An Afternoon Walk in the Garden

Chanticleer Gardens is one of the most wonderful spots to see and experience. It IMG_0467is only a few miles from home in the greater Philadelphia area. In fact, it is known as the only garden of its kind in the world.

After a very busy day of substitute teaching at St. David’s Nursery School, the garden seems to beckon me to stop, relax and enjoy some beautiful moments on my way home from work. It is a perfect place to walk, getting my steps recorded on my Fit Bit. I laugh when I think that man has invented a way to count all our steps, but God had already specifically designed, recorded and directed them (Proverbs 16). I wonder how many of my steps in this life have been taken in a garden.  As a tiny girl I took some of my first steps in my Grandpa’s garden. I have pictures of me stopping to smell a rose in it. However, it wasn’t until years later that I found out my name was in the Bible, when I read the words, “rose of Sharon” in the book of Song of Solomon. Then, later I found that there are the plains of Sharon in Israel. I wondered if the roses there were anything like the ones here.

I’m sitting presently, in the sunshine on a smooth bench that was designed by the artists of Chanticleer.  They have carved carrots, beets, asparagus and pumpkins onto the bench for others and me to rest on. Someone far more creative than I designed it and it sits beside a vegetable garden in Southeastern Pennsylvania. In that garden I see Nasturtiums, and squash vines and vines growing on the arch shaped garden gate. As I pass through it I am reminded that Jesus called himself “the Vine” in John 15. And we are “the branches” that are to grow and produce much fruit as He lives through us! I see a pumpkin vine growing in the corner and a multitude of cherry tomatoes growing on a vine on a trellis opposite the pumpkins. They have yet to ripen and remind me of the fruits of our lives that are there but have not ripened.

At the exit I come to a profuse flower garden where I am surrounded by floral scents. The path worn out in front of me in the grass has been worn to the shape of a cross IMG_0417as it intersects with another through the middle. (Jeremiah 6:16)  Various shades of pink, purple, red, orange, yellow, and white and shades of green delight the eye. A large pink dahlia with petals spreading yellow from its center blossoms like the sunshine. And little purple flowers beneath grow like little buttons amongst their leaves. Tiny pale purple flowers like tear drops

accentuate the greenery. I stand in the middle of this garden so beautiful and thank my God for its color! They are more than the colors of the autumn leaves on the trees in the nearby woods.  Gently blowing in the breeze above them is an exquisite fern like plant with white fronds, called eupatorium. Next to them grow little pale green balls all covered with prickly spines. They are a type of milk weed. Next to them are plants that remind me of blackberries poking up through the grasses. What are all their names? Some people know but the passersby just enjoy them.

I come to a path IMG_0409 (1)where leaves on the trees express beauty in colors of yellow, brown, orange and red. Beside the path grow many green fern turning a light yellow. Because it’s the end of the season as I enjoy Chanticleer, I pause to admire the greenhouse at the back of the garden. I step into a warm pleasant room. The glass building enables me to enjoy the beautiful out of doors nearby. It is given to me by the hard workers of Chanticleer and most of all by my kind, wise, magnificent Father in heaven!

I go on, and hidden on a stone path that goes under a bridge is a beautiful, secluded secret spot. I never noticed it anytime I’ve visited before. I’m sure it’s been uIMG_0437nobserved by many others also. Along it runs the little brook that flows along the north side of Chanticleer. It is a truly silent spot, and I pause here to pray. Presently, it seems like Dave and I are looking for a bridge to get through our housing problems, looking for a place to live. Yet, if we stop and see the beauty all around us we can see our problems in a different perspective.

Stopping to sit in a solitary chair, I contemplate those joys for a few minutes. I live and breathe in the moment watching the sun continue to set; I seem to hear my Savior say, “Someday I’ll show you oh so much more that I’ve created for you to enjoy!” Yes, I thank God for this very special walk through a garden. I exit singing a favorite hymn, “I come to the garden alone”.

Love, joy, and peace,

Sharon

 

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Much fruit

We arrive at our theme verse for Mission FifteenFive. It communicates a number of ideas that should be at the heart of our way of life and mission into the world (Jn 17:18). As Martyn Lloyd-Jones would often emphasize, we must understand the basics, the foundational concepts, before we hurry on about what we must do. People can be very results or success oriented, and so they immerse themselves into methods or programs. But first we need to begin with thoughts and ideas—and with the most important relationship!

