Tag Archives: Fruit

At Your Service

At Your Service (CaD Jos 24) Wayfarer

[Joshua said] “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:15 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been studying James‘ letter to Jewish believers who were scattered by persecution. I’ve been spending a lot of time in it in recent weeks. One of the major themes of James is that being a follower of Jesus is not simply a mental assent to belief in Jesus. James makes it clear that real faith generates and motivates action. He’s riffing on a word picture that Jesus used when He told His followers to pay attention to the fruit a person produces in their life and relationships. He said that one can tell what is in a person’s heart by the fruit of their actions.

Today’s chapter is the conclusion of the book of Joshua. The conquest of the Promised Land was successful. The land had been allotted to the twelve tribes. The people had settled. In the final act of Joshua’s leadership, he calls the tribal assembly together. Joshua reminds them of their family’s story, starting with Abraham, and how God had led their ancestors to this particular moment of time. Joshua then acknowledges that in the land that Abraham left, and the land that they just conquered, there are many dieties worshipped. He reminds them of commandment numero uno in the Top Ten commandments God gave them: serve God alone.

Joshua then calls for a commitment. It’s a fish or cut bait moment. He tells the tribes to choose whether they will serve the God of Abraham and Moses, or if they are going to serve the plethora of local idols and dieties worshipped by other peoples in the region and around the world. Joshua then makes his choice public: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

The thing that struck me as I read this call to commitment was that Joshua didn’t ask the people which god they would believe. He asked them whom they would serve. The Hebrew word used can also refer to the act of tilling the ground in preparation for planting, growing, and harvesting. In a way, Joshua’s question lays the foundation for Jesus’ word picture: For whom will you labor? Who’s fruit are you going to produce?

In the quiet this morning, I’m thinking about my own journey. When I was a kid, I took a class, assented to a statement of beliefs, and got a certificate making me a member of a church. A couple of years later I realized that this had nothing to do with the person I was. I may have believed in God, but I was serving only myself. The fruit of my life was sour grapes. It’s when I chose to step out onto this faith journey, to actually follow Jesus, and to serve Him that the seeds of good fruit got planted.

Which brings me back to James, who writes:

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? James 2:14-17 (MSG)

It’s not about what I believe. Its about who I serve.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Bitter Roots

Bitter Roots (CaD Heb 12) Wayfarer

See to it…that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
Hebrews 12:15 (NIV)

Many years ago I was the target of a malicious individual, once my friend, who acted deceptively and created all manner of trouble for me. The person disappeared for a time then later surfaced in a way that I regularly had to be around them.

In today’s chapter, the author of Hebrews, now in the home stretch of his letter, shifts to encouraging his fellow believers with all sorts of exhortations. There are so many good and memorable words of encouragement in this chapter that the one about not letting “the roots of bitterness grow” is, in my experience, almost universally ignored.

The problem with bitter roots such as anger, resentment, envy, jealousy, and long-held grudges is that they will germinate in my soul, they will spring up in ways I don’t expect (and to which I may be blind). Like weeds in my lawn, they will spread quickly if left unchecked. Their bitter fruit will infect my thoughts, my words, my behavior, and my relationships with others. The result, as the author of Hebrews points out, is to “cause trouble” for many. It has a ripple effect through my circles of influence.

Which brought my deceptive friend to mind. As I look back over the years and look at things with 20-20 hindsight, I believe that what prompted the trouble was the fruit of bitter roots in my friend’s soul which came from their own wounds and brokenness. If I had allowed bitterness from the troubles they caused me to take root in me, then the infection only grows, bearing even more fruit and infecting others as it reaches outward into more and more relationships.

In the verse before the one I quoted this morning, the author writes “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone.” Jesus said that if there’s bitterness between me and someone else, I should deal with it before I show up to worship. Paul wrote the believers in Rome, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” The “as far as it depends on you” part is me digging out the roots of bitterness, addressing them, processing them, working through the hurt to reach the point of forgiveness where I can let them go.

In a few weeks, my dormant yard will spring back to life. I will begin the process of looking for weeds taking root so I can root them out before they spread. It’s just grass. Even more important is the need to look in my heart and life for the signs of bitterness taking root so I can deal with it before it infects my life, and the lives of those around me.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Goal

The Goal (CaD Heb 6) Wayfarer

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…
Hebrews 6:1 (NIV)

Religion is relatively easy. I was raised with religion. It was simply a set of ritual tasks that was woven into. Go to Sunday School and the church service once a week. Give a few bucks. Say the Lord’s prayer before family meals along with the Dutch prayer Grandpa and Grandma Vander Well taught us. Pray when I go to bed if I think about it. Volunteer once in a while. These are the basic motions. Repeat.

