Our eyes locked and our fingers interlaced across the dining table as her father looked on. She was leaving in the morning, flying to her new life in NYC and a hard-earned position with a reputable firm on the thirty-ninth floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. Her communication bore no spite, yet pierced me deeply. ‘There is probably no God so why worry about it; just live your life.’
If my skin’s chocolate hue would have allowed it, she would have seen my flush of shame. Misplaced or not, I still took personally every indictment leveled against the Christian faith by any of our offspring. It seemed, in my view, our family’s Christian life had emerged as little more than one filled with worry over displeasing an exacting God whose existence she felt had little evidence. Her comment sparked flashbacks to a couple moments of anxious query leaked out during her month-long visit with us. I winced internally. Why do I default to thinking my husband and I are responsible for the faith of our adult children? We fumbled through several awkward but loving statements, then, acknowledging the early morning flight I rose, reluctant to withdraw my hand, but suspecting it was long past time to do so.
At the heart-level, the journey of faith is a solo trip with the Pilot who knows the flight plan towards safe arrival.
As I headed to bed, I realized I was not off the hook. The foundation of my own life demanded a detailed inspection— How well had I embodied Jesus to my children? How well did I ‘give flesh’ to the God behind the faith I professed? How much of the substance of the God who is there did I successfully trace in my labor to raise them God’s way, to shepherd their hearts, or to fulfill Deuteronomy 11:19? Our home-educating with a curriculum aimed at introducing them to the “world God loves,” our homespun activities following the church’s liturgical calendar, and efforts to bring faith home—were these a mere ‘bill of goods’? I had walked with Christ long enough to know definitely not, but still wondered at times whether something had been missed in the harried labours of it all. I longed to get the hiss of Eden’s accusing serpent out of my ear. It seems much of our Christian world sits paralyzed, afraid to engage the conversation in our turbulent world, while an open-eyed generation turns away from a trustworthy God.
Two weeks later, as I sat waiting out the cloud’s reluctance to release the morning sunshine, I wiped away cleansing tears in my devotional time—the examen of a difficult MA class offering. A heart-song then came to mind I had composed earlier in the year:
Draw me near,
Pull me close;
Help me see you rightly, Jesus.
Call me there,
Through the Door;
Hold me closely to Your side.
You are here,
You are with me;
You go before me and behind;
Your lovingkindness, all around me;
Those who seek You truly find.”
Draw me near…”
As comfort and peace settled over me, I thought, “This is the reality of my God. This is the joy, peace, and love that I savor repeatedly in Christ. This has kept me through nights of doubts, fears, challenges and pains of young adulthood, migration, marriage, child-bearing, miscarriages, parenting and all the human interaction in those experiences.” Had I truly failed to reflect that God? Surely, no one viewing such a God would reject Him! False. The Old Testament chronicles God’s repeated indictment against His chosen people, Israel, of just that—repeatedly doubting and rebelling against His demonstrations of love, faithfulness, and forgiveness. Yet, had I kept that aspect of my relationship with God too closeted? Did I hoard the Pearl of great price, dragon-like, too closely? If so, why? Were these even the right questions to ask? After all, the Scriptures say, “When you pray, when you fast, when you do good deeds…go into your closet…shut the door… give in secret.” (Matt. 6:1-6) How were our children, even from then, pondering our family’s faith practices? I sought answers, trying to meaningfully scan thirty years of Christian homeschooling family life.
Then a happy memory came back to me of my firstborn reciting Psalm 1. It was his first Scripture memory assignment. His surrogate grandparents from church had invited us to share their ‘ice-cream night’ so he could present his accomplishment with a fitting reward.
Oh, the joys of those who do not follow evil men’s advice
Who do not hang around with mockers scoffing at the things of God. (Ps. 1:1 LB)
Like a bell, his clear five-year-old voice rang out the verses from the original Living Bible translation, emphasis and pace falling in all the places we had practiced.
They are like a tree planted along the riverbank,
Bearing luscious fruit each season without fail! (Ps.1: 3 LB)
The picture of that tree stayed with me even as my son’s voice faded out. It was how I wanted to be seen, how I wanted to represent my God— my life, the picture of an ever-growing-tree, fruitful in season!
Those thoughts of fruitfulness led me to John’s Gospel, Chapter 15, and Jesus’ words about the Father’s delight in our fruitfulness. The picture that met me, however, as I read it again was of God as the Vinedresser, lovingly but firmly cutting away portions of branches that would stunt the production of future fruit; and of the Son exemplifying humble trust in the Fathers’ plan and process. This spoke to me in tones I recognized as the Holy Spirit’s way with me. The stark scenery of severely pruned grapevines in the vineyards of the region where we currently live in Germany came to mind—not a hint of greenery anywhere. One unaware of what they are seeing could assume such to be fields of rows of wires. But seasoned vinedressers know there are seasons of great fruitfulness yet ahead for those mature vines. Jesus’ assurance to His troubled disciples promised the coming Holy Spirit would bring help, guidance and comfort, and the ultimate outcome of full joy. These gifts, He explained, would be given to all who obey the command of abiding in Love – love of The Father, and of the Son, and of one another.
The embodiment of the coming Kingdom looked decidedly unattractive to many of His listeners. Jesus warned in chapter 16 of the same book that the world would not understand that command of love and would hate and even kill His followers for walking in that love. Yet the call was, and still is, to remain planted, like the tree in Psalm 1: abiding in living connection to the eternal aquifer at the foundation of Life. Reading His words again unveiled the enemy’s strategy to keep me doubtful and anxious about dead branches of past seasons of love’s obedient labour: the labour God had declared finished, and the removal of it spelled preparation for new fruitfulness, not failure or death.
Today, like the disciples, mine is to prayerfully trust the skillful hand of the Father who is the Vinedresser. Being pruned is hard all round. Not every empty church is evidence of unfaithful leaders. Many of the trappings, practices, and accessories of past seasons of the church’s efforts do need to be cut away to make room for new expressions more recognizable to the generations they will speak to in their time. And concerning the ones we call prodigal, not all who wander are lost.1
Just as it would be insane to refuse to release a newly birthed child to postpartum life, so would it be to not release my precious child to take her intrepid breath of the freedom to choose the One with whose image she is internally and eternally stamped. My display of faithless fear had made her wonder if something is wrong about that God-given freedom to seek, find and embody faith for oneself. Yes, it is a life and death choice, but the test is open-book. The right answer is marked— “Choose life!” Yet, she must make the choice herself.
As I rose from that feast by the river of Life, the sun finally casting a swath across the living room floor, I was well reminded that the life I embody, by the Holy Spirit, uniquely equips me for each new season as He did the disciples. For my young adults, my call is now to fervent, effectual prayer that knows no boundaries of distance, oceans, or circumstance, and that hears only as a fading memory the dying hiss from beneath the heel of the Risen Son.
 Tolkien, J.R.R The Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring Book 2, (Great Britain: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 241.
The featured image is courtesy of Justin Lee Parker and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.
A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship
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