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Saturday, September 19, 2015


In my last blog post, I looked at Jesus’ main metaphor for Christian life: fruitfulness. “By their fruits you shall know them,” Jesus said. Faith is not just an interior feeling, it’s meant to be outwardly effective, productive and fruitful.
But as with many biblical words, including “love,” “grace,” “righteousness,” it’s not immediately obvious what fruitfulness means. It’s a full, rich image with many different facets and layers. I’d like to explore some of those briefly.

“Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John the Baptist preached (Matthew 3:8.) Repentance means a change of mind and direction. We can’t be fruitful if we’re simply content to simply stay as we are now. We can’t rely on a sense of entitlement (“Do not say, ‘We have Abraham as our father’”) No matter how long we've been in the church, we will be judged by the righteousness and mercy of our lives – and John goes on to give some very concrete, practical examples of what he means (Luke 3: 10-14.) If our attitude is “I’m fine just the way I am,” we won’t be fruitful.

Inner and Outer in Synch
Jesus never opposed inward faith and outward action.  “Every good tree bears good fruit, every bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) It’s not a question of either prayer or action, but of how our inner and outer lives are connected. St. Paul wrote about “lead[ing] lives worthy of the Lord … as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:10) Cultivating an inner life of prayer, worship, reflection and knowledge of God is what will increase fruitful, faithful action in the world.

Every gardener knows that plants won’t be fruitful if they’re not cut back. If you don’t prune a vine or tree, all the nutrients will go into the leaves and branches rather than the pumpkins or apples. Not all growth is good. It needs to be fruitful growth. So it’s just as important to decide what we will not do as what we will do.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains just a single seed, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) We gain life by willing to lose life. That’s the paradox of the Gospel. When we close our hands and hearts to protect what we have, 
we end up losing it; but when we open our hands and hearts in faith, abundance is the result. In these anxious times, our instinct is to protect what we have so we don’t lose it. But Jesus calls us to let go of what we have for the sake of something more fruitful.

Openness to Mystery
Fruitfulness is a gift, not an achievement. We can cultivate the conditions that make fruitfulness possible. But in the end, the fruit we bear is a result of grace. We are the soil in which the seeds of the Word can be planted and grow (Mark 4: 3-9). We need to pay attention to the kind of soil we are, and trust that God will bring about God’s kind of growth through us. So our job is to prepare the ground, and to remove the barriers so we can be good, receptive soil, and then watch in anticipation for the fruit that God will bring through us.

A Continual Process not a Quick Fix
We’re conditioned to look for immediate results. What book can we read, what workshop can we attend, what program can we adopt to increase givings, boost attendance, get the young people back? But fruitfulness comes from long, patient, faithful cultivation over time. When we’re desperate, we want a quick fix.  “Let’s do something, and do it fast!” But in these anxious times, we need to do the opposite. Our focus should be on cultivating hearts and communities that will be able to bear fruit in the future.

If this triggers something in you – an insight, thought or memory – please share it. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Well, THAT wasn't very clear, was it?

My blog post from yesterday contained this paragraph:

I know of a church in another denomination that has made a conscious decision to grow. One of their rules is that any event where at least 50% of those attending are from outside the church is cancelled or not repeated. This church has decided to be fruitful.

Let's try that again, shall we?

There is a large church in St. Catharines where I live (not a United Church) that has made a conscious, deliberate commitment to grow by reaching out to the community.

One of the ways they do this is by regularly holding events to which the community is invited -- Bible studies, BBQ's, community clean-up days, special worship services.

If it turns out that more than half of the people who attended were from the church (i.e., less than half were from outside the church), they don't repeat the event. Even if lots of people come, they have decided that the purpose is not to get a good turn-out of already-committed church people, but to connect with new people.

I'm not suggesting any other church should do this. I was simply offering an example of a congregation that has wrestled with the meaning of fruitfulness in their context and committed themselves to following through.

In my desire to be concise, I didn't explain it very well the first time.

But at least it shows that people are reading this blog!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bearing Fruit

Welcome back after what I pray was a blessed and happy summer!

