Garden Catalogs

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” — Galatians 5:22-23

             It’s a good thing they start sending out garden catalogs right after New Year’s. Garden catalogs get us through January and February.

At our house, we leave them lying out where we can see them. While snow drifts down outside the window, we page through the rose catalog and imagine the fragrances, the velvety petals — the colors! Blustery winds outside? We pick up the vegetable catalogs, and think about fresh salad ingredients, right from the backyard. Non-stop grey days? We page through catalogs featuring fruit trees and blueberry shrubs, considering whether or not we have room or the right kind of light or soil for them . . . maybe if we took down the raggedy pine tree way in the back . . .

Thinking about those catalogs the other morning, it occurred to me that we could have any of those things – or all of them! – just by phoning in an order, or going online.

And then I thought about that other type of fruit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and how great it would be if we could just phone a 1-555 number and place an order for that fruit, or go online to the www.fruitoftheHolySpirit website and type in exactly what we want.

Can you imagine? Order up some patience, and have it delivered by 4:00 p.m. tomorrow. Ask for a sample of kindness, and have it come by UPS,  or perhaps goodness by overnight delivery.

Of course, real gardens are more than photographs or line drawings in a catalog, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit isn’t something we just order up. A real garden takes work; besides the dreaming and planning, there’s the digging, the planting, the cultivating, the harvesting.

The fruit of the Holy Spirit requires something of us as well: we must be committed to allowing God to work in us. He is the Gardener, dreaming and planning about how to bring out the very best in us, then digging, planting, cultivating, and harvesting the fruit in our lives.

That’s not as easy as dialing 1-555 HSF-RUIT.  Having God dig around, uprooting negative habits and sin from our lives can be uncomfortable to say the least. And then, once the planting is done, He comes around again, cultivating, hoeing out those weeds, those distractions in our lives that keep us from loving Him and others fully, or keep us from wanting to be more like Jesus.

But oh, the harvest: the fragrance of love grows, gentleness blooms, patience blesses. We have access to self-control, goodness, and peace. Joy spreads across our lives. These things may not come from a brightly illustrated garden catalog, but they are available in every growing zone, in every season.

When they grow, we become a garden of holy fruit, where God delights in what He has grown.

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Parish Paper of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Emden, Illinois.

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Things I’m Learning On Facebook

            “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

There’s a lot a person can learn on Facebook.

If you are not involved in what is optimistically called “social media” – online activities like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and other modern ways of reaching out to touch someone – you might be missing out on  . . . well, things.

Recently I became aware of the things I’m learning on Facebook: I’m not as nice or as kind or as patient as I like to think I am. In fact, I’m learning the depths to which sin still lurks in my soul. It’s not a happy discovery.

In case you don’t know, on Facebook you “friend” people. That means when they “post,” that is, when they write something on their “wall” – that is, their Facebook “page” – it shows up in my “newsfeed.” Then I can read it, perhaps comment on it; in that way, we have strengthened our connection and friendship with one another.

Except that, sometimes, my first response isn’t very friendly.

Oh, I don’t post that first response most of the time. I am somewhat civilized, after all. But all too often I am aware that, when someone posts something I don’t like, the first thing I think is not something I would ever say out loud. Often, political posts fall into this category. My instinct is to immediately, vehemently point out why they are wrong, and perhaps question their morals, their character, and their good sense.

Wouldn’t you think this would stop me – or at least slow me down – when it comes to posting my own political views online? Of course you would, right? No. Far too often, I allow my opinionated self out onto the page, thereby tempting online friends to question my morals, my character, and my good sense.

Then there are the photographs people post. Although I avoid posting many photos of myself, some friends and family delight in plastering my photograph on their pages from time to time. While I am touched that they care, I am also distressed. Am I still so vain that the sight of an image of myself – my decidedly unphotogenic self – can ruin my day? Who is that woman, I wonder, until I realize it is me. When did I get so – well, you might imagine what I ask myself: all those questions that have to do with age, weight, and wrinkles.

Facebook is like a mirror that shows me those places where the Holy Spirit still has plenty of make-over opportunities. As King Solomon observed, there is nothing new under the sun. Sin still has its way with us from time to time.

The good news is that God has overcome sin through the life and death of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit I am able to see – to recognize – where God is working in me.

And that’s worth posting.

— Holly Schurter

This post was originally published in the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (Emden, Illinois) Parish Paper in April, 2013.

