October 29, 2013


For us it was a big event: we cut a 45-foot magnolia tree in our front yard. It had been a beautiful tree whose stature and sweet-smelling flowers had enticed us to look at the home more than four years ago. It had always been green, had looked majestic, and had provided shade. It had stood there for more than 45 years. However, two years ago its leaves had started to fall en masse, and every storm brought down more branches—first small ones, then larger exemplars. Fewer flowers appeared, and the leaves that stayed on the tree looked shriveled and dry. Three arborists later we decided, heavyhearted, to cut the tree. It was dying from within. Some time ago its roots had begun to “girdle,” and instead of spreading out underground, they had turned in on themselves and begun to choke off other roots.

Do we keep eye contact with Jesus and sit still long enough to hear that small still voice?

Why in the world, you may rightfully ask, do I need to know about tree health in the Klingbeil household? You are, of course, right. This editorial is not about trees or lots or even history. It is about change. The tree had dominated the front of our yard. When my wife returned home from work on the day the tree was cut down, she nearly drove by our home. Our magnolia tree had been the landmark of our lot—so looking at the front of the house without the tree required reeducation for our senses. Suddenly the house looked bigger (no, it hadn’t grown), and it looked more open. As I looked at the completely changed front yard of our home, I thought of my church. While I am generally hesitant to make too much of analogies, indulge me for once on this one. A living organism, a tree does many things. It provides living space, shade, and food for many a creature (we’ve had a sizable squirrel population that found a cozy home in the magnolia). It transforms carbon dioxide into oxygen—essential for survival of creatures relying on it. It just looked beautiful. Yet, something had happened, and it seems also to happen to movements that have become churches and denominations. A living organism of people who gather around the Word and are guided by the Spirit, a church, can also turn on itself. In fact, many denominations throughout history have transitioned from movement to organized church to keeper of traditions—and then, finally, to insignificance. The final stage of this arduous journey is marked by infighting and politics and is often accompanied by a navel view of reality.

What do you see when you look at your church? What kind of tree do you see in your neck of the woods? After more than 150 years is it still a vibrant movement, ready to attempt the seemingly impossible? Or do you see a tree that has become dry, with girdling roots and shriveled leaves? In my travels for this magazine I get to meet a wide variety of Adventists and Adventist churches. Young, dynamic, mission-focused churches form part of this faith community, as well as small churches, often located in rural regions, struggling to reach their neighbors. Whether for the gray-haired octogenarian or the social-media-savvy teenager, the life of this church is ultimately not determined by programs, leaders, or sound financial policies. They are important, yet the health of this tree—I mean, church—is determined by the spiritual commitment of each individual member and the root system that has developed and connects us to the living Word. Do I, do you, keep eye contact with Jesus and sit still long enough to hear that small still voice ringing through the ages?

By the way, we did plant a new tree. It is another magnolia, only six feet tall, but it’s going to be spectacular!