Heart Check

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
1 Corinthians 10:12

Given the nature of my blog, I share personal stories in almost every post. At times I wonder if I share too much, but I’ve come to realize being real offers more hope and encouragement than if I sugar-coated my experiences. Occasionally though, the Lord nudges me further outside my comfort zone and impresses upon me to use a post to confess something. So, even though it makes me feel more vulnerable than usual, this is one of those posts.

The Big Dump

Over the past few months, I’ve been cleaning out my closet, gradually moving items I rarely wear to my daughter’s old room. The piles containing a mix of professional and casual apparel grew so large my grandchildren barely had space to play with the toys also located in their mom’s former room. Thus, I made a final pass through my closet one recent morning and then carefully folded and boxed everything up. I added some household items I  no longer use, loaded everything into my CR-V, and headed to a nearby donation center.

When I pulled up to the curb and told the attendant I had several boxes of items, he gestured toward a large bin and said, “You can put your stuff in there.” I set one of the larger boxes next to the container and was about to place one of the smaller ones in the bin when he said, “We don’t accept boxes.”

With that, he stepped forward, picked up the box, and dumped its contents into the receptacle. I could barely contain my horror as I watched all the neatly-folded items tumble out, followed by shoes and kitchen gadgets from the other box. The things I’d used, taken care of, and envisioned transferring in nearly-pristine condition to someone else who could use them were in a jumbled heap on top of the stuff dropped off by the person ahead of me. I almost closed the hatch of my car without unloading the rest of the boxes. And since this is a confession of sorts, I’ll admit there was a bag containing several items my dear mother gave me that I couldn’t bear to see added to the mix. When I got home, I returned them to my daughter’s old closet.

Standing Firm or Barely Standing?

Jesus’ discourse recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7 (often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount) contains some of my favorite verses in the whole Bible, including:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

Though I haven’t settled on a life verse because I have so many favorites, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” is in the running, so my response at the donation center surprised me. I thought about it for several days, pondering why the dumping of items I’d already decided I didn’t need anymore troubled me so. I think part of it was due to the fact Mom taught me from my earliest days to take care of my things, and seeing them treated so carelessly offended my sense of responsibility. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if my response indicated I was overly attached to my possessions and somehow saw them as an extension of myself. Did I equate mistreatment of my stuff with mistreating me or, worse, dishonoring the memory of the one who’d given it to me?

Faithful Wounds

The Lord used my reaction to enlighten the eyes of my heart. Regardless of the reason for the hurt, angry, incredulous feelings that sprang up as I stood by the curb, their intensity indicated I am more attached to material things than I realized or wanted to admit. After all, Scripture is clear we won’t take any of those things with us when we die (1Timothy 6:6-7).[1]

Though pained by recognizing the gap between reality and how I perceive myself, I’m thankful the Spirit is faithful to point out the discrepancies. Like a trusted friend who speaks the truth in love (Proverbs 27:6a), I can count on Him to reveal my shortcomings in this and other areas (John 14:26).  But unlike a human companion, He also empowers me to make the necessary changes as He continues to sanctify me (Ephesians 1:19-20).

Have you had a heart check lately, a moment when circumstances challenged you to reevaluate how firmly you’re standing in some spiritual discipline or another? If so, rejoice as I did, knowing your conscience is alert and attentive to the prompting of the Spirit, Who is unfailingly transforming us more and more into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).   

Dear Lord, thank You for the Spirit’s work in our lives, instructing, reminding, and empowering us. Please help us to be ever-mindful of His promptings as we endeavor to work out our salvation and glorify You in all things (Philippians 2:12-13).


[1] Please see “The Ring” in Archives, August 2018 for more on this subject.

Inside Job

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
1Peter 3:3-4

A Reasonable Request

As longtime readers of my blog know, I have a number of treasured plants on my small suburban property, many of which were planted by my late husband, Ray. Although it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite, my beautiful crape myrtle ranks high on the list. This isn’t the first post inspired by the beloved plant and probably won’t be the last.[1]

The stately ‘Natchez’[2] was a mere toddler when Ray planted it over 25 years ago. It now reaches the roofline of my two-story house, and its canopy is almost as wide as the tree is tall. My neighbors have been patient with branches that grew over the property line, only to drop tiny white blossoms on their driveway each summer. But, alas, they received a letter from our HOA about a related matter, which led them to kindly request that I have the offending limbs removed.

