About vines and branches

Many of you offered your thoughts on my most recent post, in which I said that life does not revolve around us. God created us, so God gets to set the rules and guidelines for us to flourish as human beings. Your thoughts and comments were enlightening and wonderful.

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2019/02/27/a-united-methodist-divide/

In that vein, I’d like to show you what I mean.

God speaks to us in many ways – most directly through His Word. We can interact with it, but we can’t explain it away.

In that vein, here’s one discourse from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he was crucified. He describes what it means to be a Christian, using an illustration that’s easy to understand.

My pastor preached for 2.5 years on the book of John, so there’s all kinds of commentary on these few words. I’ve given you just a few thoughts that I’ve learned along the way. Here goes:

 

From John 15, Jesus speaking (I speak in italics):

 

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. (v. 1)

 

God is the one who gives the tree life. I do not. As we’ll see in a minute, you and I are small but significant parts of the tree, but we depend on God for sustenance – not the other way around.

Also, Jesus calls himself the “true” vine. He said in the previous chapter that he is the only way to God, because he is God. If you call yourself a Christian, this is not open for discussion.

 

He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (v. 2)

 

My Father does what a father should do: He disciplines me. Even as an adult.

If there’s a branch in my life that’s dead, God prunes it. He gets rid of it. That leaves the branches that are growing, alive, thriving – so they can flourish.

I’m not a green thumb but I am a homeowner. I’m not afraid to take my pruning shears to a plant or tree in the yard with dead stalks or branches. This gets rid of ugly dead stuff, and allows the leafy or budding limbs to grow fuller.

This process works in nature, and it works with humans, too.

Pruning is painful by definition, but in the long run, it improves my health, as it improves the life of a plant or tree in nature.

Therefore, I submit to the process. Most of the time, anyway.

 

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (v. 3)

 

A footnote in my Bible says that “the same Greek root (word) refers to pruning and cleansing.” So, when God prunes me, that means he is cleansing me as well. Washing me clean. Purifying me. Improving my condition, inside and out.

 

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (v. 4)

 

Ah, here’s the heart of John 15 – which is Jesus’ heart. According to my Webster’s dictionary, “abide” has a couple of meanings:

  • To endure without yielding, to bear patiently, to accept without objection
  • To remain stable; to continue in a place, sojourn

I may not understand God’s discipline, his pruning, but I accept it. I don’t fight God. I continue in his presence; I don’t leave him behind.

This is hard. I know people who have left the church, and others who have compromised their Christian values, because abiding in God is very hard.

I’m in an Old Testament Bible study at the moment where we’re studying the life of David. Despite all the ups and downs of his life – and there were many of both – David finished his life well. He finally got the parenting thing right after a lifetime of screwups by preparing Solomon for his upcoming reign. David finished his life on a high note.

This is what it means to abide. He kept at it. He reached the finish line bloodied and bruised, literally, but by remaining in the vine, his branch bore much fruit.

David is a good example to follow. Not for his parenting skills, but for his perseverance and faith in the living God.

 

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (v. 5)

 

This is how nature works, and this is how God works. When the branches remain connected to their food source, they thrive. When they are removed by pruning (or in a storm, ie, the storms of life), they die.

 

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (v. 6)

 

After every windstorm, I walk through my yard and pick up dead branches and twigs. They go in the yard waste bin, to be thrown away.

Without connection to our source of life, we die. Our source of life is Jesus Christ. He said so himself, right here.

 

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (v. 7)

 

The Bible does not teach a “prosperity gospel.” God will not grant our wishes unless our wishes line up with God’s wishes. We learn what those are by abiding in him – that is, spending time with him, sojourning with him.

 

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (v. 8)

 

Here are three results of abiding in the vine: God the Father is glorified, we bear fruit, and we become Jesus’ disciples. These three results go together.

Over time, our branches will flourish. These results are not one-time events. Branches grow slowly. Leaves die, and are renewed every spring. The branch grows larger and stronger, with more leaves and fruit.

When trees come to life this time of year, we get excited. We love new life. We all do. God wants this for us too. Are we not worth more than nature?

 

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (v. 9)

 

This is what love is. Pruning. Abiding. Nourishing. Growing. Showing fruit. All of it. We can’t circumvent the process.

