Renewing Your Foundation

Well folks, if you're listening to this close to publication day, we've officially begun the week of love. Valentine's Day is this Thursday, and I hope that whoever has won your heart is treating you with the grace and respect you deserve, not just this week, but every week. Plus, few other weeks allows you to over-indulge in chocolate without judgment. If that isn't a reason to celebrate this holiday unashamedly, I don't know what is!

A couple of summers ago we had an issue at our house where uncared for water in the cellar had compromised the structural integrity of the I-beams that supported the structure. Even after installing a sump pump to address the water situation, unbeknownst to us, several of the support beams were rotting away to the point of collapse. And one Saturday night, one of them finally gave way. With a loud bang, it crumbled beneath us, causing part of the floor to sag down by several inches.

When Will, our head trustee got down there to diagnose the problem, we discovered how dangerous it was. As we carefully replaced each I-beam and concrete block, we found at least three of the eight remaining beams were critically compromised, crumbling as we moved them.

It was a disaster waiting to happen. 

In the upper part of the house, there were no signs of trouble, no indication of what was brewing beneath the surface, but the foundation was not sound. And left unattended, the house would have collapsed in on itself. 

It’s the nature of life. The unseen things have a tremendous impact on everything else, whether we recognize it or not.

A common theme throughout the Scriptures is God’s tendency to expose the heart of his followers, particularly those who claimed to speak for him. 

These were often people for whom everything SEEMED like everything was fine in their lives, but beneath the surface, everything was crumbling.

One famous example from the Hebrew Scriptures is found in Isaiah where God cuts to the heart of his people, saying, "These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.”

And if this was true of God through his prophets in the Old Testament, it was made even clearer through the ministry of Jesus in the New Testament.

In Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount, he spends a considerable amount of time instructing his listeners that their actions come from the overflow of the heart. And that God sees the heart. So just because your hatred of somebody hasn't driven you to murder doesn't mean that your heart is clean. In fact, Jesus said that uncontrolled anger is equally as dangerous to the soul as murder.

The problem that Jesus saw was that too often it was ever so easy for the people of God to divorce their inward lives from the outward appearance. In his devoutly religious culture, it was increasingly comfortable to put on the trappings of religious piety without seeing any real change in the hearts of the people. A.W. Tozer calls this "settling for little."

Lance Witt calls it image management: when you present a portrait of yourself on the outside that doesn’t match up with the reality of your heart. 

One group of people who appear to have been the most guilty of were a pious group called the Pharisees. In most ways, these men were considered to be religious elites. They kept all of the laws given to them by prophets and other leaders from years before, and they even created laws on anything and everything that the law didn’t explicitly cover. They even created regulations to remove any amount of ambiguity in the law. The law says not to work on the Sabbath. Well, we will codify precisely what it means to work. 

These men went to extreme lengths to prove their holiness to the people around them. Jesus points out these measures in Matthew 23: "On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels."

Now it wasn’t uncommon to see a Jewish man in Jesus day with prayer boxes attached to them in some way, typically on the left arm, but often seen attached to the forehead. Neither was it odd for somebody to wear prayer robes with tassels. These were prescribed to symbolize a person’s commitment to God. 

So if both of these were typical, what was the problem? 

Well, the first thing that Jesus points out is that they make a show out of their devotion. The New Living Translation uses the word extra to describe both of Jesus' examples. Where I might use a small box, maybe 2 inches by 2 inches, they'd have a box that covered their foreheads. Where you might have a prayer shawl with 4-inch tassels, the Pharisee would double that with 8-inch tassels. Anything to prove to you that everything you can do, they can do better. 

But as you read through the 23rd chapter of Matthew, you’ll see a progressively harsh condemnation of this kind of thinking until he gets the what I see as his harshest condemnation yet, in verse 27: "What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people's bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness."

The problem with these men was that they had the appearance of right living, all the outward signs of being good and godly men, but it was all an act. Worse, they were corrupt and immoral, like a beautifully adorned tomb. No matter how much you doll it up, a tomb will always be a tomb, a place of death.

There are few warnings that Jesus gives to his listeners that cuts to my heart more than those levied in Matthew 23. For some, perhaps, it may be encouraging to see Christ kick down people as self-righteous as the Pharisees, but when I hear these words, I shudder. Because I know how easy it is to present a particular image to people in our church, how easy project a false representation to the world while allowing my inner life to waste away.

Worse than that, Lance Witt suggests that the greatest danger in our spiritual lives isn’t just projecting a false image, but getting comfortable with it. 

The Pharisees got comfortable playing the game. They were comfortable portraying a role that looked nothing like their heart.

And Jesus exposes this in a major way, declaring that though they seemed alive, they were truly dead.

This is the danger of a life lived disconnected from the true vine.

It’s why Jesus places such a premium on the heart, on tying your heart in with his own. 

Jesus reminds us in John 15, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”

An imploding spiritual life, one that looks shockingly like my basement did that fateful Saturday night, finds its origin in a disconnect from the true vine. And it usually finds its root in allowing a substitute to replace it. 

For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they relied on their own personal goodness in place of the true vine. For others its issues of comfort or power, money or prestige, sex or pleasure. You can find this root in objectively bad things, such as addictions, narcissism, abuse, and neglect. But these aren’t the only things that draw us away from the vine. They can be things like hobbies, careers, friends and even family can all creep in as our source of life and find us missing the life that Christ has for us. 

The cure to an imploding spiritual life is to reorient yourself on the true vine. It is purposefully re-embracing the God who is the source of life. A branch that no longer receives nourishment from the vine cuts of its very life source. When it does this, everything attached to it sours. Its vitality is snuffed out. Even though it may still appear to be connected, it slowly withers away, becomes brittle, and, before long, will separate entirely.

So abide in the true vine that gives life. There is no substitute for the real thing. You can have all the trappings of life, but miss it entirely. 

But Jesus offers us the chance to find our life in him, to find it truly and everlasting. To find in him true life that causes all substitutes to pale in comparison. 

So abide in the true vine today, allow his life to transform you from the inside out, and allow his grace to redefine in you what it means to be alive. 

I’m believing in you and cheering you on today! Seek your True North Today!

Embracing Your Value

Well, folks, it didn’t take long for me to rebrand this blog. I knew I wanted to do this for a couple of reasons. Mainly because it’ d give me the flexibility to publish on days that WEREN’T Monday, but also enabled the blog to be applicable on Tuesday. 

I settled on True North for two reasons: one, it’s a subtle nod to my home and native land. If you know the Canadian national anthem beyond the opening salvo of “O Canada…” you might recognize that there’s a line that describes Canada as the “true north, strong and free.” So clearly it shouldn’t be shocking that I would try to sneak a little of my Canadiana into my writings. 

But beyond that, the real reason I went with that is that there’s been because a common theme of the blog thus far has been on reorienting our lives around God’s best for us. To me, the concept of True North brings me to travel practices of ship captains or other night travelers in days of yore. The north star was the fundamental way that they would orient themselves. Everything else could be dark, there could be no land on the horizon and no hints of which direction to go anywhere around them, but the experienced captain could rely on the north star to direct them where they needed to go. Once they found true north, everything else fell into place.

It’s that way in our spiritual life, too, isn’t it?

Jesus said that the cares and concerns of life so often steal our focus, steal our joy, and steal our peace. We get confused. And we get overwhelmed by all of it.

And we feel so lost. 

But Jesus said that the anxiety and worry that so naturally wells up within our spirits can be combatted when we reorient our lives. 

Matthew 6:33 says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too.”

This is the spiritual equivalent of finding our true north. When we discover true north, everything falls into place. 

That’s my hope behind this blog is that it can help encourage you, for sure (that’s why I called it Monday Motivation to begin with), but more than encourage you, I hope that it challenges you to find our True North and to orient ourselves around it! 

Speaking of Canada, last Wednesday in Canada was a mental health awareness day. It’s become a pretty standard deal to engage in the common hashtag of #LetsTalk. Everybody from professional hockey teams (basically Canadian royalty), politicians, down to the ordinary folks encourage free communication about the struggles of life, as it relates to mental health.

If we were honest, one of the things that we struggle within our culture is openness about our struggles. We fight alone, in isolation, painfully aware of our brokenness, but firmly believing that we have to do this alone, that it is the way that we have to be.

Theologian Henri Nouwen refers to it as allowing our brokenness to be under the curse.

The problem becomes that we allow our brokenness to stay in the dark. And it’s in the dark that that brokenness to define us. It’s in this place that our struggles become our identity. We see ourselves as under the curse of our problems because they exist in the dark. 

But that’s not God’s hope for you. God doesn’t want you to keep your brokenness in the darkness of the curse.

Henri Nouwen is so striking when he writes, “The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. This is not as easy as it sounds. The powers of the darkness around us are strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us.”

You can choose how you respond to your brokenness. While the fear in our heart tells us that the only response to our brokenness is to spiral deeper into it, Jesus offers us something else, something new. 

