Fruitful Focus

Just look at all of those beautiful red berries! What a lovely bush . . . from far away.

Barberry

I’ve written before about the barberry bush (Barbs or Blossoms? and Planned). It really isn’t one of my favorites, with its long, sharp thorns lining each branch. Sure, it’s got cute little flowers in the spring and lovely shades of red in the fall, but getting close to it can be a bit painful.

Although it’s not really near and dear to my heart, this shrub makes an excellent example of being fruitful! Let me show you what I mean.

Someone needs to do a fall cleanup around here . . .

Pictured above is the area just in front of the barberry bushes from the first picture. Let’s zoom in just a little bit more.

It’s a jungle out there!

They aren’t all the same color, but there are at least five new barberry plants in this photo that have popped up where they shouldn’t be! Those cute little berries have done their job.

I may not like the plant itself, but I’ve recently learned that the berries themselves may actually have some health benefits (as opposed to the burning bush that I like, which has poisonous berries)! Maybe I’ll be brave enough to cook some barberries from the bush behind my house into our rice tonight. I’ll let you know tomorrow if we survive!!

Left: Poisonous Burning Bush berries; Right: Edible Barberries

Fruitful Lives

Christ followers are called to be fruit bearers. Following is just a short collection of verses from Scripture, beginning with words straight from Jesus:

Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing . . .When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

John 15:5 & 8

Paul wrote a few times about fruit, as well.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

Galatians 5:22-23

May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God.

Philippians 1:11

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.

Colossians 1:9-10

Did you notice in these verses that fruit is a byproduct of something else?

  1. It is a result of abiding in and remaining attached to the vine (Jesus Christ), drawing strength and life from Him.
  2. It comes as we submit to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
  3. It is produced in our lives by Jesus Christ, in the form of righteous character (see #2).
  4. It is a natural effect of increased knowledge of God’s will, tied together with spiritual wisdom and understanding.

The barberry bush isn’t out back all year thinking, “Oh, I hope I make some berries this fall! I wonder how I can make more berries. Will my berries be any good?” It just grows. Its roots grow down into the soil, its leaves make energy, and its branches grow ever higher toward the sun. And voila! Berries appear!

Our focus should be first and foremost on our relationship with our Heavenly Father, who gave us the gift of salvation. He adopted us as his own children, has promised to never leave us, and has an inheritance waiting for us when we leave this life. He is always good, He is always loving, and He is always faithful.

The deeper our relationship grows with God, the more we will start to look like Jesus. He will begin to work in us and through us, causing our lives to bear fruit and bring him glory.

And what is the natural outcome of bearing fruit? Fruit contains seeds of new life! The fruit we bear can lead to others coming to know Jesus. The fruit is not our focus, but it is a natural result of a life lived close to God.

What is one thing you can do today to invest in your relationship with your Heavenly Father?

*I know you’re wondering, and it’s kept you awake at night…we all survived dinner!

Incognito

Look at this beauty! Our burning bush is a lovely accent of bright red every fall. At over nine feet tall, it’s quite an eye-catcher! Who knows how long it stood there before we bought our house a few years ago.

Burning Bush

Our property has a variety of large, colorful landscape bushes, each showing off in its own season. Along the edge of the property that lines the road, we have a long row of forsythia that brightens the view in the spring.

Each year I spend time cleaning up one area, wrestling my way through the mature (read “overgrown”) shrubs. The next year I’m off to another area.

We’ve got one corner I haven’t spent too much time in yet. I thought it was just a jumble of more forsythia and a wild rose plant. But I was wrong! There was an imposter hiding . . .

In the spring and summer, the imposter just blended in with the forsythia beside it. Look at the leaf shapes. The two left leaves are forsythia, and the two right ones from a burning bush. It’s hard to tell a difference between them if you’re not looking carefully! I just figured this one didn’t want to bloom for some reason.

But fall has arrived, and the evidence is clear. That is not a forsythia. That red is just too bright!

So I cleared up the area just a bit to see what we’ve really got.

