Twiners and Climbers

Vines, whether ornamental like clematis and honeysuckle or food-producing like squash and beans, are plants whose stems require support – unless they’re left to trail along the ground because they bear more substantial fare like pumpkins and watermelons.  They use a variety of methods to climb and attach themselves to supporting structures, including twining stems, tendrils, aerial roots, and adhesive disks, also known as holdfasts.[1]

I know I’m showing my plant geek side, but please keep reading. Like so much of God’s creation, these details show how fearfully and wonderfully made everything is and how much care God took when He designed it all. They also offer some spiritual parallels, which I describe in the mini-devotions below.

Tenacious Tendrils

According to Britannica.com, tendrils are plant organs specialized to anchor and support vining stems, distinctive because they possess a strong twining tendency causing them to encircle any object encountered. The article goes on to say that tendrils are sensitive to contact and will turn toward objects they brush against. In time, tendrils grow strong enough to support the weight of the plant.[2] Think curly-cue fishing line, slender but sturdy.

016During a recent reconnaissance walk through my woods, I discovered a patch of passionflower vine. Though it chose to pop up on its own, I was delighted to see it since it’s the food source for caterpillars of Gulf Fritillary butterflies. The petite vine was already sprouting tendrils and reaching out for support. I smiled and shook my head when I found one tiny green appendage wrapped around a leaf lying on the ground. Even though the tendril had a stranglehold on the leaf,  the latter could never help the passionflower rise above the ground.

Tendrils borne on another sprig of vine clutched a more promising, but still less-than-ideal platform, a squat neighboring plant. I fetched a trellis from the garage and returned to the woods, determined to pry the tendril free from the leaf and unwrap those twirled around the unsuspecting coral bells. As I guided them to the trellis, nudging the newly-freed tendrils to grasp the appropriate support, I thought how prone we are to engage in misguided attachments.

Created in the image of the Triune God, we’re relational beings, designed for community. But often, we look to fellow finite sojourners to meet needs only God Himself can fill, overwhelming or alienating them in the process.

Or, worse, we turn to things to sustain us. Though we are meant to worship our Creator, we worship creation instead. At times, our hearts are like tendrils that turn toward whatever they brush against.

Praise God for sending the Spirit, just as Jesus promised (John 14:26). His power raised Jesus from the dead, and that same power is at work within every believer – to change our hearts, to transform us more and more into the image of Christ, and to enable us to walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 1:19-20; 2 Corinthians 3:18). He is our all-sufficient, strong-enough Support.

Clinging Climbers

203Virginia creeper, a native vine with 5-leaved adult foliage, is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, because its juvenile foliage frequently has three leaves, like the pesky purveyor of itch-producing oil. Its ability to scale walls and tree trunks thanks to holdfasts that act like sticky toes, reminds me of the tiny lizards I see scampering up the bricks on the front of my house. Though both plant and critter are capable of ascending considerable heights, they’re easy to dislodge.

Earlier this summer, I yanked a Virginia creeper off the side of my daughter’s house. Nourished by plentiful rainfall, it had clambered all the way to the second story and put down roots in the gutter. Nonetheless, a few tugs brought the entire vine tumbling down as its little feet let go of the wall. Unlike the wayward tendrils in the first story, the vine picked a solid underpinning.  But it didn’t have the strength to hold on when adversity came in the form of my pulling.

In 1997, the year my husband Ray died, Christian artist Geoff Moore released his album “Threads,” which concluded with “The Letter.” The lyrics tell of someone ready to give up but encouraged not to do so by the friend who received the letter.  As I struggled to regain my footing after Ray’s sudden death, these words brought hope and comfort:

And when your hand starts to slip
And when you’re losing your grip
And when you know your hope is gone
You’re not the only one holding on[3]

There were many times I had to remind myself God was holding me and would never let go. Jesus said as much: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

We’ve been learning a new-to-us hymn at church, “He Will Hold Me Fast.” I catch myself humming the tune repeatedly while the lyrics play in my mind, offering the same assurance found in the long-ago Geoff Moore song:

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path;
For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast.

