Monday, 30 July 2012

Like an apple tree

Apple tree image from

The talk at our church meeting yesterday was about being filled with the Holy Spirit, covering both the Toronto Blessing charismatic experiences (things like shaking and falling over – read the article I've just linked to if this all means nothing to you!) and the fruit of the Spirit that Paul spoke about in Galatians 5. It's the latter that I want to focus on in this post.

The guy doing the talk drew the standard but, I think, helpful parallel with trees that produce fruit, like apple trees and plum trees. They don't strain to produce apples, plums or whatever; they simply do it. But, here's the kicker for me; the conditions have to be right. A tree must have fertile soil, enough sun, shelter from the wind, and the right amount of rain, or else it won't produce much fruit.

So what about us? In this analogy, what conditions do we need in order to produce the fruit of the Spirit; what does it mean for us to have the right soil, plenty of sun, enough rain and so on? I think the analogy breaks down a bit here. One could take the analogy and say there's nothing we can do to produce the Spirit's fruit, like patience, goodness, love, and peace. That's not right though, is it? God doesn't just zap us and make us patient, good, loving, peaceful etc.

Coincidentally (or not...) I'm reading a book which touches on this issue a bit. It's one by Brian McLaren, whom I've raved about before, called 'The Secret Message of Jesus'. McLaren is working through Matthew 5-6, part of the so-called Sermon on the Mount, and he's looking at the three passages where Jesus talks about three spiritual practices or disciplines; firstly giving to those in need, then praying and finally fasting. With each of these practices, Jesus corrects the religious leaders and their way of performing (word choice deliberate!) the practice, replacing it with the correct, healthy usage.

The point is two-fold; we need to practice and 'train for godliness' in order to become mature Jesus-followers, but we also need to do the exercises in the right way. So, just looking at what Jesus says about giving, we mustn't do it in order to be seen. It won't have any effect with God and we'll just end up craving the attention and praise of people. On the contrary, we should avoid drawing attention to ourselves. For the person who manages to do this, 'Your Father, who sees everything, will reward you'. I've always understood this to mean some kind of next-life benefit, but maybe it means God will transform us more into his likeness, enabling us to do good works that we previously were incapable of. That's certainly what Brian McLaren thinks (I've added the italics):
Unwise or habitual practice can make the practitioner miserably habituated in unrewarding routines. In contrast, wise practice rewards the practitioner by making possible what was previously impossible.

So it seems I'm saying I don't think all that much of the fruit tree analogy, after all. We don't just stand there and produce the fruit of the Spirit; there is work to be done in order to bring ourselves under God's transforming power. But we've got to be careful about the work as bad practices will cause great harm. As McLaren puts it, ' 'Practice makes perfect' isn't quite accurate. Practice makes habitual'.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 4

Rather later than I originally intended, here are some reflections on chapter 4 of Paul's Letter to the Colossians. I went through chapters 1-3 a couple of months ago, not at a deep theological level but just reading and seeing what struck me. Click through to have a look at these posts if you like, and then we shall move on to chapter 4.

The final chapter of Colossians starts with another of those 'Lord, fix us!' prayers that I mentioned back in chapter 1. When I pray and, to be honest, when I hear others praying, it's often along the lines of asking God to change situations so they are more in line with our wishes. Yet in the New Testament, there are (it seems to me) far more prayers and requests for prayers focused on us being more faithful. So Paul says in Col 4:3-4:
Pray for us, too, that God will give us many opportunities to speak about his mysterious plan concerning Christ. That is why I am here in chains. Pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should.

Not a peep from Paul, at least not in this passage, about how he'd really rather not be in prison! Instead his request is focused on being more useful for God, a theme which he develops in the next couple of verses:
Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.

'Attractive' is how the New Living Translation interprets the Greek phrase 'seasoned with salt', drawing on salt's properties as a flavour enhancer. Is our conversation always 'seasoned with salt'?

The rest of the chapter is quite personal, with Paul passing on greetings from various people and asking the Colossians to welcome some of his companions who are on the way to Colosse. There's another marvellous prayer that I want to pick out, in verse 12:
Epaphras, a member of your own fellowship and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. He always prays earnestly for you, asking God to make you strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following the whole will of God.

What a prayer! Dear reader, may you be strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following God's will, and please pray the same for me as you read this.