ROOTS AND BRANCHES
This is where the theme of seasons is so hopeful, at least to me. Seasons mean that I can nurture fruit, God-glorifying fruit, even in those times when there’s is nothing to show for it. The result of all four seasons is, hopefully, fruit. But only one season bears it. The necessary conditions, in season or out, are root and branch.
Clarence is a good example. Clarence died full of years and short of breath. He never had any meat on him. He was a long sack of sharp bones. In his last years, his lungs grew shallow and swampy, and he toted a canister of oxygen, shouldered on his back like a papoose, with tubes running to other tubes that looped under his nose and fed him with a constant stream of air. He showed up every Sunday for church. We tend to be noisy as a collective — drums a banging, guitars a wailing, fiddles fiddling, and the like. Some older people run for cover, once or twice I’ve thought of it myself. Clarence never did, nor did his lovely wife, Erna. They smiled always, complained never. They were simply happy to be in church “with so many young people.”
I only ever knew Clarence in this state, or thereabouts, and never knew him when he was hearty and deep-voiced. I’d missed him most of his life. Earn a tells me it was a life of tireless vigor. He ran things, built things, went places, knew people.
But I met a man who wheezed and shuffled and stopped, and spoke in a voice like a ghost telling you a secret. His body was frail and shivery. Sometimes his breathing got so labored you could hear the gears clanking inside him, metallic things shaking loose. His eyes had that rheumy weepy look, like dew on a spider web.
But I panicked, personally, when it was clear Clarence was going to die.
He didn’t panic. He was ready to die. He awoke every morning and wished out loud Jesus would come fetch him. Erna, though deeply sad, didn’t panic. They’d had fifty-five good years and told each other every day that they loved each other. Their children, distraught in their own way, didn’t panic: they all gathered together to say goodbye, full of stories and gratitude, but no unfinished business.
Deaths don’t come much cleaner.
But I panicked because Clarence, thin, bent, breathless Clarence, spent most of his days praying for the likes of me, and I wondered who God has lined up to step into his role once he was gone. In all the time Clarence attended the church where I pastor, he never did a thing other than show up, which at that time was a feat in itself. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that he gave faithfully. But he didn’t usher, teach Sunday School, evangelize anyone, disciple anyone, sit on any committees. We built in that time a shiny new building and set things up so that anyone could pitch in, but Clarence never did. Erna, she bustled about with many tasks, and still does. But Clarence, he walked slowly in, slowly out, oxygen tank at his heels like a loyal poodle.
But the roots ran deep, and the branches stretched sturdy and long, and oh, the fruit. That man was clasped to heaven, I think, in the midstream of intercession. He learned the secret of abiding. He practiced a tremendous dependency on Christ. So in the long winter of his life, when nothing else was growing, he experienced his greatest closeness with Jesus. ( And with Erna, for that matter. He arranged for flowers and a love letter to be sent soon after he died, a kind of wink from heaven.)
The season Clarence found himself in late in life didn’t matter. The roots and the branches did. There was nothing spindly about spindly Clarence’s relationship with Christ. An earthquake could not have uprooted what a lifetime of slow steady growing had created. And the fruit of that was, I think, the sweetest fruit of all, like grapes picked at the first kiss of frost: his life took the shape of prayer. If prayer, as Revelation 5 tells us, is incense in the throne room of God, then Clarence’s last days were pure fragrance.
I still haven’t found whoever it is to whom God assigned Clarence’s work after Clarence retired. On bad days, I wonder if God ever did make that reassignment. The upside of that is that it impels me, freshly desperate, into a more tenacious dependency.
Which is what I’m learning to say to men like Lester (after I’ve fought down my temptation to harangue them). Haranguing can, sometimes but only for a time, get people to behave themselves. But the Pharisees were all about behaving themselves. And Jesus, by my reading, was seriously underwhelmed with that.
I’m learning to do as Jesus did with men like Lester, and men like myself, for that matter, invite myself, into deeper rootedness. That’s what grows sturdy branches, abacadabra, produce fruit. I am fully aware that Jesus equates loving Him and abiding in Him with obeying what He commands — so, indeed, there is a “behaving yourself” component to this. It’s just that one follows the other. The abiding, the rootedness, always comes first, or else the behavior, the fruitfulness, tends to be plastic: pretty to look at, but bad for nourishment, and tasteless, too.
This is good news, because every season contributes something to the roots. There is not a season in which conditions are not right, one way or the next, for making strong roots. That’s true in horticulture. It’s more true spiritually. As we have seen already, even winter, especially winter, grows faith like no other season can, and winter is the best season for pruning, cutting back all those branches that make for leafiness but not a crop.
And there are seasons for intense rootwork. Luke records this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
” Sir,’ the man replied, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.’” (Luke 13:6-8)
What prompts Jesus to tell this story is a conversation about repentance (see Luke 13:1-5). Repentance is often caricatured as some form of self-flagellation — Monty Python’s monks smacking their tonsured heads with stone tablets, say — but in reality few things are more hopeful. Repentance means you can change. It means you are not stuck. It means what has been does not control what will be: your past need not strange, deform, hold ransom your future. It means that the difference between brokenness and wholeness, dirtiness and cleanness, folly and wisdom, is one door — the door of repentance.
Jesus, in this passage, describes repentance as rootwork: digging down deep into the hidden place, the place of nourishment that’s become a place of sickness, and replacing something in the soil. The problem isn’t with the roots; those are designed to draw nutrients and moisture. The problem is that the roots atrophy, and so eventually does the whole tree, when the soil’s amiss. Dig into that, fertilize that, give it time (leave it a year, the caretaker pleads), and all the rest starts to change as well.
