NASHVILLE (BP) – A few years ago, our family vacationed in California – the land of the great redwood forest. The author John Steinbeck wrote of them: “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.”
There’s something worshipful that happens when you stand in front of a giant tree. I was reading about the mighty California redwoods recently, and came across this note online:
Redwood tree roots are very shallow, often only five or six feet deep. But they make up for it in width, sometimes extending up to 100 feet from the trunk. They thrive in thick groves, where the roots can intertwine and even fuse together. This gives them tremendous strength against the forces of nature.
Notice what keeps these huge trees from falling in the high winds of nature. It is not their depth, but rather, their relationship with surrounding trees. By joining underground arms with neighbors, they gain enormous stability. Conversely, a redwood standing all by itself is a fragile one.
Think about that metaphor in light of where we are as a family of churches. There is a spiritual truth in there, summarized in four simple words: We need each other.
What holds a denomination, or even a single local church together? It is the humility to say: we need others in order to be strong. It is not wise to stand alone.
In Hebrews 10, the author is switching from a doctrinal to a practical posture. Having established the weighty matters of Jesus Christ as the Great High Priest, the author now aims to motivate the believer to do something with it.
21 and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, 25 not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching. Hebrews 10:21-25
Each of these “let us” statements is connected to a key component of Christian living. Here we see what strong Christians do.
Strong Christians draw near to Christ in prayer (Hebrews 10:22)
As you know, the Old Testament practice in the temple restricted access to the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter, and only for a short amount of time. But that era came to a close with the crucifixion of Christ. The final sacrifice was made, and every single Christian can freely enter the inner sanctum. And we do so by prayer.
One of the special people God put in my path this year is Bill Elliff, a pastor and revivalist in Little Rock, Arkansas. He spoke at a denominational meeting about the difference between prayer being in the side room of your house as opposed to the foundation of your house:
If someone gave you money to build a home, you would develop your plans with an architect. But you might discover that the money they provided was not enough. Back to the architect you’d go. You would downsize one room or another, maybe even deciding that some rooms would be nice, but unnecessary. But there is one part of the construction you could not eliminate: the foundation. Even though unseen, everything depends on the foundation.
And from there, Elliff makes the connection to the local church and to individual believers. Prayer has been moved to the periphery of our ministries, to the side rooms of our lives. It is not foundational. It is not our first reaction to conflict. It is not our natural reflex when we feel hurt by other believers.
If Hebrews had been written today, this verse might read: Too much tweeting; not enough praying. I believe that we all should be asking ourselves about the decreasing levels of prayer taking place with increasing levels of screen time.
Strong Christians hold on to hope in Christ (Hebrews 10:23)
One of the worst games ever invented is Tug of War. I always manage to pick the losing team. The game ends with my body being drug along the ground, as if I’m being pulled behind a vehicle. My hands blister from the wear and tear of clinging to that rope. Sometimes it hurts to hold on.
The author of Hebrews is speaking to a highly Jewish audience – a group of people who would not let go of the Old Covenant. They were holding onto the outdated rules which were abolished at the cross. Even worse, they were not holding on to the hope we have in Christ.
Last year, Lifeway Research conducted a study on the well-being of pastors, assessing their overall needs. The findings were fascinating, particularly in the pandemic season, when congregations were split down the middle due to masking and vaccination arguments. This is hard on the heart of the pastor who longs to see his people unified and focused on the mission.
What’s more, 66 percent of pastors confessed that they were wavering – that they did not feel solid in their belief that God would pull them through. In the words of Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Don’t give up. Take it one day at a time and believe that the Lord will see you through.
Recently, my wife Lynley and I were at a gathering of pastors and one of them was Gregg Matte from Houston’s First. Gregg was sharing what he has learned over the years about endurance, about hanging on in hard times. He shared two insights that stuck with us:
- Today’s newspapers line tomorrow’s birdcages. Hard times will come, but remember that the news cycle is short. This too shall pass. The church belongs to the Lord, and He will preserve it.
- The clouds are always moving. If you look above and see dark, overcast skies, just wait a few days, or months, or years; the sun will shine again. Don’t lose heart when it feels gloomy in your life. Conversely, when the sun is shining and all is well, be aware that James 1 is true – that trials are the tests we must undergo if we are to be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
There are seasons when the only thing God expects us to do is to hold on, to be faithful with what is in front of us, and to wait upon His rescue. Draw near to God in prayer.
Strong Christians provoke one another in love (Hebrews 10:24)
The Greek word for provoke is used in another place in the New Testament, describing an annoying behavior. It is used to explain how one person can negatively rub off on another, but here the word is used in the opposite way – to be a positive irritant. To disrupt a person’s life in a most inspiring way. This is the ministry of encouragement.
Former Lifeway president Jimmy Draper told me this year: be kind to everybody, because everybody’s having a hard time. It is kindness that truly impacts the people around us, not our condemnation. People need to be told how important they are to you.
This brings us back to the redwood tree. What makes those massive trees strong is their interlocking roots with neighbors. They draw strength from one another.
Now it becomes clear why Hebrews goes on in the next verse to say, “let us not give up the habit of meeting together.” Being in proximity, in the same room, our lives touching one another brings tremendous stability and joy to our lives. When we are rooted in a local church, we are far better people.