Monday, January 30, 2012

The Parable of Companion Planting

 Jesus often uses agricultural terms to aid in his teaching about spiritual matters.  As long as there is life on earth we will be dependent on farming, and the parables involving planting, growing and harvest will offer insight into the nature of the kingdom of God.  The analogies may be easily lost on those not paying attention--those, for example, who think the grocery store is where food originates.  As my seven year old asked last year, "Just how do the cows make cheeseburgers?"  But to those who understand that everything we have can be traced back to the raw materials God gave us to use in the first place, there is much to be learned from this type of teaching.

  The Bible doesn't exhaust the use of agricultural language to explain the spirit world.  In fact, it seems likely that God expects Jesus' parables to whet our appetites for more.  I started square foot gardening last year and have discovered that, even in a small, urban back yard a person can learn a lot about God.  I've been educating myself about companion planting.  If you've never heard of it, it's the idea that certain crops planted in proximity either assist or discourage each other in productivity.  For example, beets and pole beans planted side by side will stunt each other's growth, and cabbage and lettuce, as alike as they seem, are not good for each other as the flavor of lettuce will be greatly compromised.  On the other hand, many plants are great company for each other.  A native American technique known as The Three Sisters combines corn, squash and beans.  As they grow, the bean plant climbs the corn stalk, using it as a sort of stake, and the squash leaves spread out at the base, serving as mulch.  The three essentially work together to produce a more bountiful harvest.

  With as many plants as there are, this can all become quite confusing, so I have drawn up a grid of every square foot in my garden.  On it I have assigned a place to each plant.  With most of them, it's as simple as determining which ones get along well and which ones don't.  Then there are plants like the marigold which has the potential to serve many purposes.  It's beautiful, edible, and a formidable opponent for many garden pests.  For that reason, I have marigolds planted everywhere.

  Now, whether you're intrigued by all of this or you're not really into gardening, you must admit there's much to be learned from God's chosen method for feeding mankind.  Companion planting has helped me understand that God has a big picture for his garden and a purpose for each one of us.  It also helps make sense of why some of us work well together and some of us don't.  Have you ever worked alongside a person who brought out the worst in you?  It's not necessarily an indictment on any individual but a clue to the mystery that is the body of Christ and the fact that we each possess unique abilities and gifts.  God knows best how to combine those.

  Some plants he seems to stick in the ground to remain and produce fruit until the day they die.  You know, the folks who have lived in the same house their entire lives?  Others, like the marigold, he continues to transplant to serve different purposes at different times.  I have often felt like a marigold, wanting a single defined purpose in a single defined square foot of the garden, but I find myself instead being used sometimes as pest control and sometimes as food.  If you've ever been chewed up and spit out by ministry, you know what I mean.  God in his infinite wisdom has chosen to pull my family up by the roots time and time again to transplant us about, knowing that in the end, we will have served our purpose as laid out in his perfect plan.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Our New Sister Joanne

  Though our small church is exploding with personal and spiritual growth, we haven't seen much in the way of numeric growth for a while.  We've invited neighbors and acquaintances to our house for meals and Bible studies, but that's as far as the relationship goes.  We recently ramped up our prayers on behalf of the many people who have been invited to or participated in a Bible study.  Friday we got a little pushy with God almost demanding that He follow through on the promise that He'll give us anything we ask in His name.  What qualifies more than having someone to teach about His Son?  "Where are they?" we asked.  "Send us even one person who is ready to meet Jesus."

  If you are a praying person, you know how much work it can be and how utterly disappointing to feel like your prayers aren't being answered.  We've been exhausted and discouraged lately and needed a time of refreshing, so Terry and Maria kept the boys Saturday night so John and I could go out on a date.  On the way home, I got a phone call from Joanne, a lady who works at the YMCA child care center.  She was one of the first people I met when we moved here, and she has been to our house on a few occasions.  She even started coming to a Mark study but quit after just two meetings.  She asked if she could join us Sunday morning.  I told her we have breakfast at 10:00 am, and she was the first one here.

  Joanne told us she's been very confused and has been searching for something for a long time but wasn't sure what.  Like the Plumb song says, there's a God-shaped hole in all of us.  Joanne was becoming aware of hers and looking for a way to fill it.  In fact, she went to a spiritual advisor just two days ago.  She said the place was adorned with images of many gods, including Jesus, and the woman assured her they were all the same in the end.  This was just weeks after she went forward for an altar call at the biggest and best-known community church in the city.  They assured her she was saved, although she didn't understand how or why.  Thankfully, the counsel she received didn't sit well with her, and she continued searching.  She said she was drawn back to us and ready to hear what we had to say.  

