Features

Before I studied horticulture, I tried to identify trees by their leaves. Don’t get me wrong, leaves are important identifiers for many species, but they can be misleading in others. When botanists classify plants, they look instead at their reproductive structures –  flowers, fruit, and seeds.

Although oak leaves come in different shapes, all oaks sprout from acorns. Likewise, there are numerous forms of maple leaves, not just the classic silhouette that appears on the Canadian flag. But all maple seeds are borne in samaras, those little winged carriers that float to the ground like tiny helicopters.

Once I learned this, it became a fun game to see if I could spot similarities between plants at the botanical garden where I volunteered. I first noted the flowers on  Abutilon with their crepe paper-like petals resemble dwarf hibiscus blossoms. Despite the shape of its leaves, which leads to one of its common names, flowering maple, Abutilon is part of the Malvaceae family, as are hibiscus and okra.

Next, I noticed the tiny white bell-shaped flowers on  Pieris japonica look like those on a small tree, known as farkleberry, and both resemble those on blueberry bushes. Those three belong to the Ericaceae family.

The more I studied, the easier it became to see the distinguishing characteristics and successfully match plants with their relatives. I wondered why I found it to be so gratifying, musing that it must be because family, both biological and spiritual, is so important to me.

Family Resemblance

Just like we can recognize plants by their fruit, Jesus taught that members of His family would bear distinguishing fruit as well, and He made it clear the only way to bear abundant spiritual fruit was to abide in Him:

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. John 15:4-5

I’m frequently reminded of His statement when I’m pruning. I sometimes leave piles of discarded branches on the ground and then go back to collect them after I finish cutting. Inevitably, the leaves on the severed limbs are already beginning to wilt. The longer the time apart from their source of nourishment and the hotter the day, the quicker their demise. They can no longer live, much less produce fruit.

When I think of abiding, I think of peace – no striving or struggling. The word appears ten times in verses 4 to 10 of John 15, emphasizing the permanence of our relationship with Christ as well as the eternal significance of the fruit we bear. Securely connected to the Giver of Life, His life flows through us to bless and benefit others, all to the praise of His glory.

Distinctive Fruit

And what kind of distinct fruit do we produce when we abide in Him? Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). All are marks of God’s children, but one outshines them all – love. Jesus prayed that the love He and the Father shared would dwell richly in His followers (John 17:26). That singular mark of distinction would allow all people to identify them as being part of God’s family (John 13:35).

He also warned against false prophets, those seeking to deceive. Like leaves that mimic those of other plants, their outward appearance may initially camouflage their deceit. But closer inspection of the fruit borne of the evil intent in their hearts will give them away, ultimately leading to their destruction (Matthew 7:15-20).

Not so the children of God who bear fruit in keeping with repentance and shine as lights in this dark world (Ephesians 5:8-11).

O Lord, what a privilege it is to be a branch on Your family tree. We bear the imprint of the true Vine, Whose life in us allows us to bear abundant fruit of eternal value.

Superfood for the Soul

But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’”
Matthew 4:4

Unequal  Options

From the time he was big enough to sit in his highchair, grandson Joshua and I have enjoyed watching the birds flock to the feeder his dad had hung from their deck. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I added “birdfeeder” to my Christmas list several years ago. My dad fulfilled my wish, launching a pastime that’s given me hours of enjoyment since.

Being a novice faced with multiple options, I didn’t know what kind of food to buy. I settled on a bag of Southern Regional Blend. The tagline on the bag declared, “blended to attract Southern songbirds,” while another statement promised “25% sunflower plus safflower” seeds. However, a closer look at the ingredients list revealed millet to be the predominant component.

I chose a location for the feeder where I could keep an eye on it from two key vantage points: the window above the kitchen sink and my seat at the table. I filled the feeder and awaited the birds’ arrival with joyful expectancy. It took a couple of days for them to notice the new food source, but one morning a red-bellied woodpecker arrived, followed by several tiny chickadees and some tufted titmice.

