I love trees. I always have. The cre­ative endeav­ors of God offer pro­found insight and won­der into the spir­i­tu­al life. There is much to gain by inter­act­ing with, read­ing, and study­ing God’s art: the book of nature, the sec­ond great book.

I think God must like trees as well, these lit­tle sign­posts, scat­tered all around us. The Bible is full of ref­er­ences com­par­ing our spir­i­tu­al jour­ney to trees, Gen­e­sis, Num­bers, Deuteron­o­my, Psalms, Proverbs, Isa­iah, Jere­mi­ah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Hosea and Mic­ah. Jesus talked about cut­ting off branch­es and Paul wrote about graft­ing. And then that haunt­ing sto­ry of Nathan being seen and known while sit­ting under a fig tree.

I’ve devel­oped a lit­tle habit when I give a talk. I like to start with a tree metaphor, dig­ging into what can be learned about our lives with God from trees. I’ve been asked to com­pile some of the sto­ries. And so, in this essay, I’d like craft a nar­ra­tive arch about trees and our life with God. 

Grow­ing Roots 

Today in Michi­gan a wispy snow is danc­ing about, gen­tly rest­ing on the knot­ted and man­gled branch­es. I some­times feel sor­ry for trees in the win­ter. Those once bril­liant­ly vibrant canopies, pul­sat­ing with new life are now laid bare. Naked. Exposed. Sub­ject to bru­tal wind and bit­ing cold. If I didn’t know any bet­ter, I would think they were dead. Yet, they are any­thing but. Deep in the dark recess­es of the earth some­thing very won­der­ful is tak­ing place. They say trees do their most growth in the win­ter as their roots dig deep, plumb­ing the depths seek­ing out the nutri­ents they need to sur­vive. Des­per­ate. Long­ing. Break­ing through the frozen earth, clay, and rocks. And so, I think it is with our own per­son­al win­ter sea­sons, when our pro­tec­tive façade no longer cov­ers. Those times when all seems lost; when we’re wound­ed and con­fused, a frigid storm rages about and we ache and suf­fer, help­less­ly exposed like a raw nerve. Yet, it is dur­ing these sea­sons we grow the most – just like the trees. 

There is much to say about the trans­form­ing pow­er of suf­fer­ing. Most of the qual­i­ties of who I am that I most val­ue were born out of suffering. 

I can’t help but won­der if we real­ly had a clear pic­ture of the redemp­tive pow­er of suf­fer­ing and its eter­nal sig­nif­i­cance that we might embrace it rather than run away. We are faced with these cross­roads in life — of with­er­ing back into numb­ing prac­tices, iso­la­tion, or despair, or accept­ing and maybe even embrac­ing what life has offered, thus dri­ving our roots deep­er into greater mys­ter­ies of God. 

We learn to rely on the prophet­ic promis­es of the psalmist. We imper­fect­ly cling to God in the short and long win­ters that find us, grow­ing deep­er into grace and love. As with the tree, our roots are so often formed in the dark and bit­ter­ness of win­ter. The fruit of God in our lives, which spring reveals with buds and blos­soms, is the result of a deep inner life, one that is forged in tri­als, suf­fer­ing, and push­ing through the bit­ter cold of winter. 

In the win­ter we learn to accept the sea­sons of life. We learn to live life on life’s terms by embrac­ing that which we can­not change, and instead allow­ing it to deep­en us. And as our roots go deep­er, we can be ever sure that God is in our growth, going ahead, knead­ing the soil, ful­ly com­mit­ted to the redemp­tion of our strug­gle and our trans­for­ma­tion into the like­ness of Jesus. 

I should note that for so many through­out his­to­ry, this life did not bring sig­nif­i­cant relief from suf­fer­ing, and the fruit of their tri­als was not to be seen this side of eter­ni­ty. It will be the same for many of us liv­ing today. Take great assur­ance that God will not waste our bur­row­ing into him, that our present con­di­tion will cat­a­pult us into glo­ry upon glo­ry, that who you are becom­ing today will have great eter­nal sig­nif­i­cance. And in 10,000 years our present hor­rors will be as a fleet­ing moment.

There is some­thing so appeal­ing about the cul­tur­al lie that if I could be more, do more, then things will be okay — the grand illu­sion of con­trol. I’m not sure where I got the idea that I’m enti­tled to have an easy life, free of suf­fer­ing and strug­gle. But it too is an illu­sion, one I often cling to, an idol of sorts. 

I remem­ber watch­ing some­one des­per­ate­ly pour out a ques­tion to my dad: What do you do when your pur­su­ing God feels emp­ty and dry? What do you do when you’re lost in pain, mys­tery, and God seems com­plete­ly absent?” Very sim­ply he replied, The same thing you do when all is going your way. You remain faith­ful and obedient.” 

Tree Rings

For the tree, win­ter marks a pass­ing year. Expand­ing its girth with a ring around its base. Not only do new rings pro­vide strength to sup­port, the new growth of branch­es and foliage, the sto­ry is locked into its very fiber. The ring holds its his­to­ry; the cli­mate it endured, the sea­sons of scarci­ty and abun­dance, the nar­ra­tive of sun­light, water and fire for­ev­er marks the tree. 