I live in the Niagara Peninsula, and one of the best things about
Niagara in the summer is the fruit. Large-scale fruit growing has practically disappeared in Niagara, but at markets and roadside stalls you can still get locally grown peaches, strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn, beans and potatoes.
And then there are the wineries. Nature has made the Niagara
Peninsula an especially good place to grown grapes and the region boasts over a hundred wineries and the lush vineyards that feed them.
Jesus’ main image for his followers was fruitfulness. Eighteen times in all four Gospels, Jesus compared being his disciple to bearing good fruit. “You did not choose me,” Jesus says in John, “but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)
The image was picked up by St. Paul who said that we should bear the “fruit of the Spirit” – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)
What does it mean to bear fruit? It means multiplication. One planted seed produces a whole harvest of fruit. And it means replication. Seeds produce fruit which carry more seed for the benefit of future generaions. Fruitfulness is how species survive.
I wonder if churches remember to ask, “What fruit are we bearing?” Churches have many ways of deciding what they will do. How much money will it raise? How many people will it attract? How happy will it make us feel?
But how often do we ask intentionally  “What fruit are our efforts producing?” We assume that what we spend our time doing is bearing fruit. But if the question is asked “What good is it doing? What is growing as a result? How are we spreading the seed of the Gospel so it can grow in new places? How is the impact of the Good News growing through us?” – often we don’t know what to say.
Most churches keep themselves busy with activities and programs. But how often do we honestly ask, “What fruit is this bearing?” – remembering that Jesus talked about good fruit, lasting fruit, the fruit of the Spirit.
What fruit is the annual roast beef supper or talent auction or choir concert bearing? If the only answer is $1000 towards the budget, I’m not really sure that’s what Jesus meant by bearing fruit. Same for the other activities that occupy the time and energy of most churches. There is nothing wrong with them – except if they fail to bear the kind of fruit that Jesus said was essential. And if they aren’t bearing that fruit, Jesus didn’t mince words. They are good for nothing but to be uprooted and thrown in the fire.
We could learn a lesson from the grape grower who simply can’t afford to keep a non-bearing vine around. It has to be removed so that a fruitful vine can take its place. Fruit bearing is the point of viticulture, and it is the point of the church as well.
Note:  fruitfulness is not the same as busyness. Church people (maybe clergy most of all) love to talk about how busy they are. But how much fruit does all that busyness produce? Are we busy multiplying and replicating the healing and reconciling power of Christ in people’s lives in measurable ways? That’s what Jesus cares about. After all, the busiest plants in my garden are the weeds – but they’re not the most fruitful.
I know of a church in another denomination that has made a conscious decision to grow. One of their rules is that any event where at least 50% of those attending are from outside the church is cancelled or not repeated. They simply will not invest in activities that are mainly for the enjoyment of their own members. This church has decided to be fruitful.
Again, though, we must not mistake quantity for quality. A mega-church with a full range of programs is not necessarily producing the fruit of Gospel. On the other hand, a small congregation of 20 people can be fruitful if their focus is on bearing the right kind of fruit. If that little community is devoted to learning how to follow Jesus in their daily lives, and embodying healing, reconciliation, freedom, joy and the peace that the world cannot give, they are bearing fruit. If “all” that happens in the church is that, through prayer, Scripture and the practice of humility, mercy and justice, that handful of people are being formed in the image of Jesus, they could turn a community on its head.
Good fruit is cultivated. It is grown intentionally. Driving through the country, you’ll often see stray corn stalks growing in a field of soybeans. Farmers call it “volunteer” corn. It’s happened to fall in a field and grows, but it isn’t good for much. Any church can bear fruit by accident like volunteer corn. But to bear the lasting fruit Jesus talked about demands discipline, dedication and devotion.
If I had my ministry to do over again, I would bring it all down to fruitfulness – to asking relentlessly, “What fruit am I bearing? What fruit is this church bearing? What kind of fruit does God want to bear through us? What changes does God want to bring about in and through us?” I would invest a lot more in the things that bear fruit, and prune back those things that don’t.
We have all we need to bear good fruit. We have the seed of the word. We have the soil of our lives. We have the warm and water of the Holy Spirit.

It's really just a matter of focusing our attention on the question of fruitfulness above all else.