Monday, July 27, 2009

Lessons from Weeding

We had neglected the garden. In one short month, weeds were growing waist-high. They were overtaking the annuals I had so carefully planted and fertilized during the cooler spring months. During the “dog days” of summer, gardening is a hot, sticky proposition. In the previous weeks, the July sun beat down mercilessly, and staying in the cool house was too great a temptation to resist. Now the weeds were winning the battle.

As my husband and I went outside to work in the early morning temperatures, I surveyed with dismay the damage that had been done during my absence from the garden. Every spare space once neatly groomed blossomed with overgrown weeds. My beautiful flowers were struggling to survive sharing space with their greedy neighbors. Without sweat and effort, it would only get worse. As I began to grip the weeds one at a time and pull, God began to reveal truths about the weeds in my own life, and suddenly the work became a spiritual inspiration.

Jesus used a gardening theme in several of his parables to teach those gathered around him about the Kingdom of God. This was in part because it was an agrarian society, and planting and harvesting were familiar to everyone. But as I pulled weeds and meditated on God’s Word, it struck me that Jesus must also must have used plants as an object lesson because they are so appropriate to what is true about the rest of his creation.

Weeds are the undesirable part of the garden. In parables, weeds or thorns were used to represent sin or the work of the evil one. We can learn a lot about sin by taking a closer look at weeds.

Dig deep.
In order to permanently remove the weed, we must remove the root. Dandelion plants have a long taproot, which is thick and difficult to pull. If you just pull off the foliage at the surface, that dandelion will have new leaves in a matter of days. We have solid and strong roots in sin, because we were born with a sin nature. Our only source of victory over sin is through the blood of Jesus Christ. When we trusted in him for salvation, Jesus went right to the root of our sin problem and changed us from the inside out: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”
(I Corinthians 5: 17)

Be proactive.
Keeping weeds out of your garden is a matter of being deliberate. Do nothing to stop them, and they will grow. When it comes to our spiritual lives, because of our sinful nature, it is a constant battle to avoid sin. Like a swimmer in a current, we only make progress or even keep a steady position by working tirelessly. Relax for a few minutes, and we will quickly lose ground. Paul commented on this: “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:17) In this constant conflict, we can never ease up, or sin will get the upper hand.

Weed early and often.
When weeds are small, they are relatively easy to pluck from the ground. However, when allowed to remain, long, strong roots grow deep. Pulling out a mature plant becomes a major challenge. So it is with sin. Carelessness becomes pattern, and pattern a habit. Soon the sin has a hold on us, and the effort to repent and replace that bad habit with a righteous one becomes extremely difficult. This is demonstrated in James 1:15:
“ . . . after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” Better to stop the sin early on, when it is easier to remove from our lives.

Plant purposefully.
The best way to keep weeds from flourishing is to plant something desirable in the space. Bare soil and even a layer of mulch will not stop most weeds from taking root. However, where my annuals and perennials are flourishing, weeds have little opportunity to thrive. Making the effort to fill our minds with good things will keep sin at bay. Meditating on God’s Word is the best place to start. I often play praise music in my car as I travel, singing words that focus on Christ. Psalm 119: 11 says, “I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

Weeding is hard work, especially in the hot summer sun. It involves sweat, aching muscles, back strain and even blisters. Yet the end result of that labor is beauty. My plants are once again healthy and thriving, freed from competition for sunlight and water.

Dealing with the ugly sin in our lives is also hard and grueling work. We must be willing to take an honest look at ourselves frequently to see the sin lurking in our attitudes and actions. It is never a pleasant process! Yet bringing sin out into the light, confessing it to God and turning away from its control on us will bring a new beauty to our lives.

Living a sin-resistant life is only possible because of our heavenly power source. We humans are weak and prone to give in. Yet “incomparably great power” from God is at our disposal. “That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead.” (Ephesians 1:19-20)

I Corinthians 3 tells us that we are “God’s cultivated field.” With purposeful effort we can keep back the weeds of sin in our lives. Then we will be a beautiful garden, a “planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” (Isaiah 61:3)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Not a Competition

"I always assumed God called me to be the best," a young music major confessed to me the other day over lunch. "So I struggled with the pressure of comparing myself to other musicians around me, always finding ways they were better than me. It was so discouraging. Then one day a more seasoned musician helped release me from that pressure. He told me God has not called me to be the best. He calls me to be the best I can be."

