Today is what we in the midwest refer to as “the dog days of summer.” August can be a killer when it comes to heat. One of my favorite quotes is from Garrison Keillor who said that living in the midwest is like, “spending your winters in the arctic and your summers in Death Valley.” ‘Tis true.
I thought for Photo Friday I would post a photograph I snapped with my iPhone on a whim this past February after a heavy, wet snow fall created a blanket of white across the landscape. It was a sunny, cloudless day after the storm and I loved the way the monochrome black and white of the snow on the limbs contrasted with the gorgeous blue of the sky.
If you’re feeling hot today, thought this might give you a reminder of what’s coming in just a few months 😉
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, how is the wood of a vine different from that of a branch from any of the trees in the forest?” Ezekiel 15:1-2 (NIV)
I have written on occasion about the majestic old oak tree that stood sentinel outside our house in Pella. During our decade living there, Old Man Oak would occasionally drop a branch on the driveway. The branches were heavy and the solid wood would have been useful for any number of projects had I been a wood worker inclined to make something useful from the fallen limb.
In the backyard of the same house was a climbing vine that would perennially climb a trellis set between our and our neighbor’s yard. It was gorgeous in the summer when it wove its way up the framework of the arbor and blossomed in fiery orange blooms. In the autumn, however, the vines died and became ugly brown sinews that had to be painstakingly cut and pulled from the trellis. The remnants of the vine were dead, ugly, tangled, and absolutely useless for anything other than nature’s own recycling system.
That is exactly the word picture Ezekiel makes about the people of Jerusalem in today’s chapter. God’s people had once been a fruitful vine but had grown spiritually lifeless, tangled up in idolatry, and useless. As such, the result was to be thrown on the burn pile – a prophetic word picture of the coming Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and its destruction.
I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ own take on the same metaphor:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” John 15:5-8 (NIV)
Today, I’m find myself a little introspective. Ezekiel’s prophecy and Jesus’ metaphor begs the question: “What good am I? Am I fruitful? Am I useful? Is there Life in the limbs of my existence, my labor, and my relationships?”
The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth,with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds—Your Majesty, you are that tree! Daniel 4:20-22 (NIV)
One of the things that I am going to greatly miss here at VW Manor is our mighty oak tree which, we believe, has likely stood sentinel over this property since around the time the Dutch settlers put down their roots in the neighborhood. Each time I drive into the driveway I must be careful to skirt my way around the massive trunk. Its branches have given us shade from the heat of the summer sun. It has wordlessly whispered to my soul regarding permanence, strength, fidelity and my own relative transience.
God has a thing for trees. There was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Psalm 1 kicks off that monster volume of lyrics by describing the blessed person as a “tree, planted by rivers of water, which bears fruit in its season, whose leaf doe not wither.” The book of Revelation describes, at the end of all things, the Tree of Life in the middle of a restored Eden.
This morning I am also mindful of the oak trees that once stood scattered around the yard of our lake house. Spindly and thin, they nonetheless offered a small forest’s worth of shade over the house and guarded those who traversed the hill down to the water’s edge. Over the course of a few summers, one-by-one, each one of them quickly withered and died. Their dead, bare branches stretched out but provided no shade. One by one we cut them down. It called to mind Jesus’ words:
[My Father, the gardener] cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
Nebuchadnezzar was a mighty, prosperous, fruitful tree. Yet, he discovered that what takes years to grow can wither very quickly.
Today, I am asking myself, “What kind of tree am I?”
Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”Mark 4:30-32 (NLT)
In front of our house is a majestic oak tree. Its branches spread out over both our house and the house next door, and when you approach our house from down the street you can see the tree towering over our neighborhood. I’ve often wondered how long the tree has stood there. I sometimes imagine that it first emerged from the ground when Dutch settlers founded our town over a hundred and fifty years ago.
Each year, our tree drops acorns. Our tree drops a lot of acorns. In the late summer they begin dropping from the tree like little bombs shelling our roof around the clock. A fortunate family of squirrels incessantly patters across the roof right above my home office, gathering the acorns for winter storage. I suspect that our mighty oak tree alone feeds a whole pack of squirrels for the entire winter.
Some days I walk into the house, crunching acorn shells beneath my feet, and I think about those tiny little seeds. Our sprawling oak tree started out just like one of those small seeds I trample underfoot. Through harsh winter blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, violent spring thunderstorms, and blistering midwest doughts our tree has continued to slowly grow. Each year it experiences a cycle of death and rebirth. With each season the tree puts roots deeper down into the Iowa soil to draw nourishment for its perpetual reach toward heaven.
I want to be like that old oak tree. Weathering all that life throws at me, I want to keep digging deeper so that I can continue reaching higher. As I grow, I want to spread myself out to shade and protect those around me. I want to provide for the little ones who scurry around, almost forgotten, at my feet. I want to offer a continuous supply of life giving oxygen for others to breathe. I hope that some day, when my trunk lays rotting on the ground, an entire forest will stand around me as a silent, living, and perpetuating memorial to this life that I have lived.