When I was eight years old, we lived in an old farmhouse in southern Illinois. It had a big yard and a big garden and trees, lots of trees. There were three or four gigantic, old trees in what I always considered to be the front yard. They seemed to stand watch along the road like soldiers guarding a palace gate. I never paid much attention to them; they were too stately, their branches too high. They served as a barrier, one I was not to cross but sometimes did anyway. The other trees in the yard, however, were a completely different story.
A willow tree did its weeping at the edge of the real front yard, just the house side of a ditch. Around the corner at the garden’s edge was a squatty, redbud tree and across from it was another tall, straight tree that shaded the garage to one side and the picnic table my father had built to the other. My sisters and I made good use of these trees. The branches of the willow made for the perfect swing across the ditch. The redbud tree was well suited for the newbie climber, although its low branches created quite the problem in one particular game of “Blind Man’s Bluff”. We were eventually banished from the world of its branches, our frequent climbs having begun to split its trunk. So, we were left with the climbing tree of all climbing trees.
The truth of the matter is I never could have gotten into that tree if it hadn’t been for the picnic table. I remember sitting at that table while my poor mother was attempting to teach my sisters and I Spanish, all the while trying to figure out how I could get up in that tree without completely destroying our little class and infuriating my mother. It wasn’t that we had nowhere else to play or nothing else to do, we did. We had bicycles and swings and a slide and a host of other toys, but it was the tree that always beckoned.
It had several tricks up its branches that made it especially appealing. First of all, that summer I had been introduced to the Olympics for the first time (No, you didn’t miss anything. To the best of my knowledge tree climbing is not an Olympic sport). The branch that was most accessible from the picnic table started as a single branch and then split into two. They made the perfect uneven bars. I flipped from one to another, first from the top side, then from the bottom side. I hung from them, swung from them, dangled from them. I even remember hanging upside down while eating a tomato I had just picked in the garden. In my head, I was Mary Lou Retton, or someone like her, mastering the art of swinging back and forth from the “bars”.
The other attraction was the roof of the garage. I don’t know what made me do it, where the idea came from or where I found the courage to try it, but after a few successful attempts at climbing onto the roof from the tree, I concocted a plan that promised a few quiet moments alone. I loved to read. I loved to read in peace and quiet. I knew that my sisters, both younger than me, could not follow me onto the roof. I also knew, from some experimental glances out of various windows, that you couldn’t see the far side of the roof from the house unless you were on the second floor. I don’t actually remember how I got the book up there. Did I carry it in my teeth? I’m sure it was too big for my pockets. Perhaps it went under my waistband. All supposition aside, somehow the book and I got up on the roof of the garage, across its peek and settled down for a quiet afternoon together…until the neighbor saw us, and that was the end of our sweet afternoon.
This afternoon I found myself at the top of a ten-foot ladder, paintbrush in one hand while the other hand firmly gripped whichever rung of the ladder was closest. I am no fan of ladders. They wobble, they weave, they slip and slide, their feet fall off and they’re made out of the same stuff as a pop can! But as I was atop that ladder trying to paint a bit of trim, I had to ask myself, “What happened? How did I go from a fearless, tree-climbing eight year-old to a very-unhappy-to-be-on-a-ladder something year-old?” If I had been eight and it had been a tree, I would have been thrilled. Instead, I was just glad the piece of trim was only 15 or 20 feet long!
As I pondered the question, first, I decided to make the best of it and enjoy being able to see across the roofs of all our neighbors’ homes, but I also started analyzing what had brought about the change. I came to some obvious conclusions. At eight, I had no idea what the consequence of falling off of the roof or out of a tree might actually entail. Now, having had a good bit more experience with these things, I know the results can be disastrous. At eight, I hadn’t learned that not all tree branches can be trusted. Sometimes, they are rotten or too small and when we step on them they break and we fall. While an aluminum ladder is not likely to rot, tipping over is another matter completely.
Another thought came into my mind as I dangled over the edge of the ladder. At eight I had little concept of the idea of vulnerability. On a ladder, you are desperately vulnerable – as the bees flying around me threatened to prove. Your ability to move quickly is greatly reduced, your sphere of movement is confined to the width of the ladder and about half a body length to either side. If it starts to fall, it’s almost guaranteed that you are going to go with it unless there is something nearby to catch onto, and even then you still have to get down somehow.
