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Roots, Reach, and Resilience

As I was walking through a nature preserve in Florida, I encountered a surprising sight. A mangrove tree was lying on its side, and its root system was sticking straight up – almost vertical. Mangrove trees live in water and wetlands, so their root systems are shallow. As a result, the roots of this tree were unable to hold it up against the wind. When the tree fell, the roots were pulled out of the damp ground.

The sight of that uprooted tree led me to reflect on the lessons trees teach us about roots, reach, and resilience – both in nature and on the spiritual journey.

Roots: Like trees, we all need roots to anchor us, to hold us fast against the storm, to give us staying power as we endure the trials of life. Unless we have deep roots, we are as vulnerable as the mangrove tree.

The roots that anchor us include our sense of identity, the beliefs that we hold, and the values by which we live. The stage play Hamilton draws a sharp contrast between the passionate convictions of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s refusal to take a moral stand. To dramatize the contrast, Hamilton confronts Burr with these words: “If you don’t stand for something, Burr, you’ll fall for anything.” Hamilton has his flaws, but the roots of his convictions went deep. The play depicts Burr as more like the mangrove tree.

Roots also provide the tree with a critical source of nourishment. They take in the water it needs for food. Because mangrove trees grow in wet soil, the roots have easy access to water and stay shallow. Oaks and other deciduous trees in the northern United States, however, develop deep root systems to reach for water that’s far below ground. The depth of their root systems allows the trees to stay nourished during dry seasons, drought, and long winters.

Jesus’ parable of the sower also emphasizes the importance of roots. His explanation of the seeds that fell on rocky ground describes:

The one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person falls away. (Matt. 13: 20-21) 

Our need for spiritual nourishment requires that we sink our roots ever deeper into meaning, mystery, and God. The spiritual journey includes dry seasons, droughts, and long winters when God seems distant. Unless our faith is deeply rooted, we risk the fate of the seeds that fell on rocky ground. “When the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.” (Matt. 13: 6) 

Reach: Trees reach toward the sky because they need sunlight. It is a requirement for photosynthesis – the process they use to synthesize food from water and carbon dioxide. Roots give them water, and reach gives them light.

Like trees, we reach for light to meet our physical needs. Although we don’t use photosynthesis, sunlight is a source of vitamin D. It also helps regulate our circadian rhythms, and it affects our moods. When some people are deprived of sunlight during the gray months of winter, they are afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD.

We also reach for light to meet our spiritual needs. Light lets us see, shows us the way, illumines our path, and guides us to our destination. We also refer to light when we describe insight as enlightening and wisdom as enlightenment.

Light is a powerful scriptural theme. Genesis describes God giving the command: “Let there be light” on the first day of creation. God saw that the light was good and separated light from darkness to distinguish day from night.

Isaiah also used the image of light and darkness to describe the deliverance of the Hebrew people.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness – on them a light has shone. (Is. 9:2)

The images of light and darkness pervade the seasons of Advent and Christmas, and light is a compelling image for the Easter experience of resurrection. Light depicts Christ’s victory over evil. The Prologue of John’s Gospel describes Christ as the light – “the light of all people.” Christ is “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John. 1: 4-5)

Trees reach and so do we. Reach is at the heart of the spiritual journey. Reaching up expresses our longing for God. Reaching out describes our desire to connect with others and serve their needs. Reaching in defines our lifelong journey into ever-deepening self-awareness and the humility that opens us to ongoing conversion.

Resilience: Trees are resilient because they embody both strength and flexibility. Strength comes from the depth of the tree’s roots and the firmness of its trunk. Flexibility comes from the supple nature of its branches – allowing the tree to move and sway in winds both gentle and powerful. When a storm comes, the tree’s strength anchors it to the ground while the flexibility of its branches lets it bend without breaking.

Like a tree, our resilience – the ability to adapt and endure in the face of adversity – requires both strength and flexibility.

Our strength comes from the depth of our roots: our sense of identity, the core beliefs that anchor us, and the values by which we live. It also comes from courage – our ability to hold to these qualities in the face of threat and challenge. Ultimately, however, our strength lies in faith – the trust we place in a power that’s greater than we are, the confidence we have that we belong to God. Faith is the profound trust that no matter what comes, God will see us through it. Paul puts it well:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans: 8: 38-39)

Faith also gives us flexibility – the adaptive ability to withstand threats and challenges. It keeps us supple, opens us to ongoing conversion, and lets us embrace the lifelong process of transformation. In short, faith gives us staying power.

A friend of mine has a small tree in his home. One day while I was visiting, he went over to the tree and shook it vigorously. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that trees need the wind to move them and keep them flexible. Without movement, the sap running through the tree can solidify – causing the tree to die. His indoor tree has no wind, so he shakes it to keep it supple and healthy.

Like trees, we need the wind of the Spirit to keep us moving, give us flexibility, and keep us alive and vital. Without the movement of the Spirit within us, we can become stagnant; and the life force that needs to flow through us may dry up and solidify. Our spiritual resilience relies on the Spirit to keep us moving, to open us to ongoing conversion, and to give us courage to surrender to God’s presence. 

One of my graduate school professors provides a concluding thought on the lessons of the tree: “It’s important to be rooted without getting stuck.”

Roots are critical. We need them to keep us strong, grounded, and humble. Yet roots can also cause us to get stuck: becoming creatures of routine and habit, comfortable with our life as it is, and caught in a rut of boredom and stagnation. In addition to roots, we also need reach – that restlessness energy that keeps us stretching and growing: reaching up for God, reaching out to serve others, and reaching in to grow in self-understanding. The Spirit’s movement within us gives us resilience –that mix of strength and flexibility that lets us withstand the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of life, to adapt to whatever comes, to embrace ongoing conversion, and to trust that God is with us no matter what comes.

Admiring the beauty of a tree is a reminder that the spiritual journey requires roots, reach, and resilience.

Questions to Ponder

As you reflect on the lessons of the tree and your own spiritual journey:

  • What keeps you rooted, grounded, and humble?
  • In what ways are reach a part of your spiritual journey – reaching up for God, reaching out to serve others, and reaching in to grow in self-understanding?
  • How does your faith give you resilience – the strength, flexibility, and staying power you need to endure the challenges of the spiritual journey?