Friday, November 12, 2010

In Christ's Church, Raccoons Are Welcome

Here is my column that appeared in the Faith and Values section of "The Huntsville Times" on Friday, November 12, 2010.

Pictured is animal rehabilitationist Lori Banton holding a wriggling 4-month-old raccoon.

You can also see it published online at the Huntsville Times Online.

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

One spring, my family went camping at a national wildlife preserve. Our campsite was equipped with two poles and instructions. The first held a lockable food cage to protect our stores from raccoons scavenging at night. The second was to hang trash out of their reach.

One evening, I neglected to tie up my trash. The night was filled with noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. Indeed the raccoons had come.

Standing in the midst of a mess the next morning, I realized three things. The first was “this is what raccoons do.” There’s no reason to be angry. Secondly, “they really didn’t hurt us.” Aside from the hassle of picking up the trash, there was no pain. Finally, and most importantly, I thought “next time, I’ll tie my trash up higher.”

But those midnight marauders made me think of other pests - the raccoons in my life, people who had sorted through my trash looking for something to criticize or consume.

In light of my three revelations, I prayed over them: This is what raccoons do. They didn’t hurt me, not really. And maybe it’s time for me to erect a few boundaries, keeping my “trash” tied up higher.

In Philippians 1:15-18, Paul writes 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 ... 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.”

What acceptance Paul had about life’s raccoons!

The following Sunday, my sermon title was “Raccoons are Welcome.” I encouraged my congregation 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 from the Spirit: “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 behind the church. I went through the stack one by one, praying as I burned the letter. It was a time of release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of past pain.

Once all were burned, 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 laughed at God's sense of humor - and headed inside to fetch the last letter to burn.