Signs of Life

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

Let All Creation Sing

Some years ago, I attended a horticulture conference where one of the speakers began her talk by saying, “Summer, fall, and winter are seasons. Spring is a miracle!”

I often think of her comment when we’re on the cusp of spring, anticipating the glorious bursting forth of foliage and flowers when all creation joins in a chorus of praise to the Creator, pointing us to Jesus’ resurrection.

Yet, even when I stroll my garden in the winter, weeks before the magnificent display of new life, I find signs of what will be. Leafless branches sport tiny buds, which will become the next season’s greenery. Flowering shrubs often set their buds months before they bloom. They sit patiently, awaiting the time of their awakening. After years of watching the cycle repeat, I look forward with confidence to the beauty to come.

I find bulbs and seeds to be equally remarkable. They don’t look like much, but each holds the promise of what it will become. Given time and the proper conditions, even the tiniest of seeds will produce a towering tree with branches to provide shelter for nesting birds (Mark 40:30-32).

His Life in Us

The introductory verse above from Galatians affirms the status of those who believe in Christ as Savior. We are alive in Him. And though we will continue to struggle with sin as long as we’re in the flesh, God already counts us righteous because of Jesus’ sacrifice. The Spirit is at work within us, with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20), transforming us more and more into the image of the Son.

Just as the promise of what will be resides in buds and bulbs and seeds, we have the assurance that He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion (Philippians 1:6).


The first half of Acts chapter 4 describes an occasion when Jewish religious leaders arrested Peter and John, then summoned them to give an account of healing a crippled man (Acts 4:1-22). No matter how much the leaders threatened them, they boldly proclaimed the power of Jesus and His resurrection, giving Him full credit for their ability to heal.

Verse 13 has always inspired me:  Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Emphasis mine.)

That’s me, common and ordinary, nothing of my own to boast about (Ephesians 2:8-9), but I want to look different – to captivate others with the beauty and aroma of Christ – because I’ve been with Him.  

Blessed to Be a Blessing

Both the current sermon series at our church[1] and a Bible study[2] I’m in have included the message that God chose a people for Himself, not to take them out of the world immediately, but to join Him in reconciling the nations to Himself.

While we live as sojourners between the now and not yet, we’re called to manifest signs of the life of Christ in us, always ready to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). Paul tells us we’re God’s workmanship in Christ and that He prepared good works for us to carry out (Ephesians 2:10). According to James, good works provide evidence of a faith that’s alive and well (James 2:14-26).

Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control –  reflects our abiding dependence on the One who makes all things new, including us.

So, dear readers, won’t you join me in endeavoring to embrace and embody who we are in Christ, that our lives might bear much fruit for Him?

Dear Lord, what a gift You give us in the beauty of springtime when reminders of Jesus’ resurrection are all around us. Thank You for the assurance we have in Him that we too will be raised to eternal life. Until then, please help us to exhibit unmistakable signs of His life in us to a watching world.

[1] “Our Shared Life and Mission in the Peacemaking Christ, A Sermon Series in Ephesians,” Pastor David Donovan, Grace Covenant Church.

[2] “From Garden to Glory,” Courtney Doctor, Committee on Discipleship Ministries, 2016.

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.

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.

Becoming fluent

The church I attend recently began a small-group discipleship ministry for our women. As part of getting to know each other better, the leader of my group asked us to share a little-known fact about ourselves. I decided to tell the group about living in Argentina in the early-1970’s. The usual questions regarding life in a foreign country followed, accompanied by my well-practiced answers. Being so far away from family and friends at a time when communication was limited to snail mail was decidedly difficult, but the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn a second language was priceless.

Our 2-year stay abroad resulted from my dad accepting a temporary transfer to work for the Argentine subsidiary of his U.S. employer. Thus, part of the pre-move preparations involved my parents’ 2-week, company-paid attendance at a local Berlitz total-immersion language school. It was a stressful, morning-to-night grind, no English allowed.

Unlike my beleaguered parents, I began my language studies once we landed in Argentina. I was enrolled in an American school where I had classes in English in the morning and classes in Spanish in the afternoon. That, plus daily interaction with native speakers in our community, provided an excellent learning environment. Nonetheless, my parents hired a tutor to help me with the intricacies of sentence structure and verb tenses.

IMG_6898Just as I benefitted greatly from learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Christians thrive best when we’re part of God’s visible church. Scripture is clear that each of us has an important, God-ordained place in His body (1Corinthians 12:12-30) and that we should not neglect meeting together. (Hebrews 10:24-25) Furthermore, God’s family is composed of members of varying ages, abilities and spiritual maturities, just like biological families. We are called to do life together in compassionate covenant communities, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and come alongside each other to teach, support and encourage according to the gifts we’ve been given. (Romans 12:3-21)

In addition, we have a responsibility to tell the younger generations of the mighty deeds of the Lord and to instruct them in His ways. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Psalm 145:10-13) Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s directions to Titus are clear regarding the role older women are to play in tutoring the younger women, teaching them the finer points of Biblical womanhood through both word and action. (Titus 2:3-5)

I don’t remember how long it took, but one day, to my amazement, I realized I could speak and respond in Spanish without a conscious translation step. The second language had become second-nature.