He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast;
For my Saviour loves me so, He will hold me fast.
[4]

An assurance that will carry us through this life until we’re called Home and our faith is made sight (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Lord, how I thank You for sending Your Spirit to guide and sustain us, to be our Support as we seek to grow according to your will for us. And I praise You for the precious promise that though our strength may fail, You’ll never let us go. We’re forever safe in Your mighty grasp.

 

[1] https://web.extension.illinois.edu/vines/attachment.cfm:

[2] https://www.britannica.com/science/tendril

[3] “The Letter” lyrics © 1997 Universal Music Publishing Group. Songwriters: Lisa Kainde Diaz / Maya Dagnino / Naomi Diaz / Paula Moore

[4] Ada R. Habersham, “He Will Hold Me Fast,” 1906

Enlightened Eyes

I’d opened my Bible study lesson but hadn’t silenced my phone yet. It dinged three times in rapid succession alerting me to incoming text messages, most likely of the group variety.

043My curiosity piqued, I had to look. After all, I hadn’t officially settled into my quiet time. The glance confirmed my hunch. Daughter Jessie sent a photo to me and her older sister, Mary, with the comment, “Fun game! Let me know when you spot it.”

Mary replied without hesitation, “Cool!!!”

I stared at the up-close photo of a tree trunk, admiring the bark, but had to enlarge the image before I found the hidden critter and exclaimed, “That guy is super camouflaged!”

Jessie conceded, “I totally wouldn’t have seen the moth except he was sitting right below a trail blaze (blue rectangles painted around the trail so you can keep track of it) and I had looked up at the blaze just by chance.”

Our pleasant text conversation came to an end and I turned my attention back to the lesson before me, astounded to read, “Unless a power beyond us opens our eyes, we will blindly walk right past the infinite magnificence of God’s treasure. We take for granted the glorious truth in Christ: we are God’s beloved children.” (1)

Talk about an immediate spiritual application of Jessie’s trail blaze experience!

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians, proclaims, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).

Paul then goes on to recount those blessings. In Christ we are:

  • Chosen by God before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him (vs. 4).
  • Predestined for adoption to himself (vs. 5).
  • Redeemed (vs. 7)
  • Forgiven (vs. 7)
  • Made recipients of the riches of God’s grace, lavished upon us (vs. 7-8)
  • Given wisdom and insight to understand God’s plan of redemption (vs. 9-10)
  • Made heirs (vs. 11-12)
  • Sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance (vs. 13-14)

Paul prays for the eyes of their hearts to be enlightened that they may know the hope to which they’ve been called, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of His power toward those who believe – precisely the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (vs. 18-19a).

Fueled by that kind of power, you’d think we’d be better at living out the reality of all the blessings heaped upon us.  But too often our spiritual sight is clouded by immediate demands, our ears filled with voices clamoring for our attention. The temporal hides the eternal as effectively as the moth’s disguise allowed it to blend into the bark.

Jesus frequently taught in parables, many of which had a connection to plants – sowing, reaping, seasons, soils. When his disciples asked why He used such stories, He replied, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given . . .  Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.’ . . .  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Matthew 13:11, 14, 16)

Blessed indeed! Jesus came not just to restore sight and hearing to those physically blind and deaf, but to open our spiritual eyes and ears to His message and the evidence of His love all around us. And, when Jesus ascended to heaven, He didn’t leave us as orphans. The Father sent the promised Helper to be our trail blaze (John 14:16-17, 26).

Even so, we must be intentional about seeing and hearing.

Interludes spent in my garden allow me to be still in God’s presence, to deliberately look and listen. Time after time, Jesus’ parables come to life as I dig and prune, weed and water. I stroll my property in search of treasures I imagine God’s tucked lovingly here and there for me to find. Years of practicing these purposeful walks have honed my sight, enabling me to recognize even barely-there plants as they emerge from the soil. How much more should I seek to know the things of God, to perceive the guidance of His Spirit, and to hear His still, quiet voice by becoming intimately acquainted with the treasures found in His Word?

