In Need of Charity
“*The Charity Winter Brings” was how I mis-read the title of a *song recently. Yes, “the charity winter brings,” I thought. “No one expects a harvest in winter.”
But charity is not a word that most people want attached to themselves. “I don’t need any charity” is a common refrain from the self-reliant and the competent of the world. Charity equals a hand-out, something for the needy, the beggars. But in this moment, God seemed to be reminding me that charity was exactly what was needed, for myself, and for so many around me. Not charity as commonly understood, but the older meaning— love, grace, kindness; the cessation of expectations.
Since Feb. 24, 2022 when the bombs began to drop on Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, I have found myself at times almost drowning in wave after wave of hurts and needs caused by the war. Sometimes I felt as if I would go under, trying—but still not able—to “make everything right” for my Ukrainian friends. Ukraine had been my home, her people my tribe, for 20 years and this war is a non-stop destructive tsunami of grief, tragedy, and anger for all the Ukrainians I love, as well as for all those who love Ukraine, like me. If ever there was a need for charity, this is it.
Closed for the Winter
In responding to life’s problems, big or small—let alone something like the horror of war—those of us in vocational ministry tend to look at the unseen to try and understand the seen. This is an important aspect of a life of faith and a common way of approaching things for followers of Jesus. But walking through the fields and vineyards around me recently, thoughts of seasons, harvests, and grapes seemed to invite me to turn things around a bit from how I normally think. If God Himself deemed grapevines a worthy analogy of spiritual truth (used around 300 times in the Bible), logic required looking first at the physical plant, on its own terms, before coming to any potentially backward religious analogies.
A farmer friend helped me with these insights:
“In the summer and early fall, the leaves of the vine send sugars and proteins down to the roots where they get stored (and the root gets a lot bigger). As the weather gets colder, the vine chemically signals the leaves and green stems to fall off. Basically, this is to protect the plant from frost and cold damage. The root and main vine are not as vulnerable to that because they are protected by the sugars (which don’t freeze as readily).”
“A lot of the growth points for the next year have already been ‘decided’, i.e., the buds are in a very, very, very early state of formation even before the plant goes dormant. It’s thinking about the future, but giving itself lots of options. Then, when it gets warm, sugars start to flow to those dormant buds and feed it to stimulate new growth.”
In other words, regarding grapevines approaching winter:
- When everything is dying above ground, the root is not only still alive, but actually growing.
- What looks like unexpected loss, is actually scheduled nurturing.
- Life in the vine must be seen through a long-term lens.
Now look at these “seen” points of grapevines magnified through the lens of God’s unseen paradigm:
1. When everything is dying above ground, the root is not only still alive, but actually growing.
God Himself declares that “My ways are not your ways” (Is 55:8) and yet His way always leads to life (Jn 8:12). Sadly, sometimes church people use this truth to ignore or run from pain, or to avoid needing to express empathy or compassion in the face of great unexplainable loss. But like any powerful tool, just because others have used it wrongly does not make it invalid or diminish its value. His ways are NOT our ways, if they were, then God— by the very definition found in any religion—would cease to be God, transcendent, “other.” So in acknowledging that God is beyond us, it must also be acknowledged that there is so much that God sees, knows, and understands that we do not and—in fact—could not grasp even if we were apprised of it (Hab 1:5).
The hard truth is that our pain and loss are not all that they seems to us. But the good news is that it is not less, but rather more, and even more so to God. Because although our God is far above both our existence and our experience, the God of the Bible is unique in that in the person of Jesus, our God lived and walked this earth as a man. Therefore he knows the depth of pain you are feeling and does not look upon it lightly (Heb 4:15). Jesus was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Is 53:3). He knows your pain and He does not diminish it or allow it without a plan to redeem it. But He often also does not explain it. He does, however, offer hope.
For those in a season of death—of dreams, possessions, relationships, or for hundreds of thousands of the victims of war being crushed by actual physical deathGod is still a God of life. If not in this life, then in the next, the eternal. Below the surface, beyond the leaves withering and falling all around you He is strengthening and bringing growth. This may seem like scant comfort in face of horrific tragedy, yet it is true. Trust Him.
