The Tree of Life

Originally published on tvprays.org.

Proverbs 3:13-18


13 Happy are those who find wisdom,
   and those who get understanding, 
14 for her income is better than silver,
   and her revenue better than gold. 
15 She is more precious than jewels,
   and nothing you desire can compare with her. 
16 Long life is in her right hand;
   in her left hand are riches and honour. 
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
   and all her paths are peace. 
18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
   those who hold her fast are called happy. 

This Lent, Trinity Lutheran, Nampa’s midweek theme is The Tree of Life. Each Wednesday, as part of our Taize Prayer services, we hear a scripture passage that mentions trees or the tree of life specifically. I was familiar with every passage recommended by our worship resource except for this one from Proverbs. 

The tree of life is first found in Genesis 2-3, where cherubim and a flaming sword guard it after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden. Here in Proverbs, not at all off limits, the tree as wisdom may be grasped–not as a means to everlasting life, but for health, prosperity, and joy. 

In some poetry of the ancient Near East, wisdom was likened to a great woman in the skies who guided people toward righteous living. For the Hebrew people, this Wise Woman was the Torah. In Lent we can see Christ as this Wisdom, a tree of life for us.

There are few things I appreciate more in the life of faith than a good image, metaphor, or story. I have absorbed myself in data points the last two years trying to lead a congregation thought the Covid pandemic. I often wonder what metrics I am supposed to use to measure ministry today. And Trinity Lutheran is involved in affordable housing work, another arena where data points are abundant and needed, especially when trying to gain funding or change laws.

So more and more I love that faith is less about data and more about stories and images that give life and hope. I find the tree of life compelling because my life has been full of trees. Ponderosa Pines dominated my youth growing up in the Black Hills. In college, riding my bike along the Red River (which runs north), I grew to love the changing colors. The fall colors of Minnesota paled in comparison to those I witnessed in central New York, during what we would now call my gap year. I walked my subdivision perimeter in Nampa a ton during the first months of the pandemic and was amazed by the buzz of the trees–hundreds of pollinators found the blossoms in those trees. There was so much life in those branches.

It makes complete sense to me that people would equate that life with the life that comes from Wisdom. Sometimes we sons and daughters of the Reformation are so grateful to be justified by grace alone, a great corrective at the time, that we forget or minimize the guidance for abundant life in scripture and our tradition. 

It is not that following the Torah (and I mean the entire Torah not just 10 Commandments) and teachings of Jesus are a guarantee of health and joy, at least not if we look at the metaphor purely as individuals. There are too many structural and systemic barriers in place. 

But what if we were to follow the Torah and Jesus teachings as entire congregations or communities? Trees again can guide us. Much has been written in the last five years about how trees are not siloed organisms in the forest. Instead, they communicate with each other. A classmate of mine summarizes some of the recent literature in her book review of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.

There is so much wisdom for how to live well in scripture, and this living well does bring joy and health. I do not need data points to tell me that, though they exist. It is my lived experience. I am ultimately happier when I care for friends and strangers. My body is better off when I do not covet, but instead keep a gratitude journal. I am healthier in body, mind, and spirit when I take time to worship God and take time for rest. 

Likewise, the communities I am part of are also healthier when we heed the teachings in scripture: when we practice love of neighbors within and beyond our community, when we celebrate what God has given us instead of having a scarcity mindset, when we take time to re-create in the mountains at Luther Heights or during the annual church campout, when we together worship the Lord our God with our heart, soul, and mind. Like the trees, we are made for community, for doing faith together. 

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