Late last year we had some birch trees cut down in front of our house. The trunks were over a foot thick. I thought the roots would threaten the house’s foundations. Also the trees’ frequent dropping of twigs, leaves, and seedpods through the year was a bother and was clogging our eaves troughs.
So we said: Let’s cut them down. Trees are resilient. Maybe some new shoots will sprout from the stumps, replacing the old trees with much smaller ones.
As trees and other plants began growing this spring, I occasionally examined the birch stumps. Dead! No sign life. No new shoots. OK; I guess if we want more trees, we’ll have to plant some.
Well – turns out I gave up too soon. The birch stumps weren’t as dead as I thought. Or at least one isn’t. I’ve just discovered a new shoot growing from the stump. (See photo.)
Reminded me of Isaiah — a passage I often cite when I’m teaching church renewal and the promise of the kingdom of God:
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isa 11:1-3).
The point is simple in all its profundity. Things that look dead may not be. In all cases—physical, social, spiritual—we are talking about the same One Creator, the Trinity. So the same life principles apply.
Churches that appear dead may not actually be dead. Hidden life may be dormant deep in the roots, waiting the right conditions for new life to sprout forth.
Yes, some churches die permanently for lack of water, food, light, exercise, or rest. Very often, however, God’s Spirit is latent within, waiting patiently (or impatiently) for the right set of circumstances. New life may sprout forth.
Trees and Caterpillars
Coincidentally or providentially, I have just been reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by German forest ecologist Peter Wohlleben. I’m finding amazement on nearly every page.
This is not science fiction; it is solid science. Many trees communicate and share nutrients through their root systems, facilitated by fungal networks. The similarity to neural networks in our brains is interesting. But not too surprising, I guess, since all derives from the same Creator.
Trees, it turns out, are social. They thrive best in community with other trees, not all alone. How much more, then, you and me, created more fully and uniquely in the image of God and called to embody the full image of Jesus?
Ah, and the Monarch caterpillars! Here in Wilmore we’ve been having an adventure. About four years ago I transplanted milkweed plants from a nearby field to our back yard, by our birdbath. They thrived. This year for the first time I discovered Monarch caterpillars on the milkweed leaves. Six so far. The Monarch butterfly life-cycle requires milkweeds, and due to climate change, Monarchs are threatened. (So don’t destroy milkweeds!)
These caterpillars are in stage four of the annual Monarch four-generation cycle. If all goes well, beautiful Monarch butterflies will emerge from these caterpillars and will migrate with thousands of others to places like Mexico or southern California. There they will live for six to eight months. Then the annual cycle starts again.
Barbara Kingsolver’s fascinating novel Flight Behavior interweaves a story of humans and Monarch butterflies. You can read my review here.
Monarchs depend on milkweeds—part of a very complex cycle. Trees depend on other trees, as well as other life forms, in order to thrive. Creation from the hand of God is both highly complex and interdependent. Parallel truths apply at both spiritual and physical levels. This should not surprise us, if we know our Bibles.
The Bible in fact reveals not only that the physical and spiritual are parallel—they interlink. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), and in his resurrection, did not give up the flesh. Quite the opposite! This is key in the biblical revelation. It is key in our lives, and in the lives of churches.
Don’t Give Up!
Here’s the point. The true church is the body of Christ. It is a living organism. We might even say the one most important living organism that we encounter in our present earthy and earthly life.
Of course if the Body is faithfully joined to the Head (the branches to the vine; the tree to its roots), it reflects the life of Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit in their wondrous perichoresis.
Don’t give up on the church, or on your church. Because it is not yours, it is God’s. God can still bring new life from seemingly dead roots. Even dry bones can live again. But this requires total yieldedness to the Spirit and full trust in Jesus. And joining together, not pulling apart.
I believe in church renewal. But here’s the reason: Not human psychology or brilliant leadership or “casting a vision,” but Jesus Christ as revealed in the written Word and made real in our own shared experience by the Holy Spirit. And I believe in church renewal, not primarily for the church’s sake, but so that the church may truly be in the kingdom business, getting on with the work of the kingdom, not just church work. Trustingly and in lively expectation.
The Isaiah passage I quoted above ends this way: “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9).
That is a biblical kingdom promise. Not just metaphor or “spiritual truth” or wishful thinking. Churches can revive, thrive, and show Jesus is alive. Congregations of Jesus-followers can indeed be signs and foretastes (firstfruits) of the kingdom of God in our day.
So don’t give up too soon.
PS: That is a key part of the message of the new edition of The Problem of Wineskins.