When I surrendered my life to Christ and became a follower of Jesus, I remember realizing that all of my religious motions had simply that – motions. They didn’t really have any effect on the person I was. The religious rituals had no soul penetration, no life penetration. On Sunday morning in church, I’d sing the hymn Just As I Am and the rest of the week I did just that. I remained just as I had always been.

Early in my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus, I walked among a group that appeared to be rabidly devout about their faith. What I quickly discovered is that they were simply religion on steroids. They had countless rules of appearance and behavior that were thickly layered on top of the religious rituals. I soon noticed that my peers were spiritually immature. They didn’t have to think, they just had to obey. The result was that there was no development of a person’s heart and soul. There was simply adherence to the prescribed rules so that those in authority within the system could see me toeing the line. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that there is a corollary relationship between religious fundamentalism and spiritual immaturity.

Reading Jesus’ teachings, this was the very thing from which Jesus came to free me. The word picture He used was that of a beautiful, ornate mausoleum in the cemetery. So pretty on the outside. Full of rotting flesh and dead bones on the inside. My zealously religious friends were concerned about my purity; The purity of my doctrine, obedience, appearance, and social behavior. From what I read in the Great Story, Jesus is most concerned about my spiritual maturity. Because the deeper my spiritual roots descend, the more living water I imbibe, the more mature my growing spirit becomes, the more spiritual fruit my life produces. The goal is not lifeless obedience to a set of rules, the goal is a life that is spilling over with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Those aren’t fruits of religion, they are fruits of Spirit maturity.

One of the major reasons that the author of the letter to the Hebrews was writing to his fellow Jewish believers was precisely for this reason. The Hebrews were big on religion. They had an entire system of ritual tasks, rules, sacrifices, offerings, and festivals. It was so ingrained in them that it was hard for some to give it up. That’s another thing I’ve observed about religious devotion: Once a person is used to it the ritual rule-keeping feels natural and comfortable. It’s like being a spiritual couch potato.

And that’s why the author of Hebrews is urging his fellow believers toward the things Jesus taught: spiritual maturity, spiritual development, and growth of soul that leads to maturity and a life marked by increasing spiritual fruit. You know what’s funny? The more I grow spiritually, the more Life I find in some of those old religious rituals and traditions. Without the Spirit, they were just life-less motions. With the Spirit, they become a vehicle of further growth and development.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

By-Products

By-Products (CaD Mk 11) Wayfarer

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
Mark 11:12-14 (NIV)

As a young follower of Jesus, I remember being taught that it was my responsibility to “win souls” for the Lord. Over the years, I was prescribed a handful of sure-fire methods by which to quickly share with people how they could “get saved.”

During this same early stretch of both my spiritual journey, and my life journey, I was taught that it was also of primary importance to be “pure.” The formula of “purity” was basically abstinence from the major impurities: sex, drinking, drugs, smoking, listening to “worldly” music, and swearing.

Looking back, there is nothing wrong with either of these things in-and-of themselves. As a follower of Jesus, both being able to effectively share with someone “the reason for the hope that is in me” and being pure are things I am asked to do. Nevertheless, the further I’ve progressed in both my spiritual journey, and my life journey, I’ve come to understand that they may very well be by-products of Love’s fruit, but they aren’t the fruit itself.

With today’s chapter, Mark’s biography of Jesus enters the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. Mark shares an obscure episode in which Jesus goes to a fig tree hoping to find a snack. Finding none, he curses the tree. The next day, they pass by the tree and find it withered.

I’ve always been intrigued and a little confused by this story. Jesus was always one for using living word pictures as teaching tools, and I have to believe that later that same week He would share with his followers: “I am the Vine and you are the branches. Every branch that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut-off and used for compost.” Of course they have a mental picture in their heads of the withered fig tree.

In the quiet this morning, I took the teaching and the word picture one step further:

What was Jesus looking for when He approached the Fig tree?

Figs, quite obviously.

What is the Gardener looking for when He approaches the branches on the Vine?

