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Gifts, Fruit, and the Perfect Father

My son has always been above average: even as a child, he entered the terrible-two’s at 18 months. In the three or four days leading up to his second birthday he was nearly impossible: temper tantrums a dozen times a day, unhappy with everything around him. Finally, on the morning of his second birthday I looked at my wife and said, “That’s it! I’ve had it! There will be no birthday party today. Take back all his presents--he doesn’t deserve them.”

Of course, I made that up: who would refuse to give a birthday gift simply because a child was acting, well, childish? Now, years later, my son is in his twenties: married, gainfully employed, following Jesus, and a delight to be around. The child has become a fruitful adult.

Consider the difference between gifts and fruit: Paul’s letters to young churches mention both the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5) and gifts of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). The Heavenly Father is a father of infinite generosity and infinite patience. He gives us what we need, and grows in us what we become. Both actions begin with him. Both actions reflect his character. Yet there are distinct differences between gifts and fruit.

It is too common among North American believers to fixate on one or the other: some believers celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the neglect of Godly character. Others concentrate on the fruit of the Spirit as if the Father has nothing more to give. Of course, we need both. And of course, the Father wants us to have both. No amount of Christian character can fill a supernatural need, and no supernatural power can replace Christlikeness.

I've never understood the idea of a choice between gifts and fruit. They both originate with Him and depend on our cooperation. When it comes to the bounty of God’s Kingdom, we are not faced with an either/or choice; we are given a both/and blessing.

Doughboy

My first workplace nickname was Doughboy. Not because I was chubby: it was because of my two-year relationship with pizza dough. I worked at a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint near a horse-racetrack in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Each day I arrived an hour before the others and mixed a fresh batch of dough. Two huge sacks of flour. Quarts and quarts of water. Sugar. Salt. And a tiny package of yeast. The commercial mixer groaned and whirred until the collection of powders and water gave off a sticky sweet smell. It turned and turned until the ingredients became dough—lots of it. I reached into the mixer and pulled out handfuls of pizza dough and measured them into six-ounce dough balls, four wide and six long on a stainless steel tray. The dough balls, made by the Doughboy, became the foundation for the perfect food—pizza. Nor was my work finished. I had to re-shape the dough balls twice each night because the yeast caused them to grow more than twice the size of the original six-ounce lump. 

Later, as I began to read the New Testament, I discovered Jesus already knew my occupation and nickname:

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13: 33 ~ Except the woman didn’t have the advantage of a commercial mixer.)

I had seen it firsthand: the yeast was the last ingredient, the tiniest amount, but it made the dough come alive. This is the way of the kingdom. The smallest things have great effects. Leaven, a microscopic lifeless dust, comes to life in the right moment and the right environment. Resurrection performed nightly at the pizza joint.

In a rare moment of clarity I grasped his point the first time I heard it. The hidden work of God is inexorable. Whether it’s a new birth or a new idea, he finds a way in us and through us. The secret ingredient is life from another realm. It finds a way.

Jesus the storyteller reveals the workings of the kingdom. Yeast, mustard seed, wheat and weeds, even beams of light: each starts with God’s action in us, planting and placing, shining upon us until each ingredient shines forth from us. I learned something of his method. It is hidden, and it is hidden in us. We are the environment of God’s activity. He breaks off a piece of himself and hides it deep within us. We discover it, nurture it, and eventually we share it with our world. He submerses himself in us so deeply we can easily miss his presence, even though it’s the animating force behind our rising.

Night after night in a no-account pizza joint the work of God was played out before me. I learned to trust the yeast even if I couldn’t see it working. In truth, I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to.

And it’s not only true about me. It’s true for each of his children. The superstars are not the only ones who will rise. Through each of us God is at work in a thousand ways, and we are delivered all over town. I’ve learned to trust the leaven in others as well—in the right time each kingdom child will shine like the sun. We are the aroma of Christ to a perishing world. Resurrection nightly, not just at the end of days.

And while we wait, we are in on the secret. The leaven is here. In us, breaking forth.

The Grace of Repentance

Silly stereotypes: they can get in the way. Even worse, they can hide the life-giving truth. For example, the beauties of the word repent.

See? Right away you saw the fire-and-brimstone, didn’t you? Images of the grumpy preacher in Footloose and the irony of fundamentalists screaming “Repent!” while it’s perfectly obvious what they really want is for you to burn in Hell forever. In the wrong mouth, “Repent!” is a hate-filled word. On the Father’s lips, it is the kiss of life.

The Old Testament word is as simple as turning around: you’ve taken a wrong turn, turn around and go back. That’s it. No accusation, no put-downs. When the Hebrews thought of repentance they thought in terms of getting back on track. C.S. Lewis makes repentance sound positively modern:

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

Isaiah coupled repentance with rest, a quiet strengthening of our souls—but we would have none of it (Isaiah 30:15-16).

