I’ll never forget the wondrous moment as my three young sons, sitting in the back of my friend Gary’s side-by-side at his Idaho farm, devoured bowls of blackberries from his garden, many of them as big as their little hands. They were in heaven, the juices streaming down their chins.
I also won’t forget the elation I felt when Gary gave me a pair of tiny blackberry bushes to plant in my own garden at home. Like an overeager Hobbit before Treebeard, I exclaimed, “That’s awesome! I’ll have blackberries like these to pick next summer!”
Gary laughed his hearty Entish laugh. “No, no,” he said, thoughtfully and amusedly. “It’ll be several years before you’ve got fruit like this.”
Several years? In the age of the iPhone, InstaPot, One-Click shopping and two-day Amazon Prime shipping? Several years?
As any good orchard keeper will tell you, the average fruit tree takes between three and seven years, on average, to produce fruit after first planting. Whether you want plum, pear, apple or apricot, it’s at minimum a multi-year investment. It takes even longer for sweet cherry or Indiana banana (pawpaw) trees to come to fruition, often up to seven years, depending on climate and soils.
Interestingly enough, Jesus offered a profound insight in likening people to trees and grape vines, two of the most prominent images in Scripture (Luke 6:43-45; Isaiah 5:1-7). After all, people and communities of believers really are living organisms in the care of the consummate Gardener, even God Himself (John 15). Like the grapevine, which takes two to three years from planting to first harvest, and another two to five years until first vintage, people take time to develop in all our multifaceted complexity.
In a world driven by the fast-paced industrial time clock, Google calendars broken down into five-minute segments, and a consumer-driven culture that wants what it wants and wants it yesterday, I find the pace of the trees to be rather refreshing.
Since that warm morning on the farm, I’ve been learning to live beneath the wise branches of these orchard watchmen, to inquire about the secret life of trees. Trying, failing, returning, and, God-willing, learning.
Formed from the same dust, there’s an organic connection between us, the same life moving through their branches as my bones. In a more ancient part of the world, I was made for their care, and they to bring shade and refreshment and life to my flesh. No matter how many variants of the Samsung Galaxy they create, the earthbound identity remains. It’s in the shade of these trees that I start to find my one Authentic Swing, as Bagger Vance would say, when I turn my face away from the screen and into the sunlit branches.
Somewhere hidden in their limbs, there’s fruit to be found, knowledge of good and evil, wise and unwise. There is in particular a lesson for an American society—of which I am a part—that believes busyness, instant gratification, and a hurried life are crowning virtues of our existence. A pace with which the trees beg to differ.
AN ORGANIC EDUCATION
What can the trees teach us about life, personal growth, and the proper cultivation of culture?
First, they teach us how to stand in the present and look to the past.
When you look at any culture—your marriage, family, church, small town, city, state, or nation—what do you see? Do you like what’s happening? Is it healthy? Flourishing? Is it crumbling? Gone to hell in one grossly oversized hand basket? Are your children the wholesome people you envisioned at birth? Are they productive members of society?
Are you more than a little disturbed that there’s actually such a thing as a female Lutheran pro-transgender, pro-LGBTQRSTUV pastor (did your brain just short circuit midway through the sentence?) promoting sexual promiscuity and promising to turn promise rings into a golden statue of a vagina? Does it bother you that many of our young people are being brainwashed to accept the utterly absurd by government institutions and public education, all on your dime?
Does it bother you that too many churches lack masculine leadership, biblical authority, or even bother to practice church discipline? Do you ever wonder why the biologically male creatures that are left in a church devoid of men act like nasty women—manipulative, passive-aggressive, and gossipy, when they should be squaring their shoulders and facing problems head on, like men?
The trees tell us that whatever we see today is fruit from seeds that were sown years and even decades ago. Whether it’s a leftwing Lutheran biker dyke with sleeve tats and her wicked promotion of sexual immorality, or it’s a marriage that’s devolved to the level of bitter silence and crushing criticism, the seeds of this fruit weren’t planted yesterday. As Rebekah Merkle points out in Eve in Exile, so much of today’s feminism is a result of failed versions of homemaking and womanhood in the 1950s.
This part is painful because we can take stock of how we got in this mess, and must, but cannot change any of it. It’s essential, however, that we learn from the past in order to change the future.
