Friday, April 4, 2014

What are the characteristics of God’s Word/word?
 “God’s Word has a 100% rate of return! Never will it go out without bearing fruit.”(James MacDonald Gripped by the Greatness of God, p.91).  If we think of God’s word that way, we realize that every single time we sow a seed to our children, a neighbor, a friend; it is going to bear fruit! Wow! So, every time I open up God’s word and soak in His Word, I am soaking in Christ and it will bear fruit in my life and the life of those around. That inspires me to commit to my reading and praying daily practice again, and then again. (When will it stick?)
In Psalm 119, the author gives us good reason to delve into God’s Word again and again for refreshment and guidance. “Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. “ Psalm 119: 105
(v.104) Your commandments give me understanding; no wonder why I hate every false way of life.”
(v.89)” You eternal word, O Lord, stands firm in heaven.”

In Romans 12:2, Paul reminds us why this practice of soaking God’s word with the Word is so important while we are on this earth, before we reach our heavenly home.  “Do not copy the behaviors and customs of this world; but let God transform you by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
God’s will for me is good, pleasing and perfect. But against the cacophony of voices I hear on a daily basis from work-culture, school- culture, pop- culture, ‘spiritual’- culture, it is nearly impossible to hear God’s good, pleasing and perfect will for me. Moreover, I am rewarded for copying the behaviors and customs of this world, so I get confused about what is good and pleasing and perfect unless I stay close to His voice.
One small example: I thought about giving up wearing make up for Lent; I honestly do not know if I can do it. I have become so accustomed to that pattern of behavior and the custom of putting on make-up each day, even if that practice steals time away from studying Scripture or even sitting and having breakfast with my children.  I am going to try it. (NB: It has been two weeks: what a time saver!)
How are we cleansed by God’s word? Believers in Christ are cleansed by God’s word (John 17:17). Referring to his disciples, Jesus prayed, “Make them holy by Your truth; teach them Your word which is truth.” Our hearts are cleansed by faith (Acts 15:8-9) “God knows people’s hearts and He confirmed that He accepts Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for He cleansed their hearts through faith.”
Obedience to the Word shapes us into the likeness of Christ, so we can experience the full blessing of being part of God’s family. Once we hear God’s voice in His word, we need to obey Him. James 1:22-25 commands us to not just merely listen to God’s word, but do what is says. In other words, follow through on what you know and believe! Jesus said, in Luke 11: 27-28, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey it.”
Why is this pruning and cleansing so important?
John 15:3 is thought to be an allusion to the law in Leviticus 19:23 where the fruit of trees was considered to be ‘uncircumcised’ or ‘unclean’ for the first three years. In the fourth year, the fruit is fit for use which is similar to the apostles of Christ who spent three years with Jesus being cleansed by his teachings.  Why does Jesus say, “Now”?  Because Judas had been pruned from the group by this point and the rest were by being regenerated and sanctified by Christ.  He had been purifying them over a three-year period: removing their wrong notions of what the Messiah would be like, changing their perspective about worldly glory, teaching them to renounce this life for the next one.  He was preparing them to be ready to receive the Holy Spirit after His death, resurrection, ascension and thus immediately be able to bear more fruit.
Similarly, our hearts are purified by our FAITH in the blood of Christ and His word to regenerate and sanctify by the grace of the Gospel of Christ. In effect, at this point, Jesus is saying, “to you who believe, you are purged from the guilt and power of sin, by the Word, which when applied by the Spirit is the way to purify the soul, so that you can bear fruit.” (Ann Spangler, Praying the Names of Jesus).
Fruit bearing is the purpose of our earthly existence:  to become Christ-like, to be In Christ, to have a unity of purpose with Christ.  All of these will bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.  In this passage, the word for pruning does not just mean cutting away, it also can be translated as “lifting up” and tied to a trellis for maximum sunlight. God lifts us up for more encouragement from Him. The word here for pruning is the Greek kathairo which is where we derive the English word catharsis, and refers to spring pruning meant to cleanse the vine of insects, diseases and parasites and pinching off sucker shoots that rob the plant of vital energy.
Why is this care so necessary? Left to itself, the vine prefers the showy leafy growth to producing fruit. Similarly, we prefer our own egos to producing Christ-like sacrificial living.  The parts that can be pruned in our lives include bad habits (physical ones or habit of the mind), wrong thinking, unimportant activities, lesser priorities, distractions that keep us from loving others as Jesus loved us. One that really convicted me was the idea that busy-ness may be veiled selfishness. Am I engaging in social acceptable activities to look good to the world and avoid others who are difficult to love?
I would have to answer YES to that question, some of the time. As a mom, working seems to be more socially acceptable than not working. (I know that from experience, since I did not work for 3 years). To not work when your children are really little seems a bit more acceptable, but stay at home when they are school age was baffling. “What do you DO all day?” Well, I rest, read the Bible, make myself available to the working moms, get ready for my kids to come home from school, and my husband’s arrival, I cook from scratch, I garden, I walk places instead of driving, I meet up with friends, “There are places in my life that need pruning for sure and they will probably not be the ones I am thinking of. I as I stay close to the Word, the Holy Spirit will enlighten my mind and then the thing left for me to do is to obey.
 I have to remember that Jesus did not sacrifice His life to sanctify us, made us righteous, cleanse use for our own selves. Rather, he has pruned and purified us to bear the fruit of Christ.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jesus as the Word cleanses and purifies us: examining one verse John 15:3

