By Ben Swift
“But we shouldn’t be concerned about trees purely for material reasons, we should also care about them because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with.” (Wohlleben)
Several years ago while studying for a Bachelor of Science, I needed to narrow my interests and choose what discipline would become the main focus of my study. Looking back I find it interesting – although not surprising – that I was most drawn to subjects in the field of botany. The life of trees and indeed all plant life can be fascinating and far less removed from our own lives than many people would care to contemplate. The life of trees have the potential to provide many profound lessons as they illustrate ever changing seasons of life and death, often forming significant links to memories of times past. In fact we are first given a taste of the significance of our botanical friends in the beginning.
God said, “Let the earth put forth grass, seed producing plants, and fruit trees, each yielding its own kind of seed-bearing fruit, on the earth”; and that is how it was, the earth brought forth grass, plants each yielding its own kind of seed, and trees each producing its own kind of seed-bearing fruit; and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:11-12)
While humanity, created in God’s image and likeness, is recognised as being the pinnacle of creation, let’s not forget that God’s creation of the entire cosmos was said to be good, a claim from the Creator himself that includes botanical life. One may ask, “Why is this important?”
It turns out that human beings are not only to be sustained physically by God’s botanical creation, but are to learn from the many lessons revealed to us as nature and theology combine, pointing us to important truths.
Pastor Rob Bell once released a short film in his ‘Nooma’ series concerning life between the trees. As Bell digs his shovel into a strip of soil where he proceeds to plant two trees, he suggests that when we acknowledge ourselves as created beings in God’s world, we all find ourselves living between two trees. It is here that the trees metaphorically symbolize firstly Eden, God’s original garden paradise, and the beautiful, life-sustaining garden described in Revelation in which the Tree of Life exists for all who are in Christ. But what will our lives between the trees be like? What will be our story?
Where human kind was once cut off from the life-sustaining garden called Eden, falling under the curse of Adam’s legacy, we find that it is a tree of another kind that becomes the crucial tree in the human rescue story.
For it is written, ‘The Messiah redeemed us from the curse pronounced in the Torah by becoming cursed on our behalf; for the Tanakh says, “Everyone who hangs from a stake comes under a curse.” (Galatians 3:13) So it was that Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son, took upon himself the curse of Adam and his offspring as he hung from a tree, crucified for our sake. Through this act of love, God’s grace can be a part of our story as we live between the trees.
Just prior to the nailing of our Saviour to the tree, he was subject to the torturous act of being crowned with a twisted circle of thorns. The significance of this should not be overlooked. It has been suggested that thorns and thistles are a sign to us of God’s covenantal curse. When Adam sinned against God in Eden, the Lord said to him, “…Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” (Genesis 3:17-18) Once again, a botanical reminder of what has been achieved through Christ as he took on our curse in more ways than one.
As we read through and contemplate Scriptures, we see that Jesus himself invites us, time and again, to reflect on life and truth using plant life to simplify the profound.
As the stresses of this life begin to dominate and darken our stories, consider the comforting words of Christ: “Think about the wild irises, and how they grow. They neither work nor spin thread; yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as beautifully as one of these. If this is how God clothes grass, which is alive in the field today and thrown in the oven tomorrow, how much more will he clothe you!” (Luke 12:27-28)
And then there are times where Christ, Creator of all things, refers to himself as a plant for the sake of our ability to understand our deep need to be rooted or grafted in Him.
“I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who stay united with me, and I with them, are the ones who bear much fruit; because apart from me you can’t do a thing. Unless a person remains united with me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered and thrown into the fire, where they are burned up.” (John 15:5-8)
Interestingly, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the first person to encounter the risen Christ identified or mistook him as ‘The Gardener’. She [Mary] turned around and saw Yeshua [Jesus] standing there, but she didn’t know it was he. Yeshua said to her, “Lady why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?” Thinking it was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you’re the one who carried him away, just tell me where you put him; and I’ll go and get him myself.”(John 20:14-15)
As was said in the beginning, God the Creator was pleased with His work, proclaiming it to be good at the conclusion of each working day. As many scientists – including well-known nature lover David Attenborough – attest, trees are the lungs of the earth. We are not only sustained by their ability to clean our air and produce the oxygen we need to breathe, but in their beauty and diversity, they also teach us about ourselves. Is it any wonder that God, ‘The Gardener’, uses his trees to teach his people about life in him, and therefore our own lives as we live between the trees?