 

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (v. 10)

 

You and I have some responsibility here. We have to make an effort to keep Jesus’ commandments – all of them. If our hearts are pursuing Jesus, we will abide in his love. Jesus showed us how to do this by the way he loved his Father while living on Earth.

 

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (v. 11)

 

Joy is a gift from God when we abide in him. Joy isn’t the same as happiness, which is a feeling that comes and goes depending on our circumstances. Joy remains. It’s constant. It’s an inner peace that comes from knowing God intimately. And it’s available to anyone who asks for it – if we are willing to abide in his love.

 

This is what it means to be a Christian. It’s unpredictable, it’s an adventure, it’s never dull. My life is very different than it was even six months ago.

It’s never too late to connect, or re-connect, to the vine. This is exciting stuff! I hope and pray that you are, and will remain, connected to the one true vine.

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Going home

Very few of us can time our deaths the way our births are timed.

Nine months from conception, there’s a due date. With a natural birth, that’s a pretty good ballpark estimate. For a Cesarean section, the parents get to choose the specific date of birth.

Rarely does that happen on the other side of life.

Every death is sudden, even if it’s expected.

The guarantee

In the span of two days last weekend, five friends or acquaintances breathed their last breath.

They ranged in age from 81 to 43. Four of them had long-term conditions; two were in such severe pain, I’m sure their loved ones saw their passing as relief.

But still.

The fifth friend shocked everybody. He was healthy, to my knowledge – no one saw his death coming. He was 62. (I’m 58; he’s my generation.)

Two of them lived in Northeast Ohio, the other three in mid-Michigan (my old stomping grounds).

Death is guaranteed for each of us.

Later rather than sooner, we hope.

Unexpected deaths are the ones that make the news – traffic fatalities, drug overdoses, crime victims, that sort of thing. Most of us won’t leave Earth like that, thankfully, but there’s no guarantees about that, either.

Another friend’s granddaughter died about two weeks ago. She suffered numerous health issues from the day she was born. She was 21.

No one ever said life was fair.

Homegoing

Sometimes, those who suffer have the best dispositions. They are thankful for the blessings they have, even if good health isn’t one of them. Our 81-year-old friend was like that. He had debilitating headaches his entire adult life, but he looked on the bright side every day.

His strong faith allowed him to do that.

He is in heaven now with his savior, Jesus. He knows that with certainty. So does his wife. They were married 61 years.

We visited her yesterday afternoon to offer our condolences. She said she’s not planning a funeral for him, but a homegoing. We knew what she meant.

Funerals are sad. We mourn the loss of our loved one. Rightfully so. But that’s where the focus remains.

With a homegoing, family members and friends know that death is temporary – just a transition to a better life. Healing is promised in heaven. Physical, emotional and every other kind of healing that each of us needs.

The end of time

We mourn the loss of our loved one here on Earth and we miss him or her terribly, but we know we will see him or her again.

Earth is a temporary home, full of pain and struggle, as well as joy and laughter. We know this. Good vs. evil. Unconditional love vs. selfishness. Right vs. wrong.

These battles are fought in the human heart and mind, aren’t they?

We play them out in society, but the real battles take places inside each of us.

When eternity comes, those struggles will end. For better or worse.

We’ll either stand with God in heaven, or we’ll spend forever without Him. The Bible talks about a lake of fire. I wonder also if hell will be a lonely place. We may not see our friends and family any more. Ever again.

I can’t imagine a worse fate than that.

My choice, your choice

We get to choose where we live forever. We determine our own fate, really.

I can’t choose for you, and you can’t choose for me. This is personal, and it’s individual. I can give you chapter and verse, but you must decide whether to accept the gift of life forever or not.

Life is a gift.

Life on Earth is a gift. Each of us must thank our parents, both mother and father, for giving us life. You and I had nothing to do with it.

Life forever is a similar principle. There won’t be marriage in heaven, but we will have a Father. He’s the one who offers us that gift of life eternal.

Most of my friends who just died will receive a homegoing, a celebration of life on Earth and the promise of a wonderful, perfect forever future in heaven.

We can’t wrap our minds around forever. The end of time. No more alarm clocks or deadlnes.

Nor can we fathom perfection. Beauty for beauty’s sake. No hidden agendas. No secrets. No pain or suffering, of any type. No getting tired at night. Never a cold or fever, much less any other sickness or injury.

Mental illness? No such thing any more.

The big picture

One day, we will see the big picture of life. We don’t now. Each of us sees only our small part in this big universe. There’s so much of life I can’t see or understand. I write to try to make sense of it all, but as the Bible says, now I see in a mirror dimly, but then (in heaven) face to face.

I have strong views on certain subjects, and you may have a differing viewpoint on those same subjects. We both might be right, because we see the issue from different perspectives. Neither of us understands the big picture. We try, but we just cannot.

That’s why we need to talk, to listen, to respect each other, to learn from each other.

One day, all the issues we wrestle with will come together. The God of the universe, the One who created us and everything else in it, will reveal all to us.

For now, God has given us earthly minds to learn and grow. None of us can know everything about life.

We desperately need this perspective today.

We need each other.

We NEED each other.

We can’t make this life work without each other. Even though we try.

Oh, we try.

The more I learn, the more I discover how much I don’t know. Keep teaching me, each one of you. I’ll do the same for you.

Meanwhile, as we do that, I’m ready for my homegoing, when all will be well. I’m not expecting it any time soon – I’m still relatively young and in excellent health, if I can say that. No guarantees, of course, except that I will die one day. But whenever the day comes, I hope you’ll celebrate it with me.

And I’d love to celebrate yours, too.

Just not for awhile.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate this life on Earth together. And remember with gratitude those who are already home.

Naming the lie I’ve lived with all my life

I’m not good enough.

Like a broken branch hanging from a tree, I don’t fit in. I’m not connected.

I’ve lived this lie all my life, without even knowing it. I knew something wasn’t right in my heart, but I couldn’t name it.

Until this month.

Let me explain.

The wound is given

I grew up in a Leave-It-To-Beaver home, father-mother-son-daughter. From the outside we were an all-American family. Living in the suburbs. Dad had a good job most of the time (my sister and I were shielded from the tough times – we always were provided for). Good public schools, and a college education.

We made a couple of out-of-state moves, in the middle of my second-grade year and just before ninth grade. Those were hard, moving to a new place where we didn’t know anyone, but that allowed me to keep my façade intact.

I was a loner. No close friends. I was bullied a little bit in junior high because I’m small physically and quiet. I was an easy target and wouldn’t complain. We moved after eighth grade, and that ended.

I knew my parents had my back, but my sister and I received no affection growing up. No encouragement or praise. Little advice. We didn’t take risks, try new things, step out of comfort zones, have people over for dinner, none of that.

My whole life I thought loneliness was my wound, the bleeding in my heart that I could not stop. Satan allowed me to think that, to identify the wrong wound. That way, I’d never heal.

In October I spent two days with Mom and Dad. Just the three of us.

Dad

Dad is 85 and doesn’t expect to live too much longer. His death is not imminent, but he knows the end is coming. Mom turns 82 this week and is very healthy.

“If Mom dies before I do, I’m in trouble,” Dad told me last month.

He’s right. She provides for his every need. As she has every day of their 59-year marriage.

I’ve never heard Mom express an original thought or opinion. When she speaks, it’s often softly so no one will hear her or respond. She stays in the background.

Personality-wise, I am my mom’s son. I rarely will tell you what’s on my mind. (It’s much easier for me to communicate by writing than by speaking. Just sayin’ …)

There are reasons for this. Looking at the upbringing of my parents – ie, my grandparents, on both sides – I see where their personalities come from.

The point: Mom and Dad are who they are. They raised me. They did the best they could. They did a good job.

The wound continues

But this wound …

I told myself I’d break the cycle when I had children. I won’t pass the wound on to them. I knew I had a wound as a child and young adult, even though I couldn’t name it correctly.

But since I had mis-identified the wound and I didn’t have a support system to fight it, I did pass it on to our sons. I see that now. It manifests itself differently in each of them, but it’s there.

Satan tailors our wounds to our weaknesses. My sons may have different wounds than I do. I should ask them about that. I began a conversation about this the other day with my youngest son, and we’ll see where that goes.

My wound affects my marriage, too. We’ve been married 34 years – from the outside, we’ve got a great marriage. And it is great in many ways. But I have not been the husband and father that my family needed – and still need.

Facing my shadow

The week before I visited Mom and Dad, a good friend and I attended a three-day conference in Chicago on inner-city ministry, since the church we attend is starting a campus in an inner-city area of Lorain, Ohio. One of the keynote speakers discussed emotional health. I also attended a workshop he led on the topic.

Then, I bought his book. I’ve started reading it, because I am not an emotionally healthy leader.

Not even close.

The speaker and author, Peter Scazerro, talked about “facing your shadow.” Scazerro put it this way:

 

Everyone has a shadow. So what is it?

Your shadow is the accumulation of untamed emotions, less-than-pure motives and thoughts that, while largely unconscious, strongly influence and shape your behaviors. It is the damaged but mostly hidden version of who you are.

The Emotionally Healthy Leader, page 55

 

Largely unconscious. Yes. Damaged and mostly hidden. Satan wants it that way.

Don’t tell me Satan doesn’t exist. We either give Satan too much credit, or none at all. The spiritual world is very real. You and I both know it, too.

Yes, you do. Even if you won’t acknowledge it out loud, you know that there is a bigger story out there.

We must understand this. Our very lives depend on it.

I’m not exaggerating.

John Eldredge, in his book “Wild at Heart,” has a different name for the “shadow.” He calls it a “wound,” and says most of us get that wound from our fathers.

Naming the wound

The week after I visited Mom and Dad, I attended a four-day retreat based on Eldredge’s book with about 100 men. Eldredge and a couple of his staff led video sessions, followed by personal experiences from a number of leaders of the retreat. That was followed by quiet times across the 80-plus-acre campsite where we could wrestle with God on the topic just discussed.

During one of those quiet times, God named my wound.

I see it in my growing-up years.

I also see it in a couple of jobs I’ve had. I worked for 24 years at The Saginaw (Mich.) News; most of that time I was a copy editor. I loved it there. We were a fantastic team. I was part of a bigger story, helping produce a top-notch daily newspaper that was the talk of the town, literally.

But something happened. The Internet came along, and newspaper management didn’t handle it well. Overnight, we were micromanaged. I’d done the same job for two decades, and I was no longer good enough.

I stopped trying. I gave minimum effort and put in no extra time. My passion disappeared. I survived this way for two years before we were downsized.

I did not handle that period of my life well at all. My wife, especially, suffered severely. We only recently began talking about issues related to that, and I was downsized nine years ago.

traffic 4

My most recent job, as a driver for a day program for adults with developmental disabilities, ended in August. During my exit interview, I discovered a side issue that I didn’t know about. I had been blacklisted as a driver from picking up individuals at two houses around town. At each house, I did something that someone inside the house didn’t like. Instead of giving me the chance to work it out and get it right, I was not allowed to ever return to those homes. The company has a zero tolerance policy for some very minor issues.

When I discovered that, I got angry. I hadn’t felt anger in a long time, and it surprised me that anger came over this issue.

Why?

Because I wasn’t good enough to do my job. I was not allowed to do my job to the best of my ability.

I’m not good enough.

The wrong question

Jesus Himself said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Even Jesus says I’m not good enough, right?

But the story doesn’t end there.

Indeed, that’s the wrong question.

Whether I’m good enough or not is irrelevant. God loves me anyway.

The summer after ninth grade, I attended a church camp in western Pennsylvania. The counselors and other campers – my peers – noticed me and cared about me just because I was there. I didn’t have to do anything to earn their love and respect.

It wasn’t a sermon that won me over, or a good book. It certainly wasn’t a church service. What changed my life? People cared about me, and made it clear that Jesus cared about them – and me – like that too. I wanted what they had. Jesus was it.

I asked Jesus to “save” me from my sins, and He did.

Deception

Immediately, Satan took me out. He kept me focused on my faults and shortcomings, kept me fuzzy about my wound or shadow.

My salvation was not the issue; my effectiveness as a Christian was.

chapel

This battle took place in my heart, in the spiritual realm. This is real life, as real as it gets.

It’s still taking place there.

But naming my wound and allowing God to defeat it gives me the courage to live life the way God wants me to live it. I’ve buried my true feelings for far too long.

God doesn’t care whether I’m good enough or not. He loves me anyway.

He loves you like that, too.

As a journalist, I like to ask questions. Asking the right question yields the best answer.

If you could ask God one question about your own life, what would it be?

Be careful. He just might answer it.

A psalm of my life

Praise You, O God,

For your goodness though all the Earth.

Your steadfast love has endured through all generations

From the beginning of time until now.

