Sunday, March 26, 2006

Gardening for God: Pornography is Like an Invasive Plant

Most experienced gardeners have had to deal with invasive plants at one time or another. They're not usually recognized as a problem at first; to the contrary, they may initially appear to be beneficial. But soon they start to spread, crowding out other, indisputably fruitful, plants. And not only do they cause the loss of the good plants’ productivity, they also deplete the nutrients of the underlying soil.

Many Christian men have had similar experiences with pornography. It too looks good at first, seeming to add a little spice to life. But it rarely stays under control. Instead, it consumes energy and attention that should be used for productive purposes and depletes our spiritual strength.

That is not a recent phenomenon; scripture confirms that lust—the power behind pornography—has always had those effects. The book of Proverbs, written thousands of years ago, attests that illicit sexual matters initially appear attractive, Proverbs 5:3, 7:16-18, but eventually get beyond our control. Proverbs 6:27-29. It also describes how, left unchecked, they consume us, Proverbs 5:9-11, with tragic results. Proverbs 5:4-5; 7:21-23. Jesus confirmed those dynamics, Matthew 5:28-30. The delivery system has changed, but the stuff being delivered is still the same.

So what do we do about it?

Experienced gardeners know that there are two primary countermeasures to invasive plants. The first is to seal their gardens off; they are careful to prevent those plants from getting into their gardens in the first place, and failing that, to completely weed them out as soon as they appear. Half way measures don’t work; if the plants are present in any quantity the gardener must spend time and effort on containment that is needed to nurture other plants and will likely fail no matter how hard he tries. The second is to make the legitimate crops as strong as possible so they are more resistant to those invasive plants that appear in spite of his best efforts to keep them out.

Scripture and experience confirm that the same is true with regard to pornography. The best approach is to avoid it altogether, to stay away from areas, virtual or otherwise, where tempting materials are likely to be found, Proverbs 5:8, 7:24-25, c.f. Proverbs 7:7-8, and to completely eliminate them if they are present. Matthew 5:29-30. And like a gardener tending to his bona fide crops, scripture instructs us to strengthen legitimate outlets for our energies so we can better deal with those instances where sexual temptation enters our lives, as it inevitably will in spite of our best efforts. Proverbs 5:18-23, 7:1-5. See also Matthew 5:31-32.

(Images about the benefits of eliminating things that distract us from God/His purposes for us were posted September 18d, October 3a and 14, November 21, December 8, 2004 and February 28 and August 3, 2005.
Other images based on gardening themes are collected at Gardening For God.)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Savoring God's Grace In The Midst Of The Mundane

The other morning I was waiting for the bus and, between passing cars, heard birds singing. There was nothing unique about their songs, but they provided a taste of nature in a quasi-urban environment and considerably improved my mood. That was something hadn’t happened before, even though I’ve waited at that stop hundreds of times and birds had doubtless been singing during some of those waits.

But I did hear it then and the more I focused on them the more interesting they became, converting the otherwise empty wait into a pleasant experience. Perhaps more importantly, it put me in a good mood that lasted throughout the morning. You might call it a “two for.”

That taught me something about God’s grace. It’s present in the midst of the mundane, but most of the time we’re oblivious to it and hence miss its full benefits. However, if we make an effort to savor those aspects we do notice, however small they are, we are blessed not only by those particular things, but in other ways as well.

(Other images about savoring God’s blessings were posted May 16 and 20, July 7, and 15, 2005.)

Gardening For God: Cutting Back the Grasses

This is the time of year when ornamental grasses have be cut back; last year’s foliage must make way for this year’s growth. That requires removal of the fruits of a year’s efforts, as satisfying as they may be, and that the plants be reduced to stubs. Things look a bare, but there’s no other way; it has to happen if the grasses are to provide the shade and privacy expected during the coming seasons.

Jesus addressed that dynamic—that we must give up what we have to get the best God has to offer—several times during his earthly ministry. In the course of commissioning the apostles, effectively calling them to abandon their prior lives, He told them that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39. He later taught the same truth, when, shortly after He first revealed His coming passion, He said that “those who want to save their life will lose it.” Luke 9:24, Mark 8:35. John’s gospel also records Jesus, in describing His own death, saying that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24. Bringing the matter into sharper focus for purposes of this post, Jesus’ taught in the parable of the vine that deadwood must be trimmed from fruitful plants if they are to “bear more fruit.” John 15:2.

