The Parable of the Trees

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; But their delight is in the law of the LORD, And on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, Which yield their fruit in its season, And their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.”
--Psalm 1:1-3 NRSV

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” --John 15:1-5 NRSV

I have two cottonwood trees growing in my backyard and they’ve got me worried. They’re now taller than our two-story house and in many ways, that’s good. They provide greenery and shade, some welcome relief in the hot afternoon sun. But what’s got me worried is that much of their root system is visible on the grass beneath them! Big bulky roots now snake across the lawn and make for difficult mowing. I’m concerned because these roots don’t seem deep enough to provide for the stability of these tall trees. I’m worried that one of these days, when the Chinook winds howl out of Eldorado Canyon, those trees will topple right onto our house.

I’m no arborist, no tree expert. But I’m guessing the cottonwoods in the Rock Creek subdivision struggle for stability. You see, we are notorious here for our Bentonite clay soil, which makes it tough for things to grow. I suspect the roots of these trees go where the water is—on the surface, rather than at the depths. I asked my dad, a much smarter man than I am when it comes to these things, and he had a novel suggestion: “why don’t you consider digging postholes [long cylindrical holes] next to the trunks of the trees and fill them with small rocks. That way you can water the holes and send the moisture beneath the surface. The roots will know where this moisture is and move deeper to get it.” That seemed like a lot of work to me! But his reasoning made sense: the roots go where the nutrients are; if the moisture and nutrients are shallow, they set themselves down there. If these good things lie deeper, the roots of the trees will be forced to go deeper to get the feeding they need. And hopefully, when this happens, the trees will become more stable, more able to endure the harsh conditions of Colorado's Front Range. Does this make sense?

In the two Bible passages above, discipleship is compared to a tree and a grapevine. In order to derive the nutrients needed, the tree and the vine-branches need to be plugged down deeply into the source of life. In Psalm 1, this is the water of God’s word. In this case, a firm rooting in God’s revealed will grants life and stability to the believer. In John 15, Jesus likens his followers to branches of a grapevine: provided they stay rooted firmly in him, the true vine, they will derive the life and strength they need to bear fruit—lives of faithfulness that reflect Christ’s love to the world. If the tree is not planted near the river of water, if the branch does not abide securely in the vine, their lives become unstable and unfruitful. They wither and die.

There comes a time in a disciple’s life, indeed, in a congregation’s life, when the roots are called to go deeper. They’re called to press down beneath the surface to find nourishment. To stay at the surface is to be in jeopardy, to become unstable, ultimately to be fruitless. To get those roots to go deeper is tough; it may involve pruning the branches; it may mean a painful posthole needs to be dug. But the goal is vitality and in God the Master Arborist’s hands the outcome is joyful, fulfilling life.

I wonder: how might the Lord be calling us these days to sink our roots deeper?

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