Where is your identity found?

We live in strange and awful times.

Wars abroad, divisions at home, a global pandemic in its second year, and more vitriol spewed on social media than pictures of kittens and bad puns combined. People are quick to speak, slow to listen, and adept at jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information.

And that’s just in the Church.

Why are we in such a hurry to defend ourselves and our positions about every social issue within the context of the Body of Christ? Why do we argue over vaccines and masks? Why do we separate ourselves into political camps? Why do we categorize our brothers and sisters as “other” based on how they look, think, or act?

And why do we usually do that behind a screen instead of engaging in conversations and dialogue designed to promote understanding and unity?

I contend that one reason we divide comes in how we perceive our own identities.

Who are you? Our current culture says that our individual identities are found in intersections of oppressions or oppressings. According to the rules of societal engagement, you are either oppressor or oppressed. Oppressors must rid themselves of every hint of historical wrongdoing; the oppressed must rise up and ensure the oppressors are re-educated and replaced. The issue with this worldview is that it ignores the fact that we are all sinners, desperately broken, and in need of redemption. There is no doubt that there is a historical record of wrongs done by one group of people to another group; the practice is the natural state of humankind and continues all over the world to this day. No revolution, no education, no secular state has been able to overcome the desire for power that is inherent in the prideful heart of people. Nor is it possible for that to be accomplished in the human dimension. Humans will ALWAYS default to us versus them. Utopia is a myth.

Reality is that the human condition is irreparably damaged by sin. Every person who has ever lived is broken. Our identity is not found in intersections, nor is it found in groups. Intersections of oppression create an illusion intended to cover personal sin. Groups serve only to divide into us and them. But there is hope in a new identity that restores broken people. Paul observed, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believed in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 ESV). Paul was both oppressed as a Jew, even though he was a citizen of Rome, and oppressor as a well-educated Pharisee who persecuted followers of Jesus. Paul, then, might represent each of us, regardless of how society has labeled us. Paul rejected the labels of his culture and embraced the mercy of Jesus.

When we embrace the mercy of Jesus, we are adopted as the children of God. No matter what this broken culture says, we can throw off the politics of identity by claiming the inheritance that begins with forgiveness and continues with the riches of God’s grace, poured over us with all wisdom and understanding according to His good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5-6). We are Christ’s, sons and daughters of the Most High, justified by faith alone. As sons and daughters, we are also brothers and sisters, members of one family. Each of us has put on Christ, and in doing so, we have entered into a new identity, one where “there is neither slave nor free” we are ONE in Jesus (Galatians 3:23-29; Colossians 3:11).

If, then, we are one in Jesus, how can we continue to participate in arguments over things of this earth? This world is not our home; we have an eternal promise, a citizenship in heaven. Any glory of this world is the worst kind of dust compared to the kingdom that is to come (Philippians 3:8). Instead of turning against each other, quibbling over things that are meaningless in the scope of eternity, let us look ahead, together, standing side by side as we work out our salvation, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-20; John 14:1-6). We are a family, not competitors in a cultural debate over which group is “right.” We need to imitate our Father, not the current culture. As a family, we put on love above everything else, because love unites us (Colossians 3: 14).

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Colossians 3:15

The gift of rest

Resting is hard for many of us, especially those of us who grew up in a community where work was prized above almost anything else. Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise…” Productivity, even in ministry, becomes an idol, but it is an acceptable one. We take pride in how much we accomplish and we hold up our calendars as trophies of superiority.

The pandemic that rocked 2020 should have been a reset of rest and work in balance, and for many people the reset was real. For others of us, however, resting led to guilt over falling behind on plans and goals and work, so when restrictions were lifted, we jumped in doing double time to compensate for the jigsaw puzzles, movies, and books that kept us entertained for a year.

I know the feeling because that’s what I’ve done for the last few months.

When “wait” became my word for 2021, I should have know this season would be one of forced rest. God know that my temperament is one that seeks after accomplishment, so He ensured that this year, I would not be able to show a list of doing. Instead, He gave me opportunities to practice being. I haven’t been entirely cooperative, if I am perfectly honest. I looked for jobs in my field for months. When none materialized, I started up several side projects and looked for part-time work somewhere doing anything. I found that my resume made me look overqualified for pretty much everything, so I didn’t get call backs for entry level jobs. When I finally settled down to examine why, it was like the Lord told me to wait–and write; He would provide.

God designed a day for resting and worshipping because we (I) need it.

I started this blog with the intention of writing a book about the need for grace in the church. I still believe I need to write that book. This season of waiting and being seems to be designed for following through. It is also a reminder that Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). God designed a day for resting and worshipping because we (I) need it.

So now, I enter that rest with a little trepidation, but certain that the Father will supply my needs. I will fill my mind with His word. I will learn and write about grace. I will keep my calendar flexible, knowing that God will put me where He wants me too be while keeping me free to do the work He has called me to do. In time, not all at once. Day by day, practicing the gift of rest.

