Sunday, October 24, 2010

Great Trees

So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD. (Genesis 13.18)

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1.3)

An Unorthodox Gesture

The patriarch we know as Abraham spends his first 99 years as “Abram,” which translates as “exalted father.” It’s an honorific suggesting the paternal instincts that drew God to him are native to his character. Abram can be counted on to care for his family and sacrifice for their benefit. He’s an even-tempered man—a gentle, good man—living in a primitive age of uncertainty and flux. He belongs to a nomadic people that doesn’t own property or build houses. Their community consists of extended family whose members share one campsite, combining their property for mutual security and benefit. When joint holdings exceed their capacity to manage, they divide their property, with one faction remaining while the other moves on. This occurs when Abram obeys God’s call to leave his father’s camp for a new land: “He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” (Genesis 12.5)

The journey doesn’t go well at first. Not long after they arrive in Canaan, famine strikes. Abram decides they should go to Egypt. Before crossing the border, he tells Sarai (later, "Sarah"), “You’re so beautiful. If the Egyptians know we’re married, they’ll kill me to have you. If we say we’re brother and sister, they’ll treat me well.” As predicted, Sarai gains Pharaoh’s notice. He brings her to his palace and showers gifts on Abram. Still, the arrangement surely grieves the couple. God intervenes by sending sickness to Pharaoh’s house. When he figures out the cause of his trouble, he sends Abram, Sarai, and their household (including the wealth they acquired in Egypt) away. They continue to prosper until fights break out between Abram and Lot’s herdsmen. After they decide to separate, Abram breaks with custom. It’s not in him to allow Lot to leave while he stays put. In an unorthodox gesture of care and respect for his nephew, he also leaves. Lot moves to the plain of Jordan, near Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s choice is rather odd, yet very telling. He moves his family and flocks to Hebron, near the Mamre forest famous for its great trees.

Seeking Stability

Why would a wealthy nomad homestead at the edge of a forest and not an open plain? Pasture is limited. Odds increase that livestock may get lost in the woods or killed by predators that proliferate there. Thieves may use the forest as a covert place to launch a heist of Abram’s herds. Trees abutting his campsite significantly encroach on available farmland and endanger his crops by housing birds and pests that destroy them. Lot appears to make the wiser decision, choosing a site where future prosperity is all but assured. Again, we ask: why would Abram move somewhere that very well may compromise his wealth and security?

The only imaginable reason for Abram’s decision suggests he’s not concerned with possessions and safety. The vast majority of his property came by way of divine providence. The same holds for security. By all rights, his deception of Pharaoh should have ended with him and Sarai stripped of everything and killed. Abram left Egypt with more than his life and goods. He came away knowing God’s faithfulness and protection. He moves near the Mamre forest because he’s seeking stability. He needs to be surrounded by rootedness and strength. He’s surviving on God’s pledge he will father a great nation. Yet, as of now, nothing indicates the promise will materialize. He and Sarai can’t start a family. His surrogate son is gone. The land where his promised heirs will one day dwell belongs to another people. He’s outnumbered and outdone and all his moving around has got him nowhere. Abram looks to the great trees of Mamre because deep inside him he realizes if he’s to succeed in the role he’s been given, he has to be a great tree himself.

Trees in the Process

It’s very idealistic, the notion of becoming a great tree. But what does that look like in pragmatic terms? Psalm 1 beautifully lays them out. It starts by teaching us where great trees don’t grow. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers,” verse 1 reads. To become a great tree, one must be removed from harmful influences and mindsets, unhealthy environments, and cynical attitudes. They invite darkness that stifles growth and twists development. Next, the psalmist tells how great trees grow: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night.” (v2) The stability and strength we seek come from light and nourishment found in God’s Word. It grounds and nurtures us in inexplicable ways that transform our seedlings of faith into great trees of confidence. “He is a like tree,” verse 3 says, “planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”

We are trees in the process of becoming great trees. And we must become great trees because God has given us great tasks. Stability and strength are not nice-to-haves for people of faith; they’re have-to-haves. But too often we get confused about how the process works. We don’t generate stability or strength. They come with growth over time. All we have to do is remove ourselves from unhealthy climates and self-destructive atmospheres so we can remain planted in bright places that encourage growth. And we must be patient, resisting every urge to be anxious about our prosperity and security. In due season, our fruit will blossom. Over time, dangers we presently fear will dissipate. Our leaves will not wither. Whatever we do will prosper.

Sometimes we joke about feeling forced to compromise, saying, “I’m a tree. I can bend.” But we’re not called to be trees. We’re chosen to be great trees. And great trees stand tall and firm so other great trees-to-be can look to them for inspiration and example. In our modern age of uncertainty and flux, there are Abrams all around us, moving closer to us to learn how they can become great trees. Let’s stand apart, stable, and strong for them.

We are trees in the process of becoming great trees because God has given us great tasks.

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