The Tree vs. the Tent
It's harder for some of us to put down roots than for others. One of the Bible's enduring images of faithfulness is a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1). In the words of the old Gospel lyric, "Just like a tree that's planted by the waters, I shall not be moved." Given the mobility of many of our lives, this image can sound like either a lovely metaphor or a hopeless fantasy.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, in his book The Wisdom of Stability, explores this image in greater depth. He talks about a tree's "drip line" - that is, the ring formed around a tree by its canopy when it sheds water. We can use the drip line to get a sense of how far a tree's root structure goes. Generally, the extension of a tree above ground will not exceed its growth below. A tree's capacity to reach out its limbs and bear fruit is limited, in part, by the breadth and depth of its roots. (I'm not a tree expert, so one of you will need to tell me if he's getting any of the science wrong.) In other words, the more time we have to put down roots, the better chance we have of extending our reach and bearing fruit.
He then uses the drip line image to suggest some boundaries for our lives. Drawing on Psalm 16 (one of the psalms appointed today for Morning Prayer), he wonders what limits we might set on our mobility for the sake of our spiritual growth. "My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage" (Psalm 16:8). How might we set those boundaries - or allow those boundaries to be set for us?
In Wilson-Hartgrove's case, after an itinerant life as a young adult, he found himself putting down roots in the same region his parents and grandparents did. It was a tangible way for him to tap into a root system that already went quite deep. He speaks movingly of the things he's since learned about himself and his community with the hard-earned wisdom of generations backing him up.
It's a compelling vision, but fortunately, it's not the only biblical vision of a faithful life. For many of us, especially inside the Beltway, our educational and professional lives have taken us far from our ancestral homes. Our roots, if anywhere, are elsewhere. In my case, the land of my parents and grandparents is Central New York, and so far I haven't been called back "home," at least not in that sense.
In trying to discern a pattern to the Spirit's movement in my life, I draw my inspiration less from the life of a tree and more from the life of Abraham. Faithfulness for him was not about staying put and putting down roots; it was about following God's lead and moving when God said to go. It was about a willingness to live in tents for as long as it took until he got the signal to stop. By the time he died, the only property he owned in the Promised Land was his and Sarah's burial plot. For some of us, faithfulness takes more the shape of a tent than a tree.
The beauty of a faith community like St. Alban's is that we have both "oaks of righteousness" (Isaiah 61:3) and tent dwellers in our midst. By committing to this group of people in this place and time for however long the Spirit calls us to remain, we tap into traditions and faith practices that precede us and will hold fast long after we're gone. We tap into a root structure that is thousands of years old.
Some of us may even find our definitions of "home" shifting the longer we're here. In the case of today's psalmist, "home" was less about where he was and more about where God is. He writes: "O LORD, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot...You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore" (Psalm 16:5, 11). May we find ourselves on the path of life this week, no matter how far we are from where we started.