Life & Health Theology

Trees, Transitions, and the Patient God

September 19, 2018

I like trees. I’ve been thinking a lot about trees recently. I mean, who doesn’t like trees? Maybe trees are on my mind because I watched The Tree of Life last night (which is probably the most beautiful movie of all time). Maybe they’re on my mind because my dad was a forester and loved trees. Or maybe it’s because one of my favorite things to do in Scotland was to walk through the trees in the country park nearby where I lived. Whatever the reason, there is something peaceful and calming about being around trees. Trees are stable, secure, grounded, and trustworthy. They aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, they aren’t anxious about their circumstances – they are simply content to be where they are and to be fully present to what is around them. Trees seem very patient, and very relaxed. Sometimes, I’m jealous of trees.

Now, you may be worried about my sanity or think that I don’t have enough friends because I’m imagining trees as people – but I’m not the only one (well, besides Tolkien). The book of Psalms starts off with a song about the righteous person, and suggests that he will be like a tree:

“[The righteous person] is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.

Psalm 1:3

The rest of the psalm suggests that the wicked are the opposite – like chaff that is driven by the wind. They are moveable, unwilling to be still and patient as the world whirls about them. The reason this psalm came to my mind is that it was the first passage of Scripture that my dad and I memorized together. I thought it was because it was a short psalm at the beginning of the book, but perhaps my dad wanted me to memorize it because he knew something about trees – so the image meant so much more to him because he knew trees. I feel I may have unknowingly inherited my father’s love for trees like a hereditary gift that I just now discovered.

Trees and Transitions

Perhaps my obsession with trees is apparent to me now because I find myself in a time of great transition. I long to be planted in one place, to dig deep roots and extend my branches far and wide into a community. I long to be grounded, to cease moving, and to find a home that I can grow into and rest. I’m weary of being uprooted every few years and being blown about by the winds of health and education and vocation. Yet I find myself looking to move again, searching for a job, wading through uncertainty in hopes that I can be transplanted to place I can thrive doing what I love. That’s a hard place to be in, and the longer it takes the more I feel this desire for stability take root in my heart. I feel like I’m in a land in between.

A few years ago I read a book called The Land Between (by Jeff Manion), which is about finding God in difficult transitions (I was in a difficult transition back then too). I was recently reminded of one of my favorite passages in the book, where the author tells a story about his friend, Ben:

“Many times Ben would go into the woods, knowing that God would meet him by giving him peace, and he would protest, “I don’t want your stinkin’ peace. I want resolution to these problems!” Then God would give him peace, and he would again leave the woods filled with assurance. He learned to converse and to seek intimacy with this God. He learned that God could absorb his meltdowns, his confusion, and his questions.”

The Land Between, Jeff Manion

I’ve identified with Ben a lot in the past few years – I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods fighting against God’s peace and demanding he change my circumstances instead. I find it ironic that I did so even as I was surrounded by hundreds of trees that couldn’t change their circumstances even if they wanted. I would often go sit under a specific tree nearby where I lived, that for some reason I knew my dad would like. I would argue with God and explain my case to him, tell him why he needed to do something about my circumstances and get in line with my vision for my life. I would yell, “I don’t want your stinkin’ peace!” and he would still give me his peace, and I’d begrudgingly leave the woods after I couldn’t fight anymore. I think the trees around me were part of God’s answer to me – an example of peace and patience that I was subconsciously drawn to time and again.

Hiking vs. Hill Walking

To get to my favorite tree — to get the peace of God that I didn’t want — I had to hike about an hour from my home in Scotland. Now, in the US, we like to say that we “hike” places – it makes us feel more productive, like we’ve actually done something of merit and gone someplace and there was no moseying about. In Scotland, they call it “hill walking.” Initially, I thought that was an odd description, as if to suggest that climbing the mountains in the Trossachs or the Cairngorms was akin to a leisurely walk around the neighborhood – trust me, it isn’t (and don’t even get me started on why they call them “hills”). But the more I got used to it, the more I liked the idea of hill walking. It comes with the notion that the places that really matter to get to are worth getting to slowly.