The New Testament word repent is even better: re-think. Get a new mind, change the way you process life. It’s the very first word of the Good News (Mark 1:15). The grace-filled gospel starts with “repent.” John the Baptist and Jesus alike declared that a new reality was breaking into the world; the Kingdom of God was at hand. The old ways of thinking and acting no longer applied. Think on that for a moment: “repent” is an offer of new life.

Ask anyone on the street whether they would like to live a life free from regret. Astoundingly, amazingly, freedom from regret starts with this wonderful Kingdom call: repent! Is this true? The scripture reveals the possibility of a life without regret. “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (II Corinthians 7: 10) Paul encourages his friends in Corinth to allow the Holy Spirit to breathe on such sorrow and allow it to be redeemed. This redemption starts with repentance, and leads to a life free from the burden of what-ifs.

All these wonderful possibilities begin with the humility of repentance. It’s not simply the way into God’s Kingdom; it’s the grace-filled way forward each day. Grace hides in the most unexpected places, but here’s the secret: they are always the low places of life. Like water, grace flows down, soaks in, and fosters new life. One of those low places is repentance.

Not Happiness: Joy

Why would we trade the everlasting for a handful of vapor? Why would we drink an imitation when the true fountain flows nearby?

Yet we do. Subtly, unaware, we seek happiness—even though joy is within reach, every day.

God save me from the pursuit of happiness and deliver me into the place of joy. Joy is one third of God’s kingdom (Romans 14:17). Joy is number two on the hit parade of Spirit-fruit (Galatians 5: 22-23) – there’s never a law against joy. Joy can make you sell everything you have in order to gain everlasting treasure (Matthew 13:44). And even though some translations blunder into using the word happiness, joy is the Master’s reward (Matthew 25:21).

It’s a sucker’s bargain: we’re offered happiness cheap, but joy awaits, an everlasting gift unavailable at any price. Happiness is “As Seen on TV”; joy is finding an actual pub where everyone does, indeed, know your name. Happiness is the echo of laughter; joy is the source of all merriment. Happiness is now and me, me, me; joy is forever, and for all of us.

Beware of modern happy-talk, the kind that tells us to find our own happy-place. All this talk about self-fulfillment causes me to ask whether Jesus felt “fulfilled” as he hung on the cross; the Biblical witness tells us he despised the shame and endured the pain—all for the joy set before him. Indeed, on the very night he faced betrayal, Jesus wasn’t into happy-talk: he was all about joy.

Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (John 16:20-24)

Search these things out, friends. Take an inventory of joy. Joy brings forth songs from prison; joy is the secret keep of the insulted, the persecuted, and the subjects of vicious lies. The glory of God inhabits joy. Joy is the stuff of resurrection. Joy is the oil of anointing, both for the king, and his subjects.

And we are the children of joy.

The Enchanted Book and Those Who Read It

Imagine a fairy tale about an enchanted book. Everyone who comes to the book reads the same words, but each person comes away with a different picture: some see a warrior riding a white horse, others read a love story with an impossibly happy ending, and still others find secret messages with the tale capable of predicting the future. The hero of each and every picture is someone named Jesus and, amazingly, in each and every case the hero-Jesus tends to look like our very own values, hopes, and dreams.

The current fashion among many Christians is to remind us that Jesus is the perfect picture of God. They point us (properly) to Hebrews 1:3: “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being . . .” So far, so good—until we begin to describe what this representation looks like. Jesus is the conquering King, Christus Victor. Jesus is sacrificial lamb, Agnus Dei. Jesus is the way of peace, the Viam Pacis.

 “God looks like Jesus.” Right. I’m with you—right up until you begin to describe what Jesus looks like. The grave can’t hold Jesus; neither can our opinions. This is what I love about Jesus: he defies any category—no single description will do him justice, not even a “Biblical” one.

And indeed: the Bible is an enchanted book. But the fairy tales remind us that enchantments can be dangerous blessings. We come to the Bible with full assurance of its inspiration and reliability, unaware that we ourselves, the readers of this inspiration, are not so reliable. We behold in the book a mirror of our values. Our heart is first stirred by those things we already love, and there lies the dangerous blessing: we are likely to see Jesus from one angle while missing ten thousand more. “I have seen Jesus!” we say, unaware of other possibilities.

We fall in love with our viewpoint of Jesus and, in our enthusiasm, want everyone to behold him thus. In our excitement we overstep the boundaries of our finite perspective, and begin to insist that this, this viewpoint of Jesus, is the true revelation of God’s great glory. But it’s not about right-or-wrong views of Jesus. He represents all the glory of God’s nature, a glory beyond the scope of our feeble single eyes.