Anyone who has ever successfully transplanted a tree will tell you that water is the key. A whip is a small, unbranched first- or second-year tree, more of a seedling really, and provided the ground is damp and you firm it in well, it will grow. Anything larger, with an established root system that you have to hack about when you dig it up, requires copious watering. Psalm 1 is the origin of a phrase we all, surely, know: “Like a tree standing by the waterside,” and conjures up the evocative image of a large tree providing shade from hot sun with its roots securely deep beneath a river bank. No problems with water there.
Trees have been giant water pumps long before humans had evolved from small rodents, or even dreamt of manufacturing pumps. The giant redwoods in California pump water over 100m up their trunks, to be transpired by the leaves after bringing nutrients up from the earth.
What a tree is able to achieve, in terms of making growth (timber), beautiful flowers, fruit in season, or shade for weary travellers, is entirely dependent on its ability to find water. A wild fig tree at Echo Caves, in Mpumalanga, South Africa has roots reaching over a hundred metres down into the earth; don’t ask me how they know that but it is not a particularly tall tree. The first thing that a tree does is to establish a functioning root system.
In contrast, we concentrate almost exclusively on what we have to do. We put our efforts into service (rightly), into doing the best for our families (rightly), into maintaining our friendships (rightly), visiting the sick, and generally organising stuff for other people. Although we see that our needs for food and shelter are met, we often neglect our need for moral, emotional, and spiritual support. Unlike the tree standing by the waterside, we can be moved away from our aim of living a life more Jesus-Shaped.
Even Jesus had to leave his “work” to find solitude, usually in wild areas unpopulated by the people he served. Luke 5:16 tells us that “Jesus often retired to lonely places”. Why would he do that? To give himself time to think and to connect with his mission again? If we are talking to people outside the church, there may be little point saying that he retired to pray, because they may not understand “prayer”. There may be little point in saying that he retired to talk to God, our society considers locking people up for less. But people, busy people, kind people, who live pressurised lives serving others, earning enough to provide what they consider their family needs, do need to make space in their lives for reflection, to check direction, just as Jesus did.
How do we offer this essential refreshment to people who don’t speak the Church’s language? What activities do we offer that they might profitably join? Do we even see this as part of our mission, or are we content to continue to try to transplant trees without a water supply? Are we more determined that our children grow wings than that they develop their roots?