Tending the tree of life
Rev. Carolyn Poteet, Special to The Layman, June 22, 2011
At least there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant. Job 14:7-9
When I first moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., we had a magnificent eucalyptus tree growing beside our rental house. We loved its smell and its unique leaves, and we would often give cuttings to friends. Unfortunately, our landlord did not love this tree. Actually, he had a death wish against it. Even though it reached higher than the second story window, he appeared one day and chopped it down. My housemate and I were devastated. I found myself walking by the stump and looking at it wistfully, wishing it could re-grow.
The tree must have heard me, because re-grow it did. Within a week of being chopped down, new sprouts started to appear. Within two months, we had a decent-sized eucalyptus bush. And within three years, the tree was almost the size it had been before. So the landlord chopped it down again.
This cycle repeated three times while we lived there. Each time, my housemate and I would smile smugly to ourselves, knowing that the roots of that tree were far stronger than the desires of our landlord. The tree would never die, because the life in its roots could not fail to burst forth again. Each time he cut off one trunk, at least five more would grow back. Sure enough, that tree remains as a monumental triumph over its enemy today.
In many ways, that tree is like the Church Universal. Many have tried to cut it down, but few have ever understood the power of the life force in its roots. That power is the revelation of the Holy Spirit spreading the living Word, Jesus Christ – our long awaited Messiah, the new trunk from the stump of Jesse. That power is at work within us today, so long as we stay connected to its roots.
In John 15, Jesus tells His disciples, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are thrown in the fire and burned” (John 15:5-6). Likewise, John the Baptist warns the Pharisees coming to get baptized, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10).
When the PCUSA decided to remove the fidelity and chastity clause from its Book of Order, it made the decision to separate itself intentionally from the commands of Scripture. “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10), but those who have rejected God’s commands have themselves been rejected. In doing this, they have set into motion the promise in John 15:6 – the parts that chose not to remain in the Word, chose not to abide in Christ, have therefore been cut off. They will no longer bear fruit, they are no longer part of the vine, and they are no longer the responsibility of those who tend the vines.
Those of us working for renewal in the PCUSA today are called to be vine tenders. We have been called to care for, nurture and build up the body of Christ. Our task is not to go after the trunks or branches that have cut themselves off from the roots. Our job is not to replant these trunks without roots, or even try to re-graft them into the tree. They have chosen to remove themselves, and God will deal with them as He sees fit. He may choose to re-graft them to the vine, but that is not our job – it is His alone.
Our encouragement comes from the fact that even though the tree seems cut down, the roots are strong. As Job wrote, the tree “will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail” (Job 14:7). Our calling now is for these new shoots. They are growing even now. New energy and new life is springing up, as churches breathe a sigh of relief from finally being finished with the seemingly eternal fidelity and chastity battle. “Now,” many are saying, “we can move forward.”
What does forward look like? No one quite knows. It will likely take one of two primary streams – those who are leaving immediately and those who are staying in the PCUSA, predominantly hunkered down and sheltered in conservative presbyteries. A third, middle stream will exist for a while, an intermediate step for those moving from the hunkered down branch to the exit mode.
I believe our task can be summed up by Hebrews 12:12-16:
“Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.”
Here is how each of these statements speaks to our situation:
1. Strengthen feeble arms and weak knees: Our arms hold the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. We need to strengthen the faith of our congregations and we need to deepen their understanding of the Word, so that they may use it wisely and powerfully. Weak knees represent prayer. We are bound together by our prayer for one another, the intercession of the saints. We need a renewed prayer focus for the tender shoots coming up from the stump.
2. Make level paths, so that the lame may not be disabled but rather healed: We have many walking wounded among us, many who have fought in this 30-years war. There are many who have been wounded by the lies of the culture and the attacks of the other side. Everything we say and do should be a safe space for people to come and find level thinking, straight teaching and solid foundations where they can not only trust the path but also find healing.
3. Make every effort to live in peace and to be holy: Thankfully, Hebrews places peace and holiness together. We must live in peace, not in a constant state of battle or strategizing. We must think of holiness, in this case, as “set apart” – God has set us apart for His noble purposes, to serve Him in righteousness and in truth, in a way that will indeed bring lasting peace to our people.
4. Do not miss the grace of God and allow no bitter root to grow: We are only here because of the grace of God. Lest we forget that for a second, we must always return to God’s grace minute by minute. And it is to God’s grace that we point whenever we engage in any of the issues we deal with on a regular basis. It is also by God’s grace that the vote has ended the way it has, whether we like its ending or not. We know that God will work all things together for good – even this. Therefore, we must not let bitterness grow. We must be vigilant to guard against bitterness. All is well and all shall be well.
5. See that no one is sexually immoral or godless: While we have the confidence and assurance of our faith, we are also vulnerable to attack from the enemy. As Solzhenitsyn said, “the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart.” We must keep ourselves in accountability relationships and constantly tending our relationship with God, keeping in mind Paul’s warning to the Galatians, “Watch you
rselves, or you also may be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
At the end of Jesus’ story about the vine and the branches, He turns to His disciples and warns them that the world will hate them. “If you belonged to the world,” Jesus tells them, “it would treat you as its own” (John 15:19). If we belonged to the world, and believed as the culture did, we would be accepted in many places – including the main halls of our own denomination.
However, we have chosen the more difficult path. We have chosen to abide, to remain, to follow and to obey. We will strengthen weakened knees, make rough places plain, bring grace and holiness, peace and purity, to the Glory of God our Father. If we do so, God has promised that we will be like the righteous in Psalm 1:3:
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.
Rev. Carolyn Poteet is an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Hendersonville, N.C.