“In their righteousness, they will be like GREAT OAKS that the Lord has planted for His own glory.”
(Isaiah 61:3 NLT)
Trees aren’t really meant for moving, are they? Frankly, if you think about it, there’s only one kind of tree that ever moves. A decorative one. Yes, they’re undeniably a part of some landscape, but they end up being there only for looks . . . never for fruit and never offering the valuable comfort of real shade. You see, they’re too little for that. And, yes, they’ll offer occasional color, but it’s not a virtue to do what one can’t help but do just by sitting there for more than a minute.
But trees aren’t meant to be decorative, really. It’s like telling a football player he looks cute in his equipment and jersey. (It’s not how they’re to be viewed or would ever want to be viewed.) Trees are big. Powerful. Impossible to move. If trees—like the Ents in the Lord of the Rings movies—could ever be spoken to and someone called them “decorative,” they’d be insulted at the insinuation.
The righteousness and virtue of Trees is that they stay put and offer their faithfulness, fruit, and shade to an increasing number of others. And they last. They’re faithful through all kinds of seasons. They weather storms, carry the weight of winter’s brutal snows, and take the summer sun’s beating so others can catch their breath in their shade.
Trees are heroic simply for their faithfulness. A word lost on our culture. You see, we move too fast for that sort of outdated quality. In our day, it’s not just seasons that change, but news cycles, fads, and the latest things. In our culture, even seasons have begun to take too long! People pivot-and-cut multiple times during a season now. Trees never pivot and cut, though. They’ll trade being nimble for being faithful because they quietly teach us all something about last-ability. And in offering us daily lessons, seasonal lessons, and lifetime lessons in this virtue, they, apparently, also teach us about righteousness, Isaiah the prophet explains.
I have occasion to often catch the difference between decorative and dependable trees.
- As a pastor in a Church culture that’s begun to lean so commercially-competitive and to the attention-deficit, church people dart like eyes from one blast to the next in a fireworks and laser show. The Church has become irrelevant because it’s so much less now about Christ’s brand of serving and others-ness and, rather, has become about brand names, tastes, the latest, and whoever-asks-the-least-of-me. Church has increasingly become decorative. (And that’s on the good days when there’s not a football game or a graduation party or a hike I want to take or a late Saturday night that trumps people’s Faith and whatever sliver of faithfulness they used to possess.) Pastors and church people: Jesus! Don’t forget what this whole thing is really about.
- Husbands and wives grow weary, too, of waking up next to the same imperfect person and wondering if there’s something better elsewhere. And, even those that don’t ever cheat or divorce, they live discontented, disconnected, and disengaged from the other (which can amount to a stealthier kind of unfaithfulness).
- Parents, ever-sulking, move their kids from one travel team to the next because they don’t like the way a volunteer coach said whatever they said when they were left with no alternative in their wish to help a kid improve as both a player and a person.
- Employees hop from job to job trying to find the opportunity where they can do the least amount of work for the most money and the most vacation time away from said job.
- And volunteers will unsubscribe from the emails of booster programs at school because someone actually asked them to . . . you know . . . volunteer. (I’ve been wondering of late if people think everything that needs to happen just falls from the sky and happens miraculously.)
- The list of examples could go on and on . . .
Frankly, folks, this thing stopped being laughable a long time ago. Faithfulness. Last-ability. And righteousness. These aren’t words we know much of anymore and it’s getting dangerous.
We need to get back to being Trees. We just celebrated our church’s 60th Anniversary of our congregation being the Planted Trees for Our Town–Evergreen, CO. And there’s a beautiful saint here whose name is Anne Kemp–a sweet and godly woman we honored that day and who has been here for a lot longer than me. Why? She has been a vital presence and part of this church almost since that way-forever-ago start of the church; she’s been active in our church family for 55 years! A single church. Never budging, never leaving . . . just loving, worshiping, and serving. I hadn’t ever met someone like that and I’ve been in church every day since I was born nearly 45 years ago (and a professional part of the church since I began pastoring in 1993). That she’s an anomaly says something about the state of Culture and Church. She’s become the Exception when this kind of living ought to be a Kingdom Rule.
Anne Kemp is righteous. She’s a Tree. That’s not to say that she hasn’t had to weather so many things: personal challenges, the loss of both her husband and one of her sons, pastoral regime changes over 6 decades, scandals, style tweaks and full-scale style shifts . . . and everything else weird that happens in the American Church. But she’s remained faithful.
She truly decorates our church with God’s glory, but not because she’s decorative. But because she’s faithful like a tree who God planted on purpose. But, we often let our roots get shoveled short as we transfer from one shallow bed to the next . . . and end up getting dirt on both ourselves and those around us in the move. And we wonder why we feel unrooted and lonely. It’s not been anyone else but us . . . because, had we made the simple decision to become immoveable, we wouldn’t feel like that. That’s what faithful people do. That’s how Trees live.
Why does God plant us in churches and in marriages and on teams and in jobs and and in towns . . . and plant us in everything else? We often forget the role God has in planting us places. Why does He do it? Well, if we look at the surrounding passage that the “Great Oaks” are talked about above in Isaiah 61:3, we’d also find WHY God plants people in places: they transform the place if they stay planted and change it one day and one challenge and one season and one life at a time. The passage describes God’s People bringing good news to the poor and comfort to the brokenhearted. They help their neighbors–who have been enslaved to forces crushing them for a lifetime–get free. They turn mourning into blessing. They transform ashes into beauty, it says. They rebuild ancient ruins into vibrant cities. And they reproduce their own tree-like faithfulness into others . . . and, in doing so, become a signature of God’s love and presence among them all. The last verse of the passage says it this way: “The Sovereign Lord will show His justice to the nations of the world. Everyone will praise Him! His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring, with PLANTS SPRINGING UP EVERYWHERE.” A decorative tree just barely makes a front yard a little less ugly. A great tree turns a desert into a beautiful forest.
Which will we be today? And tomorrow? And next week? And next season? And next year? And 10 years from now? And during each flurry of life change? And during the next uncomfortable conversation or the next difficult thing asked of us? And when we disagree with someone planted next to us?
And at our last breath?
You see, the faithfulness of last-ability is, quite literally, our LAST ability to display.
Be great today, Tree. And every tomorrow.