I have a confession: I love trees. For as long as I can remember I have been attracted to them. But because I was raised on the East Coast where trees are a ubiquitous part of the landscape, some might say that my affinity for trees is not true love, but merely a case of operant conditioning.
Still, it seems to go deeper than that. Perhaps some portion of the human genome codes for an attraction to the arbor. Place a group of children beside a tree and you will see them levitate skyward, propelled by a force equal and opposite to gravity.
The king of trees in my youth was the sugar maple. It is as if tree engineers sat down with a group of children and designed a tree just for them. The bark of the trunk is easy to shimmy up, even in shorts. The branches are strong and flexible. No other tree’s superstructure presents a more inviting place for children to sit, talk, and dream. Robins are particularly fond of this tree’s real estate. The sap of the maple was specifically designed to be poured over pancakes and waffles. In autumn the leaves riot in color as the chlorophyll retreats earthward. The seeds are aerodynamically engineered to helicopter to the ground in graceful arcs when broken in half along pre-perforated lines. Yellow, orange, and red maple leaves can be pressed between waxed paper and passed as homework to teachers and gifts to parents. You can jump again and again into a pile of maple leaves, and come out with nary a scratch.
When I married my wife thirty-two years ago, the boughs of a maple tree in her parents’ backyard served as our wedding canopy.
My children were born while I was in my medical residency. The street we lived on for those few years had no trees, so I cajoled, bribed, blackmailed, and bullied all my neighbors into letting me tree-line the street.
We raised our children on the coast of Maine, where they learned to climb on, plant, and gather sap from trees.
But until a decade ago I never considered that my love of trees had anything to do with God. Then I “got religion.” I became a follower of Jesus. I read the Bible for the first time. I confessed my sins and threw myself at the foot of the cross, and it is there I have worshiped and found my salvation. But the urge to plant trees never left me.
When everyone in my family became followers of Christ, we started attending church together. It was a Baptist church, and to say it was conservative would miss the point. As one of the members said, “We don’t belong to the Southern Baptist convention, because once you get on that slippery slope to liberalism, world government is right around the corner.” Overall, though, it was a good church, with a great ministry program for the local prison and someone there to sign for those who couldn’t hear; they even took me to Latin America on a mission trip to practice medicine and take care of the sick and the poor.
But when I asked to plant trees on the church property, I was told I had the theology of a tree hugger. Unfortunately, this was not a compliment—nor was it peculiar to that church or time a decade ago. This past weekend I was traveling and preaching in the Bible Belt, where I saw a billboard equating tree lovers with baby killers.
So the question is: What about tree planting? Just how ungodly and how un-Christian an agenda is it?
The modern tree planting movement comes from that great rectangular cauldron of revolution—Nebraska—and J. Sterling Morton from Nebraska City, who came up with the idea of Arbor Day. “Arbor” means “tree” in Latin.
In 1872, Sterling incited the people of his state to plant 1 million trees. Most notable were 1,000 youth who not only planted trees, but in true revolutionary style marched to the opera house and occupied it. There they sang a song that has long been equated with subversiveness—one of its lines goes, “I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills.” You probably know this pagan anthem as “America” or “My Country Tis of Thee.”
So perhaps the person at my church was right. Maybe my theology was wrong. Maybe my view of trees was the result of secular conditioning. The question for a Christian is: What does the Bible say? I went to my Bible, reading from cover to cover, looking for a tree. What I found was a forest.
Many of the Bibles from just a generation ago were emblazoned with a tree on the cover. Some may have had a family tree on the first leaf of their Bible. But every single Bible started with a tree on the first page.
The first psalm says that a godly person is “like a tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in season.” Psalm 96:12 says, “Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice.” Isaiah 55: “All the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” 1 Chronicles 16:33: “Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the Lord, because he cometh to judge the earth.”
