The significance of planting trees

According to Nelson Henderson, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”  He is remembered only because his son Wes wrote a fairly simple and poorly edited work chronicling his family’s life in the Swan River Valley of Canada.  Henderson moved from Ireland to settle in Ontario, moved further west to settle in Manitoba.  He fought in the trenches during World War I and returned to marry, farm, and raise three children.

Perhaps the most enduring lesson of the book was this single aphorism that his son Wes attributes to his father.  But if you were going to be remembered for a single sentiment, there are worse life philosophies for which to be remembered.

Most of us are taught to assume that the efforts we make in this life should somehow rebound to our own credit.  And most of the goals we are encouraged to achieve are closely associated with the narrow horizons of our own lives.  Some of us, sadly, even measure what succeeding generations should or should not have based upon our own fortunes.

But in a very real sense, a developed spirituality leads us into a life poured out for others, lived in the hope that subsequent generations will benefit from our efforts — whatever the gain might be in our own lifetime. If that sounds like the life of Jesus, it is hardly a coincidence.

But Henderson’s image might provide a new window into his life that provides us a fresh perspective.  When we talk about the sacrifice of Jesus we tend to think in categories that apply to him alone as Son of God or as Savior, or we think in terms of the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross.

But in identifying with our lives, there was also something far more mundane, commonplace, and daily in the shape of his spirituality — planting trees whose shade he knew he would not enjoy.  It was that self giving that shaped not just a few moments in his life, but shaped the character of the way in which he lived

And that is something we can all do.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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