I’d actually heard this before, but to be honest with you I wasn’t sure I believed it; so I looked it up for myself, and sure enough: there are well over 300 words in the dictionary that begin with the hyphenated word “self.”
It’s true (and I counted, I want you to know)! The word “self” has a definition on its own, of course; it relates to one’s “complete individuality,” “separate identity,” and “personal interest.” And as you look at the long list of words that follow, it becomes apparent that most anything you can name can easily apply. There’s “self-assurance,” and “self-determination;” also “self-control,” “self-improvement,” and “self-defense.” You can be “self-made,” “self-starting,” “self-employed,” “self-sufficient” and “self-disciplined;” but you can also be “self-serving,” “self-seeking,” “self-indulgent” and “self-righteous,” but that’s apt to lead you on a path of “self-pity” and “self-destruction,” in which case you’ll stand in the need of “self-help” in order to regain your “self-respect!”
I must confess I could have gone on all day like that! But, in all seriousness, I also have to tell you that as I skimmed through those pages in the dictionary, the thought occurred to me that this all represents a fairly clear reflection of a culture that has become – okay, I’ll say it – all-too… self-absorbed! It is true that just about every single day in ways both subtle and direct we are bombarded with the message that who and what we are is determined by what we make of ourselves: that the ways we help ourselves, heal ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and ultimately seek to be ourselves will determine the direction and mastery of our own fate. This idea that taking control your own life – to do it by yourself and to do it for yourself – is what’s going to make all the difference in your life; it’s the strong message of the world today…
…and it’s a lie.
Now, don’t misunderstand me; I’m in no way denigrating the need for self-exploration or the quest for greater self-understanding, because I think that’s not only laudable but also essential in today’s world. I simply find fault with the contention that each of us is somehow autonomous and stands apart from the rest of the world; that everything we are and can ever hope to be comes about solely by our own effort, and that this alone determines our fate.
And that’s because in truth, friends, I find very little in my life that hasn’t been, at least in part, influenced, nurtured or challenged by something or someone else: my parents, for instance; you know, I’m 55 years old, which I suppose makes me pretty close to a grown-up (!), I have a life and a family of my own, but believe me when I tell you that there are places back in Maine where I am still primarily known as “Keith and Sylvia’s boy!” And that’s OK – kind of neat, in fact (!) – because that’s one of my strongest connections! Likewise, the very fact that I grew up in a small town in northern Maine influences who I am and my world-view. My wife Lisa, who I love, and my three incredible (and pretty much grown) children: they also make me, in large part, who I am; as does what I do for work as a church pastor, and as a servant of the Lord.
The point is that I don’t stand alone – none of us do – in fact, to quote the title of an admittedly obscure Beach Boy song of the late 60’s, “you need a mess of help to stand alone.” Ultimately, you need connections in order to live with any kind of fullness: you need to be well-connected with family (in whatever form that takes!), with friends of every variety, with your environment, with all the many blessings of life and living. You need all of these, and more; but above all you need a connection with God.
It sounds so simple on the face of it, but make no mistake: this is radical, counter-cultural thinking, and in fact, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, who says to you and me, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from you can do nothing.” Larry Benning makes the point that “every one of us in this culture is under pressure to be our own creator, our own source of life… our own god. But then along comes Jesus who says to us, ‘Uh-uh! You are not the source of your own life, your own healing, and your own worth. You are not your own creator no matter how much time [and how much energy] you spend on [it]… I am the Vine. I am your source of life; you are the branches who need the vine to live,” and without me, you will most certainly wither and die.
It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that! In Jesus Christ, you see, we have a unique and personal relationship from which everything else that we need in our lives proceeds – our life, our health, our food, our relationships, our forgiveness, our hope for today and for eternity – but without that relationship, ultimately we have nothing. No matter how hard we work at it personally, no matter how many other straws we grasp at in trying to make it happen on our own, true life cannot grow and flourish in the same way that it does in that close relationship with Christ.
It’s no accident that Jesus chose the analogy of the vine and its branches to explain this to his disciples and to us; it’s the simple truth that though a grape vine will grow easily to the point where it will take off wildly in almost every direction, it’s only when that branch is securely connected to the stem of the vine that it’ll flourish (or, to put it in biblical language, it’s only the branch that “abides” in the vine that bears much fruit). Without that connection there’s nothing; even if something does end up growing, the grapes that result are inevitably tiny and withered and bitter. Moreover, such “unabiding” branches have a way of negatively affecting the whole harvest; and that’s why vine growers are diligent about constantly pruning all these useless branches, so that the ones abiding in the vine will produce fruit that’s abundant and of high quality.
