The Tree I Hope to Be

Luke 6:43-45 (NLT)

“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.”


By Chuck Griffin

I suspect that James, brother of Jesus and leader of the early church at Jerusalem, had the above words in mind when he wrote, “Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.” (James 3:11-12.)

The way we are on the inside, deep in our souls, will eventually show on the outside through our behaviors. Our inner nature, whatever it may be, cannot remain hidden or pretend to be something else for long.

Few of us would dare claim that what is within us is perfectly pure, and fewer still would be telling the truth. But remember, there are no perfect trees, except those found in Paradise. A tree we would call “good” is one that fulfills its mission year after year, providing abundant, attractive fruit despite the occasional blemish on its trunk or scar within its roots.

Not far from a church building where I once served, there was a rough-looking little apple tree at the edge of a yard, its branches overhanging the road. You wouldn’t think much of it in the winter, but in the late summer and fall, it produced apples galore. When I went for a walk, it practically waved its branches and said to me whenever I passed under it, “Here, have an apple! Please!”

I would take one and eat it as I walked along, and the apple was always very good. It was a faithful little tree, doing its best in a less-than-perfect location, bordered on one side by asphalt and exhaust. I suppose the tree persistently kept reaching for the water and nutrients it needed all those years.

Jesus, James and a particular apple tree I know offer us a straightforward way to measure our Christian lives.

Lord, in our brokenness and infirmities, we can still bear fruit for you. Keep us mindful of where we find sustenance: in prayer, in Scripture, in worship, in fellowship and communion, and in so many other places where you have promised to meet us. Amen.

What We Love

1 John 2:15-17 (NRSV)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.


By Chuck Griffin

The problem with the world is that it is so present, so right in front of us. Otherwise, the recommendation given to us in today’s text would be easy to follow.

Those objects and people we want to possess, along with those growing (we hope!) numbers in our investment accounts win most of our attention. Matters related to God are lucky to be relegated to a sleepy late evening or weekend. It’s a common pattern, one as much of a problem in the early days of the church as it is today.

If only we could see God in a sustained way. The world would dissolve like mist, and we would quickly forget its passing fancies.

That actually will happen, by the way. As Christians, we believe this world is temporary. And certainly, our lives in it are “like the morning fog,” to borrow from the fourth chapter of James.

So, how do we manage the immediacy of the world and the very detrimental effect it can have on us?

Remember that God is present in it, accessible to us any time we are in need. We live in the era where we engage with God as the Holy Spirit, who works within us and among us in the church to sustain us and empower us until we see our risen savior in full.

I’ve mentioned the means of grace before and I’ll mention them again. Pray, and God will meet you there. Delve into God’s Holy Scripture, and the Holy Spirit will speak to you in clear and undeniable ways. Live in true fellowship with other Christians, and despite their imperfections you’ll get at least an occasional glimpse of eternal life.

In all of this you will better understand God’s will for your life, and you will pursue doing his will. If you’re truly blessed, by the time you leave this world behind, you won’t be looking back.

Lord, help us to cut through the confusion of this world and see you standing nearby. Amen.

Soul Soil

Gardening taught me something spiritually interesting several years ago. It’s possible to make soil in infertile places.

You accomplish this by layering various organic elements. First, you use a heavy layer of newspaper as the base. This kills any weeds in the plot where you want something to grow.

Then you start making layers an inch or two deep, each composed of different organic substances: compost, ground leaves, vegetable peelings, grass clippings, peat moss. You simply lay it on inch-by-inch until you get the depth you want, finally topping it off with a layer of mulch.

After it sits for a while, it’s ready for planting. While living in Georgia, I made some very productive little gardens for herbs, peppers and other vegetables where I had nothing but barren red clay.

One day, I was thinking about what is sometimes called the “parable of the soils” or the “parable of the sower.” This is the story Jesus tells in Matthew 13:1-9 and then explains in Matthew 13:18-23.