O Lord, how I thank you for lavishing your spiritual blessings upon your chosen ones and for enlightening the eyes of our hearts to understand the magnitude of those blessings. Please help us to be ever-attentive to the leading of your Spirit.

 

(1) Lisa Tarplee,”Hinged, Vitally Connected to Christ and His Church, Women’s Bible Study on Ephesians”, Week 2, CDM Discipleship Ministries, 2020, p. 31.

An audience of One

IMG_0024 (2)Mom says she could always tell when I saw her in the audience at one or another of my elementary school concerts. A smile would spread across my face and I would relax, knowing my biggest fan was there. And so it was with my daughters and now my grandchildren. Indeed, wise directors of lower-school productions allow a few minutes before commencing for their performers to connect with those who’ve come to watch. Exchanging waves and grins makes for a cheerful beginning all around.

Truth be told, Mom is still my biggest cheerleader and encourager, the one I can always count on to be in my corner. From her fervent prayers to her interest in every post on this blog, her support is unwavering. I hope my daughters feel that same constancy of care from me.

We never outgrow our need for unconditional love or the assurance we’re accepted, short-comings and all. It’s a rare person who’s immune to the opinions of others, especially those we’re in contact with most. We prefer to be viewed positively by our neighbors, work colleagues, fellow church-goers, classmates and friends. Yet, given our fallen natures, opportunities to reject others and be rejected abound from our earliest years. Childish name-calling and shunning give way in later years to backbiting and various forms of adult exclusion.

We were made for relationship with God and each other. Our innate desire to connect and be well-received may lead us astray or cause us to hide parts of ourselves. Rejection hurts. Misunderstandings wound. If only I could explain – my tribulations, my perspective, my hopes – maybe then they’d comprehend.

No one can fully understand another. At times even our own hearts deceive us.[1] Yet there is One who knows me even better than I know myself. The One who knit me together in Mom’s womb, who wrote each of my days in his book before any came to be, who never loses sight of me.[2] Not only does He know me intimately, He purposed to save me by sending his Son to die for me – the epitome of unconditional love.[3]

Isaiah 53 describes the suffering Savior as “despised and rejected”.[4] Not only did those closest to him misunderstand his mission, hoping for an earthly kingdom, they abandoned him in his darkest hours, first by falling asleep, then by fleeing.[5] Truly, He understands our sorrows.

I recently came across the phrase “audience of one”, as in “Jesus, the One and only, Savior and Lord.” It resonated deeply with me. Even though I would like others’ approval and affirmation, his “well done” is not only sufficient, but supreme.[6] In fact, pleasing the Lord above all others is so important, the Apostle Paul includes reminders in several of his letters. Whether eating, working or serving, whatever we do is to be done for his glory.[7]

When plagued with self-doubt or troubled with a nameless sense of disquiet, I often pray David’s prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”[8] Though we may be pummeled by differing opinions and challenged by clamoring voices, we have the assurance that his sheep hear his voice.[9] He will show us the way[10] and lead us on level ground.[11]

As we journey forth, precious are those who come alongside to encourage, support and cheer us on, for they give us a glimpse of God’s unconditional love. I am immensely grateful for the life-givers He’s placed along my path. They are among his greatest blessings.

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage (our) hearts and strengthen (us) in every good deed and word.”[12]

[1] Jeremiah 17:9

[2] Psalm 139:1-18

[3] Romans 5:6-8

[4] Isaiah 53:3

[5] Matthew 26:36-56

[6] Galatians 1:10

[7] See, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:13; Colossians 3:17,23; Ephesians 6:7-8

[8] Psalm 139:23-24

[9] John 10:2-5

[10] Isaiah 30:21

[11] Psalm 143:10

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

Always remember

When anniversaries of momentous days come around, I find I’m able to recall the events in great detail. For example, my wedding day, the birthdays of my daughters and grandchildren, and the day Ray was called Home are all etched in my mind . . . .

. . . as is the day I learned my job had been eliminated.

