Predictable Growth

Predictable Growth

Though I’ve attempted growing bonsai trees for more than a decade, my botanical interests have expanded in recent years.  Last year, I added cactus and succulents.  Six months ago, I added orchids.

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Besides the beauty they bring to my home, I’m fascinated by the daily growth, development and changes.  Especially in the Spring, I can discover a new sprout, bud, or bloom every time I look.

Just this week, some of my orchids have started blooming, and others are getting close.  The Desert Roses I pruned and repotted, are just beginning to show signs of new growth.  The bougainvillea, that looked sickly last month, are blooming.

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Given the right amount of sunlight, water, fertilizer, pruning and care, plants grow and blossom in fairly predictable ways.  Barring strange weather, or insects, or disease, plants bloom when they’re supposed to bloom and bear fruit when they’re supposed to bear fruit.

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My life doesn’t seem nearly as predictable.  My growth, development, and fruitfulness seems much more random and sporadic.  Sometimes, when I want to grow, I feel like I’m hopelessly fallow.  Then, other times, growth sprouts unexpectedly, unpredictably.  In either situation, I certainly don’t see signs of new growth on a daily basis.

But, if I’m honest, my personal seasons and rhythms of care aren’t nearly as consistent as my gardening.  I see what my plants need, and do it.  They’re watered, on a schedule.  They’re fertilized, regularly.  Pruning and trimming is performed as needed.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.  If I want to see more regular growth and development in myself, I need to schedule more purposeful and intentional routine in my life.  Could it be that fruitfulness in humans is just as predictable as in plants, if we’re attentive to the seasonality of our own needs for care, nourishment, and pruning?

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Why do we pray?

Why do we pray?

“What’s the point of prayer?”  I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember.  Lately, I’ve asked it, myself.

People of faith pray.  It’s what we do.  Even people, claiming no faith, sometimes find themselves praying in difficult situations.

Often, we pray for wants or needs.  Often, we pray for the people we’re concerned about.  Sometimes, we ask others to pray for us.

But, what’s the point?  If God already knows what we need, why pray?  Does God need convincing?  And, why do we ask others to pray for us?  Do more, or other’s, prayers motivate God more?

What about when prayers go unanswered?  Did I pray the wrong prayer, or did I not pray long enough, or fervently enough, or say the right words, or ask enough others to pray with me?

These are hard questions.  But, these are questions many ask.  We pray.  But, why?

C.S. Lewis said, “I don’t pray to change God.  I pray to change me.”  Is that the point of prayer?  Maybe.

Sometimes, though not often enough, we offer prayers of thanks.  Sometimes, we pray to worship.  Sometimes, we pray to repent.  Sometimes, we pray just to be with God.  Sometimes, we pray to listen.

Sometimes, we lament.

Do I believe there’s value in prayer?  Yes, of course.  Do I believe God answers prayer?  Yes, but…  Do I believe there’s value to praying for others, or asking others to pray for me?  Yes, but not for the sake of ganging-up on God.

Increasingly, I’m thinking of prayer as connection, and less about the requests I may or may not make.  Just as an electronic device needs to be connected to an electrical outlet to function, I’m thinking of prayer as connection to the “Source.”

Sometimes the connection may lead to answers and outcomes.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, God might speak.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, I might feel something – peace, or forgiveness, or refreshment.  Sometimes, not.

But, regardless of the outcome, I need the connection anyway.  I need the connection, because I need God.

Maybe it’s like the conversations I have with my wife.  Though we certainly talk about all kinds of things – from basic information like the grocery list, to decisions we need to make, to sharing our hearts – the main reason for our talking is connection.  If we just need to pass information or make requests, we could leave each other notes, or send each other texts.  But, we need more than that.  We need to hear each other’s voices.  We need to look into each other’s eyes.  We need to see the joy or concern on each other’s faces.  We need to connect.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t bring our requests to God, or that we shouldn’t pray for others.  I’m not suggesting God doesn’t answer prayer.

I’m saying the specific outcomes of prayer aren’t the point, at least not to me.  Connection is the point – connection with the God who created the universe, the God who became human to redeem a fallen world, the God who is love, the God in whom I live, and move, and have my being.

The point is connection.

