I love trees – especially oak trees. I suppose that is why I chose an oak tree for the logo for both The Gathering and the Fourth Partner Foundation years ago. Everything I wanted to say about them was summed up in a tree – and especially a tree by a stream as we find it here.
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
For me, a tree has been a symbol for several important traits:
First, productivity. A tree turns water into fruit for others. A tree provides shade for the weary. A tree is a haven for birds. A tree improves the life of everything to which it is connected. The common English Oak can support hundreds of different species, including 284 species of insect and 324 species of lichens living directly on the tree. These in turn provide food for numerous birds and small mammals. The acorns of oak trees are food for dozens of species, including wild boar, jays, pigeons, pheasants, ducks, squirrels, mice, badgers, and deer. A tree is the center of a whole community of living things.
Even when it is cut down it provides wood for fire and timber for houses. I had a friend who once said he wanted to be as productive as a tree. “I’ll produce fruit for as long as I can…and then you can make a writing desk out of me.”
We read about the “prosperity gospel” and its emphasis on what I think is the misuse of certain passages of Scripture to make promises of wealth to people. We are told to “sow seeds of faith” to a ministry with the implied promise that the investment will come back ten fold or more. That’s not really what the Bible means by prosperity. It means to produce something and not just to accumulate wealth. It is more like completing the task you have been assigned in a way that is useful to God and others. That, of course, is what healthy (prosperous) trees and people do. They fulfill their purpose. They do their job.
The screen saver on my phone is a wood-cutting of “The Man Who Planted Trees” because it is one of my favorite stories. You may know it.
“The story begins in the year 1913, when this young man is undertaking a lone hiking trip through Provence, France, and into the Alps, enjoying the relatively unspoiled wilderness.
The narrator runs out of water in a treeless, desolate valley where only wild lavender grows and there is no trace of civilization except old, empty crumbling buildings. The narrator finds only a dried up well, but is saved by a middle-aged shepherd who takes him to a spring he knows of.
Curious about this man and why he has chosen such a lonely life, the narrator stays with him for a time. The shepherd, after being widowed, has decided to restore the ruined landscape of the isolated and largely abandoned valley by single-handedly cultivating a forest, tree by tree. The shepherd makes holes in the ground with his pole and drops into the holes acorns that he has collected from many miles away.
The narrator leaves the shepherd and returns home, and later fights in the First World War. In 1920, shell-shocked and depressed after the war, the man returns. He is surprised to see young saplings of all forms taking root in the valley, and new streams running through it where the shepherd has made dams higher up in the mountain.
Over four decades, the shepherd continues to plant trees, and the valley is turned into a kind of Garden of Eden. By the end of the story, the valley is vibrant with life, people move in and settle. The whole valley is transformed by one man planting trees.”
Second, it is a reminder of gratitude. Someone likely planted that tree by the water. As well, they both, in a way, give each other life. The tree draws life from the stream but in doing so it gives the stream something of a purpose and allows it to leave something tangible behind instead of just passing through on its way to the sea.
Third, it is a symbol of the delight that good work produces. Not just work for money or work that is mere drudgery but work that suits us. The kind of work that creates justifiable pride and satisfaction. It’s trite perhaps but I have liked the phrase, “Find what you love to do and you will never work a day in your life.” It does not mean what you love to do will be easy or effortless. The New York Times columnist said that writing never gets easier. It is always hard. Good work is hard. It is difficult and demanding but it is satisfying. A friend told me this week that is why they call it a task. Still, I think the Apostle Paul was right when he told the church at Thessalonika that the way to live was to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands…so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…”
I think for me trees have always been a symbol of that quiet witness of God’s creation.
There is a story about St. Francis and a young monk.
“One day Francis said to one of the young monks, “Let us go down into the town and preach!” The novice, delighted at being singled out to be a companion of Francis, obeyed with great enthusiasm. They passed through the main streets, turned down many of the byways and alleys, made their way into the suburbs, and at great length, returned by a circuitous route to the monastery gate. As they approached the gate, the younger monk reminded Francis of his original intention. “You have forgotten, Father, that we went to the town to preach!” “My son,” Francis replied, “we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We have been seen by many; our behavior has been closely watched; it was thus that we have preached our morning sermon. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk.”
Fourth, a tree is a reminder of the seasons – good and difficult – in life. When we study the rings we can see the evidence of fire, flood, and infestation – all the things that attack the life. We can also mark the times of growth and health. It’s all a part of life as it is with us. I would love to see the rings of some of you! What were the good times and the times that nearly took you down? When did you grow and when did you struggle? I don’t want to wait to hear your eulogies.
Fifth, a tree is a symbol and example of rootedness. It is committed to where it lives and does not move around. A whole ecology of relationships grows up around it. And it is not just a commitment to place but a commitment to the people in our lives as well.
Normally we think about an epiphany being a sudden rush of insight. Of course, sometimes they are. But others are more the result of a long and silent process that has been working away internally. It’s not an eruption or a blinding flash but pieces of a puzzle coming together.
I was in a dark theater watching a performance of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” It is a play by Joe De Pietro and a friend John Kelly played the lead character. De Pietro scripts the poignant story of an immigrant Italian family in New York whose grandson Nick has made a decision to move away – far away – to Seattle for his work. The central conflict is the struggle between desiring a personal identity and life separate from family and the reality that our lives are entangled with theirs.
In my conversations with young people this is the first issue that comes up. How do I renegotiate my relationship with my parents? How can I encourage them to turn loose of me and me of them? For the grandparents in the play their commitment to family is the source of their identity. There is no such thing as an identity outside of family. Time and again they use the phrase “tengo familia” (I have a family) to describe what it means to have and to be held by family. It’s the primary relationship in life and to take care of and be cared for by family is the basis of a life that is satisfying.
Yes, it is partly generational but it is more than that. It is the struggle many of us have between taking advantage of opportunities and still being anchored in relationships that constrain us. How much do we owe the people who love us? How much of us belongs to them? How much of ourselves are we willing to give up to belong to family?
Sitting there I remembered a quote from Wendell Berry’s book Jayber Crow: “And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”
I didn’t understand the value of belonging when I was younger. I was always ready to move on. My bag was always packed and the adventure of the next experience was irresistible. Maybe it had something to do with sharing my father’s name but making a name for myself kept me pushing out. I did not appreciate as I do now what it means to belong to a place or to have a place and people who lay their claim on me. While I don’t think I could have done it differently, I am grateful I have been given this opportunity – the opportunity to belong and to be satisfied in being here.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot
Blessed is the man who is like a tree planted by streams of water. Next week we will look at verses 4-6.