Wait a second, what is that peeking out from behind? It’s another one!!

The tiny, bright red leaf gives it away.

I must add this disclaimer: our state, among several others, prohibit selling or planting Burning Bush plants because they are so invasive. They may be pretty, but they can quickly spread, crowding out native species.

Our big beauty gets mowed around often enough that I never saw suckers growing up around the base. I’ll have to keep my eye on these two new discoveries to make sure they don’t take over the woods next door.

These bushes got me thinking about our Christian walk. Are we living incognito?

Do we blend in with our surroundings? Or do we stand out? If folks discover that we are followers of Christ, are they surprised? Or does it explain why we behave the way we do?

Here are a few verses from Scripture to ponder.

So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy.

1 Peter 1:14-15 NLT

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.

Ephesians 4:21-24

Holy: different, set apart because we’re special to the Lord. As we allow the Spirit to renew us, is our difference apparent to others?

We can’t be true followers of Christ in name only. Our lives need to be increasingly submitted to God. That growth, in turn, will produce fruit:

A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.

Matthew 12:33

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

These days make for a wonderful season to show our true colors, my friends. Take some time to contemplate how you can follow Christ in obedience today, letting His character shine brightly through you.

Hollow

Take a stroll through the woods and discover beauty just waiting to be found! (Just be sure to wear your bright orange during hunting season.)

This hollow log was silently screaming to have its picture taken, so of course I obliged. How long had it lain there on the forest floor before the moss took up residence and the inner core rotted out? It was lovely to look at, but not good for much else.

Quiz time! Do you know another name for that inner core?

It’s called heartwood.

Heartwood is the central, supporting pillar of the tree. Although dead, it will not decay or lose strength while the outer layers are intact. A composite of hollow, needlelike cellulose fibers bound together by a chemical glue called lignin, it is in many ways as strong as steel. A piece 12″ long and 1″ by 2″ in cross section set vertically can support a weight of twenty tons!

Arbor Day Foundation

Twenty tons. That’s quite a lot of weight. That’s three and a half adult elephants, 30 cows or 40 grizzly bears. The tree depends on the strength of this heartwood in order to remain standing.

How’s Your Heartwood?

In much the same way as the heartwood of a tree, your heart supports your life both physically and spiritually. As it is vital to life, it needs protection just like the inner core of a tree.

Physically, your heart is located inside your ribcage to protect it from damage from external forces. A good diet and exercise help it to stay strong.

Your heart also needs spiritual safeguarding in order to avoid the process of spiritual decay. How do we go about setting up a system of defense? I’m glad you asked! Here are a few pointers from the Word of God.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2:6-8 NIV

How can we guard against “hollow and deceptive philosophy”? By remaining true to the faith and investing time in our relationship with Christ. That includes prayer, praise, and spending time reading and studying His Word.

Prayer

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

Ephesians 3:16-19 NLT

There’s a whole lot of power and strength in those verses, isn’t there? This prayer of Paul’s is a wonderful prayer to pray over yourself and your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Truth

Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:31-32 NLT

Truth is the best defense against hollow and deceptive philosophy. Where do we find this truth? God’s Word!

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

2 Timothy 3:16 NLT

Stay in the Word! Read it, study it, memorize it, and put it into practice. Then when you hear some “new” teaching going around, you have a standard of truth to compare it to and judge it by.

Praise

Do you need a starting point for praise? Read these verses from Ephesians 1.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.

God’s purpose was that we Jews who were the first to trust in Christ would bring praise and glory to God. And now you Gentiles have also heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him.

Ephesians 1:3-15 NLT

Amen and amen! Let those verses be a springboard of praise to God from your heart, my friend!

You are blessed, you are loved, you are chosen, you are adopted into the family of God, you are holy and without fault in Christ, you are free and forgiven, and you have an inheritance waiting for you. And there’s so much more!!

Today is a wonderful day to improve your heart health, my friend! A good diet of Bible reading and study, along with exercising your prayer and praise muscles will go a long way toward spiritual strength and protection.

