Abiding

A dried out, crumbly cross woven from palm leaves

A few days ago we commemorated Christ’s entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey. On that day, we are told in the gospel accounts, the people cut palm branches and waved them in honor of Him as he rode. Each year on Palm Sunday, at many churches in New England, we distribute palms on this Sunday before Easter as a tactile reminder of that triumphal entry. The leaves of the palm are broken off the frond and given to worshipers separately. Some of us enjoy weaving the palm leaves into various things, the most common being a cross– a grim reminder that the same crowds that applauded Jesus with “Hosanna!” on Sunday shouted for his crucifixion a few days later.

When a palm leaf has just recently been split off from the base of the frond, it is supple, green, lively, and easily woven into symbolic, tactile reminders of the events of Holy Week. Skillful fingers organize the leaves into images that we keep on fireplace mantels and dressers as the days of the week pass by. Pictured above is just such a cross.

Ah, but after a day, that palm leaf that has been separated from its frond is no longer green and supple. It starts withering and drying out immediately, as it stiffens into whatever shape it has been given. The crosses and donkeys made of palm leaves become dry, colorless, and easily crumpled. Apart from the frond, those leaves wither and die.

In John 15:1-6, Jesus tells us: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he removes, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me, as a branch he is thrown away and withers.

This year I looked it an unbroken palm bud four days later. All of the palm leaves, still attached to the frond, were still supple and green. They were abiding.

Christ commands us to abide in Him. In Him is life.

A frond of palm leaves from Palm Sunday service.
Connected to the frond, the leaves remain green and lively.

Furnaces

The first really warm days arrive in early spring. We shed our coats and melancholy moods and embrace the world around us that has decided to not be hostile. And we turn off the furnace. Well, for now. We know that in New England, one warm day in late March or early April does not a summer make. We know we’ll need the life-giving warmth of that furnace again in a few days, and now and then on chilly nights well into May. And maybe after that once or twice. Of course, we would never dream of getting rid of our furnaces in summer– we service them and get them ready for use again in the autumn. We know we’ll need them again because we know that homes without heat are useless.

But what about abandoned buildings that have no heat? How do they fare? This inn, once a beautiful haven for weary travelers, is now a spooky wreck. Without warmth and care for the last 40 years, this inn has decayed into a haven fit only for bats and vermin.

New England needs the gospel. It warms the culture. It keeps people and churches and communities– really, the whole region– from decay. God’s Word is true and dependable. It shows us how to live and be assured of eternal salvation. We need its warm touch in our lives constantly, like we need furnaces.

Spiritually, New England has grown dark and cold. Its residents shut down the furnace of God’s truth and love a long time ago.

We need to ignite that flame again. We are praying fervently for New England to return to its roots. Long ago this was the cradle of American Christianity, and it needs to be again.

Lord, help faithful pastors show New England how to turn the furnace back on.

Feb Four

For some New Englanders, the cold, dark, icy days of winter can seem like a long narrow tunnel interrupting reality– a constricting passageway when life can be really awful, connecting the eras when life is awfully real. Some of us find winter just something to get through. Driving to and from work in the dark, huddling inside to avoid the cold, enduring a bout with the flu– these things make winter seem like a long tunnel that connects “real life” on either end. Sometime after the last Christmas things are packed away, we face the inevitable confinement of the New England winter and resign ourselves to tunnel life.

On the other hand, as long as we are feeling well and the furnace is working, life during the tunnel days provides us with something that “real life” does not: time to reflect. On still, dark winter evenings we think deeply and meditate. We enjoy reading and studying God’s word. We take time to nourish our souls. The harshness of the outdoors makes us let go of “real life” long enough to immerse ourselves in good literature or to watch a compelling movie. We grow, we change.

God’s gift on a winter night is a strange and terrible beauty.

And we also learn to look for beauty inside the starkness of the season. If we take the time to look for them, frigid winter nights grant us thrills that balmy summer nights do not. The full moon rides high in the sky, reflecting its cold, clear light off the yards below. To the delight of the astute observer, God gives us strange, fleeting gifts like the interplay of both moonlight and the shadows created by outdoor lanterns on the crust of the stark white snow.

And so we finally reach the midpoint of the tunnel: “Feb Four.” On this morning, the fourth day of February, we mark the halfway point of the winter experience. Starting today, we are trudging out of the long dark tunnel; we are driving out of it, not into it. And that gives us hope, because even though we know winter can be used to shape us for the good, we don’t want it to last too long.

Which part lasts forever?

