Spiritual Lessons from A Bonsai Tree

I recently attended a workshop to learn how to graft new branches onto an existing Bonsai tree. In this case it was to graft branches from a Shimpaku onto a Personi Juniper. In the process I was reminded of Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome when he speaks to the Gentiles as being united to Christ. He told them that they had been “grafted into the nourishing root”, meaning they were now intimately connected to Jesus.
So if in fact we have been grafted into a relationship with Christ, what lessons are there from grafting that caused Paul to use this illustration? The first one came to mind with the first action I had to take toward the plant that would receive the graft. It required taking an extremely sharp straight-razor and cut a deep wound into the tree. I had to cut through the bark and cambium and into the heartwood of the tree. I couldn’t help but think of the wounding that Christ had to go through prior to and on the Cross in order for me to have forgiveness and a new life. When the instructor said you need to cut to the heartwood I could only picture the spear cutting to the heart of Jesus Christ. In order to receive me as one to be connected with Him, Jesus was willing to be deeply wounded beyond what I can comprehend.
The second step dealt with the piece of Shimpaku branch that was to be grafted into the cut on the Personi. I had to select a small branch and cut it from its original tree. If it was going to be a successful grafting it had to be completely removed from were it previously received it’s nourishment and support. You cannot keep a connection between the old plant and the new plant. It just doesn’t work. It is impossible. The piece to be grafted will surely wither and die if it tries to remain connected to both Shimpaku and Personi. When it comes to following Christ, trying to hang on to what we have trusted in for support and nourishment in the past, simply will not work. Jesus put it simply, give up everything and follow Him. When he bid Peter to step out of the boat he was bidding him to give up everything his experience told him to rely on for support and safety and trust only in his connection with Jesus. Peter couldn’t cling to both. He could not hold onto the boat and walk on water with Jesus. James and John could not follow Him and stay on the shore with their nets. Matthew couldn’t be a disciple and stay sitting in his tax collectors booth. And neither can I. Neither can you. Being grafted into a relationship with Jesus Christ means being cut off from all that you would cling to for safety and security and trusting only His word as you follow behind Him on a path that only He can really see.
There was another aspect of the grafting that struck me. In order for the newly grafted branch to take, it needs a clean, solid, tight connection to the life giving nourishment of the receiving plant. The vascular system of the graft can only bond with the vascular system of the receiving plant if it is intimately and tightly connected. Jesus made the point in John 15 that we must abide in Him if we are to have real life. He makes the point that he is the vine and we are the branches and apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from the nourishment of the receiving plant, the graft can do nothing and it will in fact wither and die. If we are going to grow strong in Christ we must absolutely be bonded to Him in such a way that our life’s nourishment, what feeds us and strengthens us, is His life giving Spirit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famously quoted as saying, “When Jesus calls a man to follow Him, He bids him to come and die”. This morning I read that quote in the context in which he wrote it in “Cost of Discipleship”. What Bonhoeffer was pointing to was the cutting off of the branch to be grafted from what had nourished and sustained it before. He is saying that all that you cling to, other than Christ, must be cut off from you. That such a life must be dead, you must die to that life and find your life first, foremost, and only in Christ. Bonhoeffer points out that for some there may await death as a martyr for Christ. For others not. But the dying he speaks of is not the future dying that may mean martyrdom, but the dying to yourself, and to all you cling to instead of Christ. This is a daily dying. It is a moment by moment reminding that only in Christ am I secure, only in Christ can I find safety, only in Christ is there truly life. Everything else is a counterfeit that seeks to interfere with the deep intimate bond that a well grafted branch must have.

A Very Scary Saturday

What do you do the day after the person you have surrendered everything for, followed night and day for three years, were convinced would be the liberator and savior of your nation, is brutally executed like a common criminal? Between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, there was Saturday. We are told next to nothing about what happened that day and what went through the minds of the disciples of Jesus.

We know that when Jesus was arrested, most of the disciples scattered in fear. John the youngest, followed after the crowd as they took Jesus away and he was able to get into the court yard where Jesus had been taken. Because he knew someone in the High Priests house, he was also able to get Peter inside, just in time for Peter to deny even knowing Jesus. By the time Jesus is nailed to the cross later that day Peter is hiding in shame. Only John along with a group of women, including Jesus mother Mary, are there to watch Jesus die.

Somehow the disciples manage to gather together for the next forty hours. We know that they are together because on Sunday morning the women who found the tomb empty, rush to the place were the Apostles were gathered to give them the news. Peter and John run to the tomb and from that point on the whole mood changes. But until then, during that seemingly endless forty hours, it had to have been the longest, loneliest, and most frightening time of their lives. They were certain that the religious officials would come for them next. After all, didn’t Jesus tell them that if they persecuted Him, the Master, how much more would they do to them, the followers.

As they huddled behind the locked door of the upper room the memories of the meal just hours before would have been fresh in their minds. They would have been running through their minds the memories of Jesus words around the table, looking for some clue as to what had happened and why. Accusations would have flown as to who was to blame. Anger at Judas Iscariot would have been at a fever pitch. Off in the corner, Peter would have been silent for maybe the first time in all the years they had known one another. From time to time, moans and sobbing from a man racked by guilt would be heard coming from his direction. The bewilderment of having lost Jesus, Judas being a betrayer, and Peter the second in command in an emotional puddle on the floor would have been nearly impossible to deal with. Every bit of security and familiarity that they might cling to had been rocked and crumbled.

