Made for goodness
Close your eyes and draw to mind a favorite tree. Perhaps it’s a towering cypress by a Hill Country swimming hole or a century oak whose gnarled branches shade your home. Or perhaps it’s a maple that blazed like fire in the fall or a dogwood that bloomed at the edge of the woods every April.
Mine is a sycamore with smooth bark that you could climb barefoot. And branches that were low enough for a 5-year-old standing on a card table underneath it to reach them. Perched on a branch, leaning back against a strong trunk, I could see the whole world. Perhaps Jeremiah was thinking of just such a tree – we might begin to imagine it in our minds eye….a beautiful fruit tree or a wide spreading shade tree.
What is it about these trees that draws us to them? Mary Oliver wrote, “When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily.”
Do you know people who are like these beloved trees? What defines them? Is it a steadiness and strength and grounded-ness? A sense about them that they are exactly who they were created to be? Do they seem to possess a deep well of kindness and compassion that undergirds whatever they do?
What is it that draws us to them? I think it is their goodness. Our soul’s thirst for goodness like a tree longs for water, and we love to be in its presence. But even more, their goodness sparks in us a longing to be like them. Their goodness calls to us because as Desmond Tutu said, “We are made for goodness…. To be hateful and mean is operating against the deepest yearnings that God placed in our hearts. Goodness is not just our impulse. It is our essence.”
Have you ever thought you knew just what was next in your life – church on Sunday, a family trip in August, a 5 year plan to finish grad school and apply for a new job, or just that the kids have school every weekday from September to May – when suddenly you stepped off a rock in your backyard and broke your ankle. Or you heard, I’m really sorry I tried to convince them that I have office supplies that cost more than your salary.
Or you found out the person you’d changed jobs to work with was retiring. Or a pandemic hit and suddenly even the little things you thought you could count on vanished. And maybe you began to feel your leaves start to curl up and your spirit become limp or brittle, when suddenly those good things were no longer there to sustain you.
Growing up in Tennessee, where it rains a lot, you could pretty much take it for granted that the grass would stay green, or your azaleas would bloom without much tending. It’s no desert here in San Antonio but we understand how important the rain is, and we don’t take it for granted. We also know that rain alone is not enough. San Antonio is the city it is because we have an aquifer. The lengths to which we go to protect the Edward’s Aquifer – year-round watering restrictions, limits on construction over the recharge zone, programs to encourage low-water-use landscaping – all demonstrate just how vital it is.
We can find sustenance in anything that is good. But the wisdom of scripture and human experience is that the good things of this world are often transient, and they ultimately fail us if we depend solely on them.
The wisdom of the trees tells us that they can flourish even when the rain vanishes because their roots connect them to abiding sources of water.
The wisdom of the beautiful souls we thought of just a few moments ago tells us that they persevere in goodness because they are rooted in God, who sustains them.
In the 1960s, Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn registered African Americans to vote as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In the PBS series This Far by Faith she shared, “The local people had the wisdom of the ages. They had lived in the system of brutal racial injustice all their lives and for generations past. How had they done that? They had done that because each generation had passed on this thing that I call freedom faith. This sense that I am God’s child and as God’s child that means that I am everything that I’m supposed to be. It may cost my job, it may cost my life, but I want to be free and I want my children to be free so I’m going to go down to the courthouse and I’m going to sign my name. And I’m going to trust God to take me there. And I’m going to trust God to bring me back.”
We need rain, but even more we need streams, groundwater, aquifers. We need to be connected to the source of all beauty, goodness, and love. We need roots that grow toward God. We too need to grow in our trust that God will take us wherever we go in faith and courage and that God will bring us back.
Did you know that roots know to grow toward the water? Roots have encoded into their genes the ability to sense water. Proteins in the root tips, activated by the presence of water, allow the root to branch, following the water gradient through the soil. Some research even suggests that roots listen for water — hearing the vibrations of it moving through the soil or even through plumbing – guiding them to grow in the right direction even when there’s no moisture immediately around them in the soil.
To weather drought, roots need to go deep. Have you ever brought home a plant, dug a hole for it in the yard, carefully watered it a bit each day only to have it turn up its toes and die by early July when summer really started to kick in? If you water just a bit, the moisture only penetrates the first few inches of the soil, and the roots stay right there at the surface too because there’s water readily available. If you stop watering or the rain doesn’t come, the plant will struggle because the roots are not deep enough to tap into the moisture that persists in the soil in times of drought. Watering deeply directs the roots to sink deep into the soil following the water down to where it will remain even as the upper layers of soil dry out.
Our souls, like those roots, are created to quest after what nourishes us – goodness, beauty, love… God – tuned and sensitized to seek after living water.
- We can nourish our souls’ growth by watering deeply – immersing ourselves in places and practices and stories like this one from Jeremiah that are beautiful, spacious, and substantial.
- Like Mary Oliver, we can spend time among the trees connecting with God’s good creation – relearning the ways that we live in interdependence with and dependence upon the earth.
- Through the practice of gratitude, remembering the good gifts we have received, we can cultivate our sensitivity to God’s presence and action.
- We can learn to quiet our inner clamoring voices and listen – listen for the rush of water, the movement of God deep below the surface.
- Like roots pushing down through the dark following traces of moisture back to their source, we can commit to the work of faith… trusting that all that is good comes from God and allow that goodness to lead us back home to our source.
Prathia Hall, Desmond Tutu, the unnamed individual African Americans who defied racial terror, anchored in their belovedness and goodness – these children of God transformed the world. As our roots strengthen and our branches spread and fruit emerges, we too can turn to the suffering, the thirsty, the wounded around us and offer to them the same goodness which first called to us. When we see God’s presence in the goodness of others, we too can draw close to them, stand together with them, join hands with them. When we see goodness at work in the world demonstrating love in the face of oppression, we too can gather our courage and say – It may cost me, but I am God’s child, we are God’s children, and I’m going to trust God to take me there. And I’m going to trust God to bring me back.
By God’s grace may we be able to say: I am- you are — we are – made for goodness, and our roots reach deep into the earth. We are like a tree planted by the water.