Friday, June 24, 2011

The Parable of a Cornstalk

Last summer, an interesting thing happened in one of our flower gardens. We noticed a cornstalk growing up on the edge of a small area we had surrounded with rocks and mulch. It shot right out of a crowded area between some rocks and plants that we had actually purposed to be there. I was so curious as to why a single cornstalk was growing there. We live in a suburban area where there’s not a cornfield anywhere in sight. The best we came up with for the origin was that a bird had visited a nearby feeder and had dropped a single corn kernel between the plants. Somehow, it got nestled in enough dirt and moisture to germinate and turn into a plant. We chatted about pulling it out but voted to keep it for awhile to see how it would do.

Over the course of the summer, we watched it slowly grow but from the start it appeared to be weak. It was getting the same water, sun, and nutrients that the surrounding, healthy plants were getting; but our little pet cornstalk just didn’t seem to be thriving in this environment. Around July, the top of the cornstalk tasseled right on time but the stalk was only about two feet tall. It was a dwarf of what it should be. But, the biggest problem with the plant was that it had no corn. “What good is a cornstalk that doesn’t have corn?” I asked. The experiment was over and I pull the plant out of the ground and threw it in our yard waste bin. It was obvious that this was a poor place for corn to grow. It needed space. It needed a different type of soil to be a healthy cornstalk. There was too much competition for the needed nutrients to help my cornstalk experiment grow.

Jesus loved to use everyday images to illustrate spiritual truths that shape our lives. These illustrations or stories were called parables. In one of his parables, Jesus compares people’s hearts to different kinds of soil. God, (the farmer), throws seed (his Word) to the ground (people). The soil then determines whether seed will grow. Some seed lands on a hard, packed path and is gobbled up by birds (Satan). Other seed falls on soil that is surrounded by rocks. That seed takes root but the plant dies because of the hot sun (problems and persecution). A third group of seeds falls on soil that is riddled with thorny weeds (the desire for wealth and the worries of life). The weeds are too much competition for the good plant and it dies. But, when the seed finds its way to good soil—it grows and multiplies over and over again.

As in many cases, Jesus would tell a parable to a large crowd of people but would not explain the meaning of the story until he was in private with his disciples. In doing this, he was grooming his disciples for their future job as Apostles—sent ones to share the Good News about Jesus. Here, he’s schooling them on the hearts of people. In other words, Jesus was saying, “Fellas, you’re going to interact with four different types of people. Each will respond differently to your message about me. Look for those who have hearts like good planting soil. You’ll know who they are because they’ll listen, accept, grow, and bear good fruit. They are the ones who will multiply this message. The other three types of people will need to make some significant changes to be my followers who produce meaningful fruit for my Kingdom.”

God has created each of us to produce fruit in our life. That fruit varies from person to person; but what is true of all of us, is that we are called to have the spiritual purpose of multiplying that fruit. The beautiful thing about this is that God plants the seed and he desires us to grow to be healthy, fruit-bearing people who impact our world for the Kingdom. The sobering side of this is that God asks us to cultivate the soil (our heart). We are the ones who are responsible to keep our lives from being hard packed, rocky, and thorny. I don’t know about you, but rocks and thorns appear in my life fairly easily. They don’t need much to bubble to the surface.

How would you describe your heart today? Is it cultivated, soft, and receptive to God’s truth? Are you ready for a season of growth? Any rocks? How about thorns? Anything stealing your time, energy, and passion from following God better?

It may be a good time to do some weeding.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Best Wedding Ever

When it was all said and done, they said it was a “perfect day.” After a year of planning, all the pieces had come together for the best wedding ever. No, it wasn’t that silly little wedding somewhere in England, but my oldest daughter’s. It was everything the bride and groom had dreamed of. And we, as parents, were thrilled that her big day was as wonderful as it could be for her. Everyone knows that a lot goes into a wedding; but when it is your daughter’s, you get a front row seat into the complexity of a modern wedding. I came to learn quickly that there are two ways to plan: either you pay someone a lot of money to worry about the details for you, or you do it all yourself. We chose the latter.

