Saturday, April 04, 2009



Nuts! I can't believe it's already that time again. No, I'm not talking about the dreaded credit card bills that are coming due after our holiday spending binges. And no, I'm not referring to that most anticipated of all time periods in this blessed republic known as tax season. I'm bemoaning the arrival of something even less welcome. For those of us who live in the bay area of California and have any deciduous plants and trees surrounding our homes, the first six weeks of the year provide the best window of opportunity for pruning. Every year at this time I question the sanity of previous occupants of our property who apparently nurtured a love affair with trees and planted them everywhere, dozens of them in numerous varieties and all sizes, some of them bearing fruit, some of them bearing tiny seeds which blow in the wind and seasonally make a mess of our neighborhood, and all of which grow far too rapidly and require periodic thinning.
However, I cannot blame all of our wooded woes on our residential predecessors. A family of brown squirrels has taken up homesteading in our backyard forest and regularly contributes to the proliferation of growth by burying walnuts, acorns, and a plethora of seeds, usually in the most unwelcome places. Every spring we are plagued with new trees sprouting all over our yard, in our garden, too near our home, and too close to other mature vegetation. By late summer our home begins to resemble a jungle hide-away, and every winter I am obliged to become a temporary lumberjack.
My personal deforestation campaign began a week ago on a cool, dreary, overcast Saturday afternoon. I could no longer put off the inevitable chore since some trees were already showing signs of budding. After a few tedious, back-breaking hours of sawing, chopping, clipping and whacking, I wearily stood in the midst of several mountainous piles of tree trimmings. I was ready to collapse from exhaustion when out of the corner of my eye I spotted something small and brown dashing across one of the few remaining uncluttered portions of my lawn. Undeterred by the logging operation which threatened his very existence, a squirrel was busily picking out a choice spot to bury a prized walnut, a seed which would likely be forgotten and consequently added to my removal chores twelve months later. I tried to muster enough energy to throw something at the furry insurgent but found myself instead marveling at his amazing persistence. I had spent eight years attempting to discourage his haphazard planting scheme but come every winter I was again faced with uprooting his handiwork.
In frustration I slumped into a lawn chair and began to dream of having my home surrounded by magazine-cover landscaping, professionally designed and meticulously maintained, something similar to what graces my neighbors' homes on both sides of our property. All right, I will admit to a twinge of curb-appeal envy, but you would think the squirrels would share their sowing labors equally amongst all of the yards in the neighborhood. Why was only I so richly blessed?
In my daydream I began to visualize what the perfectly designed, beautifully styled, low maintenance yard would look like. All of the trees would be carefully planted in large wooden boxes or decorative clay pots. Then they could be strategically placed to provide the correct amount of shade in the right area and be aesthetically pleasing increasing the value of the property. The planter boxes and pots would add to the delightful decor and prevent the trees from growing too rapidly. All of the fruit would be consumed before it fell to the ground, took root, and sprouted a new plant. Of course the yard would be regularly maintained and meticulously manicured by qualified professionals. No new vegetation would be allowed to remain that wasn't pure-bred, nursery-born, and growth-controlled by its placement in a container. And the squirrels would be banned from digging in the soil and planting seeds. They would be safely, humanely, interred in the tree-tops where they would remain cute, playful, amusing, and completely harmless.
As I thought about my dreams of squirrel containment my mind drifted to images of the oak-forested hills surrounding our community. I love to hike the trails that meander through these lush woods. It occurred to me that these beautiful woodlands, which stand in such stark contrast to the California deserts, were all planted by natural means, including the accidental, haphazard, absent-minded actions of squirrels. Somehow in the wild, without the help of man, God manages to make every plant fit together perfectly to achieve a magnificent garden, much more aesthetically pleasing than our vain attempts at landscaping. Unarguably, God is vastly more adept at playing God than we are. Perhaps I should just let God, nature, and the squirrels have their way, I thought, but then, what would my neighbors say?
Suddenly my daydream took a decidedly more serious turn and I became haunted by a most disturbing image. A vision involving the Church transformed my idle dream into a nightmare. The yard became the church universal and the trees, plants, and shrubs represented individual congregations of numerous varieties and all sizes, some of them bearing fruit, some of them bearing seeds blowing away in the wind, and all of them struggling to grow in their own way. In our arrogant haste to control our ministries, and in our burning desire to grow something aesthetically pleasing (at least in our own eyes), we have carefully sown this vegetation in handmade, wooden planter boxes and beautifully decorated clay pots. An emphasis on external design (property, programs, and size) has fostered a spirit of competition. A truthful introspection would cause many of us to admit to a twinge of curb-appeal envy. The planter boxes and pots, while adding to the pleasing decor, provide an effective way of controlling our growth. The roots of our faith can only grow so deep and the size of our branches is limited by such things as budgets, buildings, and bureaucracy. Most of the fruit is consumed by our individual programs before it is allowed to fall to the ground, take root, and sprout new growth.
In our traditional, centuries-old, generationally-preserved mindsets, we are convinced the Church and its numerous programs must be regularly maintained and meticulously manicured by qualified, seminary-trained professionals. No new congregations are allowed to flourish unless they are doctrinally pure (according to our own creeds), denominationally-born, and growth-controlled by their careful placement in a suitable container. And the Holy Spirit (Forgive me, Lord, for comparing your Spirit to a squirrel) is largely banned from digging in the soil and planting new seeds. He has been safely interred in our steeples where we sing of His power and amuse ourselves with His gifts, but He remains largely harmless.
"But Bill," I can hear the doubters complaining out there, "you can't just let new churches and ministries spring up anywhere. They might appear in places unsuitable for proper growth like inner cities, or hostile political climates, or in the shade of other mature congregations. And you can’t just let anyone and everyone plant new churches. Who will ensure that the church planters have the necessary training to start doctrinally sound, denominationally pure congregations? You just can't grow the Kingdom without adequate human controls and oversight."
Allow me a brief rebuttal to this argument. Exhibit A: The first one hundred years of the Church saw no seminaries and few if any buildings, yet growth has never been as rapid or effective—never, that is, until the recent explosion of house churches seen in countries like China, India, or parts of Africa. Exhibit B: The last seventeen hundred years of the Church has seen the rise of the professionally landscaped, denominationally gardened congregation and growth has been neither rapid nor effective. Could it be that the Church today in this culture has become too professional, too groomed, too carefully cultivated, too contained?
"Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously." – 2Corinthians 9:6. "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." – John 15:1-2. "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow." – 1Corinthians 3:6-7. “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” – Mark 4:26-28. "Do not put out the Spirit's fire." – 1Thessalonians 5:19.
The diminishing light of approaching nightfall aroused me from my daydream. It was time to get back to the task at hand. My neighbors are expecting me to maintain the proper community image. But when it comes to the church, I have decided to smash the clay pot and surrender to the Spirit's will. Let the neighbors turn aside in worldly wonderment. I prefer to dwell in the forest. How do I know that's right for me? A little squirrel told me!

Bill, a child of God, still chasing after a squirrel


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