Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tree Theology

We went hiking a few days ago - big surprise since we're in Washington and all! I've been enjoying the hikes in a different way than I used to. The hills and mountains are still beautiful as they always have been, but I've come to appreciate the sounds (or lack thereof), clean air, and green vegetation a little more since living in Bangkok area. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, I guess, even when referring to things other than people.

Anyway, this last hike we went on proved to be a theological experience for me. Michael, his dad, and I started discussing how the trees serve as a fantastic picture of the Christian life. Not one of them is the same, and each has its own story to tell. Simply by stopping to gaze at some of them, I began to understand more about what Michael's dad meant.

Let me break this down a little bit. When you drive along the highway, what kinds of trees do you see? Lots, obviously. But many of them are straight and tall. They often look like the standard picture of a tree that a child might draw, or like the image in a song I used to sing when I was growing up:

I saw a tree by the riverside
One day as I walked along
Straight as an arrow and pointing to the sky
Growing tall and strong
"How do you grow so tall and strong?"
I said to the riverside tree
This is the song that my tree friend sang to me:

I've got roots growing down to the water
I've got leaves growing up to the sunshine
And the fruit that I bear is a sign of life in me
I am shade from the hot summer sundown
I am nest for the birds of the heavens
I'm becoming what the Lord of trees has meant me to be
A strong young tree

That song has its own implications for what it means to be Christian. The only way we can grow strong is through Christ - by digging our "roots" into the Living Water, bearing fruit, and becoming what He desires us to be - his servants.

However, as we discussed on our hike, the whole part about being "straight as an arrow and pointing to the sky" is a little tough. How many people do you know who are Christian can say their walk with Christ has been straight and strong the whole time? I'm willing to bet none would say that. Christ called us as his followers, but he never promised that the road would be short and easy. Actually, he told us to expect hardship, hatred, and persecution (see John 15:18-21, among other passages). Most of the time, we falter. We fail. We wander away from God, wondering why he has left us, and then realize that we are the ones who left Him. Through it all, though, God guides us, using our experiences to shape us into the people he created us to be.

Back to the trees. We saw very few that were straight, but many that were gnarled, twisted, leaning on other trees, and full of branches going in every direction. These, I feel, are a much better picture. Some people start by growing straight, diving into God's word, sharing what they learn, and continually growing toward the Son, just as trees grow towards the sun. However, when the winds and storms of trials come along, what happens? Leaves are blown off. Branches get broken. Trees may be uprooted. It isn't as EASY for the tree to grow and flourish during that storm as it is during the good weather. But, despite the fact that the storm has the possibility of uprooting the tree, if the tree's roots are deep enough, the storm will not harm the tree at all. The tree that has deep roots and a solid foundation (a rock, for instance) will remain firm and steadfast during the fiercest of storms. As the tree grows, its strength grows as well.

Another thing we noticed was that the trees that fell often fell onto other trees. Sometimes these fallen trees died, but other times one live tree served as a helper, keeping the weaker tree upright enough that it could continue living.
What an image for the Body of Christ! Sometimes it is easy to be there to help, especially when it is our friends who go through those stormy times. But what about the times when it's not so easy? Despite our own weaknesses, struggles, and attitudes, can we still help those who struggle with issues that we ourselves do not want to deal with? When a member of the Body is in pain, the whole body feels it, right? (1 Corinthians 12) Support for one another, especially in prayer, is a necessary part of the Body of Christ. The trees reminded me of that, also.

Some trees did not start out growing straight. This happens in the hills - trees find little nooks and crannies in rocks to grow out of. We saw several growing out of the hillside - nearly horizontally at first, then curving upward toward the sky, as a tree should be. These were the kinds of trees that I really pondered on our walk. I know I, for one, do not "grow" in the right direction all the time. I go my own way, do my own thing, and sort of forget about the Creator (...or ignore him). It's easy for us to get off-course, especially when we let sin get in the way. Gossiping is a whole lot more fun than reading the Bible, right? And isn't it so easy to just get on the internet and while away the hours that we should be spending in prayer? It is for me. The distractions, the temptations are everywhere, and they so easily deter us from what we SHOULD be doing. Do our thoughts focus more on who might have commented on our Facebook pages, or how God is leading us to shine His light to our coworkers, friends, and family? I'm challenging myself with these thoughts as much as I hope I am challenging you.

It's Holy Week. It's the week where we, as a body of Christians, officially remember and celebrate Jesus' death on the cross, and even more importantly, his RESURRECTION. What joy we can have because of his sacrifice! What a life we can live because Christ has risen! (He has risen indeed!)

Be challenged. We have been called to a high purpose, that is, to declare the praises of the Most High God, to be his servants, and to spread the news of Jesus' death, resurrection, and God's grace to every corner of the earth. But like the images the trees can give us, we are uprooted. Our branches are broken. We do not grow the way we should. We fail. However, that is not the end. It is by grace that we have been saved - hallelujah! Let us reflect on God's amazing grace, not only this week, but each day and each hour that follow.

I would like to leave you with a final thought from 1 Peter 4:11:
"If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen."

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