Parable of the Trees

By John McKinley Feb. 8, 2017 9:00 a.m. Church Life, Marriage and Family, Spiritual Formation

The story that follows is a parable of human experience as essentially relational. People are individuals and vitally connected to others. Everyone lives according to relationships. The overemphasis on our individuality is misleading so that we ignore the ways that other people affect us in beneficial and disabling ways. This parable is an illustration of one sort of benefits and damages through being generated in families.

Parable of the Trees

In the forest many trees combine their roots, share soil, and take in air with light. The trees live side-by-side, and they stand as columns holding up the roof of leaves above. The trees are twisted and gnarled by age and weather. Branches that reached for sunlight are bent out from trunks, straining for the open patches of light and air. Below the surface in the dirt the roots tunnel around rocks and hardened clay. Here too there is competition for minerals and water. Roots bind and bend in a vast web of communal survival.

The trees grow in families: ash, pine, oak, willow, and so on. Thousands of families spread out in varieties with common bark and leaves. Each family cares for its own, with seedlings, saplings and old growth holding and defending scarce earth among the rest. New trees grow up feeding on the same soil, drinking from the same dark springs of ancient waters, and reaching with the same sorts of branches and leaves to the air and light above. Growth is constant, each after its kind.

One tree family is the sakluth trees, resembling a diseased cypress. The bark is thick and hard, twisted and stiff. The wood cannot be carved; when burned it gives foul fumes. Sakluth trees force their roots through the hardpan of sedimentary clay to scant trickles of water below. Their leaves are like pine needles to resist the harsh radiation of the sun. At the edge of the forest, sakluth trees do not share shelter from the sirocco winds or the shimmering heat. They stand as if alone and cling for life in the rocky and clay soils that other trees cannot penetrate. Even old growth sakluth appear stunted and cursed. Bitter sap oozes over the bark to give the look of disease. Sap has the look of tar, since it is drawn from acrid waters of the stagnant and poisoned pools beneath the hardpan. The bark is thorned to keep the pesky birds at bay.

When the earthquake shattered the forest landscape, many trees had fallen and others were half uprooted. A new wadi had opened alongside the sakluth grove, just at the edge of their roots. Clean waters poured from the collected rain and called to the sakluth trees. This change was a problem for the trees that had survived so long without fresh waters. They had grown to need little, to conserve much, and so maintained a hold in clay.  It was a point of pride among the sakluth that they alone could dwell in the waste places where other trees could not bear it. This point of pride was a consolation to the sakluth in their misery.

When the roots tasted the clean flow of water in the wadi, the older sakluth immediately reacted by turning their roots aside. They could not allow themselves to get used to fresh water. When (as they supposed) it ran dry again, they would choke and have nothing but hardened dust. They feared to be disappointed with soft roots that, once wetted in the stream, would no longer have the perseverance to drill into the deep places. Their survival depended upon taking the hard way. Trickles of dark water polluted with acid were better to the sakluth than gallons of sweet drops in the stream that had just now appeared.

Resilient and stubborn, the sakluth rejected the stream that continued to flow as the months passed by. Other trees sank in their roots and drank as much as they wished. Leaves extended, fruit bloomed, and saplings multiplied along the river to the east across from the sakluth. What had been a desert at the edge of the forest became a garden of bushes and flowers. Temperatures cooled in the shade where animals made homes and burrowed in the softening soil. The sakluth clenched and held their clay. Still fearing the wet and the loss of hardened roots, the sakluth extended away from the stream, and even denied that it was good. An earthquake had opened it; another could close it tight. Sakluth did not need the easy waters. Sakluth were tough survivors.

When the rock slipped as the stream curved toward one sakluth clump, the larger tree in the group felt the wet at its roots. This sakluth’s roots were so hardened that it was unable to take in fresh water. Time and the newly moistened soil softened three tiny tendrils of the tree. It tasted clean water for the first time. The other sakluth clumped around it immediately felt the quivering of its roots. They too had been hardened and could not do otherwise than feed on poisoned water. They too had learned the sakluth ways of survival in stubborn resistance to the stream. The root quivers were new, and loosened clay around the roots along the streamside of the little clump of trees. With time, all the sakluth in the clump at the edge stretched their roots toward the water that was clean, and turned back from the deep pools.

Sakluth trees that find clean water become majestic willows. Leaves open from what appeared to be needles. Branches soften and soar in graceful arcs. Trunks stand tall and elastic to bend with the breezes like a ballet company. Unseen beneath the ground, the roots swell to bathe and drink the water by the gallon. Bark lightens to silver or gold. If there is sap, it runs amber and sweet, like a maple. Which is the true sakluth: the one that is like a desert cypress or the one that resembles a river willow?

The stream was a problem of two changes for the sakluth when one clump turned to the fresh waters. Sakluth that changed to willows no longer siphoned acid from the deep pools with other sakluth. The willows did not help with breaking through the hardpan. For the sakluth that remained turned against the stream, the stream had made life harder instead of better.