Some read the Bible and edit out the thousand references to seeds, leaves, vines, bushes, and trees. But to miss the tree theme of the Bible is to miss an important part of the story. It is akin to not learning that music is used to foreshadow certain events in a movie. For instance, when you hear the Jaws theme song, you know not to go in the basement or go swimming in shark-infested waters. Likewise, the appearance of a tree on the Bible serves the same purpose as a bugle blowing in an old western when things are looking bad. The calvary, in its original biblical sense, is on the way.
It is no coincidence that the pillars that support this Cathedral and those around the world are sculpted to look like the trunks of mighty trees. It is biblical.
In Genesis 2:8, we are told that God is a gardener. He “planted a garden eastward of Eden; and there he put man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food—the also…”
That is what the Bible says, that God is a gardener—a tree planter—sowing acorns and palm nuts and the whirly-gig seeds of maples. Trees are God’s eye candy. They are the first aesthetic assigned in the Bible.
It is no surprise then that God uses a tree to teach Jonah a lesson and to grab vain Absalom. Of course Abraham is under the oaks of Mamre when the angels arrive. How appropriate that Sarah’s passing is marked by Abraham planting a tree, and that the Hebrew judge Deborah holds court under a palm.
In his ever-popular The Lord of the Rings, the Christian writer Tolkien echoes the Bible when he casts the arch-villain, Sauron, as a clear cutter of ancient forests. The Bible forbids the cutting of fruit trees even in a time of war. No wonder: a tree can outlive us all, and the planet cannot live without them. Even today there are trees alive on the Mount of Olives that stood witness to Christ having passed two thousand years ago.
It is no accident, therefore, that Jesus was adopted by a carpenter named Joseph who worked with trees. No surprise that he would later hear his disciple Bartholomew praying under a fig tree. It makes sense that Jesus died on a tree. The cross is the tree of life. It is the tree of life that appears on the first page of the Bible.
It could be said that the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are about mistaken identities. God takes the form of humanity, but most fail to recognize him. Jesus claims to be a temple, and folks think he’s talking about a pile of rocks.
Nowhere is Christ’s identity more beautifully missed than on Easter morning. Mary goes to the tomb and finds it empty. She turns and sees Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. She mistakes him for a gardener. It turns out that for once someone has gotten it right: he is the gardener, the new Adam who came to tend the trees that God planted in Genesis. When God first put Adam in the garden, his first instructions to him were to protect and tend the trees.
On the last page of the Bible, in Revelation 22, we see a picture of heaven: God is on the throne, and an unpolluted river gushes forth making its way to the Tree of Life. The Bible says that this tree is so large its roots extend to either side of the river of life. Under that tree—eating its food—all the nations are healed.
Planting a tree is, to my way of thinking, an exercise in Christian faith. We start with a seed and then God takes over. God sends the rain, the wind, and the sun.
I can tell you that there is no more deeply satisfying feeling in this life than going back to a place where one has planted trees and seeing the next generation of children swing from their branches.
The world desperately needs more trees—but even more than it needs trees, it needs people with the faith and foresight to plant them. Today, I want to ask you to commit to planting at least one tree a year throughout your life. You can visit a nursery, send a check to an organization that plants trees, or start trees from seedlings.
For those of you who want to do something today, we’re going to make this easy for you. In the rear of the Cathedral we have saplings for those of you who would like to get started this afternoon. If you have young children, plant a tree with them. Remember that when they go back to their childhood home decades from now, everything will look smaller except for that tree.
If you are middle-aged, plant trees to honor the birth of children and the passing of parents and the gift of friendship.
If you are old, plant a tree to thank those who planted the trees that shaded the streets of your youth and on whose branches you spent some of your best days. Pay the gift forward. Leave a legacy.
You and I live between the trees on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation, and thankfully past the punctuation marks of the cross. When you leave the Cathedral, if you take one of the seedlings and plant it this afternoon, you are fulfilling a part of the Lord’s Prayer. You are making the earth as it is in heaven. In the words of an ancient proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.”
Remember that by the very way they work, a tree planted in your backyard makes the entire world a better place. Go in peace, but first, go plant a tree.