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June 27, 2007 | 3 Comments

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Sunday we had our annual baptism ceremony at Beaver Lake. It was a beautiful day. The trees overhead have grown together more since my own baptism there seven years ago. The plastic benches facing out on the water weren't enough to seat everyone, they never are. The little kids ran around and played in the water and got warned away from the poison ivy, just as they always do. But it was an especially nice ceremony. For one thing, we had three of our young men
among those who chose to become baptized. One of them, our pastor's eldest son, has been the subject of intensive prayer for years.

A couple of years ago our pastor and his wife stood in front of us at the membership meeting with tears streaming down their faces. They told us they didn't think they could go on being the spiritual heads of our church. Somewhere in one of Paul's Epistles it says that a pastor should be a paragon of virtue, and have charge of his family, and lead a godly life. They felt they had failed in this because of this one son, Sergei. Our church doesn't have anyone else who would volunteer for the kind of time it takes to be pastor. So we decided that an imperfect pastor is better than no pastor at all. Besides that, nearly every family among us has at least one Sergei in it, one young man who has left the fold. So we all felt sympathy for each other and had a good prayer, and that was that. Then last spring Sergei went to a youth revival with his brothers. One of the ministers said something that touched Sergei so much that he decided to repent. As you can imagine, our whole church was really excited about Sergei's baptism. A lot of other parents see it as a sign that maybe someday their Anatoli or Aleksandr or Venjamin will see the light.

We stood there in the cool shade, singing our hymns, listening to sermons and prayers from parents who were proud of their young people. Suddenly I could hear you saying "Roger Hedlund got up and told the whole church what he really thought of them." and I felt so ashamed. I looked around at these women in their brightly colored head scarves and long skirts, and the men with no tie and their shirts open one button at the neck, (so no one would confuse them with Communists) and I realized how much I love every one of them. I wished I could share it with you. That was something in itself, because you're the First Person among Americans that I've ever wanted to share my church with. I've always worried that Americans wouldn't understand, but possibly you would. Maybe you would look at our members and see your immigrant Norwegian relatives, some of them fixed in the Old Country ways, others integrating with America, and see the richness of their culture and their spirit.

Sometimes I envy the simple faith of these people. When I talk to our pastor it seems as if he sees a clearly defined road cut in the wilderness, something built of absolutes. He feels certain of every step that he takes on that road. It's not so simple for me. Take the parable about Jesus cursing the fig tree because it didn't give him fruit when he was hungry. From the context, it sounds like it wasn't the season for figs. Besides that, figs come in boy trees and girl trees, and if Jesus went around zapping all the boy trees, the girl trees couldn't make figs, could they? So it seems to me Jesus wasn't up on his botany. There is one story I really identify with, though. It's the one about the workers who come to the field at the eleventh hour and the boss pays them as much as those who have been there all day. I'm kind of like that myself. I grew up in the Methodist church, and didn't really get it, and went off to be a Unitarian when I was in college. But somehow the idea of knowing and being with God was always there. I was nearly 40 when I finally realized that I wasn't doing very well at ordering my life. I gave the job over to God, and He's been doing it a whole lot better ever since. When people in our church pray for their lost sons, I think to myself that it's still early yet, and these young men may come to God in their own eleventh hours, although maybe in different ways than what Ukrainian Pentecostal parents expect.

When I look at Sergei, I'm not sure that his conversion experience was that intense. Sergei might have had his "awakening" because he comes from one of the strongest families I've ever seen and it just got to him after a while, being the odd man out. That, and rumor has it that he's interested in one of the young women in our church, a young lady who was baptized 2-3 years ago. If he wants to get serious about her, he knows he has to be baptized before the congregation. He wouldn't be the First Person to get baptized for practical reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if Sergei will become a little like me as a member — seemingly in the loop, but always feeling a little distance, a little doubt. And maybe, like me, he'll silently give a small cheer for Anatoli, Aleksandr and Venjamin, who at least have the courage to follow their own stars.

It seems to me that approaching God is like coming in on the spokes of a wagon wheel. Most of us come in on the spoke we grew up with, but I don't think it matters to God which way we choose. Some of us may even come in cross-country or "as the crow flies." I think God has a whole lot more tolerance for religious, denominational and doctrinal differences than most of us do. The main thing is to find Him, the how and why are just details.

