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Connecting Through The Cross

Connecting Through The Cross

Probably my earliest memory of feeling “a connection” with other human beings through the Christian faith was sitting up front at church in Georgia when my grandfather was preaching. I can still hear his voice and enthusiasm as he conveyed the message that had been meaningfully prepared to deliver to all of us in his congregation.  He was a great storyteller and I loved how he could take a Bible story or parable and make it easy to understand by applying it to our everyday lives. 

Over the past couple months, as we ended another year and transitioned into a new one, “being rooted” within the Christian faith came up during multiple occurrences and so, to help affirm ways we all can approach the challenge, I am happy to share a couple related and meaningful instances when God spoke to me, through His Word and others, at the time that I was seeking answers. The emphasis is on the responsibility we have to actually be open to and listen for His guidance… in order to experience and discover the peace and direction He is constantly willing to provide.  To be clear, even after also being blessed with much joy, I am humbly here to confess that essential and complete trust is not the easy part. 

Maybe it can be best articulated through the lyrics of a worship song. Our son and daughter-in-law attend Austin Stone Community Church in Texas and I am moved every time I replay their worship team’s performance of “As You Find Me”, originally written and produced by members of Hillsong United, that we were blessed to hear during a visit there.…. 

“I’ve been strong

And I’ve been broken within a moment

I’ve been faithful

And I’ve been reckless at every bend

I’ve held everything together

And watched it shatter

I’ve stood tall and I have crumbled

In the same breath”….

It still amazes me that even the most faith filled of us can become weak “within a moment”.  That is why we must focus on the “connection” to our Heavenly Father. We were created to be in fellowship with each other yet first with God, giving Him glory and serving his purposes. The more “rooted in” we are, the more clear the message and divine direction will be. 

On the Sunday before the first day of school that I took lead in a four year old classroom we sang “Here I am Lord” and I found myself standing next to one of my mentors, Dr. Joyce Haines, who had spent her life’s work in education and there I was, just beginning ...no doubt the Lord guided us to “connect” in a pew on that unforgettable day as we sung those familiar words that would equip me for the several decades to follow. 

{Here I am Lord, I have heard You calling in the night I will go Lord if You lead me and hold Your people in my heart} 

Fast forward to an unexpected personal crossroads. After losing the space at the elementary school that our fee based PreK (overseen by the county) was housed in, we had a big decision to make. I was offered either a position in Kindergarten or the opportunity to accept the support of a community of parents seeking continued quality early childhood education in the area and embark out on my own. Translation: starting a small private preschool next door…yikes! I remember the very first thought being … “Ok, I’ll just take the Kindergarten job please!” But I really loved teaching four year olds and quickly felt the nudge to consider a new journey. It ended up being the acceptance of a true calling. I still have a collection of encouraging emails and blessings including the familiar Serenity Prayer:  “God grant me serenity to accept what I can’t change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” During that time, I had a friend give me a bracelet with these words engraved on it and a neighbor, across the street from the property we would need to renovate, bring over a framed embroidery of the same prayer, both without knowing they had done so, within days of each other. 

After countless, seemingly impossible steps, as you can only imagine that this kind of undertaking would entail, it was time to decide on the name of the school. I was interested in something that was simple, that children could identify with, be easy for them to say and learn to write, but also be meaningful to all those who had witnessed what was so evidently an answer to the prayers of many. Something that would continue on to be a daily reminder of the Lord’s hand in its establishment. After reading a devotional written by a close friend’s sister and being reminded that sometimes we find ourselves at the end of a chapter in our lives when things were actually going well. That possibly, even though our program had been “producing fruit”, “we had been pruned to become more fruitful”. (John 15:1-2)

The verse says that the Lord prunes both the unfruitful branch as well as the one that is thriving. We prune landscaping because it is a successful way to foster trees and plants. It is like caring for the children in our lives because we love them deeply and want to see them grow to their fullest potential.  We make these efforts to bring about something else that is new and better. For anyone who has experienced their water breaking at the end of pregnancy, this is what it was like for me, I will never forget the exact moment I knew the school was to be called The Branch Academy! It was a fruitful branch of an educational mission that had suddenly been pruned off of a sweet neighborhood school, after over a decade of good work, to grow and become something new and “exceedingly more than we could have ever asked or imagined”(Ephesians 3:20). And to boot, there was a beautiful grandfather oak tree that still anchors the playground! We were “branching out into the community” yet “staying connected to the Vine …all while abiding in Him, because apart from Him, we could not have done anything”. (also from John 15) 

At that point I had never even renovated a bathroom in my own house and the cement truck was laying some additional foundation to add a third classroom to our little school. I remember the day I watched workers from the curb and God’s Word resonated so clearly into my mind:

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19, NIV)

Was it really happening?!? This is an excerpt from one of my all time favorite daily devotionals called “Gracious Uncertainty” By Oswald Chambers 

“Our natural inclination is to be so precise– trying always to forecast accurately what will happen next– that we look upon uncertainty as a bad thing. We think that we must reach some predetermined goal, but that is not the nature of the spiritual life. The nature of the spiritual life is that we are certain in our uncertainty. Consequently, we do not put down roots. Our common sense says, “Well, what if I were in that circumstance?” We cannot presume to see ourselves in any circumstance in which we have never been.

Certainty is the mark of the commonsense life– gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all our ways, not knowing what tomorrow may bring. This is generally expressed with a sigh of sadness, but it should be an expression of breathless expectation. We are uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God. As soon as we abandon ourselves to God and do the task He has placed closest to us, He begins to fill our lives with surprises. “

Now every day is an adventure! As we complete enrollment for our thirteenth school year, which will begin this fall, acknowledging that we have allowed the facility to be used for His purposes seems the only explanation for the continued blessings. Especially at such a time as this. We adore each of the students, and appreciate the parents and staff members all who make up The Branch Family as a whole….past, current and future.  

This leads me to the other New Year tie in that is also very applicable to the focus on connecting to the "root" of our faith.. 

One of the ways I have been able to stay the course in my profession is through the love and support of family and close friends. My husband, Mark, and I also have been intentional about participation in a small couples bible study group since our, now grown, children were very young.  During monthly gatherings over the years we have covered everything from parenting, marriage, various biblical topics and discussion questions related to videos or sermons. This type of community group provides accountability, expanded knowledge and unconditional relationships. 

It was one night during this past fall that we experienced one of the many reminders of how God’s presence can be revealed “among two or more who are gathered in His name”. Our daughter, Gardner, who helps individuals participate in outdoor adaptive sport (and who is also a talented artist!) was home from Colorado for our niece’s wedding and had promised some time ago to paint a canvas for our foyer. It had been a unanimous choice for her to create a canvas of aspen trees. Even before she had lived out west full time, we had traveled out there frequently over the years as a family and the sight of the groves, no matter what season, was always so breathtaking.  We loved the staggering fact that they existed as one living organism, growing and developing all from the same root system. They are believed to be one of the oldest living organisms. 

The same day Gardner had begun working on the project, Mark, who had been having some concerning health issues with regard to his swallowing, took a turn for the worse. We made arrangements to address the situation the next morning but, meanwhile, our couples community group was scheduled for that evening and it was one of the few times in all the years that I went alone. Not only were we able to pray together over all member requests but one of the women, unbeknownst of the long awaited painting being started that very day, had brought a devotional to share about aspen trees! With tears streaming down my face she read the analogy about how the groves specifically demonstrate Christian community… “making sure that each tree has what it needs to grow and live… sharing resources, connected by a common source of life”.  I knew then that no matter what the results were, that we were going to be alright (and so far so good) plus every providential moment like that only makes the human connection stronger and instills the kind of conviction I believe Jesus truly hopes us to experience here on earth. The relevance and timing of the message reminds us of the Lord's presence in the details of our everyday lives.

