July 31, 2015

Learning to Abide

I am learning to be still. I am learning to rest. I am learning to abide in the Lord. Yes, I am a servant in training, a disciple in the making, and I am learning how to live my life according to the Master's way. It is not difficult, really, it just takes practice, a lot of practice. It is like learning to roller skate when you are young. You don't get up that first time and soar through the roller rink without any faults, hiccups, or face plants (at the least, I didn't learn that way!) No, normally, you make a lot of mistakes, missteps, and you find often that you miss the turn (at least once, maybe twice -- okay, three times!) In time, however, you get the hang of how to glide, how to move, how to stop (without falling over). If you are lucky, you may even manage a spin or figure out how to balance yourself as you skate backwards. Few will grasp the steps involved in a twist or a jump, but with practice, some can actually become quite skilled at skating. I know that I did -- believe it or not -- and I came to find roller skating to be a passion of mine. Yes, for a good 6-7 years, I roller skated daily (except in winter), and I enjoyed the blessing of learning how to be proficient at something. I came to feel "experienced," and I often helped little children learn how to skate. In many ways, the disciple (of skating) became the teacher, and in that, I shared my experiences and helped others follow after me.

Thus, learning any new skill takes time and it takes practice.

Learning Through Experience

Over the past 10 or 15 years, I have learned a number of skills. In 1997, I taught myself how to design websites, and that skill developed over time to become a full-fledged business. I taught myself how to manage a Unix server, how to host websites, how to administrate email accounts. I actually performed service and maintenance, and for a time, I was a real-life server administrator. I learned how to use graphic image software (Adobe Photoshop), and how to design customized graphics for clients. I became quite adept at designing websites, and for several years, found that I was prolific at it. In time, however, I lost interest with the process of design, and I began to long for something new to challenge my brain, to invigorate my interests.

In 2004, I fell into home education, and I began the process of learning how to teach my child at home. I spent 6 glorious years as a home educator, and I learned so much about the process, about curriculum, and about how to "teach" (theory and pedagogy) children. I found a new passion for education, a reinvigorating desire to become a teacher, and I longed for the opportunity to take my newly found skill and bridge over to teaching children or young adults in a professional capacity.

In 2013, I learned how to teach college students. That first semester was a bear for me -- I felt like that little girl on her first pair of roller skates. It seemed I was wobbly all the time, missing the marking, falling down, and generally finding myself on my backside more times that standing right up. Yet, I persevered, and in the end, I learned how to create lessons, teach college writing, and eventually, relax enough to enjoy the whole experience.

Now, I am a college teacher, a professor, and I am feeling more seasoned about my approach, my style, my way in the classroom. I guess you could say that I have practiced enough to move from skating well to attempting some "moves." I am not to the point where I can jump, twirl or skate backwards, but I am certainly feeling more confident in being in control. I fall less often, and generally, I am able to catch myself before I make any face plants!

Life Application

If you think about it, there are any number of skills we learn each day. Some serve us in the short term, and some will take us very far in life, perhaps into a new career or further into an existing career. How we approach learning is key in my view. Some people want to be shown how to do something, but they rarely practice. They simply want to go from "zero to ten" without any real effort. Other people are serious about learning something new, and they apply themselves to the task to become an expert at it. They seek mastery or subject-matter mastery rather than a simple immersion experience.

In home education, curriculum is classified by its approach and design. So for example, in a math curriculum, the approach may be mastery versus spiral. Mastery suggests that the student study one particular concept until they have it down, they know it by heart, and it comes "naturally" to them. Spiral or immersion suggests that the student be immersed in a concept for a short period of time only. In this approach, the student is introduced to multiple concepts at the same time, and rather than spend time mastering any one thing, they are moved through the curriculum in a spiral fashion. Concepts are repeated yearly, so in theory, by the time the student has passed through a concept 3-4 times, mastery has developed. There is some controversy over this approach, and scholars and educationalists debate whether students really learn a subject well if they do not practice mastery. Proponents believe that students are more engaged when they are offered a spiral approach because they spend less time on any one thing, and they are always moving, changing things up, and learning "new things." Mastery proponents believe that learning a concept from start to finish has great rewards in that the student learns a subject deeply, really understands it, and processes the learning in such a way that it "sticks" with them.

I used to favor spiral approaches because I thought it served my son well -- he was highly gifted after all -- and the light touch and quick movement kept him engaged. In hindsight, I realize that while this approach did favor his gifted nature, it also prevented him from learning some important concepts well. Thus, as I approach education as a professional, I realize that subject-level mastery is the best approach overall. Students fare better in the long run when they master a subject.

Consequently, as I reflect on my life, one thing comes to mind, and that is that the Lord seems to favor the subject-level mastery approach. Rarely does the Lord allow us to learn through a light touch and quick movement through a particular lesson. Instead, He tends to immerse us deeply so that we learn the concept well. Think about Joseph, Moses, or David as examples. None of these men learned how to become the great rulers they were without spending years learning how to rule. The life lessons they experienced prepared them for their roles in the God's kingdom. They spent time learning at the feet of others, studying, and finally practicing leadership through daily application. They didn't just show up and say "here I am, I am ready to be your leader!" No, rather, they "earned" the right to rule. They did things the old-fashioned way, as we like to say, and they learned through the school of hard knocks. They learned how to be good rulers, good leaders, and good Kings by applying the principles of the job through daily application and life experience.

In the same way, God allows us to learn how to become the person of His choosing through life lessons. We may start out with easy tasks, but progressively, we are challenged, stretched, and developed so that we can take on more substantive roles and responsibilities. We want so much to be able to strap on roller skates and glide out to the middle of the rink so we can "show off" our twists, twirls, and fancy moves. In truth, if we were to do that without significant practice we would fall flat on our faces. Instead, the Lord provides us with plenty of time to learn how to perfect our skill. We learn how to behave in ways that please Him, to be Godly, to be the kind of person who knows their Master well. Our lives are shaped, molded, and prepared for His work -- all through life application and experience. There is no short cut, no easy way, no fast track. Everything the Lord does in us and through us is for His glory, His Name, and His praise.

Learning to Abide

John 15:7 NKJV says, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you." I love this verse from John. Verse 7 continues Jesus' instruction to His disciples in how to "abide" in him (to rest, to be still, and to let Him be in their life). This whole first section of chapter 15 tells the story of the Vinedresser (the Father), the True Vine (Jesus) and the branches (you and me). In this short little parable, we learn the truth that to abide in the Vine means that we accept His instruction, His provision, and His life. It is the totality of the saying "Let God and Let it be" meaning that as believers in Jesus Christ our role is to be attached to Him, to let Him live His life through us. So often we get this point wrong, we assume that we are to live our lives for Christ. The issue is not so much that we shouldn't live in response to His gift of eternal life because we should, but rather it is that for many of us, well I would say all of us, we interpret this idea to mean that we must "show" or "perform" for Him. Let me explain...

It is like in my roller skating scenario above -- we see ourselves as performing for the Great Judge at some roller skating contest. We've made it into the game through our hard work, our diligence, and our perfection so now we must put on our best show and WOW the Judge. We want to earn that prize, that promised reward of eternal life and of blessing that is to come in the afterlife. The problem with this view is that it is predicated on works and not on faith. We know and understand that we are saved by grace alone, by faith alone, and by Christ alone. There is no work involved except for His work on the cross at Calvary. Still, we have this "works mentality" that tells us that while we are saved by grace through our faith in Jesus' death, burial and resurrection, we still believe that we must "do something" to prove our worthiness, our faithfulness, and our value to God.

When we grasp the significance of these verses in John, we realize what Jesus is saying to us. We learn that to abide in Him means that we first understand His role in our life. We learn our position. Just like in the example of Moses, Joseph or David, we may be destined as a leader or King, but for right now, we are in training. In Star Wars lingo, we are a padiwan-learner (a Jedi in training). We are not a Jedi master yet, but we are learning at the feet of a master. We are learning the skills, the philosophy, and the way of the master. 