For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works”…So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:1-11).

How to please the Lord 101

How to please the Lord 101: Love God, love people. There is nothing complicated about what God wants his children to do. He says it over and over in every book of the Bible. Jesus himself summed up the commandments in two sentences: Love the Lord your God will your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).

What does it look like to love the Lord with everything you have? It looks like loving others. It looks like true judgments, showing kindness, and offering mercy. Zechariah says it in chapter 7, verse 9. Micah says it in chapter 6 verse 8. Paul wrote in Romans 12 that believers should outdo one another in showing honor, and how else do we do that but by true judgement, kindness, and mercy?

To the Galatians, Paul wrote “through love serve one another.” To the Ephesians he instructed believers to bear with one another. To the Thessalonians he admonished the fellowship to increase and abound in love for one another because that is what they had been taught.

The author of Hebrews and Peter and John all emphasized the importance of loving one another the same way that the Father loves us.

James wrote that faith without works is dead. It might be equally said that loving God without loving others is הֶבֶל (hebel), a vapor, nonsense, or foolishness, what King Solomon called “Vanity of vanities.” Love for God isn’t real unless it is demonstrated by loving one another through justice, kindness, mercy, and humility.

Love isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy, either. We are human. We have annoying habits. We have strongly held differences of opinion. We interpret Scripture differently. Our experiences vary, our cultures conflict, and our expectations of how things should be often sit in opposition. In the US, the differences between us have been amplified in 2020 and 2021 by a pandemic (and how people should respond to it), racial strife (and how government should mitigate it), and disasters, both nature and human-caused. Human nature lashes out and social media makes it convenient to insist on being right instead of being unified. We must carefully consider not only what we say, but how we say it. Love is quick to listen. Love pursues goodness and truth. Love judges the self truly so that each one might be humble. In humility we act out our love for God by showing kindness and mercy to our brothers and sisters, just as the Lord commanded.

But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

If God demonstrated His love for us by sending His only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, how much more ought we demonstrate our love for God by loving one another in right judgements, showing mercy, and being kind?

Romans 6:8

It has been a rough few weeks. My father, who lived a multitude of lives in his 81 years, passed away on July 29. I took a last minute trip to my hometown earlier in the month when he was hospitalized and not expected to walk out of the facility. True to my dad’s stubborn nature, he did walk out, but only to travel to a place he loves where my step-brother had set up hospice. My dad said for years that he would never die in my hometown. He made that happen.

It’s a long and complicated story (aren’t most family stories complicated?), and I may tell the whole of it later. For now, it is enough to know that, as hard as it was to see my once proud father frail and weak, I am sure that his destination is a heavenly one.

It is confidence in God’s Word that gives me the ability to grieve without despair. My father was a flawed man. He had a tremendous heart and a temper to match. He was generous to a fault, but not wise with his finances, something that overburdened his children in the last decade of his life. He had an infectious laugh that lit up the bars where he spent too much time over his life. He, like all of us, was a product of a fallen world, doing the best he could with the resources he had.

But he had faith. He knew Jesus was his hope for eternity. In his last years he eschewed all reading material except the Bible. When he came to visit me in the fall of 2019, when I was teaching in Las Vegas, he had a small backpack that included a couple changes of clothes, toiletries, and his Bible. He liked reading the prophecies, from Isaiah to Revelation, and he would debate the meanings of the signs with anyone. At the same time, he trusted John’s affirmation that those who remain in the Son and in the Father would have eternal life (John 3:16; 1 John 1:24-27); there was no debating that. Remaining in Jesus means that, when this life is over, we will live with him.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that God’s grace extends to everyone who calls on His name for salvation. The sting of death is sin, but the victory over death is through Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). My dad, even as flawed as he was, inherited the imperishable on July 29 at 2:22 p.m. because God raised Jesus from the dead and released the gift of eternal life to anyone who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:19-26).

For this reason, death has no victory and I do not grieve without hope (1 Thessalonians 4). I will miss my dad, for sure. His gregarious spirit, his laugh, and our frequent conversations will be bittersweet in my memory: sweet because I got to enjoy him for all of my 56 years and bitter because there won’t be any new experiences with him. But because both he and I trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, I am confident that we will be with the Lord forever. And that is an encouraging thing.

January 24, 1987
November 7, 2019

Henry (Hank) Thomas Tuey. September 10, 1939- July 29, 2021

Taste and see: Part five

The Lord is good

John 15:1-8; Psalm 34:8; 1 John 4:7-17; Galatians 5:22-23

The late 1960s were tumultuous times in the US. Not unlike today, there were protests and riots over political statements, racism, sexuality, and the role of the Church in society. In that chaos, Peter Scholtes penned the words to “They’ll know we are Christians,” based on his reading of John 11:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Just in case you need a reminder of the lyrics:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord -  We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand - We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand
And together we'll spread the news that God is in our land.
We will work with each other; we will work side by side - We will work with each other; we will work side by side
And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride.
All praise to the Father from whom all things come and all praise to Christ Jesus, His only Son
And all praise to the Spirit who makes us one.
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
And they'll know we are Christians by our love.