Our Lord restates the illustration about our union with him (John 15:5). “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He wants us to know who and what he is. John uses seven of these “I am” statements in the Gospel of John to tell us the good news about Jesus. He is the life-giver to every branch; we are dependent on him. Every follower of Jesus has this spiritually organic connection to his or her Lord. Stop and think about this. (Did you?) Let this truth fill your mind and permeate your affections. Those who are connected to Christ by faith share in the powerful life of our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord (cf. Romans 7:4-6; Ephesians 1:15-23; Philippians 1:21; etc.) We should cultivate thoughts of our vital link with such a powerful Lord.

Our Lord emphasizes the truth of union and communion with him. “The one remaining in me and I in him this one bears much fruit.” While Christ lives in every branch connected to him, each branch must stay connected to Christ. If we don’t, then we can fall into what I call “the Colossian drift” (Colossians 2:18-23). Besides being in a very precarious position, such a person cannot produce true spiritual fruit. But here, Jesus wants us to lay hold of what can happen in our lives. We can produce “much fruit” for the honor of God. Those who know Jesus Christ want to see his vitality active and productive. We want to show all aspects of godliness, because the purpose of branches being connected to the vine is bear spiritual fruit. When Sharon and I have planted gardens, we have expected the plants to bear fruit or vegetables according to their kind. Any that didn’t were weeded out, because they had no use in the garden. The Lord tells us that he desires “much fruit” from our lives. The good news is that by remaining in Jesus, we will see much fruit appear.

Jesus points out the necessity of dependence on him, “because apart from me you are not able to do anything.” This happens in practice though prayer. Many like to quote Philippians 4:13 as the positive side to what Jesus says here. That is fine, as long as they do not think that the mere quotation of the verse is reliance on Jesus Christ. Our dependence must be personal, conscious, and deliberate. Jesus sets forth a walk of faith in which we rely on him constantly—in the family, with friends, at work, in the gathering of believers, and when we are alone with God. However, we often disagree with Jesus in the way we live, because we act like we can do things without him. Lord Jesus, how much we need your word to change us, not merely in a few activities and our choice of phrases that sound more spiritual to others. Lord, we want to depend on you continually. May all our days evidence our trust in you!

Grace and peace,

David

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Reading the word, part 2

We continue with thoughts about about reading the word of God clearly. Part of the fogginess in our reading comes from a lack of not using tools that enable us to read more clearly. Our cars come with wipers and defoggers to clear the glass so that we can see, but they only work if we use them. Here are some more suggestions about reading the word. Read it:
With others – We are much too individualistic in our Christian experience. Yes, we can affirm “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). But the Lord has also placed us in his body to share life with one another. Yet we seldom think about reading God’s word together. We ought to read the Bible at our gatherings. This assists us in focusing our attention toward God. It is also worthwhile to be reading together as a group throughout the week. In FifteenFive, we do this by announcing a passage that everyone is to read; for example, “let’s read First Thessalonians five times this week”. This helps to develop unity of ideas as we all listen to what God is saying to us from the same passage. It also provides material for spiritual conversations when we meet. To illustrate: Someone might say, “This week as we read First Thessalonians, I noticed how Paul talked about encouraging one another.” And a discussion might branch off from that comment. This way God’s word can affect our thinking as a group of his people.
With faith – Reading the word is an activity for your whole soul, not only your mind (cf. Hebrews 4:2). As we read and listen to God’s words, God expects us to believe and obey. Do we think about believing what we hear, so that it deepens our trust in the Lord? Do we encounter something that we want to draw back from? (This is different than having difficulty understanding what we read.) We are to receive God’s message with a personal and group commitment to or reliance upon it. Some in the group may be struggling with fear issues. Think about how a joint reading of Hebrews 10 or 1 Peter might provide counsel to help one another. What insights can Matthew 10 give the group for spreading the good news? We can believe together what the Lord teaches all of us.
To see Christ – Since the Lord Jesus Christ is the theme of the Bible (John 5:39; etc), we ought to read to see him. Is he on our thoughts as we read? We ought to read to learn more of him, not merely in a gathering of facts, but in knowledge of him personally. Surely, the Holy Spirit makes this happen (Ephesians 3:16-19). However, we should seek to learn of him, since we are learners (disciples) of Jesus. We can easily miss opportunities to meet with the Lord simply because we are not looking to meet him.
To be changed – A clear reading of the word will enable us to see the necessity of ongoing change or growth in grace (2 Timothy 3:16-17; James 1:22-25). Our lives are to demonstrate continual repentance (change of mind that produces a change of our behavior). So then, we are not to read as detached observers or critics of the people we meet in the Bible. Instead, we come to be instructed and rebuked and transformed (Romans 12:1-2). Reading chapters five and six of Ephesians ought to bring about change in our family relationships. The good news of Jesus should work through our hearts and out to our actions. But again, this requires us to sit under God’s authority in the word to gain insight into the places he wants us to change. If we do not want to change, we will miss many things that our Lord wants us to see clearly.