Then it struck me: Trees and ladders were like life and ministry. You start out full of life and energy, eager to help anyone and everyone, anytime. You climb after the goal God has given you like a child in a tree, swinging from one branch to another, hanging upside down if need be and then…BANG…a branch breaks, and you discover that even in ministry sometimes things hurt. You brush the dirt off, make a note of the kind of branch you stepped on, give the pain to God and head back up the tree, but before you know what’s happening…BANG…and you’re on the ground again. Time after time it happens, someone turns away from Christ after you have spent hours and days, maybe even months and years discipling them. Someone takes advantage of you, running you into the ground and never showing any gratitude only an attitude of expectation, greed even, always wanting more from you, even when you don’t have it. Someone seems to be your friend and co-laborer for the Lord and then completely and publicaly rejects you.
You name it, time after time the branches snap under your feet, you take note of them and remember not to step there any more and suddenly you find yourself, not in a secure tree but on a ladder. You have no more branches to step on, they have all proven to be dangerous. Every branch that could be a possibility is similar to a branch that has snapped in the past. You freeze in place, not knowing what to do. You’ve climbed this high, but it seems you can go no further. You’ve narrowed your options down from the wide spreading tree to this – two long sticks with narrow boards between them. How do you proceed? The same way you started:
It is hard sometimes to move beyond the pain that certain branches in our lives have brought us, perhaps in a failed marriage, in the loss of a child, a friend or a parent. Perhaps in getting burned when we were trying to help others. But if we are to be successful in our attempts to serve Christ, if we are going to reach others with the good news of Salvation – we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
In my quiet time this morning, I read Matthew 27, which gives the story of Jesus being condemned, crucified and buried. As I was thinking about this need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, I thought of Christ on that cross. Could there be any more vulnerable position than that? Hands and feet nailed to those rough boards, the very lifeblood pouring out of Him from innumerable wounds. Thirsting. Agonizing over the sins of the people to whom He was sent. Agonizing over the separation between Himself and the Father. Surrounded by mocking tongues and staring eyes. And yet, as He hung there in a place where all could see Him at His weakest and most vulnerable, He showed amazing compassion. In those dark moments on the cross he found someone to care for His mother. He forgave the thief who died with Him. He did not strike back verbally at those who mocked Him – He forgave them. He died in their place.
At a difficult time in ministry, I had a verse taped to the back of my door so that I would see it before going out to face the world. The verse was 2 Corinthians 12:15, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.” The original idea of putting that verse up was a good one. I needed the daily reminder to gladly spend and be spent for those around me, but eventually I had to take the verse down. Why? Not because there was anything wrong with the verse, but because I was focusing on the wrong part of it. All I saw was my spending and being spent and, subsequently, being loved the less for it. Rather than focusing on the word “gladly”, I was focusing on what I saw as a great lack of others showing any love, or even gratitude, in return.
Paul understood that sometimes branches break and we get hurt, but he also kept something else in mind. It was him who made the declaration “…I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day”, 2 Timothy 1:12. Paul knew that ministry required sacrifice and, at times, the enduring of personal pain and injury. But He also understood a vital difference between climbing trees and climbing ladders. He understood that one of the things that made climbing a tree feel more secure than the branchless ladder, was, not only the many stepping-off points, the ministry opportunities, but also the root system. Ladders just don’t have roots. He knew that His roots were planted in Jesus Christ and that they went down into the streams of His Word. He knew that even though some branches might have to be pruned, His tree would always flourish. (Psalm 1) He knew that after the crucifixion came the resurrection and that to experience the power of the latter he had to endure the suffering of the former.
So, today on top of the ladder, looking out over my neighbor’s roofs and painting that piece of trim I had to ask myself, “Have I whittled my tree down to a ladder? Have I let past experiences in ministry limit the branches I am willing to step out on? Am I willing to GLADLY spend and be spent? Am I wobbling in fear on two long sticks with some boards nailed in between, or am I swinging through the branches touching as many lives as possible with the Gospel of Christ?”
It’s amazing the places God chooses to speak to us! How important that we always be listening!