Tag Archives: Tree

In the Flow of Life

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water

Psalm 1:3 (NRSVCE)

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I have never been much of a plant guy. I can’t tell you the number of times in my life I’ve told myself I need plants in my office, only end up weeks later with an office that’s an homage to botanical mortality. It’s really strange that the past few years have witnessed the development of a bit of a green thumb in me.

The change began a few years ago with the landscaping of our yard and the planting of several rose bushes in the back yard. I grew up with my mom tending rose bushes and it’s a bit of a sentimental soft spot for me. I like cutting fresh roses and having them around the house. The nice thing about roses is that, once established, they’re a pretty hardy perennial. Even for someone as experienced in “botanicide” like myself, there’s not much you can do to keep them from blooming.

With this summer of COVID, in which we’re at home more than ever before, Wendy and I kicked things up a notch by adding several patio pots, a handful of potted herbs, and a jalapeño plant. I’m happy to say that every thing is alive and well. I’ve already harvested jalapeño peppers and we have fresh herbs drying in the pantry.

One of the things that has fascinated me as I tend our little garden is learning the water requirements for the different plants. Which have an insatiable need for water, and which seem to do pretty well even when we’ve been at the lake for a long holiday weekend.

I’m kicking off a journey into the Psalms this morning, which most people know is an anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that were collected and compiled in antiquity. The first psalm is a simple instructional psalm. In six lines it contrasts those who are “blessed” with those who are “wicked.” Three lines are given to each. I was struck by the metaphor of a “blessed” person being like a tree along the river.

In Egypt, where the Hebrews were enslaved, and in the land of Canaan where they settled, there’s a lot of desert. The most fertile soil is along rivers like the Nile, and in many cases it’s the only place where things will grow. Rivers are a consistent theme throughout the great story. There was a river that flowed out of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:10) and John described eternity where “The River of Life” flowing from God’s throne (Rev 22).

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve experienced and have read about there being a “flow” to God’s Spirit. Artists talk about being in “the flow” and athletes describe being in “the zone.” Gospel songs are rife with references to “take me to the river” where God’s Spirit flows. Jesus used the metaphor when He told the Samaritan woman at the well that He offered “Living Water,” an artesian spring of gushing out fountains of eternal life. The metaphor of baptism is all about being plunged, buried, immersed in the flow of that artesian spring.

The contrast to that solid, established, fruitful tree planted by the flow of Living Water, is chaff. The fine, dry, scaly dead plant material that gets blown about in the air. It’s Dust in the Wind to quote they lyric of Kansas’ modern psalm. Living in Iowa most of my entire life, I can’t help but see in my mind’s eye autumn evenings during harvest when the air is thick with the dusty chaff of harvested corn and beans.

The intention of today’s psalm is simple. What do I want my life to be? Established, fruitful, rooted, alive, continually nourished in the flow of living water? Or, dusty, dry, void of life, blown about chaotically by every gust of circumstance and trending fear? And, how do I become the former rather than the latter?

The first verse answers the question and the direct translation from Hebrew to English says that the “blessed” are those:

…who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;

I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrased the verse in The Message:

…you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon,
    you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
    you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

The further I get on life’s road, the more I just want to be in the flow of God’s Spirit.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Part of the Family

“The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel….”
Nehemiah 7:61 (NIV)

A few years ago, I signed up on a site called WikiTree. It is a free online effort to create one massive family tree. The volunteers at WikiTree are not just trying to find their family, but to connect their family to all other families in the realization that, ultimately, we all came from the same woman.

I’ve dabbled in my family’s history for decades. The reality is that I come from pretty common, everyday people. Carpenters, farmers, and poor immigrants who left for the new world to make a better life for themselves and their descendants. That’s my lineage.

WikiTree, however, has a feature in which you can discover how you are connected to various historical people. It’s not a direct blood relationship, but because it’s one massive global family tree you begin to realize that through marriage connections and sibling connections there aren’t that many degrees of separation between you and royalty. For example, there are only 18 degrees of separation between me and King Henry VIII:

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah goes to great lengths to record the returning exiles. Interestingly, he doesn’t do it by name but by families and genealogical records. In the Hebrew system, your family of record was a huge deal. Your career and your social standing had everything to do with your family tree. You’ll notice that some of the exiles were labeled as descendants of “the servants of King Solomon.” Those who had no genealogical record are found at the bottom of Nehemiah’s list. They were the poor dregs.

One of the paradigms that Jesus came to radically change was this genealogical system. In the system that Jesus established, a person’s standing in this temporal, Level 3 world was of no value at all. In the radically new paradigm, Jesus established “the first will be last and the last will be first.” In the introduction of his Jesus biography, the disciple John writes:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 1:12

For those in the entrenched Hebrew family system of genealogical records and social status, this turned the systemic realities of their society upside down. And, from a spiritual perspective, it’s absolutely life-changing. Anyone, anyone, anyone, anyone can be a child of God, a member of the family, and a partaker of the divine inheritance through simple faith in Jesus. No more pecking order. In fact, interestingly enough, if you look at the family records of Jesus listed in Matthew and Luke you’ll find both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, kings and prostitutes. It’s like a word picture of the spiritual family Jesus came to introduce us to.