And so it is with our spiritual transformation. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf, we’re no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we’ve become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6) Through the Spirit’s power at work within us, we’re able to discern what is right and true, something we could never do when we were dead in our trespasses. Furthermore, as our sanctification progresses, Christ’s light shines ever-brighter in us and we produce spiritual fruit. (Matthew 5:14-15; Galatians 5:22-23) More and more, our renewed nature becomes second-nature as we seek to please God and abide in Him. (John 15:5)

Nonetheless, aspects of our old selves will persist until God calls us Home, as Paul so eloquently describes in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-20) And so we press on to become fluent in God’s ways, by studying His Word, praying and joining with fellow believers to worship Him and stir one another to love and good works.

Even now, over four decades later and without daily use, I’m apt to spontaneously sprinkle Spanish sentences into conversations with my grandchildren. They’ve become used to these linguistic detours and know an immediate translation-repetition-translation mini-lesson is sure to follow. Yes, I can speak Spanish, though far from flawlessly – I still can’t roll my Rs and I mix up verb tenses – but I enjoy the language and sharing it with my grandchildren.

How much more I savor sharing our Savior with them. I’m far from perfect when it comes to fluency in my Christian walk as well. But I pray I’ll always be faithful to spontaneously sprinkle His ways and words into our conversations as I point them to the only perfect One who loves them even more than I do and encourage them to take their places in His family. May His nature become increasingly second-nature for us all.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

Bearing all things

One of my favorite things about living in the South is the relatively mild winters. We generally have a handful of bitterly cold days each year, but we’re just as likely to get days with above-average temperatures and early glimpses of spring. This year is no different. We were iced-in the first weekend of the New Year, but have been blessed with many warm, sunny days since. The moderate weather has coaxed a number of plants from their slumber, including daffodils, quince, spirea and my tiny trout lily. I’ve passed pleasant moments strolling around various neighborhoods, my little property and Smith-Gilbert Gardens relishing the re-awakening.

Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when I’m confronted with the results of crape murder, the practice of severely pruning lovely crape myrtles, sometimes back to their main trunks. Oh the carnage! Observing these maimed specimens makes me cringe.


One of this year’s victims.

I watched the abused tree whose photograph I featured in the February 2015 post, “Prudent Pruning”, as I passed by it almost daily last summer. Sure enough, it put out new growth, though sadly out of scale with the remaining base, and even bloomed. Such is the case with most crape myrtles. In spite of being mercilessly whacked-back, they persevere and bring forth flowers.


As I observed and pondered, I reflected on how some people are much like the crape myrtles. Frequently wounded and taken for granted even by those they love, they nevertheless bear the fruit of the Spirit[1] and the sweet fragrance of life.[2] They faithfully serve, knowing Whom it is they ultimately seek to please.[3]

1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the “Love Chapter” and is frequently read at weddings. Verses 4 through 8a describe love as follows:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[4]

Many years ago a Bible study leader suggested to our group that we try reading through these verses using our name, e.g. Patsy is patient and kind, and so forth. We laughed uncomfortably knowing we couldn’t meet those high standards, at least not consistently. Then our leader suggested we substitute “Jesus”. We were quiet as we contemplated the beauty and perfection of our Savior, God’s gift of love incarnate.

He was rejected, misunderstood and beaten. He was betrayed by a kiss from one disciple[5] while another denied ever being with him.[6] Yet he bore all things, most importantly our sins[7], that we might become like him, beloved children of the King, co-heirs with the Son.[8]

Jesus made it clear that the current world order will be turned upside down when he returns – the first shall be last, the least shall be greatest, the meek shall inherit the earth.[9] As we await his promised return, we can be confident we’re not alone.[10] Even now he is seated at the right hand of God[11] interceding for us.[12] Therefore, may we not grow weary in doing good, regardless of the response we receive now, knowing that in due season we will reap if we do not give up.[13]

[1] Galatians 5:22-23a

[2] 2 Corinthians 2:14-15

[3] Colossians 3:23-24

[4] ESV translation

[5] Judas’ betrayal is recounted in Matthew 26:48-50, Mark 14:44-45 and Luke 22:47-48

[6] Peter’s denial is recorded in Mark 14:66-72 and John 18:15-18, 25-27

[7] Isaiah 53:4-6

[8] Romans 8:14-17

[9] See Matthew 20:16, Matthew 23:11-12 and Matthew 5:5 respectively

[10] Joshua 1:5b, Hebrews 13:5b-6

[11] There are numerous references to Jesus’ place at the right hand of God including Luke 22:69, Colossians 3:1 and Hebrews 8:1.

[12] Hebrews 7:25

[13] Galatians 6:9-10

Are you contagious?

