Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Backwards Branch

My mom is an avid Facebook-er.  She grams a lot and can hashtag with the best of them.  Also, her emoji use is on point.

All of those skills add up to her being able to share what's going on in her life in a consistent, direct,  eloquent way (because, let's be honest, can you really express what you're feeling accurately without  emojis?)  She makes me ashamed to call myself a Gen-Yer.  I, on the other hand, am not conscientious about communicating, regardless of the medium.  If I have something going on, I won't yak about it.  I won't talk about it.  I won't write you a letter, nor will I text you.  I won't sign language.  Nothing.  So, if you interact with my mom on any social media platform, you probably know more about my life than if you speak to me in person on a regular basis.

This is my public apology for that.

This is also my public announcement that there's a good chance that that will never change (although I'm trying.)

This is also my public attempt at trying to amend that a little bit.

Sorry attempt at said amendment: Hi, friends. My family's moving.  Which you probably already knew.  Because of my mom (see above).

We're peacing out of our home in the inner suburbs of Detroit, Michigan and will eventually dump everything out of the cardboard Home Depot boxes into a new house somewhere in the vicinity of a single stoplight in westish central Missouri.  Why? God closed doors in Michigan and opened them in Missouri.  The story could get a lot more detailed than that, and if you want to hear the specifics of how good God has been showing Himself to be please ask.  We'll talk.  At the heart of it, though, we're moving because God showed us a better place to be than where we are.  Better as in: closer to where He can shape us and teach us and help us best use our gifts.

I've spent most of this summer away from my family at camp in northern Michigan, but I'm home this weekend to share some lasts with the family.  Eating in the back yard with 15+ years' worth of people who have shared life with us.  Finally getting up the courage to check out the ultrahipster coffee shop I've had my eye on.  Making a final trip to the 2-minutes-away Kroger and chatting it up with Pearli, the check out lady who's watched us grow up.  Having church in the place where my siblings and I spent our grade school years.  Throwing away as much as possible and packing the rest.  Enjoying our home and our neighbors for a few more days.

Around the same time that I started to become a less permanent fixture in our house, my family decided to start planting a garden during the summer. One of my favorite things to do when I'm home is to look out the kitchen window and see how our plant babies are growing - everything from tiny pokes of green to almost-edible ears of corn is exciting.  This morning, I stood by the coffee maker and looked out the window. A couple green beans are hiding behind leaves in one row, and other plants are weeks away from producing tomatoes or peppers or pumpkins.  As I looked at the yet-to-bloom plants, I mentally rewound them back into the ground, where they were the day we planted them months ago.  The seeds were laid with full anticipation of eating the grown up version of them on the back porch - not just this year, but over and over again.  While seeds began to take root in our backyard dirt patch, we had no idea that we'd be asked to tear ours up and start again somewhere else before our garden was through.  I wonder if we'd have planted anything had we known how soon we'd be leaving it. 

Can I tell the truth?  I'm kind of bummed that we don't get to eat the vegetables from our garden this year.  I feel a little bit entitled to the final product since I was a part of the planting.   And by "eat the vegetables from our garden," I mean that I'm bummed that the dozens of little things that my family's started here and claimed as ours aren't going to continue to grow where I can see them.  My mom has a successful business; my dad was building a varsity volleyball program; my little brother's been growing a swing dance event at our church; my little sister's connecting her community in preparation for high school; we've all got a rich network of friends and support people.  All of that stuff promised a lot for our future here, and it hurts my heart a little bit that those things are being cut off as we're transplanted.  It feels like there's a lot we're missing out on.

The pain that comes with being cut off reveals how thick and tough my connection with the things I've gotten used to has become - it's the kind of connection that should only exist between me and the Giver of all of it.  As usual, Jesus has something to say about that:

“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. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. | john 15: 3-8 |

I absolutely love this image of Jesus as a vine and myself as a branch.  Only in him do I produce fruit; (fruit - read: business, volleyball team, dance, circles of friends) without him I simply can't.  In this passage, I'm commanded to remain in Jesus.  I think that, too often, I choose to cling to the fruit rather than to the vine that gives me life.  It sounds really backwards, doesn't it?  But it's such a thing for me.  Instead of abiding in Jesus, I claim whatever he's produced through me and don't let go.  And it works, kind of, because I get to hang on to the fruit.  But before long, my connection with the vine gets weak and the fruit gets heavy and it and me go tumbling off. Which is the opposite of abiding in Jesus.  Which sucks. 

My tendency towards being a backwards, confused branch means that I need regular pruning via the gardener (that's God.)  He cuts away the fruits that I start to depend on too much for comfort or self-promotion or enjoyment to remind me of where the life-giving connection is, apart from which I can do nothing.  I have to be continually shown that "remain in me" does not mean "remain in the circle of friends I gave you" or "remain in the ministry that started here" or "remain in the job you're passionate about."  It means, simply, to grow my connection with the vine and allow fruit to be produced and harvested as it will - acknowledging that it was God's fruit all along, not mine.   Allowing someone else to sit on the patio and eat my green beans. 

The book of James begins with a beautiful picture of that kind of steadfastness to Jesus.  

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."  | james 1:2-4 |

Again, we're asked to remain - over time and regardless of circumstances.   That in which we remain is of huge importance.  If we attempt to remain in the way that we've chosen to interpret Jesus - our beliefs, how we feel comfortable practicing our faith, a place we want to be, relationships we want grow - we chase after those things rather than Jesus himself.  We remain in the image we construct of the vine rather than, um, the vine.   I didn't make up that analysis by myself - I'm reading a great book about James by Everett Hill.  He goes on to say,

"The steadfastness that James proposes holds faith with an open hand.  This means being willing to admit fault and deeply desiring to seek out the truth.  Sometimes we overcomplicate simple things and becomes so wrapped up in minutia that we no longer see the cross.  Other times, we build our own religious traditions that pull us away from our main focus, who is Jesus.  No matter how beautiful you make a padded cell, it is still going to keep you from going anywhere.  Sticking proudly with the sinking ship of your own piety is ridiculous when Jesus is right there to rescue."   

With that in perspective, I want to embrace the discomfort that comes from letting go of things that I unrightfully hold tightly as mine,  knowing that the purpose of the cutting-off is to draw me closer to the One from whom all good things come.  I want to broaden my gaze so that I can see that God's vision is way, way bigger than the branch of me and the fruit that I produce - that it's He, not I, who is entitled to see things grow full circle.  Why? Because it's all about God's glorification, not anything to do with me. Jesus said.

"This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples."

That's it.

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