Pruning Hurts! (Growing and Pruning: Don’t neglect the process)

When I first started out in ministry I had no idea what I was doing.  I was 19 years and suddenly found myself in charge of a youth ministry.  Organizing budgets and car washes to get students to camps and conferences.  Organizing drivers, planning events.  All things I had never done or even seen because I never went to a youth group before.  My first experience at a summer camp was as the youth pastor.  I can’t even count the number of odd looks I got when people asked me who was in charge of these students.  It was definitely getting thrown into the deep end with out a clue of how to swim.  So I did the only thing I knew how to do.  I PRAYED!  A LOT!!!

As I grew older and discovered the different gifts and talents I had I somehow forgot about my humble beginnings and what truly produced the greatest fruit.  I had found myself in the place where I was relying on my gifts and talents to get me through in youth ministry.  I grabbed at things that were good.  I thought, that will work!  That will get students hungry and passionate for God!  I even thought they were great things, not just good.  I needed better strategy, better leadership, better change management process, better leader meetings, better prayer, better worship, better discipleship practices, and better teaching.  After all it fit my motto fit: More is not better, better is better.  Just try harder!!!  I was way past the days of trying to draw a crowd.  I just wanted students to be on fire for God!  Isn’t that what God wants?  People who’s hearts are for His heart.  So why wasn’t any of this working?

If you are at all like me you may desire to see results and to see them soon. I get frustrated after putting so much time and energy and resources into something only to find myself saying at the end of the day, “Well, that was a flop!”  Somethings just don’t go the way we hope for.  But maybe that is our problem.  Maybe it is what we hope for, not what God truly hopes for.  So, what if we wait to see what is better?  What is actually better?  What is actually the real fruit Jesus was talking about when he said, “You will know them by their fruits” (my paraphrase of Matthew 7:20)  How do we even measure that fruit?

What if all the things I am doing are actually keeping me from being fruitful?  Alan Fadling in his book, An Unhurried Life, says, “I think pruning is the experience of God taking away from us something we thought was very fruitful but was in fact keeping us from being as fruitful as we could be.”

Then it hit me between the eyes and right in my heart!  I was burned out.  Actually, at the time I couldn’t even tell if I was on the edge of burn out, if I was burned out, or even if I was way passed that.  My wife and I had to take my 5 year old son to get an MRI on his brain to see if there was a possible mass on his brain.  But then it had to wait because he caught a slight cold.  I was leading a mission trip to Guatemala with students and because of the timing it had to wait until I got back.  I had also just received a very discouraging email about all my efforts into youth ministry.  I was crushed.  Thoughts and memories of watching my mom die of brain cancer flooded my mind.  Now possibly my son. I could not handle this.  The youth ministry seemed to be struggling.  I was a deeply broken man.  I came back from Guatemala and had to face one of any parent’s biggest fears.  Thankfully the MRI came back 100% clear, but there was something still broken inside me.

I was exhausted, discouraged, frustrated, angry and without hope or vision.  I went to a conference about equipping parents to disciple their children.  I was still thinking what could I take back from this and implement into our ministry.  But the whole theme of the conference rocked me.  It was called ABIDE.  John 15.  Those words Jesus said to his disciples in that chapter pierced my heart.  “Apart from me you can do nothing!”

It brought me back to my beginning.  The only thing I knew how to do then was pray.  So I went back to the basics.  The simplicity of doing work with God, instead of for God.  I had to (rather God had to) strip away all the things I thought were bearing fruit and show me that He is the one who allows fruit to grow!  I needed to be at the place where I completely trusted him for everything.  So, I came back from the conference and literally told my supervisor these words, “I am going to learn what it means to abide, I don’t care if I get fired!”

Well, I am still on that journey and thankfully I still have my job.  I did learn that pruning hurts, but it is necessary to bear fruit that will last.  Pruning doesn’t happen just once either.  It comes every season.  The longer we wait the more it hurts.  What if we approach it differently though?  Could we look forward to the pruning knowing we will bear more fruit?  Just as pruning happens every season, so does the harvest!  What if we learn to keep “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”?(Hebrews 12:2 NIV)  Jesus knew the joy set before him and took the cross.  Instead of rushing and grabbing at all those things we think bear fruit shouldn’t we focus our attention on abiding in Jesus so that we actually bear fruit?  So that doing work with Jesus becomes natural.  Then it begins to feel like the way he described it: an easy yoke and a light burden.

