I still remember those days when I was trying to decide where to go to college. It is a weighty decision, not all encompassing, but wider than most. The list of pros and cons, pluses and minuses, are endless. In those days, you could hear people talking about their latest college visit and making decisions based on football stadiums, dorm rooms, libraries, majors, meal plans, and friends. The decision hinged on something different for everyone, but for one close friend, who went to visit a school a couple of states away, it was all about a tree.
When everyone else was talking about sports, class sizes, tuition costs, and dorms, my friend came home from visiting one school and said, "Well, I found the tree where I will sit every afternoon." He had found the tree, which would serve as the center of the circumference of his life over the next several years.
He said, "It is right there in the heart of campus, surrounded by green grass. It is a large magnolia tree with plenty of shade." He imagined himself sitting there every afternoon: studying, reading, napping, hiding, praying, and daydreaming. It would be a respite and a place to work. It would provide shade and stir preparation. Choosing a school based solely on tree seems rather illogical, but it would have made complete sense to the psalmist, who said, "They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper" (Psalm 1.3).
Like my friend, the psalmist envisions a tree sitting by the banks of a river. It is a tree with longevity, standing tall and strong, yielding fruit in season and never withering. It represents the deepest roots of faith and the widest branches of God's mercy. It is a symbol of life, sustainable and abundant life, exceeding all expectations.
It is not the product of human hands. Whereas, we can construct a building in a matter of a couple years, we cannot build a tree. A building is pieced together with machines and ingenuity. It can be formed from the ground up into a prominent structure, but it does not yield the same strength as a tree, which is rooted deep into the ground, inseparable from its source of life.
A tree grows by itself, based on the deep resources found in the soil, in the sun, and in the rain. It takes time for a tree to grow. It yields such beauty in the fall, as the leaves change, radiating the colors of Pentecost and the fire of the Holy Spirit. It demonstrates such vulnerability in the winter, like the meekness of repentance or the stark reality of Good Friday, demonstrating strength in weakness. It has character, measured by its rings, formed slowly throughout the journey of life, having seen dark storms and beautiful skies.
It is still, but never lifeless. It is a place to gather, dancing when we experience the highest good in this world, sitting in complete silence when doubt surrounds us, searching for renewal throughout changing seasons, and seeking peace in the midst of turmoil.
The tree stands in a place where we are rooted in our faith and surrounded by the mercy of God away from the risks, dangers, and costs of our choices that trivialize the gift of life. It is shade away from the possible mistakes around us. The psalmist would have certainly understood, making a decision based on finding a tree, for we all need such a tree in which to sit.