“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”Matthew 25:40
When Tatia and I went over to Oregon to serve as camp caretakers, one of our responsibilities was to lay up enough firewood to keep the big fireplace in the lodge stoked, and to have a fire for the evening worship during camp weeks. The Forest Service had given the camp permission to cut trees along the roadways, but only the Red Alder trees. Red Alder is one of the few broadleaf trees that are common in the soggy forests of the Pacific Northwest. Red Alders frequently grow along rivers and streams, where they are able to get the sunlight they need. A roadway acts like a stream, providing an opening in the canopy of Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir for the Red Alder to take ahold. The reason the Forest Service invited us to cut the Red Alder along the roads was practical—the Red Alder would grow up fast, and shade the road. The shaded road would never dry out in the sun, and would deteriorate much more quickly. In the Siuslaw National Forest, Red Alders were a nuisance.
While we were there, it was easy to treat the Red Alder like a weed. The scale of the forest was immense, with the spruce and fir trees towering and arrow straight. The alders were scrubby by comparison; even with trunks ten or fifteen inches in diameter, they still seemed like shrubs under the imposing conifers. In their hunger for light, they’d grow horizontally or diagonally until they could turn up toward the sky, giving them a bent and twisted habit. We’d find one close to the road and we’d drop it, and skid it, block it and stack it, ready to burn the next year.
When you treat a tree like a nuisance, as if it were only good for the burning, it’s easy to miss its inherent value. In coastal Oregon, Red Alder is a weed. Everywhere else, it’s a desirable hardwood that makes beautiful furniture and fine wood trim for homes. Finished well, it has a depth and luster that rivals cherry wood. For the carpenter, it’s easy to work, and easy on the tools. While it’s a little soft compared to cherry, it deserves its place as a fine wood for cabinets and moldings. It’s not just good for firewood.
This year, I’d like to encourage you to consider the place of hospitality in our church. Hospitality is not just the welcome at the front door, or the coffee and cookies in the foyer. It’s more than pot-lucks and fellowship dinners. Hospitality—in the Biblical sense—has more to do with making space for the outsiders, the stranger, the alien. Hospitality is allowing the other person to find a place in not just our building, but in our hearts.
Part of hospitality is recognition. Consider the ways that people are recognized, or valued, in the various contexts of life. For right or wrong, society seems to recognize and value youth. Youth is held up as the ideal in so much of our media and advertising, we may even get the idea that there are no elderly folks around. But the church, particularly our church, tends to value the wisdom that comes with age, treating the older generations with respect and dignity. The church recognizes, and offers welcome to the elderly, offering them space when society seems to be bent on cutting them down. This is hospitality.
But Biblical hospitality means we see all as Jesus sees them. Our human tendency is to form “communities of affinity”—groups that share a lot of common likes and perspectives. Like attracts like. It becomes easy to offer a welcome to those who are like us, to make space for those who we recognize. It’s like opening the door of your home to a beloved family member of friend. That welcome is easy. What’s not so easy is to make space for the stranger—the one who by definition is not like us. If we are an elderly church, how do we intentionally make space for other generations? If our congregation has a particularly monochromatic ethnic makeup, how do we make space for those of other ethnicities? If our church reflects a narrow slice of the economic spectrum, how do we welcome—as sisters and brothers, not as a charity case—those of other economic classes? True hospitality means we will make space for them as they are, we will welcome them as Jesus has welcomed them, and we will trust the transformational power of the Spirit to make them who they are meant to be—just as the Spirit is working on all of us. We have to resist the tendency to see them as a nuisance weed, and recognize them as one loved by God, and full of inherent value. This is true hospitality.
See you Sunday! John
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” Luke 6:43-45
Foraging for mushrooms can be a tricky business. I’m comfortable with morels, because morels are pretty easy to identify. They have this unique cap—a mass of brownish ridges and folds and pockets—sort of like a brown, cone-shaped brain. Once you clean them up (they do grow in the dirt, after all) and sauté them in some butter, they’re pretty good. The problem is that there are other mushrooms that aren’t as easy to identify. The amanitas, like the Death Cap and the Destroying Angel, are particularly poisonous. The names kind of indicate that. But names are kind of meaningless if you don’t have a mushroom to attach them to—you need to be able to identify the Destroying Angel so you aren’t destroyed by it.
Mushrooms are fungi, but we’re so used to looking at plants in the forest, that we may start to think of mushrooms in plant-like terms. Most folks, if they were going to draw a picture of a mushroom, would only be drawing the visible part—that classic stem and cap of a toadstool. Thats what plants look like—the trunk and crown of an oak, the stalk and flower of a daisy. Sure, we know that plants have roots, but that’s not usually how we picture them. Mushrooms have some subterranean structure, but it’s really much more extensive than the roots of plants. Since fungi do not produce their energy through photosynthesis—like most plants do—they get their living from the decaying matter that’s underground. So the primary body of most mushrooms is under the surface—a complex network of fungal growth called the mycelium. If you want to use a plant analogy, the mycelium is the tree, and the mushroom proper is the fruit. It’s where the “seeds” (the spoors) come from. It’s just that the bulk of the mushroom’s body is underground, and unseen.
Jesus tells us that it’s what is unseen that produces what is seen—or more properly what is heard. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. And sometimes that stuff can be really good—like a good porcini or some chanterelles in a nice soup. And sometimes it brings something else—stomach cramps, nausea, liver and kidney failure, eventual death. But the point is that there is usually a lot more under the surface than what we see or hear. The words we use are symptomatic of the condition of our heart—or to use the fungal metaphor, the mushrooms we produce are only going to be in keeping with the mycelium that’s under the surface. And like mycelium, the sub-surface structure—the abundance of the heart—can be pretty extensive. Much more significant than what is seen or heard on the surface.
Fortunately, Jesus knows exactly the condition of ourheart. He knows what we have in abundance, and He’s interested in transforming that abundance from something that produces death, to something that can produce life, and joy, and celebration. But we have to let Jesus in to do that work, we have to let the Spirit overcome the “evil treasure” and replace it with “good treasure.” We have to surrender to the work of the One who makes all things new. What might we be hiding under the surface, in the subterranean parts of us? Let’s allow Jesus to produce something good in our soil.
See you Sunday! John
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. 1 John 3:23-24
I’ve been thinking about lichens recently. We talked a little about the different classifications of creatures as an illustration last Sunday—how certain creatures belong to certain taxonomic ranks. In the rank of Kingdom, there are animals, plants, fungi, protists, archaea, and bacteria. The last few are the tiny little critters—often single-celled and microscopic. The point on Sunday was that there are differences between the kingdoms; if a creature belongs in one, they don’t belong in the other. Except for lichens.
I suppose we’ve all seen lichens. Head out in the Owyhees, and your bound to see the blotches of color covering the rocks. Move north into the forests around Cascade, and there are bushy, branched, sometimes lacy lichens hanging from the trees. They kind of look like plants, so it’s natural for a person to think they are—something like a moss, which they often share space with. Lichens can be incredibly colorful, and have historically been used in cloth dying. According to Yvonne Barkley of the University of Idaho Forestry Department, lichens are mostly temperate or arctic, and will colonize almost any stable and reasonably well-lit surface: trees, rocks, soil, bone—even derelict junk we’ve left about.
Lichens look like plants, but if you remember from your high school biology course, you know they aren’t plants. Lichens don’t fit comfortably in any single kingdom, because they aren’t a single organism. Lichens are a symbiotic community. The word symbiosis means simply “life together.” It describes creatures who have a special relationship—creatures that don’t exists outside of the relationship. Again, from the biology class: there are three basic types of symbiosis; parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism. Parasitism is what it sounds like, where one creature lives off the other—a tick on a dog. The dog doesn’t really benefit at all; in fact, they can be harmed by the parasite. But it is a form of symbiosis—creatures doing life together. Commensalism is a relationship where the one who benefits doesn’t really harm the other. The remora that follows a shark around benefits from the scraps the shark leaves, but the shark isn’t really harmed or helped in the relationship. Mutualism is where both creatures benefit.
Lichens lean toward the mutual type of symbiosis. A type of fungus has agreed to cooperate with an algae (Kingdom Protista) or a cyanobacteria. The fungus offers shelter for the algae or the cyanobacteria, which in turn offer the benefits of photosynthesis and other biotic processes. In turn, the lichens contribute to the decomposition of minerals which helps create soil, and the algal components help convert carbon dioxide to oxygen—which is really good for us.
