Walking in circles

When my husband worked in New York, we used to walk to a nearby grocery and in the sidewalk outside their door was a circle of bird footprints. Forever fixed there in the cement. A permanent record of this one bird’s confused journey to nowhere.

Or perhaps it wasn’t confused at all. How would I know? I am not a bird. It is possible this bird knew exactly why it was going in a circle.

Circles take us back to places we’ve been before, and I am a fan of revisiting places and people. There is a lot of pressure in life to go ever forward, to make “progress.” That may work for some, but I find circling back to the familiar comforting and challenging, familiar and revealing all at once.

As I leave one calendar year and enter another, I hope to keep circling past people and places I’ve seen before, even as I discover new things. Sometimes when you circle past pain you find healing, when you revisit resentment you can find forgiveness, when you return to the times you were inadequate you find that you are, in fact, enough.

When I first saw it I laughed. Not so much at the bird, but more because that circle made me think of what my journey must look like from such a vantage point, from above looking down. Am I going in a straight line? A circle? Am I going anywhere?

When you live your life in circles, you can keep people with you that you’ve met the last times around. People who are lovely and frustrating and mean and generous and who can teach you things about life that no one can learn on their own. Most of what I’ve learned about myself and about life I’ve learned from the people in my circles.

Round and round we go.

Happy New Year. May your life take you where you need to go and I hope you circle around to me as you go about your way.

Unexpected Wisdom

I love (most) graffiti. As public art it isn’t always invited, and sometimes it is offensive. But for that reason, it is also provocative and many times insightful. On a recent trip to New York I saw graffiti that was beautiful…

…and some had good advice…

And then, as (almost) always, there was one that helped me think about myself in a different way, and (especially) see the next person I encountered on the street in a different way.

Proceed to the Route

I am sure I am not the only person who thinks Siri, the mistress of our iPhones, is passive aggressive. Especially when giving directions. It’s that flat, unaffected tone that reminds you to make the turn she told you to make 30 seconds ago. Or 3 seconds ago. She’s not worked up about it, but she knows you are always on the verge of doing the wrong thing.

Like the thing she does when you’ve asked her for directions and, on your way, stop for gas or decide in your own human mind to make a different turn…”Proceed to the route.”

She keeps saying it until you get back on track (her track) or shut her down.

Proceed to the route.
Proceed to the route.
Proceed to the route.

When you eventually follow her instructions, she doesn’t reward you with even a monotone, “Well done.”

Once, on a road trip, my husband and I switched to a British male voice for our directions. He sounded nicer and I call him Jasper. Maybe he sounded nicer because his voice was unfamiliar and I hadn’t yet attributed the judginess to him when he questioned our driving decisions.

But he still said, “Proceed to the route.”

So now I’m thinking I could adopt this phrase. It is perfect for so many occasions.
Proceed to the route, child who is watching videos instead of doing laundry.
Proceed to the route, you who are spending too much time in the condiment aisle instead of stocking up on the toilet paper we need.
Proceed to the route, Spam Likely, whoever you are.
Proceed to the route, annoying ad that interrupted my YouTube video.

I’m hoping I can deliver this phrase in the same tone of voice as Siri. No emotion, but also no giving in. The route. Proceed to it.

Are you preparing to meet Jesus?

Recently, my husband and I took a long road trip. More than 2,000 miles in a circuit that covered 9 states in 8 days. The main purpose was to visit my mother in North Carolina, and we added some time with other family and friends as we could. It was more fun than I anticipated – originally the idea of spending that much time in a car seemed practical, but not attractive. Once on the highway, however, the ever-changing scenery and audio entertainment made it truly enjoyable. (It turns out you can get into the World Cup even if it is streaming on your phone with only audio.) Plus the company was great and we didn’t have to fit everything into carryon luggage.

Less than 100 miles in, we passed a billboard that caught my attention. Against a black background were two neon green pulses of an EKG…then a flatline. Above and below the cardiac activity line are the words, “Are you preparing to meet Jesus?”

Well, was I? Was anyone on this highway?

We stopped for coffee and tea, then lunch, then spent the first night 10 hours away from home. The next day we stopped in my old college town, saw a friend of more than 40 years, relived some memories, and traveled on. At my mother’s house we entered the world of middle dementia – enough memory to enjoy each other, not enough to keep track of papers and time. We talked with her generation of elders and broke bread with the two generations after that at Thanksgiving dinner. 