Lord, give us grace to read clearly,

David

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Reading the word

The other day, I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to see him. He is a specialist and his appointments had stacked up and I was next to last in line. As I talked to myself about waiting calmly, I decided to think about my next article for this blog. I had noticed a picture on the wall of a flower with raindrops on it. They were very clear, and my thoughts turned to listening to God’s word clearly. So, here are some thoughts about how we should read the word.
Intentionally – We will not profit from God’s word as we ought unless we really want to listen to him. It is too easy to get sidetracked, because we fail to realize what we do when we read. The scriptures are God talking to his people at all times. In them we hear his voice. This can be of great spiritual benefit, if we desire to hear him. But we can get distracted. For example, we might read as an assignment, or as a means of spirituality, or to receive therapy. (Perhaps we might not need “therapy” but change!) This means we should approach our reading as the time to listen to our Father communicate with us. We come to hear his wisdom and to reorder our way of life in conformity with it.
Purposefully  – By this I mean reading with a goal instead of reading randomly. This goes along with the first point.  While we can benefit from reading the Bible with any method, others things being equal, I think it is helpful to be reading according to some plan. Many have found it beneficial to read through the whole Bible in a year. This requires reading about three to four chapters a day, which is very doable, if we are willing to prefer the Bible over personal entertainment. While we ought to read all the Bible, it is also helpful to read it in depth, like reading through Matthew twelve times in one year, which is about a chapter a day. Or read through Philippians every day of one month. By the end of this course, we will have a better awareness of what that book says.
Worshipfully – This also is related to the first point. Since the Word is God the Father telling us the story of his glory in his Son, by the Holy Spirit, we ought to read with reverence and joy. The goal is not merely to read to gain information, though that will happen. We ought to read as dearly loved children of the Father. Every part of the story proclaims God’s glory and what is for our good. Since we are in his family, it is our family history. It is the Lord telling us the good news for our encouragement and transformation. Our response ought to be praise and worship to God for making the story, telling us the story, and putting us into the story.
Carefully – This should be a happy outcome from the previous three, but there is another point to be made. While it is often said that people learn in different ways, I think it is wise to ready with paper and pencil or pen nearby. Our minds are bombarded with information and images. It is very easy to forget what we have heard the living God say to us. It can also help us visually connect ideas as we write them down. We can write down questions we have or insights we have gained to share with others.

With prayers for clearer Bible reading,

David

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Thoughts on a believer’s struggle against sin

Most Followers of Christ know that we all are in a spiritual war against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:10-18; etc.) We all have sins that we individually struggle against, even for many long years. Today, I want us to think about what we should do when there is a pause in the battle against one of these sins; that is, when you no longer sense the old pull of evil toward a particular sin. (Yes, I know that some of you are wishing that you could have one day like that!) Whatever the cause, a time will come when you will enter a pause in the active fight in your struggle against the sins that hinder you. How can you improve the opportunity?

Reconnect with Christ. In part your struggle against the same sins points to some sort of weakness in your communion with our Lord. Look at this lull in the battle as an opportunity to draw closer to him. Read John 15 again and ask for grace for its truth to be real in your life.

Rethink your obsession with these few sins. For example, are you bothered by them simply because you suppose “God won’t like you” if you do those sins, while other sins are acceptable? In other words, our struggle is not against a short list of sins that we feel guilty about for various reasons, but it is against all sins. Read Colossians 3:1-17 and take note about what you feel guilty about doing or not doing. Ask yourself, “Am I more concerned about the social consequences of getting caught doing a sin than about how sin disrupts my worship of God? If we are honest, we will admit that some of our attitudes about sin expose the reality of fearing people rather than God. So then, take advantage of this time to correct this tendency.

Redeploy to a new position on the battlefield. What I mean is this: If certain activities of your life lead you into specific struggles with sin, wouldn’t you be better off avoiding exposure to attacks from the enemy. A wise soldier doesn’t wave to the enemy and yell, “Here I am again; shoot me.” For example, if you’re struggling with greed, stop watching commercials and looking at ads that intend to incite greed.

