Seriously! Take a walk most anywhere in the woods of New Hampshire or Maine and not only is it likely you’ll come upon one of the many huge glacial rocks that pepper this landscape, but odds are there will also be found some towering tree with long and gnarled roots wrapped all around it! We’ve actually got one out in front of our family’s camp up in Aroostook County; an old yellow birch which has been clinging defiantly to a huge rock on the shore of the lake for longer than my lifetime, all the while growing and stretching its shady branches ever further over the water. Many was the time over the years growing up that I marveled at that tree hanging at the angle it does, wondering how it can possibly defy gravity like that! And even now it remains; still growing and dare I say, still thriving despite all the windswept mid-summer storms and intense winter “nor’easters” that have come at it over the years. Indeed, there have been other trees around our camp – bigger, straighter and seemingly stronger – that have fallen to the ground in that time; trees that were ultimately unable to stand firm against all that our New England weather can typically dish out. However, come what may, this one precariously perched old tree just never seems to yield!
Of course, looks are often deceiving and a closer examination of such “rock bound” trees will reveal that their roots have managed to reach around the rocks into whatever soil it can find; or, as in the case of our own yellow birch growing along the shoreline, right into the spring fed mud of the lake itself. That’s how, despite all outward appearances and seemingly impossible odds, trees like these stay strong, tall and leafy green summer after summer; long past the time when so many other trees have gone to mulch.
As snow and the winter wind has been blowing outside my door this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about that tree and its own unique set of “survival skills.” It’s actually put me in mind of a particular biblical promise that comes courtesy of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: “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.” (17:7)
What’s interesting to me about these words is that historically speaking, they were directed to the people of Israel amidst a crucial time in its history: the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of God’s people to Babylon all took place within Jeremiah’s lifetime (around 600 B.C.E., if you’re looking it up). Words like these ought to have provided great hope and comfort to those who were caught up in the stormy tumult of those times – they certainly do for us – but truth be told, they were actually intended as words of confrontation; they serve as a strong rebuke to a people mired in their own faithlessness!
In its proper context, it all makes sense; after all, here was a people who’d had a long history of making the wrong choices where God was concerned. It wasn’t simply that Israel had turned from God; it was that they’d had the propensity to place their trust in anything and everything except God! Jeremiah rightly compared them to a shrub in the desert,” (v. 6) living their lives like that of a tree that’s unable to get the water it needs, and so eventually, it turns from green to brown, it shrivels up, withers away and dies.
The point here is that if such a thing can happen to God’s own people Israel, then it can also happen to us.
Even for those of us who profess to wholly trust in God and who actively seek to validate that profession by the living of our lives, there is always the temptation and risk that our hearts become engaged elsewhere; and before long we, too, become like shrubs in the desert. It might be fear that’s the catalyst; perhaps it’ll be issues around patience, or propriety or mere convenience that’ll create that kind of shift. Who knows: but whatever the reason, when God becomes the choice of lesser importance, then inevitably our faith and indeed, our very lives, will become parched and dry; without true purpose and any real meaning.
Ultimately, you see, we need water in our lives – living water – that only God can provide; so that, (if I might slightly adjust Jeremiah’s words here), “[even] in the year of drought [we are] not anxious, and [we do] not cease to bear fruit.” (v. 8)
In the nitty-gritty of life’s journey, the question for us will always be who, and in what, we shall trust; and in faith we know that as we trust in God, we will be blessed “like a tree planted by water.” There is great wisdom and divine truth in that; and yet, I’d have to say my own choice would still be to be that one gnarly tree that keeps on growing out of the rock along the shoreline; holding on determinedly to God’s solid presence in and through every storm that comes along.
Because then I’ll know for sure, just as the words of the old spiritual proclaims, “I shall not be moved.”
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry