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.
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.
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!