In John 15, Jesus is telling His disciples that their position is as a learner, a disciple in training, and that they must learn from the Master (Jesus). He describes the relationship between disciple and Master as that of a Vine with branches. This word picture demonstrates the nature of the relationship. The branch has no life of its own, it is wholly dependent on the Vine for its nutrients and its support. The branch can do nothing on its own. The Vine supports, nourishes and grows the branch. The Vinedresser (God) carefully prunes the branch so that it will produce good quality fruit. As the branch is pruned, clipped, and cared for, the branch buds and then produces fruit. The goal is to produce a volume of good fruit. In our minds, we assume that we have an important role to play in this whole process. As branches we want to push fruit out, to cause ourselves to bloom so that we can be producers of good fruit (good works). 

Bloom Where You Are Planted

There is a saying that was quite popular a number of years ago, and I think it caused a great deal of confusion for many believers. In fact, a quick Google reveals that this saying has no real origin. Some sources say it is an old French proverb, while others suggest it has its roots in Paul's letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 7, verses 20-24). Surely, a number of Christian writers, speakers, and teachers have used this saying to suggest that we are to be content where God has us (or where we are today).

I can remember Mary Emmerling creating a graphic with this saying on it. In fact, I believe I have a little metal water can that has her imprint on it. I also remember taking a class at my church, Scottsdale Bible Church, where we were encouraged to remember this saying as part of the process of getting rooted into a faith community (see Susan Miller's "Just Moved" ministries based on her book, "After the Boxes are Unpacked").

This saying, then, has context for me. I understand what the saying means -- be content where you are, set down roots, and relax -- I just think sometimes that we miss the deeper point of the matter. The word, bloom, is both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it can have a direct object or no object, but the stated meaning is to cause something to bud, to grow, to flower. Merriam-Webster defines the word, bloom, as "to produce or yield blossoms" (no object) or as "to make bloom or cause to flourish" (with object). When we say "bloom where you are planted" the implied subject is "you" as in "you bloom where you are planted." This suggests that you, as subject, have some measure of control over the blooming process. 

I know you are thinking that I am parsing words. Well, in some ways, I am doing just that. I think it is important to understand why it is not possible to bloom (in and of yourself), and when we accept this as an imperative command as in "Just do it" we run the risk of taking responsibility for something which does not belong to us. I know there are folks who will agree with me and some who will disagree. I am okay with that because I think one of the biggest lies we face as Christian's is the heretical teaching that has crept into the church since the earliest church age. I don't mean to point the finger at my Catholic brothers and sisters, but in truth, much of the doctrine of Catholicism has remained in some shape and form within our protestant denominational teachings. While we may differ on key theological elements such as transubstantiation (which even some Lutherans accept), we mix and mingle on the issue of baptism (infant versus immersion as adult). The problem as I see it isn't so much with all these fractional debates, but rather it is with the BIG issue of works (as in before or after salvation).

Faith or Works

For many believers in Jesus Christ, the issue of salvation by faith versus works is central to whether you are Catholic or Protestant. More so, in some other religions, works is a key criteria to whether or not a person will receive entrance into the afterlife. In traditional protestantism, the main tenet is that salvation by is by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8 states, "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God." Therefore, this idea that to be saved one must believe rather than do is central to Christianity. Works will not justify you before God, and no matter the good work you do (in any capacity), it is not enough to warrant God's approval and justification. Thus, it is faith (believing and trusting) that is the key to salvation. The sticky wicket in all of this has to do with works, good profitable work, whereby the Christian demonstrates the faith he or she has in Jesus Christ. According to Paul, in his letter to the Romans, this good work is a byproduct of the faith that is working in the believer. Good works are the transforming output that signals a changed inner heart. 