For King and Country has a lovely arrangement here.

And it’s true, we should be known by our love for one another. Jesus was clear that all the Law and the Prophets rest on two things: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39.) Love is the foundation upon which we build community, minister to the needy, embrace the hurting, and seek after the lost. Love is the first result of our abiding in the True Vine.

Just as grapes are the basis for all the essential elements of wine, so too, love is the basis for all the characteristics of the Fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5 lists the essential elements: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Yes, we are known by our love, but get to know us individually, and our love consists of multiple nuances of grace.

See

The first step in wine tasting is to really look at the wine from all angles. Hold it up to the light. Tilt the glass and look for evidence of boldness and age. Good wine should be clear and brilliant, allowing the light to pass through unhindered by sediment or chemical imbalances.

Spiritually speaking, people should see the ways in which we love one another by how we manifest joy and peace in trying times. How do we respond to others who may offend us: is it with patience and kindness? How do we demonstrate goodness and gentleness to the hurting among us? When non-believers look at us does the light of Jesus shine through?

Swirl

Swirling the glass allows the wine to be agitated. A dense full-bodied wine will leave “legs” running the sides of the glass, whereas a light wine will not. Agitation reveals the believer’s depth as well. We grow more through trials than any other time when we rely on our faith. Jesus said that love is fully demonstrated when we are willing to lay down our lives for each other. He was clear that the world would hate believers because it hated Him (John 15:18). Suffering is part of living in a broken world, but Paul wrote to the Romans that this present suffering is nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed when Jesus returns.

Sniff

There are thousands of fragrance combinations in wine. Some, like mustiness or vinegar, indicate that the wine has gone bad. Other aromas indicate the flavors present in the wine and are often linked to terrain, temperature, and other elements of where the grapes were grown, how they were harvested, and how the wine was produced. Floral, herbaceous, and earthy notes recall the growing terroir, while fragrances of smoke, vanilla, chocolate, or coffee are likely from the barrels in which the wine was aged. Gregutt wrote, “The best wine aromas are complex but also balances, specific but also harmonious.”

While it’s never a good idea to go around sniffing other people, there is a pleasing aroma in the air when a Bible-believing, Spirit-filled, Jesus follower is in the room. Christ in us spreads the fragrance of grace and the aroma of knowing Him personally everywhere we go (2 Corinthians 2:14-15).

Sip

In the wine-tasting world the sip is the final arbiter of whether a wine is good or spectacular or somewhere in between. An excellent wine is “balanced, harmonious, complex, evolved, and complete” (Gregutt, 2015). Balanced wine means sweetness and sourness work in tandem to create a pleasing flavor. No one flavor should dominate a harmonious wine, and the taste should change even before you swallow, revealing depth and complexity. A truly complete wine leaves the taster satisfied.

In the sermon that inspired this series, Rainey talked about the complex character of the believer: a burst of love, followed by notes of joy and kindness, ending with an essence of goodness. Each of us is made up of all the elements of the Fruit of the Spirit in different proportions, and how we present ourselves in and to the world can either draw people to Jesus or turn people away from His Church. When we abide in Jesus, the fruit we develop becomes our witness to the world as it holds us up to the light. When we let the Light shine through us, we express a desire for everyone to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Good, Gold, or Best in Show

The largest wine competition is the Decanter World Wine Awards. The 170 wine judges tasted more than 18,000 wines over a course of about two weeks. Only Gold metal winners move on to the next tasting, where they may move to platinum. Platinum wines then move up for a final tasting to determine Best in Show. Most wines don’t even make it to the competition, and many of those wines are pretty good. But good is not great. And great doesn’t mean golden. And only one is Best.

There are good people in the world who do pretty good things, but they are still lost. There are good people in the world who do great things, but without Jesus, they are still bound by sin. Doing good and even great things is not enough to meet the demands of a Law that requires perfection. Romans 3:23 is blunt, “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Our attempts at home-made wine will never measure up to Best in Show, no matter how closely we follow the YouTube directions or how much money we spend on grapes. The only measure of Best in Show is Jesus, and we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25). Good people doing good or great things will still stand before the Holy One to make an account for their lives. Every flaw will be exposed. Every false flavor and impure aroma will be revealed. No one will be justified by works apart from faith.

It is for the sake of even those who do good or even golden things that we must continue to live out the Fruit of the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit, proclaiming peace by the blood of Christ, unified as one body with grace from above. When we who follow Jesus live out his command to love God and love others, we proclaim to the world:

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together!

 I sought the Lord, and he answered me
    and delivered me from all my fears.
 Those who look to him are radiant,
    and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
    and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.

 Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
    Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

Psalm 34:1-8

References

(2021, June 11). What am I tasting? Wine Spectator.

Gregutt, P. (2015) How to taste wine. Wine Enthusiast.

Hymnary.org (n.d.) Peter Scholtes.

Mason, O. (2021, June 25). Photo highlights: Decanter World Wine Awards 2021 judging weeks. Decanter.

Images

Collage elements from Digidesign Resort and my own design library

Taste and see: Part four

Tasting: The perfection of the fruit

John 15:1-8; Galatians 5:22; 1 John 4:7-17

Taste

Just a few days ago, Wine Spectator posted a “wine IQ” blind tasting game on their website. It posted a sommelier’s tasting notes and asked players to identify the variety, country/region of origin/appellation, and age based solely on the notes.

Tasting Note: Fresh and juicy, with good cut to the red currant and dried berry flavors that feature bright minerality. Ends with a creamy, well-spiced finish, with notes of dried green herbs.

Wine Spectator, June 11, 2021

Would you believe I got 3 of the four correct? And I almost selected Sierra Foothills instead of Sonoma County. The other correct answers: It is a California Merlot, 3-5 years old. But how was I able to identify any of the elements correctly? Let me explain.

The descriptors of “fresh and juicy” and “red currant and dried berries” told me it was a lighter wine. The options were Carignan, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel. I’ve never heard of a Tempranillo, but I do know that Syrah is usually pretty “big,” with strong flavors, not “fresh and juicy.” Zinfandel is usually kind of peppery. Carignan is not very common, so that left Merlot, a variety I happen to like now and then. It’s not too sweet, not too heavy, and pairs well with lots of meals.

California produces Merlot wines all over the state, so I opted for that instead of choosing from Australia, France, Spain, or Washington. I may be wrong, but I associate Australia with bolder flavors, Spain with bigger wines, and Washington State with lighter, sweeter wines like Pinot Noir. There were only two appellations in California among the options, and I chose the wrong one. In retrospect, I should have gone with my gut because of the “notes of dried green herbs.” As for the age of the wine, “fresh” is usually attributed to younger wines, so that gave me 1-2 years or 3-5 years. Straight up guessed that one.

Fruit

Because wine is a product from grapes, it should always have some kind of fruit in the description. If the fruit is missing, you no longer have wine; you have vinegar. The Wine Spectator game is a regular feature. Some of the other descriptions include things like “cranberry core,” “apple and pear,” and “lemongrass, passion fruit, and Key lime.” Those essences of fruit are directly related to everything that has preceded the first taste, from the choice of terrain for the vineyard, the weather, the time of harvest, the processing, the aging, the bottling, and the storing. Every decision made by the wine-maker is captured in that first moment of release. As Jesus-followers, our fruit is revealed in first impressions as well. Jesus said that we can bear much fruit when we abide in Him. He prunes and nourishes us, and when we acquiesce to His work in us, the Holy Spirit infuses us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

As with wine, the fruit of the Spirit is complex, and even though the elements are the same, the way in which the essences manifest varies from believer to believer. Some people exude joy, while others are models of self-control. It is not that every Jesus follower is the same, but that the Spirit infuses each one with a unique combination of elements represented in that one Fruit of the Spirit. Above all, though, love must dominate. It is the first note, and the one on which all the others are measured.

See and Swirl

Sommeliers are professional wine stewards who spend years perfecting their senses of smell and taste so they can identify wines that will pair well with food. Only 269 people in the world have earned the title of Master Sommelier; the three part exam has been called the most difficult in the world because it requires demonstration of technique, palate, and theory across three days.

Of course, it is possible for the non-sommelier to have an educated opinion about a wine, especially if conditions of tasting are good: not too hot, not too cold, proper glass, and no outside odors (somehow even creating that list feels more than a little pretentious, but bear with me for now.)

The first evaluation is by sight. What colors are in the wine? Red is a color, yes, but it doesn’t actually say much. Look deeper. Is it a deep blue-purple red with gold tones as you hold it to the light? Is it more filled with shades of pink or bright ruby? Or, if you happen to be looking at a white wine, is is more translucent yellow or deep gold? The color will give you an idea of what to expect from the tasting; the richer the color, the bolder the flavor.

What do people see when they look at you? Do they see your joy? Your peace? Maybe your kindness? The color of your love is visible when you abide in Jesus. You present yourself as a reflection of God’s goodness with your countenance. Moses reflected the glory of God so brightly that he had to wear a veil when he came down from the mountain (Exodus 24:35).