January 26, 2011 was overcast and chilly, a typical mid-winter day. I was anticipating my annual review at three o’clock that afternoon. My emotions went back and forth between calm and concern throughout the day. To say things hadn’t been going well in the year since I started reporting to a new manager was an understatement. In fact, the situation had deteriorated to the point I told my family I expected to be put on probation or terminated. I’m sure they felt my statement was hyperbole, a by-product of the stress I’d been under. I, however, was most sincere. In looking back, I believe that premonition was a gift, God’s way of preparing me for the news I would hear.

I went to the appointed conference room at the scheduled time. A few minutes later my manager entered, accompanied by her boss. His presence was my first clue this wouldn’t be a normal review. My suspense didn’t last long as my manager said, “I know you’re expecting to have your annual review, but you won’t be having it because your job has been eliminated.” My first thought: “This is real.” My second: “Thank you, Lord, for giving me an absolute answer.” Indeed it was a clear, decisive response to all the prayers for wisdom I and faithful friends had been praying, as I wondered if I should continue working or resign.

I was told the HR manager would be in to explain the details of my termination. Within the hour I’d turned in my computer, my badge and my company credit card. As I drove home, a protective numbness settled in. Just like that, my 30-year career came to an end. I wasn’t even able to say goodbye and there was certainly no opportunity for a retirement party.

The next morning I awoke to a familiar feeling and realized I was in a mild state of shock, not as deep as the one I’d experienced when Ray died suddenly, but a surreal sense of loss nonetheless. A significant part of my life had ended abruptly and was no longer accessible to me.

12-17-2012-me-and-joshua-at-graduation-3-2But my story was far from over. On January 28th, a mere two days after that fateful meeting, I contacted the admissions office at a local technical college and started the enrollment process to study horticulture. Six months later, my first grandchild was born. Joshua was present when I received my Environmental Horticulture diploma in December 2012. Two more grandchildren, Lyla and Emma, have joined our family. My days are full and my interests are many. I am blessed to have meaningful relationships. I am thankful.

When I awoke this morning, there was a tinge of sadness. I wish my career had ended differently. There are co-workers and customers I still miss and remember fondly. But, most of all, on this beautiful sunny day, I hark back across six years and praise God for working all things together for good.[1]

On multiple occasions, God commanded the Israelites to remember what he’d done for them, to tell their children, even to set up memorial stones so they wouldn’t forget his mighty deeds on their behalf.[2] Last week I had the pleasure of a lengthy phone call with a dear friend. Our relationship stretches across 35 years. We’ve known each other long enough and well enough to compare notes on dating, marriage, motherhood and, now, grand-motherhood. We’ve prayed for each other and watched as God’s plan has unfolded for us and our families. And we agree that one of the best things about getting older is having more and more instances to look back on to remind ourselves of all God has done. He is faithful. He keeps his promises. He never forsakes his own.[3]

At three o’clock this afternoon, I recollected how it felt to sit in that windowless conference room and receive the news of my termination. But those memories were quickly eclipsed by recalling all God’s done since. What an adventure he had in store for me!

Though there are times we can’t understand his ways[4], we can always trust him to have a plan – a good and perfect plan.[5]

[1] Romans 8:28

[2] See, for example, Deuteronomy 4:9, Psalm 103:2, Joshua 4 and Deuteronomy 6

[3] Deuteronomy 31:8

[4] Isaiah 55:8-9

[5] Jeremiah 29:11

Clutter

There’s something about starting a new year that makes me want to clean out and move forward with a lighter load. This year, my desire has been further fueled by the efforts my daughter Mary has made to shed stuff and redecorate her lovely home. It may be her nesting instincts spurring her on or the urgency of needing to help 2-year old Lyla settle into her “big-girl” room before baby Emma arrives. Regardless, seeing what she’s achieved while 7-months pregnant has both inspired me and put me to shame.

