I once worked for a man who lived with his mother in a small terraced house in London, where their front garden was just a tiny patch of ground between the house and the pavement. In spite of this, his mother, who was a keen gardener, used to try to make the best use she could of the area available. Her solution was to grass it over but also to plant it fairly intensly with daffodil bulbs. Come the early spring, the patch was a mass of bright and cheerful yellow flowers.

Their next-door neighbour had a similar patch of ground but it usually stayed as bare or slightly weedy earth. On one occasion, when their own garden was in full bloom with a fairly spectacular show of flowers, my friend came home from work to discover that since he had gone out that morning, his neighbour’s garden had been transformed and was also full of daffodils rivalling their own.

Somewhat puzzled by the apparently instant transformation, my friend leant over the dividing wall and gently plucked at one of the flowers. It came straight away from the earth, and he found himself holding a plastic daffodil head on a green covered wire stem. The neighbour had discovered a short cut to apparent beauty that eliminated the wearisome process of having to grow something from scratch.

It is often a temptation to try to imitate a work of God by producing something which, superficially at least, looks the same but which has no more reality than a plastic daffodil. Jesus said that in God’s vineyard, he is the vine, we the branches, and his Father the gardener, and that the Father will cut, prune and tend as necessary in order that the whole vine should be fruitful. From our point of view that can be both a painful and seemingly over-long and tedious process. It can therefore appear to be an attractively easy option to create something that looks like the real thing, by pressing people (or allowing ourselves to be pressed) into an outwardly conforming shape of church structure and individual Christian behaviour.

When God deals with us directly, he always ensures that we are securely rooted in Jesus, and that the fruit in our lives originates in Jesus’ life not our own. When we try to produce fruit by our own efforts (often trying to conform to patterns laid down by others) it may look similar to God’s fruit, but on close examination it will lack the life that can only come from Jesus.

There are plenty of church options around that seem slick, professional and quite pleasing to the ear and eye, but many of them do not stand up to close scrutiny. Whilst initially they may seem very attractive, when you get close, they almost appear to have all come out of one mould. But no two living things are ever identical. Even in one species like daffodils, diversity is rampant because life originates in living roots, not from the outward pressure of a mould. Real things also show the blemishes that occur in growth, often from attacks by assorted pests and insects. Insects rarely go for the plastic version. They at least can tell the difference between the real and the imitation.

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