The sideways gift of an unsettled life

Once, on a hike I discovered a single sandhill plum hanging beside the trail, tiny and ripe with some kind of meaning, nature’s haiku.

My feet step over sand ridges. Plum, found and blushing.

What does it mean? Yum! There it was, sustained by that wad of branches, that tangled trunk, waiting on that day to surprise someone with its minute sweetness. Lucky me.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

It’s part of the seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John where Jesus gives a sly clue to his deepest identity.

Those who believe are the branches. He’s the vine. His Father is the vinegrower who trims and tends the branches so that they bear more fruit by abiding ever more deeply in Christ (15:1-4).

The fruit is the Spirit’s bright manifestation in our lives (Galatians 5:22; Romans 8:23).

It’s new believers coming to Christ (Colossians 1:6).

It’s good works (Colossians 1:10).

It’s praise to God (Hebrews 13:15).

It’s all that’s “good and right and true” in Christ (Ephesians 5:9).

And none of that fruit is remotely possible, says Jesus, unless we abide in him and he in us.

“Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Abiding in Jesus is a mystical thing. He makes it possible by his grace, and we respond — first in baptism, where we are reborn by the water and the Spirit — and then in coming to his table, where he feeds us the bread that he gives “for the life of the world” (John 3:5; 6:51).

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” says the Lord (John 6:56).

But abiding in Jesus is also something we choose minute by minute, by offering our lives to God through him, by doing everything in his name, by living all of life in and for him (Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:17; Philippians 1:21).

We reconfigure our attention to Christ, and he becomes the source of our life and energy, the foundation of our very being. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
of course, we do all sorts of things apart from him. Especially when we’re anxious or afraid. We do things and things and things, and rarely are they the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42).

In this season of pandemic, presidential election, states burning whole, back-to-school and economic ruckus, we’re all feeling the bite from something. We lie down, and our minds hydroplane across a slick of anxiety.

The cumulative effect of all this stress can be harmful, even traumatic. Fear displaces brains and heart. Stress overwhelms our ability to respond. We risk losing our center.

But becoming decentered and unsettled can also sometimes bear a sideways gift. So much of how events impact us depends on how we experience them, and with whom.

We can discover resiliency built up from a life of prayer and gratefulness. We can take refuge in a loving and supportive community. And sometimes our fears and anxieties can even lead through to heart questions of who we are and who we want to become.

I’ve never experienced life transformation without first going through a period of stress and questioning and second-guessing and unsettling. Closed doors seem to be God’s great catalyst, maybe because they’ve always compelled me to ask, So, now what? There’s nothing like a little anxiety to get the mind whirling.

And here I am again, wondering what it means to pastor — or just to be alive — through this all when so many of our plans have gone up in smoke. Who am I called to be in this place and time?

One thing I keep discovering is this: By reconfiguring my attention to Jesus, I begin to better receive life in all its sometimes anxious givenness. Life’s decentering opens the possibility of getting recentered in him.

And that, it seems to me, is itself a kind of fruit.

Brad Roth

Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Mound­ridge, Kan. Read More

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