What follows your “but”?

What follows your “but”?

Somewhere, along the way, I started thinking of the word “but” as an erasure.  Add “but” to any statement, and everything before it disappears…

“I think you’re really great, but...”

“I really appreciate the gesture, but…”

“Thanks for the kind offer, but…”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Often, as soon as the “but” shows up, you know the jab is coming…

“…, but you’re just not my type.”

“…, but it’s just not good enough.”

“…, but I’m not interested.”

“… but I think you’re a jerk.”

“… but you deserved it.”

Etc., etc., etc.  “But” always seems to be followed by criticism, complaint, or rejection.

I need to confess, I’ve been saying a lot of “but” prayers lately.

“Lord, I know you are good, but…”

“Lord, I know you are in control, but…”

“Lord, I know I should trust you, but…”

It occurred to me, this morning, that the Biblical writers often reversed the “but.”  Often, in Scripture, the “but” follows the negative, instead of the positive.  Throughout the Psalms, for example, the negative precedes the “but,” followed by hope and trust in God…

“My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.  But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:4-5)

“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” (Psalm 31:13-14)

“Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10)

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (Psalm 73:26)

I’ve always appreciated that Scripture allows for lament.  Lament is a raw, honest, human form of prayer.  Lament cries out to God in anger, pain, anguish and despair.  Lament, often, is a complaint to God, against God, about perceived unfairness.  Lament, sometimes, even blames God for the complaint.

There are times, we all need to lament.  I’m thankful God is graciously willing and able to receive our laments, even when they are less than kind, respectful, or faith-filled, without holding our complaints against us.

In the wake of recent events, I’ve been lamenting a lot.  “But,” my laments have been mostly ranting and raving, without a lot of faith or hope.  What my laments have been missing is the properly placed “but.”

“…, but I will trust in you.”

I’m a 9

I’m a 9

I’ve recently become fascinated with the Enneagram.  The Enneagram is a tool for understanding yourself and others, based on nine different personality typologies.  The Enneagram is not scientific.  Rather, it seems to have evolved from the wisdom of several ancient traditions.

One place to learn more about the Enneagram, and which of the nine types you are, is iancron.com.  There are many such sites, but I particularly like this one.

Admittedly, I am a junky when it comes to personality assessments.  I’m an INFP on the Myers Briggs.  I am an S on the DISC.  I’m a “quick start” on the Kolby.  I’m a blue on the True Colors.  I’m in the house of Ravenclaw on Pottermore – but, that’s totally different.

What I like about the Enneagram, is that it helps you understand your personality when you’re healthy and when you’re unhealthy.  The Enneagram reveals how you likely react to stress, and who you can become when you’re healthy and growing.  And, the Enneagram provides a path for personal growth and development.

If you know me, and are wondering, I’m a Nine on the Enneagram, which means I’m a “Peacemaker,” and my primary weakness is “sloth.”  According to the website integrative9.com, “Enneagram Nines are motivated by a need to be settled and in harmony with the world and, as a result, being accommodating and accepting will be important to them. They strive for a peaceful existence and appreciate stability, preferring to avoid conflict. At their best, Nines are experienced as self-aware and vibrant. They offer the gift of right, sustainable action to themselves and the world around them. Less-healthy Nines may be experienced as procrastinating, stubborn and self-denying. This stems from a pattern of going along to get along with others and the eventual discomfort that arises when this strategy is not satisfying.”

As a nine, when I’m unhealthy, I tend to withdraw, avoid conflict, suppress anger, and may become passive-agressive (though, I really hope not!).  When I’m healthy, I’m able to to see the strengths of multiple perspectives, and may be able to build bridges.  My primary growth opportunity is to set goals, to communicate my passions, and to act.

The Enneagram isn’t the Bible.  It doesn’t say everything about every variation of every personality type.  It doesn’t explain why I enjoy riding a motorcycle, or perusing antique shops, or growing bonsai trees, or watching super-hero movies.  It can’t explain, fully, how or why I’m the person I am, with the complicated assortment of strengths and struggles I possess.  But, it is a helpful tool.

