Roots

From our first adventures as a couple, Tim and I have been independent, against-the-flow-of-traffic travelers. We want to see what no one else is seeing, take the alternate route, and figure it all out on our own. But traveling with kids has forced us to slow down and appreciate the value of the “guided tour”.

This summer, on our bus ride to the Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado, we were treated to 20 minutes of fascinating facts (complete with a full supply of dad-jokes) about what we were about to see. From history and geology to his own wilderness adventures, our bus driver made the ride turn from something we had to put up with to one of our favorite parts of the whole trip!

One of the interesting tidbits we learned was about aspen trees. On our own we would have hiked past these birch-like trees assuming they were just like every other tree. But thanks to our bus driver, we were made aware of just how different these trees are!

Aspen trees don’t exist on their own as most trees do. Instead, they grow in clusters, each tree sprouting from the roots of the other trees, making an entire grove of aspens a single living organism. One root system connects all of the trees, providing nourishment and stability to keep the whole cluster alive and growing.

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In his parting words to the leaders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20, Paul, concerned he would not return again to this church he had planted, defended his ministry and warned them of what might be to come. Though he cared for the believers dearly and had worked through “tears” and “trials” (v. 19) to establish the church, Paul knew that he himself was not their source of life.

He states in verse 32, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Paul knew that without his physically-present leadership, false teachers and divisions would arise, but he also knew that this was God’s church, not his.

In this statement, Paul was reminding the believers of the single root system of the church: “the word of his grace”. It was the gospel message of restored relationship with God through grace and grace alone that Paul built the church at Ephesus on, and he left assuring them that this message would be their continued source of nourishment and stability. If grace was the connecting factor, this cluster of believers would continue to thrive and grow, even in the face of hardship.

As members of the church today, we share this same root system. Though individual trees, we remain in clusters, connected by the understanding that we are not here of our own merit, but only because of grace. We are joined by the belief that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). And like Paul, we are given “thorns” to remind us that this grace is not just for the newbies, but we all must stay adjoined to this root system every moment of every day (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Twenty years of working in the church have proven to me that though we have this head-knowledge, it’s incredibly hard to turn into life-action. Rather than grace, we tend to depend on other things to hold us together, only feeling ‘connected’ with others who agree with our political ideologies or parenting styles. Rather than seeing everyone as an equal part of the cluster, we elevate our pastors and leaders, cutting them off from grace and putting superhuman expectations on them – and then tearing them apart when they inevitably let us down. We expect grace to be extended for our sins and weaknesses, but slam down the criticism when we see others fall. And I can only say this because I’m just as guilty of it as everyone else.

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One of the other facts we learned about the aspen trees is that after a fire, they are often the first things to grow back. This is because, according to the National Forest Foundation, “even if the trees of a stand are wiped out, it is very difficult to permanently extinguish an aspen’s root system”.*

We don’t know much about whether Paul’s predictions of false teachers and divisions ever occurred at Ephesus, but if you’ve been around the church for very long, you can guess they probably did. Because fires happen. Grace gets buried underneath the flames of spiritual pride, hurt feelings, and unmet expectations. Instead of remembering our roots and extending forgiveness, we burn each other.

When I see those flames igniting or sense them sparking in my own heart, it’s time to go back to those roots and get some grace-perspective. And when the fires do happen – when only ashes remain and hope seems lost, I can remember that the grace of Christ can’t be extinguished.

The church will continue to grow because grace works. It has been and will always be the root system that God is building His church on. It may be the only thing we have in common, but it’s enough!

*https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/tree-profile-aspen-so-much-more-than-a-tree

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Fences

Hiking with kids is always an adventure. Once we get past the initial barrage of “Why do we have to do this?” and “How long is it going to take?” and “Why are you torturing us like this?” we settle into our “Desi-Let’s go!” groove and spend the next couple of hours trying to prevent our children from injuring themselves by engaging in risky activity.

On our “big hike” day in Yellowstone this summer, we set off from the Wapiti Lake Trailhead and made our way to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This scenic trail wound through wide open where-the-buffalo-roam fields, a fascinating geothermal area, and two peaceful lakes (where, as we found out, the buffalo hike 😲). At the end of the trail, we were rewarded with a fabulous panoramic view of the canyon.

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After taking in the view, we continued on the canyon rim trail to two more overlooks – Artist’s Point and Point Sublime. This trail, though obviously well-traveled, was not for the faint of heart as the majority of it ran directly along the rim of the cliffs. Inches – not feet – separated us from sheer 1000-foot drop offs. And there were no fences along the trail at all. Talk about risky activity – and all we were doing was walking!

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As I was hiking, I spent the whole time wondering: “Why are there no fences? How is this possibly safe?”

But when we got to Point Sublime, where there was a fence, my questions were answered. Because this happened:

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Trail maintainers know this to be true: Fences, though creating a boundary, are only invitations to push the limit. We lean on them, climb on them, and hang over them because they give us an illusion of safety. With a fence in place, we don’t have to think too hard about the placement of our feet, because we feel separated from the danger.

But without a fence, a hiker is constantly aware of the danger that lurks just inches from their feet. Without fences, hikers have to focus on every step and aren’t as likely to push the limits when near the edge. If you’re a hiker like me, you keep your feet as close to side of safety as possible!

I like rules. They make me feel safe. They help me know what is expected of me and I (usually) don’t have much trouble following them once I’m aware of them. I like my rules to be obvious and specific, so there’s no guesswork involved on my part.

As a rule-follower, there are so many times where I wish God had given us a better “rule book”! I wish He would have fast-forwarded time and given me more specific guidelines on how to be a follower of Jesus in my circumstances in the 21st century.

As a professional trail-maintainer, though, Jesus said, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) Instead of leaving me with a whole bunch of fences, He gave me something better: His Spirit.

Yes, fences showing me exactly how to handle certain situations, how to relate to every person, or how far is too far might keep me feeling safely separated from the danger of sin, but mostly they would only be invitations to push the limit.

Instead, Paul says in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Notice that he didn’t give a double command, “walk by the Spirit [and do not] gratify the desires of the flesh”, but rather a cause and effect, “[If you] walk by the Spirit, [then] you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Because the “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (v. 17), walking by the Spirit is the most effective way to avoid the pitfalls of sin.

When I am walking by the Spirit, actively engaging my heart and mind in Bible reading, prayer, and worship, the “works of the flesh are evident” (v. 19). I don’t need someone to tell me where the line is, because the Spirit was already leading me in the other direction long before I got close to the edge. With the Spirit nudging me toward the “do’s” of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (v. 22-23), the lists of “do not’s” become unnecessary.

When a fence is in place, it’s our human nature to lean on it and put ourselves at risk by depending on it. But God has given us His Spirit, so we can walk in confident dependence on Him instead!

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Shift

The beautiful thing about being on vacation is that time doesn’t matter. On our trip to Colorado and Wyoming this August, there were several days when I did not even know (or care to know) what day of the week it was. And time of day was judged solely on the *hangriness-level* of the children (or maybe the parents 😉).

But on our visit to Yellowstone National Park, we learned that time can be everything!

On our 90-minute tour of the Norris Geyser Basin, we learned all about the Hot Springs:

SHIFT Hot Spring

Steam Vents:

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Mud Pots:

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And, of course, the Geysers:

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that make Yellowstone the unique attraction that it is. Our tour guide, Rick, shared about the history of the park and its fascinating geothermal features.

During the tour, Ranger Rick asked our group a question: “Can any of these features change to become another kind of feature? Can a Hot Spring become a Steam Vent? Can a Geyser become a Hot Spring?” The answer was an obvious “Yes” in my head – it only made sense that over thousands of years things could change. But, as Rick informed us, things in Yellowstone can change overnight!

Change is an inevitable part of life. As long as the earth is still spinning, living things will grow, the ground will erode, buildings will deteriorate, metal will rust, paint will peel, and clean will become dirty. With every minute that goes by, technology advances, styles adjust, opinions shift, and feelings fluctuate. The passing of time always brings change.

I am not the same person I was a year ago and a year from now, I will not be the same person I am today. This is especially true when it comes to my relationship with Jesus. Like all relationships involving humans, shifting, fluctuating, and adjusting are part of the package. Even though I like to think it’s possible, I am never at a place where I am staying put – I am always shifting in one direction or the other.

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When Ranger Rick explained to us how things in Yellowstone can change overnight, we were surprised to find out the answer was… earthquakes! According to Rick, anywhere from 1 to 20 earthquakes occur every day in the park (yes, I was second-guessing my parenting and vacation location choices at this point!). The general public would never feel these quakes, but they are happening and with every one, the ground is shifting and things are changing.

We all experience approximately 1 to 20 earthquakes a day. They come in the form of moments, events, interactions, conversations, and decisions. I wish there was a way to predict them or see them coming, but there rarely is. Their effects range from imperceptible to drastic, and though some of these earthquakes are in our control, most of them are not. Regardless of their magnitude, these disruptions change us and cause shifts in our faith.

The good news is that the direction of these shifts is in my control. Psalm 92:1-2 tells me:

“It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, proclaiming your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night.”

Though I did choose to allow my family to camp on top of a dormant supervolcano (another questionable parenting choice), I don’t have to live on one. I have the ability to put my feet down every day on something that will never shift – the unfailing love of the Lord toward me. I can start each day acknowledging that I am fully and completely loved by God and then let that love support and stabilize me through the quakes. At night I can look back and declare His faithfulness and goodness in it all – no matter what tremors occurred.

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Near the end of our tour, Ranger Rick told us yet another fascinating fact about the geothermal features in Yellowstone. He said that it’s only because of the earthquakes that the geysers are still geysers! The water coming out of the earth in these features is filled with minerals that build up and threaten to close them up for good. But thanks to the constant shifting of the ground, the minerals can’t stay built up and the water is able to make its way through. In fact, Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser, which has erupted only sporadically over the last hundred years, has erupted 17 times in 2018!*

The moments, events, interactions, conversations, and decisions headed my way today may not be fun, but they may also be the very things that are shifting me closer to Jesus. The passing of time always brings change, but that change can be for the better!

*https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/steamboat-geyser.htm

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