I mentioned my new hobby to a fellow bird-feeding friend who promptly shared some of his stash of many birds’ favorite food: black oil sunflower seed. I gradually transitioned the contents of the feeder from the original blend until it contained only that delicacy. The changeover led to increased activity around the feeder and attracted a wider variety of birds.

In the years since, I’ve become more knowledgeable about the preferences of different birds. I’ve added suet, thistle seeds, and a premium blend containing peanuts and striped sunflower seeds to the bird buffet.

Soul Food

Observing my feathered visitors, I’ve reflected on the options available to us when it comes to nourishing our souls. We’re blessed to live at a time when technology allows us to access spiritual teaching in many different ways – podcasts, blogs, and books, both printed and electronic. Yet, with such an assortment of choices available, we need to be discerning consumers.

Just like the components in the blend of seeds I originally purchased varied dramatically in nutritional value, some lessons are little more than filler. We must be careful not to feast on snack food when we require a diet of sound teaching instead. The Apostle Peter confirmed the importance of feeding our souls with the proper nourishment. He urged those who received his letter to crave pure spiritual milk, like infants hungering for their mothers’ milk, that they would grow strong in their faith (1 Peter 2:2).

Praise God for providing His inerrant Word, the standard against which all other instruction is to be measured. Scripture is

  • profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, capable of equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
  • able to accomplish the purposes of God and never return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11).

Given the power of this spiritual superfood, it’s no wonder Jesus deflected Satan’s temptation to turn stones into bread by affirming the real source of our sustenance – every word that comes from the mouth of God.

In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul warned that a time would come when people would no longer listen to the truth but instead turn to teachers who told them what they wanted to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Like my friend who enlightened me when it came to feeding the birds, may we faithfully point fellow believers to the supreme soul food found in the Word of God.

O Lord, how blessed we are to have Your Word to guide and sustain us! Thank You for providing many ways for us to receive spiritual nourishment. Please help us to make Your Word the benchmark against which we evaluate the nutritional value of all other sources. 

Seasons

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Nature’s Seasons

I once attended a presentation where the speaker began with, “Summer, fall, and winter are seasons – spring is a miracle.” I’ve thought about her comment every spring since. Early warm spells begin to nudge plants from their winter slumber in January here in the South. Witchhazel, Lenten roses, and paperbush start the floral parade that continues for multiple weeks as plants take turns in the spotlight. Trees, flowers, baby birds – all embody the joyful message of rebirth, which in turn stimulates hope and rejuvenation in us.

But spring gives way to summer, and tender ephemerals disappear for another year as heat-loving specimens flourish. Summer annuals and perennials bloom, then set and disperse their seeds before beginning their decline. Fall arrives. Crops are ripe for harvest, the fruit of spring planting and summer tending. Soon daylight hours decrease, as does the temperature, and autumnal leaves create a riotous display of color – one last hurrah before they let go and blanket the ground for the winter.

Ah, winter. Based on my observations, I’ve concluded it is the most misunderstood, under-appreciated season, at least from a gardening standpoint. Those unfamiliar with the ways of plants scan the leafless, apparently lifeless landscape and pronounce, “everything’s dead.” I used to think that too, but my horticulture studies dissuaded me from that notion. For instance, some seeds won’t germinate without scarification, some bulbs won’t bloom without adequate chill time, and many plants depend on the decreased daylight and increased darkness that accompany winter to flower at the appropriate time.

My newfound knowledge has given me a different perspective. Now when I contemplate winter vistas, I prefer to think the plants are resting while building reserves for the next season of fruitfulness.

Seasons of the Soul

Contemplating the bedraggled state of my summer annuals one early-September day reminded me of a book I’d been reading. Instead of equating the aging process with seasons as is often done, author Mark Buchanan explores what he’s deemed “cycles in our hearts.” In Spiritual Rhythm, Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul, he describes different periods in our lives in terms of the four seasons, each with its own set of challenges and blessings, each necessary if we’re to bear fruit.