Kari and Grant’s wedding was in a park. We had reserved one part of the park for the ceremony and another part for the reception. Family and close friends were invited to the ceremony, as this was a small intimate space; but everyone who had a place in our lives was invited to the reception. The wedding was a beautiful, worship-filled ceremony performed in a park pavilion on top of a hill surrounded by wild flowers. Being both dad and pastor, I had the dual privilege of walking my daughter down the aisle and officiating part of the service. As I listened to them read their vows, I felt a deep sense of pride and gratitude for the adults these kids had become. This was one of the most special moments of our lives as parents.

While the ceremony was small, reverent, and intimate, the reception turned out to be a big party. Friends from all avenues of life arrived to share in the joy of the day. We had a simple dessert reception with cake, treats, and beverages—all of which was gobbled up quickly as the crowd was bigger than expected. Grant’s family had offered to take care of the beverages for the evening, so when they began to run out, it was a quick trip to a nearby store to replenish the supply. The band we hired was simply amazing; they played for almost two hours while people danced, laughed, enjoyed each other’s company and the beauty of the park in summer. At the end of the day, we were filled with joy for our kids. We were filled with joy at how many great friends we had to spend this important day with. We were filled with joy that God’s smile was on us.

I’m not surprised that Jesus chose a wedding at which to perform his first miracle. As the father of a bride, I’m fully aware of all the bad things that can happen to ruin your daughter’s wedding day. In Jesus’ day, weddings had just as much social pressure as they do today. So, when something went wrong at a friend’s wedding, Jesus was called to respond. “No more wine!” was the report. This was a social disaster. It didn’t matter the reason, whether it was poor planning or a crowd bigger than expected, the party was crashing and the hosts would be embarrassed. So, Jesus quietly turned pots of ceremonial hand-washing water into wine. And, it was good wine—the best wine. By doing this, Jesus was saying two things: he was sending a signal to the religious establishment that those jars of ceremonial hand-washing water were better filled with wine. Second, Jesus was showing how he deeply cared for his friends.

Often when we think of miracles, we think of extraordinary issues of life like sickness and death. God does show himself in those big circumstances, but how cool is it to know that God is compassionate in the everyday aspects of life as well? He cares about friends, reputations, weddings, and wine. No matter your care or concern today, know that you can “cast your cares on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5.7).

Friday, June 10, 2011

Crowds Gather

The Grand Rapids Art Festival is one my favorite events of the year. It’s a great summer environment, filled with the sounds of great local bands, the smells of grilled food, and the sights of some very unique people. People of all ages, nationalities, and economic statuses gather to enjoy the music and art displayed at this event. I find myself spending as much time watching eclectic people as I do the bands I came to hear.

This year I experienced something that seemed to connect this diverse crowd even more. As a matter of fact it happened twice, with two different bands on two different stages. It was a song that was a hit in the early eighties. Every person in the audience seemed to know the lyrics (at least the chorus). As soon as the opening guitar riffs were struck, people began to smile, sing, and even dance. The crowd went from being observers to participants. This thirty year old song obviously had a life well beyond the 80s. I watched people in their 50s, 40s, 30s, 20s and teens sing and dance to this song. Street bums and yuppie suburbanites were all singing along. Even a lady in one of those neck halo contraptions bolted to her head found her way to the stage to dance. Of all the music we listened to that weekend, this song got the most crowd participation—by far. See if these lyrics from Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ get a tune ringing in your head today.

Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world
She took the midnight train goin' anywhere
Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit
He took the midnight train goin' anywhere
Don't stop believin'
Hold on to the feelin'
Streetlights people

Crowds intrigue me. I’m always interested to see what sorts of things gather a crowd, what moves a crowd, and what divides a crowd. Minutes after our little Journey sing-a-long, we stumbled into another crowd of people who had gathered for another reason. But this group wasn’t unified and happy, they were divided and angry. Two individuals carrying large signs with messages of sin, wrath, judgment, repentance, and hell were engaging the crowd of people whose curiosity was aroused. The contrast was stunning. Instead of singing and dancing together, this crowd was growing angry, verbally aggressive, brash, and profane. The message, and even more the method of delivering the message, was deeply offending some people. They wanted their opinions to be heard in very clear, demonstrative terms. I stood at a distance intrigued once again with what gathers groups of people. Reflecting on these two scenes, I think that both crowds were reaching for hope. The crowd was celebrating hope through a song that gave the message, “Believe! It’s all going to be good.” The second crowd was fighting for hope. Their hope was threatened by someone’s condemnation.