Life is pretty complex. The closer we look at it, the more varied and interconnected we see it become. Sometimes things seem simple—the shark eats the tuna—but there are all kinds of other interactions going on around the central interaction. A walk in the woods, or along a desert ridge, shows the way God has woven an incredibly intricate fabric in the creation. And I suspect the Spirit may have a thing or two to teach us when we look at this fabric. We’re going to be together. That’s unavoidable. So relationships are part of our existence. We are in symbiosis with other people and creatures—we do “life together.” So the question is this: what type of symbiosis are we practicing?
Are we parasites, living off others without contributing to their benefit—even harming them in the process? Are we a tick on the back of others? Maybe it’s more commensalism, where we take, but don’t really do much harm. We’re just living off the excess, but not really contributing. Or do our relationships look more like mutualism, each contributing to the good of the other with the gifts we are given? Lichens are really beautiful—intricate in their relational complexity. It’s beauty that would not exist without the mutual care the fungi and the algae or cyanobacteria have for each other. They don’t think about it or choose it—these are really simple organisms, after all. It’s just the way God has made them—to cooperate and help each other, to do “life together.” We shouldn’t have to think about it, either. God has made us the same way, to love each other, to help each other, to abide in Christ and Christ in us. Our true beauty and purpose comes to light when we can take a lesson from this simple lichen community.
See you Sunday! John
If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. John 15:19
Our Sunday School class has begun a discussion of the Christian’s relationship with the surrounding culture. I’d venture to say that it’s not really something to which we give a lot of thought. Most of us don’t really dwell on this interaction we have with others as representatives of Christ. Think about the way you connect with people you encounter at the store, or in traffic, or with caregivers or coworkers. Is there anything distinctive, anything particularly “Christian” about those interactions? We’re all supposed to be nice to each other, or at least civil. That’s a cultural expectation, not something uniquely religious. So does our civility go beyond the cultural expectation to something fundamentally Christian in nature?
The reality is that we are going to interact with the culture, everyone does. It’s not something we can escape, unless we want to go full-on hermit and live in a cave in the woods. Even then, there’s still some residual interaction that can happen—even memory is a form of interaction; our presence isn’t always necessary for relationship. So if we accept that relationships are inevitable, then are our relationships “Christian” in their essence? Do we represent Christ to the surrounding culture?
When examining the Biblical testimony, we see that the people of God have always had a dynamic relationship with the surrounding society. In the Old Testament, we have a consistent call to avoid enculturation. Enculturation—broadly understood—is the process of acquiring the habits and practices of a different culture, of allowing one’s self to be shaped or transformed to the patterns of that culture. The Children of Israel were warned again and again to not take up the practices of the people they encountered, but to remain true to the Law of God. It’s almost like they were admonished to isolate themselves from all foreign influence. But there was also a consistent thread of being open to the foreign presence, to care for the alien in their midst. Ruth is a powerful to make Naomi’s people her people, and Naomi’s God her God, I wonder if there weren’t some of her Moabite habits that carried over.
In the New Testament, we see this same tension. We are—as we see from Jesus words from the Gospel of John—called out of the world. But we also are sent to the world to “make disciples” as Jesus commissions us in Matthew 28. We are distinct, yet present in the world. Perhaps one way to consider our place and relationship is to consider that we are sojourners. 1 Peter 2 encourages the believer to consider themselves as a “…royal priesthood, a holy nation…” which clearly differentiates the believer from the rest of humanity. Peter continues by referring to believers as “aliens and exiles” in verse 11, which implies that we are only temporary residents of the place we occupy here in this world. But our temporary residences, our status as sojourners, is not without impact. We have a role to play, as a royal priesthood, to help bridge the gap between God and the lost in the world.
The Christian inevitably lives in this tension, the tension between being called “out of the world” as Jesus puts it in John’s Gospel, and being the “royal priesthood” with a priestly responsibility to call the culture to God—something we could never do if we are isolated from the culture. There will always be a danger from enculturation—the tendency for Christians to become so much like the surrounding culture that there is no visible difference between them. We always risk snuffing out the light we carry, or of losing our saltiness. But we have to take that risk, because if we do not, we are of no use in carrying the Good News. We cannot share the Gospel with those we refuse to have a relationship with. This means interacting freely with non-believers; having dinner with them, sharing experiences with them, living with them. But always living with them as fully visible, uncompromising Christians. We cannot hide behind a secular facade any more than we can isolate ourselves in a religious enclave. Being true to our calling as the Children of God means we will participate in God’s plan of redemption, which can only happen in relationship with those who need God’s grace, and trusting that the same grace will hold us as well.
See you Sunday! John