November 2012

One Way to Look at It: Trees

Imagine if you described a tree to someone who had no knowledge of them before.  You might sketch a picture or use your hands to indicate its form.  You could wrap the details of leaves and branches in words and leave them inspired.  And then imagine that they decided that they needed a tree, and proceeded to build one.  They bought wood, cut it out, maybe bought some fake leaves and affixed them throughout the carved boughs.  They could do a masterful job of making a copy of a tree.  But you can’t build a tree.  It has to grow.  
Sometimes we do this with our faith.  
The Bible is chock-full of stories.  Some describe truly heroic people.  Some describe bumbling idiots who happen to do something heroic in spite of themselves.  Some describe rules for life, either for a particular people or in principle.  Some are letters sent directly to a church in a city in which we glimpse one side of an ongoing conversation and relationship and are blessed by the wisdom we can glean from it.  Some is meant for beauty, to express something of the writer’s experience of God and give Him glory.  God’s work is the theme throughout and Jesus the most important character in the broader narrative.  We learn from Him both by example and teaching, and watch how those who knew Him best went to work on His behalf.  It’s an intimidating conglomeration of words and meanings and what-do-I-do-with-this-little-piece moments.
But it is not a list of instructions on how to build a tree.  Or a faith.  
Simply put, faith has to grow.  It has to start with what little bit we have to put in and the seed God gives and let it take root.  We are familiar with the teaching the parable of the sower, but we often misinterpret it.  We kind of have a mentality that says, “Oh, well.  If so-and-so is having this specific response to it all, they must not have been good soil.  Too bad, so sad.  At least I’m good soil.”  But the response is always a choice.  Not for dirt, but for people.  The path is too hard?  Loosen it up.  The rocks prevent roots?  Get rid of them.  The thorns choke the plant?  Clear them away.  Think you’re good?  Check again; you will probably find that, on your bad days, the thorns sneak back in.  Work the soil to make it good.  Do whatever it takes to encourage (not demand) growth in your own life, then let God to the God part.  He will grow the tree.  He doesn’t ask us to build it.  
If you’re thinking this is not a struggle for you, consider this: When you read the fruit of the Spirit passage, do you hear it as a checklist of things you should be?  If you find yourself thinking, “This is an intense list, but at least I’m naturally self-controlled and gentle.  So what if patience and joy are slower to come? I’ll get there. One thing at a time.”  Or do you recognize a list of descriptors of what happens when the Spirit leads a life?  As in, “Well, I know these things don’t come naturally, but I can tell that when I am more connected with God, patience and faithfulness come much more easily, so I want to stick even tighter so all these descriptors can start blooming in my life. That’s exciting.”  
Think about it.  You can no more demand an apple of a tree that is unhealthy than you can demand kindness of yourself when you are spiritually unwell.  If our lives right now don’t reflect that list, it’s an indication that it’s time to get to work clearing out whatever is hindering the growth that the Spirit brings.  We cannot just choose to live better.  That’s kind of why we need Jesus in the first place.  Otherwise we risk carving wooden fruit to hang on our fake tree and remain baffled as to why things don’t quite feel whole. And let’s face it:  A handmade tree looks a little silly and outsiders aren’t drawn to having one of their own.
The bottom line is: This is all God’s thing.  It’s His tree growing in us.  It’s His kingdom growing into a forest.  It’s not about merely understanding what that should look like so we can try harder.  It’s about bringing everything under His rule so that He can infuse it with what it needs to bring Him even more glory. 

The Sower

This past Celebration Sunday, I had the privilege to teach the kids' class.  We read through the parable of “The Sower.”  Various church members brought real seeds, rocks, cactus spines, and good soil for the children to actually see the components of the story.  After using these visuals, we told the story again with edible visuals.  We “planted” chocolate candies.  We added crumbled Oreo “rocks.”  We observed the “thistle” pretzel sticks.  And then we added some chocolate pudding as the “good soil.”  It was a very delicious activity.  I didn't mind teaching the kids class one bit (wink, wink).
Since Greg and I returned from furlough, I have experienced a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts.  For those that don't know, Greg and I will be leaving Peru in two years.  Greg desires to study more and earn a doctorate.  We feel that it is the next chapter in our journey together, and the timing of it all places us in Arequipa until January 2015.  Arequipa is our home.  We have celebrated more anniversaries in this city, we have had two children that carry Peruvian passports, we have established ourselves here as family.  We were convicted to move here in 2008, and throughout the past four years we have worked hard to make a dream for this city become reality, and we have fallen in love with many of the Peruvian people in the process.  It is hard to imagine life outside of Arequipa.
Greg and I have prayed so much about this decision, and I feel good about the timeline.  But before we left for furlough, a huge part of my heart ached for these people.  In a sense, I feel like we are “abandoning” family.  I cried when we said good-bye to our house church before furlough.  I do not want to imagine the blubbering of tears I will display in the months leading up to January 2015.  But God has taught me a huge lesson in my time here...
He is the sower.  Sometimes he uses me to plant a seed.  Sometimes he uses me to water or pull thistles away from a plant.  But the point of him being the sower is that I am just a part of the process in Kingdom planting.  We are excited beyond words about a team of four couples that is choosing to come join the work we began here four years ago.  Several of the couples will overlap with Greg and me in our final year, then continue working with the Smiths, and I cannot express the joy that brings to me in knowing that these four precious families will be partnering with Peruvians that are now growing in leadership and maturity in the Spirit.
I have struggled with the language, but God has showed me time and time again what he can do with a willing spirit that says “Here am I.  Send me.”  I expressed to Greg the other day that I know my Spanish has greatly improved, but I am pretty sure that I still wouldn't be an “expert speaker” if we chose to live here twenty years.  Who knows if I am correct.  Who knows if we end up moving back to Peru again in the distant future.  But one thing I am confident of is that I was part of Kingdom sowing while I was here.  Maybe I am not the one to run the library program as a fluent Spanish speaker, but maybe God needed me to plant the seeds for that program to really launch.  Maybe I will never fully connect to these women's lives that I am studying with–there are certainly plenty of language and cultural barriers that seem impossible to overcome at times.  But I am confident that I have been part of God sowing seeds in these women's lives, and I am excited to be a part of the growing process while I am still here.
Have you ever been in a situation where you know big change will happen in a short time?  It is easy to check out or distance yourself from those around you.  I have been thinking a lot of what these two years should look like for me.  What is it that will make the greatest impact in our ministry here?  My friends know that I won't always be around.  This past month, I read this verse in light of the communion we shared together:  

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
— John 13:34-35

Wherever we go, wherever we live, whoever we fellowship with, they will know us by our love.  It is my prayer that I can demonstrate this in its fullest form to the Peruvians around me in the coming two years.  I am excited for others to carry a torch that I have been carrying in the four years we have lived here.  I am so thankful for those that planted seeds before we even arrived.  I am even more grateful to know that God is in control of his planting, and one day we might get to see how a crop “multiplies thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times” (Mark 4:8).

Part 8: Membership

How do you suppose the early church thought about “membership”?  Or did they?  Of course, the New Testament doesn’t mention anything about it.  There are a number of references to specific house churches, which were identified by the owners of the houses (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 2).  This doesn’t tell us much except that the owners were fixed members of particular congregations.