What steps will you take today to implement or improve your spiritual diet and exercise regimen?

Drifting

We got away with some friends a few weeks ago, and I had to capture this shot of a small creek behind the cabin.

Peaceful Drifting

Peaceful, isn’t it? Leaves just drifting along, minding their own business. Not worried about anything at all.

Leaves are great when broken down and added to the compost pile, but not so great when they drift en masse into local ponds and lakes. In those environs their fertilizing power turns into food for algae and the like, which in turn suffocates the fish.

There is so much going on in the world these days that it’s tempting to disengage from it all and just drift along, refusing to care anymore. “Whatever happens will happen . . . just don’t mess with my peace and tranquility!” We’ve had enough of the stressors of virus fears, economic disruptions, race discussions, election divisions, and other disturbances hampering our pursuit of enjoying life.

We’re just tired. We long for the good old days . . . of only seven or eight months ago! We wait for things to return to the normal we are familiar with so that we can get back to being and doing what we know. But time and circumstance don’t work that way.

Things surrounding us may have all gotten upended and unpredictable, but that needn’t knock us off our foundation, no matter how long the upheaval lasts! If we hold true to our identity as followers of Christ, we know this is not our home. We’re just passing through.

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ.

Philippians 1:27a NLT

We pray for the nation where we live, but our primary citizenship is not of this earth.

And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.

Jeremiah 29:7

We are ambassadors of Christ, here to shine His light to the world no matter what political, economic or health condition it happens to be in.

“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”

Matthew 5:14-16

We can’t simply disengage and wait for the storm to pass. There is truth to hold onto and work to be done for the sake of eternity. I have been guilty–just look at how often I have written since March, and you’ll see that I’ve been sidelined for very long periods of time! But it’s time to get out of the bleachers and back onto the track.

We’ve got a race to run, my friends! But that race requires discipline and focus.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.

1 Corinthians 9:24-25

How about you? Have you stepped out of the race for what you thought was a moment, but that ended up being much longer?

Have you allowed circumstances in this temporary life to sideline your pursuit of God?

What do you think needs to change in order for you to get back on track?

What will be your first step today to get back into the race God has marked out for you?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.

Hebrews 12:1

Let’s aimlessly drift no longer, friends — it’s time to run with determination!

Timing is Everything

I love breakfast bread. Banana bread, zucchini bread, berry bread, you name it!

But when you make any one of these yummy treats, timing is everything. If you take it out of the oven too early because just because it looks done, you end up with gooey insides of batter that never baked all the way through. If you take it out too late, it’ll be too dry, with edges that may have even burned a little.

Timing really does matter! And it matters for more than just banana bread.

I was studying 1 Peter 5:6-9 this morning, which says, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are” (NLT).

Peter writes an awful lot about suffering in this letter, and not once does he tell the believers to pray for an end to their suffering. He gives them practical guidance for how to live the Christian life right in the midst of it.

One attitude he encourages us to have is that of trust. “So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you” (4:19).

Having an attitude of trust in our Creator requires an additional attitude of humility before him. He knows so much better than we do, about e v e r y t h i n g!

As we humble ourselves before God, we trust that He knows what’s needed for his glory. Thinking back to our banana bread, when we get it just right, don’t we want accolades for its yummy deliciousness? My friend, we are the bread, and He is the baker! When we are lifted up in honor at the right time, who do you think is really going to get the glory and praise? I have a feeling that any coming our way will get redirected to the Author and Perfecter of our faith!

God sees our hearts. He knows what it’s going to take to bring us to completion. Do we trust Him enough to leave us in the oven of trial and suffering until we’re done on the inside? There is a great reward coming, friends. “But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it” (3:14).

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.

1 Peter 1:6-7

Disintegration

Lilacs are one of my favorite things to smell in the spring. They can be overwhelming for some folks, but I love them! Especially since my sniffer is on the weak side. We’ve got a lilac bush growing behind our house that’s been trimmed to look more like a tree. I love the scent wafting in through the windows when it’s in bloom!