The fruit of love which one knows by it’s identifying characteristics:
joy
peace
patience
kindness
goodness
faithfulness
gentleness
self-control

Now, sharing this love with others may lead to opportunities for telling someone how they can enter into a relationship with Jesus themselves. In the same way, any Grade A, organic fruit of Jesus’ love will be pure in all of its goodness and self-control.

Once again: These are by-products of the fruit, not the fruit itself, and it’s the fruit that produces the by-products never the other way around.

To riff on Paul’s treatise on Love:

If I memorize the Four Spiritual Laws and knock on every door in the neighborhood in an effort to win souls, but I don’t have Love, then I might very well be winning souls while losing my own.

If I live my life a tea-totaling eunuch disciplined in my vow of strict silence, but I don’t have Love, then I might very well look like the beautifully pure fruit but be void of flavor or any kind of nutritional value.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself continuing to meditate on the question I asked myself as I read the chapter:

If Jesus walks up to my life on this day of the journey like He walked up to that fig tree, what is it He wants to find on this branch?

The pure fruit of Love in all its fullness and goodness, or just a few of its ancillary by-products?

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Soil Samples

Soil Samples (CaD Mk 6) Wayfarer

…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Mark 6:20 (NIV)

Here in Iowa, the science of agriculture is big business. Each autumn when harvest rolls around the crop yield is a make-it or break-it reality for farmers. Which is why I know friends whose livelihoods are spent studying soil and seeds to try and grow as much as the land can possibly yield. As I have often confessed, agriculture is not something about which I have vast knowledge. Just enough to appreciate a good parable.

As I’ve trekked my way through the Great Story again and again over the past forty years, I’ve learned that sometimes the lesson is not in microscopically mining the minutia of the text, but in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

Back in chapter four, Mark records Jesus parable of the sower, in which the Word falls like seed on different human hearts that each are like a different quality of soil. A quick recap:

  • Like seed fallen on a hardened footpath: A soon as this person hears it, the enemy snatches it away like a bird.
  • Like seed fallen on rocky ground: Life sprouts in them, but it doesn’t put down roots and can’t survive through difficult weather.
  • Like seed fallen among thornbushes: Sprout and grow, but the things of this world choke it and render it unfruitful.
  • Like seed fallen on good soil: Sprout, put down roots, grow, and bear fruit.

Starting in chapter Five and continuing in today’s chapter, Mark records stories of different people who rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles.

Despite the fact that Jesus drove the demons from the heart of the man living among the tombs of the Gerasenes, the townspeople wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Their hearts are like the hardened footpath. It’s as if the demons snatched the Word from their hearts on their way from the man to the pigs.

In today’s chapter, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth listened to Jesus’ teaching, and some were amazed as if the Word was sprouting new life in them. But ultimately, nothing took root as their hearts couldn’t see past their prejudices: “How could Jesus Bar Joseph, the Carpenter’s boy who fixed my chair that one time, be a rabbi?”

Then we get to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Herod sits atop one of the “kingdoms of this world,” the descendant and co-heir of a ruthless tyrant who amassed wealth, political power, and all the luxuries it affords through corruption, deceit, and bloodshed. When Satan went “all-in” and offered Jesus with all the “Kingdoms of this World,” Herod’s kingdom was there in the pot, and Jesus knew it. Jesus grew up knowing all about Herod’s wealth, power, fortunes, women, and fame.

Mark then does something unusual compared to what we’ve read thus far in his biography of Jesus. Mark tells a story that is not about Jesus, but about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. It gives us a picture of seed that falls among the world’s thorn bushes.

Some quick gossip from the tabloids at the checkout line at the Galilean grocery stores: There was a whole sex scandal in Herodian royal family, and Herod Antipas ends up marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist is a local religious figure who is extremely popular and extremely revered by all the deplorable religious types in Herod’s constituency. John publicly preaches against the immorality in the Herodian palace, and Herod can’t risk a drop in his approval rating so he has John arrested. He even has John brought before him (and his guests on occasion) to hear his religious rants. Mark tells us that Herod, “liked to listen to him.”

To Herod, John and his message are playthings. They are one more thing that wealth and power afford him. He has his own holy man at his beck-and-call. John is God’s little vine surviving amidst the entrenched hedge of Herod’s prickly power. Herod might have John preach for him and his party-guests. He might have John beheaded at the whim of his lust for his own step-daughter. It is of little consequence for him. He can always find another holy man: “I keep hearing about this Nazarene,” I can hear him say to his dinner guest after John’s head is carried out on a platter. “Maybe I should arrest him. John’s sermons were so entertaining. I’ll miss them.”