The friends who gave me the book thought the analogy would resonate with me because of my love of gardening. And so it does. Year after year, I’ve observed and anticipated the changes, as one season follows another, each dependent on the ones that precede.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a constant state of springtime, emotionally and spiritually speaking – productive, energetic, surrounded by resurgent, hope-producing, joy-filled circumstances. But like the plants, God knows we need all the seasons to produce abundant fruit and to become more like Jesus.

We need to slow down and be still, to rest and draw near to God in all seasons, but we’re most likely to do so during the winters of our souls – times of loss and suffering. For it’s then we realize our utter reliance upon God, a dependence present every moment, but most evident when we come to the end of our supposed self-sufficiency.

My own winters have convinced me of the veracity of Elisabeth Elliot’s declaration, “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.” (1)

Yet, like the trees and flowers, I’ve emerged able to bear more fruit, because I know my Father and His ways more intimately (Romans 5:3-5). Signs of life return, as our winter gives way to another cycle of spring planting, summer tending, fall harvesting, a cycle that will continue in us and the natural world until our final winter. Our bodies will rest in the ground, waiting for reunion with our souls when we’re called Home, glorified, and welcomed into the joy of eternal spring (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16).

Dear Lord, just as we savor the changing of the seasons in the natural world, please help us to embrace the seasons of our souls, knowing that You have a purpose and plan for each as the cycles of our lives continue until Jesus’ return.

(1) Elisabeth Elliot, “Suffering is Never for Nothing”, lecture series, 1989.

Prudent Pruning

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 (John 15:1-2).

Pruning requires skill and an understanding of the plant being pruned. Some plants bloom on old wood, others on new. Some require severe pruning to increase fruitfulness, while such treatment will stunt, disfigure, or kill others.

As much as I decry the practice of crape murder,[1] I recognize the need for proper pruning. Done correctly, it is an essential part of maintaining a specimen’s health and enhancing its aesthetic value. After some years of practice, I feel more confident when it comes time to trim my trees and shrubs, yet I still approach the task with a measure of trepidation. What if the results of my efforts look more like a bad haircut? Or I snip off next year’s buds? Or I accidentally remove the flowering branch instead of the dead one next to it because the shrub was so thick I didn’t have a clear view? Yep, I’ve found myself in those situations – more than once.

And I’ve learned to call for professional help when the job is too big or too complicated for me to handle.

The introductory verses above from the Gospel of John are familiar. Removing dead branches and those that aren’t bearing fruit seems reasonable—but pruning the fruitful ones to make them more fruitful? Increasing by taking away sounds counterintuitive until you understand the science behind the analogy. Without delving too deeply into the details, pruning stimulates plant growth at the point of the cut by removing growth-inhibiting hormones present in the tips of branches and stems.

So what might pruning look like in the spiritual realm given we’re to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, fruit that provides evidence of our faith?

  • Loss leads to empathy for others experiencing similar losses. I’ve often said before Ray died, I was genuinely sorry for those who lost a beloved spouse, but after losing him, I became intimately acquainted with the sorrow associated with such a blow. My sympathy became empathy, which in turn has allowed me to comfort others with the comfort I’ve received from the Lord (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
  • Trials produce patience and strengthen our faith as we wait on the Lord.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 3b-4). That’s a bountiful harvest of desirable traits! Furthermore, we can encourage others by stewarding our stories well, sharing examples of God’s love and faithfulness.
  • Discipline engenders repentance, which yields the fruit of righteousness and, later, humility. We recognize no one is righteous apart from Christ (Romans 3:10). We’re to take the log out of our own eye before dealing with the speck in others’, and to forgive as God has forgiven us (Matthew 7:3-5; Colossians 3:13).

