Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lessons from the Fig Tree

Learn this lesson from the fig tree: When its branch is new and tender and begins to put forth leaves, you know that summer must be near. In the same way, when you see and hear the things I've described to you taking place, you'll know the time is drawing near.

Heaven and earth may pass away, but these words of Mine will never pass away.

Mark 13:28, 29, 31

It began as a mere stick in a black plastic pot labeled Brown Turkey Fig from Sut Smith ten years ago.

We pruned severely the grown fig tree out back this spring. Limbs littered the yard and overflowed three large cans. On a whim, I filled a clear vase with bare brown sticks and put them in my kitchen window.

They offered arresting beauty in their simplicity. In a few days, I noticed buds emerging followed by tender green shoots. Then the recognizable leaf unfurled.

Sticks cut off from their source of nutrients sprouted tiny buds, evidence of new life bound up in the DNA of each plant cell. They did what they are programmed to do: replicate. The coding in the cell coupled with water in the pitcher supplied enough momentum—but barely enough--to produce fig leaves.

Severed from roots which fuel long-term growth, a vase of water could sustain life for only so long; they began to drop leaves last week as though on cue. Figs, while hardy, are not made to thrive on kitchen counters.

I spoke to a group recently using these sticks as an illustration. One person declared them beautiful. Others asked to take them home, perhaps to root. Here we were, clamoring for fig sticks, and I had just sent a multitude of them to the dump. Armed with a new-found appreciation for my garden waste, I came home and clipped even more forked sticks from the limbs still lying in our yard. I now have containers of fig branches I've been watching, and I've learned a few lessons.

1. God makes beautiful that which we discard.

God redeems the broken and ascribes value to the things—and people?—that we throw away. We have switched the price tags in our culture of what we value, and we hardly notice anymore. Composting kitchen and lawn debris has emerged as a rallying cry for sustainable living. For really sustainable living, we need eyes that see beauty in unexpected people and places.

2. We need to develop a tolerance for pruning.

Some plants bloom off old wood; others need new growth.  Selective pruning generally increases productivity and results in a stronger, revitalized plant. Can the same be said for us?

We, too, experience times of severe loss, of feeling cut back to the quick. Freshly shorn of comfortable overgrowth, we are left raw and ragged. We know what it is to experience transplant shock after change. Starting over seems impossible. We have the choice to recalibrate and develop fresh patterns and healthy structures after being laid bare from whatever cause. Adaptation to a new environment is essential because life keeps changing. Survivors learn to adapt.

3. Develop deep roots.

We may opt to sit on the shelf in tepid water after pruning and hope no one notices life is different now. That will work for a while. Like my fig sticks, we continue to go through the motions putting out the same shoots and showing up at familiar places. We can fool some of the people some of the time but...sooner or later the gig's up. We cannot generate enough fuel from depleted reservoirs--spiritually and physically--to jump start sagging spirits and sluggish lives. When we least expect it, we resemble my fig branches in the vase: the leaves fall off and curl on the counter. Shallow or nonexistent roots will not long support life.

Root tendrils will find their way to a water source; if only on the surface, shallow roots develop. I want to be drought-tolerant and hardy, having roots driven down and penetrating deeply.  I believe we are made to seek after God who alone provides the best model of sustainability in an uncertain world.

Central to adapting to a changed landscape is to prepare for what we can expect, and not to worry about what we cannot change.

Reinhold Niebuhr penned a guide to this kind of living in dependence on the Master Gardener. For some it is a daily prayer for survival:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Today on Easter Sunday we celebrate the Good News that God offers for the pruned, the hungry and especially for those who do not think they need any help at all. He is Risen just as He said.

Thanks be to God.

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