February 23, 2009

Old, Dead Leaves
by Pastor George Van Alstine

During the time when we lived in New England, I became intimately aware of the affect of seasonal changes on people’s lives. One of the major markers of the move from summer to fall and winter was the changing color of leaves on most of the trees around us. Various species changed at different rates. Some favored yellow hues, while others went in the orange/red direction. Ultimately, they would all turn brown and fall off, and we’d have to rake them up and trash them.

Wait a minute … not all trees! While maples, sycamores and aspens would be completely clear of leaves during the dead of winter, the white oak trees around our house held onto many of their leaves, though they were brown and ugly, right through to spring. These dead leaves never dropped off until they were forced from their attachment to the stem, pushed away by the surging new life of the next spring’s leaf buds. Then there would have to be another round of raking.

One year this seasonal change came when I had just read a famous sermon by the nineteenth century preacher Thomas Chalmers, entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” He based his thoughts on 1 John 2:15-16
“Do not love the world, or the things of the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world.”
He pointed out that attempts to “resign an old affection” seldom succeed, in spite of good intentions. It’s only when we “exchange an old affection for a new one” that we are able to rid ourselves of bad thoughts, values and behaviors.

The combination of Chalmer’s words and the image of a tree with old dead leaves still attached has been with me ever since. It has helped me understand why my attempts at personal betterment so consistently have failed. It has also given me appreciation for how old habits and practices have surprisingly disappeared when a “new affection,” a deepening of my relationship with God, has forced them off my life tree.

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This year, we’re trying to experience Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection in a different way. Beginning with Advent and going beyond Easter, our Sunday sermons will bring us along side of Jesus through his earthly journey. At key moments in the journey, we will have a special devotional experience to help us appreciate what Jesus was going through and how it parallels what we are going through.

We chose what is “Ash Wednesday” in some church traditions, the beginning of Lent, as a good reflective moment in preparation for Jesus’ journey to the Cross. At last Wednesday evening’s service, I shared the above thoughts, about trees that have trouble getting rid of dead leaves, and about Chalmer’s insights on 1 John 2:15-16. Glenn and Connie led us through an exercise designed to personalize this for us, so that our lives can experience change from “the expulsive power of a new affection.” We worshipped, sang and prayed together.

Through this Messenger article, we hope you will all be able to join us as we continue to move toward the Cross, a Tree with no leaves, but with a dying Truth hanging on display.