Redirect your efforts. Part of our weakness comes from passivity in what we do with our lives. It is very easy to be self-indulgent in the stress and hurry of our lives. We like to zone out, instead of taking charge of our way of life. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23). But if we let most of our thinking revolve around not doing certain sins, we exhaust ourselves and in the process fail to do what we ought to, like doing good works. (Read Titus and 1 Peter and notice how many times good works are mentioned.) Let me state clearly that we must wage war against sins like anger, fear, greed, and sexual immorality. But I am trying to present a larger vision for our lives. A concern about individual holiness to the near exclusion of gathering with other saints to do good and/or to evangelize is not wise.

Much more can be said on this topic. I hope that this stimulates new activity in your service to the Lord Christ.

Grace and peace,

David

 

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Remain in the Vine

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4 NIV). We have called our mission “FifteenFive”; this name is based on John 15:5. Now we have arrived at the “doorway” to that great verse. It should be obvious that Jesus took time to set forth the truth of the believer’s union with him, slowly stating it to let it sink in and permeate our understanding. Let’s invest some time to consider what our Lord and Savior says to us.

First of all, consider that he remains in us. Every believer has a vital, organic connection with the Lord of glory. While many think about the benefits that believers gain from Christ, the Lord Jesus is saying more than that. We are truly joined to him. He continues in us at all times. This is truly astounding! The matchless, infinite, all-powerful, holy Lord remains in us. His presence provides confident expectation (hope) to us, regardless of the circumstances. He continues with us to provide spiritual nourishment and strength to act for his glory and to resist evil.

Second, Jesus tells us to remain in him in the same way that he remains in us. Union with Christ demands communion with him. This is a clear responsibility. It is also a high responsibility: “as I also remain in you” (cf. John 13:34). A command likes this requires that we draw strength from the Vine simply to fulfill it. But the point here is that we sense our responsibility. Spiritual vitality does not simply happen. Nor does it happen by the mere performance of some so-called spiritual disciplines. It happens only as we remain in him as he remains in us. (Some of this repetition of phraseology sounds cumbersome, but I fear we too often lose track of the point, as I have learned from years of teaching the word.) Our commitment to Christ is to mirror his commitment to him.

Third, Jesus wants us to realize that branches cannot bear fruit by themselves. Each branch must remain in the Vine (fellowship with him). Why do we not see spiritual fruitfulness? I think we can retrace our failures back to a lack of personal, persistent contact with the Lord. We cannot bear fruit unless we remain in him. We need to share our lives with him consciously and daily. Prior attainments do not provide present, fresh relationships.

So then, we all need to examine our continuance in the Vine. We must fix our thoughts upon Jesus (Hebrews 12:2; Colossians 2:6). This happens as we listen attentively to the Lord’s voice in the word, and as we talk with him in prayer. Remain in him as he remains in you!

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Our Jobs

“As He was walking along the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen” (Matthew 4:18 HCSB). As I write this, I am on the shore of Lake Eire, which is considerably larger than the Sea of Galilee. As I looked at the lake, this verse came to mind. Peter and John were doing what they had been doing for many years—fishing. It was what they were supposed to be doing, because they were fisherman. As far as they knew, they would be fishing for the rest of their lives, or until they weren’t able to fish any longer.

On this Monday unless you have retired, you are working at a job that you expect to be involved in for a long time, or you might be in school, preparing for a job that you want to do. (Happy is the person who is doing the job that they want to do!) Regardless of what job or training you’re doing today, remember that doing what God gives you to do (your calling) is exactly what you ought to be doing. Right now, my task is to write. Throughout the work, I will be doing more writing as well as many other tasks. But it is important for you and me to do our best at what the Lord gives us to do. The apostle Paul wrote to slaves in Colosse, “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). I really understand how tough this can be on the job, especially when the task before us is unpleasant and painful. However, this week approach your work with a better perspective. Do your job for the Lord; do it as something that he has given you to do; do it to show his greatness where you work!

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Remembering the Lord in the Park

It was the very first time I had remembered our precious Lord Jesus’ death in the great outdoors! We were at the park where we had met to worship; praising God and singing, reading the scriptures – God’s word to us. Dave had shared what he had prepared from Matthew, Colossians, and John. We were encouraged to write down any comments or questions and we will discuss them at the next meeting at the park.

Skies were blue and clear as we sat around the table under a canopy of trees. Even the trees were making noises; they seemed to be lifting their voices to their Creator, perhaps remembering that it was on a tree the Savior had given his life that we might be forgiven.

I passed the basket with bread after taking a piece, to those gathered around and we remembered his body that was broken for us, and then having poured grape juice in a glass pitcher, I passed it, saying, “Take as much as you need to remember that it represented the blood of Christ, which is what alone can take away sins.”

Christ is the Vine. Dave had just spoken of him to us, and we are his branches. We need to stay connected to him. Yes, we too felt crushed like grapes; misunderstood as Jesus once was, but he is our Head, the Head of our church! He feels our every pain and sorrow. We remembered his pain on Calvary that day for us.

We must not think we can go through life problem free. We are not better than our Lord! We must be willing to pick up our cross and follow him.

We drank of the juice that warm day, and then I did something I had never done before in church, but finally felt free enough to say, “Let’s pass the juice around again and fill our cups, raising them to Jesus!” We did, and again we said thank you to the Lord and Savior, who had done so much for us. We are connected to the Vine. May his life flow freely through us, today, tomorrow, and forever! He alone has given us eternal life. Yes, thank you, Jesus! He made us and we celebrated the life he had given. It is eternal!

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The Word and the branches

“You are already clean through the message that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). Jesus continues to speak to the Eleven about the relationship between the Vine and the branches. The Father as Gardener prunes the branches. Jesus uses a noun form of the verb translated as “prunes” in verse two to describe the condition of the apostles. They are already “clean” (cf. 13:10) or “pruned”. Jesus reassures his core group after telling them about others who would be cut off because they were not fruitful (like Judas, 13:30). They were fruitful branches that were clean.

What caused the difference in their lives? It was the word or message of Christ that he had spoken to them. The message includes everything about his person, teachings, and redemptive mission that he had already told them. They had received the message, and it had produced an internal, cleansing effect in them (cf. Ephesians 2:20-21; cf. John 6:44-48). Jesus is the source and substance of life for his people.

Jesus wants us to know that we continue or remain in him in the same way that we began (cf. Colossians 2:6-7). We begin through faith in Christ. The Father by the Spirit causes us to be born again as he uses the word of Christ in us (1 Peter 1:23). We are his new people. We are ready to bear fruit. This continues to occur as Christ uses the word in us (Ephesians 5:26). For this reason, when we read the word, we ought to seek the Lord by his Spirit to use it in us. And a gathering of believers should want the word to operate in us powerfully (Colossians 3:16). This is a conscious, deliberate activity. It is something that we must want and have room for. Like anything in life, it requires an investment of time. How much time are you investing in listening to the word of God? May God bless you with grace and peace!

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The Gardener and the branches

In the Gospel of John, we hear a lot from Jesus about God the Father. (A good place to dive into this subject is chapter five.) Here, Jesus tells of the Father’s activity in tending to the branches that are connected to him, the Vine. The Father has a great interest in the productiveness of his people. But first notice that everything is focused on Jesus Christ. “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2 NIV1984). The Father is concerned about Christ and his people. He wants Christ’s people to produce fruit for the glory of his Son. For this reason God the Father performs actions on the branches, the people of God.

First, he cuts off every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. (Fruit represents everything godly that comes from a living union and communion with Christ, such as peace, obedience to Jesus’ commands, joy, love for one another, and witness to the world, cf. 14:27; 15:9, 10, 12, 27). Sadly, there are some who have an outward connection to Christ, but who lack a real, vital, organic connection. They do not bear fruit (Matthew 13:18-22; Col 1:23; 1 John 2:19.) The Father acts to remove them from the people of Christ.

Second, the Father prunes every fruit bearing branch. A few years ago, I was pruning the bushes in our backyard. The old, unproductive branches had to be cut off, so that the living branches could increase. A friend of mine was watching as I basically cut off well over half the branches. They looked scrawny. He said, “I hope you know what you’re doing, because there isn’t much left.” I did know, and the bushes thrived, but at that moment in time, it seemed counterproductive. It can seem that way in our lives, when the Father prunes away stuff that needs to go. It is too easy to focus on what is gone, instead of what will grow and bear fruit for the glory of God in Christ.

How is the Father pruning your life now? You should be observing the removal of unproductive stuff from yourself. And you might be shaken and shed tears when you see the pile of discarded ideas, attitudes, and activities. But this is only for your benefit. You do not want to be like discarded branches that bear no fruit. No, you want to be a fruit-bearing branch that becomes increasingly productive. So then, how are you concentrating more on Christ? What new godly interests is the Father developing in you as you draw upon the life-giving power of the ascended Christ?

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