The different kinds of soils represent different kinds of people: those who don’t understand the truth about Jesus, those who hear the truth but become discouraged by trouble, those who hear it and become distracted by worldly pleasures, and those who hear the truth and let it grow mightily in them, until it begins to spread to others.

And then I asked myself, “Do you have to remain one kind of soil?”

I don’t think so. God has given us the tools to make good, deep “soul soil.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, sometimes talked about the “means of grace,” those ways we can hold ourselves out to God and say, “Please change me.” There are five big, scripturally based ways. And they work together, enhancing each other’s ability to make a person more spiritually fertile.

Prayer is like the paper base. We use it liberally to keep the weeds of the world from growing. Lying close to prayer is fasting. Fasting makes prayer more effective because it keeps us mindful of our dependence on God.

The third layer is Scripture. How can we understand God’s truth if we’re not reading what our Creator has revealed? Reading the Bible has to be a daily experience for any Christian.

The fourth layer in our “soul soil” mix is what Wesley called “fellowship.” We practice fellowship whenever we gather with other Christians. Fellowship keeps us mindful of our need for community.

The fifth layer is the taking of communion. Jesus told us to remember via this act what he has done for us. Communion should be meaningful. It should be regular. And it should be done with the knowledge that God transforms us for the better every time we faithfully participate.

Make some soul soil. God’s truth will sprout in amazing ways.

Lord, in this season of Lent may we find ways to practice all the means of grace, enriching our experience of you. Amen.

Potential Unleashed

John 1:29-34 (NRSV)

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”


John—prophet in the wild and Jesus’ cousin—offered a different kind of baptism than what we undergo today to become Christ’s followers. It was a traditional Jewish baptism of repentance, designed to ready people for the coming Messiah.

When Jesus underwent this baptism despite his lack of sin, he demonstrated solidarity with the people he had come into the world to save. John also declared something about Jesus’ baptism that we should see in our own baptisms, too, despite their different natures.

In Jesus’ baptism, great potential was revealed; in our baptisms, great potential is made possible. Because Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins, the Holy Spirit is able to descend on us, too. When we declare our belief that the cross is effective for salvation, the door to a relationship with God is reopened for us.

Whatever we are after baptism is much more than what we would have been without baptism. It is only natural that we move toward “better” in relationship with the eternal, holy God.

Of course, we do have to let the Holy Spirit remain at work throughout our lives if we want to see continual spiritual progress. Thanks be to God, who has made this process relatively easy.

He has told us there are intersections of heaven and earth where we can go to allow the Spirit to penetrate our souls more deeply. Studying the Bible, immersing ourselves in prayer, receiving communion, and being in fellowship with other Christians are some prime examples.

God only knows what wonderful things might happen if we go to those intersections again and again.

Dear Lord, thank you for the potential you give us. Help us to develop it and live fully as the people you would have us be. Amen.

More than Enough

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 15:32-39 (NLT)

Then Jesus called his disciples and told them, “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.”

The disciples replied, “Where would we get enough food here in the wilderness for such a huge crowd?”

Jesus asked, “How much bread do you have?”

They replied, “Seven loaves, and a few small fish.”

So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to the disciples, who distributed the food to the crowd.

They all ate as much as they wanted. Afterward, the disciples picked up seven large baskets of leftover food. There were 4,000 men who were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children. Then Jesus sent the people home, and he got into a boat and crossed over to the region of Magadan.


I love the various “feeding” stories. They remind me that we still are invited to feed, knowing that when we are satisfied, there will be abundant leftovers.

Just in case you think I’m talking about food, hear what Jesus has to say to his disciples in the 16th chapter of Matthew. The layered context includes faith, the need to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (a reference to their deceptive, legalistic teachings), and the disciples’ inability to get their heads out of the immediacy of a moment.

“You have so little faith!” Jesus declares in 16:8. “Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread?”

Then, having reminded them of the two miraculous feedings recorded in Matthew, he asks, “Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread?”

Jesus is trying to remind his followers that he is the bread of life. He is the source of grace. Let’s break away from the food metaphor for a moment and get to the point: Grace comes because God grants us life-giving love despite our not deserving it.

