Not-so-famous Grouse
Bridge made of recycled plastic. In my day we did it with wood
Almost like green feathers
A gentle stream, very unlike our world at present
Hiding place
Trees in a row within a random arrangement
Character lines in wood
A bio system within a bio system
The reservoir

It’s the sap, not the wood

Imagine a world in 2020 without the novel corona virus. What would we be talking about? Where would our focus be? Sadly, that would merely be a thought-experiment, a pleasant day-dream.


What are the lasting effects that are going to emerge out of 2020?


  • The overuse of the term ‘Covid19’ which will be shorthand to explain everything without having to elaborate?
  • A distrust of the media and their ability to get us caught up in a panic for clickbait?
  • The ripple effect of millions of job losses and all that means for South African families?
  • Less importantly, the members of Sanzaar’s Super Rugby taking the opportunity to split the kids in the divorce.


Perhaps, the lasting effects will not be all that lasting. Our kids won’t remember things quite so acutely as we will, who went through it as adults with fully developed anxiety.


From my further reading of Paul and his letter to the Romans, I came to wonder what 2020 and all this present craziness would look like in arboreal time. I mean, imagine the core sample of a mature tree and what lockdown would look like in contrast with other years.


Not that dissimilar I’ll bet. Just another tree ring, representing an annual orbit around the sun, but you could still point it out and say, ‘that there was 2020’. And trees can live hundreds and even thousands of years.,thought%20to%20be%20more%20than%203%2C600%20years%20old.


In that context, even the corona virus pandemic of 2020 will eventually be forgetfully contextualised.


What do trees have to do with Paul’s letter to the Romans? Romans 9 through 11 are an examination of the nature of faith and what that means for Paul’s people, the Jews. And also for the Gentiles. Previously, Paul had agonized over the non-acceptance of Messiah and wished that he could be lost if it meant that his people could be saved.

Paul uses the imagery of a tree as a picture of faith and being connected to God. As a herald of the coming Messiah, John the Baptist warned the religious leaders of the Jews that they were complacent:


10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The religious life in Israel viewed salvation in a national context, not an individual one. The thinking was if you were descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, you were in. John the Baptist was telling them that they had the genealogical heritage in place (a family tree if you will) but that that their connection to God couldn’t depend on that.


Genealogy without faith is dead. Faith without works is dead. There needs to be fruit, evidence, sap flowing through the leaves and branches.


In this section of Romans, Paul explains that God elects. He chooses. He has mercy on some and he hardens others. Paul writes that its just the way it is. God is like the Potter and we are the clay and the clay can’t mount an accusation against the Potter and call him unfair. God’s prerogative has included the Gentiles where they weren’t included before. Now both – Jew and Gentile – have the same way to salvation, through faith in Christ.


Paul knows that people are going to bring up all the promises God made to Israel. Isn’t this chucking away all those promises? If God can shake up the system and make it all about faith now? From the first chapters of Romans, Paul is writing that its always been about faith. Abram believed the Lord and that faith was credited as righteousness.


God hasn’t rejected Israel. He points at himself:


“I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.”


Not all Israel are Israel. Not all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had faith. Perhaps they had an assumption, but they didn’t necessarily have faith. However there have always been a remnant, a faithful core of Believers among Israel.


Paul writes that God has been faithful to Israel and he will be faithful to the Gentiles. He uses the picture of an olive tree with branches (Gentiles) that were grafted in. Fruitfulness is the criterion for staying connected to the tree.


Jesus also used the analogy of a vine to illustrate the sap that must flow through the branches to show connection to the plant (John 15).


Genealogy without faith is dead. Faith without works is dead. There needs to be fruit, evidence, sap flowing through the leaves and branches.


In this time especially, it’s important to know that we are securely connected to God, like living branches on a living tree.

Whom Paul preaches

Paul rolled into town, once upon a time at the city of Ephesus, with all the subtlety of a gunslinger.


Or maybe I’ve watched too many Westerns. But in truth, Paul was the type of guy who made an impression everywhere he went. Miracles, healings, exorcisms.


The things we picture happening in large tents in places like Rustwater, Kansas, and of dubious authenticity, were actually taking place in broad daylight for all to see as Paul was going around. This must have impressed the seven sons of Sceva, whose pappy was a Rabbi in the city.


They recognised that there was power in the Name of Jesus, but they wanted to use the power without knowing Jesus or being filled with the Holy Spirit. You can’t piggyback on someone else’s relationship to Christ. They learned that lesson in a 7-1 beating when a demon-possessed man sent them running back home, bruised and with their britches down.


