New Zealand 2011 III

The Tree Falls

Move One:

In the fall of 1993, James Lane was driving his Volkswagen on the backroads of the Oregon coast. It was a sunny day, warm and aglow—a last taste of summer before the long grey winter set in.

He was 41, born in the year-of-our-Lord 1952.

That same year, a seed pod dropped from one of Oregon’s towering western red cedars and took root in the loamy soil of the coastal forest. It grew rapidly—as cedars do: three feet in the first year … 15 feet in five years … 25 feet in ten. By the fall of 1993, the cedar was almost 100 feet tall and weighed many tons.

Cedars are naturally rot and insect resistant. Healthy cedars often live for over 1000 years. But cedars have a weakness—their root system. The roots of cedars spread broad rather than run deep. A strong wind … excessive rain … and the roots give way. The tree comes crashing down.

The wind was not blowing on the fall day James Lane drove along that narrow road lined with majestic cedars. But Oregon is famous for its frequent and soaking rains. It had rained for a solid week before the sun finally decided to shine again this fall day. The ground was saturated. And the roots of our cedar could no longer sustain the weight of the tree.

Deep in the earth came a cracking and tearing. The soil around the cedar began to buckle and lift. The tree started to list and then began a slow stately fall.

James Lane did not hear the roots giving way or see the cedar toppling. He was just out driving on a lovely fall day. But—in odd and tragic intersection—the tree fell right on top of James Lane’s Volkswagen. It crushed the roof of the car. It blew out all four tires. It smashed the frame of the automobile into the pavement below.

When the roof of the Volkswagen collapsed, James Lane’s head was in the way. His neck bent and broke—a classic C-4 injury that left James a quadriplegic.

In the fall of 1993, a tree fell on James Lane. He survived the encounter. But he was never the same again.

Move Two: The Cross and Saul of Tarsus

In the spring of ad 36, something very similar happened to Saul of Tarsus. He was riding along the interior road that ran from Jerusalem to Damascus in the north. We don’t know what the weather was like that day, or whether a forest lined the narrow road. We do not know the make and model of the horse he rode.

We do know that Saul was born about 40 years before the day that changed his life. All through the years Paul was growing from an infant to a boy to a man, a plant was also growing: from seedling to sapling to tree. It might even have been a cedar … cedars were common in that part of the world in ancient times.

This tree—whatever its species—did not suffer from root rot or infestation. It did not fall down of its own accord. It was felled. Its limbs were lopped off. It was shaped roughly with an adze. And then it was loaded onto a wagon and transported to a military storage area to be used for building or bridging … or as the instrument of death for a condemned criminal or slave.

As it happens, this particular tree was dumped at the feet of one Jesus of Nazareth—for him to carry up the hill of Golgotha. It was this tree to which he was nailed. It was this tree that became his cross and on which he died. If you listened carefully as the blood of Jesus watered this tree, you might have heard a cracking and tearing. You could have felt the earth buckle and tremble.

Jesus met this tree outside of Jerusalem and died as a result.

Many years later and many miles away, Saul of Tarsus also had a rendezvous with that tree. He was out riding on a spring day, headed to Damascus, determined to rid the world of every story told about the Nazarene who died on that tree. In an odd and catastrophic intersection, that very tree ended up falling from heaven right on top of Saul. A bright and blinding light. A voice from above. Saul on his face in the dust.

Saul did not see the tree falling to crush his world. But when his world collapsed, Paul’s heart was in the way. His pride bent and broke—a classic humbling that left him a permanent penitent.

In the spring of ad 36, a tree fell on Saul of Tarsus. He survived the encounter. But he was never the same again.

Move Three:

Read 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ… We are weak… We are dishonored… To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.

We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.

Move Four:

I’m just a lowly church member at the moment.

  1. All grunt work and washing feet.
  2. Not a lot of respect … being taken for granted.
  3. Nobody’s going out of their way encourage me, to listen to me, to value my opinions, to tell me how much I am growing and what a fine job I’m doing.
  4. But that’s all right … I’m just beginning my Christian walk!

If I play my cards right, they’ll ask me to be a deacon!

  1. Won’t that be fine! I’ll be official … a title and a position!
  2. It many not be very high on the church organization chart, but at least it’s a role with some clout.
  3. People will listen to me when I speak and show me a little more respect.

One day, of course, I’m hoping to be an elder!

  1. People calling me “brother” and asking for my wisdom.
  2. Going to meetings with other important people and making important decisions.
  3. Members showing me proper respect and deference.
  4. People valuing my opinions above their own.

Best of all, though, would be to serve as an apostle. Imagine!

  1. One of the chosen few!
  2. Commissioned to carry the gospel to all the world!
  3. Granted spiritual authority and spiritual power!
  4. To hold the keys of the kingdom in your very hands!
  5. To bind and loose on earth and in heaven!
  6. To speak the words of God himself!
  7. To carry the shepherd’s staff—the sign of office!
  8. To be painted wearing the halo—sign of saintliness!

How great would that be?!

Move Five: Paul the Apostle

By the time Paul came to Philippi, he was already an accomplished servant of Christ.

He’d planted more churches than any of his contemporaries, baptized more people, appointed more elders. He’d ventured into territory where no one else had gone. Already, he bore on his body the marks of the whip and the stone—he’d shown his courage and commitment with his blood. He had preached to thousands and healed the sick and cast out demons.