Swirling a taste of wine begins to release the fragrance of aromatic compounds. Scientifically, swirling adds oxygen to the wine, allowing it to “open up” to its fullest flavor. Spiritually speaking, that is an interesting concept. When wine is bottled and corked, it is stable, and maybe beautiful, but only by open agitation does it begin to reveal its true character. We may want to live in a world where we blithely skip from rainbows to glitter, but the reality is, our character is revealed most when things around us spin. Trouble and trial bring to the front who we are at the core. Paul wrote,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subject to futility–not willingly, but because of him who subjected it–in the hope that the creation will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

Romans 8:18-21

When we are swirled in the glass of suffering, we “open up” to share the essence of the Fruit of the Spirit within us, not for our own good, but for the glory of God the Father! All the notes of joy and peace and patience–all the way to self-control are released so that others may sense the overwhelming love of Jesus in us and through us.

Coming next, part five: The first taste

References

(2021, June 11). What am I tasting? Wine Spectator.

Gregutt, P. (2015) How to taste wine. Wine Enthusiast.

Shade of a wine (n.d.). Sommeliers Choice Awards. Beverage Trade Network

Vinepair staff (n.d.). How and why you swirl wine in your glass. Vinepair.

Image credits

Central photo by Stephanie Loomis

Grapes and Bottles images by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Magazine template by Photobacks

Taste and see: Part three

The wine

John 15:1-8; Psalm 34:8; Galatians 5:22; 1 John 4:7-17 ; Hosea 9:3-5; Exodus 29:40; Romans 11:11-24

A quick recap

The focus of John 15 is the role of the vine to the branches, and thereby to the fruit. The vine grows from the rootstock and is vital to the life of the plant. The vine connects the root to the branches and it is through the fruit-bearing branches that the vitality of the root and vine are revealed. The root and vine do not need the branches to live, but the branches are quick to die without the sustenance provided by the root through the vine. Additionally, branches from one varietal may be grafted onto a stronger vine and rootstock to avoid disease and strengthen the health of the vineyard.

A good winemaker knows which branches will bear good fruit, and the lesser branches are cut away and destroyed. Remaining branches are trained and tied so that the fruit has every opportunity to develop depth of flavor. There are times when good fruit is cut away to promote production of the best fruit. Every cut is for the benefit of the vineyard and the quality of the wine it will produce.

As the branches grow heavy with grapes, the time for harvest and the winemaking process begins.

Transformation

Making wine is both science and art, with multiple steps and decisions that will affect the quality and flavor of the wine produced. An excellent breakdown of the process is here. From harvest to fermentation to bottle is a labor of love for the winemaker, whose primary goal is not necessarily to make money (there are far more predictable ways to do that), but rather to “bring pleasure to those who drink it” (Anson, 2018).

The transformation beings at the harvest. When and how to harvest are decisions made partly by science (wind, temperature, weather events) and partly by instinct. Mechanical harvesting is quicker, but hand harvesting allows the grower to be selective. Grapes are then sorted and unwanted elements (damaged grapes, insects, leaves, etc.) removed before destemming and crushing. Again, crushing can be mechanical or done by human feet. The first crush produces the highest quality juice and subsequent crushing and pressing separates all the liquid from the solids.

Crushed and pressed

No winemaker can expect the finest wine to come from grapes that are improperly planted, growth, nurtured, harvested, and pressed. Similarly, we who are believers must not expect our faith to be mature and our obedience to the Lord to be perfected without His nurture and His pressing. Good fruit comes from meticulous care. Good wine comes with a change from one form (grapes) to another (juice). Grapes left on pruned branches rot and decay; they are not changed, but rather are rendered useless. In the metaphorical sense, believers are pressed like the grapes, not to destroy us, but rather to extract from our lives the best part of what the Father has called us to be and to do. Paul wrote,

“Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing through us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Suffering often feels like destruction to us because we have finite minds. We make decisions based on what we see, but the winemaker makes decisions based on what he knows will be. God allows us to be pressed and squeezed and drained, not to harm us, but that His perfect will might be revealed through us. The best wine is impossible without the crushing of the grapes.

Fermented, changed, and waiting

Image by RonalddeBruijn from Pixabay

Crushing and pressing are active processes, but good wine also requires waiting. Fermentation takes time as the natural sugars are converted to alcohols with a number of antioxidants, digestive enzymes, and probiotics. Fermentation takes the juice pressed from the fruit and changes its chemistry. Wine is not the same as juice, even though both come from the same fruit. Juice is full of sugar, calories, and is highly perishable. There are arguments about the virtues of wine, but it is the most common drink mentioned in the Bible, and the Lord chose wine for a drink offering as far back as Exodus 29. Jesus, Himself, used wine as a metaphor for the blood he would shed on the cross (Luke 22:14-20.) If the metaphor is good enough for the Savior, it is sufficient for illustration of how God uses the liminal spaces of our lives to change His children.

Waiting is hard. Change is hard. Suffering is hard. But Paul reminds us that the promise of what is to be and what is to come is worth the trials of life. In fact, God requires us to persevere through difficulties for a number of reasons: to develop character, to trust His plan, and ultimately to be part of His glory revealed. This life, with all its challenges and hardships conforms us to the image of Jesus. Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed in us”(Romans 8:18). And James wrote that we are to “count it all joy” when faced with trials because the tests make us steadfast (shelf-stable) and complete (James 1:2-4).