As part of my horticultural studies, I spent several months interning at a botanical garden near my home. Each day was different as I and another intern assisted the Head Gardener with whatever he needed to get done. I found the majority of our activities to be interesting, educational and, for the most part, enjoyable. However, one activity repeated every couple of weeks throughout the summer wasn’t much fun. That task? Removing leaves affected with early blight from the tomato plants. It was a rather tedious process which required us to dip the blades of our pruners into alcohol after every snip of an infected leaf. Why? To decrease the possibility of spreading the disease to other areas of the plant or to other plants entirely. In addition, we bagged up the diseased leaves and put them in the trash, not the compost bin, since blight spores can survive on plant debris, causing more problems later. Even though following the procedure took more time than clipping a succession of leaves with no dipping in between, it was worth it. It slowed the progression of the blight, enabling the tomatoes to survive and bear fruit.

Removing diseased leaves from a coneflower one evening this week reminded me of the great lengths we went to in our quest to protect the tomato plants. As is often the case when I’m working in my garden, my thoughts turned to spiritual parallels. Criticism, anger, gossip, complaining. They can be as contagious as any disease and every bit as deadly when it comes to relationships. How are we to keep from spreading the spores of negativity? Just as the alcohol cleansed the blades of the pruners, immersing ourselves in God’s Word can purify our thoughts and refine our intentions. In Philippians 4:8, Paul encourages us to think on things that are excellent and praiseworthy; whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. And in 2 Corinthians 10:5 he says we are to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. Difficult? Absolutely! But the One who is making all things new took our infirmities upon Himself and heals us by His wounds that we might bear abundant fruit for His glory . . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control . . . conditions others won’t mind catching.

Prudent pruning

In my October post, “Ode to a Crape Myrtle”, I denounced the practice of severely pruning those lovely trees. The dreadful act is sometimes referred to as “crape murder”. Early to mid-winter each year I see far too many pitiful victims of this particular crime. But this year, on a street I traverse almost every day, stands one of the most pathetic examples I’ve ever beheld. Crape murder victimNot only has the beautiful tree been stripped of its majestic branches, but the perpetrator used a sealant of some sort to paint over several of the wounds. When pruning cuts are made correctly, the tree’s natural defenses will allow it to heal without the application of such products, which in some cases even cause harm to the plant.

As I also mentioned in my previous post, I committed the crime once, in ignorance, before being enlightened. I have since done only minor, clean-up type pruning to the gorgeous ‘Natchez’ Ray planted over 20 years ago.  As the tree has outgrown me, I’ve relied on professional assistance to remove crossed or crowded branches. Most recently, my tree was expertly “limbed up” to provide more light to the plants beneath its canopy and to lighten the load it carries when completely leafed-out and covered with blossoms.Lagerstroemia 'Natchez'

So, you see, I’m not against all pruning, just pruning done recklessly or unnecessarily.  Correct pruning is often an essential part of maintaining a plant’s health, enhancing its aesthetic value or increasing its fruitfulness. Likewise, there are times when we need to be pruned. Fortunately, we belong to a discerning Master Gardener. He determines exactly where and how to make the required cuts to enable us to bear more fruit for Him. Sometimes the pruning is severe 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 . . . and He’s tenderly transforming us into who He created us to be.

Family Resemblance

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are! 1 John 3:1

Before I got the opportunity to study horticulture, I would look at leaves when trying to identify trees.  Even then I was only familiar with the leaf shapes traditionally associated with plants such as oaks, maples and hollies. I now realize there are many different species in those genera, some with leaf shapes people typically associate with those trees and some fairly dissimilar.  I’ve also learned that even though botanists consider leaves and stems when classifying plants, they use fruit and flowers, the reproductive parts of plants, to group them into families. I don’t know if it’s my eye for detail or my love of family, (maybe some of both!) but I enjoy recognizing similarities in the flower structures of different plants and then checking to see if they’re in the same family.

Just like plants can be identified by their fruit, Jesus told his disciples people would be known by their fruit. Because of the amazing grace of God and Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf, we’re part of God’s family and, as such, we’re called to resemble Jesus, “the firstborn among many brothers”. (Romans 8:29) Fortunately, we are enabled to become more and more like him through the power of the Spirit, whose fruit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Not only are we called on to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8), we’re instructed to impress God’s commands on our children. “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). In other words, telling our children about God, his directives, his covenant and his character should be woven into the daily ebb and flow of life, not just reserved for Sunday school, and we must endeavor to teach by example, not just words.

As is probably true of most parents, when my daughters were young, I used to wish they’d always be as happy and carefree as they were during those pre-school years. At the very least, I yearned to protect them from adversity and pain. I have similar feelings now when I look at my precious grandchildren. Yet I know life can be difficult and no one makes it through without some measure of grief, disappointment, and hardship. But God, in his providence, often uses our most trying times to draw us closer to himself, teaching us experientially that we can trust him no matter what. And that, in turn, is what I most want my children and grandchildren to know. There is a Father who loves us. There is a Son who we are to resemble. There is a world in great need of the fruit we’re called to bear.