Just like a hammer can’t fix every home repair, the Enneagram has its limits.  But, just like a hammer is great for hammering, I’m finding the Enneagram to be very helpful in gaining a deep understanding into myself, and how I can work on growing and becoming a healthier version of me.  I encourage you to explore the Enneagram for yourself.

For those who are interested, two excellent books on the Enneagram are…

Richard Rohr’s, The Enneagram: a Christian Perspective

and

Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile’s, The Road Back to you; An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery

“Come” – a sermon in a series called “Thirsty?,” preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, March 4, 2018

“Come” – a sermon in a series called “Thirsty?,” preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, March 4, 2018

Thirsty?

I carry a water jug around with me, most of the time.  I, normally, fill it at least once or twice a day.  But, on Sundays, I get so thirsty from preaching and talking, I have to fill it three times.

When I work outside of the house, or in the garage – like I did yesterday – my wife frequently asks me if I’ve had enough to drink, because it gets so hot here, in South Florida.

Often, when I’m riding my motorcycle, for any length of time, especially in the sun and heat, I realize how quickly I feel dehydrated, and need a drink.

God designed our bodies to need water.  About 60% of the human body is composed of water.  We can’t survive more than a few days without water – less than that if we are in a hot or dry climate.  Virtually every part and function of the human body, down to the molecular level, depends on water to function healthily.  We need it to thrive.  We need it to survive.

And, when we need more, the body’s natural, God-designed response is to feel thirst.  When the body’s hydration equilibrium gets out of balance, and needs more water, the central nervous system alerts the brain, which sends us signals like dry mouth and the craving for fluid.  When we feel thirsty, we know we need something to drink.  We don’t need a doctor’s report to tell us.  We just know.

But, we aren’t just physical, of course.  We’re also spiritual beings.  Just as the body needs water and food and oxygen to live and function, our souls need the Spirit.  And, just as the physical body thirsts for water, the Bible says that we are designed to thirst for the Spirit.

Sometimes we don’t recognize spiritual thirst, as spiritual.  Sometimes, we just feel an inner need or drive that demands attention.  We need to feel valued, or loved, or accepted, or important… or to stop feeling loneliness or pain.  If we don’t understand our thirst as spiritual, we might look for other ways to quench it.  I wonder if, sometimes, our thirst for worldly things –  like wealth, or possessions, or popularity, or approval, or status, or substances, or escape, or sex, or food, or fun, or any number of other things –  might actually be a thirst for God, that we’re attempting to quench with cheap substitutes.

We likely only figure that out when we get what we thought we wanted, but it just doesn’t satisfy the thirst.

C.S. Lewis, wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

            There is an old Ethiopian proverb that says, “In the abundance of water a fool is thirsty.”

St. Augustine once wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

            Nothing can replace God.  If the thirst is for God – and it is, because God made us that way – nothing this world offers can satisfy it.  Until we realize that only God can quench the thirst, we will remain restless.

You may have noticed, the symbol for this series is a gold fish.  You may have wondered, “Why goldfish?”  Have you ever noticed, goldfish are never thirsty?  A goldfish needs water, just like humans do, though they have a different anatomy to process it.  Water passes through the goldfish’s mouth, and out their gills, and somehow water is absorbed into the fish’s body by osmosis somewhere in between. A goldfish never thinks, “I’m thirsty.  I need a drink of water,”  because a goldfish is literally swimming in it, and breathing it.  I’m not sure if a goldfish even knows what water is, unless it jumps out of the fishbowl!

Imagine if we, like the goldfish, were actually fully immersed in living water!  We are!   Acts 17:28 says, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Ponder that for a moment.  God is everywhere.  God is always with us.  Like a goldfish in water, we are literally swimming in God’s presence.

            If you live in a place like South Sudan, water is not always easily available, and quenching a thirst may require walking miles in search of a dirty water hole, or stream.  For most of us, clean water is more easily available.  It’s as close as a water fountain, or a water tap, or a bottle of water from the store.

What if our spiritual thirsts are even more easy to quench than our physical thirsts?  What if there’s living water as available to us as water is to a goldfish, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  Can you imagine being so deeply immersed in God, that we will never thirst again, that we could absorb God by osmosis, as he passes through us?  Can you imagine?

