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The Green Stick

There are some who believe and I would count myself among them that Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky saved the Gospel for Russia. They were contemporaries, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was serialized in the same periodical at the same time as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. They both lived and wrote during the late 19th century. When the Revolution came in 1917, the bible was banned, but the themes of justice, personal freedom, redemption and forgiveness lived on in their work. It was Tolstoy who detected and responded to the Russian people. Like Augustine who confronted the fall of Rome, Tolstoy set himself to defend the Christian faith in order that it might survive the troubled years that lay ahead. Tolstoy turned to the Gospels and into his own words and stories beautifully expounded their message.

In November of 1910, Tolstoy lay dying in a tiny village of Astapova in eastern Russia. He was in his eighties and according to his wishes he would be buried on his family estate on the edge of a ravine. A ravine where his brother Nicholas used to say a little green stick was hidden with the secret of the universe engraved on it. Tolstoy never found the green stick, but he died believing in it. He was a brilliant man, a tragic man, at times he desired the celibate life of a Monk, at others, he was a womanizing drunk. In War and Peace he explored power and the appetite of the will. In Anna Karenina, he considered carnality, the appetite of the flesh, the two passions whose destructive consequences he had experienced, especially the latter.

He weighed only 126 pounds, some say his books weighed more. He didn’t find the green stick, but he did find the secret to universal love in the Gospels. That secret was and is that a certain kind of person will love, that person would not persecute, commit murder or seek revenge. That person would seek happiness in doing good for others, thereby realizing their own good.

In the upper room, another man of sorrows was saying good bye to his disciples. He was telling them the secret of the universe, how to live in union with God himself. It was not a green stick, it was however, the secret that unlocks the meaning of life. Jesus gave his disciples the characteristics of a person who could change the world, that person is called a disciple.

The first characteristic is that a follower of Christ will develop intimacy with God through communication. “ ….if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want and it will be granted you.” [1] It has been my experience and training to teach the bible for explanation, to discover authorial intent. The Evangelical camp has focused on exegesis for the purpose of understanding the text. Of course this is important, without it we would be lost at sea, drowning in a multiplicity of possible interpretations. But this has also led to an academic content driven relationship to God, that the key to maturity is getting the right answer. Relating to the “word of God,” also has a reflective dimension. I have found a simple four step method very helpful. Read it, think it, pray it, live it. To read it means simply to take in the initial meaning of the text. To think it is akin to meditation, to mull it over, putting yourself into the event, understanding the history and context. Next is pray it, seek God’s application in your life. How does God want to use this story and concept in my life. Finally, live it; how does this apply to my 10:00 AM appointment? As I enter this day, who are the people who irate me and how will I love them in concrete action? Karl Barth said, “ I have read many books, but the bible reads me.” Another way of saying it is that the primary reason to read the scriptures is in order to submit their teaching. Jesus invites us to enter into the community of the faithful through submission, confession and obedience. That is why Jesus tells us who interact with him via reading scripture can ask for anything and get it. When we read the scriptures in order to submit, with a contrite confession, it strips us of so much fluff and frivolity that plagues consumer based prayer. The words of the late Henri Nouwen come to mind.

“ I call to you, O Lord, from my quiet darkness. Show me your mercy and love. Let me see you face, hear your voice, touch the hem of your cloak. I want to love you, be with you, speak to you and simply stand in your presence. But I cannot make it happen. Pressing my eyes against my hand is not praying, and reading about your presence is not living in it. But there is that moment in which you will come to me, as you did to your fearful disciples, and say, “ Do not be afraid; it is I.” Let that moment come soon, O Lord. And if you want to delay it, then make me patient.” [2]

[1] John 15:7 New Living Translation

[2] From a Cry for Mercy by Henri J.M. Nouwen

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Faith, Spiritual Formation