We live in a culture that wants to get everywhere fast. How many times have you heard someone say, “Let me just run to the store really quick”? We hardly ever walk anywhere – it’s too slow and inefficient. Google pre-fills your search box to save you time, we expect immediate responses to texts or emails, and fast food drive-thrus allow us to eat without stopping (don’t get me wrong, I love the efficiency of Chick-fil-a with their dual-lanes and friendly-iPad-people). Everything has to move fast, and in transitions, it can feel the same way. I’m eager to move quickly from one job to the next. I can even get daily email alerts so that I can apply for a job online only minutes after it’s posted, hoping that somehow my speed will give me a leg up on the other candidates. 

It’s easy to get sucked up into the rat race, to try to hurry to beat others to the front of the line. There’s no time for hill walking when you’re in transition. We think we have to hill run (which is actually a thing, something I hope I never am foolish enough to attempt – although I was able to witness it once while I was definitely hill walking – you can see hill running here). But if my experience (and the experience of others I’ve talked to) has taught me anything, it’s that transitions usually take time. More time than I’d like to admit right now. Transitions happen slowly, and if they don’t take time they can be dangerous and there’s usually something wrong. You can’t just uproot a tree and transplant it somewhere else in an afternoon – in fact, you even have to make sure you pick the right time or season to transplant your trees so they don’t die (typically winter). Moving a tree without thinking about whether the soil or conditions will be right can lead to a tree losing its fruit, or being warped and stunted in its growth. I think trees have a lot to teach us about times of transition – about being patient and being willing to endure the slow and often painful process of moving.

The Tree of Life?

Interestingly enough, the Bible begins and ends with trees. In the beginning, the tree of life was in the midst of all the other trees of the garden of Eden before sin caused humanity to be cut off from its fruit (Gen 3:22). In the end, in Revelation, that same tree of life will return from heaven to be the hope of all earth – its leaves will be “for the healing of the nations” as it redeems humanity from the death it has so long been captive to (Rev 22:2). But in the land in between, in the transition time between the life we lost and the life we long to know again, there is another tree.

Not a tree of life, but a tree of death.  

There was a tree that was far too slow in coming – a root that waited far too long before sprouting. When the world was in transition and waiting for life to burst through the dead soil, instead a tree was uprooted. The Romans perfected a method of killing that took a living tree and made a mockery of its shape with a dead semblance of its trunk and branches. They could have transformed that tree into a quick death: a guillotine, or a gallows – but instead, they devised an agonizingly slow death on a parody of a tree: a cross. A tree of death that took days to complete its work, that paraded its victim before all the world to showcase the slow transition from life to death.

Without that tree of death, there can be no final tree of life. And in that tree of death, I see much of what makes me love trees in the first place. I see a God who was willing to be patient in the difficult transition. I see a God who didn’t opt for a quick fix to the problem of sin and the brokenness of the world. I see a God who was willing to meet people in their circumstances, to fully understand and identify with their pain and sorrow and anxieties, but who also came to deliver them from those same things. I see a God who brings peace to people in the most unexpected of ways – sometimes, in trees.

Today, I see a God who still meets people in the trees. I see a God who still gives peace to people who only want solutions. I see a God who is still patient to walk with people through the woods of life. I see a God who was willing to hang upon the tree of death I deserved so that I could eat of the tree of life that I don’t deserve. And that gives me hope right now, in this land in between, in this difficult transition, to rest in the peace of God.

Perhaps, it gives me hope… “to be like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields [my] fruit in [my] season,
and [my] leaf does not wither.”

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  • Reply Matt Benton September 23, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    Great post! I have always loved being in the woods and this gives me some wonderful thoughts to ponder during my time!

    • Reply Jason Custer September 24, 2018 at 5:15 pm

      Thanks, Matt. Walking in the woods is always conducive to good pondering.

  • Reply Bridgette Marriott October 1, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Love this Jason. It is all about the journey isn’t it. Praying the journey only takes you to greater and greater heights. God bless.

  • Reply Thomas L. October 22, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    Love those paintings (or etchings?) at the bottom. Are those yours?

    • Reply Jason Custer February 6, 2019 at 4:37 pm

      Yes, those are designs I made (you can see the rest of the series under the “design” tab). I’ve started trying to take all the photos and create all of the designs I post on my blog myself. (Sorry for the delayed answer, Thomas!)

  • Reply Adele Jordaan April 14, 2021 at 8:11 am

    Thank you for this encouraging perspective.

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