 

Living water…

One day, Jesus was walking with his disciples, and came to a well in a village called Sychar.  It was in the middle of the day, and Jesus was thirsty, and he didn’t have a bucket and rope to draw water.  So, Jesus asked a woman who had come to the well, to give him a drink.

In those days, it was unusual for a stranger to speak to woman, much less ask her for a favor – it wasn’t the custom.  And, this woman was a Samaritan, and Jesus was a Jew, and Jews were supposed to hate Samaritans.  The woman asked, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”

            Jesus replied, “If you knew me, you would be asking me for living water.”

            Notice how Jesus switched the topic from literal water, to living water?

            She said, “You don’t even have a rope.  How are you getting water?”

            Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  (John 4:13-14)

            The woman said, “Sir, give me that water.  I want that water!”

The conversation began with a simple request for a drink of water.  But, the conversation quickly turned spiritual.  Jesus wasn’t talking about water, drawn from a well.  He was offering himself.  He was offering her the Spirit.  Jesus was saying, the gift of the Spirit – in whom we live, and move and belong – is like a fresh spring of water that never ends, even for eternity, and it’s available to everyone.

And, that living water is available to us every moment of every day.

 

“Let the one who is thirsty come…”

The last chapter of the book of Revelation describes the end of times, when all will be well.  It says there is a never-ending stream, flowing from the throne of God, and  through the main streets of heaven.  And, the Spirit invites everyone to come and drink, Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”  (Revelation 22:17)

            The Spirit is inviting us.  Jesus is inviting us.  There is a river of living water flowing all around us, that will quench our deepest thirsts and desires.  All we have to do is drink.

            One of the first scriptures I ever learned was, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) The same passage appears in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  But, Luke adds, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)

Even a terrible, dead-beat, sad-excuse-for-a  father, will usually feed his hungry kids.  If that’s true, then our heavenly Father will give us so much more.  “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  You can ask him for the living water, and know for sure that he will give it to you!

           

You can lead a horse to water…

            Friends, God does not play hide and seek with us.  God isn’t stingy.  God doesn’t want us to thirst for him unnecessarily.  God doesn’t make us jump through hoops to catch him.  The offer is made – “Come and drink.”  The offer is made – “Ask me, and I will give you living water.  Ask me, and I will give you my Spirit.”

            There’s an old expression, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink.”  I don’t mean to call y’all horses… but if horse shoe fits…  If the thirst fits…

If you are spiritually thirsty… if you’ve realized that nothing in this world can quench your deepest thirst… come and drink the living water.  It’s all around you.  All you have to do is ask.  All you have to do is drink.

 

 

Quicksand Spirituality

Quicksand Spirituality

In a meeting with strangers, Thursday night, the question was asked, “Who gets stressed?”  We all knowingly chuckled.  We ALL get stressed.

The leader asked, “What stresses you?”  Work.  Family.  Relationships.  Health.  Money.

In my head, I was screaming, “WHAT STRESSES ME?  SEVENTEEN STUDENTS AND FACULTY WERE SLAUGHTERED TWO WEEKS AGO IN A LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL!  INSTITUTIONS MEANT TO PROTECT US FAILED!  A TROUBLED KID, REPEATEDLY SHOWING SIGNS OF MENTAL ILLNESS, LEGALLY PURCHASED AN ASSAULT-STYLE RIFLE, WITH THE EXPRESSED INTENT OF COMMITTING MASS MURDER!  OUR WHOLE COMMUNITY IS TRAUMATIZED!  WHAT STRESSES ME?  ARE YOU JOKING?”

But, I never said a word, out loud.  I smiled and nodded.  “Yes. Work, family, and money stress me too.”

I know this sounds terribly judgmental – please, forgive me.  As I listened to our trite examples of stress, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Have we forgotten what JUST happened?  Or, are we just being polite?  Or, is it too painful to say out loud?  Are others inwardly shouting, as I am?  Or, has everyone else moved on?”

I know we have to move on, some how.  We can’t wallow in this forever.  The students have gone back to school.  Businesses are open.  Teams are playing sports.  New stories are making the headlines.

But, I can’t “move on.”  Though I wasn’t directly affected by this tragedy, this tragedy has deeply affected me.  I’m functioning, fairly normally, I think.  But, my soul is troubled.  I’m wrestling with questions I’ve not really wrestled with before, and I can’t find satisfactory answers.  My heart hurts, a lot.  My prayers have devolved into angry rants.  I’m listening, but not hearing.

My struggle is not nearly as significant as the MSD families who lost loved ones, or the students who witnessed horrors, or the parents who now fear their children’s safety, or the faculty and staff who, somehow, must pick up the pieces and make something of the remaining academic year.

Perhaps I’m struggling because I’m supposed to speak for God.  After all, that’s my job.  That is what I’m paid to do.  I’m supposed to know why God allows tragedies to happen.  No. I take that back.  I’m supposed to know why God allowed THIS tragedy to happen.  I’m supposed to know where God was during THIS shooting.  I’m supposed to know why a “good” God allowed THIS evil and suffering.  I’m supposed to know why God didn’t intervene.

God!  Why didn’t you intervene?????

I don’t know.  I’ve had answers before, when things happened to strangers, in far away places.  But, today, two and a half weeks later, my neat theological explanations aren’t holding water.  At least, they’re not for me.

I can’t seem to retreat into comfortable spiritual routines, or familiar theological answers, or even my faith.  In fact, it’s my faith that troubles me most.  How do I speak for a God I don’t understand?  I’ve never presumed to comprehend God.  But, that’s different.  God is beyond human comprehension.  I actually like that.  I need that.  I’m comfortable with that.  This?  Not so much.

Though I haven’t lost or abandoned my core spiritual convictions, or turned my back on God, I feel like my foundation has turned to quicksand.  Where is my rock?  I don’t know where to step and stand with confidence.  And, I’m beginning to wonder if “moving on” spiritually will require me to know and speak for God with a lot less certainty.  That’s unsettling.  To say the least, that stresses me.

Stressed?  Yes, I am stressed.  But, for none of the normal reasons.

Pulling Weeds

Pulling Weeds

“Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”  C.S. Lewis

I grow bonsai trees – little trimmed trees in little pots.  Though I’m only an amateur, I confess I’m obsessed.  I have juniper, adenium, cypress, spruce, crepe myrtle, sea grape, rain tree, acacia, box wood, ficus, mandarin orange, bougainvillea, buttonwood, fukien tea, podocarpus, joboticaba, calliandra, holly, escombron, aralia, elm, and a few others, whose names are escaping me.

As Spring approaches, they’ve needed some extra care – pruning, trimming, repotting, fertilizing, etc.  But, the care I enjoy the least is the tedious work of weeding.

I don’t know where the weeds come from.  I mix the soil myself.  I keep them in a screened-in porch.  How do they get in there?

Wherever their origin, they spring up suddenly, and in abundance!  If I’m not careful to pay close attention, they can sprout up quickly, and become larger than the bonsai tree, itself!

Besides being unsightly (after all, with bonsai, aesthetics is the whole deal!), weeds can actually harm the tree.  Since the trees are growing in small pots, without much soil, the weeds compete with the tree for water and soil nutrients.  I actually have a tree in distress, because I hadn’t noticed some weeds that popped up out of nowhere, before they did their damage.

And, the job of weeding is so tedious.  It’s critical to pull the weed out by the root, or the weed will grow back.  But the weed’s roots tend to intertwine with the roots of the tree, making weed eradication a challenge.  Weeding requires going slow and using tools to gently pull each individual weed.  Even then, it’s impossible to get them all.

Weeds are a pretty good metaphor for my life.  When I’m not paying attention, weeds can unexpectedly pop up, crowding into my life, sapping energy and vitality.  Sometimes weeds are bad habits.  Sometimes weeds are unhealthy emotions.  Sometimes weeds are negative, self-defeating thoughts.  Sometimes weeds are painful memories.  Sometimes weeds are sin.

If I’m not careful, weed roots can grow deep, and entangle my soul.

So, I have to pull my metaphorical weeds too.  And, I think the weeds growing in my soul are even more tedious and challenging, and sometimes more painful to pull, than the weeds growing with my bonsai.  But, if I don’t pull them, they’ll just keep growing and growing and growing.  They’ve got to go before that happens.

Pulled any weeds lately?