When I was a child there was a glorious weeping willow growing in my front yard. The willow stood tall and proud and graceful along the banks of the creek that ran through the valley we live in. It was idyllic, like the homestead description in a Laura Ingles Wilder book.
I would wrap myself in the willow branches dancing playfully with them in the breeze. I would grab hold of the branches, bundling a dozen of the wispy limbs together, pretending to swing wild and free like Tarzan. The leaves would turn their bellies upward, trembling as rainclouds rolled in, warning me to find shelter.
So simple and assumed, this tree was a steady backdrop to so many of my childhood stories. Unchanging and larger than life, not unlike the mountain in my backyard or the clouds I lay watching in the sky.
Then one day, I watched in shock as the top of the willow fell. The long, dancing branches falling limp and lifeless on the grass. There was a disease in the tree (which made very little sense to me as a child) it was dying from the inside out. And so my grandfather began the process of felling the large tree. You begin with the top, with the branches and leaves which nourish the tree.
It seemed like it took years to deconstruct the giant willow. First the dancing branches, then the three large, sturdy limbs they sprang from. Shorter and shorter till only the stump remained.
The willow had once stood dead center out our front window and it felt odd to look out and see only empty space by the bank of the creek.
While in the process of cutting the great old tree down, my grandfather had been planting new willows along the bank. Little saplings that needed to be tied to garden stakes so they wouldn’t collapse at the first gust of wind that whipped through the valley. It seemed unlikely I could ever lose myself in those branches, they were too tender and new and fragile.
When I was a child, my faith was this glorious, safe establishment. Like the willow in my yard, it was planted long before I was born and it seemed as though it would grow forever. With roots digging deep into the ground my family had inhabited for decades and decades, there was certainly no question of the strength and fortitude of this belief handed down to me.
As I grew up, I watched, wide eyed as pieces of this faith fell away. Like useless limbs growing from a rotten trunk, suddenly realized for what they were – a facade of green life, dancing with an assumed joy, concealing hollowed out bark.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down.
It has taken years to deconstruct that mammoth faith so firmly planted in my childhood. Felling first the limbs at the top, then digging down to the roots. All the while, though, another tree has been growing. Not so unlike the first (and in some ways quite the same) a trembling new faith began to grow.
Be still, and know that I am God.
Love others, in the same way I have extravagantly loved you.
Look to me, you who are weary.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
I remember being terrified.
Could grace really be this big? A love so expansive? A forgiveness so profound?
I look out, and it seems my faith never left me. “I somehow managed to hold on,” I tell a friend, “Grace upon grace, I suppose.”
Perhaps though, as I look closer, peering more fervently through the window of my soul, perhaps it wasn’t so much that I never let go, it was that the new thing grew alongside. While the giant center point of my childhood withered, a new sprout was gaining ground, growing deep and tall and strong.
And one day, I’m sure the time will come for yet another sapling to grow up alongside.
For the tree I’m now finding such rest and joy and security in to find it’s end. For the limbs I dance in freely to lay limp and lifeless.
Planting and felling.
Growth and decay.
Death and resurrection.
It’s the ground in which we are planted.
Faith then is not continuing to care for the dying tree, propping up the rotting limbs. Faith is respectfully acknowledging when the time has come to return those limbs to the ground.
Faith is allowing the One who cares for the ground to plant new seeds.
Faith is trusting that even in the void of what we once knew, that life is yet springing up all around.
For one person may plant seeds, and another may water it but only God makes them grow.