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It’s a vivid childhood memory: the magnolia tree right outside my bedroom window. It must have been three stories tall. It sure seemed giant to a kid. I would often make my way through its low hanging leaves and branches that touched the ground, as though parting curtains and entering a portal into another world.
It might have been scorching hot outside in the bright summer sun. But inside the magnolia tree it was dark and cool. Toad frogs, lizards, turtles, and snakes would take refuge in the tree’s sanctuary. A number of large branches formed steps like a ladder that you could climb, going almost all the way to the very top. My brother and I spent countless hours playing in that magnolia tree, finding refreshment in its cool shade and climbing its heights for a magnificent panoramic view of our yard.
Trees are special parts of God’s creation. They provide oxygen, improve air quality, conserve water, preserve soil, and support wildlife. And throughout history trees have conveyed a number of qualities that command attention. Qualities like life, prosperity, strength, stability, and wisdom.
We have many examples here in Louisiana. Like the Seven Sisters Oak in Mandeville. Estimated to be almost 1,500 years old, it’s the largest certified live oak tree with a trunk measuring 38.9 feet, a height of 68 feet, and a crown spread of 139 feet. And Cat Island near St. Francisville is home to a bald cypress tree with a girth of 17 feet.
We discover even bigger trees when we go west. Like the General Sherman, a sequoia in California’s Sequoia National Park. It has a height of 275 feet and a diameter of 25 feet.
And then there’s Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California that was estimated in 2013 to be 4,845 years old. But since then researchers have discovered another bristlecone pine that’s 5,062 years old.
These ancient trees stand like sentinels unmoved by the passage of time, their roots reaching down into the depths of the earth, their branches opening out into the heavens like arms lifted in prayer.
Little wonder that across cultures and religious traditions, trees have symbolized different aspects of the spiritual life. And they have elicited the reverence and respect of human beings.
So it’s no accident that trees play a prominent role in the Bible. In fact, trees quite literally bookend the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
As you may recall, in Genesis - the first book of the Bible - Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to eat the forbidden fruit of a tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they disobey God by eating from that tree, it unleashes the forces of sin and death into the world (cf. Genesis 3:1-24).
Fast forward to the very end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, where St. John the Apostle shares a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. A river of the water of life flows from the throne of God through the middle of the street in the new Jerusalem. And on either side of the river stands the tree of life. The tree of life produces twelve fruits for each month of the year. And it grows leaves for the healing of the nations (cf. Revelation 22:1-2).
There are many other example of trees throughout the Bible. We find one of the best examples in today’s Psalm.
Psalm 1 lays out two different ways of life: a way of the righteous and a way of the wicked; a way guided by God’s instruction and a way that rejects that instruction; a way centered on self and a way centered on God.
The Psalmist chose trees to represent the way of the righteous. According to the Psalmist, those who delight in God’s law, those who are grounded in God’s wisdom, are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). It’s an image of stability, strength, life, and fruitfulness.
And so the Psalmist’s spiritual counsel is this: “Be a tree.” Stay connected to the source of life by developing qualities like a healthy tree whose deep roots draw out the nutrients of the soil and drink deeply of the groundwater. For if you do, your life will bear fruit that brings happiness and blessings.
So how do we stay connected to the source of life? How do we put down roots, spread out branches, grow, thrive, and bear good fruit? How can we cultivate the ways of God’s righteousness and learn to love what God commands?
The Psalmist’s answer is simple yet challenging to live. We do it by taking delight in God’s law and meditating on it day and night (Psalm 1:2).
We can break down what that looks like into three practices that have stood the test of time within the Jewish and Christian traditions: daily prayer, weekly worship, and regular meditation on scripture (source).
When it comes to daily prayer, our Lord Jesus Christ sets the example for us. As we are told in Luke’s gospel, Jesus “would [regularly] withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16). Before major events and big decisions in his life and ministry, Jesus would take time out for prayer.
But Jesus didn’t save prayer just for the big things. He didn’t pray just when he needed something or when he got into trouble. Regardless of what was going on, making a connection with the Father, keeping company with the Lord of life, was a daily commitment for Jesus. It was like breathing, eating, or sleeping. For without prayer, Jesus would not have been able to live a fully human life, much less navigate challenges or fulfill his calling as the Savior of the world.
If Jesus had to make time for daily prayer, then we need to as well. Our lives depend on a daily connection with the source of life who is the “creator of heaven and earth” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 96).
We sometimes hear people say that they’re spiritual but not religious. Or that they can pray just as easily walking through the woods or out on the golf course as they can in church. Or that they love Jesus but have no interest in institutional or organized religion.
No doubt, all of that may be true.
But for we who follow Jesus, weekly worship with other believers who strive to follow the way of righteousness must be a priority. And that’s because it was a priority for Jesus.
The Gospel tells us that it was Jesus’ “custom” to attend “the synagogue on the sabbath” (Luke 4:16). Gathering with God’s people every sabbath to offer praise and thanksgiving and intercession, and to hear the Word of God in scripture and proclaimed in preaching - that was Jesus’ regular practice.
As one Christian author notes, “Jesus … was not anti-institutional. Jesus said ‘Follow me,’ and then regularly led his followers into the two primary religious institutional structures of his day: the synagogue and the temple" (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, p. 230).
Jesus made weekly worship a priority. To follow him, we must do likewise.
Regular Meditation on Scripture
Daily prayer and weekly worship are critical ways for every follower of Jesus to stand firm like a sturdy tree that withstands the storms of life. But to really draw out the deep spiritual sustenance that can help us grow into the full stature of Christ, there’s no substitute for regular meditation on Holy Scripture.
Yet again, Jesus shows us the way.
You may recall how Jesus dealt with the temptation in the wilderness. After each of the devil’s attempts to derail him from his mission, Jesus responded by quoting scripture (cf. Matthew 4:1-11). God’s Word helped Jesus stay on the right course.
Even when Jesus was nailed to the cross, dying for the sins of the world, he gave expression to his pain and suffering by quoting Psalm 22 (cf. Matthew 27:46).
None of this happened by accident. It happened because Jesus had internalized the words and the wisdom of scripture. It happened because Jesus regularly read and meditated on scripture, allowing it to seep into the depths of his being.
Daily prayer, weekly worship, and regular meditation on scripture help us put down deep spiritual roots that draw on the life-giving power of God’s wisdom. And they deepen our relationship with Jesus, the one who perfectly delighted in the law of the Lord by fulfilling that law in his sinless life and sacrificial death on the cross.
By committing ourselves to the spiritual practices of Jesus, returning again and again to daily prayer, weekly worship, and meditation on scripture, we become like trees planted by streams of water. Our lives bear the fruit of God’s love. And we become a blessing that invites others to walk in the way of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
So be a tree.
Stay firmly grounded in God.
And bless the lives of others by bearing the fruits of God’s love and grace.