Jeremiah 17:5—8: This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, on the salty flats where no one lives. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried about months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they go right on producing delicious fruit.”
As I thought about this wonderful passage, some important questions came to mind.
Why is it that many of us do not experience the dynamic, ongoing life-change expected from being students of the greatest Teacher that ever lived? The importance of what’s really happening below the surface in the soil of our hearts—its quality, how it’s fed and watered—is often neglected. Is it surprising that without this, no real growth can take place, there isn’t much resilience in adverse situations, no adequate capacity for renewal and little fruit is produced? Perhaps we tell ourselves that we just aren’t “built” to be spiritual giants. Is it a question of inadequacy, or the need to discover what it really means to be authentic disciples of Jesus?
Then I thought about people in my life that I greatly admire who I would consider to be spiritual giants. I see them as the tall “redwood trees” of the spiritual forest, if you will. This idea inspired me to do a little investigation and uncover some really interesting things about redwoods. It’s amazing to me how God reveals himself in nature. Listen to these facts and think about the parallels to our spirituality:
- Coastal redwoods are absolutely the largest living things on earth—as tall as 378 feet. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty, 35 stories high, longer than a football field, larger around and through than a Greyhound bus—up to 20 feet across.
- Redwood bark is as much as 1 foot thick. When exposed to fire it chars into a shield, similar to the way a heat shield on a space re-entry vehicle works, to protect what’s inside.
- The chemical composition of redwoods makes them naturally repellent to pests like termites and ants. That’s why redwood is used in the construction of homes. It can withstand battery acid and still maintain its integrity.
- Redwood doesn’t rot. Logs buried in creek beds for thousands of years come out sound and in good shape.
- If a redwood tree dies or even is stressed, it sends chemical signals to its burls—masses of growth tissue, which will burst forth into verdant life. This helps redwoods survive glaciers, climatic changes, volcanoes and earthquakes that wipe out most other tree species.
- A redwood that gets knocked over continues to grow via its limbs, which will turn into trees in their own right.
- Redwoods literally race for the sun, growing up to 2 feet per year.
- Because of their extremely aggressive root system, if it’s a contest between a redwood and a nearby man-made structure, the tenacious tree always wins.
Roots, Resilience, Renewal and Place
You may know or have known someone who is a spiritual “redwood”. Looking at their life, what are the things they do consistently to be nurtured spiritually? Is it evident that their hope and confidence are in the Lord, not in man-made structures—the things of this world? Is he/she a person of depth with strong roots, whose regular practice is being alone with God, to allow his voice speak deep into their soul, to be fed and filled with his love and compassion, causing their heart to overflow with contagious joy, true worship and dedicated service—a fruitful life? And how has this affected how they deal with the challenges in their life—the heat and drought in the Jeremiah verses? Is their heart protected through the fire, the dry seasons? Are they made of the stuff that withstands whatever dramatic changes and natural disasters life inevitably brings? And how do they find renewal?
So as we think about those “redwood” people, we must also ask, “Has the depth of their spirituality come without developing the strong roots of discipline?” Like them, are we making it a priority to carve out sufficient space in our lives to go beyond reading some scriptures and talking to God, rather than to hear from God? Do we spend the time needed to let the Word penetrate and transform us?
I believe there is so much more that He has for us that we are not seeking. I have this vision of an enormous treasure chest overflowing with dazzling spiritual treasures beyond price. Jesus himself stands over it, his hands brimming with all the eternally good things he wants to give us as children of The King, and we are satisfied to just occasionally meet him there for a few fleeting moments amidst the busyness of our days to scrape some meager bits from the surface of the treasure chest.
It is no coincidence the term disciple comes from the root word discipline. It is no coincidence that “redwood people” are individuals of discipline in their spiritual walk.
We hear about the benefits of such things as solitude, meditation on scripture, fasting, listening prayer, simplicity—but these concepts may be largely foreign to us personally. Perhaps we just don’t know how to go about them. Where do we start? Could this be why some of us feel like we just are not being transformed very consistently into the image of Christ?
Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed not to the world, but to the image of Christ for the sake of others. It is a life-long journey that, like all other worthwhile endeavors that require perseverance, begins with the first step. It simply means to learn and train in the what have been historically referred to as the spiritual disciplines—practices that will help you grow deeper in the Lord and become more fruitful. As Dallas Willard puts it, these disciplines are “simply a matter of following Jesus into his own practices”—all designed to help you put yourself in a place to discover an intimate relationship with Christ.
Richard Foster, in his classic book Celebration of Discipline says that the spiritual disciplines are “a means of receiving God’s grace. They allow us to place ourselves before God so he can transform us.” With that in mind, listen to a few more redwood facts:
- Experts say that the tallest ones are also noteworthy for their location—they are always found in creek bottoms where rich soils and abundant water allow for extravagant growth using their aggressive root system.
- Groups of redwood are called “cathedrals” which are organized in a “family circle.”
- Redwoods compensate for induced leaning caused by growing on shifting slopes, collisions of other trees, flood pressure and tectonic shifts by an unusual ability to buttress their undersides through accelerated growth. It is possible to find cathedrals of trees all leaning in the same direction.
In the Jeremiah passage the location contrast is “in the desert…in salty flats”—dry, barren, alone—versus “along a riverbank”—moist, lush, by water, with others.
What is before us, then, is the chance to be planted in fertile ground where the soil is “alluvial”, the kind enriched by flowing water—the Holy Spirit, who can bring the transformation God desires for all of us. That’s what we want to experience together as believers—in community, a cathedral of trees—a place where, through the disciplines, God can grow us into all he has designed us to be, and do all he has ordained each of us to do as integral parts of His body here on earth. I love the way the redwoods arrange themselves together into cathedrals made up of circling groups that lean in the same direction. This reminds us of the similar way we need each other as we grow—the importance of being in community on the journey.
If your life-as-usual has not been in alluvial soil in which God by his grace can do his work, then as Dallas Willard writes, “life-as-usual must go.” The practice of spiritual disciplines will require an alteration of life-as-usual. Intentionality will be required. Choices are mandatory. We will need to approach our lives with these two questions:
- What am I currently DOING that, if eliminated, would open myself up more to God’s work of grace in my life?
- What am I currently NOT DOING that, if added, would open myself up more to God’s work of grace in my life?
Sure, there are things we can let slide, get away with, avoid—and just maintain. We can “settle” for being a stunted shrub. It’s all a question of how high we want to go. There may be many good things in our lives, but it is a matter of seeking the very best things God has for us. I challenge you to make a date with yourself and God to pray about these essential questions.
We must also remember that transformation is God’s work, not ours. Dallas Willard defines a spiritual discipline as “any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do that which we cannot do by direct effort.” Our task then is to find that place where God can do his work. It is to not merely pursue the disciplines, but to single-mindedly pursue Him. The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, will guide us into all truth. Remembering that the purpose of spiritual formation using the spiritual disciplines is to bring life, not legalism, we must carefully guard against allowing them to become acts that are an end in themselves.
The good news is that, because this is a life-long pursuit, you can jump in no matter what stage of life you are in or where you are on your spiritual journey. God is infinite with unlimited riches, and we can never say it’s acceptable to stop growing, or that we’ve arrived. How exciting!
I earnestly invite you to join in the adventure of throwing out life-as-usual and taking a new and exciting path where God can transform you—from the ground up and from the inside out—with deep, strong roots, resilience, constant renewal, consistent growth and abundant fruit. I don’t know about you, but with all my heart I don’t want to miss one thing God has for me. I don’t want you to miss one thing he has for you. Where there is a deeper obedience, there is a greater blessing. Like those tall trees, let’s race for the SON together! What amazing things He can do in and through people—not perfect people, but transforming people—who are leaning in the same direction and passionately pursuing Him—a cathedral of redwoods! Think of the impact on our marriages, our children, our families, our neighborhoods, our workplace, our church, our community, and yes—even our world!
A redwood forest is a breathtaking place in its magnificence and serene beauty, and how gloriously it displays the nature of our marvelous Creator! Seeing it evokes in me feelings of wonder and comfort. And that’s how I see Jesus. When people look at me, that’s what I aspire for them to see in me. I want to reflect the wonder and comfort of our Savior. He is the tallest redwood.
I want to be a redwood, don’t you?
Celebration of Discipline and Streams of Living Water, both by Richard Foster;
Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton.; Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard;
Invitation to a Journey by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.