Love the Trees, Ignore the Circles (Jonathan Storment)

Love the Trees, Ignore the Circles (Jonathan Storment) June 10, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 5.04.27 PMA few weeks ago, my wife and I were having lunch with some long-time friends from college.  My friends are missionaries in the Sudan, and for the past seven years, they have worked with a mission team in the Sudan, and have served alongside Sudanese people through two different civil wars.  Their home is next door to a refugee camp where they and their little kids can hear the bombs detonating from nearby attacks a few times a month.

This is not a typical work week for me.

Over the years, I have learned that if I can push past the guilt of being around saints like this, I will learn much about my own ministry and life.  So Leslie and I just try to listen to what their ministry is like.  We wanted to know as much as possible because chances are there were stories that we needed to hear that would have seemed to them as nothing more than routine.  It turns out we were right.

At one point, they told us about a tree in the village where they had been working.  The tree had fallen down and had been dying for years, but then overnight, the tree was upright and flourishing again.

A witchdoctor from the village took credit for it.  He said that he was responsible for controlling some spiritual power that had restored the tree.  He drew a circle around the tree and called it holy.  He began to demand that anyone who came close to the tree must take off their shoes because they “were on holy ground.”

And the villagers began to do it.  They began to argue among themselves about whether this man was acting with a power from God or a power from the Devil, and whether or not they should take off their shoes around the tree.  But the one thing that they all had in common was that they were all afraid of the tree.  Except for one kid, a young man named Daniel.

My Sudanese missionary friends described Daniel as an exceedingly average twenty-something Sudanese guy.  He was humble, but he was not particularly known for anything, and he was especially not known for being courageous.  But one day when he was walking with a group of friends they came to the “holy/wicked” tree, the center of the controversy in this village’s small world.

All Daniel’s friends were giving a wide birth to the tree.  They didn’t want to get too close to this potentially dangerous thing but not Daniel.  Daniel didn’t see a demonic tree, Daniel saw a part of God’s creation, and Daniel said the one thing that no one had thought of since the tree had been brought back to life.  “I think I’m going to climb that tree.”

Immediately, Daniel’s friends tried talking him out of it.  Who knew what might happen?  It might not be safe!  But Daniel wasn’t listening, not because he was trying to be particularly brave, he just didn’t see a threat, he saw a tree.

So he started to climb, and a crowd started to gather.  For the few minutes that he was climbing, people were holding their breath.  Some were convinced that he was going to get struck down by some spiritual power for not treating the tree with respect.

But he didn’t.  He climbed the tree, and then he climbed down and turned to the crowd that had slowly turned into the entire village.  He then gave a short impromptu devotional about Jesus being the LORD over all the trees and all the circles drawn around them.  Jesus is the only one who can draw a circle and He has drawn one around the entire universe.

And then Daniel walked away, unaware that across the world a few weeks later that some missionary friends would tell this simple story, unaware that you would be reading it even now.  He was unaware of what his step of average faith in a time of above-average fear would do in this average preacher’s heart.

Because when I heard that story, I knew it was a microcosm of Gospel living.  It was a parable for my life and the challenge of following Jesus.  There are lots of trees with circles around them, there are lots of ways that people make idols out of God’s good world, investing them with more power than they ought to have.  There are lots of ways that I am tempted not to rock the boat and in the name of unity I take off my shoes and regard things as holier than they really are.

This happens all the time in the church world.  In fact, it happens all the time in every part of the world.

Sometimes we call them “sacred cows”, sometimes we call them “obsessions”, but there are plenty of idols, and people who would draw circles around them and call them holy.  And to be clear, they are always good things, sometimes very good things, but are loved in wrong or disproportionate ways.  Sometimes they are our job, or our family, or our community.

And the danger of letting the circles define the tree is that we can lose the ability to enjoy the actual thing within the circle.  To strip the metaphor:  I love my family too much to love them too much.  I love my Church too much to love her too much.  I love the mission of God too much to love it too much.

Jesus has drawn a circle around the whole universe.  Everything belongs to Him and He is drawing all things back toward His purposes.  So, I can see that what is inside that circle is nothing to fear, because it is a piece of Creation that points back to the Creator.

It is meant to be enjoyed, not worshipped.  It is a tree made by God and meant to be climbed.

Jonathan is the co-author of the recently released book Bringing Heaven to Earth. You can follow him @Stormented


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