Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A redwood tree community

Photo provided by
It's a big week. Kids everywhere are headed back to school. And, with the beginning of a new school year comes that traditional question: What did YOU do on your summer vacation? Kids will be talking about all the cool things they did. Some learned to swim or ride a bike. Some took family vacations. Some went to see the movie. What I did this summer is move. Here. Which is cool! But I hope that next summer I won’t have to move and maybe my family can take a trip.
One of the places I would LOVE to go is California, but not to see a movie star. I want to see a tree. The Stratosphere Giant.
The Stratosphere Giant is a coast redwood tree that stands over 360 feet tall! That’s huge! That’s five stories taller than the Statue of Liberty! For years and years and years, the Stratosphere Giant was recognized as the tallest tree in the world (as far as we knew), but just recently explorers have found three more redwood trees in that same forest in California that are about 370 feet tall! It’s no wonder they call the highway that runs through the forest "The Avenue of the Giants."
I bet it's really cool, though it’s probably kind of spooky at night. 51,000 acres of giant redwood trees. Some more than 2,000 years old! Can you imagine?! Some of those trees are so big you could actually drive a car through the trunk! (Although that’s not very good for the tree.)
I have never seen a giant redwood except in photographs or movies, but I am determined to get to California some day. I want to lie at the foot of one of those majestic beauties and aim my camera lens straight up. I just want to see what there is to see.
But as big as those giant trees are, it isn’t their size that intrigues me most. It is how they survive for so long. You would think that a 2,000 year old tree that’s taller than most of the buildings in downtown Memphis would need deep roots. But that’s not the case at all with coast redwood trees. Their roots are only five or six feet deep. But they are wide. They might reach out 100 feet from the trunk. And the trees grow BEST in groups. That way the roots can intertwine. They connect. They weave themselves together. They become one.
This gives redwood trees tremendous strength! They are very very tall, but their roots are pretty shallow, and still they can withstand high winds and raging floods because they stand together. They stand as one. They work together.
These giant trees also have a thick bark. On a mature tree, the bark can be 2 feet thick! That thick skin protects the tree from fire.
But if a redwood tree does somehow fall over or gets badly burned, a ring of brand new trees will sprout from burls around the base of the older tree. But, unlike other trees, these new trees will not try to grow up on their own. They will actually work together, drawing on the roots of the parent tree, which helps them to become stronger, more resilient and more mature. Again, these trees survive because they stand together. They stand as one. They work together.
 The church can learn a lot from coastal redwood trees. Just like redwood trees, Christians grow best in groups. There’s strength in numbers. Life is full of challenges: high winds, raging floods, flames of fire. Most of us are simply not strong enough to overcome such challenges alone. We might weather a storm or two out on our own. But, over time, the pressure becomes too great, and we snap or we are uprooted or we go down in flames. We NEED the company of others. Sometimes we have to draw on their strength or wisdom or faith. Sometimes they have to believe for us until we can believe again.
This is what it means to be “one body.” We act and move together, for the good of everyone.
But, Lord knows, it is not always easy. As much as we might love each other, as much as we might LIKE each other, we are all different. We have different opinions. Different histories. Different preferences. Different gifts and abilities. We see things from different perspectives. There’s nothing wrong with that. God made us this way!
God INTENTIONALLY made us different. God INTENTIONALLY made us different so that, together, we can do the work of Jesus Christ. There’s not a single person alive who can do it all. Each of us can do part of the work, but none of us can do it all. So God INTENTIONALLY made us different so we would HAVE to depend upon one another. God WANTS us to work together.
It ain’t easy, but it is possible.
It’s going to take humility. If we are going to be one body in Christ, if we are going to work together to make disciples, if we are going to accomplish God’s purposes in the world, it is going to take humility. WE are not in charge. This is not MY church. It is not your church. It is God’s church. Jesus is the leader, and we are all trying to follow him the best way we know how. And just like those first followers, we are going to make mistakes. We are all sinners trusting in grace. But God can use us. God can use ALL of us. God can use all of us to accomplish great things if we will allow God to lead us.
God WANTS us to work together. It ain’t easy, but it is possible. It’s going to take gentleness. If we are going to be one body in Christ, it is going to take gentleness. When you live together in community, other people’s quirks, eccentricities, sins become clearly evident. And you COULD jump all over ‘em for it. And there may be times, when folks NEED to be enlightened. Lives may be at stake. But harsh words tear down and destroy. And we are called to build UP the body of Christ. Gentleness is CHOOSING your words carefully. It is encouraging others to strive for holiness rather than reprimanding them for their weakness.
God WANTS us to work together. It ain’t easy, but it is possible. It’s going to take patience. If we are going to be one body in Christ, it is going to take patience. Nothing and no one makes permanent changes quickly. We are all going on to perfection. We are all works in progress. And it takes time. It takes time to change a culture. It takes time to change minds. It takes time just to get to know each other. So we are going to have to take a deep breath and set aside our time tables and trust that God has things under control.
God WANTS us to work together. It ain’t easy, but it is possible. It’s going to take acceptance. If we are going to be one body in Christ, it is going to take acceptance. God DOES have a plan for this world, and it is a plan for redemption. And the Almighty God knows a little more about the ways of the world than I do. So it would help the process if I can learn to accept that God’s ways are not like mine, and God’s plan may not line up with my expectations. God may not line up with my expectations, and none of you may line up with my expectations either. And you know what? That is okay because God is God and I am not. And, for that, we can all say, "Hallelujah!"
God WANTS us to work together. It ain’t easy, but it is possible. It’s going to take love. If we are going to be one body in Christ, it is going to take love. God loves us even when we are NOT very lovable. So maybe, just maybe, we can cut ourselves and others some slack.
God WANTS us to work together. It ain’t easy, but it is possible. It is going to take effort. If we are going to be one body in Christ, it is going to take effort. It won’t just happen. We have to work at it. We have to keep humbling ourselves before God. We have to keep being gentle. We have to continue to practice patience. And acceptance. We have to continue to love.
Grace, Peace & Joy!
Pastor Jo

