Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect

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The Apple Tree

My family has an old tree in the front yard that grows some of the sweetest, crunchiest apples I’ve ever tasted.  It was planted long before we ever bought the house, so we are just the grateful recipients of a previous owner’s forethought.  Every year we seemed to pick enough to enjoy with our family and to share with friends and neighbors.

A few years ago, the tree was getting a little tall.  We decided it needed to be pruned back and thinned out.  The next spring, we were dismayed when not a single blossom sprouted in the tree.  That fall, our tree was bare.  Not a single apple.  “What have we done?” I thought to myself.  Sure we’d ruined it for good, I lamented the loss.

The next year, a few blossoms appeared on the branches in the spring and we actually picked a small crop of apples that fall.  I was relieved, but not entirely convinced the tree would ever return to its former glory.

Last spring the tree was bursting with blossoms and so laden with apples by this fall that one branch actually cracked away from the trunk.  Every weekend I would pick apples to thin out the huge amount of fruit and lighten the load the branches were bearing.  I could work steadily for an hour, filling several bags, but when I’d look up at the tree, I’d barely made a dent.

There was no way our family of four could possibly consume all the apples the tree was producing.  Earlier in the fall, I’d come across information about an organization called Urban Farmers that uses volunteers to harvest fruit trees at private residences.  All the fruit is taken to local food banks and places that provide meals for the hungry.  A few of the places mentioned were ones I recognized like the Contra Costa Food Bank and Loaves and Fishes.  I decided to sign up and see how it worked.

This past Saturday, the founder of Urban Farmers arrived on a sunny morning with fruit picking poles, crates and buckets.  He worked alongside our family to harvest the apples weighing down the branches of our tree.  He was delighted by the taste and smell of the apples and worked cheerfully alongside us filling the crates.

At one point as we were talking about feeding the needy he asked, “What makes you want to do something like this?”  I paused, weighing what kind of answer I wanted to give and finally decided to let go of my usual restraint.  I responded: “Because I love Jesus.”  He remained quiet and I continued:  “Last year I read a book called The Hole in Our Gospel and it helped me understand our responsibility to help the needy.”

The conversation continued, becoming richer and deeper as we shared more.

When all but a few apples were picked, the man asked if he could take our picture with all of the apples.  He said it was unusual to have a whole family participate in helping with the harvest.

Later that day, he sent us an e-mail telling us we’d donated 310 pounds of apples that would be enough to feed 62 people for a day.   I was astounded realizing the decision to register with Urban Farmers  and a few hours of harvesting was helping so many people in need.

It also got me thinking about a conversation I’d had in Bible Study a few days earlier.  We’d been talking about Jesus’ teaching on the vine and the branches from John 15.  In the passage He says:  “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…I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  (John 15:1 & 5)

God’s pruning process in our lives can be incredibly painful, but if we’ll wait for his timing, we can see amazing results and bountiful fruit.  Just like my tree.

The word “fruit” appears numerous times in the Bible and has many layers of meaning, depending on the context.  The Greek word is “karpos,” which literally means: “fruit produced by the inherent energy of a living organism.”  Metaphorically, it is the visible expression of Christ’s power working inwardly and invisibly.  When we are brought into union with Jesus by abiding in Him, His fruit shows in our lives.  He produces the Fruit of the Spirit in us described in Galations 5:22.  When we display this fruit, it draws others to Him who become His followers as well.  These new disciples are yet another kind of “fruit.”

What I’m learning is that I have no power to produce fruit on my own strength.   I might be able to muster up some love, joy, peace and patience for a little while.  Flurries of kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness may breeze through me periodically.  I can even demonstrate self- control once in a while, but none of these things can be sustained in me if I’m not abiding with Jesus throughout the hours every day.

The apple tree appears passive as it sits in one spot absorbing nutrients from the soil, water and sun.  We only see what has been going on inside it when the blossoms appear and the fruit grows.  Like the apple tree, we can absorb every moment with Jesus and produce such an abundance of fruit that our branches sag under the weight.   Love and good deeds flow from us as we abide in Him and draw on Him for strength. The best part is, He does all the work and just asks us to share the fruit with others. Lives are touched and even more fruit is produced as other people come to know Jesus.

Take some time this week to think about your spiritual garden.  Are you in a phase of being pruned?  Are you blossoming and growing fruit?  Are you abiding in Jesus or trying to produce fruit on your own strength?  How can you apply this metaphor personally?  How have you seen its truth?

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Responding to God’s Extravagant Love

Extravagant: (adj) 1. Exceeding the limits of reason or necessity 2. Lacking in moderation, balance and restraint 3.  Spending much more than necessary 4. Unreasonably high in price

 Philippians 2:5-8 says: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (The Message)

Jesus did this for you and me.  Now that is extravagance.

Hopefully, it causes us to bow before Him in gratitude and praise.  Here is the tricky part, though:  the Philippians passage starts with this phrase:  “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.”

This sounds very lofty and theoretical, but how, exactly, do we put aside our own agendas and sacrifice for others?  Maybe, it starts with a simple prayer every morning:  “God, pour out your Spirit on me today.  Use me to bless others and to glorify you.”  Then, as we go about our days, we wait expectantly to see where God is at work and calling us to join Him.  We make ourselves available to be an instrument of his extravagant love.  We can’t do it on our own.