“Now you are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” John 15:3 (NIV)
“You are cleansed and pruned already because of the word which I have given you (the teachings I have discussed with you).” John 15:3 (AMP)

Many themes of John 15 are encapsulated in this one verse.  Over the next few blog posts, I will be unpacking various aspects of this verse and what it means for my day to day living.
We know from John 1:1 that Jesus is the Word and “that He became flesh and made His dwelling (tent, tabernacle) among us.” (Amplified Bible). Jesus is the Word.  Everything about Him- His teachings, miracles, suffering, death and resurrection- speaks to us of God.  As the Word made flesh, through Jesus’ teachings, miracles and way of life we are called to perceive God’s glory, because through Him all things were made (John 1:3).

John was writing late in the first century and his audience would have had both Jewish and Greek members, all part of the Roman Empire. His use of the term Logos would have been familiar to his Greek audience from a Greek philosophy standpoint. The Greek philosophers used the term to point to a rational principle or impersonal force.  John uses that imagery to capture their imaginations, but rather than refer to a rational principle or impersonal force, he points his whole audience to a Hebrew framework by using the word logos to name the ONE who created the entire universe (Spangler, Ann. 2006. Praying the Names of Jesus).  Moreover, this is the ONE who spoke it into existence.

How does this look in real life, in my life? This verse reminds of the power of words to uplift others or tear them down. John exhorts me to be mindful of the words I choose to use. It also compels me to use my voice or my words to praise HIM! Sometimes, I just start praising His name in the car on the way to work, or wondering at His creation outside my kitchen window. Other times, I erupt in song in praise of Him, especially Natalie Grant’s version of Your Great Name. I cannot sing like her, but I can always sing along!

Parallels to the Old Testament:
In the same way that God spoke the world into existence, Jesus the Word came into the world to recreate it and restore God’s original purpose. He also spoke new creations into existence: a new world order, miracle and new life.  When Jesus spoke, miracles happened, storms ceased, sinners forgiven, and the dead were raised! No hocus pocus, just simply the word of the Word! To this day, the world is being reshaped by God’s all-powerful word/Word.  As His followers, we must study and pray over His words. He is still speaking to us and reshaping the world.

In real life: You can base your entire life on His word; God Himself promises it will not fail you! His word/Word will change you from the inside out:  IF YOU LET IT, God’s WORD will become flesh in YOU too! Usually, I take one verse and write it out (neatly J) on a piece of thicker construction-type paper. I post it in the kitchen on the cabinet where we keep the glasses or on the bathroom mirror, so I can see it every day and be continually reminded of God’s promises.

Supporting Scriptures to meditate on and post around your house: (emphasis added)
“All Scripture is God-breathed, inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
“So will my word be which goes forth from My mouth;  it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)
Jesus’ word and as the Word is “sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
John 5:24-26 “Whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent ME has eternal life…hear the voice of the Son of God and live.”
Colossians 3:16 “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.”
1 Thess 2:13 “As we also thank God continually because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the Word of god, which at work in you who believe.”