I also had to allow God to reshape my identity to trust and rest fully in him.  To pause and realize that what I am doing does not matter as much as who I am becoming.  As John the baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease.”  In order for people to see more of Jesus in me than myself shouldn’t it make sense to spend time with him!  We cannot neglect the process by which He desires to form us into His likeness.  It is a slow and hard work, but it is one that bears fruit and fruit that will last!

I leave you with the words to a beautiful chorus by Hillsong:

All I want, All I need

More of you, Less of me

Take this life, Lord it’s Yours

Have my heart, Have it all

The Benefit of Anguish

Pain.  Sorrow.  Anguish.

There are times in life that we experience it deeply.  You may know it.  It is that place you find yourself asking… Why?  Why God?  It hurts so bad that the tears don’t even matter.  In fact at times it hurts so bad you can’t even cry.  Maybe you’ve wondered like I have.  “Is something wrong with me?’  It runs so deep that it wears you out and you just want to sleep so you don’t have to think about it. But even in your dreams you are reminded of the pain.  You may be tempted to self medicate with that vice that is your nemesis.

But, what if the pain is a gift?  I know that does not sound right.  It doesn’t seem to make sense.  It doesn’t for me either.  One day I was sitting in the hospital room with my mom having a pizza party.  My sister, her husband and kids were there.  My pregnant wife and young daughter were there.  The room was filled with laughter and prayer and sorrow.  We knew she was going in for a biopsy the next morning for a mass on her brain.  A week later she was gone.  My wife’s sister just recently passed away from cancer, just a few weeks from the diagnoses.  The reminders of death and a broken messed up world seem to always be right in our faces.  How is pain supposed to be a gift?  I found myself saying a number of times in my life, “God, I don’t get it!”

Chapter 38 of Isaiah has some of the most profound words in regards to this topic.  Hezekiah was told by the prophet Isaiah to get his house in order because he was going to die.  “Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, ‘Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done was is good in your eyes.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly.” (Isaiah 38:2-3 NIV)  Hmmm…  A fairly simple yet profound prayer.  Remember me God.  That is really all he asked for.  Is that what I would ask for?  Is that what you would ask for?  God, remember me… uh, except for…   No, Hezekiah left it all in God’s hands.  Somehow that prayer hit the ears and heart of God in such a way that He decided to add 15 years to Hezekiah’s life.  God didn’t stop there. He also promised to deliver him and the city from Assyria.

All that stuff is pretty awesome, but here is what pierces my heart to the core.  It is found in verse 17.  You could easily miss it as I almost did.  “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.  In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.”  Wait?  Did he just say it was for my benefit?  Yes he did.  I had to read it again.  I just stopped right there.  WOW.  Ok, I understand the idea that “sufferings produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4 NIV)  But this… this says it completely different.  That somehow it is to my benefit that I suffer anguish?  As I put those two together it makes sense in my head.  Sure the benefit is perseverance, character and hope.  But how do I reconcile that in my heart when the pain is so bad?  Even Hezekiah refers to it as an anguish of his soul.

To be honest I am still trying to wrap my heart and mind around the idea of the benefit of anguish.  I go back to my previous post when I talk about letting God hold my heart.  I have a couple of choices in the deep pain.  I could run.  Run from everything and everyone.  Self medicate myself.  Sleep it away.  But when I wake or come back from the slumber it is all still there.  I could just get angry and bitter.  I’ve seen that before.  I don’t want that.  There are probably a number of other options too.  OR…  I could hand over my heart.  I could be completely and brutally honest with God.  Wrestle through it with him.  Lean into him and lean on him.  Surrender.  Trust.  Allow God to turn those hard parts in my heart to soft fertile soil.  Because they are there.  When we are truly honest with ourselves we all know they are.

Of course, that begs the question,”Does God make these things happen then?”  No, I don’t think so, but I’m also not God.  What I do know is we live in a fallen world.  It all started with the first sin.  We live in a broken world as a result of that.