As one who’s known far and wide for my annual late-winter plea, “No crape murder!”, I could feel panic rising within me upon hearing my neighbor’s request.  I calmly assured him I would take care of it, but my thoughts were churning. Who could I trust to do the necessary work without maiming my beautiful tree? I had to find someone who would respect the tree and understand its intrinsic value. I needed an arborist.

Professional Help

I called a reputable company whose client list includes the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The first thing their associate said as he exited his vehicle and strode toward me boosted my confidence. Surveying the array of plants in my front garden, he declared approvingly, “I can see you don’t have a typical neighborhood property.” When he proceeded to call one of my unique specimen plants by its proper name, I knew I’d contacted the right people.

Even though our subsequent conversations further allayed my fears, an undercurrent of anxiety developed as pruning day approached. The 3-person crew arrived promptly at 8 a.m. My cheerful greeting belied the angst I was feeling, but it was evident the young man carrying the chain saw had been briefed not only on the work to be done but also on the tree’s significance.

I went inside, leaving the arborist and his helpers to their work. Even though they labored for nearly three hours, I resisted the urge to go back outside. I occasionally peeked out windows instead to check on their progress. I prayed for their safety – and that I’d still recognize my tree when they were finished.

I finally ventured out, preparing myself for whatever I might encounter. The sight of my tree left me speechless. It was gorgeous. I imagined the majestic tree, relieved of its extra weight and ragged branches, sighing in relief, much as I did after my first post-Covid-shutdown haircut.

As I stood next to the sturdy trunk, gazing up into the magnificent canopy, I realized much of the work had taken place on the inside. Before the pruning, anyone viewing the crape myrtle from the street would have seen its lush, flower-laden canopy. But what they couldn’t see were the dead branches, crossed limbs, and water shoots[3], which were neither attractive nor beneficial.

In the Master’s Hands

As frequently happens when I’m working in my garden, the Lord brought to mind a spiritual connection – in this case, the type of beauty we’re called to cultivate. It’s right to care for our bodies and be good stewards of our physical selves. Yet we often spend an excessive amount of time and money making sure our outsides are beautiful while neglecting the seat of true beauty, our hearts.

Sometimes we’re blind to the ugliness within. Then again, we recognize it and attempt to cover it up. Or,  we may apply pitiful bandaids to our deep heart wounds, seeking to heal ourselves in ways that are temporary at best or harmful at worst. But, just as the crape myrtle outgrew me long ago, making it impossible for me to do the necessary pruning, there’s no way for us to cultivate the beauty of the soul that’s precious in the Lord’s sight without the sanctifying power of the Spirit.

Praise God for blessing believers with that very power! First, the Spirit enlightens the eyes of our hearts that we might see aright (Ephesians 1:16-18). Then the same power that raised Jesus from the dead continues to work in us (Ephesians 1:19-20) to will and do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Though our outer selves decline with age, our inner selves are renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16), becoming increasingly beautiful as we are transformed more and more into the image of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Though the transformation process may be rigorous at times and require significant pruning (John 15:1-2), we can trust the One Who loves us more than we can comprehend (Ephesians 3:18-19). He knows what it will take to bring out the beauty He already sees in us and will be faithful to finish what He’s begun (Philippians 1:6).

Dear Lord, thank You for the gift of Your Spirit at work within us to create imperishable beauty. May that beauty be evident in quiet, gentle spirits that bless others and draw them to You.  


[1] I included several as devotions in my book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden. See for example, “Prudent Pruning” (Archives, October 2020), “Exfoliation – Reprise” (Archives, September 2020), and “Bearing All Things” (Archives, February 2017).

[2] Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Natchez’

[3] Water sprouts or water shoots are shoots that arise from the trunk of a tree or from branches that are several years old, from latent buds.

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.

Prepared, Not Scared

007Last year, my daughter, Mary, helped start an American Heritage Girls troop at her church and serves as one of the leaders. Each week, Mary and my granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, look forward to meeting with their friends. They engage in a variety of activities as they work toward the organization’s goal of developing Christ-like character and leadership skills.[1]

005After a long period of separation related to coronavirus restrictions, the troop began meeting again last month. Though always vital, the skills they’re learning to earn their Emergency Preparedness badge seem especially appropriate during this time of uncertainty. They’ve talked about stranger danger, paid a virtual visit to a local fire station, and got an up-close look at an ambulance, all while discussing how to help themselves and others during emergency situations.

One comment in particular from a recent weekly recap warmed this grandmother’s heart: “First and foremost, we learned that God has told us not to fear, and is always with us. We want to be ‘Prepared Not Scared’ as we learn about different situations and how to handle them or how to help others.”

“Prepared, not scared.” That phrase resonated with me. If I had to pick one word to describe the prevailing feeling in a post-COVID world, fear would come out on top. Fear of the unknown effects of the virus. Fear of being separated from loved ones. Fear of empty shelves at the store. Fear of death itself. How about you? Have you been battling anxiety-producing fears?

Fear Not!

Though there will be times when we give way to fear because our flesh is weak, scripture provides ample assurance for those who belong to God – as children of the King, we have nothing to fear. Consider:

All of our days were written in God’s book before even one came to be (Psalm 139:16). Shortly before my husband died suddenly in April 1997, I read a quote that gave me much comfort after his passing and many times since: “Until it’s my time to go, nothing can take me. When it’s my time to go, nothing can keep me here.” God is sovereign over every breath, and we’re never out of His sight.

Does that mean we can live irresponsibly because God has foreordained our length of days? Not at all! Even Jesus wouldn’t test His Father by throwing Himself off a Temple spire when tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:5-7). Furthermore, God has given us sound minds and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7), which we’re to use to be good stewards of our bodies. Even so, we can rest knowing our days are ultimately in God’s hands.

The passage in 2 Timothy begins with the statement that God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear. A familiar passage in 1 John expresses a similar sentiment: there’s no fear in love because fear has to do with condemnation and the perfect, sacrificial, atoning love of Christ ensures there will be no condemnation for believers on the day of judgment (1 John 4:18; Romans 5:18; Romans 8:1).

Worry and anxiety are close relatives of fear. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a beautiful word picture for His listeners. In reminding them of God’s care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, He assured them God would care for them. He admonished them not to worry. Doing so wouldn’t add a single hour to their lives. Instead, it would rob them of the joys of the present (Matthew 6:25-32).

Yet, amidst the assurances, Jesus sounded a warning: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  There is a real and eternal danger for those who don’t accept God’s gift of salvation through His Son (John 14:6; Revelation 20:15).

Be Prepared

As those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, we do not fear God’s condemnation, but as sojourners, we know we’ll face trials in this world. How do we prepare for battle?

The Apostle Paul instructs us to put on the whole armor of God so that we can stand firm against the attacks of Satan and his comrades and their flaming darts of doubt (Ephesians 6:10-17):

  • The belt of truth protects us from Satan’s lies and accusations.
  • The breastplate of righteousness covers our hearts and defends us from guilt and self-condemnation.
  • Shoes of the gospel of peace provide an unshakable foundation.
  • The shield of faith keeps us from fear.
  • The helmet of salvation guards our minds against worldly influences.
  • The sword of the Spirit is an offensive weapon – God’s Word, living and active, fully capable of accomplishing God’s purposes (Hebrews 4:12, Isaiah 55:10-11).

Paul concludes his description of our spiritual weapons by urging us to pray at all times in the Spirit, for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 6:18-19). Like good soldiers, we’re to remain alert, because our enemy prowls about like a roaring lion seeking his prey (1 Peter 5:8). In his commentary on Ephesians, John Stott proclaims, “Paul adds prayer not because he thinks of prayer as another though unnamed weapon but because it is to pervade all our spiritual warfare . . . Scripture and prayer belong together as the two chief weapons which the Spirit puts into our hand.”[2]

Take heart, dear readers. God graciously provides all we need to prevail. Clothed in Christ and His righteousness, we can be prepared, not scared, in this life, and for the life to come.

Father, thank You that Your children have nothing to fear, for our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Please help us to shine the light of Your truth into the darkness, illuminating the way for others to find hope and peace in You.

 

[1] “American Heritage Girls is a Christ-centered character and leadership development program for girls 5 to 18 years of age. AHG is dedicated to the mission of building women of integrity through service to God, family, community, and country.” Taken from the American Heritage Girls website: https://americanheritagegirls.org/

[2] J.R.W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, God’s New Society (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1979), 283.

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.

Soil Amendments

When we moved from Delaware to Georgia 28 years ago, we had the opportunity to start from the ground up. We chose our lot, chose a house plan, chose a builder. Though most of the construction communication occurred long-distance, business trips provided opportunities for me to stop by the construction site periodically during the months leading up to our relocation.

After years of working as a colorist and carpet stylist for a large corporation, I enthusiastically put my job experience into practice. I selected all the finishes for the house – from bricks to shingles, wall colors to carpet – and amassed a burgeoning file of paint chips and swatches. My late husband, Ray, was equally excited about using his horticulture training in designing our landscape. His task proved to be much more challenging than mine.

