“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35
I feel like I’ve been tricked. I have these pine cones—great big ones, some eight or ten inches long, and maybe four or five inches thick. We picked them up a few years ago when we were driving through the Lake Tahoe area on the way to see family down in Fresno. Now, I thought they were cones from a Ponderosa Pine. They’d come off what looked like a Ponderosa, with it’s thick furrowed bark, and the tall trunks that stretched up thirty, forty, fifty feet without a branch. You could make out the packets of needles on the branches—three to a packet, and about six to eight inches long. Classic Ponderosa, only really big.
But it turns out it wasn’t a Ponderosa. On the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, there are no Ponderosa. Pretty much all the habitat that the Ponderosa would occupy is taken up by another species—the Jeffrey Pine. Jeffrey Pines and Ponderosa are pretty similar, which may have been why I confused them. The Jeffrey Pine has the same packet of three needles, like the Ponderosa, the same furrowed, thick bark, the same habit of growing tall, spread out in spacious groves. The cones were a little different—much larger than a normal Ponderosa cone, which would be only about three or four inches, maybe five. And the bark on a Ponderosa tends toward yellow, while the Jeffrey Pine is more reddish. But the trees are similar enough that I thought they were the same tree.
Botanists are all about distinctions. What little trait does this species possess that this other one does not? Commonly, different species can’t interbreed—which keeps them distinct as species. But some are similar enough to be able to hybridize; Jeffrey Pines and Ponderosas can pollinate each other and produce hybrids in certain situations. But since they don’t live in the same places, and don’t go traveling, they’ve remained distinct, even if I couldn’t tell the difference without some guidance. Birders call them “field marks”—the little indications that differentiate one species from another. But to be able to tell them apart, you need to know what makes Jeffrey Pines and Ponderosas distinct—you need to know the “field marks,” like the cone size, the bark color, the location.
Jesus offers us a field mark for the Christian. The old adage—if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck—fits the Christian, too. If it walks like a Christian, and talks like a Christian, it’s probably a Christian. So what does Jesus say about the Christian’s walk and talk? It’s the love. Love, particularly love for each other, is the field mark that identifies Christians. In John’s gospel, love within the community of Christians is the focus, but Jesus never limited it to that—neighbor-love goes beyond our sisters and brothers to the one beyond the family of Christ. The world (the forces of evil in the world) are so unlikely to love that it becomes unmistakable—Christians are distinct, like pines are distinct from ducks.
But sometimes, we’re not as loving as we could be, and the distinction between us and the world becomes a little less sure, like trying to sort between Ponderosas and Jeffrey Pines. The differences aren’t so obvious. When we’re tempted to parrot the same perspectives of the world, which is awfully easy in this day of social media “likes” and “shares,” then our love gets obscured. What we say, what we share, the perspectives we pass along; these become our field marks. If we’re passing along what we heard on the evening news, then we’ve been shaped by that source, and we’re in danger of starting to look like the species that originated that story. But if we’re shaped by a different story, a story of love, then when we pass that story along, it gives us a different look. Our field marks change, and become more like the One who redeemed us, and calls us to love. So, if someone were passing by, and glanced at us, would they recognize us for who we claim to be? Would our species be unmistakeable? Would they know us, know us by our love?
See you Sunday! John
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:22-23
Here’s a interesting fact (to me, anyway): There are 15 different species of chipmunk in the West, and only one in the eastern United States. Probably the primary reason for this is that there is such a diversity of habitats in the West, and for each habitat, there’s a chipmunk to fill it. Now, there’s not really that much difference between the species—you’d have to be quite a naturalist to notice the subtle differences that set one species off from another. They all have much the same habits—eating similar food, behaving in similar ways. Side by side, they’re really not that different. But that’s the thing—you’ll rarely get them side by side.
On the east slope of the Sierras, there are four species of chipmunk: starting in the lower elevations, there’s the Sagebrush Chipmunk; then a little higher the Yellow Pine Chipmunk; then the Lodgepole Chipmunk; and finally the Alpine Chipmunk at the top. You can tell which chipmunk you are looking at by the habitat it occupies. According to John Kricher, in his Ecology of Western Forests, the Sagebrush Chipmunk could do pretty well at higher elevations, but stays low. The Alpine Chipmunk isn’t hanging out up high because it likes the view. Kricher notes that the reason that all the chipmunks stay in their respective habitats is due to aggression. Species—particularly the Lodgepole Chipmunk—will aggressively defend their ecological niche against intruders. If a Yellow Pine Chipmunk, or a Sagebrush Chipmunk, tried to move in on the Lodgepole’s territory, there’d be a fight. So it’s not like these other species can’t thrive in those other habitats, it’s that they aren’t allowed to thrive there.
Chipmunks are just doing what they do. It’s a natural thing for them to protect their habitat. So we shouldn’t judge them according to rules they were never meant to follow. But what about us? Are we just as territorial as a Lodgepole Chipmunk? On the one hand, Paul writes in both Romans (10:12) and Galatians (3:28) that there is no distinction in the body of Christ—that regardless of ethnic, social, or gender distinctions, all are one in Christ. Regardless of our species, we can all occupy the same habitat of the Church. But our churches don’t often reflect that sentiment. Sunday morning from 11:00 to 12:00 has been called the most segregated hour in American culture. Churches are segregated by social class, age, ethnicity, culture, politics. It’s a somewhat natural tendency to gather with those we recognize and who are like us—sociologists call them “communities of affinity.” But when does a community of affinity become an isolated niche which we will defend from outsiders—aggressively if necessary?
We can act like Lodgepole Chipmunks at times. We aggressively defend our habitat from outsiders, even if the outsiders are chipmunks, too. One reason may be the same as the chipmunk’s—we fear that outsiders will consume the resources that we need for our survival. They’ll push us out of our habitat with their demands and expectations. If they come in, there won’t be enough for us. But we aren’t chipmunks. The truth is that those that come to us bring gifts with them. They may also have needs, but the mutual sharing of gifts and needs is exactly what the church is supposed to be all about. And the reality is that all we have in the Church is a gift from the most generous God we all depend upon, and there is never a scarcity when it come to God’s gifts, so we should never be worried about there being enough to go around.
Chipmunks are not a model of hospitality. That’s not really their thing. So the Church should not look to chipmunks to gain insight about truly welcoming the stranger. But the similarity between chipmunk habitat and our life together is interesting. What Jesus calls us to do is to be one, yet we’re so often defending our piece of territory. It certainly is essential to be friendly, and welcoming. But this oneness goes deeper than our greetings. Can we open not just our doors to others, but our hearts? Can we allow them to enter our territory, use our resources, make a life among us—even with the risks involved? If we can’t fully embrace what is important to them, can we at least accept it—because we love them? Who knows, they may bring more to us than we give to them, and by opening and sharing our habitat, we may find a richer and more Christ-like life—together.
See you Sunday! John