In the passage we’ve been deep-diving into over the last few weeks, Jesus reminds his broken disciples of their deep value in the eyes of God. In John 15: “My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. 13 There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends. 14 You celebrate our friendship if you obey this command. 15 I don’t call you servants any longer; servants don’t know what the master is doing, but I have told you everything the Father has said to Me. I call you friends. 16 You did not choose Me. I chose you, and I orchestrated all of this so that you would be sent out and bear great and perpetual fruit. As you do this, anything you ask the Father in My name will be done. 17 This is My command to you: love one another.”

Jesus emphatically declares that he chose his closest followers. This is no small thing. These were men, by and large, who had been left behind by their society. They were less thans, has-beens, or never-weres. They were often labeled as not good enough, as rejects, as deficient in some meaningful way. 

But Jesus sees them not as worthless, but as people with insurmountable worth, as ones who are deeply and dearly loved. 

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 1:3-4 that the same is true for us who come after the disciples:  “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus the Anointed One, who grants us every spiritual blessing in these heavenly realms where we live in the Anointed—not because of anything we have done, but because of what He has done for us. 4 God chose us to be in a relationship with Him even before He laid out plans for this world; He wanted us to live holy lives characterized by love, free from sin, and blameless before Him.”

The beauty is that our brokenness doesn’t have to define us because though we are often broken in a more profound way than we let on, often being broken on a deeper level than we ever realize, the love that God has for us far outpaces our brokenness. He sees the depths of your pain, the depths of your sin, and the depths of your brokenness, and his love is exceptional. And your worth is substantial.

Jesus used another metaphor that compares the Kingdom of Heaven- a Hebrew shorthand for God, to a   jeweler searching for the finest pearls. Jesus said in Matthew 13: “When he found a pearl more beautiful and valuable than any jewel he had ever seen, the jeweler sold all he had and bought that pearl, his pearl of great price.”

Jesus makes this clear: You are that pearl of great price. 

You are the one for whom God sold everything.

You are God’s chosen. 

You are highly valued. 

You are deeply loved.

Lance Witt once wrote: “You are more broken than you know, and more loved than you can imagine!”

Bring your brokenness out of the darkness of the curse and into the light of God’s blessing! Because you are his beloved. 

Live in that identity today. Let it impact everything else because Christ paid a high price for you. Rest in that love today!

I’m cheering you on today! Seek your True North Today!

Growth Agent

When I was younger, my mother kept a garden. She loved to reap the benefits of all of her hard work. So she kept it tilled, planted seeds, and most important weeded out anything that could interfere with her harvest. Naturally, I got drafted to help with the weeding process, which at 10 and 11 years old was something that I cared very little for. But over time, I saw the benefits of my job, as I yanked carrots out of the ground or popped beautiful red ripened tomatoes into my mouth fresh off the vine. I grew up in the suburbs, but I was never afraid of wiping some dirt off of the veggie before eating it. It all seemed so natural and delicious.

One thing that I found out about the gardening process somewhere in those formative years is that sometimes you have to make counterintuitive decisions in the process of developing a healthy harvest. With certain tomato varieties, for example, I learned that to maximize your yield, you had to remove flowers in the early stages of planting. Now for the initiated, flowers turn into fruit…at least on the tomato plant.

So, it struck me as crazy that in order to produce more tomatoes you had to cut off the very flowers that become tomatoes. Now, you’d do this for a variety of reasons. If the plant was newly-planted, the flowers were removed to prevent it from expending energy on developing fruit before it was ready. You’d also do this to ensure that the plant would grow out more, rather than focus on producing its fruit before its season.

Pruning isn’t just limited to tomato plants. Naturally, it applies to a variety of bushes, trees, and vines, from roses to grapes. Master horticulturalists intimately understand the process of getting the most out of their product, even knowing how to cut them down to help them become more than they would ever be on their own.

Jesus lived in an agrarian society, which means that the vast majority of his audience had some understanding of cultivating land or farming of some kind. They either had a private garden for their own supply, or they worked on a farm. Several of Jesus’ parables center on farming of some kind. This was a way of life for his listeners, so they latched onto it, often needing little explanation- at least as it pertained to the surface meaning.

In John 15, Jesus uses another farming metaphor, this time related to growing grapes. Viticulture has a long history in the middle east, particularly in Israel, so it’s not shocking that when Jesus is talking about how God works in the lives of his people that he would use terms like this.

So it’s not unexpected that he would talk about vines and branches to his audience when he declares in verse 1 that, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Pruning is so counterintuitive to the uninitiated because it seems on its surface that it’s harming the plant. The very idea of wantonly hacking at a vine doesn’t make any sense to me. If you look at a video of somebody pruning, it sometimes can seem as though they are cutting at random, cutting too much, and cutting too far.

And while it makes sense why you’d cut off a dead branch or rid the vine of dead leaves, it seems like a waste to cut a healthy, fruit-bearing branch. Why punish the branch for doing its job?

The truth of the matter is that pruning isn’t a punishment, and it’s not harming the plant.

In fact, pruning is about productivity and provision. A skilled gardener knows where to cut and how far to cut. Though it may seem random to an outsider, each cut is meticulous and calculated to be done at precisely the right place.

But why? What purpose does it serve?

The answer shocked me when I first heard my friend Matt LeRoy tell me, only to confirm it in my own research.

The gardener prunes the vine because the nature of the vine is to grow where you cut it. Biologically, the vines are designed to send added nutrients and energy to the ends that have been cut.

The gardener doesn’t cut the branch to harm it, he does it to make it grow.

Even further, where the cut is made, often two or three shoots will form at the place of cutting, so we’re not only talking about additional growth but sometimes exponential growth.

All of which would not be possible if the master gardener didn’t lovingly, expertly, faithfully prune the branch.

You may be seeing where I’m getting at, but Jesus said that God is the master gardener. When we abide in him, orienting our lives around him, choosing to make him the source of our life and nourishment, the by-product is becoming fruitful.

But it doesn’t mean that our walk is going to be easy. It doesn’t mean that he won’t continue to challenge us. Quite the contrary, when God sees your potential to bear more fruit, he will push you toward that potential.

I had a professor in seminary that CLAIMS that he was pushing me harder than other students because he saw a future doctoral student and he wanted me to be fully prepared for the next step of my academic journey. Where he might not have been so harsh in grading or as nitpicky in some grammatical or citation matters, he pushed me, hoping that I would grow and blossom as a student.

God often works the same way, using situations that we face to challenge us, providing opportunities for pruning, for removing branches in us that do not bear fruit, and be promoting new growth by strategically, surgically cutting things out of your life.

This isn’t a comfortable process. Growing rarely is, but what I’ve found is that God’s plan may be challenging, it may even hurt, but it will not harm.

The question that I would leave you to reflect today is this: how is God pruning your life today? What area is he promoting new growth? And how can you surrender yourself to his movement today?

Remember, the words of Paul in Philippians 1, which are my prayer for you today: “I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

I’m believing in you and cheering you on this week! I can’t wait to worship with you on Sunday!

Love you all!

No Substitute

I wanted to share a little more about what we talked about yesterday in our Facebook Live video from John 15. As a refresher, John 15 says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Jesus identifies himself as the true vine, or literally in Greek, the genuine article. This is a critical term because it stands in contrast to anything that is counterfeit. There is no end to people, ideologies, concepts, careers, and pursuits that attempt to worm their way into our heart, to vie for our affection, and to become our priority.

The things that may come to mind when you hear that tend to be primarily things that we label as “bad” or “wrong,” but that’s not the limit to which God sees counterfeit vines.

More often than not, the barrier to being sold out for God isn’t the quote-end-quote bad things in our lives, but ostensibly are the good things, things that we could even argue are gifts from God!

Careers, hobbies, friendships, and even families are good things, given by God to build us up, to provide stability, and for our enjoyment. But the danger exists that these gifts can take the place of the giver.

That instead of reaching out to God for nourishment, we reach out to these things. We abide in them instead of abiding in Jesus, the true vine, the genuine article.

Then these good things take the place of what is best and become harmful. In using Jesus’ metaphor, they suck the life out of us instead of nourishing us. They replace something genuine with something counterfeit.

Jesus challenges his followers to commit to following him by abiding in him. This isn’t a passive act of not moving, but a conscious act of reaching out and grabbing on, refusing to let go.

It’s not a choice we make once and for all, but a day-by-day, even a moment by moment decision we make. It’s an obedience that we engage in that creates room in our schedules for the giver and not just the gift.

And it’s in this continued obedience that we discover the joy that for which we have so long been searching.

Jesus says in John 15:11, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

When we prioritize our lives around the life-giving, freeing, joy-filled love of God, we discover that the other things in our lives begin to fall into place. We have higher satisfaction at work, a better relationship with our families, and a more balanced outlook on life.

As you go about your week, I challenge you to abide.

Choose to intentionally reach out and grab hold of Jesus, creating space in your life for him. In this act of obedience, you’ll find the joy beyond measure, and peace that passes all understanding.

I’m believing in you and cheering you on this week! I can’t wait to worship with you on Sunday!

Love you all!