Once wine is fermented, it is traditionally placed in oak barrels to evolve and develop complex and balanced flavor. The wood infuses the wine with flavor, aroma, and texture over time. Both the size and age of the barrels affect the wine, and the length of time in the barrel depends on the taste the winemaker wants to achieve. A small barrel will produce a flavor extraction faster than a large barrel, but a large barrel will afford a larger quantity of a consistent flavor over time. Time in contact with the wood is critical to fully develop the character of the wine.

Similarly, time in contact with the Word of God develops Christian character over time. Trials and suffering speed to process by bringing believers face to face with their inability to rescue themselves from their nature and stripping away anything that interferes with their relationship to God. But there are times, too, where growth doesn’t require hardship. There are times when God allows His children time to rest in His arms, to dwell in His Word, and to simply go about the work He provides. Not every moment of life is dramatic. There are more days we might consider mundane than any other kind of day. But God speaks to us in the ordinary when we are faithfully in the Word, working out our daily tasks, however unremarkable we might think they are. In waiting, we are transforming. Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “I do know that waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it…” (2002). Like the wine in the barrels, we are transformed in the quiet times as we absorb the nature of what (or Who) holds and contains us.

Coming next: bottling, pouring, and tasting.

References

Images, unless otherwise noted, are public domain

Anson, J. (2018). Anson: What drives people to make wine? Decanter. https://www.decanter.com/magazine/anson-why-make-wine-392180/

Caperso, A. ( n.d.) The wine-making process in 15 steps-part 1. Wine and other stories [Blog]. https://wineandotherstories.com/the-winemaking-process-in-15-steps-part-1-infographic/

Elliot, E. (2002). Passion and purity: Learning to bring your love life under Christ’s control. Revell.

Evans, T. (2019) Tony Evans Bible Commentary. Holman Bible Publishers.

ESV Reformation Study Bible (2015) R.C. Sproul (Ed.). Ligonier Ministries.

Hanson, D.K. (2021). Wine vs grape juice: Which is better for health and long life? Alcohol problems and solutions [blog] https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/wine-vs-grape-juice-which-is-better-for-health/

MasterClass Staff (2020). What is fermentation? Learn about the three different types of fermentation and six tips for homemade fermentation. MasterClass [blog]. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-fermentation-learn-about-the-3-different-types-of-fermentation-and-6-tips-for-homemade-fermentation#what-is-fermentation.

New Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. NRSV (2019). J.H. Walton and C.S. Keener (Eds.) Zondervan.

Redhead Blogger (n.d.) How to age wine in oak barrels. Red head Barrels [blog]. https://redheadoakbarrels.com/how-to-age-wine-in-oak-barrels/.

Taste and see: Part two

Berries, Vérasion, and Harvest

John 15:1-8; Psalm 1

“Every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes that it may bear more fruit.”

Pruning does more than shape a grapevine. Pruning also directs the future growth and direction of the plant, and affect how well the vine produces.

In viticulture, pruning is an ongoing process. The dormant season is marked by constant training and trimming so that the branches are ready to bear the full weight of the fruit to come. In spring, when the branches bud, wine growers have to determine which buds to keep and which to discard.

vine-lifecycle-spring-flowering
Wine Folly images

As abiders in the True Vine, God also uses our dormant times to do major work in us. The times in between ministries or events may be traumatic, which engenders strong but slow growth, or they may be restful, allowing us to store up energy for whatever comes next. During those times, the Lord may see fit to remove some things that we view as generally positive. During the pandemic of 2020-21, physical church attendance was stripped from every believer. But we are called to be in fellowship with one another, so going to church is a good thing, right?

Why would God separate His children from each other? Why would He allow churches to be closed down, not for a just a few weeks, but for a full year?

Not being a prophet, I cannot say for certain, but I do believe that the pandemic provided an opportunity for Christians to take a step back and evaluate their reasons for going to church on Sundays and weekdays and holidays. I think the Church, particularly in the US, had become complacent, and in many cases, just another thing to do. The pandemic was, for the Church, a pruning away of all the non-essentials, even of good things like choirs and children’s activities, so that the permanent trunk, growing directly from the root could strengthen. For individuals, the loss of activities cut away at things and actions that become works-based faith, and offered time (plenty of time) to grow deeper as branches into the True Vine.

vine-lifecycle-summer-berry-growth

The pruning process continues throughout the growth cycle of the vine. The fruit sets, first as clusters of tiny green spheres and then into bunches that we recognize. During vérasion, the grapes (which are technically berries) begin to turn from green to yellow, blush, and every shade of red to indigo. During this time, viticulturalists continue to thin the vines to allow the perfect amount of sun to reach the fruit and to reduce the bunches so that the remaining fruit has the best opportunity to develop flavor.

