Tuesday, October 27, 2009

the life that produces fruit

it made perfect sense to me. "if you go to eastern washington and find two apple trees -- one laden with fruit and the other dry, with no fruit or leaves," the speaker said, "you'd conclude that the first tree was alive and that the second was dead (or dying). that first tree doesn't produce fruit to obtain life; it produces fruit because it is alive." God created us to bear the godly fruit of good works (ephesians 2:10), but such fruit is born out of the life of God in us -- not worked up as a way to gain life from God.

Jesus tells us that he is the vine (john 15). he commands us to abide in him -- to remain in a continuous, organic connection in which the life of God himself sustains us and produces lasting fruit. apart from him, Jesus says, we can do nothing. i learned all of this long ago; i've even taught on it. yet still i find it a challenge to live this way.

i'd be hard-pressed to argue that point, given the evidence from my life. besides, i wouldn't want to dispute it. my mind is satisfied by the iron-clad logic of it; and everything in my inner being tells me that it is true.

so what makes it so hard? by nature, i seem to be easily distracted. i am also bent toward doing; without meaning to, i find much of my identity in accomplishing things. besides, it's often easier to act independently than to wait expectantly on God. and i think there is a part of me that doesn't quite know what to do with some of the things that God has done (and hasn't done) over the years -- unresolved, some of those issues are corrosive to my faith.

i have found it helpful to begin my time with God by lighting a liquid candle. i seem to focus better when i have it. i don't really pray a lot during that time; i simply rest in the presence of God. sometimes, i meditate on that passage in john and tell Jesus that i want to abide in him. there's a remarkable freedom that i experience once i get past needing to accomplish something during that time. i can sit in God's presence, sense his love and acceptance, and eventually, invite him to fill and transform me. this has happened consistently.

as some of you already know, i use the candle, in part, because it is an object lesson. the wick on the candle doesn't burn up. it's actually the liquid paraffin that burns. if the wick were the fuel, it would be consumed quickly. but as long as the wick is in contact with the paraffin, the flame can burn indefinitely. that, for me, is a helpful visual reminder of what my life is supposed to be -- like the burning bush which is not consumed.

but God added something this morning. he said that i am like my candle (pictured here). it's a tiny little thing, only an inch or so tall. it doesn't hold much paraffin, and has to be refilled often. so do i.

in days past, youthful enthusiasm inclined me to gather all of my energy and resources, and put them to work serving God. in recent time, i am more convinced than ever of the need to be filled daily with his Spirit, and to nurture that on-going contact with him. that's not as natural for me as it is for some around me (including m, who seems always to be in prayer and in contact with him). but there can be no lasting flame -- and no lasting fruit -- apart from him.

abide in me, and i in you.
as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself
unless it abides in the vine,

so neither can you unless you abide in me.
i am the vine, you are the branches;
he who abides in me and i in him,
he bears much fruit,
for apart from me you can do nothing.
john 15:4-5

Monday, October 19, 2009

back in the pulpit

this past sunday, i was back in the pulpit for the first time since the final worship service of the bridge. our church is in the middle of a message series on the book of james, entitled 'world changing faith.' you can hear the message here.

it has been an amazing thing to be back at lighthouse for what i believe is a special move of the Holy Spirit. this is an affluent, mostly college-educated suburban church -- a recipe for self-absorption and complacency -- but God is growing the hearts of his people in compassion and commitment for the needy, vulnerable, and oppressed, both locally and around the world. the church invited richard stearns (world vision president) to come and speak last week and took time that sunday to purchase and assemble 500 AIDS caregiver kits. people are also taking a more active interest in serving the poor in our local community, notably through jubilee reach center. many are reading the hole in our gospel, and wrestling with the broader vision of the good news Jesus came to proclaim. smaller groupings of lighthouse folks have been attending forums and workshops to better understand global issues like human trafficking, the social impact of AIDS, and extreme poverty -- and what a gospel response might look like. and the church is also putting its money where its mouth is, giving generously to disaster relief in southeast asia and committing a large sum of money (over $200,000) to the needs of the poor in this new fiscal year. all of this is in addition to the church's commitment to more 'direct' proclamation missions, both in sponsoring full-time missionaries and in sending teams (this past summer to japan and the slums of kenya).

the movement is not yet in full bloom, but the buds are definitely visible. it may be a cloud the size of a man's hand, but we pray that the rain will finally come!

thy kingdom come
thy will be done

on earth

as it is in heaven

matthew 6:10

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

heart of a... hobbit?

back in the early nineties, a woman praying for me had a vision of me as a warrior. she said that i was clothed in armor, and she saw me running toward a huge wall. and she thought to herself, "what is he doing? he'll never be able to scale that wall." but in the vision, that's exactly what happened. i clambered over the wall, full armor and all.

i liked that vision (obviously, since it's nearly 20 years later and i haven't forgotten it). that doesn't always happen when you receive a vision. but this one felt right. i thought of myself as a warrior. i was involved in a great spiritual battle, and it was worth everything it cost. though the challenge was huge, i did not feel the impulse to shrink back; i felt invigorated by it.

those were heady days. a lot of people were coming to Christ in our ministry, and i had the sense that it was just the beginning of something much bigger. i used to tell people that this was the trickle, but God was going to send a flood! i was not interested in building a large, 'successful' ministry. my heart was held captive by the longing for a spiritual awakening in which thousands of people would turn to Jesus en masse. perhaps what began in our little corner of the world would spread across the nation and even beyond.

the burden drove me to God in intercession. i used to lie on my side when i went to bed because i always sleep on my back, and i didn't want to fall asleep. i'd stay up late into the night, pleading with God and praying through isaiah 64 - o that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the earth might quake at your presence! though there were rarely tears, i felt like i was crying all through the night.

that season of my walk with God lasted several years. the ministry swelled to over a hundred, then shrank back to the mid-sixties. we just didn't have enough leaders to care for and nurture all of those people. the revival i yearned for did not appear, at least not in the way i was hoping. i grew weary and discouraged.

there were other things that happened at that time and over the next few years that wore me down. i discovered my marriage was not in very good shape, and that i was responsible for the lion's share of our problems. God's faithfulness and the steadfastness of very good friends helped us through that time, but things still felt uncomfortably tenuous. we moved and found that life in the city was scary; we often felt violated or threatened. i remember a time when our car was being broken into every week, a period that was punctuated by someone kicking in our front door and burglarizing our apartment. later, i came down with a mysterious illness that lasted about half a year and weakened me so much that i couldn't hold my kids or even dress myself. i was exhausted, in constant pain, and with each negative medical test, growing more fearful that perhaps the doctors would never figure out what was wrong with me (they never did, but God healed me anyway).

i could go on and on, but the summary version is: life happened, and it was painful and bedeviling. i began to feel my weakness and my vulnerability. my life seemed very fragile. i continued to pursue God and to be as faithful as i knew how to be, but the old confidence was missing. i still took risks, but there was fear and uncertainty. i didn't feel brave at all. and that feeling hasn't completely gone away, even after all of these years. i do not feel like a warrior.

in fact, i feel more like a hobbit. in tolkien's lord of the rings, hobbits are a small (half the size of a human), relatively powerless race in a world populated by larger, more powerful, more dangerous beings. the hobbits love comfort; when they can, they eat seven meals a day, and drink ale and smoke pipe-weed in copious amounts. they prefer a quiet country life, socializing with friends and making things grow. they are not that interested in the happenings in the wider world, in traveling, or in adventure, preferring the peace and relative safety of the shire.

but in the story, a band of hobbits is sent on a mission that will determine the fate of the whole world. for their journey, they are given the protection of more powerful teammates, which is helpful because they face the constant threat of a terrible evil that studies them, learns their weaknesses, and hunts them. the hobbits bear hardship, face death, make foolish mistakes, and contemplate going home on multiple occasions. they are not the obvious choice for this essential-but-dangerous task -- wouldn't someone bigger, stronger, and braver be a better pick? -- but surprisingly, they turn out to be uniquely qualified. in a world where seemingly everyone and everything is stronger than they are, they have a critical role to play.

the hobbits have to learn to handle a weapon and to fight. they have to learn to face peril and adversity with courage. they have to embrace the sacred task that is entrusted to them, knowing full well that they cannot accomplish it without the help and good will of others. and they have to learn to trust that a greater will is at work for good.

i don't particularly want to be a hobbit. i'd rather be a dread warrior. but i know that there is a method to this apparent madness.


and he has said to me, "my grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." most gladly, therefore, i will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. therefore i am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when i am weak, then i am strong.
2 corinthians 12:9-10