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Abiding

Jasmine in the snow with Nathaniel, 140208(Jesus said,) “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5

We didn’t have an in-the-house dog til Poky, a cranky cocker spaniel who didn’t like children. This was a shame, because at the time, we had a lot of children living with us. He did like their left-overs, though, and ate all the vegetables they fed him under the table, until he had a heart attack and died.

Much later, we had Meg, a golden retriever with a soft mouth and a loving personality. She kept our youngest son company all through his high school years, and when she died suddenly, he took a 3-day leave and flew home from his Navy responsibilities to help us bury her.

Now Jasmine, a feisty golden lab, lives with us. She’s sneaky, but sweet, and I’ve learned a lot about life and the nature of love from her. Lately we’ve been working on a simple command: stay. How hard can that be? For Jasmine, though, keeping that command depends entirely on what it is she is “staying” away from.

It occurs to me that “staying” is something like “abiding” – the kind of abiding Jesus was talking about in John 15. There are significant differences, of course – training a dog to “stay” is not quite the same thing as teaching a disciple to abide in Christ.

But there are similarities. Abiding in Christ can be as difficult for a disciple as “staying” is for Jasmine. In both situations there are distractions and desires that make the desired outcome difficult.

For Jasmine, those distractions and desires come in the form of rabbits, squirrels, and her supper dish. For me, they come in the form of the things I want to do, or things I worry about – I have a hard time abiding in Christ when I am distracted by my own plans or fears.

If I can get Jasmine to focus on me, on what I want her to do, she does pretty well when I ask her to “stay,” but if she is more focused on the rabbit in the brush, or the supper in her dish, she has a hard time doing what I ask of her.

Abiding – like “staying” – has to do with focus. When we keep our hearts and minds in Christ — when we focus on Him, on His desires, His plans, His honor and glory — we abide in Him.

When we abide in Christ, when we put Him first in our lives, and submit our plans and fears to Him, we abide in Him. It is then that we bear the fruit – the good fruit – He desires from us.

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in the St. Peter’s Parish Paper of St. Peters’ Lutheran Church, Emden, Illinois, in June 2012.

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Love Never Ends

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

The apostle Paul set the bar pretty high when he wrote about love.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s because, as far as we know, he was a bachelor, but then I remember about all that traveling around, and those feisty churches he oversaw, and those times he spent in jail, and I realize he probably knew a lot more than one might think about things like patience, kindness, and bearing all things.

Still, sometimes I wish I could invite him over for coffee and just talk with him about how to hang onto your patience when you are dead-dog-tired, or how to keep from being irritable when someone forgets their car keys or their phone for the thirty-seventh time, or how to keep from jumping up and down with glee when that politician I don’t like puts her foot in her mouth.

I suppose he would remind me that God is always patient with me, even when I do the same sinful thing over and over and over again. He might point out how long it takes me to “get it” when God is trying to teach me something. And he might suggest I try seeing things from a different perspective when I am so sure I am right about something.

Or perhaps Paul would take time to explain to me how he saw love in practice when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and how it transformed him. He might tell me how he was never the same after that, how it gentled him and gave him a desire to be more like his Lord.

Maybe he would talk about that thorn in his side, the one he prayed to have removed, the one God said he could keep. Talk about disappointment – and yet, Paul didn’t quit loving God or others because he didn’t get what he asked for. I’ll bet he could tell me a thing or two about how to behave lovingly even when I experience disappointment. Maybe that’s where the endurance comes in.

I’m especially interested to hear his explanation of “love never ends.” Not even when someone betrays you? Not even when someone goes out of their way to hurt you, or even worse, hurts you just by being careless of your feelings or your needs or your desires? Love keeps on, keeping on, even when it hurts?

Would Paul’s eyes twinkle when he talks about love? Would he smile with warmth in the knowledge that we really can love others this way, because this is how Jesus loves us?

I’d love to talk with him, and find out.

— Holly Schurter

This column was previously published in The Parish Paper of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Emden, Illinois.

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New Beginnings

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.””

– Revelation 21:5a

I hate phone trees:“Your call is important to us. If you’d like to speak in English, press 1. If you’d like to speak in Swahili, press 2. For information, press 3.” By the time they get to “If you need additional help, please stay on the line,” I seriously consider throwing the phone at the wall. And that’s on a good day.

I’m not proud of this failure. It showcases an impatient, prideful attitude I am not proud of. And every new year, I resolve to do better.