Sue Palmer
Syracuse, NY

Thank you, Sue, for your witness. That's what we called it back in the Sanctified Brethren, when someone out of fullness of heart stood up and spoke of something they had experienced directly. You leave us to conjecture how a Palmer landed among the baptist Russians in the Finger Lakes, which I imagine is quite a story. I guess it's in the phrase "I wasn't doing very well at ordering my life." Bless you for writing.


You are so lucky -- it took me until age
50 to learn about control. You are a
courageous woman -- speaking from the
heart, honestly, doesn't happen often
these days...
...there's hope!

Sue Palmer's message touched me on several levels. Her commentary was right on, I thought, about God having more tolerance for denominations than we true! My husband was baptized last month (he was raised Catholic, so had been baptized as an infant) and at that ceremony, we had teenagers, a recovered drug addict (clean for 16 months now) as well as a husband-wife couple who had just begun attending two months ago. The husband shared his story of being in prison, and she confessed to being an alcoholic. God really does meet us where we are, doesn't He? Imagine if we had to be "good enough" for Him to take an interest!

One item I would like to offer up in repsonse to a question she posed. I thought her inquiry about the fig tree was a good point. I did a little research, and found this from Pastor Ray Stedman (deceased now, but one of my all-time treasured ministers/speakers. This is what he wrote in a sermon entitled "The King is Coming" which directly addresses Sue's puzzlement:

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if God looked at us only when we came to church on Sunday morning, if he would read our hearts only when we were sitting with the Word of God open before us, and thinking all the nice things we should? Would that not be nice? But he does not; he catches us in the bedroom and in the kitchen and at the office -- and in our car! He comes in and looks around at everything, and does not say a word.

In Verses 21 [Mark] and following we get the results of this inspection. Jesus did not say a word when he looked around, but the next day he took, first, a symbolic action:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12-14 RSV)

As we will read in just a few moments, the disciples were surprised the next day when they saw that the tree was withered clear to its roots. Many have been amazed at this miracle. It seems so unlike Jesus. It is the only miracle in the entire record of Jesus' ministry which is a pronunciation of judgment and condemnation and destruction upon anything. It seems so strange that it would occur to a tree that did not have figs, when it was not the season for figs. This has bothered many people. Why did Jesus curse this tree that did not have figs, when it should not have had figs?

I want to tell you that I puzzled over this problem for years, until I finally decided to conduct some research. When I came to California, I planted a fig tree -- just to see what it would do, and to learn from it. I learned the answer to this riddle from the fig tree in my yard. The first spring I watched with interest as the barren limbs of that tree began to swell, the buds began to fill out, and the leaves began to appear. And to my astonishment -- I did not know this about a fig tree -- little tiny figs appeared right along with the leaves. I thought, "Well, that's strange: the fruit comes right along with the leaf. Fig trees must be very unusual that way." So I watched these little figs grow and turn from green to yellow, and begin to look as if they were ripe. One day I sampled one. To my amazement, instead of being full of juice and pulp as a normal fig would be, it was dry and withered inside, with no juice at all. I opened another, and another, and found the same thing. I thought, "Oh, my fig tree is a lemon!" But then, to my amazement, I saw that the tree began to bear other figs, and these began to swell and grow bigger. And when I opened one, I saw that it was a normal fig, rich and juicy and filled with pulp. And the tree has borne a great crop of figs ever since. So I learned something: a fig tree has two kinds of figs -- one that I call "pre-figs," which look like figs but are not figs, but which always appear first. I learned that if a tree does not have those pre-figs, it will not have real figs later on.

This is the explanation for what Jesus found. It was not the season for real figs. But when Jesus looked at this tree, he found no pre-figs, and so he knew that this tree would never have figs, but produced nothing but leaves. The life of the tree had been spent producing its luxuriant foliage, so that it looked like a healthy tree, but was not. And so he cursed it, and the next day it was withered to its very roots. That tree was a symbol of the nation Israel, as we will see, because what follows here is a dramatic acting out of the symbol of that cursed fig tree. Verses 15-17:"

I too thank you for your witness. I was raised in a church that had little tolerance for anything ... only they could be right, only they would get to heaven. Finally after 54 years God reached down and lifted me from that place and put me on the path to being His disciple. You words reinfored my feelings and my witness too. God bless you in your life travels!

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