In the quiet this morning, I am mulling over that which WikiTree regularly reminds me: We’re all connected. I think that Jesus, the Author of Creation, understood that more than anyone. I’m also pondering on the spiritual, systemic paradigms that I so easily forget and am so quick to corrupt:

“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Jesus
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Transitions, Trees, and Promises

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NIV)

It seems as if Wendy and I have been in a season of perpetual transition for years now. Transitions in life as teenagers come and go, make their own way (and sometimes return for a time). Transitions in family. Transitions in life stages.  Transitions of houses. Transitions in roles and work. Perhaps I am slow to accept that stability is simply an illusion when Life is a constant flow and we are each steadily progressing on our respective life journeys. Yet, the desire for life to slow down and find some equilibrium doesn’t seem to fade within me.

In today’s chapter God speaks to Jeremiah and riffs on a word picture that had previously been channeled through the lyrics of the Psalm writer (Psalm 1):

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
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.

In Jeremiah’s case, I can’t help but think about all of the prophetic messages he’s thus far delivered in his prophetic poetry:

  • pack your bags
  • life as you know it will end
  • all you have known will be destroyed
  • enslavement
  • exile in a foreign land.

Talk about life transitions. It’s rather encouraging to consider my own tame life transitions in light of what Jeremiah and his tribe were staring down.

It’s interesting to find in today’s chapter that amidst all of God’s prophetic rants of punishment and justice for His people, He also provides promise. Along life’s journey I’ve found that the times of greatest fear, despair and anxiety have been when I have forgotten God’s promises during a time of intense life transition.

Life flows like a mighty river. It doesn’t stop. It ebbs at times and rages with floodwaters at others. I can’t control the flow of Life any more than I can control the weather. I can, however, control where I place my faith and confidence. Come drought or flood God’s promise is that if I place my faith and confidence in Him then my roots will go deep; I will find stability in turbulent waters and refreshment when Life’s flow dries up in a season of drought.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the places that people, myself included, seek to find stability and security in the intense transitions created by the flow of Life. For me, sleepless nights always accompany such times. I find my anxieties and fears lessened, however, when I follow the advice of the Psalmist:

My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
    that I may meditate on your promises.

Amidst transition, don’t forget God’s promises. Meditate on them.

Green God

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (NRSV)

One of the things that I have quietly gained as a life long fan and student of J.R.R. Tolkien is an appreciation for trees. Tolkien loved trees and his expression of love is woven throughout his works. In his creation story, there are two trees, gold and silver, which produced light. When evil destroys the trees their fruit become the sun and moon.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings you find Tolkien’s love of trees expressed through Old Man Willow, the ents, and through the elves who dwell in the forests and carry the blessings of all things that grow. Those who are evil, like the wizard Saruman and his minions, fell the trees and destroy the forests to fuel their war machine and generally tear down that which is good. As a result, it is the trees embodied by the Ents and the mysterious forest of Huorns who rise up against evil and help usher in an unexpected victory in The Two Towers.

So it is that I read with keen interest God’s command to the ancient Hebrew in today’s chapter. The army was not to fell any tree that was living and bearing fruit. When laying siege to an enemy city, they could eat the fruit of the surrounding trees but were forbidden from cutting them down to use in building siege engines and utensils of war. Only trees which were already dead could be used for such purposes.

I am reminded this morning that our Creator and artist God began His work on earth with a garden, and at the center of the garden He placed a very special tree. The vision of the end given to us in John’s revelation likewise makes special mention of a tree:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:1-2

I am not much of a gardener and I often joke of having a “brown thumb.” Yet, along life’s journey I have grown to appreciate that God, like Tolkien, is a gardner and a lover of trees. If I am to be like Him, then I must grow to love, appreciate, and protect gardens and trees and the living things that grow in His creation.

chapter a day banner 2015

featured image: The Tree of Life , Gustav Klimt

Sunlight Through the Trees

IMG_0511This was one of my favorite photos from all that I took in Scotland. We were at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. It was a sunniest day we’d experienced during our time in Scotland so we were all enamored with the sunlight and its warmth. There was this gorgeous tree with pale golden leaves, so pale that they almost looked white. I noticed that the sunlight through them made a gorgeous glow in contrast to the dark limbs. I stepped underneath the boughs and clicked the shutter at just the right moment to catch the starburst of sunlight. This photo is untouched and appears just as I shot it.

Oak and Vine

In January of 2012 we had an unusually warm week and the dead vine in our backyard had enough life in it to sprout a single bloom.
In January of 2012 we had an unusually warm week and the dead vine in our backyard had enough life in it to sprout a single bloom.