James, likewise, discusses this same issue in chapter 2 of his letter. James seems to be saying that faith and works must go together, and in order to be saved (as some people read it), you must have both elements. However, on closer scrutiny, we see that James is merely agreeing with Paul on this matter. He is in essence saying that you cannot be a true believer in Jesus Christ if there is no outward proof of the inward change. Thus, like John (1 John 2:4), James and Paul, are saying that the proof of a person's faith will show itself through actions and deeds.

As I consider John 15, and Jesus' words to His disciples, I begin to wonder how a believer goes about producing fruit. I mean, do I push that fruit out (through my efforts, my good works) or do I allow the Vine, which contains all the power, to do it through me? If I stay with the plant metaphor that Jesus' is using, and I consider the fact that plants in and of themselves do not really do anything to produce blooms and fruit, I must wonder if this is what we are to take away, in context, from this verse. Are we active participants with the Vine or are we passive, allowing the Vine to do all the work?

For many years, I believed that my role as a believer was to produce good works. I worked very hard to produce these works. I served in a number of roles in my church, attended retreats, and ministered to people whenever I could do it. Somewhere in my heart there was a desire to please God, to do works that were good for the body of Christ. I also know that somewhere I believed that it was my job, now that I was saved, to do these works. My head understood that I was saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, but to demonstrate my faith, I had to be about my Father's business, I had to be actively showing the world my good works!

What Good Works Look Like

Over the past few years, I have come to change my mind on this matter. I have come to think that perhaps the good works that are produced in me happen naturally as a result of my relationship and dependency upon the Vine (Jesus). I first started to notice a change in works when I stopped all ministry efforts due to my return to college for a Masters degree. I simply couldn't continue to do ministry and school and work and take care of my family. Something had to give, and ministry was what got put on the chopping block. I knew in my heart that some day I would return to ministry, but I also knew that for me to remain mentally intact, I had to limit my outside activities while I was pursuing an advanced degree.

During the first two and a half years of graduate school, I struggled with not doing any ministry-related work. I prayed, of course, and I did remain active on Facebook and other social media channels where I could stay informed, listen to issues/concerns, and respond with encouragement (my gift). I felt empty for a long while, really as though I was not 'good enough' for God. It wasn't until I started my doctoral program that I came to the conclusion that the work I am doing at school (teaching and studying) was my ministry. God had given me a task to complete higher education, and I knew that the outcome of that study was not just a PhD. I knew that God intended me to use what I was learning for His glory, and that some day, He would require me to put to good use that training for His kingdom work. I also knew that in the present, I really couldn't "do" anything with that learning because I didn't have time to do it. I had to study it, learn it, appropriate it, process it, and store it away for a later day. The curious thing, and I do mean curious, is that over time, I came to see good fruit being produced in my life. Granted it wasn't the ministry leadership type fruit I had before (roles and responsibilities), but rather it was simple fruit of a changed heart, a gentle correction received graciously by a student, or a prayer request answered and the reward seen on the face of a grateful believer and sister-in-Christ. I began to see my good work in a different way. It wasn't the "in your face" kind of fruit I thought it had to be to show my relationship with Christ -- no -- it was the small, good, and high quality fruit that seemed to effortlessly, naturally, develop on my branch (in my life).

As I pondered this result, I began to think that perhaps this is what it means to produce fruit. I started to see that my obedience to God and His word was transforming my mind, renewing my thoughts, and changing my desires so that I was shapeable, moldable, and adaptable to His needs. In truth, I noticed that my fruit, my good fruit, was being produced without much effort from me. I was more passive than active, though I was active in obedience, and through my submission to His lead, I was experiencing growth, blossoms, and blessed fruit.

Now, I think this is what John 15:1-5 really means. Jesus lives His life through ours, and we ABIDE -- submit and yield -- to Him so that He can produce good works, good fruit through us. We are the branch while He is the Vine. We allow Him to lead us as the Master, and we learn from Him as His disciple. The fruit we produce happens as a result of that relationship. It is not about doing anything for Christ, rather it is about letting Christ do everything He desires in us and through us for His name, His praise, and His glory. Selah!

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