Our Christian lives are continually shaped with experiences and relationships that stay for a season and then are pruned away. Bad habits, like diseased vines or blemished fruit are also pruned away and discarded. Just because we “lose” something doesn’t mean we aren’t loved by God. It means He has a plan for us to produce the best for His glory. It means that, even though something is good, it may not be best. Pruning eliminates the things that keep us from fully abiding in the vine that is Christ. God is glorified when we acquiesce to His careful cutting away of anything that interferes with what is His best. It is a lifelong process of cutting back the old things, training new growth, and preventing the cares of this world from affecting the fruit we produce.

Photo by Sarah Reith for the Ukiah Daily Journal

As Fall approaches, the vines thicken and become more woody. The grapes become heavy with sugar and the harvest begins. While machine harvesting does exist, many wine grapes are still harvested by hand. There is a short window of opportunity to remove the fruit at its perfect sweetness. When the harvest is complete, the vine drops its leaves in a colorful display, and the process of pruning and training begins again. Recent years, especially in the Western US, fires have consumed vineyards before the harvest was complete, and the remnants of ash and smoke in the soil may affect the flavor of future wines in the region. Other years and in other places, hailstorms battered the fragile fruit. Parasites and blights destroyed whole regions. The life of the vineyard keeper changes with every season, but the goal remains the same: grow the grapes that can become the best wine.

As believers grow older, we too may become a little hardened, a bit set in our ways. We like the familiarity of the songs we sang at Bible camp or the liturgies we recall from holidays long ago. We know what the vines should look like and how the fruit should taste. We have weathered the long seasons of life, and we are ready to sit back and let the younger generations take over the work. But like the vines in the vineyards, the master gardener prunes the branches away, taking the plant to its central base as He prepares us for another season of growth and productivity. We are never too old to produce excellent fruit.

Throughout our lives, the only thing keeping us moving closer to holiness is our graft into the vine of Christ. We can do nothing unless we abide in Him. The branches and buds and fruit that are pruned away are discarded so that He can pour his spirit into and through us. We cannot produce holiness in and of ourselves any more than a cut off vine can produce grapes. We do not bring glory to the Father by perfect church attendance, the volunteer activities we do, or even the things we give up. God trains us in righteousness while we are in Jesus. He is the stable root network and the strength of the trunk that allows the branches to flourish. This is the glory of God, that we remain in Christ and produce much fruit as His disciples.

Coming in part three: The wine

References

Clay, M. H. (n.d.). How does a vineyard actually work? Sonoma Ranches and Vineyard Land.

Day, K. (2020, December 3). The great debate: What is the future of appellations? with Andrew Jefford and Robert Joseph. Wine Scholar Guild.

Fodor’s (2021). Grape growing: The basics. Fodor’s Travel.

McKirdy, T. (2018, April 26). Pruning and grape vine training: The basics of wine grape growing. Wine Frog.

Mercedes, H. (2020, May 15). Discover the lifecycle of a wine grapevine. Wine Folly.

Vaughan, B. (2019, February 1). American Viticultural areas of Sonoma County. Sonoma County Tourism.

Wine Country Staff. (2016, May 16). 101 Basic wine facts for the budding sommelier. Napa Valley.

Taste and see: Part one

The vineyard and the vines

John 15:1-8; Psalm 34:8; Galatians 5:22; 1 John 4:7-17

A recent sermon about Jesus as the true vine included an illustration meant to be humorous (it was), but got me thinking about the process of wine-making. Having lived 12 years in Sonoma County among the wineries, the illustration brought back memories of wine country seasons, the crush, the fairs, and the competitions for the gold ratings. The full sermon from Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, GA is here, but the particular illustration that got my thinking was William Rainey’s poking fun at his habit of making faces when trying new foods and made a connection to the way people look at wine tastings as they discern the notes and flavors in each sniff, swirl, and sip. Having seen a few of those, I knew exactly what he meant and I giggled.

I started thinking, professionals in the wine industry don’t often need a full sniff, swirl, and sip to determine whether a wine is worth drinking. They can identify any issues with a wine and can often identify where the issue began, even as far back as the health of the vine, the soil, the nutrition, and the caretaking of the vineyard.

In the beginning was the appellation. Or appellations. Depending on the kind of wine you want to make, you need to find just the right combination of temperature, humidity, soil, climate and microclimate, space, drainage, and light. I lived in Sonoma County, the home of 18 different American Viticultural Areas (AVA or appellations.) There are 252 AVAs in the US, and thousands worldwide (although the definitions of appellations vary in Europe.) Each appellation is ideal for producing a limited type of wine. The Sonoma County wine country includes hot inland valleys, perfect for Zinfandel, a long lazy river carrying Pacific fog for miles, ideal for Pinot Noir, volcanic ash enriched soil that nurtures Chardonnay, and the Mayacamas Mountain range where higher elevations are home to some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the region. All the conditions for each varietal must be perfect for a vineyard to survive. What makes the wine country of Northern California unique is the number of soils types in the size of the region; there are at least 60 different soils from rocky to clay and each one has attributes that provide the right conditions for a particular kind of wine.