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus had as many enemies, detractors, and people who dismissed His teaching as He had disciples. Perhaps 3 to 1 if the parable is any indication. My experience is that Jesus’ followers rarely think much about this reality.

And so I find myself thinking about the soil of my own heart.

Is my heart hard and unyielding?

Is my heart shallow and unwilling to put down spiritual roots?

Is my heart choked, overshadowed, and/or overgrown by the things of this world?

Is my heart fruitful with the mixed-fruit of faith, hope, and love?

As I meditated on the metaphor again this morning, I found myself mulling over the fact that the seed among the thorns and the seed on the good soil both sprout, take root, and grow. The only difference Jesus described was that the good-soil plant was fruitful while the plant choked by the thorns of this world didn’t yield fruit.

I also find myself thinking about these chapter-a-day blog posts and podcasts that I scatter across the internet each weekday wondering where in the world they might land. Hard soil? Rocky soil? Thorn bushes? Good soil? I have learned that there is both grief and freedom in not knowing the answer. Such is the lot of the sower who must wait until harvest to know the yield.

I hope this lands well with you, my friend.

Have a great day.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Meaning in the Metaphor

Meaning in the Metaphor (CaD Ps 80) Wayfarer

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
Psalm 80:8 (NRSVCE)

I have celebrated Christmas as a follower of Jesus for almost forty years, and I can tell you that the most forgotten storyline of the Christmas story is found in the second chapter of Matthew.

King Herod was the regional ruler operating under subservience to the Roman Empire. It was Herod to whom the Zoroastrians (that we call the “Three Kings” or “Magi”) went to find out where the Jewish Messiah was to be born. Herod got the answer for them and sent them on their way to Bethlehem. Herod was a blood-thirsty man, however. A shrewd monarch with boundless ambition, Herod’s successful reign was made possible in part by his ability to assassinate any rival. This included members of his own family.

Matthew shares that Herod, wanting to make sure the newborn Messiah would not grow up to threaten his worldly power, ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and under killed. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph and Mary flee with the baby to Egypt. When Herod died a few years later, they returned to Joseph in Nazareth.

In telling this piece of the story, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea, who said: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1). In my podcast A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (Part 7) I talked about prophecy and the fact that part of the mystery of the prophetic is that metaphor can be layered with meaning. Hosea was writing about the Hebrew exodus out of Egyptian slavery, but Matthew sees that Jesus, God’s son, was also called out of Egypt.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 80, we have a song of lament written somewhere around 725 BC. The Assyrians were attacking the northern kingdom of Israel. Refugees from the northern tribes were flowing into Jerusalem, and Asaph laments that God brought the nation out of Egypt and planted them in Canaan only to let foreign countries attack them. In this case, Asaph uses the metaphor of God bringing a vine out of Egypt only to let foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon pick “the fruit” of God’s hand.

As a follower of Jesus, I am immediately reminded of Jesus’ words to His most intimate followers the night before His crucifixion:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 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.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. John 15:1-5 (NIV)

When Asaph writes his lyric: “You brought a vine out of Egypt” he was being as prophetic as Hosea was when quoted by Matthew, but here’s where I found added meaning in Asaph’s metaphor. Asaph metaphorically envisions that he and the fellow Hebrew tribes were the Vine. When Jesus came, Asaph’s misunderstanding becomes clear. Jesus is the Vine, and his followers are the branches. If you’re not connected to the Vine, then you get pruned back and cut-off.

The Hebrew prophets made it clear that the Hebrew people had disconnected themselves from God. They worshipped foreign gods and were unfaithful to the covenant they made through Moses. The prophets made it clear that the Assyrians and Babylonians were God’s pruning shears, because contrary to Asaph’s lyrics the only fruit left on those branches was rotten.

In the quiet this morning I wondered how often I, like Asaph, lament the fact that life isn’t going so well. I feel empty, depleted, and attacked like someone plucked everything from me when my real problem is the same as the Hebrews: I’m not connected to the Vine. There’s no spiritual nourishment flowing from the Living Water deep in the root structure. There’s no support from the Vine and no protection from the other branches. The fruit my life is bearing small, tasteless, impotent, even rotten.

