- Have you ever noticed how important trees are to us? Spiritually, in our daily lives , and for the well-being of the earth?
Consider there are trees on the first page of Genesis (fruit trees of every kind); trees in the first psalm (the happy are like trees planted by streams of water); on the first page of the Gospel of John (Jesus finds Nathaneal under a fig tree); and, on the last page of the Book of Revelation – in the scripture passage Nancy just read. Other than God and people, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living thing. And what was Jesus’ profession? He worked with trees – as a carpenter!
Holy trees are recognized in all of the world’s great religious traditions. In the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text of Hinduism, the fig tree (also called a Bodhi tree) with its heart shaped leaves is revered. Hindus associate the roots of the tree with Lord Brahma (the creator of the universe), the trunk of the tree with Lord Vishnu (the protector and preserver), and the leaves of the tree with Lord Shiva (the destroyer).
According to Buddhist tradition, out of the 150 incarnations he went through before being born as Siddhartha, the Buddha lived through 43 of them as a tree – and then reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
In his vision of paradise, Muhammad noticed an extraordinary plum tree on the outskirts of heaven under whose shade a horseman could ride for a hundred years. Ancient Celts regarded a host of trees as sacred – the oak, willow, ash, hawthorn, holly, hazel, and others. They even developed a tree alphabet – attributing special power to its runic, tree-shaped letters.
In the Kabbalah, a Hebrew mystical text, the tree of life is the symbol of creation governed by the three Divine Principles of Will, Mercy and Justice. Humans, according to the Kabbalah, were called forth in the form of this tree, mirroring its qualities.
Think about it: trees and humans are often compared to one another. Our legs as roots; torso as the trunk; our arms, the branches; our hair, leaves; our blood, sap.
The tree is one of humankind’s most powerful symbols. In most mythology and ancient religious imagery, trees offer an abundance of divine, creative energy. During the Middle Ages, it was common for a traveler to entrust one’s health and safety to a tree spirit. These trees were known as guardian trees, and as long as they were healthy, the journey, it was believed, would go well. (We could say the same today – as long as trees are healthy, our life journeys will go well, too.)
From all of these examples, it is apparent that humans across culture and time are able to recognize the holiness of trees. What about you and me? How do we understand the spiritual nature of trees? And our relationship to them?
Consider this – we are literally surrounded by the gifts of trees from cradle to casket (or urn). Look around the room where you are right now. Begin to count and name all of the items in the room that come from trees. In all likelihood you are sitting on something that is made at least in part from a tree. The floor, other pieces of furniture, books, sacred objects, picture frames, and Kleenex are some of the items made from trees that are likely in your room.
The fact of the matter is that trees could live perfectly well without us, but we could not live without them.
Even more fundamentally than all that they give us to make our homes, we share in a symbiotic relationship with trees. They are the lungs of the planet. They create oxygen, absorb pollutants, and sequester carbon. One tree can provide enough oxygen for four people.
Trees take care of us. We eat their nuts, fruit and berries. They give us medicine, like eucalyptus. Their aromas often calm us. We benefit from their shade and their beauty.
Just look outside – is there anything more wondrous than watching the new leaves begin to emerge on trees in Spring? And when we slow down enough and spend some time with trees, we can even sense their spiritual presence.
Have you ever had a special relationship with a tree?
When I was a little girl, we had one dying tree in the middle of our backyard. How I loved that tree. Sometimes I would simply sit by it to be by myself and think. One day, I came home to discover that the tree had been cut down. No one told me it was going to happen. I felt devastated. As if I lost a good friend. There was a presence in that tree that no one needed to describe or introduce to me – it was something I just felt.
Since then, I have known other special trees – maples that edged the perimeter of our front yard; elegant willows – the first to bloom, in the park across the street; majestic pines that lined the boulevard that guided me from home to school and back. The Locust tree that stood tall behind David and I for our wedding portrait. A variegated maple in Round Lake, NY that so astonished us with her beauty that we made special visits just to see her. Divi Divi trees in Aruba that welcomed us on our honeymoon. Christmas trees that literally hold treasured memories. And now the sheltering trees of Annisquam that greet us each day from every window of our home and every walk we take in the village.
Trees not only provide for us and enchant us, they can heal us. For example, the practice of Forest Bathing is an invitation to drop our busyness, stresses, and need to accomplish to simply allow the presence of nature to rejuvenate us. Writing about this practice, M. Amos Clifford says “The forest is itself the therapist, restoring our innate capacities when we slow down and give our attention. It knows what healing we need and how to deliver… the necessary image, the fitting experience, the piercing insight, in the right dose that matches what we are ready to receive …”
Trees point to the nature of who God is, who we are, and how we are called to relate to God, one another, and the earth. Their very essence is unlimited generosity to us and the rest of the creation.
In contrast, on this, the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” we still must ask why is it that humans are “chopping trees as fast as we please?” Have we so taken them and their gifts to us for granted that we can not see how sacred they actually are?
The organization One Tree Planted estimates that every 1.2 seconds an area the size of a football field is destroyed. Tropical forest destruction accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. 80% of the world’s terrestrial plants and animals live in forests that are losing their habitats to deforestation. At the current rate, the world’s rainforests could be gone within 100 years.
When we destroy trees, we are destroying so much more – and if we keep it up, we will eventually destroy ourselves.
In the reading we heard from the Book of Revelation, God’s vision for how we live is in a city with a garden at its center. The human world and natural world are in harmony. The tree of life stands within the city gates, which are always open to invite people into the presence of God. Here the rivers that give life flow, the tree of life has leaves to heal the nations, and all beings dwell in the radiant presence of God.
The vision that scripture offers us today is not merely symbolic, but calls us to a way of life that protects and restores trees, making real the greening of our communities. Organizations like One Tree Planted, our Annisquam resident Sarah Hackett’s Greening Haiti Fund, and closer to home, The Elm Project, understand that we can make a difference for the earth by planting trees.
Trees are a mirror of the Divine. As Rev. Lisa Ward points out, trees show us “The way we can sustain ourselves is by giving of ourselves when we are centered. The secret to abundance… is to focus on what we have to give. What Alice Walker calls the circular energy of generosity. By giving we stimulate regeneration of life and spirit and it stimulates our own growth, our own expanse.”
Last week we heard the story of the Road to Emmaus and were reminded that when we practice hospitality to strangers, we can see Jesus. Trees are the ultimate hosts. Birds, butterflies, and beavers, as well so many other flying creatures, animals, and humans all enjoy the hospitality of trees. Rest is offered; protection, given; perches and homes, formed.” (L. Ward)
Jesus died on a cross, the dead limbs of a tree. And each Spring, we are reminded of the power of new life simply by looking at the beauty of the budding trees. Trees reveal God’s ever-renewing, ever-generous spirit. On this Earth Sunday, may we become more aware of all that trees give us, of the manifold ways they bear the Divine to us. In the light of the resurrection, may we also dedicate ourselves to the healing and restoration of the trees, a key to the healing and restoration of all creation.
And even better than contemplating trees from inside our homes is to actually encounter one (or more!) outside. Spend some time with them. Get close, look, and listen. Allow God’s voice to speak to you through a tree. Amen.
Clifford, M. Amos, “Forest Bathing”
Koester, Craig, “Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6; 22:1-5” in Working Preacher, Sept. 2017
Krige, Melissa, “Trees as Spiritual Teachers”
Lane, Belden C. “The Great Conversation”
Nadkarni, Nalini, “Trees and Spirituality: An Exploration”
Sleeth, Matthew, “Reforesting Earth”
Ward, Lisa, “Spirituality of Trees”