Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Orchard of Love

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
Galatians 5:22

Dark clouds roll in from the north, darkening the orchard. Winds start picking up, cooling my face. I've spent several weeks getting the fruit trees back in good health. The last one sits at the edge of the orchard by itself. This one is the most neglected. The vines have completely overtaken it and choked it off. Branches are broken from the weight of the invader vines, preventing very little leaves from growing. What once was an abundant, fruit bearing tree has now become a mass of twisted vines...the poor tree has a deep root system that had grown way before it was taken over, allowing it to hold on awhile longer.

I remember the days of Springs past, when Dad and I would gather buckets of fruit, pears to be exact. That old tree would bear two or three times a year. The tops of the buckets would be overflowing. Buckets so heavy, that I had to drag them alot of times to the kitchen door. Where Mom would be waiting, waiting to make them into my favorite treat, pear preserves. Many a cold, winter I was glad to have done the hard work so I could enjoy, the fruits of my labor, I would chuckle to myself.

But time had taken away from me tending to the fruit trees. Neglect and forgetting had caused them to be overtaken. Since my divorce I had moved back to the old home place to take care of my mother. Between the fix this and repair that, I made my way to the orchard. Saving what I could, and discarding the others. This one was going to be the most difficult to save. And time was running short.

I took the pruners and the saw, starting to work on the lower branches and working my way up. Ripping and tearing at vines. Grabbing big handfuls of vines wrapped around tree branches. Taking branch and all down sometimes. The sky had darkened alot...but gave a cool relief from the hot sun. Still early spring I had hoped there was still time to save it. The breeze whipped the branches around as I tried to get a hold of each one.

Then, she came, walking up. Coming by to see the children as she does after work, until her time to take them comes. She yelled, "Need any help." "Be nice." So she proceeded to rip and tear at the vines, unraveling them from the branches they were smothering. I said,"You know, this tree is like a person's heart. Left alone to be neglected and forgotten the vines of this world take root. Blend into the tree so it doesn't notice it. Making it jaded and grotestique looking till its no longer recognizable." And I grabbed a vine, pulling the roots out. Throwing each one out into the field, as the wind blowed my hair around, I seen her listening, not speaking, just listening. "So, we have to take out the roots to make sure the vines don't come back. Just, as the heart, has to take out the vines that were choking it off of its supply of love."

Seeing our efforts weren't solving the problem...I started pruning limbs back. Dead limbs that were killing the tree, and some limbs that were so weighed down with so many vines, there was no way to save them. Snip. Snap. Crack. Branches fell. Hitting me sometimes. Cutting me other times. "You do this for someting you love. The tree doesn't mean to hurt me, but in the process of saving it, things I do hurt me deeply to save it. Just like saving a heart. The person your loving, who may not feel the same, doesn't mean to hurt you. The bad things your pulling away sometimes smacks you in the face. It cuts and wounds your own heart with the words they say. But you don't stop cause the season is changing and the storm is coming in. You only have a limited time to save it. So, you endure the pain, and press on. There's time for healing later."

We press on. Her listening silently, no comment. The wind is blowing stronger. I have to cut all the branches off. There remains one last branch at the top. It has some green leaves in it. But there is a mass of vines globbed on top of it. So, I have to decide what to do. "Don't cut it. It's the only bit of green left on the tree. Without it, it will die," she cries over the howling wind. "Bring me a chair. Quickly. I'll see what I can do." Reaching up, I notice all I can do is cut it. " I'll have to cut it. It's the only way to save it. Maybe the season is early enough to grow more green once the last of the vines are gone,"I yell. Its getting so dark I can hardly see the top and where to cut. My muscles ache as I stretch to reach it. I know this is my last chance, the storms were to last several days, and I won't be getting another opportunity again. Thump! The last branch falls as the downpour starts.

We run underneath the carport as the bottom falls out. The rain runs off the roof down the gutters gurgling all the way from all the flooding water. We stand there looking at each others eyes. "You didn't have to cut it off." "I had to save it. Sometimes, God saves our hearts by cutting off that one last thing that is holding our hearts back from love. The gardner who loves his orchard will do what is necessary to save his trees. Even, if it means something drastic cause he doesn't want them to suffer needlessly, cause they can't bear fruit. We can't bare fruits of the Spirit, the heart can't bear love. Just like the pear tree appeared old and gnarled...with no blossoms at all. Though it appears to look like a post now...hopefully with the water from this rain in the ground and the help of the sun, and the little bees. We will see the tree growing and doing well, full of leaves, and see some fruit. Like the heart will be ready to bear some fruit if its loved and taken care of. Now the fruit early in the season will taste bitter cause its not ready yet. Just as the human heart will still display some bitterness cause its now quite ready yet. The next time you come to the tree after this it should be heavy laden with ripe, beautiful golden and red pears. It should be full of these ripe and delicious pears ready to pick. Just as the heart should now be ready to be approached then; being filled with love, kindness, humbleness, and mercy. Being sweet to all who approach it. All because the gardner remembered how it use to be with the tree. And hopefully, his love, with God's help can restore what once was."

She just looked, no response. She nodded. We kissed. We had been seeing other for awhile. Trying to rebuild what once was. I can no more blame her than I can blame the tree. I had asked her to marry me, she accepted. Just like the tree accepted to be planted. And years of neglect and focus on other things caused it to be in the condition I found it. I just chose to look the other way. To focus elsewhere. And her heart was overrun by others, who like the vine pretend to be your friend climbing up you but ultimately, their just vines. Choking my heart and her heart to death. Until our orchard no longer bares the sweet fruits of love. Just barren or rotton fruit. Not worth consuming by anyone. Making us bitter and unpleasant to be around.

But in my soul searching it has lead me to this place. For me to learn that the world's half truths are nothing but vines, fit for ripping up and throwing on the fire before they consume another fruit tree (heart).
My prayer is : Great Gardner, You once put a man and woman in a garden to tend to the most beautiful of Your creation. Only to fail You. I have failed you in my garden. My orchard. You created a help mate...for You said that its not good for man to be alone. Yet, I feel so alone. Even though I see her now. My heart's love has still not broke through the vines. Only Your love can untangle the mess my years of neglect and taking for granite have caused, only Your love living through me can save her heart. I pray I'm not too late. Help me to wait upon You, to show Your love through me. I can only love so deeply, only through Your love can I learn to love deeper, cause my roots don't go as deep as Your does. Plant our hearts near the river of Your Living Water. But this time....plant us side by side so we have to grow together and protect each other from the things of the day. And when your cool breeze blows through the branches of our hearts....remind us that we love each other and You loved us first and always. Amen.

Lance Gargus

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Sleeping Underneath The Christmas Tree

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

Psalm 127:3

Like I always do, I wait until everyone is asleep to do my writing. Reflecting on the days events as they unfolded. The quietness of the late night hours is when I get the most done. Always been accused by my parents of being a night owl. The noises of the day seems to drown out everything, including God speaking to me. Most of my insight in my walk with Him is revealed when I finally shut up and listen. I have to silence myself spiritually. At that moment, the hidden things come out He wants to show me.
This night of Christmas Eve is cool in the house. Yet, my daughter insisted on sleeping underneath the Christmas tree. Well, her little brother had to do the same. My wife and I made them a little bed. So we covered them up and gave them a hug and kiss.
Both loved the soft, warm light from it. Her face is so sweet even with both her front teeth missing. She had listened to the song, All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, previously. Maybe she's dreaming of front teeth, as the thought made me chuckle. My boy snuggled up to Tigger, holding on to him for dear life. Like there's a Tigger thief out there, this thought tickled me even more. Those two just couldn't wait for Christmas morning.
I finally have a free moment to admire the lights. Each one radiated its own illumination of colors. So beautiful to gaze at the splendor of the colors God made. Kissing the little ones I headed for some shut eye. The glow of the lights was all the light I could see to make it to bed. A silhouette stood in the bedroom doorway.
"Are they asleep?" came the question.
"I sang Christmas carols till my voice was gone."
"Good," came the reply as she took my hand and lead me to bed.
One look and I could read what she had in mind.
Waking up to her beside me, and the sounds of children's laughter on Christmas morning is the only gift I need.


Lance Gargus

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Unconditional Love Story of Hosea

The story of the Prophet Hosea and his troubled marriage are a powerful testimony to us of our own tendency to be unfaithful to God but also of God’s passionate love for us. The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy and we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. But here are the basic facts along with some of the “fill in” required:
  1. Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife  and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD.  So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2)
  2. Together they have three children each with symbolic names: Jezreel (for God is about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people). It is also possible that these children were not of Hosea but rather of Gomer’s various lovers for, although they are born during the marriage, God later calls them children of harlotry.
  3. At some point, though the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Hosea’s wife Gomer, leaves him for a lover and enters into an adulterous relationship with him. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and likely anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea, but as we shall see, God’s reaction is well attested.
  4. After some unspecified period of time God instructs Hosea: Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1) Now, while the quoted text is not clear to specify that this is the same woman he is to love, the overall context of chapters 1-3 of Hosea  demand that this is the same unfaithful wife, Gomer. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back Gomer and re-establish his marital bonds with her.
  5. Hosea has to pay a rather hefty price indeed to purchase her back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. (Hosea 3:2) The willingness of her paramour to “sell her back” indicates quite poetically that the apparent love of the world and all false lovers, is not a real love at all. It is for sale to the highest bidder.
  6. Prior to restoring her to any intimacy a period of purification and testing will be necessary: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you.” (Hosea 3:3)
This story is both difficult and beautiful. It’s purpose,  as you likely know,  is not merely to tell us of the troubled and painful marriage of Hosea. It’s truer purpose is to show forth the troubled marriage of  the Lord who has a bride, a people, who are unfaithful to him. We, both collectively and individually, have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism and renewed by us on many other occasions. But all too often we casually sleep with other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps it is money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, philosophies or arts and sciences. Some have outright left God, others keep two or beds, still speaking of their love for God but involved with many other dalliances as well. Yes, this is a troubled marriage, not on God’s part, but surely on ours.
And through it all, what does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride and a quite a cost too: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid highly to draw us back to him. Even still we stray and often show little appreciation of his love. An old Gospel song says, “Oh Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”
A deeper look at Hosea also reveals a look into the grieved heart of God. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to look at describes God as  grieved, angry, and weighing out his options; also as loving and almost romantic. At one level we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. God is said to be like this. But God is not angry like we are angry. He is not grieved like we are grieved not romantic like we are. Yet though we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor we cannot wholly set them aside as having no meaning. In some sense, God is grieved, angry, loving and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how he experiences these is mysterious to us but He does choose to use these metaphors to describe himself to us.
With this balanced caution. Let’s take a look at excerpts from the second Chapter of Hosea wherein God describes his grieved heart to us and also his plan of action to win his lover and Bride back. All of these texts are from the Second Chapter of Hosea.
  1. Thoughts of Divorce!  – Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.  The text here suggests a God who is weighing his options. But perhaps the better explanation is that this line is for us who read so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. But he will not. For though we break covenant He will not. Though we are unfaithful God will not be unfaithful. If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:13)
  2. The bitter charge against her Let her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts….., “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing. But so often we do not thank him. We run after the world, and after the powerful,  thinking it is they who provide our wealth. No. It is God. But instead we love the world and forget about God. We sleep with the world. We give credit to medicine, science and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry for we are enamored of secondary causes and not God who is the cause of all. So we get into bed with the world and its agenda and adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is grieved at our ingratitude and adultery and is presented here as a wounded and jealous lover.  Is God this? Remember these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God is not grieved or angered in the way were are. And yet, we cannot wholly dismiss these words as having no meaning. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that, though he is not passionate as we are, neither are we to regard him as indifferent to our infidelity.
  3. Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishmentI will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully……., I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers……I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities……I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense…..If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them she shall not find them.  This text could be seen as descriptive of God in a jealous rage. But as we shall see, God has a result in mind. He does not punish as some uncontrolled despot cruelly exacting revenge. He punishes as medicine. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not merely sinners in the hands of an angry God we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion.
  4. The hoped for result: Then she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.”  God’s intent was to bring his bride back to sanity. To bring her to a place where she is ready to seek union once again. For without this union she will perish, but with it she will be united with the only one who ever did love her and can save her.
  5. Passionate loverSo I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invokedSee how God wants to get alone with his bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare again his love for her in a kind of marriage encounter weekend. She,  now repentant and devoted,  will renew her love  as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that, when we die, we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world, lovers known as creature comforts, power, pride, poor priorities and the like. So as we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this he restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.  
  6. Renewed CovenantI will make a covenant for them on that day……I  will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. ….and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!”  God renews the marriage bond with us, both corporately in the Church and individually!
Here then is the astonishing,  undying and pursuant love of God for his bride the Church and for all of us. After all our whoring and infidelity we do not deserve it. But God is a passionate lover. As he said to Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God buy us back at a high price. Now to be sure, he did not pay Satan. Rather, the payment he rendered was an indication of high sacrifice he had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far and he had to journey far and carry us back.
Afterword: Some will say, given a portrait like this, how can there be Hell? I do not have time to develop that fully. However, note this, God is a lover and a husband. He is not a rapist, he will not force his love. He will woo, draw by attraction, but not force. He wants our love. And love requires freedom. There is a mystery about Hell in the sense that God teaches us that there will come a time for us when our yes or no is permanent . For now we can and do experience the ability to change. In the end there are some, many according to scripture,  who give a final “No”  to God and the values of his Kingdom. God respects this choice. He does not snuff out their existence. He still provides for the souls in Hell and extends to them existence and some degree of care, but Hell results from freedom and respect for that freedom, not from a lack of love on God’s part.
This song says: How many times do I go against your will? And you forgive me. And yet I still turn around and do the things, the things I shouldn’t do, ’cause I belong to you and I know you will come through. Lord I know I take advantage of your grace, here in this Christian race, but yet I still hear you calling my name…..You’re calling my name, to come into your arms, to be safe from fear and harm. Knowing this I still choose to go my way. And yet you still say, you say that I am He, He who supplies your every need. Oh Lord I’ve sinned but your still calling my name.  Listen to it, it will bless you as it builds to its great conclusion.
"The most important of life's battles is the one we fight daily in the silent chambers of the soul."