The lesson they should have learned that day was that being a child of God is not something that is baked into your family’s cake. It needs to be authentic. The demons in the possessed man berated them that they knew Jesus and Paul, but not these seven posers.


Once, when Jesus was having a back-and-forth with the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law at the Temple, they were disputing with him and he pointed out that they were still slaves to sin.


Even in the midst of the Law, and their pursuit of righteousness, Jesus pointed out that the religious professionals still needed saving, and were still slaves to sin, to which the Teachers of the Law naturally became offended and played what they thought was their trump card to end all debate: “Abraham is our father” (verse 39).


It was supposed to be a mic-drop type of moment. Not so because Jesus had their ticket:


“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would[c] do what Abraham did.  (verse 39). These guys were secure in their own minds of their connection to God and yet they were completely wrong, probably not unlike the seven sons of Sceva. They weren’t children of Abraham because they did not have the faith of Abraham. They had the DNA of Abraham but that wasn’t the thing that saved or saves.


I think passages like these are what Paul was thinking about when he wrote back in Romans 4 about Abraham:


Not by works but by faith. Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.


Here’s Paul in Romans 9 then, agonizing about his Jewish brothers having missed their Messiah. How did this happen? And by implication, what does this mean for the Gentile Believer?


Paul’s brain unpacks it for us, but his heart is solemn and serious about the souls of men.


 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” (Romans 9)


Does he mean that? Viewed through the lens of our time, could Paul be ‘virtue signalling’? Not from the first verse of Romans 9: Paul says he’s not lying, that he’s doubly sure. His conscience confirms what he’s saying through the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s exploration of the question of the Children of Israel and their destiny in salvation stretches over three chapters of Romans (9 – 11) however he comes to the conclusion that:

  • God is faithful (his word has not failed)
  • God is sovereign: some he saves and some he hardens
  • Jew and Gentile alike are saved the same way, through faith in Christ


Like that old song which you may remember from childhood (Sunday school):


Father Abraham had many sons

Many sons had Father Abraham

I am one of them (and so are you?)

So let’s just praise the Lord…

Valley Forge

Just this past week, President Trump over at Mount Rushmore for the 4th of July delivered remarks about the history of the U.S. and the four men whose faces are carved into the rock.


To my mind, history is endlessly fascinating and multi-faceted. Fascinating because actions taken by men in the course of time, lead to present day realities that might not have otherwise occurred. Multi-faceted because we view their actions through the lens of our context here and now. And in five years time, we look at the same historical record and it looks different again.


George Washington became the first elected president of the United States and the first among the visages immortalised in rock. You may be asking what George Washington has to do with me? In 2020. In Cape Town. In the middle of a modern era with smart phones where everything happens at the speed of light?


Because he and the soldiers in his Continental army endured a brutal winter.


Because the lessons of their endurance are relevant to us who are going through this craziness that will forever be remembered as 2020.


There will be no historical moment, a ‘where were you when’ this happened. Corona virus and the lockdown are not like a pin-point on a calendar, but a broad smudge of dread and frustration spanning most of the year.


Washington’s Continental army turned to a bend on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania to winter and resupply, spending around 6 months in tactical hibernation in the winter of 1777/78. As we think of 2020, they likely thought of 1777 going into 1778.


Ironically, they camped next to a forge that was used by two Quaker families. A forge is a superb image of being shaped through extreme circumstances. This is the forge after which the encampment was named.


Washington was merely reaching for the promise of a new nation in the New World, conceived in liberty. The winter encampment was brutal, a sixth of the soldiers succumbed to disease, a disparate rabble who were ill-trained to take on the British, the dream of America seemingly bleeding out its warmth into the cold earth.

Just a couple of inches of snow

And yet, they persevered in a political miracle.


Like the Continental army perhaps, our hope seems lost, an eternal winter when we cannot conceive of how normalcy could ever return. Loved ones falling ill, friends losing work, the comfort of proximity tempered with the fear of infection.


We are His children. The struggle has a purpose. Like the Valley Forge, the forge of 2020 is showing us our faith.


I would rather not endure a forge or trials to test my faith. Can I admit that I cringe slightly when I think of James’ word to the Believer?


Pure joy is not what 2020 evokes. Or any trial. But I may yet be standing when Christmas comes around. I may yet be singing His praises. I may be slightly more mature and battle-hardened. For sure, I don’t even want to consider throwing in the towel.


Today’s not a bad day. There have been worse, but not too many better than today. I don’t see much.


But God must be doing something.