Monday, February 11, 2013

Raccoons Are Welcome

I've gotten a lot of mileage from my raccoon story, the folksy mystical experience that revealed to me the joy of forgiveness. I've shared it on my blog before.

The version below is published in the upcoming March/April edition of Alive Now. I am honored, and I hope others who are discovering the freedom of accepting the raccoons in their life might find it helpful.

The early years of ministry left me with scars. I had a nagging ability to hold onto residual pain from occasional conflicts.

One spring, my family went camping at a wildlife preserve. Our site came with two poles. One held a lockable cage to protect food from raccoons. The other hung the trash out of their reach.

One evening, I neglected to tie up my trash. I woke to the noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. The raccoons had come.

Standing in the midst of a mess, I pondered three things. First, "This is what raccoons do. There's no reason to be angry." Second, "They really didn't hurt me." Finally, and most importantly, "Next time, I'll tie my trash up higher."

I listed the raccoons of my life, people who had sorted through my trash for something to criticize or consume. I prayed over them in light of my revelations. This is what raccoons do. They didn't hurt me, not really. And maybe it's time for me to establish a few boundaries, keeping my "trash" tied up higher.

I was led to Philippians 1:15-18. Paul writes of raccoons - not unbelievers, but other preachers who had been sorting through his trash.

"Some proclaim Christ out of 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!

On Sunday, my sermon was "Raccoons Are Welcome." I encouraged my congregation to let go of what others have done to us. In God's house, raccoons are welcome at the table! If we are bothered that our protagonists are Christians, it helps to remember that Paul's raccoons were other preachers.

On Monday, I felt a nudge. "Steve, do you believe what you preached?" I pulled out a file of old letters from occasional conflicts. 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 file and headed outdoors. One by one, I burned each letter as I prayed for forgiveness. I found release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of past pain.

The Spirit nudged again. What about the letter still in my desk?

Suddenly, I heard a rustle. I opened my eyes. There in broad daylight, just 30 feet away, was a raccoon. He looked at my quizzically. After a moment, he turned and meandered through the trees. Astounded, I thought, "God, you have a sense of humor."

Needless to say I burned that last letter.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham, Alabama. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at