I wonder how many of them thought, “I should have never left my fishing boat”. Were some of them even now trying to find a way to slip back home unnoticed and try to take up their anonymous life hoping that no one remembered them being with Jesus? Were they in such shock that such plans and ideas were still beyond their capability? Were they paralyzed by the possibility of finding themselves on a cross at any moment? Were they like the proverbial deer caught in the onrushing headlights just before being crushed to death?

For us, that Saturday before Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection is almost a spiritual pause. It is a day of anticipation of celebrating the victory over death that Jesus achieved and has promised for all who love and follow Him. It is a day of looking forward with expectant hope. For that first band of followers, it was a day of dread. They had no grasp of the promises of new life that Jesus had given them. His statements of being raised after three days made no sense to them prior to Easter morning. This day for them was a day of fear, hiding, shame, bewilderment, and recrimination. It was a day when each one looked deep inside himself and felt very alone, in spite of being in a room crammed full of other people who were in exactly the same emotional and spiritual state.

After the reality of the Resurrection sunk in, they were a completely different group. Their boldness in the face of opposition became legendary. Their willingness to sacrifice for Jesus and one another is a model for all who would come after them. Their joy even in the face of hardship would become something at which we marvel. It seems to me that in many ways we are the complete opposite of that hardy little band. On the day before Easter we are relaxed and anticipating the Resurrection. They were in hiding, fearful and uncertain. On most of the days following Easter, we can quickly become Christians in hiding, not letting our faith shine before others. We become afraid of what we will loose if we to openly follow Jesus. We live with doubts and uncertainty about the truth of who Jesus is and our own future resurrection. On the days following Easter, they lived and loved boldly. They had no fear. They refused to hide. They were as certain of their own future resurrection as they were of that of Jesus whom they had seen and spoken to and eaten with.

It is odd that it works that way. One would think that living in the light of the Resurrection, living Post-Easter, we would be much more like those early followers were on Easter Monday, Post-Easter. Instead we are often more like they were the day before that first Easter morning.

Provocative Bible Verses: Mom and Dad; I Love Jesus but I Hate You!

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

What in the world are we supposed to make of these words from Jesus? It seems to be a pretty clear and simple statement but does Jesus really want us to hate our families? When I was a new Christian there was a group that made this verse one of the foundations of their ministry. They convinced thousands of young people to renounce their parents, family and friends and run off and join their group. Most people intuitively sensed that this was NOT was Jesus had in mind but at the same time they didn’t know how to respond to what seemed to be a pretty cut and dried understanding of some clear words from Jesus. As a result lots of folks simply dismissed these words as something we just don’t understand and they instead moved on to more familiar, safe verse about who much God loved them.

But we can’t just ignore what Jesus said. The enemy, Satan, would like nothing more than for us to blow off such provocative verses and refuse to get any deeper in our faith that having a some vague sense that God thinks we are okay. We need to wrestle with what Jesus meant. In order to do that we must first understand what He did not mean. Clearly Jesus would not teach that we are to hate anyone in the way that we normally think of hatred. After all, it was Jesus who commanded that we not even hate our enemies but instead love them. (See  https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/provocative-bible-verses-love-your-enemies/) It was also Jesus who said the two most important things you could do were to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Surely we are not expected to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and at the same time, detest our parent and siblings.

Some people try to use this as an example of a contradiction in the Bible and an excuse to ignore all of it. But there is no contradiction. When Jesus says to hate your parents He uses the Greek word,miseo. It is a word that has duel usage. It can in fact mean to despise or detest someone. But it is also used in the Bible and other ancient literature to mean “love less”. Numerous scholars of the Bible concur that in this an many other casesmiseo is used in to mean love one thing less than another. It is a matter of placing higher priority over one thing than another.

With that in mind the meaning of Jesus becomes easy to grasp but harder to live. What Jesus is saying is that there whould be nothing in this world that we love more than we love Him. We are not to love our parents more than we love Jesus. We are not to love our brothers and sisters more than we love Jesus. We are not to love our children, or spouse, or cousins, or next door neighbor more than we love Jesus. In fact He says that we are not to love our own life more than we love Jesus. That shouldn’t surprise us for two reasons. First, God said in the Ten Commandments that we are to have no other gods before Him. In other words, nothing in life is to have more devotion from us than the Lord our God. Secondly, Jesus said that we are to love God with ALL that we have and ALL that we are. The implication is simple, nothing and no one should have a greater place in our heart, and in our devotion, and in our love, than the Lord.

To emphasize the fact that we are to love nothing so much as we love the Lord, Jesus goes on in Luke 14:27 and says “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Those folks who heard those words come from His mouth had to have been stunned to the point of being frozen in their tracks. The image of carrying a cross was vivid to them. Anytime someone was carrying a cross they were on their way to their own execution. They were going to death, just as Jesus was when He carried His own cross. By saying that we are to love Jesus more than we love our parents and that we are to carry our cross for Him or else we are unworthy of being His disciples, Jesus is saying that when it comes to following Him, He wants your all. There is no halfway measure with Jesus. It is full and complete devotion or nothing. It is Jesus first or not at all. It is give Him your life even to the point of death, or not at all.

Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you have to say no to your family and yes to Jesus. Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you have to turn down a promotion because even though it will mean more money and prestige you know that it will have a negative impact on your relationship with Jesus. Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you must sacrifice your comfort and open your home to someone without a home. Sometimes your love for the Lord means you must live with rejection from people whom you care about, or face ridicule from others. You must love them and their acceptance and your comfort and your promotion and your prestige, less than you love Jesus.

So the right thing to say is not, mom and dad; I love Jesus but I hate you. Instead, it needs to be, mom and dad and anyone or anything else, I love you but I love Jesus most of all.