I saw old friends from high school and college years. Each is struggling and succeeding in their own ways; none of us living the lives we imagined when we were 18. Or 20. Or even 35. For good and/or ill we’ve ended up where we are, and still connected.  

While on our trip, the news was filled with stories about mass shootings. Families lost loved ones, teams lost players, friends lost connection. Even as the sorrow and anger rise when these incidents happen, there is also a feeling of helplessness. Could this happen to me? Or worse, to my children? It was one more collective trauma in a serious of collective traumas. 

“Are you preparing to meet Jesus?”

I have a feeling that sign was pointing towards a future time when I – and all the other highway readers – die and face the consequences of our earthly life. Are we ready to confront our shortcomings? Or failings? Have we lived good lives worthy of inspection by Jesus?

By the time I was 100 miles past the sign, however, I was taking it another way? Was I prepared to meet Jesus? I did meet Jesus on that trip. I met Jesus in the people who served us coffee and tea, the hotel staff who prepared our rooms, and the other drivers on the road. I met Jesus in old friendships and extended family. In my frailer-than-last-year mother and all the people who take care of her when I am not there. All those people terrorized at Club Q and Walmart and the University of Virginia…Jesus was there with them, and you could meet Jesus in any of their eyes. 

Jesus, after all, was the one who told us that when we feed or clothe or comfort the “least of these,” we have done it for him. And so, it is possible that we can meet Jesus in anyone we encounter who is suffering in some way. Right? 

It turns out that meeting Jesus is not so much about consequences as it is about companionship. In my faith tradition, after all, it is Jesus who comes to meet us, not the other way around. And so, thanks to that sign, I looked for an met Jesus all along the road trip and all the way back home. 

Liberty

When you ask people what “liberty” means, you are likely to get a range of answers. I found that out last week when I actually did ask some of my friends.

  • One sees it from a social and political perspective – it’s the freedoms of the press, assembly, the ability to criticize the government without fear of prosecution.  
  • Another says it is the ability to travel.
  • A professor I know talks about liberty as the ability to make choices free of external constraints and also about the way our societies arrange themselves to allow this freedom without constraints – so liberty is both personal and social. 
  • A few folks insist that liberty, true liberty, is being able to do whatever they want, whenever they want. No limits. 
  • Only two friends had the correct answer: Liberty is an insurance company with an emu mascot. 

What all these understandings share is a sense that liberty is freedom from limitations. Limitations of place, tradition, culture. The origins of this understanding of liberty come from the Enlightenment – that period in the late 17th and early 18th century during which great thinkers, scientists, writers, and political figures promoted an ideal of individual human dignity and equality. And this ideal of liberty is foundational to the American experiment – it is at the heart of our social agreements in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

While individual liberty has become a bedrock of our common life, the definition has changed over time. Once, liberty included the value of each person as well as the connections we have to one another. Our individual liberty was inextricably tied to our social liberty – our freedom as a community to be safe, secure, and to pursue common goals.

Yet now, for many, liberty has come to mean the right of each to be separate from and not beholden to anyone or anything. For many, true liberation is being untethered from obligations or restraints of any kind. This is not a universally held belief, but it has become more and more apparent in our common life that some think we have no true common life.

We see evidence of this strong individualism all around us, most recently in debates about masking and vaccine requirements, but also in conversations about public speech, dress codes, gun regulations, smoking and vaping in public spaces, noise restrictions, and even occasionally motorcycle helmet requirements.

However, one thing people on various sides of this conversation have in common when they talk about liberty is the sense that liberty is – in the best sense of the word – a political value. In this context “political” has to do with the way groups of people make decisions and share power and resources. It is how we live together. In most areas of our lives, the idea of liberty is very much about how we agree (or disagree) to live together.

With all this pubic attention on the idea of “liberty” and what it means, I was caught up short to see the word appear in a reading from the Letter of James for last Sunday’s lectionary. Oh sure, I remembered the familiar parts of this letter about being slow to anger and being doers of the word. But I had not paid much attention to what he describes as the “law of liberty.”

those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.”

From our modern perspective, how odd it is to see those two words together, law and liberty. Some might think these terms are opposites. Or at the very least wonder what they could mean in the context of faith. What in the world could “liberty” have to do with what James is taking about here?

What does liberty have to do with God and with Jesus? What does it have to do with being a Christian?