Well, likewise in a strong, “abiding” relationship with Christ, we are given what we need to thrive and grow and bear the fruit of a faithful life: things like generosity, kindness, humility, the capacity to love others as we are loved, the desire to do the things that make for justice and peace, and to have, dare I say it, self-control in all things! The trouble is that for most of us there is just so much useless foliage in our lives that literally sucks away the nourishment and strength and beauty of our lives in Christ; and these are things like anger and hatred and greed; old regrets and even older misunderstandings, misguided ideas and (here I go again!) a tendency toward “self-ishness.” And what Jesus makes very clear in this passage is that these are precisely the kind the things that lead the vine grower (that is, God) to start pruning: “Whoever does not abide in me,” he says, “is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” A harsh thought, to be sure, and pretty judgmental; but it underscores the need for you and me to truly “abide” in Christ in and through every part of our lives.
Actually, you know, the very word “abide” is an interesting one: it’s an old-fashioned word that technically means to remain with something or someone; but we don’t talk about “abiding in a hotel overnight,” or that Alex Preston, our favorite “American Idol” from New Hampshire will continue to “abide” after this week’s nationwide vote! No, “to abide” has more to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with something no matter what, and that’s a rare thing indeed. We live in a world where things quickly change, contracts are easily broken, and people regularly move on from situation to situation; but in Christ, we are given a relationship that abides: he in us, and us in him.
Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with him is not about beliefs, first principles or philosophical propositions; it is to abide in him: to live in him, cling to him and be a part of him. William Willimon writes that in the end, faith in Jesus “is a simple willingness to stumble along behind Jesus, a willingness to be behind him. The faith is in the following.” And if we do; if we abide in him, stay with him, follow him through all and in all, then we are going to grow and flourish; our lives and our living will be like fruit fresh on the vine, glorifying God and giving us a sense of beauty, purpose and joy in everything we know and do.
One of the truly moving aspects of our daughter Sarah’s graduation at Hope College in Michigan last weekend was how in at least one respect it closely mirrored the experience of their opening convocation four years ago when she and her classmates started as freshmen. Lisa and I were there on that orientation weekend back in 2010 – because, trust me, we needed as much orientation as they did (!) – and the most memorable and remarkable part of that event was how the entire faculty of Hope College came into that convocation and literally encircled the whole freshman class, symbolizing how they would be surrounding these students with their nurture, and wisdom and love over the next four years. And now it was happening again: as these now graduating seniors were walking to the baccalaureate service at the chapel, and later on into the commencement itself, the faculty created a pathway for the students; and they clapped and cheered and high-fived them all as they walked through, all 900 of ‘em!
It was a pretty impressive thing to see, I must say; and at least from this Dad’s point of view, just as emotional an experience as it was four years ago! It’s the same reason that Hope College doesn’t do “honor parts,” or choose to have some of the students wear “honor cords” at the ceremony; not that there’s anything wrong with that, and not that the students aren’t recognized for that kind of academic excellence. It’s just that where the graduation ceremony is concerned their philosophy is that these young adults began this journey together and they’ve reached their goal in the same way: together, ever and always linked to one another and most especially anchored in the love and HOPE of Jesus Christ.
Granted, I was pretty filled up with parental pride at that point, but I have to tell you that I came away thinking that to be a pretty good parable for the kingdom of God! It’s the good news of the gospel for this day and every day: that whatever other endeavor or discipline we employ to find meaning for our lives, in the end what will truly give us true “self-fulfillment” is going to be that good and abiding connection we have with our Lord Jesus Christ! What a thing to think of our Lord as the one who walks with us on every step of the journey; who applauds our achievements, who slows us down when we veer off track and joyfully “high-fives” us with every new day! That is, after a fashion, exactly who our Lord is; truly, ours is the Lord of Life, you see, the whole of life; he is the one who will walk with us every step of the journey, enveloping us with love and unending hope; and when we come to the place of finally bearing fruit – just as we were created and nurtured to do – he will rejoice with us in the incredible harvest of our very lives!
We are truly “well-connected,” both with Christ, but also with one another – so what is true for us as individuals is also true for us as the whole church of Jesus Christ! So let us continue to grow and flourish as are meant to do: because no matter where we are in life’s cycle of seedtime and harvest, there’s plenty of fruit to be borne – plenty of ways for Christ’s joy to be in us, so that joy might be full.
Something to think about as we work on our own personal “vineyards,” beloved…
…and as we do, let our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry