CJ's Blog

by CJ Alderton of Patrick Crossing

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October 15

Ding!

A fruitful life should be the ordinary for every Christian. Jesus has promised the Spirit – his very own spirit – to inhabit us. In some mysterious way that means his presence, his thoughts, his actions are prompting and empowering us. We just have to learn something about allowing that to happen. It can be said a number of different ways. We need to quiet ourselves and go with the impressions or nudges we sense. We need to get out of the way. We need to move over to the co-pilot’s seat. Whatever works for you. I’ve used these and many others.

Just this morning I was having one of my ragey prayer times with God. I am at times an impatient sort when it comes to prayer. I know better, but Jesus did mention that heaven is enamored with childlikeness, so I try to play the part. (That was sarcasm for you literalists out there). Anyway, as I waxed on, making one great point after another, I mumbled out, “Just once, I would like you to answer a prayer RIGHT NOW.” At that very moment my phone dinged. It was eerie and humorous at the same time. I smiled and wondered if God had sent me a text. As I reached for the phone I said, “If this is some message from you I’ll jump right on it.” It seemed to be the case.

The ding was a message from a ministry that specializes in working with various persecuted Christian groups around the world. They had just worked out contacts with an underground church in a dictatorial country that has been in the news quite a lot lately. Christians there are routinely enslaved or executed. I’ve always admired the work that this ministry performs. As far as I can recall they’ve never asked for a dime, although a dime I would gladly give. The message from them (and God) was simple: Write an encouraging note to believers in this closed country. Let them know that you’re praying for them and such. I did. I then asked a number of others if they would consider doing the same.

This is fruit as well – doing something the Lord prompts us to do. It is a good work. Paul conflates good works with fruit-bearing in his letter to the Colossians: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work…”Colossians 1:9,10 There you have it. And once more, as I typed out this note to unseen Christians a world away, I was reminded of Jesus’ words about his kingdom and the way things work. I presented heaven with a list of stuff. The Lord reminded me that I’m to seek first, above all else, his kingdom. When that bit is being attended to – when I learn to care about the things he cares about – then everything else that has me worked up will either fall into place or simply fall away.

October 14

One for all and all…

So, Jesus shares that the Father is interested in each of us bearing fruit. We can presume that to mean that the Father intends for each of us to rise above a mundane existence. We need here to compare Scripture with scripture to get a feel for what it is he is talking about. One of the “fruitiest” passages we can examine is found in the Book of Galatians where we’re given this: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. ~Galatians 5:22,23

One slight bit of pedantry I must dispatch with at the outset is the fact that fruit is given as a singular, not a plural. That is important. The fruit expresses itself in a number of ways and with a number of qualities. For example, an apple can be described as large, red, crisp, sweet and tangy all with one delicious bite. The fruit that the Spirit bears into our life is likewise described, in this case, with several nouns. The reason that this is important is that all of these qualities are a part of the one fruit. We cannot take any of these away and still have the whole fruit. Thus, in the Christian faith, we cannot work on just one of these virtues without in some measure working on them all. Moreover, we cannot ignore one without in some way ignoring them all.

I’m just old enough to remember the hippies of the sixties. By the way, this is not a hippie rant. I’m not that old. Anyway, they were quite good at sectioning out one part of the fruit; namely love. However, they weren’t so great at self-control. Likewise, there were Christian groups who were wizards at self-control and yet showed nary a pulse toward love or kindness.

Thus, the brilliance of placing all of these nouns under just one fruit becomes evident. It’s an all or nothing affair. One or more virtues may race ahead. Another one or two might lag behind. But in the end, they are all lashed together. If we look at love, we cannot help but think that all the rest should be manifestations of love. And it seems to work that way with each. We cannot imagine the one without the others. It’s an all for one and one for all sort of thing.

And so, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be fruit-bearers. The basic Christian virtues listed in Galatians are an important feature of that fulfillment – but it is not quite the whole story. There’s more to see.

October 13

Trellis

In the spring our kitchen counter is often filled with small tomato vines. This past summer we had a go with the gigantic heirlooms and several of the toms variety. I prefer the latter. When they get with it we can barely keep up. They seem to ripen right before our eyes, hundreds of this grape-sized fruit. And that raises a problem. There is more fruit than the vine can bear. A tomato vine needs a vinedresser, a gardener.

Around each vine my wife places a trellis. As the vine grows she lifts the tiny offshoots and helps train them around the structure. As they grow she adds a bit of string to tie them loosely to the trellis. Without these supports and her tending, the vine would collapse and much of the fruit would be lost.

And that takes us back to the Greek word we had a peek at yesterday: αἴρω (ī’-rō). It has been translated, curiously I believe, as “cut off.” And, it has been translated, less forcefully, as “take away.” And yet, the Greek supports, in this case, and with its usage elsewhere in the New Testament: to raise up, to elevate, to lift up. Tomato vines and grape vines share the similarity of needing support, of a need to be attended to. A vine that is unfruitful needs a bit of help to become fruitful. It needs to be lifted up. I’m not sure about you, but I would much prefer to be lifted up than cut off. Actually, I’m sure about you as well…

Right now we’re swirling in the land of imagery. We understand that a grapevine produces a grape and a tomato vine a tomato. Even a agricultural novice such as myself understands that much. But what Jesus is driving at is the fruitfulness of his followers. And what, pray tell, is that? Before we can explore the full meaning of Jesus’ horticultural homily, we need to appreciate heaven’s definition of fruitfulness. It is not limited to one fruit. It is a virtual Garden of Eden in its variety and reach.

October 12

Elevate

In this next part we come to a dilemma, or at least I do. Jesus is going to talk about vines, branches, fruit and a gardener. As I’ve mentioned in these pages, I am not the green thumb in my family. Honestly, my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to tell a great deal of difference between our homegrown, organic tomatoes and those strip-mined from Mexico. When I was told a tomato was a fruit and not a vegetable I became despondent. All this time I had been counting marinara sauce toward my meager vegetable count.

All of that notwithstanding, we are going to drill down for a bit on gardening. The aforementioned dilemma has nothing to do with my less than average gardening skills but rather with my just above average Greek skills. I enjoy unpacking the meaning of words. And right off the bat we come up against a translation conundrum that I hope to sort out. Let’s have a look at what has gotten my logophile ire up: “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.” ~John 15:1,2

That seems pretty straight forward. Jesus is the vine and there are branches shooting off in every direction. The ones that are starting to bear fruit he prunes back. The ones that show no sign of bearing fruit are cut off. Look at the verse. It says it right there – the gardener, the Father, cuts off every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. It sounds so summary and so final. And yet…there’s that pesky Greek thing.

I’ve compared dozens of translations regarding the portion that says: He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” (Note: Just for the record, I usually quote from the NIV. I do that for the sake of readability, not necessarily for its literal fidelity to the Greek. That’s why I’m here)! Most of the translations say something less harsh. Let me give you the King James Version: Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.” That represents the interpretation of most translators – the sense of the non fruit-bearing branch being removed.

But…neither of these actually capture the literal meaning of the Greek in this portion and it bothers me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I believe the words are there in the originals for a reason and that we shouldn’t mess with the most common etymology of a word or phrase. Secondly, it bothers me because I grow suspicious when my translation of a word or phrase appears a novelty. Those who are frequently novel tend also to be frequently heretical!

Yet, when I linger over the original in this phrase I come away with something that vectors in an entirely different direction. The word translated either as cut off (NIV) or, taketh away (KJV) in the original is: αἴρω (ī’-rō) and mostly it is taken to mean: to raise up, to elevate, to lift up. What if Jesus is saying something incredible to his disciples? What if he is saying: He raises up, he elevates, he lifts up every branch in me that bears no fruit”? It is no disrespect or presumption to either the Greek or to grace to consider this view. We’ll have another go at both this verse and that “fruit” (tomato) a bit tomorrow. The answer to the riddle has been growing just outside my kitchen window all summer.

October 11

A Change of Venue

We can get a quite a lot out of one simple verse. We just have to dig a bit. As the 14th chapter comes to a close, it appears that Jesus is telling his disciples that it’s time to go: “Come now arise; let us leave.” ~John 14:31 But clearly, they don’t leave. They stay put. Jesus is just warming to the task. There’s still quite a lot of teaching ahead. When they finally do get up to leave and go on to encounter the betrayer, Judas, we’ve landed way over in John 18: 1, When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it.

