On Being a Tree

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”   Isaiah 55:12-13

“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”  Psalm 92:12-15

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” Luke 6:43-45

I love trees.  I grew up in the Midwest, where the trees turn color in the fall, lose all their leaves for the winter, and cover themselves in green buds and red sprigs in the spring.  And every fall, we would go to New York state to see my father’s parents and to stare in awe at the forests of maple trees.  Nothing is as beautiful as a maple tree in the fall.  We would drive all night to get from our home in Illinois to this tiny town in New York where my grandparents lived.  I absolutely loved the forest covered mountains of New York. Leaves in every color—pine trees to add in just the right amount of green—just enough wind to make the leaves shimmer as they moved.  It was beautiful.  I didn’t think I could ever see anything as beautiful as that.  Of course I hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon yet, or Sequoia National Park, or Bryce, or Zion, but that’s another story.

Now that I’m a homeowner, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with trees.  Anyone who’s ever had a Palo Verde or a Mesquite in their yard knows all about branches that come crashing down in the middle of monsoons, and little flowers all over the yard, and trees that grow so fast and so large that you have to trim them to keep them from growing across the roof and lifting up the roof tiles.  Yet I still love trees.  They’re so solid, so steadfast, so ordinary and yet so unique.  I wish could be more like a tree.

If I were a tree, I’d be taller by now, and probably thinner, and that would be great!  Every year I would grow taller and more majestic, and it wouldn’t matter if my bottom was kind of big—which it is—because a big bottomed tree is a good thing—nice, sturdy, not likely to blow down in a windstorm.   And if I were a tree, adolescence would have been so much easier.  I have yet to see a tree start to hate itself for how it’s trunk is changing, or end up with low tree-esteem because it looks different from all the other trees.  Trees are totally comfortable in their tree bodies—they seem to be just fine with how they grow, how they look, how they express their unique “tree-ness” in a way that is kind of like other trees in their species, but not exactly like the other trees of their species.  And growing old would be easier if I was a tree.  Old trees might not look as nice as younger, neater trees—their bark might be a little ragged, and they might not fill out their crowns with leaves quite like they used to, but an old tree is a respected tree.  We know that, and I think that the trees know that.  They seem to know deep within themselves that growing old is just a part of the cycle of living, and they go with the flow of it, accepting each phase of life as it comes.

And speaking of growth, have you noticed that trees are willing to take as much time as they need to grow?  Some trees grow quickly, others take years and years to look like much more than a skinny sapling, and the trees don’t seem to be bothered about this at all.  Of course, we humans are not quite on board with that concept.  We plant a sapling, and we want a big tree next year.  After all, we are the folks who invented “Miracle Grow.”   We seem to want everything quickly, and the quicker the better.  Instant coffee, microwaves, fast food…   And if we can’t have it right now, we want it at an accelerated pace.   We advertise weight loss products that speed up our weight loss, even though it took us years to gain the weight.  We look to relationship gurus who are supposed to fix us in the space of a one-hour television show when it took much longer than that for the relationship to grow into disrepair.   But the place where we really mess ourselves up is that we expect accelerated growth of ourselves in areas where there is no such thing as accelerated growth.  You cannot become mature overnight—it is a long journey through adolescence and into young adulthood.  Deep abiding relationships are not built overnight unless you’re in elementary school.  Truly close friendships develop over months and years.  It should be no surprise that you cannot become spiritually mature overnight either. If you want a deep, abiding relationship with God, it is going to take time.  And every day you will reap the benefits of that deepening relationship, but you will have to keep working at it, day after day, month after month, year after year.  In fact, spiritual maturity seems to take longer than physical maturity—despite being almost 52 years old, I could swear that I am a spiritual teenager.  I say this because of all of the resistance that I seem to give the Lord, and that “I-know-what-I’m-doing” attitude that I can cop when God is trying to give me direction.   I’m hoping to grow out of my spiritual adolescence soon, but I just said that there is no such thing as accelerated growth, so…

I think I want to go back to talking about trees.

We’ve all seen deciduous trees—in other words, trees that lose all their leaves in the winter.  When I moved to Arizona I was surprised to discover that there were evergreen trees that weren’t pine trees.  In Arizona, many of the trees are evergreen and don’t lose their leaves in winter and I like it that way.  When I lived in the Midwest, I couldn’t stand the bare trees during the winter because everything looked dead. And don’t think that snow made it look prettier for more than one day after a fresh snowfall.  Within a day or two, the snow looked dirty and the landscape went back to looking dead.  That happens at some points in life, doesn’t it?  The landscape of your life starts looking dead.  Everything looks bare, or barren.  It gets kind of hard to live at those points, because you start thinking that it will stay like that forever.  Yet every winter the deciduous trees lose all their leaves, and they seem to hold on just fine despite their barren look.  They seem to know that there are cycles of life that are kind of bleak and bare—times in life when things look totally dead and wasted.  They seem to trust that spring always comes, and that life is renewed—the trees sprout and life looks green and alive again—filled with new growth and new possibilities and new beauty.  I think the trees count on that—that God always manages to renew life.  I think it’s that resurrection thing.  And the trees that don’t make it through the winter, the ones that actually do die—well, maybe it was their time, maybe it was a bad year, I don’t know.  The other trees don’t seem to be bothered by this; they just get on with budding up and getting green.