As another Christmas approaches, I’m thinking about the least discussed event of that first Christmas. The Son of God, emptied of Heaven and dependent on a young mother, goes into exile in Egypt. Out of Egypt God will call His Son, the Vine. If I miss that connection, then I’m missing the Life, not only of the Christmas story, but the entire Great Story itself.

In the Flow of Life

In the Flow of Life (CaD Ps 1) Wayfarer

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water

Psalm 1:3 (NRSVCE)

I have never been much of a plant guy. I can’t tell you the number of times in my life I’ve told myself I need plants in my office, only end up weeks later with an office that’s an homage to botanical mortality. It’s really strange that the past few years have witnessed the development of a bit of a green thumb in me.

The change began a few years ago with the landscaping of our yard and the planting of several rose bushes in the back yard. I grew up with my mom tending rose bushes and it’s a bit of a sentimental soft spot for me. I like cutting fresh roses and having them around the house. The nice thing about roses is that, once established, they’re a pretty hardy perennial. Even for someone as experienced in “botanicide” like myself, there’s not much you can do to keep them from blooming.

With this summer of COVID, in which we’re at home more than ever before, Wendy and I kicked things up a notch by adding several patio pots, a handful of potted herbs, and a jalapeño plant. I’m happy to say that every thing is alive and well. I’ve already harvested jalapeño peppers and we have fresh herbs drying in the pantry.

One of the things that has fascinated me as I tend our little garden is learning the water requirements for the different plants. Which have an insatiable need for water, and which seem to do pretty well even when we’ve been at the lake for a long holiday weekend.

I’m kicking off a journey into the Psalms this morning, which most people know is an anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that were collected and compiled in antiquity. The first psalm is a simple instructional psalm. In six lines it contrasts those who are “blessed” with those who are “wicked.” Three lines are given to each. I was struck by the metaphor of a “blessed” person being like a tree along the river.

In Egypt, where the Hebrews were enslaved, and in the land of Canaan where they settled, there’s a lot of desert. The most fertile soil is along rivers like the Nile, and in many cases it’s the only place where things will grow. Rivers are a consistent theme throughout the great story. There was a river that flowed out of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:10) and John described eternity where “The River of Life” flowing from God’s throne (Rev 22).

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve experienced and have read about there being a “flow” to God’s Spirit. Artists talk about being in “the flow” and athletes describe being in “the zone.” Gospel songs are rife with references to “take me to the river” where God’s Spirit flows. Jesus used the metaphor when He told the Samaritan woman at the well that He offered “Living Water,” an artesian spring of gushing out fountains of eternal life. The metaphor of baptism is all about being plunged, buried, immersed in the flow of that artesian spring.

The contrast to that solid, established, fruitful tree planted by the flow of Living Water, is chaff. The fine, dry, scaly dead plant material that gets blown about in the air. It’s Dust in the Wind to quote they lyric of Kansas’ modern psalm. Living in Iowa most of my entire life, I can’t help but see in my mind’s eye autumn evenings during harvest when the air is thick with the dusty chaff of harvested corn and beans.

The intention of today’s psalm is simple. What do I want my life to be? Established, fruitful, rooted, alive, continually nourished in the flow of living water? Or, dusty, dry, void of life, blown about chaotically by every gust of circumstance and trending fear? And, how do I become the former rather than the latter?

The first verse answers the question and the direct translation from Hebrew to English says that the “blessed” are those:

…who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;

I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrased the verse in The Message:

…you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon,
    you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
    you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

The further I get on life’s road, the more I just want to be in the flow of God’s Spirit.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Doing Something

Doing Something (CaD Ex 12) Wayfarer

…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.
Exodus 12:12 (NRSVCE)

We are living through strange times.

Yesterday Wendy and I attended our local gathering of Jesus’ followers which was meeting corporately for the first time in months. With everything set up and following social distancing rules by local and state authorities, it just felt weird and disconcerting. This physical and relational reality only intensified the spiritual and emotional turmoil Wendy and I found ourselves in as we grapple with the inexcusable murder of George Floyd and the intensity of reactions it sparked across our nation and the world.

As worship began I fell to my knees as the emotional dam burst within me. Wendy and I wept together. Like almost everyone else with whom we discuss the situation, we are sad and angry. We agonize over what we can and must do in the wake of this crime and the evil, complex, vast, and multi-dimensional injustice of racism that continues to perpetuate in our nation, as it has for hundreds of years.