How about you? Are there areas in your life where God has removed something or someone, resulting in an abundance of spiritual fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Proper pruning, even the most severe that leaves the plant looking like a shadow of its former self, doesn’t hurt the plant. Fortunately, we belong to the Master Vinedresser, not a weekend warrior wielding a chainsaw. He determines exactly where and how to make the required cuts to enable us to bear more fruit for Him. Sometimes the pruning is relentless, and the process is painful, but we can always trust Him. He knows us by name and loves us far more than we can imagine. He’s tenderly transforming us into who He created us to be. 

O Lord, trials, loss, discipline – the very thought makes us tremble. But we know we can trust You to bring joy from suffering, beauty from ashes, and life from death.


[1] A term used to describe the act of severely pruning crape myrtles, sometimes back to their main trunks.

Exfoliation – Reprise

(You) were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,  to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:21b-24).

Throughout most of the years I worked for a large corporation, I held the role of colorist. As such, I developed, named, and presented new carpet color options to our customers. After all the time spent honing my skills at work, I eagerly embraced the opportunity to select the interior and exterior colors when we built our home in Georgia.

Ray’s specialty, horticulture, was an equally creative endeavor. I didn’t realize how I’d narrowed his flowering plant possibilities when I picked a terra cotta color scheme for the bricks and shutters, especially when it came to choosing the requisite southern plant on our list – a crape myrtle.

Nonetheless, being a skilled horticulturist, Ray made an excellent choice. Unlike other cultivars whose pink or purple flowers would have offended my color sensibilities as they clashed with our cinnamon-colored exterior, the creamy-white blossoms of the stately Natchez create a harmoniously floriferous cascade each summer. But the brilliance of Ray’s choice is most apparent in the fall. For it is then that the annual process of exfoliation occurs.

As summer wanes, cracks begin to appear in the bark along the mighty trunk, signaling the coming changes. Soon the cracks turn into fissures, and the old skin lifts away from the tree, before finally letting go completely, falling to the ground in long, jagged shards. To the uninitiated observer, this series of events may be unsettling. How could such a process possibly be beneficial for the plant? Yet that very act allows the trunk to increase its girth and grow stronger. Best of all, it reveals the most magnificent cinnamon-colored covering. Ray saw the potential in the sapling he planted so long ago. He knew what it could become.

There are several concepts that I consider to be spiritual touchstones. One such idea is that of putting off and putting on. In Jesus’ analogy of an unclean spirit leaving a man only to return to its neat but empty former abode, He made it clear it’s not enough to make a show of getting rid of sinful thoughts and behavior  (Matthew 12:43-45). Instead, our repentance must be true, the kind that produces fruit in keeping with our profession of faith, as we put on right-thinking and conduct pleasing to God.

The Apostle Paul affirms this teaching in his letter to the Romans.  He encourages his readers not to conform to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2). And in his letter to the Ephesians, he goes even further. After urging them to put off the old self and to put on the new in the introductory passage above, Paul goes on to provide specific examples of behavior to put off as well as corresponding replacements:

  • Put away falsehood and speak the truth (v. 25).
  • Let the thief no longer steal but perform honest labor (v. 28).
  • Do not use unwholesome language, but that which benefits and builds up those who listen (v.29).
  • Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, and every form of malice. Be kind to one another, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you (vv. 31-32).

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, God already sees His righteousness when He looks at us (2 Corinthians 5:21), but there is much refining left to be done. We are not yet holy as He is Holy, nor will our makeover be complete until He returns. Nonetheless, the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us with the same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:18-20).

At times our refinement is painful as the Helper strips away bits of our old nature. Our Savior suffered much. How better to know Him than to endure loss, sorrow, and persecution as He did (Romans 8:17)? Such challenges may cause outside observers or even believers themselves to question God’s methods, but we can trust the One who made us to have a good and perfect plan and to work all things together for good (Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 8:28).

Just as Ray knew what the crape myrtle could become, given sufficient time and proper care, God knows who He created us to be. Furthermore, He’s promised to complete the work He’s begun in us (Ephesians 1:6) and to never leave or forsake us at any point in the process (Deuteronomy 31:8). The Helper will be with us to empower us to do His will and to persevere to the end (John 14:16-17, 26).