In The Shelter of God’s Promises Sheila Walsh asks us to think of practical ways we can share God’s extravagant love with others.   I think the answer revolves around how we choose to invest our time.  An investment is money that is intentionally placed where it has the best chance of bringing a return.  When we choose to invest our time in loving others, the returns can be astounding.  We discover unspeakable joy while we participate in unleashing God’s extravagant love on earth.

Receiving God’s love from others is also a tremendous gift.  One of the greatest examples in my life happened a few years ago as my dad was living out his last days.  Remembering the way friends and acquaintances in our community rallied around my family still overwhelms me with gratitude.  People invested significant time to support us in tangible and spiritual ways; whether it was delivering food, helping with logistics, sharing words of wisdom or providing emotional support.   Many friends also gave up a sunny Saturday afternoon to attend my dad’s memorial service, which was a true gift to our entire family.   God loved us extravagantly during that painful and vulnerable time.  I well up with thankfulness when I think about all of the people He used to show His love to us.

My response was to want to do the same for anyone else facing a similar situation.   Since my dad passed away, I have developed extra sensitivity for people experiencing loss and feel called to reach out to them in love.  God continues to bring people in my path that are struggling or grieving.  He prompts me to show his love in many ways, whether it is writing a note, making a meal, sharing a meaningful scripture or song, or just being a listening ear. 

The gratitude I felt for the many people who loved me well at a hard time is the same response any follower of Jesus could have at all times.  He stepped out of His heavenly being and became a man who died for us.  Without His sacrifice, we would be separated from God for all eternity.   Once we discover this truth and give our lives to Him, it brings deep peace, joy and gratitude.  What He asks in return is that we pass the love on so that others can experience His extravagance too.  The best part is: He knows you and I don’t have the strength to do this consistently on our own.  All we have to do is ask.

When God answers, be sure to share your own stories of giving and receiving His extravagant love!





Moses and Math Problems

In The Shelter of God’s Promises Sheila Walsh talks about Moses’ bold requests to God.  She says: “He knew what intimacy with God was like; therefore, he knew he could be completely honest in his requests” (p. 20).

You don’t have to be one of the Bible’s great heroes to pray like this.  God also invites us to be completely honest with Him in our requests.  If we’re thinking it, God wants to hear about it.

A woman’s mind is like a huge whiteboard filled with a variety of topics.  Our thoughts can range through at least 15 different subjects in the course of 5 minutes or less.   If you’re anything like me, much of that thought time has to do with fretting about things that you want to control.  I spend a lot of time thinking about ways I can solve problems.  Somehow, things rarely seem to work out the way I plan!

I teach an after school math program for 5th graders that coaches kids on how to solve problems using a variety of strategies.  One of our class sayings is “Problem solving is what you do when you don’t know what to do.”  Some problems lend themselves to obvious strategies, others can be much more convoluted and challenging.  My son and I will sit and do the homework problems together and grapple with the hard ones until we find an answer.  My sheet of scratch paper is full of my pencil scrawls.  It’s messy, but it shows my hard work.  Being the teacher, I have the luxury of looking up the answers once we’re done to see if we got them right.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that if I read the solution to a problem before I try to work it out, the thrill of the challenge is gone.  If I’m in a rush before class and haven’t taken the time to work the problems, I don’t have the same level of understanding or connectedness with them.  Because I haven’t worked through them, I am not nearly as effective in discussing with the class how to solve them.  I can follow the steps on the printed page that looks so much neater than my own scratch paper, but sometimes I don’t even fully understand it myself.

Last week I gave out a problem that I recycled from one of last year’s tests.  One boy recognized it immediately and commented.  “I remember this problem, it was a hard one!  It felt so good when I figured out the answer.”  He didn’t remember it from the solutions sheet I passed out after the test; he remembered it because he’d sweated through solving it.

I think grappling with God in prayer is much the same way.  When we aren’t willing to pray through things or wait on God, we miss out on the intimacy He has to offer. We try to find quick fixes rather than trusting God to work in His perfect timing.  Sometimes we pray hoping He’ll just do it “our way,” because it looks more sanitized and orderly, like my pre-printed math solutions.  And just like my scratch paper scrawling, being open to God’s plan may lead to a messier process, but a more satisfying result and a deeper connectedness with Him.  As Sheila Walsh says:  “When God’s answer comes, His creativity leaves us stunned and in awe of Him”  (p. 28).  We find the joy and wonder of discovering the answer in his perfect planning and timing.

Praying honestly before God exposes our hearts to Him and shows our humble reliance on Him.  It shows God that we trust Him to work things out in His way and in His timing rather than relying on ourselves.

So, the next time you find yourself fretting or struggling with a problem, try entrusting it to God and letting Him work it out.  Unlike the Math Olympiad motto, maybe it would be better to say: “Praying is what you do when you don’t know what to do.”

I can’t wait to hear how He leaves you “stunned and in awe”!  Be sure to share so others can praise Him and be encouraged.