So, we’ve three more chapters to go before they leave the house. What was it then that Jesus was saying with the words, “Come now arise; let us leave.”? Well, let’s get our Greek on and see! The word for arise is: ἐγείρω (e-gā’-rō). It comes from the root word, ἀγορά (ä-go-rä’) which means: “to collect one’s faculties, to rise from sleep, to wake up.” This is like a hand clap after dinner where the host says, “Up from here, let’s go and have some coffee in the living room!”

If you recall, Jesus had been sandblasting the disciples’ minds with quite a lot throughout chapter 14. He has promised them a future home. He has promised them he’s going to die. He has promised that they will do greater works than he has done. He has promised them peace. And right before he says, “Come now, arise” he has given them this disturbing piece of news:I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me,  but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. “Come now arise; let us leave.” ~John 14:30-31 “Great,” the disciples must have been thinking. “You’re going to die and go away and now you’re telling us that Satan is coming to take your place. And the good news…is???” So, Jesus looks into the faces of his beloved disciples and let’s them walk it off for a minute. They don’t leave the house, they just head to the living room.

I’m not sure why I’m enamored of these little nuggets in Scripture. Yet, for some reason they speak to me. I’ve sat with many people in my role as Pastor/Counselor and have heard some pretty horrific stories and have given some pretty tough advice. There almost always comes a moment when I sense that the sponge is full. We’ve been speaking of weighty things. Yes, there is more to say, but let’s first make a pot of coffee. Let’s go outside and get a breath of fresh air. Let’s look up at the stars for a few minutes. Let’s allow ourselves a moment to see something bigger…or smaller…or silly…for a few minutes.

When the disciples re-convene in the living room, Jesus will pick up with one of his favorite subjects – gardening. Up to this point he has been speaking of lofty, heavenly concepts. Next, he will talk of vines and dirt. The disciples will calm down with the change of venue and the cozy, pillowed floor. They will lean in to listen to the familiar voice of love that caused them to leave everything behind and to follow. And quite unexpectedly, like a seed, the promised peace will silently begin to grow in their hearts and minds.

October 10

 Idols

I was thinking today about idols. Yesterday, I witnessed tens of thousands of painted people jump up and down, sway, scream, sing, lock arms, swear, protest, perform sensual dance, and imbibe. The object of their worship seemed to be an inflated, spherically shaped bladder that several large lads in shiny headgear were fighting over. There were others running about the grounds in stripes playing a shrill one-note instrument from time to time. It seemed to frighten the large warriors. They stopped in their tracks. I figured the whistlers to be of the priestly class. Such were my thoughts as I watched football.

If an alien were to visit our culture and observe our public gatherings – from rock concerts to sporting events – it might appear to them that they were observing a religious service. If they peeked in on our television shows they might even land on one that is entitled: American Idol. It seems that idolatry is not the sole province of backward tribes in exotic places. We first world folks have mastered the craft as well.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t believe so. When we look at the definition of idol we come to this:

Idol (noun)

1 a representation or symbol of a false object of worship

2 a likeness of something, pretender, impostor

3 an object of extreme devotion

4 a false conception, fallacy

Before we take leave of the issue of worry, I wish to heap some more abuse upon it. If we were to replace the word “idol” with “worry”, the list of definitions would still work – and quite well. Worry is similar to idolatry in that it captures our attention in ways other vices do not. It is the background noise in our brains that muddles our ability to function well in mind, body and spirit. Everything gets compromised. We are less patient. Less forgiving. Less loving. Less creative. Less fit. Less rested. We might be able to momentarily compartmentalize our “worry idol” during a busy day, but the moment we retire for a good night’s sleep the distraction of busyness vanishes. There sits worry awaiting our veneration. The worship begins. In this liturgy we cannot, for the life of us, nod off as we might in church. No, a worry worship service is like a jolt of caffeine.

So, we circle back to Jesus downloading a promise to a group of disciples who were…worried. They’ve staked their futures and their fortunes on a man who is about to bug out. It seems too soon – a mere thirty-six months. None of them are ready to take over the ministry business. Jesus has handled every contingency – from demons, to disease, to death, to disasters of nature. He has parried with the religious controllers and left them speechless and spitting mad. Not having him around is a worthy worry. To all of this, he offers them the promise of peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” ~John 14:27 He’s giving them a choice – be troubled and afraid, or, be at peace. The choice is ours as well.

