Missional Wisdom from the Tree Firmly Planted: Day 30 of Lent

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. Psalm 1:3

When I was 20 I went to Kenya to visit my sister and her family for about a month. It was my first international traveling experience, which I will never forget. Sights, sounds, and smells filled my senses and altered my imagination in profound ways. Acts of hospitality, the deep sense of community, and the ambivalence towards a utilitarian use of time all ensured that the white, middle-class suburban, college kid I was didn’t go home the same person.

One of the terms I kept on hearing while there was “mzungu.” Everyone I met repeated that term when I came into view. My immediate assumption was that it meant “white person.” I was correct in a sense; “white person” is its connotation.

However, what it really means is one who is always on the move, always wanting to see everything. There is a sense of constant swirling. It stems from the original Europeans entering Africa and “busily swirling around”. It is definitely a loaded word.

In many ways it still holds true today.

One thing I have learned over the past several years is the allegiance to the myth of productivity. We in the West, due primarily to the Industrial Revolution and technological boom of the past 100 years or so, are addicted to being busy in ever-increasing ways. Email, social media, and instant means of “checking in” have allowed us to take our offices with us in our pockets. People are literally working themselves to death in efforts to prove their productivity levels and the evidence of self-worth that comes along with them. It doesn’t take much to show this. Seeing the human as a machine has morphed from a metaphor into an identity.

Buying into the myth of constant productivity is a result of our seeking after growth and results. We think that if we are always busy, things will grow. Our businesses will grow, our intellects will expand, and our bottom lines will be blacker. Results will flourish based on how often and how long our noses are against the grindstone. “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil” quipped Carl Jung.

I wonder how much of our result-driven busyness comes out of our formulaic attempts at growth. If we implement this guru’s wisdom here, align this methodology there, add enough pressure, and we’ll succeed. A + B = C. When this doesn’t pan out, we often give up or think we are not busy enough with the correct solutions to the problem.

The same postures and practices are found within the Church, the very community in which fruitfulness and growth cannot be coerced.

Perhaps it is from our fervent evangelistic outreaches. Perhaps it is our pursuits of justice. Whether we’re a megachurch or a church that fits in a living room, in many ways, we tend to fall into the trap of thinking fruit is always in season and that growth is always available. Again, we tend to bail out when produce is not easily seen.

If you are like me and the communities of faith I’ve been a part of, we tend to love the “whatever he does prospers” section of the above Psalm. We tend to think that we are infused with the power of God and as we do the things Christians do, we will find ourselves and our efforts bearing fruit.

Yet the natural world knows nothing of this. Seasons of produce give way to seasons of stagnation. Fruitfulness comes in harvest, yet is only possible after plowing, seeding, and waiting. Like the tree firmly planted, fruitfulness only comes in its season.

This reality is essential for those partnering with God in his missional movement of renewal. Despite our best efforts, we can formulate growth. We cannot read books, attend conferences, and listen to podcasts from “the experts” and expect growth to occur. Like the tree firmly planted, we are called to do just that: be firmly planted.

Staying put, working among others, and being present within the contexts we have been placed is the core of what it means to engage in mission. The supermarket mentality of fruit always being in season begins to fade into a farmers’ market reality of seasons as we remain rooted where we are. Constant swirling around and busyness will not bring about produce; it is the long, aching, persevering staying-put-ness that will. As we do this, we will see seasons of fruit come along with the seasons of plowing, seeding, and waiting. Discerning the different seasons is key. It will give us roots to see beyond the seemingly lack of fruit for the season of plowing we are in.

Seeing fruit comes to those who remain firmly planted waiting for its season.

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Suffering and Lent: Words from Joan Chittister: Day 14 of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Loneliness: Day 20 of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

If Lent Had a Theme Song…

The Difficult Place of Those Who Are Weaker – Jean Vanier: Day 27 of Lent

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Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Today was the First Sunday in Lent, which means Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 is the Psalm reading for today. It says:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust!”

For you have made the Lord, my refuge,
Even the Most High, your dwelling place.
No evil will befall you,
Nor will any plague come near your tent.

For He will give His angels charge concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.
They will bear you up in their hands,
That you do not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread upon the lion and cobra,
The young lion and the serpent you will trample down.

“Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him;
I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name.
“He will call upon Me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
“With a long life I will satisfy him
And let him see My salvation.”