When a New England man buys a new machine, he immediately wants to know which parts he will need to replace soon, and which ones will last beyond his lifetime. The big problem in this region nowadays is that these same people who apply that good sense and prudent stewardship to their possessions are not geared to thinking that way about themselves– that is– about body and soul. The soul lasts forever; the body does not. Look at American culture, especially as it is lived out in the Northeast, and you will see that the cultural norm centers around the vain imagination that our bodies last forever, and our invisible souls don’t even exist…or, if they do, they are irrelevant and their destinations unknowable. All the focus of daily life is on the temporal, not the eternal. Most people in this region today spend all their time working for what they cannot keep beyond the grave, worrying about status and appearance, and worshiping what is fleeting.

In 2 Corinthians 4:16, the apostle Paul advises us, “So do not lose heart. Though our outer self is deteriorating, still our inner self is being renewed day by day.” If that is true, then we ought to be very interested indeed in what renews our inner self– what builds up our soul. The faithful Christians that settled New England had no such vain imagination. They knew that the body must be cared for and nourished, but that the soul would live for an eternity– in glory or in torment. They placed the greater emphasis of Christian living squarely on what matters: that the inner self would be renewed day by day through things like prayer, Bible study, worship, and acts of mercy. Through these joyous activities, a believer lays up treasure in Heaven, feeds the soul, builds up the kingdom, benefits others, gives God the glory.

Each day the outer self deteriorates a little more. Over time the effect is obvious.

Gracious Lord, let us all invest our time in the renewal of the inner self.

An old mill still stands in Dorset Hollow near Dorset, Vermont

Christmas morning philosophy

A famous philosopher once propounded the conundrum, “If God is all-powerful, let Him create a rock so large that He cannot lift it.”  This has been shown to be ridiculous, by the rules of logic, because, by definition, omnipotence precludes inability.

However, it is striking to note that only God is so powerful that He could incarnate Himself into the form of a human being who, being born of God, was indeed truly God, and yet also being of limited scope, could not lift a rock. Indeed, God IS so powerful that He can create a rock so large that, in the form of a newborn baby, He cannot lift it.

Sabbath morning prayer

O gracious and compassionate Lord, it is only by your mercy that we find ourselves in the morning of a new Sabbath day.  But we would take this gift of a new day in vain unless we grow in grace and increase in our knowledge of your Word.

May we use the day to better understand who you are, O Lord, and help us to love you above all else, and to serve you wholeheartedly.  We pray that this day we would allow our wills to respond to you.

We recognize that the power to obey your commandments does not lie within us, but comes only as a fruit of your grace.         

This morning we give you our empty hearts that you might fill them with the excellent gifts that only come from you. We give you our empty minds and beg you to focus them on what is pure and lovely,  and to drive out what is foolish and selfish.

O, vigilant shepherd of sheep that all too often wander, guide us in your paths.  With your staff, keep us from error. Show us the paths of righteousness and give us the desire to walk in them. 

Defend us, O Lord, from our enemies, and from snares laid by our adversary. Perhaps our greatest enemy is our own wayward nature.

Keep us free from the pain of straying, dear gracious Father. Protect us from our own foolishness.

Cleanse us this morning. Wash us clean of our sinful nature and make us eager to bless others as we go about our daily tasks. 

In your love remind us that we are no longer bound to the sins of our past.  Release us from guilt so that we would joyfully serve others.

O gracious Father in Heaven, fill us this day with light and peace, with the hope of glory, with delight in simple pleasures, with the joy of fellowship, with your Word, with yourself.   Amen.

Only two possible destinies

New England is famous for many things, but perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of New England, and especially Vermont, is the maple tree. We can laud it for its sugary sap and the delightful syrup that it provides. People visit here in the autumn to behold the brilliant displays of colored foliage with which the Lord adorns the landscape in early October. What a delightful feast for the eyes is that splash of red, orange and yellow leaves as the maple trees dress up for one last moment of glory before November ushers in its world of gray monotones.

But what of the maple seeds? Anyone in this corner of the country can tell you that maple trees drop a lot of seeds in the spring. By God’s design, each seed comes equipped with its own little “parachute” wing that enables it to spin wildly in the breeze and travel a ways away from the mother tree. Each seed bears the potential of becoming a new, strong, glorious maple tree; each one is carried away by wind to find a home in the welcoming earth. No two seeds, nor their resulting trees, are truly identical.

And then they diverge. A myriad maple seeds never find a home in the ground. They land on streets and sidewalks and are seen as useless, half-rotted trash to be scornfully raked up and thrown away. But some seeds do land in fertile soil, and after decades of growth they become strong trees, producing joy and beauty, and maple sugar and stunning foliage, to delight the next generation.

Only two destinies are possible: to be cast into perdition, or to grow into something magnificent.

In this simple and profound way, God the creator has shown us the only two destinies of the human soul.

Vantage point

Many years ago, I started seeing great photographs of New England scenery, like beautiful vistas of the ocean and full shots of lighthouses.  Then I went to the ocean and tried to take pictures like that myself. I looked at the printed photographs later on and realized that none of mine had the glory of the professional ones in the glossy travel magazines.   Even with a better camera, I was unable to capture the glorious seacoast views as I wanted to. 

Then one day it hit me: I was not positioned up high enough to take in the view.  Those photos were taken from aircraft.  My photos were low, ground-level shots—flat, featureless, unsatisfying.  I was at the shore, but all I could photograph was long, boring stretches of sand and sea.  To take the photos that I wanted I needed a different vantage point. I needed to view New England’s seacoast from up above, not from within it. 

It was all a matter of my vantage point.

Visitors to this beautiful corner of America observe from a horizontal view—majestic mountains, classic architecture, and the inhabitants—but not from above.  From God’s point of view, far above such a view, He sees a region in desperate need of repentance, belief, and a return to vibrant, personal relationships with their creator. 

From God’s vantage point, New England is ready for revival. He sees the need for biblical truth to be preached from the pulpit. He sees people that He loves and desires to deliver from the bondage of this world to eternal life. He sees a land, settled long ago by faithful believers, that needs to return to its heritage—the truth of God’s word.

God takes his picture of New England from His vantage point and calls it beautiful—but He desires to call its people to himself.  

The Maine Coast photographed from the air, thanks to a tour inside a lighthouse.

A Call for Action

Here’s a thought for today from Selwyn Hughes, an expert on revival :

“Our nation needs God—that is for sure.  We are slipping into apostasy, sin is rampant and rife, young people have no clear ethical guidelines, postmodernism rules in our colleges and universities, moral absolutes no longer prevail, so many things are being undermined. How can we reach them is there is no revival?  How can things change?

We can’t look to the nation to correct itself morally on its own.  The answer to our morality does not lie entirely in the chambers of government but in the house of God.

We have watched our country slipping back for a generation.  And without doubt complacency and lukewarmness gnaw at the door of the church. It is a lot to believe that humility, believing prayer, radical repentance, and cutting out everything that God does not want in our lives can change things, but not to believe it would make God a liar.

God longs for revival more than we do.  “Return to me, and I will return to you,” he said in Malachi 3:7.

Let’s not settle for the spiritual status quo: a mediocre, weak, and anemic brand of Christianity, when God wants to make available to us the same kind of power that energized the early church.  Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said on one occasion that the Christian church is like a sleeping giant. If that is so, then it is time for it to wake up.

To absorb ideas about revival costs nothing, but to enter into revival costs everything—our time and changes in our behavior.  We shall be very guilty if, having come to understand revival and be convinced of its need, we then do nothing about it.  Let us report for duty in the battle for our nation’s soul.”

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excerpted from pages 76 and 82-84 of:

Hughes, Selwyn. Why Revival Waits (Nashville, TN: Broadman &  Holman, 2005.)

Not Alone

We read to know that we are not alone.

I remember hearing that quote in the movie Educating Rita nearly 40 years ago, and I’ve spent an adult lifetime learning how true that is.  When we read, we hear of the struggles, challenges, joys, and victories of others. We relate to their anguish. We rejoice to hear news of victory.  To read the words of another, beset with the same foibles and sorrows as we, is to connect into community. The writings of others build bridges between our mortal souls and theirs.  In excellently crafted novels we identify with a hero or heroine as that person struggles against the world, and we ourselves grow and change. Perhaps we learn from events in the plot how to handle situations in our own lives better.  Perhaps we relax a little more, just knowing that someone else has faced the same uphill climb of struggle that we are facing now—and that they made it.

New England has produced great classic writers, from Jonathan Edwards, a great genius-level theologian of the 18th century, and authors of famous novels like Nathaniel Hawthorne, to famous hymn writers like Fanny Crosby and Katharine Lee Bates.  The writings of these faithful New Englanders have informed and inspired our nation for centuries.  Their writings are a national treasure.

We write to let others know that they are not alone.

Antiquarian books in the MARBLE Room in the Hogue Library in Bennington, Vermont.