“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.d
Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26)
2. What looks like unexpected loss, is actually scheduled nurturing.
Not only does God see and know more than we could possibly ever, He is— in fact—in control. And more than just that, although He feels your pain and grieves with you, He is not simply a passive or even sympathetic—yet still impotent—observer. Rather, God is both the vine as well as the vinedresser. He is both the internal—as well as external—determiner of life and growth.
So not only does God know what pain and loss you and I are currently experiencing now, He knew (Ps. 139)! He knew before we even fell into these fires. God’s foreknowledge can be a great frustration (“If He knew, why does He allow?) but can also be a great comfort. Your loss is not outside of God’s plan. Your pain is not a slip-up that God somehow was unprepared for or beyond His ability to confront. Just as with the grapevine, God is preparing your ashes to become beauty for you and those around you (Is 61:3). Your mourning WILL be turned turned to joy, your grieving to dancing. It will. In His season and under His watchful eye. Trust Him.
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. (I Cor. 15:42-43)
3. Life in the vine must be seen through a long-term lens.
This final parallel is also, sadly, sometimes misused by us religious folk. Time does not necessarily heal all wounds. Some fester and cause greater damage, especially if not attended to. But time does bring with it the advancement of God’s agenda, that ultimately ends in no more “mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4).
If an untrained or foolish farmer looked at his vineyard in the winter, or even in autumn as the days grew colder, he might reason that all had died. She might begin to hack away at the roots to gather them for firewood. I know I have been tempted to do that at times in my own life, or the life of others, or while looking at ministries or projects. Sadness and overwhelming circumstances cause me to look at the yellowing of once lush fields and the crunch of dry leaves under my feet where once fragrant trees bowed under the weight of sweet fruit—and I go looking for my chainsaw! Don’t be like me.
Be like the Psalmist who said “I would have fainted if I did not believe I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13). Or be like Job. Job knew his God. Job knew that in the end, somehow, all would be made right. Job was so sure of his heavenly Father’s care and control of the out-of-control circumstances in his life it that Job said “He knows the path I take and when He has tried me I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). You will come forth as gold. God’s growing season is longer than yours or mine. Trust Him.
And he who was seated on the throne said,
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
Also he said, “Write this down,
for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:5)
Trusting the Lord of the Harvest
The farmer can be trusted to care for the vines because he has a goal—a fruitful harvest of grapes. God can be trusted because He also has a goal—our sanctification and His glorification.
But more than even these goals, God can be trusted because He is “all in” for us. “If God did not withhold even His own Son, will He not also give every good thing?” He did not and He will not. Jesus’ death on the cross, and even more so His resurrection, is our security deposit for God’s trustworthiness. It is our “proof” of His love and devotion for us and His commitment to bring all who call on His name to full fruition (II Pet 1:3-8).
“He who has begun a good work in you will perfect it” (Phi 1:6).
The Bible talks of one that plants, and the one that waters, “but God gives the growth.” (I Cor 3:6) We need to be faithful servants. We need to not be lazy, or “those who shrink back” out of fear or apathy or distracted with temporal things (Heb 10:39).
But more effort is not what brings fruit. We labor out of obedience, not in assurance of fruit. Whether it is a war in Ukraine, or hundreds killed in holiday crowds in South Korea, or those protesting in Iran—life in this world is not getting easier. Opposition to not only the Gospel but simply humans opposing one another for a myriad of reasons seems on the rise. Although God is at work differently in His different fields around the world, in the West we do not appear to be in the great harvest time of the Jesus movement of past decades or even the awakening springtime of even earlier periods of Church history.
But no matter what violence and evil is being openly wielded on the world’s stage, God is still bringing forth life in us as individuals and in His Church as a whole. So now more than ever, as winter approaches—spiritually as well as on the calendar—we do not need to double down and work harder to produce fruit. Instead, we need the charity that winter brings. More than ever we need to remember and abide in the truth of the Gospel. We do not, cannot actually, produce life. Life is in the vine. Life is in Jesus.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;” (Hab 3:17-19)
Trust Him. Receive the charity, and the clarity, that winter brings. He loves you so.
*(Here’s the actual title and song .) “The Charity Winter Needs”