About a year ago, my wife and I bought a house in an inner-city neighborhood which had been established more than one hundred years ago. In fact, at that time it was a farmland community that turned into a village, and then settled into a neighborhood as the city of now more than 2.5 million people grew outward to meet it. Then it kept on going. Our house was a rebuild, its previous version having been torn down to the foundation and a fresh design built in its place with updated materials. Its decent-sized front and back yards have been obviously well-trodden, and often tell tales of their past hosts by revealing interesting items just beneath their surfaces, especially after heavy rains. When we moved in, the house had been finished and dormant more than a year prior, so the lawns were a bit disheveled-looking. But in my ensconced western culture thinking, they were blank canvases on which I could not fail to produce masterpieces, because everyone is an artist and it’s not the canvas that is overly important, but the opportunity. That’s a topic for another day, though.
As the first mild winter came and went, I somehow failed to notice that the lawn I did have in the back yard, sparse as it was, had completely vanished. As I sulked through a plan of attack to correct this, I was mildly comforted that my front lawn was thick and probably the brightest shade of green in the neighborhood. Excellent. But, then again, that’s how crabgrass is: thick, bright and drought-resistant. Perfectly reliable while requiring nothing of you. It was ugly, but it was green and it was present. As the summer heat cranked up more and more toward
record levels, I became less and less interested in recovering for myself and our house the magazine quality lawns in my mind.
It was during this same time period, in this same summer heat, I began to reluctantly notice that the grass pastures of my inner man were in the same condition as the lawns of my abode. The front, which was the me I presented to the world that everyone observed, was thick and green, giving the appearance of health, but was none other than crabgrass, the woeful imposter. The back yard of my inner self, surrounded by a privacy fence, as was my real yard, had also become void of grass. It was a desert of dust in the heat and also a revealer of hidden unpleasantries after the heavy rains of life’s circumstances. I soon began to see that the Divine Artist was painting a picture around the outside of me that mirrored what was going on around the inside of me, and it was a spot-on match.
I prayed to and questioned the Lord who, throughout my life, has manifested His grace toward me time and time again, walking and talking with me. Nothing. I prayed some more, asked harder questions, while at the same time having to rise up to fight the accusations flying at me as to why He, who had always been patient for me to return while I explored little rabbit trails that led me away from Him, had withdrawn. Was I on a rabbit trail now? Still, nothing. Somewhat distraught, I put everything down: my projects, my to do lists, emails, texts, all of my “what-have-yous.” I had to go find Him. Immediately. I had to find my Gardener.
Joe the Landscaper had come to my attention on a recommendation. I contacted him not long after we moved into our house, to get help with the lawns. He came almost immediately at my call. He aerated, seeded, fertilized, and instructed me in a manner that should have all but guaranteed my success. “Water,” he said. “Water every day.” He also told me of worse- looking lawns and scenarios of decay that were beyond what I was experiencing which he had remedied, tended to, and brought back to a beauty that was better than before. The inner familiarity I had with the Gardener of my heart, which closely resembled Joe’s outward attentive presence and instruction for my lawns, let me know he was my guy. I did what he said to do for a little while, but for whatever reason I missed a day or two here and there, which made it easier not to continue when I remembered the instructions he had given me. As the weather got hotter and hotter, it was reasonably easy for me to justify over time a “why bother?” attitude. I had already missed enough opportunities to see the decay that defied what my guy, Joe the Landscaper, and I had discussed with confidence.
So, for weeks, I went looking for Him each day and many nights. The Lord. The Gardener and Landscaper of the pasture in my heart. Because I believed Him when He said, “I will never leave you, or forsake you,” I knew I needed to look no further than the lawns and pastures of the inner abode in my own heart which, because of Him, were far bigger than I remembered. A friend of mine, who was also familiar with the Lord as a Gardener and Landscaper, was gracious enough to
notice that I was looking, and spent some time helping me search. As we did, the soil yielded up things that I had long ago buried and forgotten. The problem was that I had uncovered some of these things before, but left them in place to ultimately be buried yet again, never having properly disposed of them. There was no getting around these now. I was on a mission and they were in my way. If I didn’t permanently remove them, they would continue to contaminate the soil, prohibit growth, and make the gardening harder if not impossible. Just like it is with my guy, Joe the Landscaper, I have a responsibility to do things that contribute to what he’s trying to help me do.
