The Trees Bear Witness
Why Jesus talked more about plants than he did about hell.
The serviceberry tree that nourished my children and me this summer is now a stump. Its remnants are stubbornly woven into the fence between a small Slovak church and a parking lot.
On the day we discovered those berries, we scurried along finding low enough branches to pick the dark purple fruit and my five-year-old climbed high enough to get stuck. As we walked around to the church side, I hushed the children so they wouldn’t disturb the people sleeping nearby in tents.
“You can eat those?” asked the tent-owners.
“They’re really good,” said my five-year-old. Nearby, a marble St. Christopher looked down on us, the tiny infant Christ-child perched on his arm.
No one told the tree that it shouldn’t have hung its branches into three parking spots, where the dark berries could stain auto body paint, twigs could scratch cars or perched birds could land droppings. Perhaps, tired of pruning, the owner of the parking lot decided to hack away at the tree once and for all. Better to remove it entirely than allow disorder in an urban space. But the dismembered relics of the trunk still stand there, proudly woven into the wires of the fence. You can’t get rid of me that easily.
Building our own barriers
Our neighbour’s son recently told me he wanted to cut down his parents’ “useless chestnut tree” that grows against our fence. “Oh, please don’t,” I say. “It’s the only shade we get in our backyard!”
That’s not entirely true. The previous owners of our property built a gazebo of steel and wood and after one in the afternoon the fence’s shadow slowly grows. By the time the children no longer need sunscreen, they have a long stretch of shade to protect them. Our yard has been stripped of trees, their trunks now blocking the neighbours out in structures that don’t change or blow in the wind.
How can a tree be useless? I wonder. The neighbours’ chestnut is a tree growing where no one walks, parks or does much of anything. It stands 15 feet tall and absorbs about 40 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, exhaling enough oxygen each day for the number of people living in our house. It will take a decade or two before our tiny sapling in the backyard comes close to cleaning that much air.
Waiting for good fruit
Last month, the campus ministry I lead gathered in the college courtyard. While the sun set, we shivered against the fall wind. But we knew we needed to be near the trees and wild grasses while our guest speaker Nina Schuurman-Drenth read Jesus’s parable of the vine-tender. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a sermon on this short parable in Luke 13. Perhaps in our culture, short vague stories about trees are useless.
Jesus describes a vineyard owner who sees a barren fig tree, and tells his vine-dresser to “Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” (Luke 13:7). The students noticed some parallels to the story of Jesus cursing the figless fig tree in the gospel of Mark. “So God is like the vineyard owner,” they concluded.
Nina asked us to reconsider. “What if he’s not?”
In Luke’s parable, the vine-dresser intercedes for the tree, like Abraham for Sodom and Gomorrah. “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it,” he says. Nina translates it as “put manure around it.”
The one who cares for the vines knows more about the tree than the vineyard owner. His knowledge comes from being among the vegetation, from observing and caring. An experienced gardener knows that a plant is useful even when it is dormant.
“So it’s like how Jesus gives people a chance before sending them to hell,” someone said. Nina replied, “You know, Jesus didn’t talk about hell all that much, but he did talk a lot about plants. Jesus told us to look at creation, to learn from creation, to wait for fruit like the vine-tender.” What does it mean to watch creation the way Jesus does? What does it mean to wait for its goodness?
I am trying to figure that out, to watch and wait. Perhaps that is why I noticed the quiet remnants of the serviceberry trunk, clinging unto death to an imposing steel boundary.
What is useless?
I text my dad, a retired farmer who knows more about yard maintenance than I do: I have let the Rose of Sharon saplings grow between the shed and the fence. Do you think that will cause a problem?
I already know the answer: the Rose of Sharon trunks are thin now, but in a year they will stretch their arms out as wide as they can, pushing against the lifeless lumber posts so that the fence bends to the trees’ gentle authority. Better to chop them down now. But I don’t know if I can bring myself to. They bore so many flowers this summer, filling a space between two boundaries built on a yard that was once forest.
In a city where space is at a premium, where there is barely enough room for cars or gazebos, sheds or toys, trees are often thought to be useless. We forget the value of fruit and flowers, shade and clean air.
Next spring, perhaps the little shoots around the base of the parking lot stump will be wide enough to continue fighting. Perhaps St. Christopher will take mercy on them as they extend silently along the interlocking wires of the fence, between abandoned grass and pavement, growing in their mother’s shadow. Then we will wait, maybe seven years, and watch for the purple berries to hang down above the cars.
Skills! Great storytelling. Insightful and infused with wisdom