We see the same thing in our lives. We spend a lot of time and effort on something, and it’s pretty good, but we have to let it go to produce other things God wants from us. It usually doesn’t seem like a good trade at first, but it always ends up being worthwhile if we submit to God’s will. We simply have to make that change if we are to be as fruitful as God wants us to be.

Let me give you an example. My wife and I had been married for 15 years and had a very comfortable life; we both had good jobs and, with no kids, time to enjoy the income that came with them. But God had different plans: He wanted us to adopt a child.

I was resistant, to say the least. Why should I give up my “good life” for one that would require us to, by the world’s standard, reduce our standard of living and give up any semblence of free time? It seemed like the epitome of a bad deal.

You can’t win an argument with God, so I gave in and am I ever glad I did. Our daughter brings joy—both to us and others—that we could never have imagined. Our marriage is more rewarding than it ever was before and we have experienced blessings that we could not have conceived of. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it took some time to see those rewards, but they came and have exponentially exceeded that difficulty.

But none if that would have happened if I hadn’t been willing to let go of my old life. Just like the my grasses, it had to be cut back to make room for new growth. Looking back, I now realize that if I hadn’t given it up, my old life life would have ended up like grasses that aren’t cut back: with no potential for growth and with what was already there becoming increasingly tatered and decreasingly satisfying. God had a much better idea for my life and I’m glad He cut me back so I could receive it.

(Other images about conforming/yielding to God were posted at on September 12a, 18a, 18b, 18d, and 23; October 3 and 3a, November 6; and 21, December 8, 12, and 15, 2004 and January 10d, February 18, May 11, June 18 and 27; August 21 and 27; and October 3, 2005.
Other images about the process of growing/maturing in our walk with God were posted on October 3a and 17, 2004; May 11, June 11 and 18; July 20, August 21 and 27; and October 3 2005.
Other images about trusting God amidst the unexpected/difficult/incomprehensible were posted on November 7, and 15, 2004, and April 25, July 11b, and August 9, 2005.

Other images about the lessons we can learn from parenthood are posted at What We Can Learn About God From Being Parents.
Other images based on gardening themes are collected at Gardening For God.)

Gardening For God: Planning the Garden

“Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly…”Romans 12:6a

We can learn a lot about our spiritual gifts from our vegetable gardens: how to maximize our individual fruitfulness and how to best coordinate our gifts with others.’

Maximizing Individual Fruitfulness
Experienced gardeners know that particular plants are more fruitful in some circumstances than others. Cool season crops thrive at the beginning and end of the growing season, while warm season crops grow best during the hot months in between; you get a disappointing crop if you plant either at the wrong time. Similar results follow placing a full sun plant in a shaded spot.

We see the same dynamics in our Christian walk. Scripture confirms what we sense, that God gives different Christians different gifts. Each of us is better at some things and in some circumstances than others and that mix varies from person to person. See Romans 12:6a; I Corinthians 12:8-10, 30. Although we can do some good in our own strength, it is far less than we produce when we operate in the gifts God gives us. The difference is similar to what you’d see when a cool season crop is planted too late or a full sun plant is grown in the shade: some fruit is produced, but both the quality and quantity are noticeably less than they could be.

Coordinating Our Gifts
A successful gardener takes the differing nature of individual crops into account when planning his garden, coordinating them to maximize the garden’s overall productivity. He considers which types of cool season crops to plant, picking those that’ll mature before it’s too late to successfully plant follow on warm season crops. He considers the height and relative location of crops planted at the same time so they don’t block each other’s sun. He takes the dynamic of companion planting—the effect that causes some plants to thrive when placed close by certain other types of plants but causes yet others to be stunted if grown in the same place—into account by placing complementary plants beside each other and separating antagonistic crops.
Scripture tells us that we should similarly analyze each others’ gifts to maximize our common effectiveness. Paul taught that we should look beyond our individual gifts to see how their interaction with others’ hurts or helps our collective fruitfulness. He explained that certain combinations are either ineffective or downright counter productive, I Corinthians 14:1-17, 23, while others dramatically enhance our overall fruitfulness. I Corinthians 14:24-33.


Just as each plant and garden is different, no array of spiritual gifts, either individual or collective, are the same. Nonetheless, they all have one thing in common—their fruitfulness is dramatically increased if we take the time to analyze how to best match what God has given us to the situation at hand.