Yet, at the end of the summer of ad 49, the Roman authorities tied him to a post in the Philippian agora, stripped his back bare, and beat him with rods. He could have demanded proper respect as a holy man. He could even have claimed his rights as a Roman citizen. But the tree had fallen on Paul and so he bit his lip and took the beating. The dull thuds of the rod—pulverizing his skin and the muscles beneath—echoed around the public forum, greeted with shouts of derision from the watching crowds. Paul took the first few blows with a grunt, and then cried out as the rod kept coming, and then screamed. At the end, his bladder and bowels released and he slumped unconscious against the post.

No way to treat an apostle, you might think.

His back still hanging in ribbons from his shoulders, Paul began the long trudge to Thessalonike—75 miles away. There was no chariot for the journey, no honor guard, no attendants to wait on Paul hand and foot. Just wounded Paul and his wounded friend Silas, leaning against one another as they took step after agonizing step towards another city that needed to hear good news. They went because the tree had fallen upon them both and new cities and good news were their offering of faithfulness.

Had they been in better shape, they could have walked to Thessaloniki in four days. As it is, it must have taken them weeks … healing as they walked … sleeping on the hard ground with backs that could not endure the lightest touch.

No hardship for an apostle to endure …  do you think?

They arrived in Thessaloniki and Paul went straight to the synagogue. “He is the Messiah, I tell you. The prophets foretold him. The resurrection confirms him!” But they would not listen. They didn’t care that he was God’s apostle! They argued and shouted and hurled abuse. They were jealous and resentful and could not abide this irritating man with his irritating news. And Paul, the man on whom the tree had fallen, embraced it all—filling up in his own body the sufferings of Christ. After three weeks, they formed a mob. They started a riot. Deep in the night, Paul and Silas slipped away to Berea—walking through the dark and for the next few days in the dust and heat of the Greek fall.

Not very dignified treatment for an apostle of Chirst. Not a dignified exit for a man commissioned to save the Gentile world.

In Athens, the philosophers laughed him off the Areopagus.

In Corinth, Paul had to find a job to keep body and soul together—an apostle making tents. The Jews of the synagogue opposed and abused him … Paul left the haven of his countrymen, rejected and reviled. For 18 months, he poured himself into the Gentiles of that city: teaching … baptizing … training … maturing. Long days sewing canvas … long nights stitching together disciples.

No sooner did he leave Corinth than the Corinthians decided they liked other teachers better than Paul. Apollos was so eloquent. The Christian Jews from Jerusalem were so persuasive and knowledgeable of Scripture. They were so much more palatable for sophisticated Corinthians than the rough little rabbi in home-spun robes with callouses on his hands. No respect, even from the people who owed their souls to Paul’s apostolic work.

But Paul, with his broken pride and his cross-shaped heart, just kept being faithful with his humble, sacrificial, self-denying ministry. He knew that if he could let the tree fall on him again today and tomorrow and next week, others would have a rendezvous with the tree themselves. The tree would fall on all manner of people in all manner of places.

And when it did, it would change their lives as surely as it had changed his. They would never be the same again.

Move Six:

I want to be Paul without the tree parts.

  1. I like the parts of Paul’s life when he’s having visions of God and writing Holy Scripture and exercising apostolic authority.
  2. I like the parts about being beloved and respected and obeyed.
  3. I’d like to be remembered by history like Paul … to be seen as one of the Fathers of the Faith … to be admired for my wisdom and courage and commitment.

Just leave out all the tree parts, please!

  1. All that stuff about suffering and pain and doubts.
  2. All that stuff about rejection and ridicule and disrespect.
  3. I don’t want to be weak and hungry and persecuted.
  4. I don’t want to be treated as the scum of the earth.
  5. I certainly don’t want to die!

Don’t misunderstand … I don’t mind a little tree!

  1. Bumping into the tree on occasion.
  2. Brief encounters causing minor damage.
  3. I don’t mind talking about the tree or recommending the tree to others.
  4. I just don’t want the tree, the whole tree, and nothing but the tree.
  5. Nothing catastrophic … nothing traumatic … nothing that marks me and my ministry for the rest of my life.

Move Seven: The Cross and Ministry

If I preach with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not the tree at the heart of my ministry, I am only a resounding gong and a clanking cymbal.

If I found a hundred churches and baptize a thousand people and write a dozen books, but no tree has not marked my ministry with its crushing touch, all I do is for nothing.

If I spend my life on the mission field and bear in my body the effects of strange food and bad water, if I die as a martyr to the cause, but never experience the tree falling on me and my ministry with such power that I no longer live but Christ lives in me, it matters nothing.

The tree is the measure of faithful ministry. The humility of the tree is the greatest measure of a true disciple. The death of ambition and pride and desire for place and hunger for respect is the essential calling of those who would be Christ’s faithful followers.

There is no legitimate ministry beyond the shadow of the tree.

Where there are programs and strategies, they will cease. Where there are personalities and church VIPs, they will pass away. Where there are consultants and speakers brought from far away to wow you with eloquence, they will all fade to dust.

Only these three things remain: The tree … the ones on whom the tree has fallen … and the cross-shaped ministry that results.

But the greatest of these is the tree.

  • The tree that is the foolishness of men and the wisdom of God.
  • The tree that alone has the power to crush and create.
  • The tree that is our boast and hope and true example.

So … has the tree fallen on you?

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.