And so it is for us, and we take time to remem­ber where we’ve been and where we are going. Like Joshua arrang­ing stones from the Jor­dan to mark the move­ment of God in the life of the peo­ple, we remem­ber. We learn and we share with oth­ers. Tat­tooed in our hearts are the sto­ries of God’s work in our lives. 

Com­mu­ni­ty

High in the Col­orado moun­tains where the air is thin and the snows are heavy lives a com­mu­ni­ty of singing trees: the quak­ing aspen. If you lis­ten care­ful­ly you just might hear the poet­ic cho­rus of their leaves hum­ming in the wind. Yet this white barked moun­tain choir depends on each oth­er for more than music, aspen groves share a sin­gu­lar root sys­tem. The life and health of one affects the whole, sim­i­lar to us in the spir­i­tu­al life. I’ve come to believe that we need each oth­er in ways often unseen. When you hurt, the rest hurts. And when you walk in new life, it feeds and nur­tures oth­ers in pro­found ways. Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, we are noth­ing close to islands unto our­selves. Of course we see our inter­con­nect­ed­ness as humans in glob­al and envi­ron­men­tal affairs, but in God’s Church our con­nect­ed­ness is para­mount. It is no coin­ci­dence that Paul ref­er­enced us as a body, inter­con­nect­ed and inter­de­pen­dent. This is God’s design for his chil­dren. The spir­i­tu­al life is high­ly per­son­al but not private. 

Com­mu­ni­ty by its very nature takes time, lots of time. It’s only through sea­sons after sea­sons of liv­ing life togeth­er, strug­gling, suf­fer­ing, rejoic­ing and address­ing con­flict, that a deep Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty is birthed. It’s when we know each oth­er, the good and bad, it’s when it’s no longer fun, excit­ing and safe, yet we choose to con­tin­ue to do life togeth­er and remain com­mit­ted to a shared vision. Much like a grove of aspen is years in the mak­ing the real fruit of life togeth­er can­not be ful­ly matured in just a few short years. Go pour into some peo­ple for the next twen­ty years and we just may find our lives hum togeth­er with great beau­ty. Of course our ever-increas­ing mobile soci­ety cre­ates many chal­lenges and we all have to work with what we have. 

Spring

Growth is ever hap­pen­ing in the life of a tree. There is noth­ing stag­nant about it; it is either grad­u­al­ly dying or slow­ing being renewed. 

I so love the gen­tle shift of spring, the smell in the air, the new­ness, and promise of what’s to come. Like most growth for us, it’s ever so grad­ual; we nev­er real­ly know it’s tak­en place until it’s already happened. 

I often look in on my trees toward the end win­ter. I exam­ine those brit­tle and flim­sy branch­es for the soft bulge of new buds. The tree antic­i­pates God’s inevitable call­ing forth of a new sea­son, expec­tant with regen­er­a­tion, that will soon no longer be able to con­tain its enthu­si­asm. In one moment the time comes and the new life is lib­er­at­ed with the burst­ing forth of green. Out of the hid­ing it shines with radi­ance and glo­ry, ful­ly obey­ing the beau­ti­ful will of the Father. 

And so we are like the tree. Our win­ter labors in time reach fruition. Our growth is a slow and nat­ur­al process, a work and move­ment of the spir­it. We can’t force or will fruit into being. Yet by sub­mit­ting and lay­ing our every­day ordi­nary lives before God, offer­ing our time, ener­gies and lives into the care of God, in due time our fruit matures sea­son after sea­son. Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is not about us find­ing the secret mech­a­nism to make God work as if we could pull a holy lever for blessed­ness. No, rela­tion­ships don’t work like that. The tree doesn’t will its fruit into being, nor can we. It is a nat­ur­al out­growth of life with God, just like the nat­ur­al process the sun, water, nutri­ents and the grace of God work­ing the won­der of life. The tree obeys and receives all that God gives. We want so bad­ly to be good peo­ple, empow­ered to love God and oth­ers well. Yet, our res­ur­rec­tion into Christ­like­ness is a work of God. It’s about grace. Life from death. No sys­tem. Our fruit is a gift from God.

I was recent­ly walk­ing through the woods and encoun­tered the most beau­ti­ful smell. Search­ing for its source I stum­bled upon a blos­som­ing cher­ry tree. Its smell radi­at­ed out. It could not help but infect the air with its won­der. Much like the cher­ry tree our deep life with God can­not be con­tained and the fra­grance of God’s grace fills the spaces we find our­selves in. 

Our world is com­plete­ly sur­round­ed by God’s lit­tle cre­ative projects, the trees, flow­ers, birds and rocks in their own way pro­claim­ing God’s wis­dom, good­ness and glo­ry. There is much for us to learn. As spring will soon be upon us and green will invade the land, what a won­der­ful time to prac­tice the dis­ci­pline of study, prayer­ful­ly and play­ful­ly explor­ing the beau­ties and mys­ter­ies of God and all that his art has to teach for the liv­ing of our days.

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Pho­to by Chris Ford via Flickr.

Originally published March 2016