For starters, most of the top soil had been scraped away by bulldozers cruising back and forth grading the site.  Compacted Georgia clay – think terra cotta pottery – remained in its place. I watched as Ray struggled to dig holes in the hardened ground, thinking he might as well have been chipping away at the concrete driveway.

Next, there was the appalling, but then-legal practice of burying construction debris on the property. Among our stranger discoveries – the lid to a 5-gallon paint bucket and a caulking gun containing a half-empty caulk canister.

051And then there were rocks to deal with, some too big to dig up, others temporary yet annoying obstacles. The distinct clank of the shovel hitting their unyielding surfaces accompanied Ray’s efforts to install carefully-chosen plants.

053Born and raised in South Dakota farm country, Ray was accustomed to soil so rich it’s nearly black. When we lived in Delaware we would occasionally get a load of mushroom compost to top dress the yard – smelly, but effective when it came to adding nutrients to the soil. These experiences plus his horticulture degree informed Ray there would be no shortcut when it came to improving the hardpan he’d been left with. Thus he began the tedious process of amending the clay by tilling in top soil and compost.

But was it ever worth it!

Now, almost 30 years later, the soil is dark, easy to dig, and full of busy earthworms, a sure sign of health. When I cultivate those beds, my thoughts often drift to the early days when Ray was challenged by the conditions he’d been dealt. Nonetheless, he persevered, patiently applying the principles he knew would yield the longed-for results.

By now, I bet some of you are thinking about Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. Recounted in three of the four Gospels[1], Jesus described different kinds of soil and compared them to one’s ability to accept and sustain the seed of Gospel truth.

Certainly, there are parallels to the various soils within the saga I’ve described, however, I want to focus on the good soil that yielded a bountiful harvest. Though Jesus’ parable begins with sowing, other passages introduce the idea of preparing the heart to receive Truth (Ezekiel 36:26). After our stony hearts are replaced with hearts of flesh, the Master Gardener sends the Spirit to tend the now-receptive plot.

Though the heart exchange is a once-and-done event, the tending will continue until we’re called Home. With the Spirit’s help, we’re to amend our softened hearts with the Word, working it ever-deeper into our lives. Then our roots will have room to grow and we’ll be like the trees planted by streams of water described in Jeremiah 17:8 – unafraid of drought, consistently bearing fruit.

And there will no doubt be rocks and debris to be removed as we dig deeper into our souls, stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth. Here too, we can depend on the Spirit to empower our efforts as He conforms us to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29)

When I went back to school to study horticulture, I gained a whole new appreciation for soil. Structure, drainage, nutrient-holding capacity – all are important in determining what kind of life it can sustain.

How about you? Are you amending the soil of your soul with the life-giving, life-sustaining Word of God?

 

[1] Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23; Mark 4:3-8, 14-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15.

 

Good Gifts

My friend could scarcely contain her excitement as she said, “Be sure to see me after church. I have something for you. It has your name written all over it!”

083Her statement piqued my curiosity and nudged a long-ago, gift-related memory from the recesses of my mind. The recollection tempered my enthusiasm as I wondered which traits I’d projected to inspire this perfect gift. Much to my relief, the beautiful bookends my friend joyfully presented after the worship service reflected my love of gardening and reading.

080So what about the memory? Two small, resin snapping turtles, a Mother’s Day gift from my then-elementary-aged daughters. Snapping turtles! To this day, some 25 years later, my daughters declare they thought the scary critters were cute. Cute?! Maybe it was my late husband’s barely-suppressed grin or my insecurities as a busy, often-tired mom, but no amount of explaining could convince me the turtles weren’t a commentary on my character flaws.

God’s Gifts

God is the supreme gift-giver. There’s no hiding our selves or our sins from Him. We deserve condemnation from One so holy, yet from the beginning He determined to give us the gift we needed most – salvation. As soon as Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit their eyes were opened to the reality of their condition. They tried to hide, just as we do. But God came to the garden as usual and promised the seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3).

Jesus fulfilled that promise by living a life of perfect obedience, taking our sins upon himself, enduring God’s wrath on the cross, dying, and being raised again to eternal life (Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

In addition, Jesus promised his distraught disciples He wouldn’t leave them as orphans. He’d send a Helper (John 14:18, 25-26). The Holy Spirit came bearing specially-selected gifts. He empowers us to accomplish the good works prepared for us, not for personal glory, but for the building up of the body of believers to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 12).

