From the Pastor’s Study (12/12/2021)
Ashley Baptist Church enjoyed a season of outreach and excitement when it relocated to its present facility. Our new building brought many first-time guests. During this time, one Sunday, I looked out the front doors of the church to see my youngest son in a fist fight with a boy from a visiting family. I ran over to separate the two combatants and asked what the fight was about. My son, red faced with anger, said, “This kid just tore a branch off of one of Mr. Burns’ trees!” He thought this was a serious crime that had to be avenged. I confess, while I did not approve of my son’s methods, I sympathized with his feelings.
Mr. Burns – Ken Burns – was a much-loved church member of long standing. At first, when the church began its building program, he had little enthusiasm for it. He told me candidly, “I don’t like it, but I agree with it.” He understood that the building program was necessary, but he also treasured many decades of memories accumulated in the old Ashley chapel.
I once admitted to Ken that there was something I actually regretted about relocating. The old building was shaded by several majestic maple trees, some of which were over a century old. I like big trees, and I told Ken I would miss them. The week following that conversation a truck delivered six maple saplings to the construction site. Ken Burns had purchased them without my knowing. Today these trees line the church driveway and adorn our property. I see them as a memorial to a very kind and faithful saint who went to heaven short months after the church relocated. The vandalizing of one of “Mr. Burns’ trees” was what inspired my son’s pugilistic intervention.
Two decades have passed, and these trees are much larger. Yet they are still not close to the size of the grand old maples that surrounded the old chapel. To grow trees like those takes the multiplied accumulation of passing seasons. It takes a lifetime.
The prophet Isaiah employed a marvelous word picture when he wrote that Christ would take sinful, suffering people and grow them into “trees of righteousness.” (Is. 61:3) What makes a tree large and strong? Deep roots, dense wood, thick bark, long branches all come with time. It is not only trees that grow and mature. It is individual Christians. It is local churches. “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (II Pet. 3:18) The Lord wants us to “grow up into him in all things.” (Eph. 4:15) It takes time for a child of God to grow into a tree of righteousness. For a church to “grow unto a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21) it takes time.
Often ability or enthusiasm are confused with spiritual maturity. Education also can be mistaken for maturity. A seminary degree or theological knowledge does not necessarily indicate spiritual development. Paul wrote that spiritual leaders in the church were not to be “novices” (or “newly planted”). (I Tim. 3:6) There is a reason one title for a spiritual leader in the church is “elder.” Spiritual growth takes experience, and experience takes time.
Sometimes churches are perceived as strong and mature because of size. Bigger crowds, broader ministries, and larger budgets may indeed be signs of spiritual growth, but not always. Healthy growth generally comes gradually. In our bodies, enlargement that happens suddenly is often not growth but swelling, and is caused by injury or infection. Many ministries that are thought to be growing are not; they are swollen. They are infected with error, worldliness, and compromise. There is a vast difference between gathering a crowd and growing a body. This is one reason why many larger churches endure for only a short while.
For our church and for our individual spiritual lives we should seek to be “like a tree planted by rivers of water.” (Ps. 1:3) Trees of righteousness are steadfast, stable, patient, enduring – growing in the likeness of Christ, and increasing “with the increase of God.” (Col. 2:19)