Do you struggle with comparing yourself with others around you? Is your ministry diminished in your mind when you view the comparative success of others? I have to confess, this is a real weakness of mine. So I found the insight of this young guy a refreshing reminder to guard my own heart.

Paul gave the Colossians a bit of instruction that should ring true in all of our efforts. "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men... it is the Lord Christ whom you serve." We are called to excellence. We are called to give it everything we've got. But we are not called to the top of the heap. Serving God is not a competition.

That last statement may seem almost silly, it is so obvious. Yet it's not always so obvious to me. For instance, as a writer, it is hard not to become discouraged and even jealous upon seeing an announcement of someone's new book release. The comparison immediately begins. What do they have that I have not? Why is God blessing them and not me?

The Corinthians faced a similar struggle. Some of the spiritual gifts in the church were viewed as more important than others. A hierarchy of prestige had developed. Those who spoke in tongues were viewed as more "spiritual" than the rest. Paul was quick to address this attitude. Spiritual gifts are not given for self-edification. "Seek to abound for the edification of the church," Paul cautioned "so that all may learn and all may be exhorted." (1 Corinthians 14:12, 31) The spiritual gifts are not about us.

We must take steps to guard our hearts against allowing our efforts to serve the Lord to become about us. First, we need to constantly remember that the effectiveness of our ministry is not dependent on how good we are at what we do. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, "Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3:7). Our power source is God alone. Second, we must acknowledge that our gift is given with a specific purpose. That purpose: to build up the church. "Now to each the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7). Third, never forget our spiritual gifts are GIFTS. Our specific talents were carefully doled out in the wisdom and grace of God. We cannot take credit for our talent! "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7). Last, recognize that each member of the church is only meant to be one part of an interdependently functioning body. This means that no one part is more important than the other. As Paul wrote, "But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other" (1 Corinthians 12:24, 25).

Seeking self-gratification while operating within God's kingdom has no place. Do we feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment when we serve God as we were meant to do? Absolutely. But attempt to use these same gifts to build ourselves up, and the reward becomes hollow at best.

Instead, as my young musician friend has found, we need to find our joy in the privilege of being used by God to accomplish His purposes. It's not about how good we are at expressing our gift. It is about expressing how much we love Him as we work with all of our heart to do what He has given us to do.

"For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
Ephesians 2:10

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Simple Woman's Daybook

Outside my window... another beautiful day. We have been blessed in Maryland this summer with many days of bearable temperatures and low humidity. I don't take even one of them for granted. I told Steve yesterday we are having a New England summer!

I am thankful for... two unexpected checks that arrived in the mail which help cover the cost of two dental crowns I began to pay on last week. The Lord is so faithful to meet our needs.

From the kitchen... I'm cooking spicy chicken and mushrooms tonight, a recipe that I found in a Family Circle magazine. It is tasty and low fat. I'm working hard to stick to Weight Watchers in what I serve the family. And the pounds are sloooooowly coming off.

I am reading... What Paul Really Said About Women-- a book that covers the scripture directed at women. This is something I eventually have to get squared away in my head. My Plymouth Brethren upbringing is at odds with what seem to be New Testament principles on women's roles. Yesterday I spoke at my church. Yes, I gave the sermon. The elders requested that I do it, since my gift is obviously teaching, and my pastor is off on sabbatical. No lightening struck, and I am still alive after doing it. But I need to figure out exactly what scripture is directing women to do. This book is very helpful as far as I have gotten.

I am hoping... I can get tons done over the next three weeks. The writers' conference I am attending this year is on August 6-8.

I am creating... two new book proposals. One is almost done, the other may not be ready in time. I will still pitch the idea if not a whole proposal if necessary.

I am praying... that maybe I can find an agent at this conference. I definitely need the Lord's guidance on this one.

Around the house... I'm sewing curtains for my sister in law's new study my friend Beth and I are redecorating. I'm also working on a quilt for my future new living room-- for which I hope to start searching for furniture soon!

One of my favorite things... an ice cream cone from McDonald's. They are three WW points-- and so delicious!! Melanie and I save our points and often go out at night to get one. The guys at our closest McDonalds have begun to recognize us. Time to move on to a new McDonalds.

