On Planting Trees and Being Important (with a mini-sermon)

I want to plant trees.

A dear friend once told me that the difference between she and I was that she planted flowers, while I planted trees. She meant it literally at first- we were transplanting loquats when she said it. I grew up on a tree farm (loblolly and long-leaf pine). At least once a year my father receives a fruit tree or bush from the family, as a ‘gift’ which he then gets to take care of for the rest of his life. My sister Clair and I once snuck under an overpass in downtown Charleston to ‘liberate’ a small mulberry sapling I had discovered there- against all odds, it produced fruit last summer in my parents’ side yard. For a while I thought planting trees was just what everybody did.

I plant trees, literally. But that’s also how I intend to live the rest of life. I want to live close to my family because so much time has already been invested there, and so much growth is still possible. I want to be planted in one city for years and years, knowing the food and bev scene, and the local government, and the schools. I want to grow up and grow old with one woman, married, to serve together and raise kids together and remember life together. I want friends for the long-haul. I want to stay in one church, with the same families, I want to marry my friends, baptize their kids, watch them grow up and marry them too, and bury their parents, and maybe even bury some of my friends (or be buried by them). I want to develop leaders in the church who will go on and lead other churches- and I want to watch them do it. Take your glorious adventures and enjoy them. Show me the pictures and I’ll dream wistfully for an hour about faraway lands. But show me an old, weathered house, or a new church, or a growing family, and I’ll dream for weeks on end. Because I really just want to plant trees.

That’s why cutting ties in Charleston remains one of the hardest things I have done. And that’s why many days I dream of going back. Of being in a church, or starting a church. Of making it to the occasional family lunch. Of growing with those I love. Of planting trees. It’s often a good desire, I think.

But all this dreaming has a problem. The problem is, that when I get lost in these dreams I begin to get bitter or depressed in present reality. And in the dreaming I quite often miss the lies that creep up into a good desire for long-term commitments and stability.

Four lies that sneak in

1) Trees are the only important kind of plant.

After eating the sugar snap peas off of the Smith’s trellis last year, I can assure you that God intended more than apples and oranges to grow in the yard. My mother’s flowers have brought endless joy to countless friends- those cut-and-come-again zinnias could make a lumberjack pirouette. And simple ministries, simple friendship, short-term ministries and short-term homes are gifts, and beautiful things to indwell.

2) I can’t plant trees if I can’t watch them grow.

Who knows what words, gestures, gifts, conversations will transform those we encounter forever? We can’t be sure what they will do, but they may well thrive without us! Imagine that.

3) Things stay the same if you stay put.

There are no eternal trees, at least not yet. Pear branches break, water-oaks rot, and the oldest of pecan trees get hit by lightning (or tornadoes). There is no guarantee for any tree, even if you stay in one place. Even trees must be planted in faith. Our true hope must be elsewhere; a more permanent tree must be found for us.

4) And finally, the big lie: I need to be important.

This is the heart of it all, of course, the lie behind the rest. Somehow I have come to believe I need to do something important- to make a difference, an impact, leave a mark. What is life worth, what’s the point of it all if I do not leave something behind?

Where does this come from? Maybe a misplaced longing for eternal life, or a deep desire to justify my own existence, or an inherent sense that I am made for a purpose (with an inherent sense that I’m not fulfilling it- unable to fulfill it?). I’m not sure.

But I am sure of a few things. I’m sure eternal life is not in my accomplishments. That being made right is no longer bound to my long-term impact. And that my purpose has been fulfilled already.

Because there was a tree planted two thousand years ago. A tree on which all of this was accomplished for me, without me. A tree planted on a dark mountain, between two others- a tree still casting seeds, and still bearing fruit.

And remarkably, one of those seeds took root in me. And though I oft forget its presence, it’s still growing. Somedays I dare say it’s producing fruit, though never as much as it should, mind you, and I often don’t notice it myself. But my friends say it’s there, and on my better days I trust them.

I really want to plant trees. I really do. But in the meantime, I hope to learn to plant whatever seeds are given into my hand (or water or prune or harvest or whatever), and to rejoice to see the forest growing around me, and to celebrate the fruit growing within. And to rest in the great tree, regardless. I’d love your prayers to that end.

Bonus! I’ve attached my latest chapel sermon for your… enjoyment? At least for your listening, so you can hear what I’m up to. Note, the scripture passages are read first (by the inimitable Corey Prescott), and then I preach for (theoretically) 7-9 minutes (I can never quite make it inside that limit).

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