Strange Place for a Tree: Flourishing in the House of God

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Integrity:  Leadership

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love forever and ever.
I will praise you forever for what you have done;
in your name I will hope, for your name is good.
I will praise you in the presence of your saints.
Psalm 52:8-9 NIV

The House of God

What a strange place for a tree—the house of God! Trees don’t normally grow inside buildings so many of our church platforms are decorated with plastic plants. Just dust them once or twice a year and they are fine. I don’t think King David is referring to a singing Christmas tree, just an illusion, a set for a temporary presentation. This was the real thing, a living, green, thriving tree. It even produced useful fruit in its season, a steady crop of olives year after year. As I prayed through the Psalms last fall, I found this incredible testimony of David. After years of ministry, most of us find it difficult, at times, to flourish in the House of God. I added this psalm to my daily prayers.

We are blessed to know the historical context of this psalm, the tragic pursuit of David by a demented King Saul. What did David do to earn Saul’s jealousy? He succeeded in the name of the Lord. He struck down Goliath and won the adoration of the people. Women danced and sang of him in the streets, playing loose with the exaggerated numbers comparing David’s statistics with those of the King.

Saul’s own son, Jonathan, the rightful heir to the throne, was now David’s best friend and ally. Even Saul’s daughter Michal loved David, married him and aided him in his flight from her irrational father. Worst of all, Saul needed David and his music. A troubling spirit from the Lord would steal the king’s mind and his rest. His only relief came when David played his music. On two occasions these private recitals ended with David dodging the king’s spear. Even Jonathan had the dubious honor of being a target for his father’s venom-tipped wrath. A jealous king is a dangerous thing—absolute power at the service of paranoia.

Where could David find a place of safety? He went first to Samuel and then to the priests’ conclave at Nob, a high place from which the city of Jerusalem was clearly visible. It is quite possible that the Ark of the Covenant rested nearby. Here David found a compassionate priest, Ahimilech, who, though trembling and fully aware of the risk he was taking, provided David and his men with bread recently removed from the Holy Place. This act of kindness cost the priests their lives. Jesus justified this provision by the priests based on the needs of David and his men (Matt 12:1-8). This moment of provision is celebrated in David’s poem we know as Psalm 52. He found life and sustenance in the House of God.

When the House of God is a Toxic Place
Anointed leaders sometimes find the House of God to be a toxic place, not a place of safety. There is a burr beneath the easy yoke promised by Jesus to all his servants. Injustice reigns where there should be justice. Deceit lurks in words spoken by lips chosen to speak life and truth. Vital energies intended for ministry are spent instead watching one’s back. My favorite verse from the King James Version comes to mind,
“My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10). But all too often, like David, anointed ones find themselves in trouble in the House of God. Can we find a way through this in the words of David?

“I trust in God’s unfailing love forever and ever.”

The call of God on our lives, the easy yoke Jesus promised, is rooted in the unchanging character of God. God’s love for us is “unfailing.” The toxicity of the current situation falls safely within the boundaries of God’s sovereignty. “I will trust,” says the poet-king. Trusting is believing when all our reason tells us to doubt. It is staying when all our senses tell us to flee. Our obedience is not rooted in shifting circumstances, but is built instead on the Rock of God’s unalterable veracity. As David fled from Saul, he hid in caves, fields, and heathen cities but his trust was always in God’s unfailing love.

“I will praise you forever for what you have done.”

David’s trust expressed itself in praise. His confidence in the future grew from his daily rehearsal of what God had done in the past. Praise builds faith and faith yields courage. The courage required for the besieged leader to get out of bed each day, to go to the office, to answer the phone and on Sunday to mount the platform when the sanctuary feels like enemy territory, comes from a fresh review God’s impeccable record of caring for those He has called. Daily courage is the product of daily praise. Even in the valley of the shadow, He is with us. We can answer the phone.

“…in your name I will hope, for your name is good.”

The names of God reveal His character. The covenant names of Jehovah reveal Him to be precise and comprehensive in His care for us. He is our healing, peace, friend, victory, sanctification and our provider. Jesus gave us His name as a refuge and a weapon. His good name is our strong tower and speaking it floods the soul with peace and courage as the ranks of the enemy arrayed against us break at its sound.

“I will praise you in the presence of your saints.”

Added to the daily private praise is a public display of devotion. Conflict centers around people; public worship is about God. “In the presence of the saints” the leader’s praise (his or her faithfulness, sweetness, peacefulness as well as the words spoken) is significant. As leaders worship publicly, the focus shifts from them to the Lord. People are watching us for a reaction to the strife behind the scenes. What they see is a worshiper, giving all to the glory of God. Never is the sacrifice of praise as costly as in these times of conflict and stress. This is not play-acting; it is a real, desperate ministry to the Lord. No matter the burden on our back when we come to the house of God, we must lay it down as we enter into public worship. In these precious moments in the presence of God and His saints, we must worship, not worry, praise not pout, give thanks not make political pronouncements. The concentration required by worship in spirit and truth is just the break we need from the strain of unnecessary combat with those who should be fighting alongside us.

Flourishing in the House of God

How can I be a tree flourishing in the House of God? The words of Paul to Timothy are the Lord’s words to us,

  • “Do not neglect your gift,” (1 Tim 4:13-14);
  • “Fan into flame the gift of God.” (2 Tim 1:5-7).

Our giftedness is the key to flourishing. If we are gifted to study, study will be our refuge from the storm. If we are gifted in music, music will be our sanctuary from the strife. In times of personal danger and stress we tend to neglect our gift. But flickering within the disciplines of our giftedness, is the flame to fuel our peace.

The Lord is telling us, “Tend my gift in you; fan it into flame.” We need its light for the present darkness. We need its warmth deep within us as we face the cold winds of conflict. The study you do, the songs you write or sing or play, the writing you produce will not only get you through the valley of the shadow, your art will become a part of your testimony, a record of God’s faithfulness in your time of trial. The season of testing can actually be the season of fruitfulness; olives, strong and flavorful from a flourishing tree in the house of God.

The worship leaders, both pastors and musicians who lead our services, are not so many plastic plants on the platform. They are living, breathing people with lives and homes and dreams and very real human needs. It takes more than a semi-annual dusting to keep them healthy. They need the healthy atmosphere of love and acceptance, the warmth of the Son’s love, the water of the Spirit, the nourishing Word of the Father, the rest of the seasons, and yes, the occasional pruning hook. Like healthy green trees, leaders thrive in this environment.

The House of God should not be a strange place for a tree.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Strange Place for a Tree: Flourishing in the House of God

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