Speaking of Joe, I called him one day when I was dismayed. Dismayed by the false front lawn of crabgrass and dejected by the desert of dirt around my back yard patio. I couldn’t take it anymore and I ripped into him a little bit about what HE had failed to accomplish. Again, he came almost immediately. He asked me a few questions about the instructions he had given me and then boldly said, “I see what’s happening here. You didn’t keep up with what I told you to do and are blaming me for what we’re seeing.” Me: “Well, umm…” Joe the Landscaper had just quickly and efficiently shamed me back into reality by exposing me to myself. But he was gracious in doing so.
My hunch that the Gardener of my heart couldn’t leave or forsake me, because He had promised not to, was correct. I found Him. I found Him because He was leading me all along, though I hadn’t perceived it. He chose this way in our
relationship and in this instance so I could take note of things I had to do for myself, which I had stopped doing. Things that were necessary because the clutter between us, of those things being undone, was becoming prohibitive. He, likewise, had exposed me to myself and was gracious in doing so.
At about this time, having found again the Gardener of my heart, Joe and I resumed our partnership. He killed the crabgrass in front of our home, and though that made things look even worse, I felt great about it. He aerated, seeded, fertilized, and instructed me afresh. “Water. Water every day.” This time I’m doing my part consistently, both within and without, and new shoots of real grass are everywhere, both within and without. Joe doesn’t come over to water; I do it. Joe doesn’t come over to pick up the endless saw blades, broomsticks, broken glass, and other junk that work their way to the surface of the well-trodden soil; I do it.
The parallels, or prophetic connection, of these two scenarios happening to me at the same time this past summer have instructed me greatly. Through it all, just as I had faith to believe that the seeds of grass would fall into the ground and die, then rise anew to grace the abode of my home, my faith to know that the Gardener of my heart had, in like manner, fallen into the ground and died to rise anew and grace the abode of my inner man. Who I truly am required something of me. Something that I once again live to give and give to live.
John chapter seventeen is a fascinating portion of scripture, that in twenty six verses paints a three dimensional picture God’s hope for each of us and what our position with Him is if we indulge Him in that hope. That place for us in the verses of this chapter, is found in the detailed prayer that Jesus makes to the Father, in a frank and conversational tone, wherein He asks for very specific things. That alone is interesting. As the Son of God who knew He was about to be betrayed and murdered at the hands of men, He demonstrates His own self-assurance in His relationship with the Father in this prayer and yet does not assume that God was so familiar with the intentions of His heart, that He didn’t ask for them specifically. Though He and the Father were One, Jesus laid out His desire in very specific words.
This is a great lesson in and of itself to the point I want to get across here, because I have had a tendency to do the very opposite. I assume that God knows, understands and therefore grants me the intentions of my heart, without specifically talking with Him about them. It’s a presumptuous and diminishing way to handle a relationship that can create confusion (in me, because God is never confused) and stall forward progress. Jesus had complete confidence. Not in a presumptuous way, but a fearless way, knowing that His Father was completely approachable. I know that I’ve been blessed and elevated in pursuing my relationship with God, but there’s still higher ground to be had in the blessings and it’s up to me to understand that, get to it and stay there. If you want to consider that point more completely right now, measure these words against the most important earthly relationships in your life. Whoever they’re with, for all of us they could probably be richer in different ways, bringing them more in line with ideals we know are better, but end up compromising by not giving them the proper attention or doing the required work.
In verse three of chapter seventeen, Jesus makes the statement, to His Father that the secret to eternal life is to know Him. Jesus knew the Father and the Father knew Jesus. He knows us, but do we know Him? We endeavor to pursue a form of relationship in part and parcel, but too few of us do this vigorously enough, or in a sacrificially enough, to take and hold the higher ground. A little further on, in verse six, Jesus makes another statement to God, acknowledging back to Him something that God already did. He said; “I have manifested Your name to those you have given me out of the world.” Recently, I read that verse again and it struck me differently.
As we get to know, and as I got to know, the disciples throughout Jesus’ ministry and well into their New Covenant writings, we can quickly understand that they are genuinely human and largely just “regular guys” in their culture. But before Jesus even knew who they were God had prepared each one of them, in all their human fault and frailty, to install His kingdom in the earth beyond the murder of His Son. Jesus didn’t choose His disciples, God did. Then at the appropriate time, He revealed them to Jesus, who simply extended to them an invitation.
Later Jesus declares something incredible, recorded in verse sixteen. That because of what He had deposited into these men during His time with them, by teaching about the very Father that He intimately knew had chosen them, that they were no longer of this world.
Think about that.
Imperceptibly these twelve disciples, without even knowing it, had emigrated in citizenship from earth to heaven and would retain that privilege, on that much higher ground so to speak, through their remaining life’s trials on earth, their physical deaths and thus to this very day.
If that isn’t fascinating enough, Jesus continued to pray saying; “not only these do I pray for (meaning the twelve), but for ALL those who would come to believe in me, based on their teaching and that they ALL would be one, just as You and I are one.” As Christianity has grown like a vine over the face of the earth to what it is today, it’s important to remember that God has “chosen” and prepared each of us to receive the same invitation Jesus extended to the twelve. We’ve been hand-picked.
None of them had to change who they were, they just had to say “Yes” to the invitation.
And so like them, we, regardless of our struggles and the way we sometimes feel detached or even dirty because of wrong things we’ve done, said, or had done and said to us. Regardless of the confusion or isolation we feel deep within, because of unanswered prayers, or receiving things we feel we didn’t deserve. Regardless of the realizations that we were ultimately powerless to keep the things we wanted more than anything, but lost them anyway. These kinds of things are endless, all them indigenous to the fallen human nature. But the only sure way to overcome them is to remember that we are never “un”-chosen, that is unless we choose to be. Say ‘Yes” and begin the journey.
How many times have we earnestly and fervently prayed for something only to not receive it? Or how many times have we held back that kind of prayer, to settle for whatever happens because we’re uncomfortably aware that we have kept the God of answered prayers, to whom we should be praying, at a “safe distance” from ourselves. This has probably happened to all of us if we’re honest, maybe more than once or twice, but if in those moments we don’t stop and re-consider the totality of those happenings, we can create the less than desirable effect of widening the gap of that “safe distance”.
To begin with, the grace that we all have experienced in our lives, to the point of sometimes taking it for granted, as well as our past prayers that have been magnificently answered, can become diminished and somehow insignificant.
I have found that many times my unanswered prayers have been for people who have succumbed to illness or injury and passed away, in spite of our great faith that God could heal and raise them up and our offering of those very prayers has seemingly come to nothing. That hurts. Imperceptibly, those unanswered prayers can quietly usher in a false sense of unfulfilled promises. The very promises that we know exist and may have been taught to us from our youth.
Could it be true that we just plain abhor investing ourselves into something like fervent prayer, settling for cursory topical ones? How then do we become offended at not receiving the answer we desire. Meager investments yield meager returns, no matter what the currency. More on that in a moment.
Recently, while with some friends in a time of prayer together, one of them stepped up to lead us in a slightly different manner, suggesting a time worship followed by an invitation for us to pray freely afterward. Her instructions for our worship were this though: Take ourselves COMPLETELY out of it. Even to the point of not including our thanksgiving in it, because that thanksgiving would have some aspect of “self” attached to it. Just purpose to make declarations to God, purely and solely acknowledging who He is.
No mine. No my. No I, we, ours, theirs, them, us, etc. Just… Him.
It was surprisingly hard to do this at first and I immediately realized that I had never, ever purposed to do it, always adding a little (or a lot) of myself whenever I worshiped God. Within a few moments though, I began to detect a change. I sensed that worshiping Him in this way took me to a place of wider spaces of peace that seemed fresh, new and unfamiliar, because I had never purposed to go there in that way before. In that space EVERYTHING was okay, past, present and future. Gone. Gone were the voices and callings of the world and my life, that beckoned for the attention due to them, which is never truly satisfied, by the way. It was amazing.
Scripture is full of covenantal promises for us, some of them very direct and specific, but how are we to respond when our hope in them evaporates, sometimes in a single moment, because a heart’s desire would go unfulfilled? Difficult as it may be, we must pry our clenched fists off of the doubt that invites itself into our very lap in those moments and grasp for the truth that no longer seems available because of those moments. A traveling preacher, named Tom Skinner, began a series of teachings years ago which he started and ended with these statements:
“I spent a long time trying to come to grips with my doubts, and suddenly realized that I had better come to grips with what I believe. I have since moved from the agony of questions that I cannot answer, to the reality of answers that I cannot escape, and it’s a great relief.”
I believe that somehow grace… is as big as the universe and has the characteristics of a liquid, always seeping to the lowest place it can go. That’s where people live, unfortunately. It’s the smallish definitions we’ve given to grace, that just don’t contain the revelation to give us recognition of it’s presence with us at all times. As a result, disappointment finds its way into our human lives more often than it should.
But in going to a place of pure selfless worship, even for a few fleeting moments, I found that it had no choice but to stay behind. Standing in a very small part of that, away from my “self” became bigger and more secure than anything I’ve ever experienced.