I came across an old list of New Year’s Resolutions a few months ago. I could use that list for this year’s resolutions: sort out stuff in the basement. Be more patient. Write more letters. Clean the garage. Be mindful of opportunities to be kind. Mind my temper.

My list was – is – a curious mix of chores and character-qualities I need to work on. Sadly, most of those entries have acquired permanent places on my to-do lists and resolutions. Even though I make progress, I still have a long way to go.

January is a time of fresh starts, offering opportunities to improve. The question is, what will we do with the opportunities January offers?

Looking at my faults and failures, I get discouraged. Every time I’m stuck waiting on a phone tree, making sarcastic remarks to an automated machine, I’m reminded I don’t seem to be making progress. And I resolve to try to do better.

Lately, though, I’ve been more conscious of asking God for His help.

Yes, God. The One who, as John tells us in the Book of Revelation, was seated on the throne, the One who says He is making all things new.

I find myself hoping that He is not too busy to help me with phone trees and such. I’ve been praying He will help me, even though in the over-all scheme of things, this seems like a fairly small thing.

But when I look outside, I notice January is about small things. Days are short. Birds survive on berries they forage or seeds scattered about on the ground or in the snow. The small things of January make up its beauty: bare branches shadowed against brittle grass or snow, the flash of red a cardinal offers at a feeder, the way the wind teases the few leaves left on the sycamore.

God cares. He cares about fields at rest, and small creatures sheltering there. He cares about seeds and bulbs hidden away in the ground, waiting to grow into spring. He cares about us.

Our faults and failures are among the things He tends;  He is making us new, into Christ’s image. As we allow Him to tend us, we begin to make progress, to become who He created us to be.

He makes all things, even us in our impatience and imperfection, new.

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of The Parish Paper of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Emden, Illinois.

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Following Through

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

– John 15:11

Back when our children were small, we weren’t very experienced parents. Christmas Day always ended badly: crying, tantrums, sometimes even shrieking.

And the kids didn’t behave well, either.

As time went by we learned to do better. We began to plan ahead for those hours at the end of Christmas Day when everyone had had too much: too much sugar, too much excitement, too much time without a nap.

We established a new tradition. We made sure we were home by suppertime. While the kids put away their new toys, we prepared a simple soup supper, got out cozy blankets, put the George C. Scott version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into the VCR player. Then, after our soup supper, we watched the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future inspire profound change in Scrooge. No one fussed, cried, or complained. We were caught up in Dickens’ vision of the meaning and message of Christmas.

Over time, our Christmas evening Soup-Supper and A Movie became a tradition in its own right. Every year we watched Scrooge’s transformation; every year we were transfixed by the effect the Christmas message had in Scrooge’s life. It was the follow-through that caught us: that turn Scrooge makes from stinginess to generosity, from dour grumpiness to joy, from quiet despair to celebration.

Follow-through matters. If our celebration of Christmas is only for a season, we miss the point, I think. Christmas – or more precisely: Jesus, God’s gift to us at Christmas – is meant to change us.

What good is it to race through the Christmas season, hitting every celebratory mark, only to miss out on the Christmas blessing of Jesus?

Follow-through means taking the blessing and the lessons of Christmas with us into the future.

We follow through when we take the Christmas spirit of generosity into the new year. We follow through when we take that Christmas joy we feel into the next season, and the one after that. We follow through when we take the fun and spirit of holy celebration into the day-to-day of all the days that follow Christmas.

And if we follow through by carrying a sense of awe and wonder at God’s graciousness, all the better.

We live in a world filled with challenges, heartache, and need. Without Christ, what do we have to offer? How will we manage?

  But with Him – with Christ, that babe in the manger, we have help and hope. We have a Friend, a Wonderful Counselor, a Savior. We have someone to trust, to follow, and to believe in,  who will not desert, deceive, or disappoint us.

Whether your follow-through is a good idea for winding down on Christmas Day or for carrying the grace and beauty of your Christmas celebration into the next year, follow-through is a good way to keep a little Christmas every day.

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church’s (Emden, Illinois) Parish Paper.

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Thanksgiving, Then Christmas, Then New Year’s . . .

“For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” – Psalm 90:4

By the time you read this, we will be in the thick of what is referred to as “the holiday season.” This means we are juggling lists of things to do, to purchase, to wrap and send, to attend, things to – well, you get the idea.

