Pruned to Thrive

By |2021-02-02T08:06:04-05:00February 2nd, 2021|

As I watched a bumblebee land lightly on the Russian sage, I marveled at its lush branches. The bush exploded with color, its brilliant blue blossoms attracting eyes and bees alike.       

Yet only last fall, I’d wondered if it would ever blossom again. When my wife’s parents trimmed the periwinkle plant down to a stub, I’d assumed they’d decided to get rid of it. But now I was witnessing the radiant result of pruning that had seemed brutal to me. 

The surprising beauty that results from harsh cuts may be one of the reasons Jesus chose pruning imagery to describe God’s work among believers in John 15, saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. . . . every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (vv. 1–2). 

Jesus’s words remind us that in the good times and bad, God is always working in us toward spiritual renewal and fruitfulness (v. 5). During “pruning” seasons of suffering or emotional barrenness, we may wonder if we’ll ever thrive again. But Jesus encourages us to continue to stick close to Him: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (v. 4). 

And as we continually draw spiritual nourishment from Christ, the resulting beauty and fruitfulness in our lives (v. 8) will witness to the world of God’s goodness.

Fireworks of Life

By |2020-12-31T08:06:07-05:00December 31st, 2020|

On New Year’s Eve, when high-powered fireworks detonate across cities and towns worldwide, the noise is loud on purpose. By their nature, say manufacturers, flashy fireworks are meant to split the atmosphere, literally. “Repeater” blasts can sound the loudest, especially when exploded near the ground.

Troubles, too, can boom through our hearts, minds, and homes. The “fireworks” of life—family struggles, relationship problems, work challenges, financial strain, even church division—can feel like explosions, rattling our emotional atmosphere.

Yet we know the One who lifts us over this uproar. Christ Himself “is our peace,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:14. When we abide in His presence, His peace is greater than any disruption, quieting the noise of any worry, hurt, or disunity.

This would have been powerful assurance to Jews and Gentiles alike. They had once lived “without hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). Now they faced threats of persecution and internal threats of division. But in Christ, they’d been brought near to Him, and consequently to each other, by His blood. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14).

As we start a New Year, with threats of unrest and division ever rumbling on the horizon, let’s turn from life’s noisy trials to seek our ever present Peace. He quiets the booms, healing us.

No Impossible Obstacles

By |2020-11-15T08:06:07-05:00November 15th, 2020|

As an adult leader, I arranged a student fieldtrip to an obstacle course. We instructed students to slip into safety gear and scale an eight-foot wall. Those who volunteered to go first encouraged each climber to trust the harness and keep moving forward without looking down. One of our students stared at the barrier as we secured belts and buckles around her waist. “There’s no way I can do this,” she said. Affirming the strength of her harness, we encouraged her and cheered when she climbed up the wall and stepped onto the high platform.

When we face problems that seem impossible to conquer, fears and insecurities can cause doubts. The assurance of God’s unchanging might, goodness, and faithfulness creates a strong harness of trust. This confident assurance fueled the courage of the Old Testament saints, who demonstrated that faith trumps our need to know every detail of God’s plan (Hebrews 11:1–13, 39). With conviction, we seek God earnestly, often standing alone when we trust Him. We can adjust the way we approach our challenges by viewing our circumstances with an eternal perspective‒knowing our trials are only temporary (vv. 13–16).

Focusing on the inevitable tough roads and steep climbs in life can prevent us from believing that God will bring us through. But knowing He’s with us, we can harness our uncertainties by faith as we trust God to help us overcome obstacles that once seemed impossible.

Choosing Hope

By |2020-10-27T09:06:03-04:00October 27th, 2020|

I am one of millions of people worldwide who suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a type of depression common in places with limited sunlight due to short winter days. When I begin to fear winter’s frozen curse will never end, I’m eager for any evidence that longer days and warmer temperatures are coming.

The first signs of spring—flowers successfully braving their way through the lingering snow—also powerfully remind me of the way God’s hope can break through even our darkest seasons. The prophet Micah confessed this even while enduring a heart-rending “winter” as the Israelites turned away from God. As Micah assessed the bleak situation, he lamented that “not one upright person” seemed to remain (Micah 7:2).