Monday, August 3, 2015

Photograph of a stained glass
window at Trinity United
Methodist Church, Paris, TN.
Taken by Jolinne Downey, 2012.
The sanctuary was destroyed by
fire in April 2015.
  "Ask and it will be given to you." That's what Jesus tells his followers right at the very beginning of the gospel of Matthew (7:7-11). "Everyone who asks receives." So why didn't it work for Jesus? In Matthew 26:36-46, Jesus is clearly distraught. He is on his knees, with his face turned to heaven, and there is pain in his eyes as he cries out to God, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me." Jesus pours out his heart to God. "I know what's coming. We both do. They are gonna kill me. And I don't want to die! Please, God, isn't there another way? Please..." Jesus asked, and he was pretty clear. He did not want to die. And he was the Son of God, "the Beloved." The one who pleased God. Jesus asked for what he wanted, and God told him, "No." So what's the point? If prayer did not work for Jesus, then why should any of us pray?

  If you are one of those people who doesn't really "get" prayer, it may reassure you to know that prayer does not come easily to most of us. If you go to, you can find over 100,000 books on prayer. So what is it about prayer that both fascinates and frustrates us?
  Simply put, prayer is about being in the presence of God, and that is an awe-inspiring thing. God is awesome in power. But God is also frustrating! Because we don't always understand God's ways. So prayer is about presence. We are ALWAYS in the presence of God, but prayer begins when we are AWARE of the presence of God. And that can happen ANYWHERE at ANY TIME. In his book "Everything Belongs", Richard Rohr states that prayer is not about saying the right words or even thinking words. Prayer is a stance. It is a posture. An attitude. It is a way of living in God's presence. Prayer is making room for God and finding joy in God's presence (page 300).
  Remember when your first child was born, and you thought you would fall to your knees in gratitude? Or the time you were out fishing on the lake, and you looked up into the most beautiful sunset that ever stretched across the sky? Or that time you were up at 2 am waiting for your boy to come home, and he did? Remember how you felt? That is prayer. Prayer begins when we realize that we are in the presence of an Almighty God, and this Mighty God cares DEEPLY about US. Prayer is about presence. And prayer is about assurance.
  Jesus did not want to die. He clearly asked God to find another way. Jesus was free to rebel against God's will. He did not go to the cross like some pre-programmed robot. He did not WANT to go, but he went. Because prayer changed him. Did you hear that? Jesus was changed as he spent time in prayer. When he went into that garden that night, Jesus was "grieved and agitated" (Matthew 26:37). He knew he was about to die, and he didn't like it one bit. So he began his evening of prayer asking God to find another way. Jesus knew what he wanted. He wanted to LIVE. But as much as he wanted to live, Jesus wanted more to please God. That's why he says, "Yet not what I want but what you want."
  It didn't happen immediately. Jesus did not suddenly change his mind and say, "Oh, it's okay if I go to the cross." No, he never WANTED to die. But he wanted to please God. Jesus wanted to please God more than anything. He wanted to please God more than he wanted to live. So, over the course of the evening, his prayer slowly changed. He no longer asks God to "let this cup pass from me." Instead, he prays, "If this cannot pass unless I drink it..." Prayer changed Jesus.
  Prayer gave Jesus a blessed assurance. Prayer brought peace. Prayer brought acceptance. Prayer brought trust. Prayer made it possible for Jesus to say, "Your will be done." Prayer made it possible for Jesus to go to the cross.
  Jesus trusted God, and even though he did not want to die, Jesus believed that God loved him. Jesus believed that God had a plan, and that it was a good plan, and that somehow God would make things right. And God did! Sure, in that moment, when he was in pain and agony on the cross, Jesus felt like he was all alone. His friends and family and all those adoring fans had fallen away and left him to suffer alone. But the resurrection of Christ shows us that God was with Jesus every step of the way. God DID have a plan. And it was a good plan. It was a plan to bless Jesus. And it was a plan to bless all the people of the world THROUGH Jesus. No, Jesus did not get what he asked for that evening in the garden. He got something better. Not easier, but better.
  Jesus taught his followers to ask God for what they wanted. God is a good and loving parent (7:7-11). God wants to give us good things. God will not be angry if we ask for what we want or need. In fact, God will give good things to those who ask for them. We may not get exactly what we ask for when we ask for it. But God will give us good things if we allow God to bless us. If we seek God's blessing, God will bless us. When we ask God for good things, we open ourselves up to receive God's blessing. We open ourselves up to the awesome power of God. And when we are open to God, then God can do all kinds of good things. God can do good things IN us and FOR us AND for the world.