(Other images about conforming/yielding to God were posted on September 12a, 18a, 18b, 18d, and 23; October 3 and 3a, November 6; and 21, December 8, 12, and 15, 2004 and January 10d, February 18, May 11, June 18 and 27; August 21 and 27; and October 3, 2005.

Other images about the need for connecting/working with other believers were posted on September 18c, 18d , October 3a and 8, 2004.

Other images about God providing things we need, but can’t provide for ourselves, were posted on September 12a, 17a, and 18c, October 3a, 3b November 6, 10, 21 and 27, 2004 and January 2, 10b, and 10c, June 13 and 27, 2005.
Other images based on gardening themes are collected at Gardening For God.)

Gardening for God: Weeds

“Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.”Luke 8:7

Gardeners are familiar with the dynamic described in Luke 8:7, part of Jesus’ parable of the sower. They plant seeds hoping for a crop, those seeds sprout and grow, but so do the weeds. If they’re not pulled they overtake the crop, block out the sun, and so stunt the good plants that there’s no crop.

But gardeners also know there are ways to prevent that. Sheet mulch not only makes it harder for weeds to sprout, but also provides extra nutrients that speeds the crop’s growth, making it less likely that whatever weeds do sprout can overtake them. They also make a conscious, and continuing, effort to look for and pull any weeds that come up.

That same dynamic is present in our lives. We lose our fruitfulness if we let ourselves be surrounded by distractions from God and the things He’d have us do. Those “weeds” take different forms—excessive emphasis on career, status, or material things; too much time spent on hobbies; too much media—but they have a common effect: they divert energy God intends for fruitfulness to other purposes. Instead of producing fruit they produce thorns.

Fortunately, the same measures that work in the garden work in our lives. We can put down the spiritual equivalent of sheet mulch by building time with God—prayer and time in the Word—into our daily routine; they both make it harder for the weeds just described to take root and nourish us for greater fruitfulness. And like a gardener regularly checks for weeds, we can engage in regular self examination to find weeds that need pulled from our lives.

(Images about the benefits of eliminating things that distract us from God/His purposes for us were posted September 18d, October 3a and 14, November 21, December 8, 2004 and February 28 and August 3, 2005.
Images about the importance of exercising the spiritual disciplines were posted September 17a, 18a, and 18d, and October 3a, and 8, 2004 and January 10d and August 27, 2005.
Other images based on gardening themes are collected at Gardening For God.)

What We Can Learn About God From Being Parents: Climbing onto the Father’s Lap

I’m usually up when my three year old daughter wakes up in the morning. She sometimes says little then, but instead just climbs onto my lap to be held. That sends an unspoken message of love far stronger than anything she could express verbally. And because of how well I know her, I understand what she needs then without her saying anything.

I wonder if the same thing isn’t true between us and God, if our coming to Him and quietly abiding in His presence—the spiritual equivalent of silently climbing onto His lap—doesn’t trigger the same feelings toward us that I feel toward my daughter. And just as I know my daughter’s needs without her explaining them, God knows what we need without our having to describe them in great detail.

Scripture supports that parallel. Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 and Matthew 6:7-8 explicitly tell us that we shouldn’t go on and on in our prayers, but instead should just come to God and trust that he knows our needs without our spelling them out in detail. The same concept is inherent in Matthew 6:31-33 and 7:9-11, which both tell us we can trust God to know, and meet, our needs if we simply seek him out. Indeed, Romans 8:26-27 makes it clear that God will understand and respond to our prayers even when we “do not know how to pray as we should,” making it clear that effective prayer is more a matter of relationship than rhetoric.

That’s not to say that we should hesitate to tell God our concerns; the Psalms and other portions of scripture encourage us to cast our burdens on God, Psalm 55:22, to “pour out” our hearts before Him, Psalm 68:2, and to bring “everything” to God in prayer, Philippians 4:6. See also Luke 11:5-8 and 18: 1-8, I Peter 5:6-7, Hebrews 4:16, James 1:5. God is able to "get it" whether we spell it out in detail or simply climb onto His lap.

(Other images about prayer were posted on September 17, 17a, and 17b; October 8 and 17, November 13 and 19, 2004 and May 27, 2005.
Other images comparing our relationship with God with our relationship to our children can be found at What We Can Learn About God From Being Parents. )