There are places in the world where a family’s tree can be traced back 1,000 years. A thousand years of gnarled roots in the same square patch of soil: great-great-great grandparents on the same street where the children play today. But in America, not so much. Even the first nations here were a largely migratory people, following herds across the plains from month to month. And the Europeans, late-comers all, left home and hearth behind to chase grand dreams over terrifying oceans.
Faith, in America, means action. Cast off, set sail, take a leap. There is a reckless launching associated with our faith; we trace it back to Paul, the original pioneer, or Peter, leaping overboard.
But there is another kind of faith, and it is still.
It is a listening faith, a waiting. It is empty-handed, expectant, not sowing or reaping or storing in barns. No grandstanding here, no whirling dervish. This faith does not say, see what I can do. This faith shivers in delight at the breath of God.
It is a deepening faith. Drought drives it deep, storms make it strong. It leans in, presses down. It knows the secret of the stream.
Around the block from my childhood home there used to be a weeping willow by a stream. The creek poured through pipes snaking unseen below the neighbors’ basements, emerging only in the forgotten patches of woods beyond our streets. Here the trees were thick, the air steamy. Six hundred and fifty three species of woody plants, to be exact, thrive in my home state of NC. And here was my wild willow, sprung up voluntarily by the water’s edge. Underneath I found a perfect place to hide, perching among the roots that clung to the bank, listening to the wind play in the branches, the water burble over stones. This tree painted for me a picture of faith.
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
It’s not the roots that make a tree green and lush, it’s the living stream.
In Colorado there are no steamy deciduous forests. It is high desert country: tumbleweedy plains, rocky mountains. We have conifers, lots of them, and aspen. And growing in groves beside every dry creek bed, we have cottonwoods. Biggest of Colorado trees, they thrive in our dry climate simply because they are rooted streamside.
One tree — one tree! — may suck in a ton of water every single summer day. One tree may of this water blossom forth six million leaves. One cubic inch of soil may contain 6,000 miles of root hairs for a single grass plant. What kind of roots, then, can sustain a cottonwood? A sequoia?
“Measuring as he went, he took me along the stream for 1,750 feet and then led me across. The water was up to my ankles. He measured off another 1,750 feet and led me across again. This time the water was up to my knees. After another 1,750 feet, it was up to my waist. Then he measured another 1,750 feet, and the river was too deep to walk across. It was deep enough to swim in, but too deep to walk through.
“He asked me, ‘Have you been watching, son of man?’ Then he led me back along the riverbank. When I returned, I was surprised by the sight of many trees growing on both sides of the river. Then he said to me, ‘This river flows east through the desert into the valley of the Dead Sea. The waters of this stream will make the salty waters of the Dead Sea fresh and pure. There will be swarms of living things wherever the water of this river flows. Fish will abound in the Dead Sea, for its waters will become fresh. Life will flourish wherever this water flows. Fishermen will stand along the shores of the Dead Sea. All the way from En-gedi to En-eglaim, the shores will be covered with nets drying in the sun. Fish of every kind will fill the Dead Sea, just as they fill the Mediterranean. But the marshes and swamps will not be purified; they will still be salty. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.'” Ezekiel 47:3-12 (NLT)
Urban trees, horticulturists say, do not have deep root systems, but broad. In city landscape on hard-packed dirt, trees claw on wherever they can find a roothold. Slowly, one millimeter at a time, they change hard concrete into crumbs, burst through pipes, climb walls. Cities may not be hospitable to trees, but life finds a way.
I want deep roots. I want green leaves in times of drought, unflappable branches in times of storm. I want to hear nothing but the sound of wind in the branches, the sound of water over stone. I want to find cracks in the hard-packed city soil, to break through cement and climb over walls.
Here is joy, in the stillness by the stream. Here is love, sustaining.
“May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it. Then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now glory be to God! By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope.” (Ephesians 3:18-20, NLT)