What’s in your soil, or lacking in it, that might be weakening your roots and choking your fruit? What poisonwood should you scour out? What bonemeal should youkneed in? You can do that any season. Winter, Spring, summer, fall — all are good for rootwork. If you know something’s amiss in the soil, use any season to change that. I know a woman who continually damages others by her rudeness. She was rich in compassion. She had a heart of worship. She had a strong prayer life. She knew the Bible well. She was a good wife and mother. But she had an unguarded habit of insulting people, tearing them down, taunting their failures, vaunting herself. People resented her and avoided her. Sometimes she lamented her habit — she was fully aware of it — but she never repented of it. More often, she’d dismiss it, minimize it, rationalize it, blame others for it.
She refused to do the rootwork. All other spiritual disciplines in her life can’t overcome this poison in her soil. Year by year, her crop yields shrivel.
It would have been less painful to dig to the roots and fertilize the soil.
I read an interview recently with Gene Heyman, a Harvard psychologist who wrote a book called, Addiction: A Disorder of Choice. Herman, while researching to teach a university course on addiction, made an academic shaking discovery: quitting an addiction is a choice. This subverts more than two centuries of claims otherwise. The staunch medical orthodoxy on addiction is that it’s a disease, some malfunction of the hardwiring of the brain. Those unfortunates who have the disease start to dope or drink or chase skirts and find that, all wishing and working to the contrary, they just can’t help themselves.
It’s not their fault.
But what Heyman discovered is that virtually every addict, given a compelling enough alternative, will shake their addiction. If they become convinced that life without crack or Jack Daniels or girls gone bad, or whatever, is better than life with it, they quit the addiction. Few forsake an addiction because they come to believe that something infinitely better lies beyond the door. (An Interview With Gene Heyman, by Charlie Gillis, MacLean’s, 1 June 2009, 19-21.)
“Abide in Me.”
Jesus invites us in. He doesn’t tell Lester just to quit his folly. He doesn’t tell the woman just to stop her insults. Jesus doesn’t tell them only to repent. Jesus invites them in. Farther in. Deeper in. He invites him, and her, and you, and me, to share His life, so that what nourishes Jesus nourishes us. His thoughts, His attitudes, His joy more and more become our own.
The fruit from this is hardy and sweet, bushel on bushel.
Just come in, and see for yourself.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
But the roots ran deep, and the branches stretched sturdy and long, and oh, the fruit. That man was clasped to heaven, I think, in the midstream of intercession. He learned the secret of abiding. He practiced a tremendous dependency on Christ. So in the long winter of his life, when nothing else was growing, he experienced his greatest closeness with Jesus.
When I first read this, it served as a confirmation in my life because if you do not follow my blog or you don’t know my story (Running With Christ…) then you don’t know how much that story of Clarence resonates with me. And as many Christians believe, you have to act to show what His compassionate love has done for you. And they have Biblical support for it to — “But be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22 CEB).
That leaves many Christians to believe that if they are not active in the traditional church setting, then they are in danger of hellfire. But that does not line up with Jesus putting that little child in front of him and saying unless you become like this child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1-6 CEB). Little children are innocent. It’s through whoever rears them that they develop bad habits, sinful habits, yet they rely on their parents or whoever rears them to seek their permission to do anything. God, our Heavenly Father, requires the same obedience that His Son (Jesus Christ) did, and we got to see it first hand through His Person and His Word, the Holy Bible. Once you accept Him as Savior of your life (John 3:16-21), then you need to consult the Father to see what you should do and do it. That is where little children do the work of the Father through Jesus Christ who indwells us by the Holy Spirit.
I am going to give you the most deeply personal example from my life — I was about to turn eighteen, and here in America, you don’t gain your full independence until you reach the age of eighteen. A little past my eighteenth birthday and high school graduation, God had arranged it so that I was totally dependent on Him (Running With Christ…). In my human spirit, I wished I would have realized what happened to me (Running With Christ. . .), but hindsight is 20/20. I now look upon what happened to me as a blessing (“Blessings” ~ Laura’s Story). Rather, I am self-admittingly stubborn, and God had to do a work in me so that I learned to turn my stubbornness into a more positive manner and align with God’s will for my life. I picture a potter sitting down with clay that won’t form into the ultimate piece he can use. So, he decides to start over with a clean slate where he begins to shape the clay into what he wants.
Yet, I don’t want to say that I don’t struggle with sin; after all, we live in a fallen world. However, that doesn’t excuse my sin, your sin. We have to watch that no sin becomes addictive: lying, skin-picking, insulting, not doing whatever is of faith (Romans 14:23b). What I am trying to implore is, for the believer, that whatever we do, wherever we go if it doesn’t pass the faith test, it is sin.
Could I or you sin without even knowing it? Well, it is obvious that we can according to the book of Numbers, specifically Numbers 15:22-31. Every once and a while, I say a prayer that asks God to forgive me of unintentional sins. God delights in a heart or soul full of repentance.
According to Luke 13:1-5, Jesus, in this passage, describes repentance as rootwork: digging down deep into the hidden place, the place of nourishment that’s become a place of sickness, and replacing something in the soil. The problem isn’t with the roots; those are designed to draw nutrients and moisture. The problem is that the roots atrophy, and so eventually does the whole tree, when the soil’s amiss. Dig into that, fertilize that, give it time (leave it a year, the caretaker pleads), and all the rest starts to change as well.
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~