“THE BEST TIME TO PLANT A TREE WAS 20 YEARS AGO. THE SECOND BEST TIME IS TODAY.”
Second, the trees teach us how to stand in the present and look to the future.
As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”
It’s true: today’s failures point out the business we didn’t take care of long ago, the investments we should have made and didn’t, but this same principle applies, with hope, to the future. We can turn the tide of the future, but only if we’re willing to invest over the long haul, give ourselves relentlessly to a cause, and continue to cultivate worthy habits well after the initial zeal of starting wares off.
Here’s a practical suggestion for pastors to help their flock get the point: every time you begin counseling or intensely discipling someone, tell them to plant a cherry tree. Every counselee wants quick results, but they desperately need to see that change isn’t quick or easy. Just keep reminding them that the seeds we sow today are fruit to be reaped four years from now. When they complain about the lack of progress, tell them to spend an hour outside observing the cherry tree. See any fruit? Keep sowing. Take your faith for a walk in the garden, and let it stretch its legs.
I wish I’d have planted a cherry tree early on in ministry. I’d turned a retail business around in six months, after all, and had come to the wrong conclusion that the same could be done with a small church. Not to spoil the ending, but it doesn’t work that way. Plant your cherry tree, water it, watch it grow, and wait patiently. Seven years from now, there will be fruit.
Third, the trees teach us to take an historical perspective on life.
Many years ago, I sat in a Colorado apple orchard that was planted just after the Civil War. Isn’t that breathtaking? These old trees had been around for over 150 years, had stood guard as telegraphs brought news of the sinking of the Titanic, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Invasion at Normandy, and the death of Hitler.
They’d outlasted the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and heard upon the wind about the death of Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Shel Silverstein. At least six generations of men came and went, those who ate their fruit, took their shade, held their infants under their swaying branches, and returned to the dust after giving up the Ghost. Oh, the stories these trees could tell!
There’s a glory in simply outlasting your opponents and steadily bearing fruit in every season despite the sticks they keep throwing in your spokes (Psalm 1). It’s the glory of a pastor, at times, to work with glacial resolve. So slowly that it doesn’t appear anything is even happening, so unrelenting that not even mountains of stone can stop your progress.
Fourth, they teach us to define ourselves not by single actions or moments, but by lifelong commitments.
Character, Aristotle said, isn’t about doing the right thing one time; it’s about a life spent doing the right thing over and over again, until the right thing happens by second nature.
If you would have an abundant vineyard, orchard, marriage, relationship, or church community, a single action can’t bring it to pass. Instead, it’s a generations-long commitment, with a million little daily choices and actions, that is required. Months or years of clearing ground, turning soil, planting, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and finally, years later, picking.
As pastors, we’re so often foolishly looking for that one dramatic experience that will change everything in an instant—an earth-shaking sermon at which half the town repents, a miraculous conversion, a men’s conference, or a Christmas service. And what we really need is the steady, slow plodding attitude of a patient farmer.
Preach your sermons for years, sit with your people and listen to a million stories, and pray over a thousand more broken hearts. Stay committed, year after year. Encourage those who crash and burn, rebuke those who get entangled with sin, and stand by the ones under trial. Make enemies, make friends, and fight well. And think about the peach tree.
Fifth, they teach us that pruning is necessary.
Every pastor wants a church that is forever and always in growth mode, but there are seasons when pruning branches—God taking people away from the church—is actually more necessary for growth.
I have an apple tree in my backyard that’s been here since we moved in. For the first two and a half years, it never produced an apple. One Sunday, after church of all things, my brother said, “Hey man, that tree needs pruning. That’s why it has no fruit.”
So he went about pruning branches and guess what? Apples started showing up again.
Churches get overgrown, too. There are people who occupy pews but don’t contribute to the life of the body, and somehow in His wisdom God says it’s time to go. Sure, there’s a million reasons people leave—new jobs, bad marriages, refusals to repent of their sins, the color of the carpet—but every one of them is the pruning hand of the Gardener.
Pruning, too, is an act of faith. A necessary, unpleasant task that unleashes future growth. We need it as individuals and communities, too.
Sow your seeds, prune your branches, and stay committed. May God grant you growth and fruitfulness, as only He can.