Vineyards are not generally planted as seeds, but as cuttings from established vines grafted onto disease-resistant rootstocks. The vigneron (the person who cultivates grapes for wine ) chooses his cuttings and rootstocks carefully, selecting those elements that are best suited to the appellation in which he is planting his vineyard. When we accept the gift of salvation offered by the Father in Jesus, we are grafted into the central vine from the rootstock of the Almighty (Romans 11:17-24). This is the beginning of our growing in Christ, a literal union with Him as we separate from what we once were and join to Him, sustained and nurtured by the root of the Word.

As the new graft grows, it takes on a woody base; the stronger the base, the healthier the branches that bear the fruit. It might take five years for a grower to develop a satisfactory base by cutting away any growth that might detract from the establishment of a secure network of roots to anchor the plant when it is ready to produce fruit. To the casual observer, it may not look like any kind of growth is happening, but just below the surface of the soil, the roots grow deeper and spread wider, creating a network that will support not just one vine, but the whole vineyard. As believers, we shouldn’t feel rushed to jump headlong into ministry, especially as we are learning who we are in Christ. We might find ourselves in Peter’s predicament when he jumps off the boat to walk on the water. Everything was fine until he looked down and realized he was human, and humans sink. He had to remember to look to Jesus to save him (Matthew 14: 22-31). Not long after, Peter found his faith, his role, and his voice to become the first of the apostles to preach the gospel at Pentecost. By then, his roots were secure, and he was trained in the way.

Training is part of the vine-cultivator’s job. In order for the roots to support the branches well, the branches must be trained so that their weight is balanced. There are many ways to train a grapevine, and the vintner chooses the one that best suits the type of grape, the location, the climate, and his plan for harvesting the fruit when the time comes. The Lord trains us similarly. Each one of us has a role in the Kingdom, and the Father prepares us according to His plan and by our characteristics. He doesn’t force us into a common mold, but rather carefully shifts our inborn traits to function best within His vine. Like grapevines, He may twist us into shapes we don’t expect, but whatever He does is for our good and His glory.

vine-lifecycle-winter-pruning
Wine Folly has the best illustrations and excellent explanations.

Pruning a vine takes years to master. Once a grapevine is established, the canes (branches) must be cut off, even the ones that bore the best fruit. Then the pruner must decide where to leave enough of a bud so that new shoots can form to become next season’s canes.

It is in this dormant time that the vine-grower makes decisions that will affect the entire season ahead. Dormancy is hard for humans. We feel guilty when our branches are bare, and we may be judged by others because they don’t see any visible growth. But God is at work during our dormant times. He is cutting away the things that may interfere with what is yet to come. He prunes away things that will never bear fruit, and He cuts back even the things that we think are good or beneficial. The Father is not planning for good fruit; He is pruning for the best that is possible to come from us.

vine-lifecycle-spring-flowering

Budding begins in early spring, and buds break out all over the new vines. A careful vigneron will continue to prune away any buds and flowers that might hinder growth of the best grapes. The overall yield may be lower, but the quality of what is left behind is better than it might have been if left to grow freely on its own.

Similarly, when we spend time in the Word, we may follow interesting lines of thought or intriguing stories. These ideas are not necessarily bad, in fact, many of them are good and profitable in the right context and time. But if we are studying a specific book or passage or precept, we need to be mindful of wandering like an errant vine tendril until God shows us the connection between our meanderings and His purpose. We also need to be careful to use Scripture to understand Scripture. There are commentaries and sermons and studies that might be helpful, but the Bible and the Holy Spirit are all we actually need to know the Father. Grape flowers are considered perfect because they self-pollinate. The Word of God is actually perfect, as the Psalmist wrote: (Psalm 19).

The law of the Lord is perfect,

    reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure,

    making wise the simple;

 the precepts of the Lord are right,

    rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is pure,

    enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is clean,

    enduring forever;

the rules of the Lord are true,

    and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,

    even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey

    and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19: 7-10

Coming in Part Two: Berries, Vérasion, and Harvest

References

Clay, M. H. (n.d.). How does a vineyard actually work? Sonoma Ranches and Vineyard Land.

Day, K. (2020, December 3). The great debate: What is the future of appellations? with Andrew Jefford and Robert Joseph. Wine Scholar Guild.

Fodor’s (2021). Grape growing: The basics. Fodor’s Travel.

McKirdy, T. (2018, April 26). Pruning and grape vine training: The basics of wine grape growing. Wine Frog.

Mercedes, H. (2020, May 15). Discover the lifecycle of a wine grapevine. Wine Folly.

Vaughan, B. (2019, February 1). American Viticultural areas of Sonoma County. Sonoma County Tourism.