It helps to know that James is writing to people who, like us, are facing hard times and he is encouraging them. He reminds them that God has planted a seed of goodness in them, and that seed can grow. He tells them to be good listeners, not to spout off in anger too quickly. He tells them to be doers of the word and not merely hearers.

And he tells them that the “law of liberty,” pure religion, is caring for the most vulnerable people in the community.

For James, “liberty” comes to us through God’s law and is related to our behavior in relation to other people. Liberty is listening well, speaking with good intentions, caring for widows and orphans. Liberty seems to include a set of obligations rather than freedom from them.

Now the wise people who lived in 1st century didn’t share our notions of individual freedoms. They, of course, lived long before the Enlightenment and the modern era. And in their time almost all people were very poor and had little or no political or social power. They all understood in a visceral way that they depended on one another. So the idea of individual freedom the way you and I think of it – well, it would have seemed utterly selfish and crazy, perhaps even fatal. No one could live like that! Not even an emperor.

And they had another insight as well. They understood that each person had a choice in their loyalties. Each person has the ability, the opportunity, to chose the realm of power in which they operated in the world. So, for instance James writes – 

“rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

In other words, we can live in the realm of sordidness and wickedness, or in the realm of the implanted word. But not both. We can live in the realm of sin or of life. But not both.

 That doesn’t mean the faithful won’t sin and the sinners won’t hear the word of God. What it means is that you will chose which of those realms claims your heart and soul. You can only orient your life in one direction or the other.

That is why, for James, how we behave is so important. It isn’t because what we do will earn us heaven or hell. No. It is because our behavior is evidence that we have let God’s word change us – or not. It is a sign that we have heard the word and have allowed it to grow in our lives to such an extent that it affects how we operate in the world.

What James is teaching us is that for Christians liberty is not freedom FROM cares, but freedom TO care. Not freedom FROM entanglements, but freedom FOR relationships. Not freedom FROM our neighbor, but freedom to love our neighbor.

For us, the law of liberty is the freedom to let God work through us. Liberty in this context might be political in the sense that it contributes to how we live together. But more importantly, liberty for us is theological. The way we live together is evidence of our loyalty to God. By orienting ourselves to God, we are liberated to participate in God’s love.

This is why, for James, the “law of liberty” is encouraging to people going through hard times. Because even as subjects of the Roman emperor his audience could be free to love God. Even in dire poverty, they could live for each other and not only for themselves. Because when you live in Christ, it is impossible to have an isolated, separate life. In Christ you are automatically connected not only to Christ but to all that Christ embraces.

For us today, this understanding of liberty poses challenges. First we have to acknowledge the tension between what our culture and our faith demand of us. Political and economic liberty has very different expectations of us than the liberty of love and justice. James reminds us – warns us – to be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Because hearing the word without changing your behavior is self-indulgent. True faith lives in the community, not just inside your head or, worse, as a reflection in a mirror.

Second, we are challenged to embrace the “law of liberty” and allow it it form us, to transform us. God has planted the word in us. And this word grows! God working through us creates something new. It grows over time. Our personal relationship with God must be expressed and experienced through our belonging to God’s people. Being a good listener and being slow to anger are not just ways of showing respect to other people – they are ways of allowing yourself to be transformed into the kind of person who truly values and loves the other.

Caring for the poor is more than providing basic needs for people who are vulnerable, it is a way seeing yourself as their neighbor and recognizing what God loves about them.

As you go about your daily life, there will still be arguments about social and political liberty, what freedom means in relationship to the laws of the land and the people you have to live with. Yet you can choose the law of liberty. And if you choose to accept that law, your liberty will be experienced by doing things!

You can be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. 
You can care for the most vulnerable. 
You can be doers who act and you will be blessed in your doing.

James 1:17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. 
You must understand this my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 
But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. 
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

A miracle growing under your feet

May be an image of flower and nature

I am not a gardener. My mother is a gardener with a green thumb, but I do not have that gift. In fact, even plants that are allegedly hard to kill like succulents and cacti are not safe in my care

Nevertheless, there are some success stories of thriving plant life in my yard. For instance, I have a couple of beautiful, flourishing lantanas. Every winter, after their flowers and leaves have fallen off and their branches are dry, dead twigs, I cut them all the way to the ground. It’s the only direct interaction I have then them all year.

And every year, they come back. All the way back – branches, leaves, flowers – to the full height or higher than the year before. 

In my case, this can be considered a miracle. Because as I mentioned, plants tend to die in my care, or my neglect, or both. Yet these plants are thriving. There are people who are better at this than I am, and people who know the science behind how and why plants thrive or die in any given circumstance. They know what mysteries happen in the dark soil out of sight. 

Yet it strikes me that no matter how much any of us know or how skilled at gardening we are, there is still a mystery to the life cycles of flowers and trees, grass or moss, vines and ferns. Part of the mystery is that the key action happens out of our control – seeds sprout buried in the soil, the sun shines or doesn’t, rain falls or doesn’t. It is probably best this way, a reminder that there is a lot in life that is out of our control. 

Is it any wonder, then, why gardens and trees are so often used as images to help us understand God and our relationship with God? There’s a large part of it that is mysterious. That is not up to us. 

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how,” Jesus teaches in Mark. 

Sometimes we imagine the kingdom of God being far off in time and place. In the sky and in the future. But here, we are offered a kingdom that is earthy and growing under our feet right now. It has been planted, it is germinating while we sleep and rise night and day. 

Like the lantanas in my yard, we don’t need to know how this happens, only that it does. Even when we think all hope and life is lost, a miracle is sprouting. 

Ash Wednesday

Every year of my life, Lent has marked a time of giving up extras, being a bit more austere, and considering my mortality. This year is different. Most of us have been doing without extras for almost 12 months – including things we didn’t think were extras, like human touch. 

So what does it mean to enter Lent at a time of pandemic and winter storm? What does it mean to give something up when we’ve already given up so much, even heat and water? What does it mean to start considering our mortality when that thought has been simmering under all our daily tasks and interactions for so long?

It might be right this year to think of Lent from a different perspective. I am sure we all have plenty to be penitent about and we will – today and throughout the season – pray for the forgiveness of our sins. Yet, Lent is above all else a season of preparation. Preparation for Easter. We are entering a time of getting our hearts and minds and relationships ready to hear and accept the good news of Christ’s resurrection. There is always good news on the other side of sin and suffering. 

I invite you to observe Lent in any way that gets you to Easter! The ashes we typically use on this day to remind us of mortality are not a requirement of our faith. They are a tool. This Ash Wednesday, we have other elements right in front of us that point to that mortality and also toward the coming celebration of life and resurrection. 

Many of us are now looking at a landscape coated in snow and ice, which will melt and be replaced in time by new life. That is a great Lenten image of renewal and growth.

All of us have been isolated from one another for months, yet we hope for regathering to start again soon. That is a hopeful Lenten image of reconciliation and community. 

During this Lent, even with a pandemic and a winter storm, we will still be preparing for Easter and all it means to us as Christians. Like the first Christians, we can prepare for baptism or the renewal of our vows. Like Christians in every age, we can use this time to ready ourselves for reconciling and reconnecting with those who have been made distant from us, whether by choice or circumstance. 

In the darkest of times – and our Christian sisters and brothers around the world and across time have had many dark times – Christ is still a light for us. 

My hope for all of us is that this Lent, like all those that came before it, will be a time when each of us individually and all of us together can grow in faith, 
renew ourselves through penitence and study, 
reflect on God’s goodness, 
show generosity toward our sisters and brothers who are suffering…
…and through this prepare to greet once again a glorious Easter. 

Reluctant Prophet

Jonah might be a prophet for our time. A reluctant believer called to a task he resents, his story includes some of the tensions we – or at least I – see in the culture all around me, and sometimes in my own heart.

In brief the story of Jonah goes like this:
God tells Jonah to go preach to Nineveh, a great city that is the center of power in the
Assyrian Empire. God tells Jonah to cry out against their wickedness. But Jonah says “no.”
He flees and tries to escape God by sailing away. But you can’t escape God, who sends a
storm that threatens to overwhelm the ship Jonah is on. Everyone on board prays to their
own gods for safety and they come to believe, correctly, that someone on the ship has
incurred this storm by angering heaven. Jonah admits it’s him and tells them. “Toss me
overboard.” As soon as he hits the water the sea is calm. Experiencing all this, the Gentile
sailors on the ship turn to Jonah’s God. 

But Jonah is still having problems with his God, who sends a huge fish to swallow him.
Some people need to hit bottom before they turn away from their errors – and being in the
belly of a fish is certainly pretty low. While he is there, he has a change of heart and sings a
song of thanksgiving to God. On the third day, the fish vomits him up on the beach. 

God tells Jonah again. “Preach to Nineveh” and this time, Jonah goes. His message is short
and simple, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He doesn’t even mention
God’s name. And yet the whole city is moved to repent – they even make their animals don
sack cloth and repent! Their hearts are changed and, watching them, God’s heart is
changed. God does not destroy the city. 

Jonah is not happy. It is not until this point that we find out why Jonah didn’t want to go to
the people of Nineveh: he didn’t want them to change. He didn’t want this city and these
people – these outsiders – to hear God’s call and repent. He tells God, “I know you are
merciful (indeed he’s experienced it first hand) and ready to relent from punishing!” Jonah
wanted the city to be destroyed – because it was foreign, because its people had been
sinful and cruel. The people of Nineveh worshiped other gods and were enemies of Jonah’s
people. He thought they didn’t deserve a chance. 

And yet, deep down he knew that the outcome he wanted was not in line with the God who
called and chased him. 

Reading this story, I have to wonder, what kind of prophet this is? He refuses to listen to God, tries to run away, and is resentful when things go God’s way. There are a lot of reluctant messengers in the Bible – Moses and Jeremiah to name two – but Jonah takes it to a whole new level. At the end of the story, he says he’d rather die than live with the consequences of God’s mercy on the people of Nineveh. Who thinks this way? And why would God call someone like that?

There’s a lot we can learn from this story, and some of the key lessons are about who God is. 

This story illustrates God’s mercy to those who have sinned greatly – including both Nineveh and Jonah. We see God’s persistence in calling Jonah and following him despite Jonah’s many attempts to run away or hide. God is revealed in this story to be responsive to humanity – in this story God changes God’s mind! We see the universality of God’s salvation extending beyond Jonah and his people to their enemies.  

The story also illustrates human nature. Our habit of assuming that our understanding of God is accurate and complete. Our tendency to put people into categories of US and THEM – with God always on the side of US. Our certainty that God’s judgments and preferences align exactly with our own.  

This story is a caution because Jonah is an exemplary believer… up until God actually calls on him. Jonah is committed to serving God right up to the moment he must extend his faith outside of his feelings and beliefs and into action. The idea that he might have to live out his faith was a deal breaker for Jonah. 

Why would God choose a prophet like this? Certainly, the city of Nineveh needed an intervention; they are described by their own king as evil and violent. And Jonah’s prophecy, once he actually starts talking, is amazingly effective. The city – all of it – repents immediately and they do it with no promises of forgiveness. If reluctant Jonah can get a result like that, just imagine how it would have gone with a more cooperative prophet! 

It is possible that confronting Nineveh was not the only purpose in this prophetic mission. After all, if telling the people of Nineveh how wicked they were and warning them of impending destruction was the only goal, then God surely could have picked a more expedient path than via ship and fish’s belly. But that is not what God did. 

God called Jonah. 
God called Jonah to preach to people he loathed, to people who offended him and his religion. 
God called Jonah to a mission that was worse than being tossed in the sea and living in a fish’s belly for three days. 
God called Jonah to a task that he carried out half-heartedly with no passion or joy. 

And I wonder if God might be calling you and me in the same way. Most of the time we experience a sense of God calling us through the things we are good at, the things we have a passion for. 
Music, writing, hospitality…public speaking, prayer, teaching…healing, organizing, even managing money. 

Yet it might also be true that God is calling you in a way you don’t expect, 
to use gifts you don’t have, 
to touch people you do not like. 
And even through this strange interaction to save you, as well. 

As we learn from this story, God is persistent. God is responsive and in relationship with us. God loves limitlessly and universally. 

One true thing about God’s mission is: you can join it, but you cannot define it. God’s mission will always go beyond your hopes and expectations. It might even be the case that, like Jonah, you will be called not according to your greatest gifts, but according to your greatest need. Because in the end, the one person in the story who was resisting the voice of God was the only one who believed in God and whom God called directly. It was Jonah—who in his settled, comfortable faith thought he had God all figured out—whom God called. 

It has become almost too common in recent years – and especially recent weeks—to talk about how divided our nation is, and our local communities as well. The divisions are not just political, they are along all sorts of fault lines – including faith. There are calls for both accountability and reunion. Twin longings for vindication and harmony. In this atmosphere, we are tempted to view others as Jonah saw the Ninevites – as enemies undeserving of mercy. As believers who are committed to prayer and a relationship with God, we think we know how God should deal with them. 

And yet, when God calls you, as we are all called in our baptism and as Jesus called his disciples on the shores of Galilee, when God calls you to address divisions and violence and cruelty it might be you God is aiming to save. 