O Lord, how I look forward to Your return! On that glorious day, our transformation will be complete and all vestiges of our former selves will be gone. We will gather around Your throne, our new selves robed in white, to forever praise You, our Redeemer King.

Weeds

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path . . . Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them (Matthew 13:3b-4a; 7).

Weeding – the mere thought of spending time plucking unwanted plant intruders from your garden may make some of you shudder. But I usually don’t mind the chore, especially when the soil is moist and the weather is pleasant. My mind can wander while my hands are busy, and I take satisfaction in seeing the results of my efforts. Desirable plants, previously hidden beneath the unwelcome ones, are once again visible, having been freed from the stranglehold of the encroachers.

Perseverance, one of the qualities I most admire about plants, isn’t quite as endearing when exhibited by the ones I don’t want in my garden. Some weeds have a long taproot making them incredibly difficult to eradicate. They may disappear for a season or two, but if you leave part of the root, the weed will eventually return – often more robust than before.

Other weeds have shallow roots, but if you don’t remove the plants before they mature and set seed, you might find yourself dealing with their progeny for years to come. Some weed seeds can lay dormant for as long as 50 years, and then, when exposed to just the right conditions, they germinate, leaving an unsuspecting gardener to wonder what happened.

And then there are briars and thistles, so prickly they can cause physical harm to those not adequately equipped to confront them. Anyone who’s grasped Smilax with an ungloved hand can attest to the fact it deserves its common name, cat briar. The scratches it leaves on unprotected flesh are similar to those you would expect from an encounter with an angry feline.

Weeds compete with desirable plants for water and nutrients. They can even prevent light from reaching them if left long enough to form a dense, matted tangle. I’ve learned it’s more effective to do battle early and often than trying to remove weeds several weeks after their appearance. When weather conditions or busyness keeps me from doing so, I often lament, “There are so many weeds, it looks like I planted them on purpose!” More than once, I’ve had to enlist help to restore order to the overgrown mess.

As I’ve contemplated these various characteristics, I’ve come to regard sin as the spiritual equivalent of weeds. Consider, for example:

• Dealing with sin often requires addressing not only the presenting behavior but also the thoughts and attitudes which led to it in the first place. Like ridding our gardens of weeds that grow from taproots, we can’t eradicate deep-seated sins until we do the hard work of digging the tough roots out of our hearts – anger, bitterness, unforgiveness (Ephesians 4:30-32).

• Most of us have at least one area where we’re particularly vulnerable to temptation, an area where we need to remain extra-vigilant. Just like the seeds that lay dormant waiting for the right conditions, old habits may return if we become complacent. Even worse, after a period of success in dealing with a particular sin, we may think we’ve become immune to the temptation and naively place ourselves in situations where we’re sure to fail (James 4:6-8).

• The appealing qualities of sin can hide the dangerous thorns, at least until we clutch the forbidden fruit. Whether the pain is immediate or develops over time as the barbs cut into our souls, it is inevitable for God’s children. Our loving Father disciplines us, for we are to be holy as He is holy (Hebrews 12:11).

• Sin can choke out joy and spiritual growth as it entangles us and blocks the Light we need to flourish. Sometimes we can get so far off track spiritually we need help and support to stay the course until we’ve returned to the narrow way. At such times, prayer warriors and accountability partners are invaluable as they help us carry our burden (Galatians 6:1-2).

After working outside on a sunny summer afternoon, I look forward to a refreshing shower to wash away the accumulated layer of grime and sweat. How much more do I cherish the cleansing of the One who is faithful and just to forgive us when we confess our sins and look to Him for restoration (1 John 1:9).

Dear Lord, just as I have an ongoing battle with the weeds in my garden, I know I must remain vigilant to weed out sin in my life. Thank You that I don’t battle alone, but have the power of the Spirit working within me, helping me want to obey You and helping me to do your will.