Thorns that Choke: Empty Pursuits

In Jesus’ parable of the soils, it is the soil that produced thorns which seems to describe my own heart the best, because a plant sprouts and grows in that soil, but the fruitfulness of the plant is choked out by the thorns. Jesus explained to His disciples that the thorns represented the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things. In a previous post, I reflected on how the cares of the world choke our fruitfulness, and in this post I will explore how the deceitfulness of riches does the same.

The deceitfulness of riches are all those things which money promises but can’t fulfill. Contentment, pleasure, security, excitement, meaning, intimacy, joy, peace, and so on–those are the things we are ultimately seeking through wealth, but they are the very things that can only be found in Christ. Therefore pursuing them through riches always comes up empty. And that is where money is deceitful–it is always saying “Just a little bit more…” or “If only you had this or could experience that, then life would be great…” But it cannot fulfill those promises.

As with the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches chokes out the Word and blocks fruitfulness simply by filling up our time and energy with what ends up to be empty pursuits. These may not be obviously sinful pursuits; in fact, for some it could be perceived as “just trying to provide for my family” or “just trying to plan responsibly for the future”. But wealth is deceitful, and the line between responsibility and selfish desire is often rather blurry. And thus the thorns creep in and start filling up the soil of our hearts with one presumably innocent pursuit after another.

When Paul warns Timothy about the love of money (I Timothy 6:8-10), he says that “through this craving some have wandered away from the faith…” Wandered. Not run, but wandered. Granted, there may be some who ditch the faith overnight because of the empty pursuits of wealth, but Paul describes what happens most often–we wander. Like a toddler who is enamored by a colorful flower off the path, we wander from one colorful flower to the next, never intending to leave the path, yet realizing eventually that we are far from it.

So perhaps the question for this week is: am I more excited about giving thanks to God on Thursday or on finding the perfect deal on Black Friday? Nothing wrong with shopping on Black Friday (or any other day), but is it filling up the soil of my heart with things that will come up empty?

Thorns that Choke: stuff of earth

When Jesus explained the parable of the soils to His disciples, the first thing He said that the thorns which choked the plant represent are the “cares of the world” (Matt. 13:22, Mk. 4:19) or “cares of life” (Lk. 8:14). What are those cares? In the broadest sense, I believe those cares are simply the stuff of earth–good and bad–that we deal with on a daily basis. As Rich Mullins sang, “The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the Giver of all good things” (If I Stand, 1988).

One of the reasons why solitude can be so refreshing is because in it we can temporarily set aside much of the “stuff of earth” that we otherwise have to deal with. The difficulty, though, is that when solitude must end, all of those cares come rushing back and threaten to overwhelm us. That was certainly the case for me coming back from my solitude retreat recently–I drove directly from the retreat house on the mountain to the Talbot campus for a class (over 2 hours in traffic!); that day was also my daughter’s birthday and I had a small window of time to see her before my class and give her a birthday gift; I was hoping to also eat lunch with my daughter but the traffic delays were eating away at that window of time; there was a Scripture memorization assignment due in class that I was rehearsing as I drove; and so on. None of those things are sinful or wrong, but they are all things that I care about–they are cares of life. But the attention given to those cares has the potential to crowd out my attention on Christ and thus keep me from bearing fruit in Him.

From the time we drag ourselves out of bed in the morning to the time we drop back into bed at night–and sometimes even through the night–our lives are filled with cares. The assignment due today. The unfinished assignment due yesterday. The decision in process. The car that needs gas. The meal to prepare. The toilet to clean. The phone call to return. The exercise that still hasn’t happened. The bill to pay. The doctor visit to schedule. And that’s not even mentioning the child who needs help with homework, or the neighbor whose mother just passed away, or the spouse who is angry, or the lonely friend who keeps texting. Our lives are filled with cares.

I don’t think the solution is to not care, though there are likely some things that we could care less about. So how do we keep the stuff of earth from choking out our fruitfulness in Christ? Perhaps one way is to think deeply about what matters most to God, so that we give priority and attention to those cares rather than being driven by the urgent matters of lesser importance. When we care most about “the one thing that is necessary” (Lk. 10:42), we will stay connected to Jesus, and fruitfulness comes through that abiding relationship.

