On Trees

There’s something about trees. Being around them is good for us.

There’s a wealth of evidence that our mental health is positively affected by being around trees, but for now let’s take that as read and try to think a little more theologically about why that might be.

The Bible uses trees a lot. We are described as trees in Psalm 1, and to some extent in Genesis 2. The story is bookended by two trees in a garden at the beginning, and one tree in a city at the end. The story hinges on a broken tattered tree standing on Snakeshead Hill bearing a broken tattered man who bore a broken tattered world into glory. To some extent the Bible is itself shaped like a tree, a fractal. Through the symbolic eyes of the Bible, the world is shaped like a tree too.

When God meets with people in the Old Testament, they are almost always stood on a mountain near a tree—much like the initial garden on high ground with two trees. The Tabernacle and the Temple each have a tree (the lampstand, shaped like an almond tree) and are decorated with trees.

People are compared to trees favourably—as oaks of righteousness or as bearing fruit; or unfavourably—as thorns and thistles. Trees reach upwards, they provide a canopy of covering, and they outlast us. Trees speak to us of God.

We can hear all of this and easily think that the writers of the Bible used natural imagery to help us understand truths about God. Being a follower of the way of Jesus is like being a tree planted by streams of water because we can see analogies between them (Psalm 1). It seems reasonable enough, but it’s wrong. This perspective views creation as incidental, as an arena for the composing of poetic analogies.

The world around you is a temple to the glory of God. Trees are not useful analogies, when we read the analogies we discover why trees exist. Trees were made to teach us these things, and to sing their oakhearted songs to Yahweh of Hosts, to the great singer who sang them into their blessed being. They spend their lives stretching up with arms lifted high in praise, so is the way of the righteous man.

A friend starts his day by standing among the trees in his garden and praying to their Lord and his. He describes it as his tree-hugging, and it could sound neo-pagan to the unwary listener, but there is something about trees. To take the time to be with something bigger than you, older than you, that remains so much smaller than the immensity of the triune God. To slow yourself and pay attention in our age of speed, always looking but never seeing. To walk among them does us good.

My favourite tree, I think, is the Magnolia. It buds in Advent and flowers at Easter. We can hear that and think, “that’s fun” and then go on with our day. But if the world is a Temple then that is not an accident, it’s deliberate. This tree every year tells us the gospel with the turning of the seasons. The seasons themselves sing the same story every year, as cruel Winter is wrestled by her sisters, and Spring is pregnant with Summer’s Son. This is the gospel too, if we have eyes open to see it.

From the making of the world, the cosmos has reverberated with the particular set of events that happened in the Judea between 4BC and AD33. That as a man was born who was also the divine Son, who lived before the face of God like no other because his face was God’s face, and as he walked to his death to defeat death’s dragon—as he lived the events of his life he told the story that the cosmos has beat to from its inception, the story it has echoed since he sang it into being.

We have a Magnolia tree in our front garden. As I type this at my desk I can just see the tops of its branches peeking over the bins. It is yet small, but it will sing the glories of God for many years to come. It has red-purple flowers, the colour of tabernacle curtains, high-priests and kings, the colour of blood. That seems fitting, somehow. As it grows, it will speak.

They should challenge us daily too. Are we a fruit-bearing tree, or a thorn bush? What would others in our lives say?

I want to indulge in the easy dodge, we’re all a bit of both. We struggle with our depravity; we’re riddled with self-righteousness and sin-sick. This is true, but it is also a dodge. The Bible says that if we follow the way of Jesus we will be like a tree that grows by water. We will bear fruit (Galatians 5), and it’s spelled out what that fruit will look like.

Am I bearing fruit? I find it easy enough to point to things that I’m doing for the Lord, or claim that I’m doing for the Lord at least. My motives, like yours, are remarkably twisty. I can point to other Christians who I can genuinely say I am leading to grow up into wisdom and to bear fruit. This is all good, but it’s still not the question.

Am I bearing fruit? Let the question land. Let the trees challenge you every day. Then get your roots into the word, the Spirit, the community of the Church and go and copy them. Bear rich fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Against these things there is no law.

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

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