As I read today’s chapter, I felt the synchronicity that often comes in the morning when I open to the chapter that has fallen onto my schedule that day. It felt like no mistake that I was reading of the Hebrews’ climactic escape from their slavery in Egypt. What struck me this morning, and which I never internalized in the countless times I’ve read and studied it, is that the event is more than just the freedom of the Hebrews out of the chains of their slavery. Their escape took place amidst the wailing cries of their oppressors. God arranged for the oppressors to experience the pain, suffering, and loss that they and their system had visited on others for hundreds of years.

I also cannot help but mull over the fact that this same Hebrew/Arab conflict has lasted for millennia. The hatred and acts of aggression, oppression, and violence have gone back and forth and lasted for so long that I personally consider it impossible to completely plumb the depths. Guilt and innocence, oppression and suffering are found on both sides throughout history. From ancient tribal disputes to the settlement disputes on the West Bank today. How strange to read today’s chapter and to realize that the events lie at the root of yet another vast, complex, multi-dimensional human conflict that continues to perpetuate to this day.

So where does that leave us?

Wendy arranged for us to have a Zoom meeting with our children yesterday afternoon. From their homes in South Carolina and Scotland, we all talked and shared about our thoughts, feelings, experiences, struggles, and desire to do something. Every one of us shared our thoughts and intentions around what we can do.

In our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we heard a humble, vulnerable, and honest message from Kevin Korver who, to his credit, passionately addressed the situation head-on. In the end, he led us in this corporate action list:

As we remain and abide in the circle of love, the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will:
Repent and confess
Bear good fruit
Listen, hear, and pray with love
Bless not curse
Love sacrificially
Become a bridge builder
Seek new friends
.

Will it make a difference? It’s not a miraculous answer to the evil, complex, vast, and multi-dimensional injustice that continues to perpetuate in our nation. But, perhaps if I who profess to be a follower of Jesus actually and intentionally do these things it will make a change in me and those around me.

I’m reminded this morning that Harriett Tubman led approximately 70 slaves to freedom on some 13 missions. Seventy out of some 6 million slaves. She courageously and intentionally did what she could.

There’s no reason I can’t expect the same from myself.

Spiritual Horticulture

Then [Jesus] said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.
Mark 11:14, 20 (NIV)

Over the past three or four years, Wendy and I have worked on a phased landscaping plan for our yard. I’m glad to say that this past year was the final phase (for now). I have never been very good with plants and often joke that I have a brown thumb. Nevertheless, I have been growing in my proficiency as I try to keep the lawn, bushes, trees, flowers, grasses, and shrubs alive.

One of the fascinating things for me to watch is what happens when we plant multiples of certain plants. They may look exactly the same when I planted them, and while they are in the same bed and treated to the same amounts of light and water, one of them will die. I’m sure there are very good reasons why this happened (that I don’t care to spend time figuring out), but it always leaves me scratching my head a bit.

In today’s chapter, Mark tells a curious episode of Jesus and a fig tree. He and His followers were walking from the temple in Jerusalem back to where they were staying. Jesus sees a fig tree and looks for a fig to eat. Finding none, He curses the tree and says, “May no one eat fruit from you again.” The next morning on their walk back to the temple, the disciples find the fig tree withered.

I found myself pondering this rather curious episode this morning just as I would scratch my head wondering why in the world that one arborvitae on the north side of our lawn didn’t make it.

As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus rarely did anything that was not intended to be a metaphorical lesson, so there is little doubt in my mind that the cursing of the fig tree was not just a moment of hunger-induced rage. So, what was that all about?

Jesus and the disciples have arrived at the epicenter of Jewish worship and power. In Jesus’ day, the temple consumed about 25% of Jerusalem area-wise and first-hand accounts say that as many as two million spiritual pilgrims would visit to celebrate the Passover. Passover was the festival which annually memorialized the Hebrews miraculously being freed from enslavement in Egypt (e.g. The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner). Being at the temple would have been a huge deal for Jesus’ followers. Think Times Square on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans on Mardi Gras, or Washington D.C. on the 4th of July.

As Jesus passes the fig tree they have just left the temple. They arrived late in the day and Mark records that they only had time to “look around” at the temple, the crowds, the courts, and the merchants. For Jesus and the disciples, who were from the simple, backwater region Galilee, I have to believe the sights, sounds, and smells of the awe-inspiring location would have been what was on everyone’s minds as they walked.

As I mulled this over, I was reminded of another episode from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story. This happened during the very same visit to Jerusalem:

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Matthew 24:1-2 (NIV)

Then there’s the metaphor of “fruit” which Jesus repeatedly used in His teaching, especially when talking about the religious leaders who ran the very temple they’d just exited:

Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 7:17-19 (NIV)

As I connected the dots, the metaphorical meaning of Jesus’ actions with the fig tree came into focus. The temple and the Law of Moses had been intended to bear good, spiritual fruit in the lives of God’s people, their community, and the world. Instead, it had become a corrupt, institutional religious system centered on power, prejudice, and greed. It was a religious tree bearing bad spiritual fruit. In the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was providing a prophetic word picture to His followers consistent with what He had been teaching them all along.

Forty years after the events described in today’s chapter, the Roman Empire would tear down the temple and reduce it to rubble. They would also destroy the genealogical records necessary for determining who was able to perform priestly duties, sacrifices, and care for the temple according to the Law of Moses. In essence, the temple “tree” had been cut down for good.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded that the same metaphor of “fruit” would continue to be central to the teaching of Jesus’ followers:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Paul’s Letter to Jesus’ followers in Galatia 5:22-23 (MSG)

As I enter this post-Easter week in a world turned upside-down, I’m reminded that Jesus was never about being a religious rule-keeper. He was about being a cultivator of the spiritual fruit of love in life and relationships. And, I desire to have a green thumb when it comes to spiritual horticulture.

Now, if I could just figure out what the heck happened to those Pencil-Point Junipers by the patio. Oh well. Not as important.

Lord Protectors of Orthodoxy and Tradition

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.
Luke 20:20 (NIV)

It’s been years, but I can still see their faces. The look on most of those faces is a scowl. Along my journey, I have been a member and have taught in many different churches of diverse denominational bents. I have found these individuals in almost every one of them.

They are the thought police, the guardians of tradition, and the Lord Protectors of the Orthodox Realm. They wear the mantel of righteousness, believing themselves responsible to strictly observe and question anything they perceive to seep outside the rigid box in which they hold their tradition and orthodoxy. They often believe themselves to be spiritual heirs of the first century Berean Jews who are described as follows:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Acts 17:11 (NIV)

My experience, however, leads me to believe that “noble character” is not an apt description for most of these individuals. They don’t receive my message with eagerness and open examination but with skepticism and censure. I have come to believe that their motivation is often fear and or pride cloaked in religiosity. Their minds and spirits are not open but closed. The fruit of their words and actions is rarely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or gentleness. I have observed that the root of their words and actions lie in the soil of fear, pride, self-righteousness, and anger. The fruit of their words and actions is conflict, quarrels, division, and dissension.

The faces of these individuals came to mind today as I read Luke’s account of the final week of Jesus’ earthly journey. We find Jesus in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple courts. He is drawing large crowds. He is the talk of the town. And, the orthodox power system of that Temple is angry and afraid. Jesus threatens their lucrative religious racket that has amassed their wealth. Jesus threatens their power and social standing with the people whom they control through religious rule-keeping, condemnation, judgment, and shame. Their tradition is holding onto power and they are bent on taking Jesus down.

So these teachers of the law and religious authorities send people to question, to trap, and to report anything the upstart Nazarene says which might be used to make a case against Him. They are already trying to find a way to send Jesus to the Roman Governor, for under Roman occupation it is Pontius Pilate alone who can sentence one to death, and they want Jesus dead.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. As a follower of Jesus, I firmly believe that I must be responsible to consider, weigh, and test the things said, written, and taught in the name of Jesus. At the same time, I am called upon to be both shrewd and gentle. I have been commanded to follow the law of love in all things. I have been told to reserve judgment for the One true Judge. I am not judge, jury, and executioner of orthodox justice with a Junior Holy Spirit badge pinned to my chest. What a sad way to live and be. It doesn’t seem like the “full life” Jesus wanted His followers to experience and live out.

Back to the faces and the individuals. I have learned along the way to always try responding thoughtfully, gently, and with self-control. If they are open to a sincere and kind conversation to explore and discuss, then wonderful! However, when a thoughtful and gentle reply is fruitless (and it typically is), then I endeavor to press forward on the path to which God has led me. I keep loving, keep praying, keep reading, keep seeking, keep asking, keep knocking, and I focus on the only things in my control: my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. And, I pay as little attention to my scowling critics as is humanly possible.

Sometimes, the most loving thing I can do is to walk away.