“Man does not live by bread alone by EVERY WORD that comes from the mouth of God.”  (Referring to Deut 8:3) Jesus said this to Satan, after fasting in the desert for 40 days.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Father as Vinedresser

The Father as Vinedresser

What a beautiful analogy the Holy Spirit has given us in the gospel of John: God the Father as Vinedresser and Jesus as the true Vine. Many extant commentaries discuss the theology hidden in Jesus’ description of Himself and the Father, but I wanted to start with just plain old agriculture!
And what a discovery of hidden gems I unearthed. First, I simply ‘googled’ vinedresser.  Of the top seven hits, five were Biblical commentaries (great!) but the one I chose came from which solely gave the ‘job description’ for vinedresser. Put simply, a vinedresser is an agriculturalist ‘involved in the daily pruning, tending and cultivation of grapes.’  Vinedressers need to work year-round to create the best grapes to produce the finest wine.

A vinedresser’s main tasks include pruning, ‘pest’ management, irrigating (or giving them Living Water) and of course, harvesting!

But of these, their pre-eminent task is pruning. I will just lay out all that I learned about pruning and you can apply it to your own life circumstances. This information certainly illuminated some of my own. Pruning removes dead, diseased or stunted fruit to make room for new growth, ultimately leading to a healthy and productive vine. This process begins merely weeks after planting! Once we have come to Christ, the Father gets started working on us right away taking away not only those dead parts (2 Corinthians 5:17) but also those parts that are diseased or stunted and we may not even be aware of their underlying condition. Excellent pruning demands a keen eye, the best possible eyes.

Pruning involves both cutting off dead wood but also cutting back on the amount of living wood so that the plant’s energy can go into producing fruit and not merely growing vegetation. In my life, I was thinking of how much I produce that is merely for appearances and not really producing anything of substance.  According to God’s plan, those parts are using up too much of my vitality and need to go.

There are two main types of pruning: cane pruning and spur pruning. Canes are shoots that grow directly off the Main Vine. Spurs are little arms that grow from a cordon (a semi-permanent branch that grows horizontally from the trunk).  Cane pruning involves cutting back 90%!! of last year’s growth by first removing dead two year old canes. Spur pruning includes look at the newest growth and keeping only 1-3 buds and removing the rest (sometimes with a handsaw!)

The styles of pruning show me just how much God wants me to grow and produce fruit each year, much more than I am currently imagining for myself. In cane pruning, you select two well-formed canes coming directly out of the Head of the vine (that are 1-year old with tightly spaced, healthy buds) and these two are tied to the trellis. The Lord is keeping only the healthiest buds and then we are to be tied to Him and hang on to Him for dear life! J

God’s work doesn’t involve just pruning; he is also feeding and watering us as well as controlling the pests. An agriculturalist closely monitors the vines to ensure that they are receiving the correct amount of water, particularly during growing season. Have you ever noticed that you seem closer to the Lord when you are going through a ‘tough season’ or a growing season when you need more of Him? That’s part of the Father’s plan. Vinedressers also tend the soil, preparing it even before planting, to improve the production of crops. God was preparing our hearts and our soil long before we gave our lives to Him.  Finally, the Father must constantly evaluate the vineyard and be vigilant against pests (like THE pest, the enemy himself) because invasions could compromise the next growing season. We must guard our hearts daily, while the Father Himself is keeping vigil over us for our next growing stage. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Seeking His Command

In January 2014, I sought to discover what Jesus' commands were in the gospel of John. I spent the month reading through John's account of Christ and writing down every imperative sentence that Jesus uttered. If it was an order, no matter how mundane, I recorded it.

Here are some fascinating finds:
Jesus' first and last directive in the gospel of John are the same: "Come! Follow Me!" The main difference was that the first was uttered by the Incarnation and the second was said by the Resurrected Lord. For me, there was a noticeable difference in Jesus’s speech following his Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven. I could almost palpably feel His heavenly Presence emerge from the page. For example, He says “Peace be with you” (another command) three times in a row when He appears to his disciples on the seashore, (John 20:19, 21, 26) after His death on the cross and ascent to the Father. It’s as if He has literally brought them the gift of heaven’s peace right there; He cannot help but be serene and He petitions us to be the same.

The most often repeated command is simply “Believe Me” or sometimes Believe in Me (John 6:29; 8:24; 10:37; 12:36; 14:11; 20:28, 29).  He invites us to believe Him more than twice as many times as He asks us to love our neighbor (John 13:16, 15:12, 15:17).  Our first task then is a solitary one, one that happens in the quiet of our heart and mind. We must decide for ourselves, once and for all, to believe who Jesus Christ says He is: the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Messiah.