That grace didn’t come cheap, either. If grace were bread in a market, none of us could afford so much as a slice. God had to come in flesh and buy it for us, dying on the cross to overcome the power of sin and death.

All we have to do is accept what is given. We simply behave like hungry people, holding out our hands to catch loaves of bread being tossed in our direction.

Coming from an eternal source, the supply of grace will always exceed demand. As followers of Christ, our mission is pretty simple. We find ways to tell others, “God loves you! Accept what is yours! Stop starving for the love and forgiveness you so desperately crave!”

I’ve recently spent some time writing about the “means of grace,” the places where we are sure to receive grace, so perhaps we don’t need to explore those details again today.

But for crying out loud, eat. Eat!

Lord, may we be overwhelmed as we experience your love. Help us to find innovative ways to offer that love to others. Amen.

Means of Grace, Day 1

By Chuck Griffin
Editor, LifeTalk

Acts 1:8 (NLT): “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”

In my Sunday sermon at Holston View United Methodist Church, I mentioned what are sometimes called the “means of grace.” That’s a very Methodist phrase for spiritual practices that create an encounter with God.

An encounter with God should bring about very positive change, of course. I would compare the offer God is making us to a rich man saying, “Any time you come to the corner of Church and Clonce streets, I will give you a bag of cash.” We likely would go to that obscure intersection quite often.

God is offering us much more, saying, “Meet me in these spiritual practices, and I will mold you for eternal life, letting you experience its joy now.” All the cash on the planet cannot match the value of eternal life! If we can better grasp what is being offered, we will regularly engage in these spiritual practices.

John Wesley talked about many different ways we can encounter God, but I’m going to focus the rest of the week on what he called “works of piety.” We will begin with the tremendous impact Scripture can have on our lives.

Paul told a young pastor in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” And Paul was referencing just the Old Testament—remember, as he wrote this letter, he was creating an early piece of what would become the New Testament.

Bibles used to be hard to come by, but that’s no longer true in our digital culture. We can carry multiple translations on our phones, and if you have a little trouble reading—for example, I have friends with dyslexia—there are audio versions.

We also need to be sure we are working from a plain-English translation we can understand. Again, there are many options. I’m particularly fond of the New Living Translation, and Bible Gateway will let you explore a huge list of translations.

With all the resources we have available, encountering God in Scripture mostly is about taking time out of our too-busy lives.

The Bible is a library, meaning you cannot read it the way you would read a novel, but if you’ve never read it from start to finish, I would encourage you to do so. It helps to start with the big picture, understanding the library and its broad themes. Read just three chapters a day, and you’ll finish in a little more than a year. Don’t get bogged down on the lists, like the census data in the Book of Numbers. Where necessary, skim!

You will walk away with a deeper understanding of some basic truths. God is our creator. Creation rebelled by sinning, rejecting God’s will. God loves his creation so much, however, that he began to work to restore us, despite our sins. Through a particular people, the Israelites, a savior eventually came into the world, God among us in flesh. He died to free us from sin, and then rose from the dead to prove his victory. The Spirit of God sustains us now, until such time as God completes his work and we are restored to him in full.

Once you have those concepts in mind, you can dive into the individual books and letters, developing a deeper understanding of these life-changing truths. We are talking about a lifetime of study—you just keep going deeper and deeper.

It does take a little work to learn to process Scripture. The chapter numbers and verse numbers, which are not in the original manuscripts, make the Bible look like a book full of rules to be cited, but don’t be misled. There are powerful stories and mysteries to meditate upon. God wants to use all of Scripture to reach deep within our souls, helping us understand there’s so much more to life than what we simply have experienced.

It also is good to come alongside more experienced Christians. Find a small group of people committed to continuing the great traditions of the church as they delve into the gift God has given us all.

The other means of grace we will consider this week are prayer, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and participation in the life of the church. Stay with me this week. I pray we will see how all of this comes together to give us a much fuller experience of God.

Lord, may your word work in us in new ways, making us better equipped to be citizens of your eternal kingdom. Amen.