The stream had also made it harder for the sakluth-becoming-willows. The hard and dry roots of the old growth trees tore at the soft roots of the willows near to them. The bitter sap from the old sakluth burned the willows when the wind made their branches sway into contact. The new willows that had been sakluth longer were able to weather these scrapes, but the young willows bled from their soft and thin bark when old trees rubbed them. The clump of willows held more to the stream than the rest of the sakluth in a new struggle for survival. For the old growth sakluth, clinging to the clay, searching out the deep pools, and hardening roots and bark was one sort of survival; reaching further into the stream and becoming willows was another sort.

The two older willows in the clump came to see the sakluth-in-clay as the way of death. By contrast, they saw the willowy sakluth-in-water as the way of life that they wanted for themselves.  Letting go of the hardened roots to the west and reaching for the stream to the east allowed the clay to fall away while a new channel of water poured around the clump on the west. They became an island of willows, surrounded by water on all sides. To the west, the old sakluth were nearer to the water that now flowed directly alongside them. Would they reach to the fresh waters or retreat into the dark pools? Would they continue as scrabble or unfurl in the fresh water like willows?

Explanation

The sakluth survival of hard roots in the clay is a way of death, a particular version of attempting to carve out one’s existence on one’s own terms, apart from God (life in Adam, what the New Testament sometimes refers to as “death” [see Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3] and “the flesh” as a power in conflict with the Spirit of God). By contrast, the stream is a new way of life offered by the gospel that transforms trees into willows. Together, the sakluth grove constitutes a dysfunctional family system of attempting to manage guilt and shame apart from God’s work of salvation (all family systems are dysfunctional). New trees are made to participate in the same bitter life as their parents. The nearby flow of the stream is the time of God’s visitation to each of us. Will we receive the life he offers us, or will we persist in the familiar ways that we see repeated from one generation to the next?

This mysterious resurgence of familial pollution is told broadly in the heritage of corruption from Adam and Eve to the rest of humanity. Particular biblical examples show in Isaac’s repeat of Abraham’s recourse to deception about his wife as a sister, and Jacob’s recourse to trickery in the pattern of Abraham and Rebekah (as confirmed by Jacob’s mistreatment by Laban). David’s unchecked revenge and lust were passed on to Solomon, Amnon, and Absalom with increasing virulence.

We are sick as a human population. We routinely accept living with the symptoms of our pollution from evil as normal, and find various ways to manage with it in a sort of sakluth survival. I am convinced that God has much more for us all in the abundant life of rich and direct relational experience of mutual sharing and enjoyment of one another (people with people, and with God).

I point to a few theological items as witnesses to the reality of this whole familial mess. There is a stream that God offers. No one enters adulthood unscathed from the polluted malformations of their parents, but I endeavor to unburden my children as much as may be done. As I see it, we are each burdened with family patterns as with a backpack of heavy rocks. If parents can face and deal with these burdens, it seems that children will not inherit them, or at least with less virulence.

As an example of this, I know of a mother who had been wounded so that she was unable to sleep at night except by facing the door. Her daughter unwittingly repeated this same mode of always sleeping on her side, facing the door. When the mother engaged in counseling that led her to face sexual abuse by her father, she experienced a measure of freedom that included the ability to sleep without fear at night. She began sleeping facing away from the door. Having made no comments to her daughter about this progress, within days the mother noticed that her daughter’s hair in the morning was strangely messed up. She asked why, and her daughter explained that she had always felt compelled to sleep facing the door, but suddenly she no longer felt required to do so. The uncanny replication of both compulsion and liberty shows that when parents engage in facing their fears and repudiating their inherited or learned attempts to survive apart from God (“the flesh”), then the children will also have the liberty.

We have two analogies of shared experienced in solidarity with others. First, the whole creation from which humanity was made was also subjected to a curse of bondage because of evil. The renewal of humanity through voluntary participation in new life with God will also bring deliverance of the creation from bondage to corruption (see Romans 8:18-23). Second, God the Son took us upon himself, suffering with us, so that we may, in solidarity with him, share in his righteousness and new capacities for life. His death is our death, his liberty is our liberty, worked out in us day by day. He is the new root of our existence (being the second Adam) to give us a new heritage if we will choose it. Our choice only has substantial effect if we actually allow the old way of life to be crucified in us, and we actively receive the new life as complete replacement for our attempts to live apart from God. I think more could be said theologically, but this is sufficient for me to see that something uncanny is going on and must be engaged.

I take seriously Jesus’ warning that we are to oppose the familial things that hinder us from living as children to God the Father. He tells us to hate our father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children, and whatever else might hinder us from following him in the new life he provides for us (Luke 14:26). This is absolute, and I think every family is absolutely polluted, but not entirely so.

I take this endeavor to be the meaning of “denying ourselves daily” (Luke 9:23) and “pursuing the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). I take these matters with the highest seriousness. It is not too late to abandon dysfunctions and recourse to new life as God provides for us, alive in the Spirit. We must face our fears if we are to be free from them. We must die if we are to live. 

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