March Madness by Pat Cirrincione

The month of March begins like it does every season--snow storms and then days that just hint of spring. The sun is shining, you put on your walking shoes, and out the door you go to enjoy the few hours of sunshine before the next blizzard comes along. And with this month comes the crazy college basketball games and the ending of the college wrestling season. March is just loaded with madness, but none seems as mad as the few weeks Jesus spent preaching, healing and praying right before the Crucifixion.

Today, the magnitude of the crowd that followed Jesus would have placed him in the realm of super stardom. Wherever he preached, crowds went to listen. Many more came to be healed or asked for family members to be healed. And Jesus did it all. He healed the sick, he fed thousands with a few loaves of bread and a few pieces of fish, he raised people from the dead. In short, he was becoming Jesus Christ Superstar.

Yet Jesus needed respite from the crush of those who wanted to touch him, but did not really want to believe, truly believe, in what he said about “being the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). I image that the true hearts of the crowd had to sadden Him. Even his own apostles did not truly comprehend how great the person was they were hanging out with. Soon it would be too late. Soon Jesus enemies would have their way. Yet the time had not come.

In the meantime, many Jewish people had witnessed what Jesus did and believed in him. On the other hand, the Pharisees gathered to plot Jesus’ death. After all, it would be easier “that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50).

So, began Jesus’ last week on earth. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Can you see it? The throngs of people who came out to meet Him? Waving branches of palm trees and singing “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!” (John 12:13) The people were praising God for giving them a king, a national leader who would restore their nation to its former glory. Imagine the excitement in the air.

Alas, devotion based on curiosity and popularity fades quickly, particularly when people don’t really listen to what you are saying. They want the easy solution to their problems. Sound familiar? Don’t we still do that today? The people in Jerusalem, like us, would not believe, despite the evidence, that the Messiah was in their midst! How easy it was for them to be manipulated by the religious leaders of their day. Again, how this must have saddened our Lord to know that “every branch in me that does not bear fruit His Father takes away.” (John 15:1) If the people could not abide in Christ and bear fruit, they could do nothing, and their branches would wither. Would you have understood this at the time?

The True Vine knew what was coming, and in his final days warned us about the world’s hatred, promised the Holy Spirit and instructed his followers to pray in his Then Jesus prayed—for himself, his disciples and future believers (that’s us). All this in the few days He had left before He was betrayed, questioned, denied and dragged before Pilate, only to be led away and crucified.

Jesus died on that that cross, to give his life for us. Do you get it? Do you get the madness that can drive people to kill the Messiah, the Son of God, their Savior, upon a tree? To hang upon it, nailed to it, stripped of all dignity for you? Do you see it? When you look at the empty cross in church, devoid of Jesus’ body, can you imagine the scene of that tree with Christ's body hanging from it, dying for you?

Think about the madness of that Passover season of long ago. It wasn’t cheers for a favorite basketball team, but the frenzy of a crowd gone mad calling to crucify Jesus. When March madness comes along each year, remind yourself to not be a part of the frenzy that happened so long ago, and instead remember the power of the cross for salvation.

Even the Dogs by Wil Triggs

Throwing down my coat

Onto the foot-worn path,

Hoping for a second or two

The donkey he’s riding on

Might step onto it instead

Of the dirty road underneath,

Just a second or two, a gentle

Step, the prized hoof print

Marking the coat,

Forever marred and blessed,

Then scurrying to pick it up

Following him as far

As I can, the sounds of blessings

And hosannas echoing in time,

A connection early in the week

Before he went

where no one else

would, could go.

Tree Line by Steve Krogh

I was pretty much a city boy, and growing up in a military officer’s home, I lived in places such as Whidbey Island, Norfolk, Alameda and San Diego. But now, as a new seminary grad, my wife, Lois, and I were in our first church, and I was becoming acquainted with things like pheasant hunting, calf pulling and almond harvesting. To tell you the truth, at the time, I couldn’t tell a pistachio orchard from a walnut orchard from a prune orchard from an almond orchard.

But all that was about to change and, as it did, I learned something very important about the Christian life.

Every time I hurtled down orchard-lined Highway 32 between Orland and Chico in Northern California, I noticed a curious brown line on each tree trunk and would wonder why the trees had those dark lines. The best answer I came up with was, “there must have been a flood here at one time and it discolored the bark on the lower part of the trees.” Wrong.

Trees by Steve.jpg

When I shared my hypothesis with a rancher friend of mine, he laughed out loud and called out to his wife, “Margie, come hear what our pastor just said.” I knew I was about to get a lesson in Agriculture 101. I did.

That mysterious “line” was really the demarcation between two different types of walnuts grafted together to make one tree. The Paradox walnut is used for the root stock, as it has the best root system for absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. The Chandler walnut is used for the scion, the shoot grafted into the root stock when the tree is still young, as it is superior for bearing nuts on its branches.

Clever these ranchers are, getting the best of all possible worlds.

One day I knelt in the dirt on a cherry orchard and watched an arborist carefully grafting some trees. He made a slit in the root stock with the sharp blade of his knife, cutting at an angle through the outer bark into the heart of the young tree. Then with a flick of his wrist he made a similar cut in the scion. He carefully joined the two exposed flaps of the root stock and scion, added some gluey pitch and wrapped them in tape. It was all done in less than one minute. On to the next tree.

“That will never work,” I muttered to myself. “Two pieces of wood held together by glue and tape?” But it did. A few years later, I stood in that same orchard as my friend Bob watched truckloads of his cherries head down Interstate 5 to the Stockton shipyards. Those cherries, the first to ripen in the United States, fetched an amazing price when they landed in Japan within 24 hours.

Grafting: “a horticultural technique whereby tissues of plants are joined so as to continue their growth together.” Defined by Wikipedia. Invented by God. Used by ranchers world-wide.

Three lessons. First, security. If you are a Christian, God has grafted you into Jesus Christ. Through the miracle of repentance and faith, a small slit was cut into your soul and you were joined to Jesus in a living union. His life is now in us. We are “hidden with Christ in God,” (Colossians 3:3) “joined to the Lord” so that we are “one spirit with him.” (1 Corinthians 6:17) Because we are “in Christ” (the Apostle Paul’s favorite description for believers), “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38, 39) We are secure, knowing that in the right hands, grafting works.

Second, expectancy. Farmers expect their grafted trees to produce fruit. So should we. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:7-9) We are expectant, knowing that as we live in trusting, loving dependence on Jesus, we will bear fruit.

Third, humility. God in his mercy has joined us, Gentiles, into the rootstock of his covenant promises to Abraham. That should keep all of us humble. “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. . . .They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.” (Romans 11:17, 18, 20) We are humble, recognizing that God in his mercy has included us in something way beyond what we deserve.

A few weeks ago, I returned to visit friends in Northern California. Traveling down Highway 32 brought back many memories. But when I drove past that old familiar walnut orchard and saw the familiar lines on the trees, I wasn’t wondering if an imaginary flood had made the lines.

Instead, I prayed, “Thank you, Father, for grafting me into your Son”—my heart filled with security, expectancy and humility.

Steve is a College Church missionary with Training Leaders International, teaching and equipping pastors globally. Steve and Lois live in West Chicago and are involved in a variety of ministries at College Church.

Keep Watering by John Maust

About 15 years ago I gave my wife, Elsa, a pink dogwood tree for Mother’s Day. The kids and I planted the tiny tree in the front yard and waited impatiently for gorgeous flowers to bloom.

One year passed, then two, then three. Still no flowers. We wondered if the spindly little dogwood would ever grow and blossom. A few times I was tempted to cut it down.    

But one spring we saw some blossoms, and more in the springs after that. As time passed, the trunk thickened, branches expanded, and an ever-widening array of pink petals spread among the leaves. Truly our pink dogwood was coming into its own. 

Our experience with the dogwood tree reminds me of our attitude toward ministry sometimes.  We invest our prayers and efforts in helping a friend or family member grow in their faith. 

But if we aren’t seeing results, we are tempted to give up and move on to someone or something else. 

If that is you right now, just keep on “watering the tree” and wait for God to work.

For Instance, I’m involved in a ministry of equipping Christian writers and publishers around the world. We come alongside a man or woman with gifting for Christian writing or publishing.  We nourish that talent through training, encouragement and prayer.  Sometimes we wonder if, or when, all that hard work will bear fruit in a finished book or established publishing ministry.

Then that writer’s book does get published, that publisher does makes real progress toward growth, that trainee does becomes a trainer of other writers and publishers. And we remember that it takes time for a growing Christian communicator to take root and blossom. 

Bird in the dogwood tree.jpg

Last summer our little dogwood tree had one more surprise for us. There on a branch just three or four feet off the ground rested a bird’s nest. Inside sat a mama robin alongside her baby, beak open and expectant for food. We could hardly believe it.

Seeing the bird family, I was even more relieved that we hadn’t given up and removed the tree from our front yard.  Not only was the dogwood providing beauty, it was giving shelter to new life, as it were.

It was a fitting conclusion to this parable of the dogwood tree….coming full circle to illustrate how God’s Word is working even when we can’t see it at first. 

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like…..?  It is like a mustard seed…when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade” (Mark 4:30-31).

Be Glad and Be Good by Virginia Hughes

Do not eat of the tree. The warning is clear. Yet we run in our Sunday shoes and dress clothes. My two older brothers, ten and eight, and tag-a-long me at age six. Out we gallop to the ten foot cement wall between the mission home and the neighbor’s tree. My brothers shed ties and dress shirts while I am stuck in a dress. Shoes and socks are quickly removed. Carrying the stepladder together, climbing the last few feet of cement and scrambling to the top of the wall, we are met by glass shards stuck in the cement pointing menacingly upwards to keep thieves off the mission grounds where we live. We cut our feet immediately on the glass, but not enough to stop ourselves. The succulent guavas we have been told not to eat enticingly draw us. The rule to not eat of the tree is ours; given for our protection.

We reach and grab a few guavas. They are unripe and inedible. We wince, chew and want more, but can’t reach; so we jump onto the branches closest to the wall, swinging wildly and clambering deeply into the tree. Eating more unripe guavas, after a few minutes we feel queasy and very itchy. Jumping back over the wall our bare feet suffer more cuts. My calf is bleeding, but I want to be included on future brotherly expeditions so I do not cry when I want to cry. Washing the blood flowing from our feet with water from the yard pump, we jump and shake off the green caterpillars crawling all over us. My brothers button their shirts, attach their clip ties into place and run their hands through their hair. I notice a rip in my dress as I disentangle caterpillars caught in my own mass of hair along with twigs and leaves. We hastily pull on socks and shoes knowing we have played around too long; the yard near the house is quiet. We try to outrun our misdeeds and get to church.

Instructions to go help Dad set things in place for morning worship had been given to us earlier. He won’t be pleased to see us now. We trot along holding our aching bellies. Mother is walking back and forth in front of the church scanning the horizon searching for us. As we approach, she sizes us up: alive but askew. We know we are had, guilty and caught. What have we done? We were told to come straight to church. Where were we hiding? We caused great worry. They were about to send out a search party to find us. We cannot mask the guilty stains of bark on our hands, and bloody scratches on my calf trickle down into the white lace of my sock. Scratching uneasily at our itchy skin, red bumps form where caterpillars trail over our faces, arms and necks. Nausea has given us pinched faces as green as the guavas’ skins. We are marched straight home by Mom and Mama Benson, a loyal church member with twelve children of her own and functions as resident doctor, restaurateur and grocery store owner. Mama Benson’s doctoring bag is full of everything we dread: injections, bitter pills and stinging Merthiolate.

We confess where we have been and what we have done and are reminded it’s The Lord’s Day we have desecrated. I have disobeyed, torn my dress and broken the additional commandments of coveting, stealing and not honoring my father and mother. The boys are sharply reprimanded on every count; their offenses include blatantly leading me into a life of crime.

Our feet and other cuts are soaked in hot water, scrubbed with disinfectant and examined. The Merthiolate is poured on our raw broken skin and a smelly salve is rubbed into our wandering feet which are wrapped in clean white cotton bandages.  Thermometers register elevated temperatures and our bellies are poked and squeezed. Tetanus shots administered all around have our thin arms screaming with regret. Spankings and loss of privileges come later when Dad gets home. Once the weeping ceases, we are led to pray and ask God to forgive us. Then Dad talks to us about restitution.

Restitution is something we must pay to the neighbor because we have sinned against him. We must go ask his forgiveness and give him something of value. Something precious of our own that he will hopefully accept as payment for the guavas we ate belonging to him. At six, and not a woman of much property, I am stumped. I would like to offer siblings, the twins a few years younger often in my care, who plague me by falling into open sewers and cause a whole lot of trouble, but that is not allowed. I own three things: two kittens I consider my furry sisters Sunset and Midnight and a favorite chicken, Henny Penny. I cannot give up something I love. Not a beloved animal. Surely not any one of them. It is not fair.

There is no getting out of it. The price must be paid for restitution. Henny Penny does not appreciate being carried by her betrayer and deals nervous pecks to my hands and arms as I limp out of our gate following my brothers over to the house next door. The boys have to give their prized bolo knives which will surely end their glorious days of trailblazing like Daniel Boone. I sob for their heavy losses. We stand contrite and ashamed for what we have done, knocking on the neighbor’s metal gate calling out a greeting.

When the gate opens, we ask to speak to the master of the house. The owner comes and looks quizzically as three tear stained, freckle faced children so sorry for sins against him, offer up an angry chicken and two bolo knives. He has a guava tree? He does not know he has a guava tree. His servant nods and points in the direction of the tree back by the wall. Our neighbor does not miss the guavas, and has no need for the chicken or the knives. He shakes his head, “Thank you, thank you. No please, you keep . . . you are good keeds,” He smiles. He doesn’t know we are naughty “keeds.” We are surprised by his grace.

The boys grateful for this undeserving turn of kindness are ready to go, but I am afraid to return home with Henny Penny. Having received a spanking for disobeying, I know from experience that a second spanking may be earned if the first one doesn’t take. I set Henny Penny down at our neighbor’s feet and she lifts her wings to run only to be quickly retrieved by the servant standing nearby. Our neighbor and his servant walk us back home. The neighbor shakes Dad’s hand, and they talk for a short while. Henny Penny is released and runs to freedom. The neighbor nods and smiles reassuringly and returns home with his servant.  

We stand waiting as Dad shakes his head and hopes we have learned our lesson. Squirming as he looks us over, we wonder if we are still in trouble?  We learn that while we are forgiven, we will not be trusted to run quite so freely for many days as we will be doing extra chores. “Get to work,” Dad tells us. “You are little stinkers, you do not deserve it, but we still love you. Be glad and be good.”