But no matter how much I love it, I had to do the unthinkable and cut part of it down this week. Zooming out, you can see that this stem was being held up by an old frame.

It was flowering in the spring and putting out new growth, but it was so weak it couldn’t even stand on its own! Closer inspection revealed the issue:

missing bark and cracked inner wood strewn with holes.

First of all, you shouldn’t be able to see the inside of the trunk at all! It should be solidly covered with bark. But the bark has been peeled away, and the inside eaten by bugs (which had in turn been hunted by woodpeckers).

Closer to the base was a section where I could easily pick the inner wood apart with my fingers once a bit more bark was peeled away. Disintegration had set in.

As sad as it made me, I knew the weakened stem had to go.

With just a quick glance, it would look like nothing was really wrong here. But getting up close and personal made everything clear! Something had to be done.

Life

If I had to choose one word to describe life these days, it would be “tumultuous.” I know you’ve seen and heard voices clamoring on just about every issue under the sun. Everyone has been affected by something, and everyone wants to be heard . . . but not too many folks are willing to listen anymore (unless what they hear is in line with the opinion they already hold, of course).

We’re stressed by events, stressed by circumstances, stressed by opposing views, stressed by politics, stressed by relationships . . . so many things are pulling on us that we are breaking down in areas where we thought we were strong. We may have had all the answers before and put on a good show, but what’s on the inside is becoming visible for the world to see.

We thought we trusted God, but it turns out we trusted in our ability to control situations. We trusted in our bank accounts. We trusted in our own intelligence. We trusted in our plans for the future. We trusted in the essential goodness of humankind.

And when all of those things have let us down, we feel that we can’t take anymore. We go on the offense in order to defend ourselves. The best defense is a great offense, right? So we go on the attack. We attack people’s ideals, ideas, and very character. We attack anything that might possibly bring additional strain on our lives, as well as on our emotional and mental faculties.

And our lack of trust in God is glaringly obvious to everyone watching.

Could it be that God is allowing these times of pressure to open our eyes to our need for Him? To strip us of our pride and reliance on things that won’t last forever? Perhaps it’s time to visit the Master Gardener for a bit of pruning.

We seem to think we were meant to be saved from the troubles of this life, and are shocked when they arrive. Is that what Jesus meant when He said, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT)?

I don’t think so! But He did promise us his peace. Are we willing to take that peace as our own? We are far from world peace, my friend. There is only one True Source of lasting, inner peace. It’s not going to be found in our own strength, in our savings account, in our government officials, or anywhere else in this world and its systems. Our peace is found in Christ alone.

Trust

The first evidence of trust in God should be a peace that we carry with us no matter what we’re going through. Yes, there will be sad days, there will be mad days, there will be unexplainably puzzling days. But we can have a deep sense of God’s peace in each and every one of those days that carries us through, and that peace will be noticeable to others.

Hard times are nothing new. The Psalmist wrote, “This I declare about the LORD: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him” (Psalm 91:2). Without the storms and battles of this life, would there be any need of a refuge? No. But since we experience both throughout our lives here on earth, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have the strongest refuge and fortress possible? Our God is the Creator of everything. He holds it all together. I think we can trust him to be strong enough for what are puny problems in comparison!

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding” (Psalm 3:5 NLT). Our own understanding can be pretty cloudy sometimes. Are we willing to trust God when things don’t match up with our expectations or perspective of what should be? What about when someone has a differing view of something we hold very near and dear? Are we able to give it to God and trust the outcome? What we see now is but a speck in time. Are we willing to trust that He has the end game in view, and has since the beginning?

And finally, “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). If we are filled completely with joy and peace as we overflow with confident hope, could it be possible that others might notice?

How have these times affected you, friend? Would you say that others can perceive joy, peace, and hope in your life? If not, maybe it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your Heavenly Father. Ask him to show you where your trust is lacking, and determine be obedient to his leading in the days and weeks to come.