I’m a keeper by nature. I find it difficult to part with things that may be useful at some point in the future or were given to me by loved ones. Ok, so that covers a lot of territory. It also explains, for example, why you’ll find lots of buttons in the bottom of my sewing basket – you know the ones that come on shirts, jackets, pants, etc. in case one of the originals ever falls off – and the fact I have every birthday card my girls have ever given me. In spite of my tendency to hold onto things, I don’t consider myself to be a hoarder. After all, there’s plenty of room to walk around in my house without bumping into stacks of old magazines and I’m able to use my garage for its intended purpose.

Nevertheless, every now and then the results of my being a keeper start to wear on me, especially when I get to experience the positive effects of someone else’s house cleaning efforts.

Our living environments aren’t the only thing that can become cluttered, as many of us feel weighed down, even overwhelmed, by to dos associated with the demands of daily living. Joanna Weaver addresses our plight in her book, “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World”. IMG_0367The story of the two sisters, recorded in Luke 10:38-42, resonates with modern readers even though the events it relates happened almost 2,000 years ago:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (NIV Bible)

A cursory read might lead one to conclude Jesus was condemning Martha’s Type A personality and it’s tempting to stereotype the two sisters, labeling one driven and the other laid back. But our temperaments and abilities are God-given and it takes all kinds of people to accomplish his purposes. No, Jesus wasn’t chiding Martha for her work ethic. He wanted her to realize her focus was off, a message quite similar to the one in Matthew 6 when Jesus told his listeners not to worry about what they would eat, drink or wear, but to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.

Of everyone who’s ever walked the earth, Jesus alone was capable of “doing it all”, but he didn’t. Instead, he sought to do his Father’s will in all things and to finish the work he’d been sent to do. In Ephesians 2, Paul says believers are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Isn’t that amazing? Even though God could accomplish everything himself, he allows us to participate in achieving his purposes and equips and enables us to do so.

Too often my mind is cluttered with the demands of the day and my thoughts race from one task to another wondering how I’ll ever get it all done. But more and more, God is reminding me to focus before doing. To seek him and his righteousness. To be still so I can hear him when he says, “This is the way. Walk in it.”

And when I do, He’s faithful to help me determine what is the better part.

Ask

When I came downstairs this morning, there was a squirrel wrapped around the bird feeder, trying to figure out how to get to the precious sunflower seeds within. The spring-loaded feeder was doing a good job of protecting its contents, the weight of the squirrel having caused its outer sleeve to drop and close the openings. I raised the window over the kitchen sink and shooed him away, but the sleeve didn’t pop back up. Closer inspection revealed the squirrel’s determined efforts had unhooked one of the springs. I was NOT happy since this had happened once before and I remembered all-too-well how difficult it had been to reattach since the outer sleeve covered the hole where the hook resided when the spring was attached. Furthermore, I knew my feathered friends would soon be arriving for breakfast and I didn’t want them to be disappointed to find their source of food unavailable.

I brought the feeder inside and began to work, discouraged that my initial efforts to reattach the spring proved unsuccessful. As I tugged and fumbled with the hook, I prayed, “Please, Lord, help me fix this! It’s so hard. The birds count on me to feed them. I don’t want them to go hungry.” And then I saw the obvious solution which I’d completely overlooked when the spring was unhooked months ago and again this morning: the hook at the other end of the spring was exposed. All I had to do was unhook it, reattach the one at the end that was covered when the outer sleeve was raised and then reattach the hook at the lower end! Within minutes I’d refilled the once-again-fully-functioning feeder, returned it to its hanger on the deck and watched happily as the birds came for their morning meal.

As I turned to making my own breakfast it hit me: Too many times when faced with a challenge or a problem to solve I launch into self-initiated, self-sustained efforts that often prove frustrating and futile. Yet I have a Father who’s told me to ask when I lack wisdom, when I don’t know which way to go or what the best course of action is. He’s shown me time and again that his promise to instruct me and teach me, to counsel and watch over me is trustworthy.

More and more, may we begin by coming to the One who tells us to ask . . . taking time to be still before Him instead of heading off on our own . . .  confident in the assurance that He always hears us and will lead us in the way everlasting.