October 9

God-sized Shoulders

There are other obvious obstacles to walking in the peace Jesus promised to his disciples. Our willful ways, otherwise known by the familiar moniker of “sin”, is the most obvious. We must come each day, and each minute of each day, to the rhythmic release of those things the Holy Spirit finds unworthy in our hearts and minds. It takes some practice. For the Christian it will not do to treat our hearts as we oftentimes treat our homes that await a good spring cleaning. The accumulation of sinful dust bunnies is not spiritually healthy. We should keep short lists with heaven in respect to sin. Confess it the moment you realize it and then move on. God has no Machiavellian interest or incentive in you carrying about those obstacles to peace.

But having said that, we seldom realize the sinfulness of worry, or anxiety. Not only is it spiritually damaging to us, it is injurious to our physical health as well. This from WebMD: Chronic worry can trigger a host of health problems. The problem occurs when fight or flight is triggered daily by excessive worrying and anxiety. The fight or flight response causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones can boost blood sugar levels and triglycerides (blood fats) that can be used by the body for fuel. The hormones also cause physical reactions such as: Difficulty swallowing, Dizziness, Dry mouth, Fast heartbeat, Fatigue, Headaches, Inability to concentrate, Irritability, Muscle aches, Muscle tension, Nausea, Nervous energy, Rapid breathing, Shortness of breath, Sweating, Trembling and twitching.   Can I get an amen?

So, one of the disciples -a notorious worrier named Peter – gave us this bit of advice in one of his epistles: Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. ~I Peter 5:6,7

Here, Peter gives us the tools of the cure. We are to humble ourselves. God doesn’t do that for us. He is not into humbling us. We are to humble ourselves. How do we signal to heaven that we are humble? We are to cast our anxieties his way. And note that he uses the world “all.” The word “cast” literally means to throw. But it is not a game of pitch and catch. We are throwing it to God not as if it’s a ball, but rather a ticking time-bomb. Furthermore, the word “anxiety” in the Greek means double-mindedness. To sum it up: We humble ourselves before God by throwing at him everything that splits our thinking between the object of concern and him. He earned the right to carry our anxieties on the cross. It is presumptuous to think otherwise. Anxiety is meant for God-sized shoulders and we are not God.

October 8

The Big Sin

If worry were classified as an addiction (actually, I think it might be) I would be a charter member of that 12-Step program. “Hi! My name is CJ! I’m a worryholic. It’s been 3 minutes since my last worry…” Worry is hands down one of the most consistent areas of disobedience that I can think of for the Christian. I call it disobedience because it is. Jesus could not have been more clear in his instruction: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” ~Matthew 6:25

It’s surprising how little is said about this. Rather than confronting the rank insubordination we each practice in respect to worry, it has somehow morphed into a virtue! It’s become associated with maturity. Moreover, we’re suspicious of the carefree. They seem a bit daft, or naïve, or both when there’s so much out there that’s worthy of the sigh and the furrowed brow. Jesus himself appears naïve. He only mentions food, drink, clothes and shelter. Hah! Does he have a clue all that there is in life over which to worry? Actually, he does. Thus, his offer of peace – not as the world offers but of a quality and kind in which only heaven specializes.

Now, it seems rather pointless to add heaps of shame and guilt to our worry. That just gives us something else to worry about. But the good news is that the Lord knows all about this common weakness of ours and has set at least two things in play to help us. We’ll touch on one today and one tomorrow.

The first of these is what I would call redirection. We’ve all done it with children. Be they a wee lad or lassie, they each have the capacity to be drama queens. A drama queen is not gender specific. So, whenever I am serving in the role of caretaker and one of their tiny heads meets with the corner of an unforgiving coffee table, I redirect the tragedy. It can come in the form of a treat or by simply pointing out the window at something interesting. Most of the time the primal screams diminish with a few feeble shudders and all is well. We’ve moved on.

