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Learning from the trees

October 30, 2018

“You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,
    that will endure forever.”– Isaiah 55:12-13 NIV

 

Greetings in the name of our Creator God!

We hardly need to check the calendar to know that a change is upon us. On each of my daily walks with Bella, there are more and more leaves scattered on the sidewalks. We sense it in the overnight temperatures dipping into the 30s, the waning hours of daylight, and the splashes of color on the green mountainsides.

 

Though many will lament the coming of fall as a precursor to winter, I for one welcome the change. Fall is my favorite season and I think my fascination with trees is a direct result of that. I find something comforting in the transition that occurs with the autumnal equinox.

 

As a kid, I loved climbing trees – especially as a way to escape my siblings. And there were those walks to school with the crunch-crunch underfoot, and the little storm of leaves kicked up behind.

 

As I got older, I began to marvel at the science of trees – the rhythm and pattern of their growth, their roots constantly stretching out in search of life-giving water. The tree grows from the inside out, adding a new layer in a burst of inner growth each year. Trees live in community, taking part in the creative energy in the world around them. They breathe in the toxins of the environment and, in exchange, produce clean, fresh air.

 

When I became a homeowner on Long Island, I took on the task of nurturing two scraggly, long-neglected trees outside my kitchen window.

 

The trees turned out to be an amazing study in contrasts. The one, a sassafras, provided a great show of color as the leaves turned from green to yellow and red before a final splash of burgundy and bronze. Before the mitten-shaped leaves dropped, the tree has already set visible buds that that would become next summer’s greenery.

 

The other tree, a pin oak, was quite shy in comparison to its showy companion. It was almost as if the tree had an off-and-on switch; one day the leaves are green, the next day brown. But the pin oak would hold most of its leaves through the cold winter, letting them go only to make way for the new growth of spring.

 

Each of the trees, in its own way, cast off the old in order to prepare for the new. Fall is the chance for the trees to put up one great blast of spectacular color before entering a state of dormancy in preparation for spring. The dropping of the leaves is not an end, but part of the life cycle, a vital step in the ecosystem in which they survive. There is hope in those buds that have been set on the trees.

 

My fascination with trees makes the Isaiah passage above one of my favorites in the Hebrew Bible. I think of the autumn colors as the joyful face of the trees. I think about the complete level of joy required to make the mountains sing and the trees clap. Every bit of creation is joyfully praising their Maker. When was the last time I felt like that in my relationship with God?

 

In those two verses, and in fact, all of chapter 55, the Prophet Isaiah is attempting to speak a life-giving word of hope even when all the events seem to make that an impossibility. The Hebrew people had taken a huge hit when the Babylonians carried them off into captivity: their city is destroyed; families torn apart; houses demolished; their country lost. No wonder they questioned whether they still believed in the God of their ancestors.

 

They had little or no hope, but Isaiah was doing his very best to provide some. So he turns to the created order to paint a visual image for them. The Word of God is like water in a parched land, it is life-giving and life-sustaining. He reminded them that they could count on the steadfast Word of God, that God had always been with them even when it seemed otherwise. God’s people would be delivered from destructive things, and replenished with all divine graces and blessings.

 

And that promise of healing and peace also embraces the trees of the field; the mountains and the hills will joyfully proclaim that the destructive powers have been defeated.

 

There are times in our lives when we feel that even the last ounce of hope has been drained from our hearts. But what our faith exhorts is to hold fast to what we know to be the true Word of God until things change around us – until the promised healing seeps into our lives.

 

In the words of another prophet, Jeremiah, it is the faithful who are compared to trees, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”– Jeremiah 17:7-8

 

Trees are rooted in the creative force of our world and survive or adapt to the ebb and flow of life. Their roots are always growing both thicker and longer, stretching toward the source of life-giving water. Trees are ever reaching skyward, to the sun and the heavens above. The sun is their life force, just as the Son of God is the life and core of our faith.

 

The cycle of a tree is similar to the patterns we embrace in the Christian church: the cycle of preparation, expectation and anticipation, the spreading of hope, and the realization of living into new life.

 

What an incredible possibility Isaiah is offering us! He is delivering an invitation to abundant life. The Israelites – and all who read these words – are invited to come and sustain themselves on the nurturing word of God. God offers us an abundant life.

 

We need to give ourselves some time to soak in the Word of God, and a time to be “dormant” in a place of reflection and meditation where we can discover the glimmers of hope. That quiet time – that down time – gives us an opportunity to tune in to what God is saying.

 

This fall, may you take special note of the trees around you, and be startled by the beauty of our natural landscape. May the Word of God be like life-giving water, to nourish and sustain you. May you find a time of “dormancy” to rest and reflect in the presence of God in preparation for what the coming days will hold.

In God’s care and service,

Pastor Joanne

 

 

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