We need to be more like those trees. Sometimes a certain part of our life just needs to die off, to be laid to rest.  I don’t mean that some person needs to die.  What I’m talking about is the parts of our life that aren’t sustainable, the things whose time is up, that no longer work in our lives.  God removes those things, and it doesn’t always feel good.  On the other hand, maybe letting a few things die is what makes spring and all that new growth possible—some things die, and some things live, and some things grow by leaps and bounds like never before.  Trees seem to have no trouble accepting that. I wish I had more of that grace.

You may have noticed that the scriptures at the beginning of this post are filled with references to trees.   I think sometimes that the Lord compared us to trees so often because He wants us to be more like the trees.  And you’re sitting there thinking “Exactly how would that work, Tina?”

Well, let’s see.  “All the trees of the field will clap their hands.”  This isn’t the only time that this is mentioned in the Bible.  In fact, Psalm 96 says that the trees of the field will sing for joy!  Apparently, trees are relatively comfortable being public in their praise of God.  When they have something to praise about, they do things that are outside of their normal character, stuff that no one expects—they sing, they shout, they clap!  What do you do when it comes time to praise the Lord in public?  Do you sing?  Do you shout?  Do you mumble “Praise the Lord” under your breath so low that only your best friend notices?  Hmmmmm.  That public proclamation thing—that’s a rough one, and I understand that.  Getting all public with your faith is risky—you never know how people are going to react.  But God didn’t say the trees did a can-can down the road, or that they started a traveling revue, either.  God said that they clapped their hands, that they sang for joy.  We’re not talking televangelism here.  No one wants you to become Franklin Graham, God bless his soul.  One Franklin Graham is enough!  God is just looking for a little acclamation, a little jubilation—when the time is right, God is looking for some public celebration.  Say it out loud—GOD IS GOOD, ALL THE TIME!  ALL THE TIME, GOD IS GOOD!  Don’t be afraid to tell your neighbor.

And what did the gospel of Luke say?  “There is no good tree that produces bad fruit; nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit.”  What fruit are you growing? Most of us, when asked about the fruit we produce, look to Galations 5:22-23, where it lists the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, faith, and self-control—and we start asking ourselves—am I patient?  Am I kind?  Do I really have peace within?  Yes, those are the fruit of the Spirit, and when the Spirit is within, those fruit do grow.  But those are kind of private fruit, meant to fill our own spiritual cupboards with good things.  There are other fruit as well—a kind of public fruit—like the fruit of ministry, the fruit of witness, the fruit of mercy and mission.  What kind of fruit are you bearing there?  Because when the fruit of the Spirit is growing on the inside, there tends to be some more fruit that grows on the outside.  Or maybe I should say that when the fruit of the Spirit is filling up your spiritual cupboard, you start providing some tasty pies and jams for the public to consume.  Things start happening—fruits become works—and works build the Kingdom.   Not that I believe in a salvation of works—but the proof is always in the pudding.  Fruits growing on the inside yield works happening on the outside.

And speaking of fruits growing, in Psalm 92, we read that “The righteous man will grow like a cedar in Lebanon planted in the house of the Lord…they will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green.”  Apparently, age is an illusion.  Long after our bodies become old and begin to fail us, our spirits remain young and vital, continuing to grow towards a maturity that our bodies passed a long time ago.   As long as we remain connected to the Holy Spirit, the fruit just keeps on coming.  Unless you step away from the wellspring, the growth just doesn’t stop.  What an amazing consolation, because as human beings it is hard to grow old.  It’s hard to be witness to the slow fading of our health and our vitality, to lose our stamina and our prowess.  We tend to view ourselves as physical beings and see our purpose as rooted in what we can do.  Makes sense—just a moment ago I said that fruit on the inside bears works on the outside—and works are expressed through what we do. But what we do for God is merely an expression of who we are in God.  As trees of the Lord, our roots are planted in the house of the Lord, not in the soil of the earth.   Our feet are planted in Heaven even though we are standing here on the ground, so let’s not invest too much time and energy into the illusion that the riches the world can offer us are important.  We spend a lot of time trying to make our mark in the world, trying to become somebody.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use the gifts you’ve been given, but remember, the accolades your looking for are coming from on high, not from this world.  Our treasure is in heaven.  Our home is in heaven.  Our feet are in heaven because that’s where our roots are and all this is just the trappings of the physical world.  Remember: in it, not of it.  Keep your mind where your feet are.

I wish I had some brilliant ending for this post, but I don’t.  The truth is that sometimes you just have to say what the Lord sets before you, and this week, He sent me trees, and so that’s what I have brought to you—thoughts on how to be a tree.  I wish I could say that I have all this tree stuff in my own life, that I’ve got this all sewed up, but I don’t.  I’m no more a good tree than the next guy.  But I do know that the Lord doesn’t ask of me what the Lord does not make possible for me.  So I’m planning on spending a little more time in my backyard, sitting next to my grapefruit tree, listening for the word of the Lord on how to be a better tree.  I suggest that you find a tree close by and do the same.  We could do worse, you know?

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