“Pray Like a Tree”
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now these ancient words from Psalm one, verses one thru six.”
1 Happy 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; 2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
“May our hearts embrace these words which we have just heard with our ears.”
“Pray Like a Tree”
As a child I grew up in a rural area, in Western Massachusetts. There were plenty of trees everywhere around our home and throughout the communities I recall from my youth. All kinds of trees! My father was always trying to teach me the different names of each. I do remember the talks but have only retained the names of some of the most common; maple, oak, weeping-willows, birch and pine, to name a few. Of course, the maple trees and oak trees were very common, and they helped adorn the beauty of the splendid colors of our Fall foulage season. And in the Spring the maple trees gave up their sap, with the help of some farmers, to produce maple syrup and maple sugar candy. Great stuff, especial hot syrup, poured over fresh snow… yum.
There were many ways to enjoy the beauty and splendor of the forest areas around where my family and I lived. My brother, Fred, was an avid hunter and fisherman and he spent a great deal of time out in the woods, especially by the streams. Now and then I would explore with him, but mostly, as I became independent of my older brother, I enjoyed exploring alone or with one or two friends. There were just so many different things you could do around a tree. Climbing them was a favorite. Maple and oak trees were best for climbing, as the pine trees had this sticky sap that could really mess up your cloths and was hard to get off your hands. What I most enjoyed was the splendor and majesty of the trees. To this day, I enjoy gazing into a large tree, trying to absorb its splendor or capture it in a picture. I have always admired an artist who has captured their beauty on canvas.
As my journey of life progressed so did my opportunities to see vast landscapes of God’s creation, and trees have always been a part of my expanding appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation. So, as an adult, I was not totally knocked ‘off center’ when a retreat leader suggested I go out and hug a tree. Yup, ‘hug a tree’ was what the instructions read. Of course, the instructions also included taking time to truly study and look at the tree, observing how its branches flow and noticing the intricate ways the branches intertwined with one another. Naturally, I knew better than to hug a pine tree, so I picked an oak or a maple tree. I would also caution you, don’t wear some kind of synthetic shirt or a silk blouse, when you try this. Better to wear an old pair of jeans and a dark colored cotton tee shirt. Part of the retreat event was to spend time praying and trees became part of this exercise. I won’t try to convince you to try this, but the trees never seemed to mind my efforts in these adventures. I have come to appreciate the wonder of the forest, the woodlands. With their center pieces of trees that have weathered the many storms of life. Yet, still stand tall and proud, while humbly offering up their beauty, all the while offering a canopy of shade for the tired hiker passing or scurrying by, now and then.
By the time I had entered seminary, I had more than a passing ‘understanding’ of trees and the changing seasons and the vast differences in terrain and vegetation, as-well-as the ‘importance’ of trees and such in the balance of life throughout the world we live in. Surely, this is why there are codes: building codes, conservation codes, and such here in the state of Florida and throughout the United States about cutting trees down; and the effort to get developers, landowners and homeowners, to honor the sanctity of trees, shrubs and the like. If you were to log onto the internet and plug in this question, asking: “why trees are important?” You would get an answer like this. “Trees are an important component, of the natural landscape because of their prevention of erosion and the provision of a weather-sheltered ecosystem in and under their foliage. Trees also play an important role in producing oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as moderating ground temperatures.”/answers.com/ With this as our background, it was not, and it ought not to be, surprising to find that the first Psalm contained in the Old Testament was about trees! Trees have always played an important role in the balance of humankind’s ‘stability’ within creation itself. Therefore, why wouldn’t a writer of these ancient Psalms write about trees as part of their message!
In Psalm one, we hear the psalmist contrasting evil and good and lifting up the good to be like trees. “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” /Psalm 1:3/ When I was told to pick a Psalm to write about in an Old Testament class in seminary, I picked this first one. I did so because it speaks to me. When we step back and look at the book of Psalms, as a body of writings, we gain a view of those early seekers of God’s majesty and love. Or as one theologian tells us: “Taken as a whole, the Psalm serves as an invitation to the entire psalter, holding before the community of faith – and not just the individual – the hope and promise that blessings will come from delighting in the instruction of God.” /Walter C. Bouzard, adapted/ The Psalms were first written and used as songs during early rituals and special occasions. Over time they have become a source of wisdom and offer insights into early understandings of who God was as-well-as the nature of the struggles of the early tribes of Israel. Even, way back then, trees were seen as the source of strength and life, long before knowledge of carbon monoxide and oxygen were made known.
Senior Pastor at a United Methodist church in Charlotte North Carolina, James Howell, makes a point when he says, “How fascinating: the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible, the hymnal of ancient Israel, opens with a poem about ethics, lifestyle, and decisions.” How very true. And how noteworthy that early writers of religious works such as the Psalm noted the importance of finding illustrations of what were solid and none controversial structures, like that of a living tree, drawing its nourishment from a stream of water! So why not take this one step further and see if we can’t learn from a tree, how we might improve our prayer life! Since we already know a tree is being used as the symbol of good, contrasting the ways of evil, surely, we can look to the living breathing example of a tree, whom has weathered the storms of life, in all parts of our world! Clearly, some folks don’t know how to pray and how to turn to God in times of trial and tribulation. If this were not true, why does our news media spend so much time telling us about the ‘difficulties of our society’ and the ‘harm done to others’, by those whom have surely lost their way… along this torturous walk through life!
Dr. Amy Erickson points us toward our obvious need, the need for some form of directions along our journey through life. “A map is necessary because human will ‘is’ not enough to keep one on the path towards the good.” For that reason, if we look to a tree as a map, how shall we read such a map? Let us first look at how a tree lifts its branches to heaven and plants its roots deep in the soil, the foundation of our rootedness in life itself. This is very good ‘imagery’ for us as we look to raise our voices to God in heaven. As we raise our petitions to heaven, let us always begin with prayers for others, then in humility talk with God about our own personal needs. Trees are majestic in stature, yet they are humble in how they bow before the winds and embrace the pounding rains of summer. As the rains stop and the sun comes out their leaves open-up like tiny umbrellas – then become the shade that blocks the scorching sun from those whom seek shelter under the tree’s outstretched branches. When we pray we ought not forget who we are, nor ought we forget our mortal human nature. With our feet firmly planted in the here and now, we can, with a bit of humility give thanks to God for the air we breath, thanks to the work of a mighty Florida Oak or one of our native Florida Palm trees.
One pastor simply tells us: “The choice is ours.” /J Clinton McCann/ every hour of every day, each of us has the opportunity to make a choice. We can take note of the message Psalm one offers to us, or we can forget it and ignore its wisdom, its warning. We can take the path of good and ‘like a tree’, near a stream of nourishing water, we can set down our roots in the nourishment of God’s grace, mercy and love. We can choose to live in the comforting warmth and light of our Creator, as we raise our voices in prayer, basking in the sunlight of life; life as God first envisioned it for us. Or, we can let down our roots into rocky, sandy and arid… dry tepid soil, becoming bitter, resentful and discouraged with the pain and hardship of our existence, making bad choices everyday, drifting further and further away from the joy of living – as God intended for us to live. “God watches over those who follow in the paths of righteousness, but those who turn away shall fall… missing from the source of life.” /Psalm 1:6 adapted/
Let us choose wisely.