A related command is that He expects us to testify about Him (John 15:27, 17:18, 20:21). In fact, bearing witness is mentioned as often as “love your neighbor as I have loved you,” yet growing up Catholic, the latter was stressed often to the neglect of the former. In these verses, He reminds us that we are His brothers and sisters, his co-heirs, and that He is sending out us in the same way that the Father sent Him out into the world. Hearing His request put that way makes me smile to think of the kinship I share with Jesus and eager to do His will in this regard.

REMAIN IN ME/ ABIDE IN ME: is the whole crux of John 15 and the main reason that I began this exploratory journey of John’s gospel in the first place. In that chapter alone, Jesus repeats those words nearly a dozen times, reminding us over and over again that our personal one on one relationship to HIM is the most important component of lives.

Finally, the one unusual command that really ‘popped’ off the page for me was one that I never noticed before. This verse fit my definition of command (an imperative sentence) though strictly speaking it does not fall under the category of “thou shalt do this or that.” In the New Living Translation, John 9:4 says “We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the One who sent us.[a] The night is coming, and then no one can work.

How many times have I received a word from God, from His Holy Spirit, and not “quickly carried it out?” I may have thought to myself, “Well, let me ponder this for a while. Or this just doesn’t seem like the right moment.”  Here Jesus is clearly advising me to “just do it.” But even more importantly, He points me back to ‘REMAIN in ME.’ How can I possibly carry out his tasks quickly if I don’t consistently know His voice? I have to continuously understand how He loves me and how He treats me specifically! (Not just people in general, but how He relates to me, JoAnn Foley-DeFiore).

As I become increasingly intimate with Him, I discover how we relate to each other. I can tell you this much: He is funny with me. He knows how much I love humor and love to laugh. He cracks me up all the time!  So, now when I hear a personal command from Him, I don’t hesitate as much. I endeavor to “carry out the tasks He has assigned to me” promptly! And you know what? It’s pure joy! I get a kick out of watching Him at work. ;)

Monday, January 6, 2014

2014 Study Plan for John 15 Remain in Christ

Monthly Study Questions for contemplation and exploration; using journal-writing and other creative endeavors (i.e. painting, songwriting)

January: How do I follow the commands of Jesus? What is included?

February: exploring the true vine, vinedresser, gardener, pruning analogy. What does it mean to produce fruit?

March: How exactly have we been purified and pruned by his message? Jesus' word?

April: What does it mean to remain in His love? Explore examples of how Jesus remained in the Father's love. (v.10)

May: "Ask in My Name": What am I to ask for? How does it bring glory to the Father?

June: Word study/creative exploration on LOVE:  He loves as the Father loved Him; What kind of love is this? His command (2x in this passage): Love each other (as I have loved you). 

July: Friends vs. slaves. What does it imply to be Christ's friend? (v.15) He has disclosed to us everything the Father told Him. Wow. What does that mean?

August: What does it mean to be chosen & appointed by Christ?! And reflect on His last command in chapter 15: “You must testify about me.”

September: Jesus Joy! What does His overflowing joy look like in my life? What could it look like?

October: Jesus says, we are no longer part of this world and we will be hated and persecuted as Jesus; investigate the flip side of September's message (joy).

November: the Holy Spirit! Yay! Contemplate all His attributes: spirit of truth, testifies about Christ, Comforter, Encourager, Counselor.

December: Synthesize

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Living a JOHN 15 life: Remaining in Christ

Lessons from day 1 (part 2): In part 1, I explored the 10 Commandments that have to do with how we view God. From number 4 on, the Commandments have to do with how we treat others. They are, in order,
          Honor your father & mother.
          Do not murder.
          Do not commit adultery.
          Do not steal.
          Do not lie.
          Do not covet (or want what you do not have!).

Honoring father and mother needs its own blog post or maybe several, so I am going to ‘skip’ that today, along with the other heavy hitters: murder and adultery.

I’d like to ponder ‘do not steal’ first. When I was younger, of course, I thought of incidents like not stealing my neighbor’s pencil or my sister’s favorite shirt (for the day). But now I see that theft includes not just material items or money, but not pilfering people’s time, productivity, or joy! In what ways am I joy-killer?  How about with my children when they are telling me a story from school, but I am too focused on needing them to set the table for dinner. How do I steal time or productivity? When I get distracted reading email when I should be preparing for class?
I am realizing that this can go both ways: even though I am only responsible for my own actions, I can set firm boundaries when I realize that others are stealing my productivity, time, and delight as well.

          “Do not lie” was a theme for me in 2013. I began to recognize how often I told little ‘white’ lies, generally about myself or my needs, in order to placate others. Do not imagine that this appeasement was a selfless act; no, it was self-preservation. I do not like conflict or hurting others’ feelings, so I was cramming down my own reactions at an enormous cost.  More obvious but no less insidious forms of lying include fabricating stories (even for humor’s sake!), gossiping, omitting a piece of a story, telling a half-truth, twisting the facts (in my favor), and any other type of deception. I have a feeling that 2014 is going to include much more work in this area of my life, but Christ can break even generations worth of strongholds, so I can have hope of being free of old patterns someday (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).

          Finally, do not covet: wish for others’ possessions or resenting what others’ have. Quite simply, be satisfied with what you have, JoAnn! Don’t get on that treadmill of wanting an upgrade on life! God can supply all my needs; true serenity is found only in HIM. Contentment does not mean that I cannot pursue God-given goals, but rather, it means that I am grateful with what He has provided me on a daily basis in the minutiae of life. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Living a JOHN 15 life: Remaining in Christ

Lessons from day 1 (part 1): One of the many things that Jesus says in this passage is "If you keep My commands, you will remain in My love."
So, keep HIS commands. That should be easy, but it's not. Just unearthing this verse leads to more uncertainties: which commands is He referring? Do I need to follow all of them? Does this include the 10 Commandments?

I conclude that it does incorporate the 10 Commandments so that launches me on my first journey to discover whether or not I am keeping those directives. In short, I am not, but I want to explore both the obvious ways I am shirking on the commandments and the nuances of neglect as well.
In the meantime, I read that the 10 Commandments were meant to lead to a life of practical Holiness, so that others could see the nature of God and His plan of how we should live. I’m inspired by this view of the 10 Commandments and eager to explore their meaning.

First, I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before ME and two, you shall not worship idols. Well, that's an easy one, I have cleaned out the closet (literally) of all idols and other gods. However, there are other ‘gods’ I might be following without being full conscious of just how  much of myself I devote to them. A few come readily to mind (work, beauty, entertainment) but the list can also include money, fame, possessions, social status, false spiritualties, emotions that overpower, anger, pride, bitterness, materialism, and self-love).
I could spend all of 2014 just trying to follow the first commandment alone!
The amount of time I spend on something indicates how much I value that item, so Lord, let me give you the first and best of my time.

I will sum up this part by reminding myself:
          Trust in no one but God.
          Worship Him only. Let Him hold the central place in my LIFE.

The third commandment has to do with God’s precious Name. I hear myself say things like, “we pray this in the precious Name of Jesus Christ!” but I am just as likely to say “g—dam— it.”  God’s Word also says that clean words come from a clean heart and I have some major scrubbing to do. Not only is cursing harmful to my spirit, but using His name frivolously is just as damaging.
I resolve to speak His holy name only in PRAISE, WORSHIP and AWE!

I am very convicted by the Fourth Commandment: keep holy the SABBATH! And already, Erik and I have discussed this and laid out a plan. In Hebrews 4:9-10 Paul writes, “There remains then Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from His.” Sabbath = rest. Our plan is to start Sabbath Friday night until Saturday evening. We are generally more amenable to rest on Saturdays rather than Sundays, when by afternoon, we are gearing up for the week. The only element getting in the way is Saturday chores, but no more chores on Saturday. We will do them Sunday.

Most importantly, though, resting on Saturday requires some preparation. Making sure events and tasks are taken care of ahead of time OR planned for another day in order to give over completely to a restful atmosphere on Sabbath.  Biblical Sabbath in the original Hebrew literally means “repose” or “desist from exertion.”  In our plan, we even receive a day off from exercising.

I can sum up this inquiry of Sabbath by recognizing that God has already given me 52 days of rest time that equals seven weeks of ‘vacation’ per year! By simply resting one day a week, I can obey the Lord’s Command and avoid burnout at the same time!