Your love, as you promised,

Will continue to the end of time.

 

I’ve seen your glory

And felt your love

From the day of my birth.

You blessed me with a strong family,

A prosperous home

With parents who gave and a sister who cared.

Mom and Dad continue strong,

57 years of marriage and counting.

 

You touched me at camp as a teenager,

Revealing yourself in a special way

Through the unconditional love of counselors and, especially, other campers.

You entered my heart as Savior

And I’ve been learning ever since what it means to call you Lord.

 

At college I learned the ways of the world;

You opened my eyes to new ideas and thoughts.

You introduced me to my future spouse there,

And other friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

 

Off to the working world you sent me,

Young and naïve, but willing to learn.

You revealed my passion,

Then led me to a job where I could use it

For more than two decades.

 

We raised a family, three boys,

Our pride and joys.

Good health you blessed us all with,

A home of our own

Where we could lead a strong family.

 

You gave us servant’s hearts

Through our church and community,

Where we could love others

And praise you.

 

O Lord, why did it not last?

We could have served you forever there.

But life was too easy, was it not?

You had lessons to teach us,

New people to meet,

New opportunities to pursue.

 

Out-of-state moves, two of them, Lord.

I have no home on this Earth.

Like your son, I wander,

Seeking to do your will

Wherever you take me.
You lead us to brothers and sisters

Wherever we land,

Those who love you, Father,

Whom we can worship with side by side.

 

We see you everywhere.

Even in the struggles, Lord,

And those are many.

If all is sunshine, where is the rainbow?

 

But Adam and Eve knew good, and only good.

It wasn’t enough for them.

The serpent tricked them.

Their gain? They learned evil.

 

I know evil too, Lord, see it firsthand every day.

It’s easy to see it in your people, God,

But I see evil in my own heart as well.

I cannot place blame

Because I am not innocent.

 

In the midst of this you came to Earth, Lord:

To offer a return path to goodness,

A road to your heart.

I am not a worthy traveler, Father,

And yet you invite me along.

Who am I that you hold my hand?

 

I stumble and fall, bruise my knees, every day.

My hands are bloodied with sin.

And yet you wipe them clean

With your own blood.

 

I still seek my place on this Earth, Lord,

Still pursue you.

On Sundays and Wednesdays, yes,

In gatherings of your people,

I find rest in you.

 

But I seek more, Father,

Because you want me to seek more.

Are you among the tax collectors and sinners?

That’s where you live most days, Jesus.

Outside the walls of the church,

Where the people who need you reside.

 

You send me there, Lord, so that’s where I go.

Good health you’ve blessed me with

So I’ll use it for your glory.

I’ll serve you in the morning when I wake up

And find ways to serve throughout the day.

Not because I’m anything special, Father,

But because you deserve it.

Thank you, Lord, for saving my sins,

Even my sins.

 

It’s easy to get pessimistic in this life, Lord,

Looking only at worldly pleasures

And worldly troubles

In my own life and in the news.

So much to complain about, isn’t there, Father,

And yet what do you say?

 

Rejoice always, and again I say, rejoice.

That’s what you say, Lord.

Can I do that? Is it possible?

It’s a choice, isn’t it, Lord,

I can see life through my eyes or through yours.

 

Your eyes are beautiful, Father.

You see the good in all people

All have sinned, and yet you desire mercy for each one of us.

You said that too, Father.

 

I’d rather sit at your judgment seat than in the defendant’s chair on Earth.

You know my deepest heart, Lord,

While man knows me only a little.

You’ve given me acting skills, Lord,

That I can hide behind.

I tell others what they want to hear, and no one questions me.

No one.

But you know me, Father. You know my secrets. I cannot hide them from you.

 

I fall before you, Father, a broken man,

Sinful, weak and impure.

Yet I carry on.

This life is a marathon, not a dash; your road is long,

Longer for some than others.

I’m ready to get off now, Father,

To fall into your arms.

If today is the day …

But if tomorrow comes, I will rise and serve you again.

Such as I am

Because of who you are.

Until you call me home, Lord,

I will rise and serve you again.

 

You give life meaning, Father;

Why else should I awake in the morning?

This day will pass,

But your steadfast love lives forever.

Even for this sinner,

Your steadfast love lives forever.

Praise you, Father.

It’s why I live.