This portion of Psalm 91 is used because the Gospel reading deals with Jesus’ wilderness experience post-baptism (Luke 4); it gives us a bigger picture into Jesus rebuttal of the satan in his quoting of verses 11-12. While there, the satan comes to him in order to tempt him in areas of his identity and mission. Offers are presented before Jesus, yet they are based on conditions Jesus won’t indulge in. In many ways, he is offered what is rightfully his, but through means that aren’t correct.

Through it all, this Psalm gives us confidence concerning God’s sheltering care. Jesus rested in this care and so should we.

Yet, sometimes I struggle with this because it seems so cliche.

We’ve all heard people say similar things. “God loves you and will be there for you.” Easy to say; more difficult to hear.

I sometimes struggle with it because when I enter into open spaces where vulnerability is allowed to flourish, I often hide behind self-made walls instead of trusting that Jesus is with me in them. My tendency is to hide behind these walls in order to preserve myself by not allowing anyone in, including God and his sheltering love. I end up isolated and alone, wallowing in my own grief and trouble, wondering where God might be in this.

And so, when people quote verses or give reassurance of God’s love within the storm, it bounces off my defensive walls and shows itself in statements such as, “You don’t know what it is like” or “You’ve never dealt with these things.” Their statements automatically get filed in the “Cliche” folder never to see the light of day. God is shut out and so are his people.

Or maybe the sentiments found in this Psalm and elsewhere smack of cliche due to my lack of being in the storm. I wonder how many cliche statements remain cliche due to our lack of life in the way of Jesus. Learning to live like Jesus means that we will face temptations and will need to rest in the ever-present covering of God. I wonder if I mistake the reality of God’s love for cliche because of my timidness in following after Jesus.

It only remains cliche until we’ve lived through it.

I wonder if this is how it was for Jesus. N.T. Wright says,

Perhaps Jesus has memorized it [Psalm 91] ahead of time and was already using it as a prayer, day by day, to help him through the tough test he was facing. And the devil, seeing he isn’t going to succeed by a direct assault on Jesus’ senses or appetites, tries a different tack: ‘If you really believed this Psalm, then wouldn’t you trust God so much that you could throw off the Temple? Doesn’t it say he’ll send his angels to protect you? Perhaps you don’t believe it after all. Perhaps you’re just pretending…

I wonder if at that moment the word of God memorized by the incarnate Word of God transformed into reality and simultaneously defeated the satan. I wonder if all the things Jesus had learned from the rabbi of his youth came rushing back to him, yet in this moment it was the experiential flood of his Father’s love that cut through cliche and changed everything.

I wonder.

As I have faced difficult times I have learned the reality of God’s love always being present and every-ready. I see it more and more as I cultivate eyes to see and ears to hear through placing myself under Jesus’ master teaching. Although I don’t want it, this teaching leads to life, which, paradoxically, comes through death.

Jesus did not say you will not be tempest-tossed. But he did say, ‘You will not be overcome.’ – Julian of Norwich

I pray, for myself and for you, that this Lent may cut through the seemingly cliche as we together begin to live life like Jesus. Place yourself under God’s protection. There is no better place to be.

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 88

When was the last time you heard a sermon or study on Psalm 88? I would be willing to bet that you never have, especially if you are part  of an evangelical/conservative church. We tend to see Christianity as a faith of joy, smiles, and overall goodness depicted by things going well for us. This is at least true in the Western, American church.

Yet Psalm 88 slaps us in the face and reminds us that life isn’t so simple.

Lurking beneath the veneer of happiness and smiling faces lies the reality that life is difficult and God doesn’t always appear as our close friend. The songs we sing where we will always praise God, always feel his close presence, and always be found in some weird form of “boyfriend-girlfriend” type relationship isn’t true.

Reality is found in that we don’t always have this type of experience. Life is difficult and God doesn’t always seem just “a phone call away.” Thankfully, our forebears, the Hebrews, remind us of this in Psalm 88. As Eugene Peterson says, “The Greeks had a story for every situation; the Hebrews had a prayer for every situation.” And for the absence of God they wrote and lived out Psalm 88.

Read it below and allow it to sink in. Maybe our faith needs to be disoriented a bit.

1 LORD, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

3 I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.

6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
7 Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
8 You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
9 my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
11 Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction[e]?
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

13 But I cry to you for help, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.