And Jesus does that with us. He doesn’t tell us to just sit around and not worry. We’re to do something: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:33,34

It is simple advice that proves a fortune. Seek him. Seek out his kingdom. Consider who it is you belong to. Allow faith to rise up and then soar above the circumstance. Learn to look down on your worries. Don’t live under them….I could keep going with these bumper stickers if you wish but I think you get the point. You’re free to continue to labor away with your worries – we’re always free to sin – but worrying will do nothing to bring an end to the worry, nor will it bring you any closer to the comfort of God. Why not just go for the latter first and see what happens? What have you got to lose except your worries?

October 7

Baa!

The peace of God is meant to be our kind, unremitting attendant throughout life. In the beautiful 23rd Psalm, David gives us these words: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” David lays out the peace-robbers quite nicely for us: death, evil, and enemies. He could well have mentioned; domestic troubles, insurrections, battle fatigue, guilt, grief, giants and what not – but we get the point. Death, evil and enemies are broad enough categories to encompass the breadth of our anxieties. Yet, none of these rattle David for the Shepherd is near.

It’s quite a turn-around image for David. As a young lad, his first high school job was that of shepherd. It was no burger-flipping assignment. When he is lobbying King Saul to have a go at the profane, Philistine giant by the name of Goliath, David boasts this bit of his resume: But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” I Samuel 17:34-37

In Psalm 23 David foregoes the role of shepherd and appears to insert himself among a helpless herd of sheep. He uses the familiarity of his own courage and fidelity in his role as a shepherd and projects it upon the Lord. In so many words he says: “If I loved these rather naïve, daft sheep enough to risk my life for them, how much more will God, the true shepherd, take care of me?” I’m glad David had those thoughts and made the effort to create of poem of it. The images have comforted both Hebrew and Christian for centuries. Throughout Scripture God bows low into human similes and metaphors. He is a shepherd, a builder, a comforter, a mothering fowl, a dad, a son, a brother. Each image closes the distance between a cold, distant God and a God who cares to mix it up on earth. Our peace rests upon the remembered knowledge that he transforms into a faithful shepherd. He knows the lay of the land before we do. He knows where the refreshing spring lies. He knows the sound of an approaching enemy. And in all of this, He calls us “professional worriers” to what seems a reckless rest. He takes David’s image and takes it as his own: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” ~John 10:11  Jesus is Psalm 23.

October 6

Peace

The disciples were about to experience the fine print of what it meant to follow Christ. It would not be pretty. Ten of the remaining eleven would die a martyr’s death. Yet, by all accounts, they each met their fate with a serenity that belied the barbaric means of that day. Was it courage that helped them measure up to the moment? Sure. But it was way more than courage. Beneath that was a calmness of spirit, a conquest of that conflict within which robs life of so much pleasure. The disciples were the happy recipients of this promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” ~John 14:27

The word for peace is, εἰρήνη (ā-rā’-nā). While it can refer to peace between nations, that is not what Jesus is promising. He is not talking about the absence of external conflict, he is talking about the abolition of internal conflict. We overcome the unseen war that rages within. No matter the chaos that surrounds us – at work, with relationships, with politics, with our finances – this peace can remain steady. No matter the chaos that threatens our minds and souls – guilt, shame, fear, regret – this peace can remain and still those internal voices.

This is the peace that everyone is after but very few find and very few exploit. And, it is meant to be found and exploited. Peace comes as a revelation. It is rooted in truth. We found yesterday that we’ve been adopted as beloved children. This adoption places us, in some respects, on equal footing with the Son. The Scriptures say that we are “co-heirs with Christ.” To grasp that we are sons and daughters of God, that we’ve been accepted into the family, is part of our journey toward experiencing peace. We’ve nothing to prove to God or to hide from God. He accepts us as we accept him. But its not quite enough to accept him, we must learn to accept his acceptance of us. That completes the circuit. We’ve left off trying to impress God. We’ve finished with trying to hide from God. The gloriously curious thing about the gospel is that the only people who make it to heaven are failures and sinners. They are the only ones Jesus died for. If we admit to both the disease and the cure, peace is ours – just like that. It is always within reach.

The Apostle Paul, who had a series of very bad days, of excessive external conflict and persecution, would tell us this: And the peace of God,  which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. ~Philippians 4:7

We’ve more to say on this tomorrow…

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