Crowds are an integral part of the Jesus story. As you read the book of Mark, it’s an interesting exercise to watch the crowds. They gathered because Jesus was announced as the long awaited Messiah, because he healed the sick, and because he spoke with authority. Through some of the ranks, there was a sense of euphoria. Finally, the rescuer had come. The leader and healer would drive the Romans out of their homeland. But, when Jesus’ message became clear, the religious establishment became threatened and the crowd’s allegiance divided. Some went home. Others joined in the stand against Jesus. All were reaching for hope.

Being part of the crowd is easy. It’s much easier to sing and dance when you’re with a large group of people. You blend in and feel freer to let go of your inhibitions. It’s also easier to fight in a crowd. A mob-mentality gives people courage to express their rage at a common enemy. But, those who are called to follow Jesus are called to step out. They are to be distinct, set apart from the world and set apart for something good. Most people who surrounded Jesus remained in the crowd. They were just observers. But, some stepped out and stepped toward Jesus. They were the ones who found true hope.

Where are you today? Are you an observer in the crowd or a passionate follower?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Moving Away

This year, I hit my 10th anniversary of being a small group pastor at Ada Bible Church. I don’t know about you, but milestones like this tend to make me all sappy and reflective. I’ll find myself thinking back to my old life before ABC and the period of time that God transitioned me from something I knew to something that was new. It became very clear to me during that time of my life that when God calls, I need to be willing to move away from something in order to move toward his desires.

Before ABC offered me the opportunity to work with the small groups ministry, I worked for United Parcel Service. I started part-time at UPS when I was in college and shortly after I got married, a full-time driving position opened up. For 11 years, I delivered packages wearing the brown uniform. It was a good job with great benefits and long-term stability. I knew that if I did my job faithfully, I would be able to retire in my mid-fifties. The work was hard but the pay and benefits kept me interested in staying with UPS long-term.

In the mid-90s, something began to change in me. I became discontented in my job. This wasn’t a bitter discontent or just boredom, but it was something deeply connected to my heart. I was beginning to understand that God may have created me to spend more of my time investing in the spiritual lives of others. I was discovering that God had wired me to be relationally invested in people. However, most of my day was spent alone. Yes, I saw lots of customers every day but the interactions I had with them were in 30 second increments. I spent 50 hours of my week outside of what God designed me to be. I was beginning to understand that my discontent was Divine. He was preparing to move me.

For three years, I wrestled with this discontent. God placed people in my life who affirmed my feeling that UPS was not a good fit for me. One of those people was a college professor named Ken when I had re-entered college to finish up a degree. Ken was the type of instructor who got to know each of his students very well. He taught his classes like a small group: lots of interaction, lots of learning from each other, and lots of relevant discussions. In his final class with my group, Ken took time to speak to each student in front of the group and to share what he thought about each of our futures. Because each person respected Ken so much, we all relished his words of encouragement and blessing on us. This is what I remember him saying to me, “Phil, you’re a people person. You need to spend your days investing into people to bring about spiritual growth and change in them. UPS is not a good fit for you.” He said a few other nice things but this is all I heard. This was all that mattered. God was moving my heart away from the financial security of a stable job to something new. I’ve never regretted that move in the least bit.

I’m growing to learn that following Jesus is a lifetime of changes. Some of these changes may require me to move away from something in my life or world in order to move closer to God and his way. Sometimes, it means moving from dark, sinful elements in life to choose God’s better way of living. Other times, God asks us to move from a point of stability in order for us to move toward a place of greater faith in his care and plan for us. But the one thing I know is that in order to follow Jesus, I need to be willing to move. I can’t follow without leaving, and I can’t remain the same and expect to change.