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?”

A Forest of Lessons

source: Google Earth
source: Google Earth

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?”

Seed, to Sapling, to Shade

source: Ikonotekton via Flickr
source: Ikonotekton via Flickr

Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” Luke 13:18-19 (NIV)

I am notoriously bad at growing things. I often feel ashamed of this. When you are born and live in Iowa nearly your entire life you tend to think that a green thumb should naturally be bred into your DNA. My paltry attempts at gardening and growing houseplants over the years have been an endless string of dismal failures (not unlike the Cubs attempts to win a World Series).

I am, nevertheless, increasingly appreciative of the time and patience it takes for things to take root, grow, and develop over time. I have observed over my lifetime how our culture has become focused on things happening instantly. I marvel to think how fast thing happen. We have fast food, faster downloads, a library at our fingertips, digital photos without developing, news from around the world popping incessantly on our smartphones, video calls with loved ones on the other side of the world, and on, and on, and on.

Along life’s journey I have come to realize that, unlike our consumer society, God is not a slave to the demands of the market He serves. He remains concerned with seasons of cultivating, planting, growing, pruning and harvest. God’s Kingdom is less about instant gratification and more about perfect timing. Chained to this concept we call time, I observe that we are incessantly focused on striving to pack in as much as we possibly can, as quickly as we can make things happen. Existing omnisciently outside of time, present in all moments at once, the Creator affords a perspective we can’t quite grasp in the moment.

I find this dilemma affects even how we want things to happen spiritually. I watch the effects with my fellow Jesus followers in our institutional churches. We want quick decisions, instant repentance, immediate life change, and the fruit of the Spirit produced post haste. We want attendance to explode in our services or we consider it a failure.

This morning I am reminded that God’s Kingdom is comparable to a tree that is grown from a small seed. A tree requires time to progress from seed to root to sapling to fruitful maturity when many can benefit from the shade of its branches. It requires patience and must persevere through difficult seasons and less than ideal circumstances. It will suffer from branches that don’t make it. I am encouraged by this truth. Progress, not perfection, is the prescription of the day. It gives me reason to have a little more grace with myself and to extend a little more love and mercy towards others.

The True Spiritual Test

 

English: Nathan advises King David
English: Nathan advises King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
2 Samuel 12:13a (NIV)

 

When I was five years old, while on a Christmas Eve sleepover at my grandparents’ house,  I stole all of my siblings’ gift envelopes off of the Christmas tree and hid them in my suitcase. I watched in silence on Christmas day as grandma racked her brain to figure out where those envelopes went. Then, I promptly forgot that my mom would be the one unpacking my suitcase when we got home. I was totally busted. My butt cheeks were rosy from the spanking that quickly followed, the cheeks of my face were quickly stained with tears of remorse as I called grandma to confess my heinous crime and to ask her forgiveness.

 

I learned early that your sins find you out. Having said that, let me readily I admit that it didn’t stop me from sinning. I’ve made plenty of tragic choices since then. I make them on a regular basis, in fact. Along the way, however, I’ve come to realize that hiding, concealing, obfuscating, blaming, and excusing my wrongdoing is both delaying the inevitable and stunting my spiritual growth and development. The further I get in the journey the more readily I’ve embraced my fallibility and shortcomings. I might as well cut to the chase, admit I blew it, and allow everyone to move on.

 

In this morning’s chapter, David is confronted by the prophet Nathan and his illicit affair with Bathsheba, his conspiracy to murder Bathsheba’s husband, and his attempt to conceal his paternity of Bathsheba’s child is revealed in dramatic fashion. David’s response was to quickly confess his wrongdoing and seek God’s forgiveness. It’s a fascinating contrast to David’s predecessor. When the prophet Samuel confronted King Saul of his wrongdoing, Saul excused his behavior and refused to repent of his actions.

 

We all make mistakes. We all make selfish choices that hurt others. The true spiritual test is in how we respond to God and others in the ensuing guilty conscience, or when when we are confronted and exposed.

 

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Life Imitates Art

Canon EOS 6D f/4 1/1000 ISO1000
Canon EOS 6D f/4 1/1000 ISO1000

Art by Mathew R. Kelly
Art by Mathew R. Kelly

A few months ago, Wendy and I acquired a wonderful work of art by our friend Mat Kelly. It’s now hanging in our dining room where I get to appreciate it every day. On our guys weekend at the lake a few weeks ago I went out on a personal photo safari and happened upon this old tree whose roots had been exposed through erosion caused by the constantly fluctuating lake level. In the dead of winter the lake level is very low and it creates some very interesting sights. As soon as I saw this tree and the system of intertwining, gnarled roots I immediately thought of Mat’s artwork.

There is wisdom and fascinating stories in the exposed roots of an old tree.