Something’s going on in my backyard which has been immensely helpful in reminding me of what the highest priority should be in both my personal and professional life. When we moved to Seattle 17+ years ago, we brought a California redwood tree with us that was, at the time, about 7 feet tall. We planted it, along with several other big evergreen trees, in our backyard because my wife and I don’t like yard work. The best way to avoid such labor in the Pacific Northwest is to make your own forest, because forests take care of themselves, like cats.
We marveled as the tree kept growing year after year until now it’s easily over 50 feet tall. We had a tree man come out and look at it this winter and he said it’s stable, healthy, and in good shape. He also said it won’t last as long as the big ones down in California, some of which have been around since the days of Jesus. “Nothing lasts forever though – enjoy it!”
He left and the next morning I went and sat out under the tree, letting his declaration of impermanence sink it. The tree would outlast me surely, but eventually, someday, it will go the way of all flesh, all trees, all life. Everything comes to an end. Every. Thing. This would be horribly depressing news, leading to some sort of “eat drink and be merry, ’cause tomorrow we die” mantra, were it not for two glorious reminders, under my giant redwood, that spoke of hope and peace.
Two years ago a redwood seedling germinated in the pot where some bamboo grows. It’s doing quite well, thank you. And now, just this winter, there’s yet another tiny tree that’s sprouted between the stones of the walkway. It’s about the size of the original, which my mother in law brought home from a school carnival in Northern California and gave to us. So it appears that two things are true: Everything dies eventually; and Life gives birth to Life!
Because the first is inexorably true, it’s worth pondering what the second means so that we can get on with being, in increasing measure, the people of hope and life that we’re created to be.
1. This principle extends beyond biology. We all have biological DNA of course, but let’s not stop there when pondering this. My adoptive parents have shaped me. In a time of deep depression, a fellow architecture student led me towards life and light by his countenance. Friends on islands and in mountains fed the soil of my soul with creative nutrients. A couple taught me about silent prayer and introduced me to Thomas Merton. A British Major believed in my calling and affirmed it enough that I’m now privileged to share Christ in many countries. A church in Seattle invited me to be their pastor and has loved me relentlessly and patiently for these 17 years, allowing me to fail, risk, grow.
My life is o so much more than my biological DNA because the truth of it is that I’m the fruit of dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of lives intentionally investing in me; affirming gifts, calling me to account, challenging and encouraging as the need might be.
You know where this is going, I hope. The point of all that investment isn’t so that I can get bigger and bigger somehow, as if bigger is better (bigger business, bigger brand, bigger bank account, bigger?) Here’s Jesus: To whom much is given, much is required. Of course one of the critical words here is given, because it keeps us humble. It’s a word intentionally chosen by Jesus and then reiterated by Paul here.
Have you sprouted? Good! At some point, and sooner is best, you’ll realize that the great point of it all isn’t to win the contest of upward mobility or influence because no matter how tall you become as a tree, your days are numbered, just like mine. The real criteria that should define our lives must have to do with the contribution we’re making in the lives of others. For some of us that surely includes biological children, but make no mistake, ALL of us are invited the grand adventure of loving, blessing, serving, affirming others.
This will require, for some of us, a paradigm shift, looking at our immediate world through the lens of asking: “Who is receiving the gift of life through me”, meaning the gift of love, encouragement, affirmation, truth telling, blessing. I’m starting to create a little list, so that I don’t wake up one day near the end of my life and realize that grew big more than I imparted life. Trees only multiply by giving something up, by shedding. What am I holding on to which makes imparting life difficult?
2. My soil and roots matter. To be the kind of tree that’s able to bring forth new trees requires health. Jesus talks about this in his parable of the seed and sower and reminds us that it’s not only the DNA of the seed, but the receptivity of the soil that matters. For me that means exposing my soul to the rich health of creativity, creation, laughter, nights under the stars, scripture, prayer, disciplines that encourage contentment and simplicity, and much more. Without good soil, the best life in the world can’t grow. And the news of the Bible is that I’m responsible for my own soil! If I want to be a person able to impart health and life, I need to take seriously the health and life of my own body/soul/spirit.
As on author says, “Human life is about more than building boundaries, protecting identities, creating tribes, and teaching impulse control” And as the author of everything said, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world and lose your very soul?” - They’re talking like trees, telling us to get on with our real calling, which is to impart life to others.