  We spent all afternoon yesterday untangling the web of misinformation she's been carrying around for years.  Her face went from one of intent listening to almost blushing joy as the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ unfolded.  Somewhere around 6:00 pm, she said, "This makes sense and I believe it.  What should I do?"  Terry and Maria opened up their home and pool, and Hayley met us there to witness Joanne's baptism.
  Now I present our most recent church family photo.  (Joanne's standing next to me.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Greatest Show on Earth

  A friend gave us tickets to the circus last week, so we spent the evening being entertained by what's been called the Greatest Show on Earth.  As we enjoyed the generosity of our friend, I noticed something.  The performers were a bit sloppy.  We've been to the circus before, and I didn't remember it being so relaxed.  The dancers fell out of line and the jugglers dropped the occasional bowling pin.  Trying to deny my naturally critical nature, I watched on.  It was fun, and the kids were enthralled, so I soon became lost in the flashy production and stopped noticing flaws.  Then I realized there were no mistakes because I was watching the tight rope walkers.  They couldn't make a mistake.  Even with a safety net, falling from sitting atop a bike rider on a high wire is still dangerous at best.  Also, the tiger tamer was on his game.  Again, one mistake and he could be catnip.

  The acts involving life or death situations were much more precise than the others.  It made me think of the church.  We're told in Scripture that we're in a spiritual war, yet we tend to live with a peacetime mentality.  If we recognized the dangers that surround us on a daily basis, would we act differently?  Would we be more motivated to read and understand our Bibles and spend more time in prayer?  Would we be willing to sacrifice a bit more of our creature comforts to aid those trapped in the enemy's camp?  Would we be more precise and less relaxed with our faith?

  I also observed the clowns attracting attention as the sets changed in the shadows.  That brought another analogy to mind.  It seems we sometimes take our attention off the real changes (like the transformation in Maria I talked about in my last post) to focus on winning the approval of others in order to get them into our assemblies.  Thinking about that made me glad I have invested in my Christian sister over and above the skeptical and the disinterested who have darkened our door.  Those people would still be sitting with us each Sunday, consuming time and resources if we had put our energy into entertaining them instead of investing in the real changes taking place among the faithful.  Granted, we still pray for them, but we don't humor their lack of faith on a weekly basis.  Jesus purposely ran off the crowds who sought entertainment and fringe benefits.

  I share this, not to call into question anyone's sincerity, but to encourage all of us to take a look at ourselves and the community we call church.  Are we aware of the life and death nature of our calling? Are we focusing on entertaining the masses through programs and exciting worship more than investing in the real changes taking place in the shadows like the healing of a marriage or the spiritual growth of an individual?  Are we the church that Jesus established, or are we ourselves The Greatest Show on Earth?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reinforcing the Foundation

You may remember Maria, but you probably don't remember her like this.
She's due to have her second child--another boy--in March.  I helped her host a baby shower to celebrate.  

 You may be able to tell from the pictures that many of the ladies who attended are Brazilian.  There are lots of Brazilians who live in south Florida--several hundreds of thousands, in fact.  We came here on the premise of starting a Portuguese-speaking church among them.  Maria was especially hopeful for it to be a success, because that's been her dream for years.

  If you've been keeping up with us at all, you know that dream has not come true.  Of everyone who meets with us on a regular basis, Maria is the only Brazilian, and of the four people who John has baptized here, none is Brazilian.  It seems God has something else in mind, and it would be dishonest of me to say we haven't been impatient for Him to reveal what that something else might be.

  We sometimes get caught up in the idea that missional success means a large group of people that meet on Sunday.  I mean, it does look good on a report, but it's not the ultimate goal.  To be clear, the goal is to introduce people to Jesus.  We've considered giving in to the idea of creating a large gathering by renting a building in an effort to look more like the traditional model of church that most people expect from an evangelistic mission.  We even revisited the Brazilian church plant idea with Maria and her husband Terry.  Knowing Maria's desire to be surrounded by like-minded Brazilians during worship, I expected her to jump at the idea.  Instead, I was encouraged to realize that her focus has shifted over the past two years.  She's now much more concerned with putting God's will above her own.  Do you know what He can do with a woman like that? Ruth and Esther come to mind.

  I realized during our conversation that all the hours I might have spent organizing, planning, and executing programs necessary to keep a traditional church running smoothly have been freed up for me to spend simply reading the Bible with the ladies of our little house church.  God has used that time and investment to transform Maria in a way that is undeniably His work, and we are blessed to have been an integral part of it.

  So, what does God have in mind for our ministry in south Florida?  I can never be sure what His plans for the future are, but it seems Maria's transformation has been a big part of the plan these past two years--maybe a reinforcement of a foundation for things to come.  Her husband and sons are blessed to have her and will themselves be strengthened through her dedication to God.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

South Florida Ministry in Pictures

As we launch into a new year, we thought you might enjoy a snapshot of what's happened around here so far: