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Fig Tree by Dee Schenck Rhodes

Fig Tree by Dee Schenck Rhodes

A parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” [Luke 13:6b-9]

One more year; one more growing season to change; one more opportunity to work with the gardener and produce fruit.

We’re not so great at parables anymore, or maybe we’re just as dense as the disciples were back in Jesus’s time. So many times the disciples had to ask Jesus to explain the stories. But not this one; this one is up to us to figure out.

Who is the owner of the vineyard? Who is the one who cares for the vineyard? Who is the fig tree? What is the fruit? Why didn’t the tree produce fruit? How would the soil be fertilized? And what does it mean to be cut down?

God is the owner. Jesus is the farmer/caretaker. I am the tree. But what is the fruit?

I did a little investigating and apparently the fig tree was one of the most valuable trees in Israel at that time because it bore fruit three times a year. So, in the parable, that means that this particular tree, still hadn’t produced fruit in any one of the seasons that had passed. So, why keep this tree? It was planted for the purposed of yielding fruit. That was the job of the tree, not acting as a shade tree, not as an art object, and not as a road marker. Fig trees bear figs. Fig trees don’t bear apples or peaches or cherries.

Each human “fig tree” has its own fruit as well. Oh, sure, there are the fruits of the spirit (See Galatians 5:22-23 if you want to review the list). And certainly, all trees should have these attributes. On the other hand, a friend of mine said that the fruit of the tree is more believers, more followers of Christ, more like-minded, like-spirited people. This interpretation makes me feel like it’s a numbers game (how many people have you “saved?”).

No, I’m much more interested in the specific and unique fruit that comes from me. Or you. Or any other believer. We each bring something to the table of community and to the Body of Christ. Sometimes, it’s a complex recipe and my part may be small compared to another, or vice versa. I know there are seasons I have missed. But I am grateful for a merciful gardener who is willing to tend and nurture my soil. I am still growing. I am still in the orchard.

The soil is fertilized through prayer and study and relationship.

I can only say, I am still here. And as along as I am, then I will take comfort that my seasons are more fruitful than I may realize. It is not I who must judge the harvest.

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Tree by Vicky Brago Mitchell

Tree hugger has become, in some circles, a euphemism for left-winger or environmentalist or maybe “commie-fascist-pig.” It’s that bad. Tree huggers are seen to be superfluous and extreme, as though they care more about trees and mice and rivers than they do about oil and energy and pragmatism. Ironic, how many times scripture compares a blessed person to a tree. And one of the most important symbols is the “tree of life.” But of course, that must be different. Or is it?

Psalm 1:3
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

It’s a good thing, then, to be compared to a tree. Perhaps it came out of the climate where trees were appreciated. I remember my first trip out west by car and how we looked and look for a shady tree to stop for lunch. Another time, I booked a tent site in a camp ground near the beach. It never occurred to me that the site would have no trees. The “gorgeous” weather proved to be monotonous without the blessing of natural shade.

Our current house backs up to the woods. It is the reason we wanted this piece of property (although my big dream is to live near water — river, ocean, lake, etc.); the next best is trees. They are in constant motion really through their partnership with the wind. They are a nesting ground for all kinds of animals. They are part of the cycle of life and clean air. I have never told anyone before, but within days of our move-in, I felt compelled to do something very “new agey” and thank the trees for their sacrifice since hundreds were downed and destroyed in the name of our suburban sprawl. It just seemed right.

One of my favorite nature images is a winter tree silhouetted by the setting sun. I can’t explain that. So, yes, I really am a quiet advocate for trees. And yet, I am also careless as most urban dwellers. I use a lot of paper (it doesn’t look like a tree) and I enjoy the gifts of wood from floor to ceiling. I even live in a wood house.

Maybe that’s the real problem. I like the “idea” of trees; I like them conceptually. It’s not too different from liking the idea of being a follower of Christ. I can romanticize that too. I can sing all the right songs and wear the right jewelry. I can roll out a few scriptures, and I can pray a good prayer. I am a cross hugger about as much as I am a tree hugger.

But just as the rainforests are being systematically destroyed God’s natural world is being polluted, so are children of God starving around the world. . . starving for food as well as spirit. People are dying by violence and neglect. A monthly check to one organization or another is no longer enough.

Save the trees :: Save the people.

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The passage I read today from Romans is not a particular favorite. Talk of cutting off and God’s sternness and unbelief is always difficult. As I contemplated these unpleasant attributes of God, I considered the importance of timing.

Romans 11:23
And if they [Israelites] do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.

Each of us has windows of opportunity to experience or meet God. I can certainly look back and see some of those windows that opened and closed. They were crossroads I didn’t recognize at the time because I took the other way. As a child, I can remember going to Vacation Bible School and although I enjoyed the activities and “something to do” in the summer, I didn’t meet God there. And later in high school, one of my closest friends was a PK (preacher’s kid) and I adored her family but it never occurred to me to embrace their God. In college, I was in a sorority where many of the girls were active in Campus Crusade, but I didn’t even consider attending a meeting. There must have been more of these “close calls from Christ” in my young adult years, but I don’t remember them.

God reached out to me and for that season of time, I could have looked through and believed. Who would I have become? No telling.

I am grateful there were many windows.

If there were many windows for me, then there are many windows for others. Christians get so hung up thinking about someone who hasn’t “accepted Christ” and “oh, they will be lost forever.” But there is always another opportunity. There is always another moment in time. We just can’t see it now.

My mother was against all things religious for years and years. By the time she reached her nineties and was living with us, I assumed she would never experience God in any kind of real way. Then, as dementia set in, the likelihood seemed even more remote. But one night, while I was sitting by her bed, chatting quietly until she fell asleep, she said, “Oh, look, it’s Jesus,” and then, “Oh, he’s reaching out to me with an invitation (this was all in Latvian, so the word was specific to a card or written invitation),” and then, after some moments she said, “I think I’ll take it. Yes, I’m going to take it.” And then after some silence, she opened her eyes and told me how beautiful it all was. I was mesmerized. I thought she might die in that moment and just go on to be with the Christ. It was an amazing experience to watch her face, her countenance and to hear the quality of her voice. It was a different woman, totally coherent, and totally enraptured. She died a few weeks later.

My mother had missed ninety years of open windows, but there was still another window ready to open again.

God can be stern and even close windows for a season, but in the end, there is still that grace and mercy and kindness. God will reach in. Today or tomorrow. It doesn’t matter to God who exists outside of human time. Holy, holy, holy.

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A believer, grafted to the tree of faith, still has some responsibility despite all that grace. I do, after all, need to participate in the tree… “be a tree” and not something else, like a mushroom or a dandelion.

Romans 3:2b
First of all, they [the Jews] have been entrusted with the very words of God.

When I accepted Christ, I agreed to give up some things in exchange for the embedded words of God. Those words have power and can transform a life. I agreed to keep them safe by treating them reverently.

Oh, it’s not like the “words” will go away if I am faithless. I can even cast them aside and God will not be changed in any way. But I will have broken trust… it’s a type of betrayal, a broken covenant.

God is teaching me about God through those words. And Jesus is teaching me. And the Holy Spirit is teaching me. And as I learn, I become a stronger part of the tree.

An image that comes to my mind is the great tree in the movie, Avatar. It was a life force, a home, a safety net, a fortress, a symbol… it was all of these things and more to the native peoples. And so is the tree of life for me. Unlike Pandora’s tree which was destroyed by evil, our tree of life lives on forever. But it really thrives when the parts contribute to the tree with love and joy and obedience and faith and truth and confession.

As a believer, I have been entrusted with the words of God. They are only seeds. The life of those word-seeds must be planted and nurtured to manifest.

Similar metaphors are used throughout the scriptures to help us understand. Do we? Do we take these gifts seriously? Do I? If I truly understood the words of God to be like the metaphors that Jesus used about the kingdom (e.g. a mustard seed, yeast, treasure in a field, a pearl [Matthew 13]), would I sell everything to gain the full value of this treasure?

Oh Lord, give me a love for your words that will bear much fruit. Give me wisdom and understanding. Help me to be a better caretaker of your truth.

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What is it about this word, “righteousness,” that makes me recoil? Surely it must be the other word: “self-righteous” that jumps up into my mind instead. But they are actually direct opposites.

Romans 1:17
For in the Gospel a righteousness which God ascribes is revealed, both springing from faith and leading to faith [disclosed through the way of faith that arouses to more faith]. As it is written, The man who through faith is just and upright shall live and shall live by faith.
[Amplified]

The thesaurus is most revealing for the word righteousness: devotion, devoutness, godliness, holiness, piety, reverence, sacredness, saintliness, spirituality, worship, zeal. These synonyms make more sense when Paul says that righteousness is revealed and springs forth from faith.

Faith is the roots of the tree and righteousness the growth above ground. As the tree grows up, the roots grow down deeper into the soul. The entire tree grows stronger and healthier. Both the roots and the trunk are needed for a healthy tree. They strengthen each other.

I think the self-righteous are those who have no roots. They are only concerned with the trunk and the branches of their tree. They have the appearance of righteousness, but it’s really only form, a skeleton. With the first storm, this type of tree will fall.

Over and over again, the tree image keeps coming back to me as a word picture for my life. My maiden name, Berzins, means “little birch tree.” In years past, I have planted many trees as a testament and thanksgiving for “place.” I have prayed under certain trees near the Susquehanna and found peace there. I had God-inspired visions and warnings of my life as a tree that had moved away from the living water. I am deeply grieved when trees are cut down nonchalantly or broken by wind and lightning. I am grateful for the trees in the woods behind our home. They are sources of beauty all year round from buds in the spring to full foliage in the summer, autumn rainbows, and skeletons in winter outlined by the sun that sets behind them each day. Trees are symbols for many faiths and beliefs.

Today, the tree is my personal symbol for uniting my faith with my actions. Amen.

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