Farewell Sylvester

I took a brief hiatus from my sabbatical this afternoon in order to conduct a funeral service and burial. It was a very small gathering, just myself as the presiding minister along with my two sons in attendance. Together we said our goodbyes to Sylvester and solemnly laid him to rest among the night-blooming jasmine in the backyard garden.

Sylvester had only been in our home for a few weeks, but even in that short time, he had developed a personality and character that made him a beloved member of the family. Thus his untimely death was a shock, and my 7-year-old son, who had grown especially close to Sylvester, shed quite a few tears throughout the day.

I have not done many funeral services in my tenure as a pastor, but I must say this one was particularly touching in its uniqueness and brevity. Together, the three of us hollowed out a shallow impression in the damp earth, then I said a prayer, thanking God for all the amazing creatures that He has made, and asking for His special comfort on His child who was feeling very sad. Then amidst the tears we laid Sylvester to rest in the earth, covering his tiny form with loose dirt and marking the location with a stone. Both boys spontaneously added some scarlet bougainvillea petals over the grave, and we sadly filed away and back into the house.

There are now 2 graves in that patch of earth under the night-blooming jasmine. One is almost hidden now by the jasmine, a fading pink plastic butterfly that marks the grave of our daughter’s butterfly that didn’t develop fully after emerging from its chrysalis. And now this white stone marking the grave of a little boy’s beloved tadpole that didn’t quite make it to froghood.

Ahhh…the joys of being a parent…

Thorns that Choke

Last week I had the opportunity to spend extended time alone with God up in the mountains near Idyllwild. On the final morning before heading home, I was reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the soils, and in particular the soil that produced thorns which choked the plant and made it unfruitful. When Jesus explained the parable to His disciples (Matt 13:18-23, Mk 4:14-20, Lk 8:11-15), He said that the thorns represent the “cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and desires for other things.”

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so I have seen blackberry bushes or other types of fast-growing, thorny plants that grow wild in that region. Though as kids we loved picking and eating the blackberries, my father hated it when they started growing in our backyard, because they were very invasive. No doubt it is thorny bushes like that which Jesus is referring to in this parable–bushes that gradually crowd out other plants by taking up the soil and sun and water that is needed for the other plants to grow and reproduce.

This soil that produced thorns is something I recognize in my own heart, and that I see most often in the comfortable church culture in which I serve. It represents the sincere believer who intends to follow Christ and serve wholeheartedly, but gets sidetracked because life is so busy and full. But what makes this so hard to address or even recognize as a problem is that the activities filling their life are good things: education and family and ministry and friendships. The problem is not that they are engaged in a bunch of sinful or meaningless activities, nor even that they are doing the wrong things, but rather that there simply are too many things. And thus the result is that all of those good things crowd out the nourishment that is needed in their souls in order to be truly fruitful.

That reality is the very reason why an extended time of solitude is so necessary and profitable. Solitude clears away all the thorns and creates space for sun and water and nutrients from the soil to be soaked up by the plant–solitude sets aside the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things in order to be deeply nourished by God. But as wonderful as solitude can be, it is not meant to be an end in itself, but rather a means toward a greater end–that of entering back into the busyness and fullness of life and relationships and work and ministry, with the thorns cleared away so that the seed of God’s word can go deep and bear much fruit.

In subsequent posts, I will be exploring each of the particular types of thorns that Jesus mentioned in this parable: cares of the world, deceitfulness of riches, and desires for other things.

House of Solitude

I have the opportunity and gift to spend the next 48 houImagers at Hilltop Renewal Center’s House of Solitude, up in Idyllwild. Why spend that amount of time alone with God? Isn’t that a waste of productivity?

Here’s a couple of my favorite quotes on the value of solitude:

“We must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. This does not mean we will never be busy. Jesus often had much to do, but he never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between him and his Father. He never did it in a way that interfered with his ability to give love when love was called for. He observed a regular practice of withdrawing from activity for the sake of solitude and prayer. Jesus was often busy, but never hurried.  Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.”  –John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, pg 79

“…Think of silence and solitude as complementary Disciplines to fellowship. Without silence and solitude we’re shallow. Without fellowship we’re stagnant. Balance requires them all.”   –Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, pg. 176

I withdraw from words and busyness and community SO THAT I can then enter back into community and communication with a heart that is connected and refreshed by deep communion with Jesus.