 Intrigued by this beautiful consideration, I went home and searched the topic. I’m delighted to share this version that meant so much to us this past holiday season and what I think of when I see the completed artwork every time I walk through the front door:

TRAIL TALK: How Christian Community Can Be Found in the Aspen Treesby Catherine @outdoorleaders.com

"Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain" 

– Henry David Thoreau

“Nature is packed full of complex systems that work together to sustain life. Regardless of how zoomed in or out you look, you will find fingerprints of our Creator. We can glean incredible spiritual lessons from the intelligent order that is displayed in the natural world. We can rely on nature to be a classroom for the Holy Spirit to instruct and speak into the depths of your soul so that you can also share with others.”

ASPEN TREES DEMONSTRATE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

“It is fascinating to think about how trees look out for each other. Aspen trees have many elements that exemplify a healthy Christian community. Being connected by a common source of life, they are able to share all of their resources with each other to ensure no tree is in need. This relationship with each other is a natural picture of Act 4:32. As a community they function in unity, making sure each tree has what it needs to grow and live. They are one body as Christians are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26-27). When one tree suffers loss or damage, it hurts the whole community.  When one tree flourishes, so does the colony. Aspens do not live secluded from other trees. They live among numerous other plant species. Their roots can give and receive nutrients with other trees living around them, as Christians are to be to the world.

Certainly with everything we have all faced over the last couple years, it has been hard to “hold everything together” which is why we have to CONNECT THROUGH THE CROSS and seek Truth from the One who is in control. We are called to connect vertically in a relationship with God and horizontally, in community with others… what an incredible image of the wooden cross as we find our strength and purpose “in the grove”. 

 

Jan 31, 2022

Thank you for sharing, first I will pray for Mark . While I am reading during my fasting, brings me to understand why God bring us closer when there is more than one. The beauty from the trees reminds me the connection we are to have with each other. Thank you and God bless

Kathy Baldazo
Jan 31, 2022

Thank you for sharing this. God has been reminding me of His presence in my life, and I am thirsty for more.

Denise Walker
Jan 31, 2022

Sue, thank you for sharing your story! I love hearing about the faith-filled beginnings of The Branch Academy and the analogy of the Aspen trees. We have such wonderful memories of our time with your precious family when we lived in Tampa. We hope Mark is continuing to do better and will keep him in our prayers.

Amy Hart
Jan 25, 2022

I love this!! 😍 I have always loved aspen trees but never knew this about them. Now I love them even more!! Thank you for sharing. I love how you came up with the name for your school, and the name itself. It’s perfect!! Prayers for The Branch and all who you touch. 🙏🏼
Love, Christy

Christy Gramer
Jan 24, 2022

Blessings & gratitude for teaching me this today 💞
Wonderful association with Aspen trees & community 🙏

Michel Moore
Jan 24, 2022

The guidance of the Holy Spirit is leading me to connect with you. Simple things like this makes me feel that HE is not forgetting me. I for myself, most of the time I’m lost and confused. Moments of sadness and too many questions. Thank you prayer bowl , I am not alone. More blessings to all of you!

Luisa Maniquis
Jan 24, 2022

Thanks for writing this, Sue! McLean and I are one of the many families who have been richly blessed by your courageous faith to start the Branch Academy. Sending Will and Maggie there is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. May God bless you as you continue to rely on Him every step of the way, and we love being fellow “aspen trees” with you!

Matt Murphy
Jan 24, 2022

Thank you for a very inspiring , lifting story. Your journey was truly guided. I am Praying for Mark.

Carol
Jan 24, 2022

As I was reading todays excerpt( I do every Mon in our Adoration Chapel)
Our priest walked into the Chapel & after about 5 min of silence he asked me a personal question on an interview he has later that afternoon. I spoke to him as if he were my child & gave him some advice. He thanked me then left for 7:30 Mass. I continued reading & every word sounded like something he needed to hear. I forward this email to him for more guidance & clarity. Thank you for a beautiful story & blessings to you & your pre-k community! In His Light & Love🙏

Cheryl Clifford
Jan 24, 2022

Thank you, Sue!

Very encouraging testimony of your life, faith, marriage, family and mission!

I love knowing your the reasons for naming your school!!!

(“branch” in Greek in John 15 = κλήμα)

Love,

Fitz

Fitz Conner
Jan 24, 2022

Very powerful and meaningful story 🙏

Brian Murphy

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