On Sunday I received my boarding pass for the first three-hour leg of my flight to Manaus, Brazil. I have to tell you I was a bit disappointed when I realized I had a middle seat. Part of the disappointment is that I know somewhere there is a computer program that always figures out how to put the three largest guys in the same row together. But being generally adaptable, I shrugged and knew I would sleep anyway.
After I arrived at the training center for church planters I could only laugh about my middle seat. The first man I spoke with was a church planter from far up the Rio Negro, the largest tributary for the Amazon River. He has the nickname, “jungle-boy”. In part because he is all of 5’2″ and skinny. But more because three years ago he was lost in the jungle for four days before finally making his way close enough to a village that he could make contact with people. In order for Jungle-boy to get to the training center he first had to paddle for 2 hours in a dug out canoe to get to a larger tributary. There he got in a small motor boat for 3 hours, then a larger boat for 2 more hours and finally a bus for 7 hours. That’s him on the left of the picture with the striped shirt.
Along with about 80 other people, all of whom had similar travel stories, he came to learn more about Jesus and improve his ability to minister to people in need. These indigenous church planters come to the center just outside Manaus twice a year. They come hungry for the truth of God’s Word and for the fellowship of their fellow laborers. They don’t have seminary degrees or even Bible College training. Most of them came to faith in Christ because the Presbyterian Church of Manaus sends large boats up and down the river to provide medical care, food, clothing, education and the message of Jesus. Once coming to faith they continued to grow and now are planting churches in the very villages they grew up in. Most of them make less than 100 dollars a month but they are delighted to serve others and share the hope of the Gospel. They will never be mega-church pastors. Most of their villages are only 50 to 70 families. The next closest village would be a couple of hours away on foot or canoe.
After spending the day training these amazing people, I was asked to teach in the city for three hours in the evening. The audience was completely different. These were not villagers from up and down the rivers but instead people who live and work in Manaus, a city of 1.8 million people. They were 40 Bible College students who are working towards becoming pastors and missionaries. They packed into a room that in the states we would feel crowded with half as many people. All of them have regular jobs and included at least one lawyer and a couple of I.T. guys. Yet on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights they gather from 7 to 10 to learn about the Bible and ministry. They were so engaged and had so many questions that we went till 10:30! In fact the regular instructor had to call a halt to all the questions and bring and end to the evening. There were no students looking at their watches for the time to leave. None of them left early. All of them were extremely grateful that I came and talked with them.
What struck me was that in both settings these folks counted it a privilege and a joy to dig into God’s Word and be trained to serve others in Jesus name. They couldn’t get enough. Their questions and comments reflected people who wanted to do their best and invest themselves completely in whatever the Lord had for them. They understood the life and death nature of this thing we call ministry. But they also laughed and joked like people with no cares in the world. These are followers of Jesus who are aware of how far they have come because of Jesus and they want to bring as many people along as they can. They are all about serving the Lord and others. No body is worried about their career, or image, or how to spend vacation, or complaining about how stupid their boss is or how unfair their company is or that they had the middle seat. None of them feel cheated in life. Instead they seem to really count it all joy that they share in the life, ministry, and even hardships that come from the fellowship they have with Jesus.
People often ask me about my hobby of doing Bonsai. What got you interested? Why do you do it? There are a couple of reasons that all merged together one day several years ago.
First of all there is the plane fact that Bonsai trees are flat-out amazing. When you see a three-foot tall pine tree that under normal circumstances would tower 60 feet over your head, who doesn’t stand in a little bit of awe. So ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the science and the beauty of Bonsai.
Second, as I was doing a year-end inventory of my life and character I really sensed that one of the things I needed to work on was patience combined with perseverance. By that I mean that willingness to wait on something that would a long time and the drive to stick with it for years if need be. I have had far too many 80% finished and sensed that the next step God wanted me to take in the development of my character could be learned through Bonsai. It actually fits far better than I ever imagined. One of the things I have learned about Bonsai is that no tree is ever finished till it is dead. Now I have “finished” several trees, especially in the early days. At one point my wife asked if I was growing trees or collecting empty pots. She asked this as she looked at the collection of a half-dozen pots, that sat like ceramic grave stones, in honor of the trees that once lived in them. But once I learned to keep them alive and thriving it became apparent that you never finish with a Bonsai. It is always growing till it dies.
That idea, that you are never finished with it, it is always growing till it dies, is one of the many lessons of the Christian walk that I have seen paralleled in growing my trees. As a follower of Jesus, I will never be a finished product until the day the Lord calls me home and completes the transformation of my character in one dazzling moment. Any Christian who is not regularly working on his or her growth in Christ does not understand that in this life we are never a finished product. We are always being pruned and shaped by the Lord.
Another aspect of Bonsai that I find wonderful is that you can Bonsai any type of tree. Lots of people think that Bonsai is a particular type of plant. They think of a pine or juniper and The Karate Kid snipping a piece of one of Mr. Miagi’s trees. The fact is, Bonsai is the art of making a tree small enough to grow in a pot. Bonsai literally means, “tree tray” or tree in a tray or pot. So I have pines. junipers, Ficus, azalea’s, elms, boxwood, and holly trees all of which have been “bonsaid” and are growing in pots on even on slabs of marble. That brings up another lesson in faith. There is no one single picture of what I Christian is. There is amazing variety in the material that God works with. Christians come in all sorts of colors, ethnic and language groups and from every conceivable culture.
The Chinese Elm to the left is usually a 40-60 foot tree. It is about 30 inches tall and I may even make it a bit shorter. It loves colder climates and drops all it’s leaves in the winter. Six weeks ago it looked like a dead stick. With Spring arriving I have to trim the leaves back every week.
This is my newest project. It is a holly that I dug out of our yard after working with it from time to time for about three years. Eventually it will move out of the training pot and into a shallow ceramic Japanese pot. I love the windswept look and plan to make it even more dramatic.
What should be the same about all Christians and is true of all Bonsai, is that ideally they look like smaller replicas of the original. The ultimate goal for me when someone looks at one of my trees is not that they say, “oh a Bonsai”, but that they say, “that looks just like a real tree”. The ultimate goal for me when someone looks at my life as a Christian is not that the say, “oh a Christian”, but that they say, “that looks just like Jesus”
When I cut a branch off a tree, or wire the trunk to move in a certain direction, or cut off a bunch of leaves, it always has the purpose of conforming that tree into the ideal, full-grown, mature tree. Paul says in Romans 8:29 that we are being conformed into the image of Christ. That is the reason for the struggles, hardships and joys we have. It is to make us more like Jesus. When the Lord cuts something out of your life, when he forces you to grow in a certain direction, when he cuts a bunch of unnecessary decoration from your life, it is always with one goal in mind. It is to conform you to the ideal of a full- grown, mature follower of Christ. One who people will look at and say, “that looks just like Jesus”.