Saturday, May 24, 2014

The White Stuff is Ash

We burned a tree today. The tree was dead when we moved to Trenton, and the recent ice storms left no doubt that the tree had to come down. A few weeks ago, our neighbor brought his chain saw and cut the tree. The rains came and delayed the bonfire, and today was the day it would all go up in smoke. My wife and daughter went to swim practice early this morning, which left us men at home to play with fire. Our neighbor returned, and started the fire. We piled branches and moved pieces until the blaze was going strong. We had a trailer full of limbs and boxes that needed to be destroyed, so we added those to the furnace. Over time, they all burned up. What we have left is a large white spot in our yard where a tree once stood. A few large pieces of wood remain, but for the most part everything is gone except for the ash. 

About mid-afternoon, my youngest son and I walked over to the spot where the tree once stood. As we looked at the smoldering remains, he asked, "What is all of that white stuff?" I answered as simply as I could, "the white stuff is ash." He looked at me with that look that says, "well, thanks for clearing that up dad; it all makes perfect sense now." In that moment, I knew he didn't know what ash was either. I could have employed the circular teaching method that causes humans to chase their proverbial tails and explained that ash is the white stuff that is left after a fire, thereby making the white stuff ash. Instead, I simply said, "when things burn, this is what they look like when it's over." Now that's profound right??

The Lord stopped me for a moment, and I looked at David and said, "You know the Bible talks about ash too. The Bible teaches that anything we do that is not for Jesus ends up looking like this pile of white stuff. Kind of yucky and smelly, with glimpses of smoke." He replied, "That's not good, dad. That's not good at all." The rest of the day, I kept going back to those simple words. "That's not good, dad. That's not good at all."

The apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church in Corinth. He explained to them that the foundation of Truth is Jesus Christ. No other foundation can be laid. As Christ followers build on that foundation, we build with "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw." (1 Cor. 3:12). One day (The Day), Jesus will return, and each person's work will be tested by fire. If the work survives the fire, the Christ follower receives a reward. If the work does not survive the fire, "he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Cor. 3:14 and 15). In other words, the one whose work survives will reign as a victor. The one whose work is burned up will walk around with ash as the garment of the day. Ash. White, smelly, smoky ash. Sounds so much like the description of hell that you could almost argue for a works based salvation, except for that statement that says "though he himself will be saved." Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace alone. What happens after salvation? The works of our lives are tested.

The tree we burned used to be a thriving tree. Blooms blanketed the branches as the tree towered strong for all to see. Then, the tree was no longer useful. Lighting, disease, ice - something not quite known - took the life of the tree and what once was beautiful is now a pile of ash. 

Physical pictures of spiritual realities designed by the Creator to teach us - to teach me - that I don't want my life to be left as a pile of ash. Paul told the people of Corinth, "Let each one take care how he builds upon [the foundation]" (1 Cor. 3:10). In other words, what we do with Jesus matters. How we treat others in the name of Jesus matters. The path of our lives matters. The careers, the ministries, the hobbies - they all matter. How we raise our children matters. As followers of Christ everything we are doing is built on the foundation of Christ. What in the world are we doing that matters? What in the world are we doing that lasts beyond the flame of a tree burned up into tiny, smoldering ash?

The Lord has made it abundantly clear to me that wood, hay and straw are worthless pursuits. They may look pretty for a while and make a soothing landscape to relax in as the sun goes down, but in the end they are meaningless efforts that will receive no reward from heaven's throne. I long for the smile of my Father who looks into my eyes and sees past the pain and the loss and the cries as He says, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. enter into the joy of your master" (Matt. 25:23) Enter into the JOY. Not the job. Not the joke. Not the jab. ENTER INTO THE JOY. Oh, Father, how I long for the fullness of joy that comes from knowing you!

We don't have much time. The days are running fast. The trees are being gathered, and the refining fires are being flamed. The pursuits seem so weak at this point. Entertain the crowds. Get the right design. Be comfortable and secure. In the end, the white stuff is ash. 

Maybe your heart is sensing that the piles we have been building on Christ's foundation are not what they once appeared. Have we sacrificed our lives for the good fight that Paul described? Or have we sacrificed our lives for a fight that appeared to the right fight, with blooms blanketing the branches of our lives and ministries for all of the world to see. Oh God, may we recognize before it is too late that in the end, on the Great Day of your return, the white stuff is nothing but ash. 

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