This season comes complete with attitude expectations. We expect to be grateful for our blessings, excited about the coming of the Savior, joyful at His birth, then full of anticipation at the thought of a new year and a fresh start.

It can be hard, though, to balance all the lists with all the expectations. Sometimes, instead of refreshing us, the holidays just make us tired. Cold, grey January looks pretty good to us, if it means we can stay in and relax with a fire in the fireplace and a good book.

Last year, just at the beginning of the holiday season, my mom had some health issues which resulted in what we call “medical adventures.” She was in and out of the hospital and nursing care facilities, experienced several risky medical procedures, and ultimately made a transition from living independently at home to living in an assisted living facility.

While all of that was happening, so were the holidays.

We’ve had other holiday seasons that included family emergencies and crises; in the process of getting through them, we’ve learned a few things about holiday lists and expectations. Here are some of them:

** Hospital waiting rooms offer a place to wait in difficult situations, but they are more than a collection of chairs and screens. They are often a place of fear, or impatience; sometimes anger bubbles up. Hospital waiting rooms offer us a place to practice faith in God’s presence as well as in His care for us. Although these difficult situations don’t always resolve the way we hope they will, we have a chance to trust God in a way ordinary days don’t always offer.

** Lists are helpful, but people are what matter. If we are giving and receiving love, the cards and gifts and parties are just icing on the cake.

** Family relationships need to be nurtured in crises. Again, here is an opportunity to put patience, hope, faith, and love to work in real life. A gentle word in the middle of a difficult situation is a blessing, and a kind act is a gift of grace.

** Even when things seem bleak, a sense of humor, fun, and beauty makes things better. My mom still talks about the tiny Christmas tree with a string of lights we rigged up in her hospital room; it gave her joy and hope.

Holiday crises don’t mean we can’t enjoy the blessings of the season; they just mean we have to know where to look for those blessings: Jesus Christ our Lord.

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared in the October, 2015 issue of The Parish Paper of St. Peters Lutheran Church, Emden, Illinois.

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More Than That . . .

            “More than that, we rejoiced in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5

I’m not fond of suffering. No surprise there.

I don’t enjoy physical pain – who does? – and I don’t like other unpleasant things, either: pinching pennies, cleaning up a big mess, or confronting difficult situations. I don’t like mud except in the spring, when it’s fun – once or twice – to go squelching around barefoot in it. I don’t like things to break or quit working. I don’t like crises or accidents or careless losses.

I don’t like situations where others experience pain, or suffer discouragement, or grieve loss.

And yet, all around me, I see suffering of one kind or another.

We bring some suffering on ourselves. When I let two rambunctious little boys play with their dad’s hammer, I should have expected some kind of suffering would result. Who knew it would be a younger sister’s doll who would bear the brunt of their enthusiasm? Talk about wailing and gnashing of teeth!

For their sister, that doll’s smashed hand meant loss and suffering (and in truth, the boys suffered a bit over that escapade, too.) I suffered remorse, frustration, and sadness, too, watching my children suffer for my bad judgment.

But most of the time our suffering runs deeper than a doll’s smashed hand. We often are surprised by the suddenness of the circumstances that cause our suffering. We don’t expect the illness, or the argument, or the accident that cause us to suffer.

For Christians, though, suffering is not the end of the matter. The apostle Paul reminds us  God does not waste our suffering. He uses it productively: to produce endurance, which in turn produces character, which in turn produces hope in Christ, which does not disappoint.

How does that work?

We endure suffering by understanding and hanging onto Jesus’ promises. Scripture teaches us that He promises to be with us always, that He sends us the Holy Spirit to comfort us, that He loves us even to the point of giving up His own life for us. We learn to know Jesus more intimately as we hang on to those promises, and knowing Him more intimately helps us endure whatever it is we are suffering, because we know we are not suffering alone.

More than that, as we learn to endure, our faith in Jesus transforms us, if we allow it to. As we learn to know and trust Jesus, our character becomes more like His. Holy hope grows out of the changes He has nurtured in us. This change – this hope – cannot disappoint us, because God has produced it from our suffering, by His mercy.

I still don’t like suffering, but I am learning to appreciate the fruit God produces from it.

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of The Parish Paper of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Emden, Illinois.

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A New School Year

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. ” — 2 Timothy 2:15

I love to learn new things, but sometimes that gets me into trouble.