So, maybe there is a benefit of anguish. Is it an opportunity to hand things over, relinquish control, and trust that he will be all that I will ever need?  To let go of the fear of the unknown?  In the pain could he do something in me that I wouldn’t allow otherwise?  That I am at the point where I say, “Ok God, my life, it is yours.  Do with it what you will. Your will, not mine.”  Was that not the prayer Jesus said at his time of anguish in the Garden?

Deep, beyond the pain therein the gift is to be discovered.  It will look different for you than it does for me.  Maybe the gift is not for you but for someone else.  My wife and mother-in-law discovered a deep sense of loneliness in their loss.  Yet they vowed they would never let one of their friends feel as alone as they have in their anguish.  Their’s is a gift for someone else.  In return it is a gift for them as well.  They are now a comfort to those who mourn and it brings them joy.  The gift we find beyond the pain is an odd but powerful thing.

We live in a deeply broken world that needs people of God who know the benefit of anguish. God knew it, so he sent His only son to experience it.  Jesus knew it so he walked into to it.  He in fact took upon him the greatest anguish of all.  The full cup of God’s wrath for you and me.

As you celebrate our risen Lord this weekend do not forgot he experienced the greatest anguish of all so that we might experience and know his love that restores all things.  And remember… In that great anguish He conquered sin and death!

The Gardner and the Fertile Soil

Will the Gardner spend his energy on soil that is not fertile?  It is a question that has been rolling through my mind for the past six months.

In Matthew 13 there are three out of the five parables that are very similar that we usually see as separate.  The first is the parable of the sower which is about a farmer who scatters seed and it falls on different types of ground.  If you have read it you know the story.  Some take root very shortly, some not at all, but only there is only one under which the conditions are good enough for the seed to bear fruit.  The fertile soil!  I have heard these verses used for us as believers to “scatter the seed of the word” everywhere.  But what if we are not the sower of the seeds.  What if in this parable the message Jesus wants to get across is about the condition of our heart.  In the parable of the weeds (the second parable) Jesus explains that the sower of the seeds is “The Son of Man”.  Is it possible that these two are meant to be seen as stories that Jesus is weaving together?  And the third one is about the mustard seed.  What if all three of these are meant to be woven together to understand the depth of what Jesus is talking about? In John 15 Jesus also uses the analogy of the vine and branches.  When we stay connected to the vine then we as the branches will bear fruit.  When we tie all this together what we have is a Gardner (Jesus), the soil (our hearts), the world (weeds, rocks, etc) and our lives (the branches) which are meant to bear fruit.

This all brings me back to the question?  Will Jesus – The Gardner – spent his energy on soil that is not fertile?

I believe He wants to break up those hard pieces of our heart.  The question is… Are we willing to let him hold our hearts?  Are we willing to surrender everything to Him?

Here is a journal entry from about 6 months ago…

– I must learn to rest in His Love. I must allow him to break open my heart and break down all the hard pieces and places until it is soft, rich, and fertile soil.  Then he can put it back together.  That might be, no it is, painful.  I thought to myself, “If I could hear him his voice once a week it would be wonderful.  I wouldn’t want to stop there though.  Once a day would be even better.”  Then maybe my heart would remain softly in His strong, but gentle hands.  Maybe then I wouldn’t be as reluctant to let him hold it.  It wouldn’t hurt as bad when he needs to break it loose. –

This is only one piece to the whole story.  Trees and branches that bear fruit do not grow over night.  There is a process involved and it takes time.  There are seasons of pruning and dry spells and bearing fruit.  They don’t just happen once either.  Pruning is a regular occurrence, but bearing fruit is also a regular occurrence.  Dry spells come and go and often catch us by surprise.  Some of these moments are extremely painful, others are full of joy and life.

I plan on writing more about this in three more parts:

1. Establishing Fertile Soil: The Benefit of Anguish

2. Growing and Pruning: Don’t Neglect the Process

3. Dry Spells: Roots that go Deep

I will end with this.  How fertile is the soil of your heart?  Are you willing to ask your heavenly Father that question?  When you are ready to ask you might be surprised by His answer.