October 8, 2008

Soil Tests

They are like trees planted along the riverbank,

bearing fruit each season.

Their leaves never wither,

and they prosper in all they do.

- Psalm 1 (New Living Bible)

A chief challenge of the times in which we live is the reality that most of us are cut off from the real sources of our food. Ask a child from whence cometh apples and—no real fault of her own—she is likely to say “from the store.” Never mind the toil of those who labor in groves far away; never mind the remarkable yield of such productive creatures as fruit trees—doing their thing season after season. Fruit just happens in our world. Unlike in earlier generations more agrarian than our own, most of us (but not all of us, Mr. Johnston) are afforded no daily connection to its source.

The convenience of the produce section of Giant Eagle not withstanding, there are implications to this cutoff for our Christian faith. Spiritual fruit does not simply happen in our lives. Just as no famer would propose standing before a bare field and shouting “make fruit!” … so we cannot expect our lives to bring forth signs of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25) without a proper planting, tending, and harvest. It turns out that modernity contains an ironic twist for believers: The more convenient the world around us, the more challenging it is to nurture within us a deep and abiding Christ faith. Last time I checked, Giant Eagle doesn’t carry piety.

Still, “those who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night, they are like trees planted along the riverbank.” This is not mere moralizing on the Bible’s part. Think less of the psalmist wagging his finger at us and more of a disciple who has lived long enough to figure out that soil matters—where we plant our lives makes a difference. The psalmist can look back over his life and appreciate that good farming makes for “bearing fruit each season.” (Matthew 13:3-8)

Remember this background when your Stewardship Packet comes around this month. Without much reflection, we are tempted to look upon pledge cards and time commitments and the like as a narrow one-way street. “The church needs more from me,” we might sigh, scribbling down some hasty numbers. Turn it back in on Sunday, and we’re off the hook for another year.

But I invite you to eschew this flattened view of discipleship. Instead, consider this matter of stewardship as a busy two-way street. There is no doubt that a congregation needs from God’s people their time, talent, and treasure in order to do the ministry Christ is calling it to do. The arrow pointing from you to the church is clear and obvious.

But there is also an arrow flowing toward us. We need the church. We need it in our lives to call us to attention, to take notice of our walk with Jesus, to consider the soil in which we are planted. Stewardship materials are soil tests: Am I bearing any fruit? Am I growing or dying? Am I planted by streams of righteousness or by ditches of degeneracy? Am I cutoff from the true source of my life or is there living water flowing through me? (John 4:13-14) It is the difference between casually plunking a bag of apples down in your cart and spending a day in an orchard—planting, fertilizing, harvesting.

One of our Active Elders recently said it well from the pulpit: “God is not an accountant. God looks at our hearts.” This is another way of inviting us not to confuse the apple (our giving) with the tree (our lives). God desires our hearts, not our wallets; still, our wallets—perhaps more than anything else—will likely show in what kind of soil we are planted. Our fruit will tell us what is really going on with the tree, if we are open to learning.

Let us be open to learning. You could make quick work of your Stewardship materials and be done with it. That is your choice to make. But your pastor invites you to dig a little deeper. Let us all commit to take some soil samples in this new season, to remember again the source of our abundant life. Let us press beyond an easy, convenient faith to instead discover (again!) the “joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked … but [instead] delight in the law of the Lord.”

From whence cometh your fruit?

October 4, 2008


Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. It will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. - John 4:13

The vexing danger of dehydration lies mainly in the fact that we just don’t know how thirsty we are until someone gives us cool water to drink. Absent a good and deep well, the body struggles to find moisture where it can. Meanwhile, most of us have a tremendous capacity for convincing ourselves that we feel “just fine”—our outer assurance belying our inner starvation. A few out there imbibe whatever liquid will grant them release from their reality; many more are awash in a saccharine sweetness that, while wet, does little to sustain them. Some understand quite well that they are parched, but assume that it is simply their lot in life to whiter and die. Whatever the response to our dehydration, there is not much that can replace the simple, satisfying nourishment of water.

The liquid of the New Testament, liberally spilled out on a given Sunday morning, does not run far over dry, parched land. For this reason alone, it is reassuring to know that the spring is inexhaustible.