Yet, even though the situation appeared dire, the prophet refused to give up hope. He trusted that God was at work (v. 7)—even if, amid the devastation, he couldn’t yet see the evidence.

In our dark and sometimes seemingly endless “winters,” when spring doesn’t appear to be breaking through, we face the same struggle as Micah. Will we give into despair? Or will we “watch in hope for the Lord”? (v. 7).

Our hope in God is never wasted (Romans 5:5). He is bringing a time with no more “winter”: a time with no more mourning or pain (Revelation 21:4). Until then, may we rest in Him, confessing, “My hope is in you” (Psalm 39:7).

Fighting Life’s Dragons

By |2020-10-10T09:06:05-04:00October 10th, 2020|

Have you ever fought a dragon? If you answered, “No,” author Eugene Peterson disagrees with you. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, he wrote, “Dragons are projections of our fears, horrible constructions of all that might hurt us. . . . A peasant confronted by a magnificent dragon is completely outclassed.” Peterson’s point? Life is filled with dragons. The life-threatening health crisis, the sudden job loss, the failed marriage, the estranged prodigal child. These “dragons” are the supersized dangers and frailties of life that we are inadequate to fight.

But in those battles, we have a Champion. Not a fairy tale champion—the ultimate Champion who has fought on our behalf and conquered the dragons that seek to destroy us. Whether they are dragons of our own failures or the spiritual enemy who desires our destruction, our Champion is greater, allowing Paul to write of Christ, “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). The destructive forces of this broken world are no match for Jesus. 

The moment we realize that the dragons of life are too big for us is the moment we can begin to rest in Christ’s rescue. We can confidently say, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Making Peace with Trouble

By |2020-09-21T09:06:03-04:00September 21st, 2020|

We were almost home when I noticed it: the needle of our car’s temperature gauge was rocketing up. As we pulled in, I killed the engine and hopped out. Smoke wafted from the hood. The engine sizzled like bacon. I backed the car up a few feet to find a puddle beneath: oil. Instantly, I knew: The head gasket had just blown.

I groaned. We’d just sunk money into other expensive repairs. Why can’t things just work?! I grumbled bitterly. Why can’t things just stop breaking?!

Can you relate? Sometimes we avert one crisis, solve one problem, pay off one big bill, only to face another. Sometimes, those troubles are much bigger than an engine self-destructing: an unexpected diagnosis, an untimely death, a terrible loss.

In those moments, we yearn for a world less broken, less full of trouble. That world, Jesus promised, is coming. But not yet: “In this world you will have trouble,” he reminded His disciples in John 16. “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (v. 33). Jesus spoke in that chapter about grave troubles, such as persecution for the faith. But such trouble, He taught, would never have the last word for those who hope in Him.

Troubles small and large may dog our days. But Jesus’ promise of a better tomorrow with Him encourages us not to let our troubles define our lives today.

Living in the Branches

By |2020-04-30T09:56:27-04:00May 1st, 2020|

As I shared with my counselor my roller-coaster of emotions after a stress-filled week, she listened thoughtfully. Then she invited me to look out the window at the trees, lush with autumnal oranges and golds, the branches swaying in the wind. Pointing out that the trunks weren’t moving at all in the wind, my counselor explained, “We’re a bit like that..."

Run Toward Challenge

By |2020-04-20T16:21:22-04:00April 25th, 2020|

Tom chased the young men who were stealing his poor friend’s bike. He didn’t have a plan. He only knew he needed to get it back. To his surprise, the three thieves looked his way, dropped the bike and backed away. Tom was both relieved and impressed with himself as he picked up the bike and turned around. That’s when he saw Jeff, his muscular friend who had been trailing close behind...

The Singing Revolution

By |2020-04-17T11:54:11-04:00April 20th, 2020|

What does it take to ignite a revolution? Guns? Bombs? Guerrilla warfare? In late-1980s Estonia, it took songs. After the people had lived under the burden of Soviet occupation for decades, a movement began with the singing of a series of patriotic songs. These songs birthed the “Singing Revolution,” which played a key role in restoring Estonian independence in 1991...

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