I was going through the mail that had been addressed to me, yet sent to my parents’ home. This in and of itself brings out weird feelings. The movie title Failure to Launch seems suddenly to be flashing over my head. I know it’s an over-reaction.
My sister just celebrated her 16th wedding anniversary and an occasional letter intended for her is misdirected to my parents’ house as well. That thought is enough to shoo the ridiculous insult in my imagination away. Am I trying to rationalize dysfunction, or am I really in a healthy place in my life? Like the junk mail in my lap I sort through a few quick comparisons with others I know, careful to choose areas of personal strength rather than competing in a category where I struggle. Those thoughts quickly buoy me up, and I continue sorting my mail.
I flipped the postcard over and saw exactly what I expected to see—an adorable picture of two lovebirds. One of the turtledoves is a dead ringer for my young friend. Another “Save the Date.” If I am completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I had a warmer feeling in my gut when I read the postcard with a photo of my dentist’s two, mournful-eyed mutts reminding me to reschedule an appointment than looking over the beautifully designed correspondence informing me that my friend wants me to join her in celebrating one of the most joyous occasions of her life. No offense to my dentist! He’s great, funny, skilled … and he also happens to be my uncle, but this ironic reaction revealed to me that there is something going on in my heart. In the sorting of my mail, I realize that I just received a different kind of invitation—one to invite my Lord to sit with me as I explore this root in my heart that has a twinge of bitterness mixed with insecurity.
I can’t understand why I tend to avoid these opportunities to till the hardened soil of my sometimes-frozen heart. As always, this provided a rich time of depth and intimacy as I was reminded of the power of giving thanks for God‘s abundant kindness and provision in my life. He reminds me of my true identity as a uniquely crafted masterpiece, his child and heir. Instead of becoming my own preposterous motivational speaker, engaging in ridiculous mind games, comparing my strengths with others’ weaknesses, or conversely taking the role of bully to myself which relegates me to a pile of pathetic shame as I compare my failures and shortcomings to shining accomplishments of others.
Neither of these remedies bear fruit in my heart. One leads to false confidence and reinforces the lie that my strength lies not in my weakness, not as a steward of talents, gifts and the story that God has graciously given me, but in my hard work, personal accomplishments and in the things I have that others admire or wish they had. This is an ugly place. On the other hand, my attempts at self-management, focusing on my flaws, shaming myself into a plan set on self-redemption, self-correction and self-discipline reeks of the same self-absorption as the first and nothing good comes of it, either.
I have come to the conclusion that the popular tradition of making New Year’s resolutions is actually a prescription of my own charlatan-efforts to peddle a self-remedy. The statistics show that a successfully maintained New Year’s resolution has more in common with the stuff of fairytales than real, effective discipline and growth. Evaluation, making adjustments and coming up with a personal development plan are all healthy practices when they are undertaken with a clear understanding of who I am and where the roots of my issues really lie.
If I take a shortcut, skating over the ice encrusting my cold, broken heart, then I will never benefit from any resolution. After a while the pride and the fear of shame cease to motivate. Even if I am still going to the gym or if I decide to follow the advice of well-meaning friends and put myself “out there” more intentionally with the hope of finding a mate, after the first month when I fail to see any sign of the longed-for results, I begin to taste the bitterness of disappointment once again. My efforts to solve my problems apart from honesty, truth and vulnerability are fruitless.
So what can I do to see real, abundant fruit that I long for in my life? It starts with accepting those divine invitations to explore the roots in my heart when prickly reactions pop up in response to everyday events. I have to remember my identity and choose to walk in it—by faith, not by feeling. Any plans for changing habits, developing new skills or achieving desired outcomes have to be motivated by love for Jesus and a surrender to his perfect will for my life. Attempting to take control of circumstances which are beyond my control are a form of idolatry where I become the grotesque, impotent statue sitting on the throne of my heart’s kingdom.
Sound ridiculous? It is.
Instead of making a New Year’s resolution I want you to accept a New Year’s invitation. It is an invitation to say, “Yes!” to the Holy Spirit when your own heart reveals a bitter root. Live out the reality of Jesus’ words: “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15). I hope you will say “yes.” This is what it means to abide in Christ. You won’t see the fruit you long for in your life any other way.
As for me, I have decided to respond. I am looking forward to the invitations that are coming my way. The “Save the Date” for my friend’s wedding is hanging prominently on my refrigerator. It serves as more than just a reminder for my calendar. It reminds me to check the soil of my heart for bitterness. If I can look at the lovebirds without a sense of joy and happiness for them, then there is a little more gardening that needs to be done. I am not abiding in my Vine and the fruit I expect to harvest in the days ahead won’t appear. I am reminded that gardening is a never-ending process. Any gardener will tell you that it takes patience, hard work, diligence, and then, the results are awe-inspiring and miraculous.
My prayer is that we would not let our hearts stay hardened and that we would never forget that we are not our own gardener. There is a Gardener, there is a Vine, and we are the branches that get to see the fruit burst forth from us.