From the Desk of the Associate: The Thriving Tree

When I was just a poor college student, I worked my summer and off hours for a lawncare company. We did the typical mowing and weed control for commercial and residential properties. There is something so satisfying about mowing a lush green lawn and looking back at your very precise cross-stripped mowing pattern and just think “wow! what beauty.” Now with some lawns it was impossible to get to this perfectly lush and green standard. Many of our customers were working under a certain budget that did not include room for the type of measures that such a lawn requires. There were some customers who wanted that luscious lawn but who did not invest in the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and watering that were required. I remember thinking one day of a customer who had commented that her property was looking as sharp as some others but then she refused my boss’s offer to apply fertilizer and pesticides. I remember thinking that this customer was like many of us. We want lush and green spiritual lives but we refuse to invest the time and energy into making this happen. It’s not that it isn’t possible, we just don’t do the things that we know we should.

Over and over in Scripture, God uses tree metaphors for the Christian life. Just think of Jesus’ statement in John 15, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…. Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” Jesus is clearly stating here that if we want to have a fruitful life we must abide in him. Consider also, Galatians 5. Paul states that we will either bear fruits of the flesh or we will bear fruits of the Spirit. Many of us learn the verses about the fruit of the Spirit, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” But though many of us learn what the fruits of the Spirit are, we take them to be imperatives and not indicatives. In other words, Paul is simply describing what someone who is led by the Spirit looks like, he is not commanding us here to be loving, joyful, peaceful, etc. but he is saying that someone who is led by the Spirit exhibits these things. Does that mean this is just something that passively happens to us? Or to go back to John 15, do we just passively abide in Jesus the vine?

Jesus and Paul are very helpful because they don’t leave us guessing. Jesus goes on to state in verse 7 of John 15, that “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” Jesus will go on to say in this same dialogue, that He would be sending the Holy Spirit who we know enables the follower of Jesus to bear fruit. Back to Paul in Galatians 6, he says that in order for us to bear certain fruit we must plant certain fruit. Galatians 6:7-10 “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. The interesting thing about Galatians 6 is that it is all in the context of living our Christian life in community of other Christians. In other words, we sow to the Spirit by abiding with other Christians.

It’s not just the New Testament that uses trees and fruit metaphors for the godly person. Look at Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” David is describing what it takes to be a fruitful person. It seems that the distinguishing feature of a thriving person is their delight in God’s Word. Can’t you hear the echo in Jesus’ words when he said “if my words abide in you”? We will bear fruit if we delight in God’s Word frequently. But there is another more subtle aspect about Psalm 1 that we should not miss. David contrasts the thriving person with the wicked person as someone who surrounds himself by the wicked, sinful, and scoffers. What’s the application here? Well it’s the same as Paul’s application in Galatians 6. We are to surround ourselves with others who are seeking to be fruit bearing Christians, we also call this the Church.

So to boil it all down, what does it take to be a Spiritual fruit bearing person? We must abide in Jesus by delighting in his Word, and we must plant to the Spirit by living in community with those who are also abiding in Christ. I am probably not giving you some groundbreaking revelation, but many of us are like the customer that I described at the beginning. We want a lush and green life and we know what it will take to get that but we just don’t want to invest our time and energy in God’s Word and God’s people. I hope that will not describe me in the coming year and it is my prayer that it won’t describe you either.

Flirting With Death…

It was July of 2021 and I honestly thought I was going to die. I was so far from shore and the current underneath me was so strong. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was caught in a dangerous rip current off the Gulf Coast of Mexico. I was far from shore and the waves were high and pummeling my already tired body.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a strong swimmer. In any pool or body of water I only go as far as chest high. Indeed, I can swim, but I’m not proficient by any stretch of the imagination. The thought of drowning is perhaps one of my greatest fears in life, next to killer clowns and creepy basement crawlspaces. I respect the water. I fear the water. To die in a watery abyss is beyond scary to me.

Indeed, that day in July had started off with so much excitement. My brother, Steven, had just sworn into the Pensacola Police Department as a police officer. My heart swelled with pride as I witnessed my brother raise his right hand and take his solemn oath. My little brother had just become a cop! My other brother, Samuel, was also with me at the swearing in ceremony. It was a proud moment for the three of us brothers. We decided to celebrate by heading to Pensacola Beach…

We swam around and played around for hours. We wrestled in the water and cracked jokes that made us laugh till our bellies hurt. Man alive, it was such a good time! The sun was beginning to set, and we decided to take one last lap in the water. We were all tired, but happy, and wanted one last hurrah in the Gulf before heading to dinner.

Then it happened, I popped out of the water after seeing how long I could hold my breath, and I was so far from land. Indeed, the current was pulling me farther and farther from land. Fear and panic gripped my body. My life flashed before my eyes. Images of my wife and children (especially my new – always smiling – adopted son, Derrick) flashed before my eyes. I was so scared. “You can’t swim!”, my brain screamed at me with aggressive passion. After a few more seconds of panic, I made the decision, “It’s sink or swim; and I’m not going to die today – not today,” I told myself. So, I began to swim. The struggle was real and intense. Amazingly, I never took a gulp of water with all the waves crashing in around me. I swam hard. I swam ugly. I swam for my life. “Not. Going. To Die. Today. Keep going…Don’t quit…Don’t stinking quit…”, I told myself as my body chopped through the relentless waters. I was tired. Exhausted. I wanted to stop, to catch my breath, but to do so meant certain death – death by drowning.

By the grace of God, I survived that day. All three of us brothers were able to escape that strong rip current in the Gulf of Mexico. As we got to the beach, we flopped on the white sand in satisfied, nervous exhaustion. We were alive…by the grace of God.

You know, I’ve been close to death several times. From incoming mortars in Iraq to some scary car accidents, but that moment in the Gulf was intense. I’m grateful to be alive. Still breathing. Still moving forward. Still on mission.

Flirting with death is an uncomfortable grace that is filled with adrenaline and high stakes passion. Indeed, to escape death gives you new perspective and a renewed vigor for life. Ultimately, God is the giver of life, and He is sovereign over our lives and over our deaths. To Him be the glory both now and forever, amen.

As I exit 2021 and enter 2022, I’m still up and moving. Yes, and I intend to keep moving till my bones collapse and God says, “Come home.” Till then, the time to live, love, and lead is NOW, not later. You and I are not guaranteed any set amount of time here on Earth. James 4:14 clearly states, “What is your life? For you are a mist [a vapor; a puff of smoke] that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

So, resolve with me to live this quickly vanishing life with all the passion of a non-swimmer stuck in a rip current to the glory of God. Are you struggling right now? Scared right now? Uncertain right now? Keep going. Don’t quit. It’s sink or swim – choose to swim.