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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
I still remember the Confirmation Interview I had with my pastor 40 some years ago. It was a fireside chat that changed my perspective on life. Pastor Borgwardt was seated at his heavy oak desk surrounded by dark leather covered chairs as one by one he made our ninth grade class sweat our way through the explanation to the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments. As I sat there I was afraid that he would question whether it was really true that I had spilled the entire chalice of communion wine on the floor. I would have to confess, guilty as charged. The half hour conversation passed quickly, and just when I was relieved to discover that there were only two minutes left he unloaded the bombshell. “Arden, what are your plans for the future?” There was no hidden agenda in his probing, implying that I should consider the call to ministry, but he underscored his question with the following scripture, “Remember, to whom God has given much he expects much.” Now you may be wondering: so why was this such a troubling saying? Why? Because it reminded me that you and I are not our own beings. Our very life is drawn and tied to the presence and will of another. God has expectations and like the parable of the fig tree we are to bear good fruit.
Unfortunately, there are years when we are not very productive. Our branches seem to be bearing little fruit. As we near the close of the year, we hear people say, “I’ll be glad when this year is over,” as if a turn of the page will dramatically change all things. Sickness and sorrow, death and depression, unemployment and tragedy have a way of withering the fruit while it is still on the vine. The joy of life seems to dry away and be tossed in the wind. Few of us will escape at least one horrible year we’d like to forget. I am reminded of a card I was sent earlier this year. It was a picture of a dog holding a TV Remote control. “Wouldn’t be nice if our lives were like VCR’s and we could fast forward through the crummy parts.”
New Year’s Eve has always been a time for looking back to the past, and more importantly, and looking forward to the future. It’s often a time to reflect on the changes we want or need to make life better for ourselves or for others- and to become fruitful again. That is my New Year’s wish for you this year.
But before you rush into anything you may regret in the year by making a resolution you’re not likely to honor, consider your plan and strategy. Setting long-term goals and planning for small steps is often a far more realistic path than a dramatic overnight fix. Jesus’ telling of the parable of Fig Tree is a reminder of this wisdom. The vine- dresser had a plan for making the fig tree fruitful. “Let it alone, dig about it, and put on manure.” You see, without a plan, your New Year’s Wish may soon be your New Year’s Toast, “May all your troubles in the coming year be as short as your New Year’s resolutions.”
My friends, let me offer you three thoughts for setting your hopes and dreams for the New Year and for becoming fruitful again. It is essential to make plans, and not just to have good intentions. First, let it alone. Second, dig around it, and third, put on manure.”
First of all, if your year has been filled with pain and sorrow, you should not expect a bountiful harvest. Let it alone. Your energy has been spent and is not available for bearing fruit. Instead, you need to step back and reflect on the sources that have lifted you up and those that have let you down. A horrible year may have taught you how to be more self-efficient, independent and how to stand up for yourself and your happiness. You may not have always been able to walk away from trial and misfortune before, but now you have learned that you have a greater personal strength than you ever imagined.
This past week, I spent time reading through the Christmas cards and letters that came in the rush before Christmas. To be honest on December 23rd and 24th, I had little more time than the time to read the names on the envelopes and emails. But in the last days, I have ready the stories of good and bad years for many dear friends- the loss of parents, frustrations with children, and health issues. But there was one favorite card that came. It was a quilter in a previous church, who had seen a piece of cloth and it reminded her of me. That was an important little message. You and I need to be reminded of those dear men and women and children who have held us in their thoughts and prayers.
In a poem entitled “Cutting the List” the author Betty Skold wrote that the increased cost of postage was encouraging her to cut her Christmas card list, but then she changed her mind.
For the price of a stamp I can remember the flavor of Edna’s coffee cake and her steamed cranberry pudding.
We seldom see him anymore, but for the price of a stamp, once a year we can remember the gentle man who taught our boys to build a better campfire.
For the price of a stamp I can call to mind the stillness in the college chapel, the pig-tailed girl who strummed a ukulele at Girl Scout camp.
With a Christmas card we remind each other that we are friends, and that we are friends of the Christmas Child, and that friendship is not easily crossed off a list.
My friends, your strategy this year may be to leave things alone. Study the resources of strength and hope that have carried you through this past year. Remember your friends and family. You may be making a crucial mistake of crossing friends and family off the list.
The second step may be to dig around. When you tell yourself that you are going to reach your goal, you may need to start digging in and mapping out the way it will work for you. This kind of committed planning requires energy and effort, which may be difficult to drum up as you’re trying to recover from the hectic holiday season. Tomorrow may not be the time to begin a clean slate. Physically, emotionally and spiritually, you may not be ready.
But when the time is right, dig around in your life in little ways. Try to make room in your life for more sleep, healthier and lighter eating, drinking lots of water, walking in the fresh, brisk air or getting out for other exercise. Give time to spirituality and meditation. After a horrible year the timing may be better for these smaller lifestyle changes than making a full-blown resolution.
Mind you, small steps of digging around often comes as a surprise to friends and neighbors. They may ask, why not make a dramatic change- here and now. They accept the notion that everything happens for a reason. Others choose to dig around and find new friends, new hobbies, or new activities. But one thing I have discovered, in my own years of loss- Things can be repaired, replaced and even upgraded, but you simply never get over the death of a loved one. You learn to live, step-by-step, and day by day, with a permanent gap in your emotional landscape. It is a beautiful and fitting metaphor. A tree that has fallen in the storm continues to cast a shadow.
My friends, not everything happens in this world for a reason. In the midst of things you do not understand, pray that God would embrace and carry you to that place where you can stand again. And remember that you need not stand alone. Dig around. There are others who will hold you. Reach out to your family and loved ones, and tell them how much they mean to you; because there will come a time when you no longer can share that with them.
Finally, the vinedresser suggests putting manure on the fig tree to make it fruitful. I am not a gifted farmer or gardener, but I know that for a plant to grow well, it must be planted in fertile soil. And this, I rather suspect, has something to do with humus. Do you know what humus is? Some of you may have a compost pile in your yard. The compost pile is made up of humus. Humus is partially decayed plant or animal material. The reason you keep this compost pile is because it makes excellent fertilizer. It causes growth and gives robust health to plants.
Interestingly, Latin word humus is the root word for the English word humility. And humility is the spiritual fertilizer necessary for your heart if change is to occur in your life. Humility is produced when you realize that you don’t understand all life’s mysteries, that you don’t know all of life’s riddles or puzzles, and that you have no power or right to judge others. It is ultimately the confession, that you cannot be whole and healthy on your own. You need to a place for God with his abundant mercy and grace to enter in. If there is no humility, neither is there a possibility for the water of life to refresh your arid and parched heart.
My friends, our Savior Jesus longs for you to be fruitful and joyful this new year. Life does not change for the better with the flip of calendar page. You need to take charge of the things you can. Develop a strategy and plan. Let it alone, dig around it and fertilize it. But whatever steps you take, remember our Lord has promised to be with you with. We would love to change the past on our own, with the flip of the calendar pages, but that is simply not possible.
God alone is the one who bring the possibility of good fruit. He is the one who brings joy and wonder to your empty December days and to your barren branches. God invites you to reflect on the year that has past, and to look with hope to the future. So for now, let it alone. And when it is time, dig around. Begin with small gestures. Remember to forgive lovingly and to forget graciously, and to move on faithfully. And then finally, when God challenges you to put on manure, dare to live and act differently. Jesus saves, and he longs to redirect and transform your past into a productive and healthy future. Let his promise, his love and his forgiveness give you a new life this New Year- so that your life may be truly fruitful. “To those whom God has given much, he expects much.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.