A few plans for the rest of the week... doctor appointment to schedule surgery to remove "a-typical cells" from my breast. A little scary, but I know my life is in God's very capable hands. I'm also bringing my mother-in-law to a caregiver's support group and then out to lunch tomorrow. Saturday we are attending a seminary friend's wedding at our old church-- looking forward to seeing old friends there.

So much for my exciting life-- Love, Julie

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Persistence vs. Perseverance

My daughter and I went to our Weight Watchers meeting Monday morning in total dread. On the way to the meeting, we lamented over all of the slip-ups (O.K., deliberate cheats) we had committed over the past month. The scale would surely reveal just how badly we had done. Instead, to our surprise we found we had not gained weight during a whole month of missed weigh-ins. I had even lost a pound and a half! Persistence in exercise and many successful days of watching the calorie intake paid off, even in light of the bad choices we had made at times.

One thing our Weight Watcher lecturer, Heather, always stresses, is that persistence is more important than perfection. I need to hear this over and over again, for I am a legalistic dieter. Once I cheat, I usually count the rest of that day and even sometimes the entire week as a total loss. And spend those lost days eating whatever I want. As you can imagine, this plan in not conducive to weight loss! Instead, I need to put the "slip-up" behind me immediately and get back on the plan. Persistence wins the battle. Even in the light of a profound lack of perfection.

I wonder if the writer of Hebrews had this principle in mind when he penned Hebrews 12:1: "Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us..."

I am no expert in running. But I do walk. And I can tell you with great authority that if you don't keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will never get to where you are trying to go. This morning on my walk I ran into an old friend and spent a few minutes chatting and catching up. Obviously neither of us made any physical progress as we stood enjoying pleasant conversation. You have to be moving in a positive direction in order to cover any distance.

God called David a man whose "heart was fully devoted to God" (1 Kings 11: 4). Can you imagine Scripture describing you as someone whose heart was completely sold out to the Lord? Yet we know that David wasn't perfect. He planned a murder and had an adulterous affair. So why does God call David a "man after my own heart"? I believe it is because the general direction of David's progress was an effort to grow closer to the God He loved.

The Connecticut River flows from north to south through the heart of New England in its journey to empty out into the Long Island Sound. If you were to get into a canoe somewhere between Vermont and New Hampshire, and begin the journey southward, eventually you would find yourself in the Long Island Sound. However, if you had a compass, it might not always seem to be the case. At times, you might be moving in an eastward or westward direction. Sometimes you might even be moving northward! But the general, persistent flow of the river would eventually carry you to its mouth.

That is a great picture of persistence or perseverance: moving in a generally positive direction, despite the twists and turns your life might take at times.

Jesus compared following him to traveling the Narrow Road. Perseverance is crucial to the traveler walking in faith. As we walk the Narrow Road, there are potholes and uneven spots along the journey. We may even stumble and fall from time to time as our feet catch on those sins that entangle us. Yet our progress continues as long as we get back up, brush ourselves off, and begin moving again. Don't get discouraged about your lack of perfection. Just be persistent.

"Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lied behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:12-14

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Simple Woman's Daybook

FOR TODAY July 2...

Outside my window... bright pink and white impatiens bordering my back yard and fern garden

I am thinking... I have so much to be grateful for.

I am thankful for... my husband, who generously just encouraged me to book a flight in September to the Berea Woman's Retreat and to spend time with my friend, Nancy, in NH

From the kitchen... tonight's dinner: Weight Watcher recipe Orange Beef with Snap Peas, and white rice

I am wearing... my workout clothes from this morning. I have been encouraged by the steady improvement I am seeing in my health after faithfully working out at Curves for the past month.

I am creating... a book proposal, actually two, to be presented at the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer's Conference in August.

I am going... with my friend Beth to redecorate my sister-in-law's home office as a birthday gift. We are going down to her home tomorrow to draw up plans so I can do the grunt work while Beth is away on vacation.

I am reading... "The Sacred Ordinary" by Leigh McLeroy

I am hoping... I can lose 20 pounds by the writer's conference.

I am hearing... my baby grandson squack and shriek in the room down the hall. Nothing cuter than hearing those happy baby noises!

One of my favorite things... the way my dog's ears go back in pleasure when I walk into a room

Some random thoughts, from an ordinary day in the life of Julie Coleman!

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