Paul: Integrity Stamped by Suffering

Reading in 2 Timothy this morning, I’m struck by these words of Paul to the young pastor he loved like a son: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8 NIV).

My, how inviting: Join me in suffering. Not exactly the best offer of the day, is it. Certainly not what most of us would want for a loved one. Imprisonment. Whippings. Stoning. Shipwreck. Assassination attempts. Tremendous opposition. Desertion by friends. Ultimately, execution under the Roman government. And through it all, prodigious concern for the welfare of fledgling churches across Asia. That’s what Paul got in exchange for the career path he gave up as a Pharisee of Pharisees headed for success, prestige, comfort, and wealth as one of Israel’s top religious intelligentsia.

That’s what Paul endured. Can we at all grasp how much he really sacrificed and suffered? If any of us have speculated that Paul was in it for some sort of temporal gain, all I can say is, open your eyes. The gospel utterly ruined any prospect of an easy life for the man.

And that, for me, underscores just how priceless the salvation of Jesus and the kingdom of God were to Paul. What he saw was so clear and so real to him, and of such infinitely surpassing value, that in contrast he referred to his losses and sufferings as “our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17 NIV).

The integrity of Paul’s words and character is stamped not by his worldly acquisitions but by his sacrifices and suffering. “Join me in these,” he exhorted Timothy. “Take up the torch. It’ll be worth it. You just can’t imagine how far the reward exceeds the pain.”

Lord, help us to see that. Grant us grace. In this day, in this live-for-now, self-obsessed world, grant us a pilgrim’s vision of a better city “whose architect and builder” is God” (Heb. 11:10).

For the Love of a Tree

Child of the Monarch

Child of the Monarch

Across the stream behind my late-boyhood home in Cascade, Michigan, there stretched a forest where hepaticas bloomed purple and pink in the spring, profusions of trilliums scattered like popcorn beneath the understory, and colonies of downy rattlesnake plantain and shining club moss nestled amidst a sprawl of partridgeberry. A network of trails, known well to my feet, led up and down wooded hillsides, over streams, and across clearings past the stone ruins of pioneer homesteads, all the way to the banks of the Thornapple River a mile away.

In that forest, not far from my house, a tall old white pine stood sentinel on a hillock overlooking a tiny swamp. During the awkward and often painful years between twelve and eighteen, when a boy goes through his confusing transition to early manhood, that white pine became my friend.

It was a magnificent tree whose bark had long ago roughened from the gray slickness of a sapling to the brown, rugged furrows of a monarch. To say it was a wise old tree would be to impose too much on it. It was a tree. But it knew how to listen. And it knew how to welcome me to its sheltering shadow, where a circle of soft, fragrant needles spread like a blanket on the forest duff. There I could lay me down in the shade and silence, and look up through the branches at the clouds passing over, and smell the piney air, and simply be. I had a place to go and think and pray, and a great pine to talk to whose murmur in the breeze became all the reply and exactly the companionship I needed.

When life got difficult, as it often did, I would go to my friend the tree. It was always there. My place, my tree. My good friend. My beloved white pine.

In the spring of my eighteenth year, the sound of chain saws invaded the woods. Next came the bulldozers, and shortly after, the inevitable. There came an afternoon when I arrived home from school to find a massive strip of raw earth carved through the woods, down the hill to the edge of Trout Creek. The beautiful, tall tamaracks, which for years had lit the swamp like candle flames in the fall, had been thrust heedlessly aside. And sprawling in their shattered midst, its branches reaching skyward in mute supplication, lay my friend the white pine.

I dropped my books, ran across the homemade plywood bridge that spanned the creek, and rushed up the slope to where my pine tree lay. Tenderly I stroked its branches. And as golden pine pollen rose about me in a cloud, I wept. My friend—my dear, dear old friend. My heart is broken. I will miss you so!

Ten or twenty feet distant, just beyond the ruin of the bulldozer, I spotted a pine seedling, no more than a foot and a half tall. Undoubtedly it was the child of my giant white pine.

I recrossed the bridge, picked up my books, and headed to the house. In the garage, I grabbed a shovel. Then I headed back across the creek, and I dug up the tiny white pine, and I took it home and planted it in the side yard next to the garden.

That was more than forty years ago. My father died ten years later, my mother and sister moved to Grand Rapids, and in the ensuing years I have rarely visited the old neighborhood. But this evening I drove past the house on the corner of Tanglewood and Tricklewood Drives. It looks well kept, and the yard has filled in beautifully with trees. And there on the side, the white pine I planted long ago is growing still. I would like to say it has attained stately height and dimensions, but it appears that the homeowners have trimmed it so that it resembles a white pine bush rather than a tree. Nevertheless, it is vigorous, and I am satisfied that my old friend and confidant from decades past lives on in one of his progeny. The owners haven’t a clue as to the origins of their pine bush. But I do. I am part of the story.

My friend the white pine gave me his shade, his fragrance, his patient presence, and a place to talk to God and rest my teenage soul. In return, I gave my friend’s offspring a chance beyond the earthmovers that converted a noble forest into backyards where wild orchids no longer grow nor ruffed grouse drum in the spring.

I did it for the love of a tree. It was what I could do; it was the least I could do. And I am glad today to know that my small deed was not in vain. My friend’s lineage continues, and with me his memory remains, golden, like pine pollen rising as a cloud and glowing in the sun.



What Only Children See

August 20, 2016: I just got back from the movie theater. For me tonight, the choice was between Ben Hur and Pete’s Dragon. I chose Pete’s Dragon. And I am glad.

We grown-up, preoccupied adults, so caught up in the cares and responsibilities of life, need to watch a children’s movie now and then. We need to reclaim the magic and let it sweep us away. We need, beyond the great conflicts portrayed so simplistically in such movies, to see the promise and heartwarming gladness of a fairytale ending, and to believe that such endings can be true—for they are true. Somewhere beyond the griefs and struggles of this world, there is a happily-ever-after that truly is happy and truly is ever after.

We need to tell our inner critic who says, “How corny!” to shut up, and allow ourselves to be carried off in the emotion when the music swells and friendly dragons fly joyously over the mountains, and loneliness becomes belonging, and what was lost is found, and all things turn out right and beautiful in the end. We need these things, for they call forth someone inside us without whom we cannot live—the child in each of us, who sees truly, and who is honest and free of heart, and who is the best part of us. Children’s movies like Pete’s Dragon remind us who we really are, and who our heavenly Father is, and how he sees us and longs for us to see ourselves.

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” Jesus said, “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” And then he continued, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14–15).

Whatever it means to become like a little child—and it can entail many things: innocence, trust, openness, emotional honesty, and more—I think it includes an attitude that embraces great stories that are closer to the truth than any textbook. Stories that call us back to ourselves, and open our eyes to the character of our Father, and open our hearts to his heart.

“And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them” (v. 16). Tonight, through Pete’s Dragon, Jesus laid his hands on me and blessed me. For though I am sixty years old, inside I am still just a little boy who loves to run through the fields and climb trees, and who feels, with the new heart of a child, the wonder of a sunset, the mystery of a starry night sky, the beauty of a rainbow, and the glory of a storm.

Thank you, Father! May I never grow too old to be young, and to see the beautiful, free child in others, however hidden that child may be by masks and walls—for you yourself, the Forever Child, renew our youth and beckon us beyond our life-toughened exteriors to the tenderness at our heart’s core.

Amen, Lord. Do this for me always, and for those I love, and for your people. This world ages us, blinds us to the truth. So show us that truth again and again. Remind us. Guide us to our true hearts, reborn in you, and give us to live from them as little children. For there is where life begins, and there is where it all comes back to—forever.