Part of the reason is I try to figure things out for myself before finally asking for help. That explains the pie-crust-that-wouldn’t-come-out-of-the-pie-plate adventure, and maybe the “how did you shrink that dress?” episode, and possibly the broken foot debacle. I just figured out a likely way to do what I wanted to do, and then did it.

It didn’t always work out well for me.

One of the things I’ve learned is that usually, I do better with a teacher, or at least someone who knows how to do what I want to learn to do, and will let me hang around them and watch how they do it.

I suspect that is true about the spiritual life as well. We need good teachers, men and women who act as examples and guides as we learn how to live the lives of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. We need people who have some idea of how to live a spiritual life with integrity, who will let us hang around with them and watch how they do it.

One place to find those good teachers is in Sunday School.

Most of us can remember a Sunday School teacher who was a living example of what it means to be a believer, a Christian. Perhaps they reinforced the spiritual lessons we learned at home, or perhaps they were the ones to actually introduce us to the Savior. Perhaps we first came to Sunday School as an adult, and the teacher helped us understand what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.

Those teachers do so much more than show up on Sundays to do a craft, sing some songs, and tell a story or two – they let us watch while they model a faith-filled life. For children, this can be a powerful example, reinforcing the things we try to teach at home.

That makes Sunday School a valuable asset in our congregational life, one to nurture and protect, one to encourage and affirm. I think there are at least three ways to do this:

** Praying for our Sunday School – for the teachers, for the students, for the parents of our students – is important. Regular, focused prayer for specific requests is a sure way of supporting the work of the Sunday School, because God answers prayer.

** Honoring our Sunday School teachers affirms the significance of what they do. Regular recognition of their work is a way of thanking them.

** Making Sunday School attendance a priority for the whole family means we demonstrate its importance with our own attendance. Don’t just bring your child to Sunday School – show him how important it is to you by coming to your own adult class, and while you’re there, have fun.  After all, adults need to have fun so children will want to grow up.

I think Sunday School is important, a place of adventure, opportunity, and spiritual instruction. Sunday School draws people – children, young adults, even grown-ups – into the community of believers, makes them feel as if they belong in that community.

It makes learning to live faithfully as a follower of Jesus way easier than trying to figure it out all by myself!

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared in the September, 2011, issue of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (Emden, Illinois) Parish Paper.

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The Difference a Dad Makes

“In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” – Psalm 22:4-5

The last thing dad said as I was leaving for the basketball game was, “Be careful driving. It’s getting icy out there.”

Secure in the knowledge that I’d just passed my driver’s license test – finally! – I was not worried.  Just five minutes later, I sat on the side of the road wondering how one little tap on the brakes half-way down an icy hill caused me to side-swipe not one, not two, but three parked cars. I worried about what I would tell dad.

I shouldn’t have worried. First he wanted to know if I was all right. Then he asked about the car. Then he got quiet. Very quiet.

“I’ll be right there,” he said, and he was.

The lecture came later, after all the insurance and apologies and all the car-repair things were taken care of. There might have been some yelling. By that time, though, I knew the lecture came from dad’s concern for my safety and well-being.

That’s how dads are. Some dads show their love in other ways, and a few dads may not be as loving as they might be. God’s plan, though, is for fathers to love and provide for their children, to model a life of trust in God.

  In some quarters, fathers don’t get much respect. They are considered unnecessary, disposable; useless relics of an outdated social system. Those opinions could hardly be more wrong.

Fathers have unique responsibilities toward their wives and children. They hold a place in family structure that cannot be filled otherwise. A father’s protection, leadership, and love are the foundation of family life.

We saw this in our family as our kids grew up. When they were little, our kids loved their daddy, but they clearly thought I was even more wonderful: someone smart, who knew everything. Modestly, I admired their judgment. By the time they were teen-agers, things completely reversed. They still loved me, but clearly they thought I was clueless, strict, and mean. But their dad – now there was someone who knew everything! If Dad said it, it must be true, so they listened appreciatively.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if, when they were small kids, I’d undermined their love and respect for their dad. Who would they have turned to, if I’d disqualified him by disrespecting him?

No dad is perfect, but that’s OK. We don’t need perfection – we have that in our heavenly Father. What we need here is our father’s presence, his willingness to love us, to care for us, to give us a sense of God’s love for us. We need someone who demonstrates by his life what it is to trust God.

And to help us out when the roads are icy, and we drive with our foot on the brake.

— Holly Schurter

This column originally appeared in the August, 2015 issue of the Parish Paper of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Emden, Illinois.

 

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