Reflecting His Goodness

But there’s more. As we abide in Christ, we’ll produce good fruit in keeping with our salvation – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – which in turn reflects His goodness to others (Galatians 5:22-23a).

A dear friend gave me just such a gift when she asked if she could walk my garden with me. She knows, as most of you longtime readers do, that my garden is a refuge, a place of peaceful times with the Lord. Restrictions associated with COVID-19 have kept me home much more than usual the past two months. I’ve spent many happy hours trimming, weeding, and planting. Nonetheless, there are unsightly patches dotting my 1/3 acre, where weeds abound or poison ivy is winding its way around tree trunks.

Even so, my friend commented repeatedly on how beautiful it was and that she could see I’d worked hard to make it so. Reflecting on our stroll later, I realized this is exactly what she’s done across the years of our friendship. As one of my closest confidants, she’s seen me entangled in vines sprung from seeds I should never have sown and has prayerfully cheered me on as I sought to remove briars impeding my spiritual journey. She’s reminded me who I am in Christ and has never made me feel less than beautiful, even when I struggled to see beyond the weeds.

Isn’t that what God does? As long as we’re in the flesh we’ll battle our sin nature, but when God looks at us, He sees us robed in the perfect righteousness of His Son. What an amazing gift! Furthermore, we don’t battle alone. Not only is the power of the Spirit at work within us, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), but God also graciously provides fellow believers to come alongside us on our journey.

Perhaps it’s time for me to accept my daughters’ explanation of their long-ago gift. Maybe they did look past the menacing mouths of those tiny turtles and saw the cuteness of their size, just like they looked past my moments of fatigue and impatience and saw my heart full of love for them.

O Lord, please help us to love others well and to reflect your goodness to those who we come in contact with that they might long to know Jesus, the greatest gift ever given.

Sibling Rivalry

In my post, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” (see Archives, December 2019), I shared some thoughts from the devotion I presented at our women’s Christmas brunch. In writing that piece, I focused primarily on the good tidings of God’s promise to be with us: “I will be your God; you will be my people; I will dwell among you.”  Today I turn my attention to the other half of the message I delivered to the women in attendance.

Scripture is full of precious promises of God’s presence. Yet too often the noise and busyness of the world drown out the tidings of comfort and joy associated with God’s assurances. Or Satan tempts us to doubt. “Where’s God now?” he taunts. “Did He really say He wouldn’t leave you? Ever??”

Though His presence is sufficient, God didn’t intend for us to go it alone. Created in His image, we’re relational beings. Having been adopted into His family, we have spiritual brothers and sisters to remind us of truth, to testify to His faithfulness, and to be His hands and feet as we minister to one another.

045My baby sister barely reached 8 months of age, hence I grew up an only child with no sibling rivalry and no one to bicker with. But I saw plenty of both as I raised my daughters and now witness more of the same as I spend time with my grandchildren.

“Mine!”

“Me first!!”

“I was playing with that!!!”

Sound familiar?

Sadly, similar rivalries and bickering occur in the family of God. Remember the mother who asked Jesus if her sons could be seated next to Him in heaven, one on His left, the other on His right? Talk about a bold request! (Matthew 20:20-28) Then there were the disciples Jesus caught arguing about who would be the greatest. (Luke 22:24-27) Our presumptions may be more subtle, but they’re there, remnants of our sinful nature that won’t be fully eradicated until we’re called Home.

In the instances cited, Jesus made it clear the world’s definition of greatness didn’t apply to His disciples. Instead of exalting themselves, they were to follow His example by humbly serving others.

But God’s directives regarding His children’s interactions don’t stop there.  Scripture contains numerous passages expressing God’s will for our dealings with one another. Consider this one from Colossians:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

With our elder Brother as our example, we’re told to forgive one another, to be compassionate and kind, and most importantly, to love one another. In fact, Jesus commanded us to love one another so well that it sets us apart. If we do, it will make others notice (John 13:34-35). Even better, it may make them long to be part of God’s family.

During a recent visit, one of the missionaries our church supports described such a scenario. He became acquainted with a shopkeeper in the country where he and his wife serve and invited him to church. The shopkeeper accepted his invitation because he knew him to be a “nice” person. Even so, he was unprepared to meet a church full of “nice” people.  Wonderment at the tangible difference he observed provided an opportunity for the missionary to explain the why behind the behavior.

I put “nice” in quotes because as believers we know apart from Christ, even our best deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We’re utterly incapable of conducting ourselves according to the Lord’s commands. But, praise God, His promise to be with us includes sending the Holy Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ teachings, to help us want to obey, and to enable us to do so (John 14:16, 26; Philippians 2:13), albeit imperfectly until we’re ushered into heaven.

044My sister’s death left an empty spot, a life-long yearning to have been able to grow up and grow old with her. In spite of my daughters’ and grandchildren’s childhood squabbling, they’re family, forever part of each other. And so it is in God’s family as He knits our hearts and lives together in love.

O, Lord, thank You for not only promising to never leave us or forsake us, but for also giving us each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. Please help us to follow our elder Brother’s example of putting others’ interests before our own, setting aside all rivalries and jealousy, loving and forgiving as He loves and forgives us. In so doing, may we draw others to You, ever ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

Heavenly Hugs

Several weeks ago, I received the following text from a dear sister in Christ, “Praying that the Lord will refresh you by His Word and Spirit today . . . some heavenly hugs to remind you of His presence . . . some quiet moments.”

Prompted by her knowledge that I was dealing with some weighty matters, the text itself felt like one of the hugs she wished for me. Oh the blessing of friends who take note of our concerns and reach out to encourage us!

I texted my thanks and mentioned I hoped to spend time in my garden, the backdrop to some of my sweetest moments with the Lord, later that day. Being outside often feels like a big Fatherly bear hug, one that melts my stress and recalibrates my perspective. But those of you who are longtime readers know I frequently find special treasures when I’m working in my yard. Gifts I imagine the Lord tucking tenderly here and there for me to discover and delight over.

Attired in my yard clothes – faded jeans, PFG shirt, well-worn work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat – I headed outside in search of solace. The reel mower whirred as I pushed it around and around what I refer to as my “keyhole of grass”. (I’m NOT a proponent of giant swaths of perfectly-manicured turf, but I’ll save that soapbox for another post.) The sun warmed my back and the tension in my shoulders subsided. Bees and butterflies visited one bright blossom after another. The fresh air worked its usual magic and nudged my cares aside, at least for a while.

I’d been outside for a couple of hours when I remembered my friend’s message, her prayer for heavenly hugs. Although I’d been reveling in the beauty of the afternoon, grateful to be playing in the dirt, I hadn’t come across anything specific that prompted an exclamation of, “That’s it! That’s today’s treasure, a heavenly hug.”

It’s ok, I thought. The whole afternoon’s been a blessing.

125My time outside was drawing to a close when I pulled up a spent summer annual, revealing a spindly bit of passionflower vine with a solitary gulf fritillary caterpillar munching intently on a bedraggled leaf. My heart soared! I’d been hugged.

I suppose most folks wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tiny orange visitor arrayed with black, predator-discouraging spikes. Yet as I gazed at him, I received a reminder of two important truths:

God’s provision. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the only food source for gulf fritillary caterpillars. For several years I intentionally planted the vine by my mailbox, enjoying wave after wave of caterpillars until all the leaves were consumed and only bare stems remained. My summer reveries came to an end though when I realized neighbors’ mosquito treatments killed the caterpillars. I pulled up the vine, unwilling to create a death trap for my annual visitors. Sprigs of the vine continue to emerge from roots left in the ground. I sadly and dutifully pull them up too. The one the caterpillar was feeding on escaped my notice, hidden under another plant. But an egg-laying butterfly found it amidst all the other plants on my property. Isn’t that amazing?! And if God provides for butterflies and caterpillars and birds and lilies, we can be sure He’ll provide for His beloved children (Matthew 6:25-33).

Perseverance. By the time I discovered the miniature passionflower vine with its voracious visitor, we’d endured several weeks of drought accompanied by way-above-average temperatures. Although the plant’s leaves bore faded splotches, it had survived the unfavorable conditions and was available to host the egg that became the caterpillar. Endurance is an essential aspect of our walk with the Lord. Hardships, challenges, droughts of various kinds – we’re told to expect them. But great blessings, from godly character to eternal life, come with perseverance (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:12). The indwelling Spirit enables us to persevere until the day of Jesus’ return when God will complete the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).

At times we need reminders, don’t we? The world can be so loud and demanding, muffling God’s still, quiet voice. But He’s always with us, just as He promised, and sometimes He sends perfectly-packaged heavenly hugs to reassure us. Our Father knows each of us by name. He never loses sight of us. And He loves us so much more than we can fathom.

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:13-20)