Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Raccoons Are Welcome

A "Folk Mystic" Finds Forgiveness
by Steve West

The early years of ministry left me with a few scars. I had a nagging ability to hold onto residual pain from occasional experiences of conflict in the household of God.

One spring, my family went camping at Cumberland Island, Georgia. A national wildlife preserve, the island features armadillo, palmetto, and wild horses running on the beach. Arriving at our campsite, I was struck by the sight of two poles. The first held a lockable food cage and instructions on how to outsmart raccoons scavenging at night. The second was to hang trash out of their reach.

One night, I neglected to tie up my trash. The night was filled with noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. I rose early next the morning to see the sight. Indeed the raccoons had come.

The scene drew me into meditation. Sitting in the midst of a mess, I spent time with three weighty thoughts. The first was “this is what raccoons do.” There’s no reason to be angry. Secondly, “they really didn’t hurt me.” Aside from the hassle, there was no pain. Finally, and most importantly, I thought “next time, I’ll tie my trash up higher.”

I opened my journal and feelings poured out. I listed the raccoons in my life, people who had “sorted through my trash” looking for something to criticize or consume. I prayed over them in light of my three revelations. This is what raccoons do. They didn’t hurt me, not really. And maybe it’s time for me to learn a few boundaries, keeping my “trash” tied up higher.

I was led to the first chapter of Philippians. Paul was writing from prison of the raccoons in the church, not unbelievers but Christian preachers who had been sorting through his trash. “Some proclaim Christ from envy or rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.”(1:15-18a) What acceptance Paul had about life’s raccoons! Not only could he let go of their pain, he rejoiced in them.

The following Sunday, my sermon title was “Raccoons are Welcome.” I told my story, encouraging them to let go of anxiety about what others have done to us (or what we perceive they have done). In God’s household, raccoons are welcome. If we are bothered that our protagonists are Christians, it helps to remember that Paul’s raccoons were other preachers. And what does it matter? In all things, Christ is glorified.

On Monday, I felt a nudge, as if to say, “Steve, do you believe what you preached yesterday?” I pulled out a file of old letters from occasional conflicts I had experienced over the years. Why was I holding on to these raccoons?

On top was a more recent letter, so I thought “I’d better keep this one, just in case.” Laying it aside, I took the rest of the file and headed to the outdoor prayer trail. Sitting on a bench, I went through them one by one, praying and burning the letter. It was a time of release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of past pain. Once all were burned, I entered a time of stillness. The Spirit nudged me again. What about that letter still on my desk? Why not burn it too?

Suddenly, I heard a rustle in the bushes. I opened my eyes. There in broad daylight, just 30 feet away, was a raccoon. He raised his head and looked at me quizzically, then turned and meandered through the trees. Astounded, I said, “God, you have a sense of humor.”

Needless to say I burned that last letter.

Copyright 2008 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved