Times Square ablaze in light.
What images does New Years bring to mine for you?
For me, the latter part of 2013 has been filled with images of grape vines, and the transition to 2014 is no exception. Perhaps it is because we are back in northern California and, seemingly, more and more of the flat “farmland” and rolling hills are given over to vineyards. There must be big money in wine! But the theme has come up in several other contexts as well—in books that I’ve been reading and in conversations with friends, images of the vine abound. In a book by that name (The Vine), Andrew Murray points out that in John 15 Jesus reveals Himself as “the true vine” and Abba (Papa) as the vine-keeper before He introduces us as the branches. The image of life originating in and flowing from The Vine into and through the branch to accomplish the vine-keeper’s purpose (Fruit! More fruit!) is powerful. John Eldredge speaks of this in Beautiful Outlaw (another book I read recently, and highly recommend) in these words:
“The secret of Christianity is something else altogether—the life of Christ in you. Allowing his life to become your life. His revolution is not self-transformation, but his transformation of us, from the inside out, as we receive his life and allow him to live through us. Vine, branch. Anything else is madness.”
I agree. But our mental image of the vine is usually before harvest, loaded with clusters of grapes (like the close up I shared with you a few months ago from a vineyard north of Napa). Yet the vine weathers many, many seasons. Spring is very different than harvest, and the vine after harvest—in mid-winter—very different still. Here is an image I captured last week on my cell phone camera from that same vineyard. For me, it is a fitting image as 2013 concludes and 2014 begins—
He is the true vine, Papa the vine-keeper, I am a branch
—sort of a tangled mess of a branch (made more evident by the absence of leaves). In a few more weeks the vine-keeper will come through and prune these branches in preparation for a new season, pressing ever for fruit, more fruit, lasting fruit. But for now, the vine-keeper knows a bare tangle after the most recent season of fruitfulness is best. Thus, for me, this is a hopeful image. It reminds me that I don’t need to “have it all together.” I am not the one in-charge. Even though the branches look tangled and bare right now, Papa is doing His work. In yet another book I am reading, Henri Nouwen shares:
“. . . We suffer from a fear of the empty space. We are so concerned with being useful, effective, and in control that a useless, ineffective, and uncontrollable moment scares us and drives us right back to the security of having something valuable to do.
“There is a real tendency to think of the spiritual life as a life that will begin when we have certain feelings, think certain thoughts, or gain certain insights. The problem, however, is not how to make the spiritual life happen, but to see where it actually is happening. We work on the premise that God acts in this world and in the lives of individuals and communities. God is doing something right now. The chipping away and sculpting is taking place whether we are aware of it or not. Our task is to recognize that, indeed, it is God who is acting, and we are involved already in the spiritual life.”
That reminds me of a refrigerator magnet we once had! It was a small, simple, written reminder:
Faith is not “God can act.”
Faith is not “God will act.”
Faith is “God is acting.”
Last Sunday we were in Pittsburg, heading for Roseville. We weren’t sure where we should join with others in worship. I asked Papa. He put on my heart a place where I don’t know the pastor, but we have one dear friend who goes there regularly. I thought we were to go there to see her. We looked, but did not see her. I left Paula watching for her while I went back for something. As I walked along one side of the sanctuary someone called out to me by name! It was one of my former students from Northwest University! His parents had moved up from San Diego and now go to that church; he was “home” for Christmas break and his new girlfriend was with him (also a former student—they met in my American Government course! Who says nothing good can come from political science?). I enjoyed seeing them both and talking with them, and I got to meet his father; I took them outside to introduce them to Paula. I found her laughing with two other dear friends, who were visiting there that morning at the invitation of some of their other friends. As Paula and I walked toward the parking lot we met yet another friend—one we haven’t seen for many years. Again, a happy encounter. We thought we went there to see one person, who we never saw! Instead, Papa had sent us there to encourage us through others we weren’t expecting, and to touch them through us as well. You see, the incarnation didn’t just happen 2000 years ago, and it didn’t end at the tomb. The incarnation continues . . . in you.
I am the true vine.
My father is the vine-keeper.
You are the branches . . .
Friend, even if your life is feeling a bit bare, tangled, and unproductive right now, Papa is at work. He has great plans for showing off the life of Jesus through you. There are people Jesus wants to touch, and He wants to touch them through you. As you listen and respond, He will touch them—and more—and when it’s all over there will be an image which remains in their memory, not you—bare and tangled—but of Jesus Himself.
Happy New Year!