It might be you that God chases when you try to escape. 
It might be you that would rather be tossed into the sea than meet with “those people.”
It might be you that resents the inclusion of people you still can’t see as deserving. 
It might be you whose idea of God is too small. 
I know it might be me. 

In the end, we don’t know what happened to Jonah. God admonished him, reminded him that it isn’t for any of us to resent God’s mercy. And the story ends there as an open question for us. 

If you were Jonah, what would you do?

Here’s some encouragement: No matter how you respond to the call, God’s mission will be accomplished! After all, even Jonah at his least cooperative moments caused the sailors to discover God and brought the Ninevites to repentance. There is not much you can do to stop God’s mission. 

So why respond at all? Maybe because God’s mission involves you in ways you don’t expect. It might be that when God calls you to address the brokenness in the world God is also calling you to mend the brokenness in yourself. That work is as uncomfortable as being in a fish’s belly, and humbling as being vomited up on the beach, and enraging as watching your adversaries forgiven. 

Yet it is necessary. Answering that call will help heal the world and help heal you. 

Roots

In a way, we’ve all been part of a personal and national discussion about roots over the past few months.* “Where are you from, in what soil are you planted?” In many cases, the discussion has taken a harsh turn, asking “are you native born or an invasive species?” As if people can be like weeds** that choke out fragile flowers or juniper trees*** that drink everyone else’s water. Sometimes I hear people brag about how deep their roots go or how far they spread across the landscape and I wonder at the comparison – do those human roots serve the same purpose as the roots of a tree?

Here in Central Texas, I get to see some truly inspiring roots. Beside a creek in Wimberley, the roots of cypress trees dip right into pools of water, wander along the bank, and cross the stream. They live an extravagant life, well nourished and rarely wanting, creating a tall canopy above. Closer to home in higher, drier soil, scrubby trees send roots through harsh, rocky terrain seeking their source of water far beneath the surface. 

More broadly, I’ve seen a particular species of tree grow differently depending on location. Live oaks in Houston are tall and broad with shallow roots because water is abundant and close to the surface – I’ve seen them topple in high winds, taking all their roots with them. Those same trees in Austin are shorter and skinny with roots that travel through layers of limestone to find water. Nothing uproots them. 

When we humans compare ourselves to trees, it is often with the idea that our roots give us special qualities, physical and intellectual traits that are passed on through generations of mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. No matter how far apart our familial branches, we are connected to a root that anchors us in the soil of kinship. 

Roots don’t just anchor trees – or families – however. In a more important way, they are vessels for the water and nutrients that sustain the tree. Leaves. branches, trunk, roots, and all. And so if we take the root metaphor another step we might ask, if our family roots anchor us, how and with what do they feed us? What is the equivalent of water and minerals that flow through our generations to sustain us?

I know for my family, my roots, the water that feeds us has been our religious faith. There have been some toxins in the water – alcoholism, illness, estrangement – and those, too, affect the way our family tree has grown. Other families might be watered by ethics and philosophy, common struggle, or connection to the land. Their soil might be tainted with toxins of abuse, pride, violence, or oppression. 

There are some families whose roots carry water, easily; they are anchored near the source of the water and get a constant flow of nutrients. It sometimes happens in these parts of Texas and in some families that the stream dries up. Lack of rain deprives their roots of the sustenance that used to be so accessible. Or the water is tainted and becomes a poison – in which case the tree’s (or family’s) very structure becomes the vehicle for its demise. 

Other families look like they are struggling on the surface. And yet they survive through months and years of arid existence. Their roots work hard to seek sustenance, even when it is covered by layers of hard experience and a harsh environment. 

Like trees, we can’t really just uproot and be someone, something else. But we are not actually trees, and we can tend to the source of our nourishment, the life-giving substances that travel through our roots to feed us. We can also share our water, our sustenance with others. For humans, the creek never really runs dry, but sometimes it is prevented from flowing freely. 

No matter who the members of your family tree are, no matter how deep or broad your roots stretch, you are sustained by spiritual water that is not of your making or your make up. It’s good to know your roots, and also good to know that the roots of everyone else’s family tree serve the same noble purpose as yours – to nourish them. 

Ok, longer than that, but in a particular way recently.
** As the inimitable Becca Stevens reminds us, God doesn’t make weeds, only people do that. 
*** We call them cedars, but they aren’t. Perhaps another aspect of this root metaphor?