In Psalm 1 we have a passage about the fruitfulness of the Christian life. An image which is perhaps something very saleable to the secular world because it follows the same pattern of thinking they do. If you follow Jesus you will be like a well watered fruitful tree by a river .. a very prosperous image .. your leaves will not wither and you will prosper in all you do.
But at our Ash Wednesday service I suggested that there is another important message for the Christian, especially during Lent. It is the message that without times of destruction and decay in our world and our lives we never know renewed life. I suggested that withering is an important part of the life cycle. How then can we reconcile these different messages in the Bible? For there is no doubt that there are both messages. In fact in others Psalm the same writer tells us how it is others that prosper and the person of faith who seems to be overlooked.
I think there is a way to reconcile these truths. And it lies in us asking the deeper question of what it means to be fruitful and what the purpose of fruit is. And it is best told through the story of the woodpecker.
In any given old-growth forest that you might walk through if you look and listen carefully you will find you are surrounded by death and dying. More than likely, you’re tripping over it, you’re marveling at the weird growths on trees, or perhaps most recognisably you’re listening to the hammering of woodpeckers on hollow trees. Without knowing it you are seeing and hearing how death and decay is an important part of the life of a forest. In an undisturbed state, a forest offers standing dead trees, live trees decaying because of various fungal infections or insect attack, and a cornucopia of logs.The truth is, the system depends on the death of trees and indeed on trees dropping and giving up their fruit.
Living trees with decayed heartwood allow woodpeckers to excavate through the apparently sound layer of sapwood and form nest chambers in the soft heartwood.Trees with dead tops provide good resonating towers from which drumming woodpeckers can proclaim their territorial boundaries, or
they provide hunting perches for raptors. A tree with decaying wood close to the ground, caused by wounding or scarring, often is colonized by ants, and woodpeckers forage for this food source. In managed forests with shorter rotations, trees do not get sufficiently old to develop decay. And the woodpecker loses its home. So researchers are investigating ways to add decay back into forests. What a strange concept.
What does that mean for us though? How does that help us understand the link between the image of fruitfulness and the image of death and decay?
I think what this tells us is that there is another way of thinking about the image of fruitfulness. After all what do plants and trees grow fruit for? For their own well being? Not really. For their own benefit .. not so much. In fact fruitfulness in nature is about giving up something for the greater good. All trees and plants yield the fruit they have grown in order that new life and other life might be sustained. To be fruitful is to be altruistic .. that is to be working for the greater good.
So the image of a fruitful tree by the streams of water must be allowed to continue to ask what of this tree .. what will it then do? It will yield its fruit ..will give it up for the people or the birds or animals that pass it by. It will give up the abundant life it displays for other. Can you see the importance of this wider message. Do not come like the world does to Jesus and ask how will you make me prosper and be fruitful. Come and ask that you are blessed with fruit in order that you might lay it down for others. Do you seek to hold onto your fruit or will you allow it to fall from your boughs in order that others might benefit from it? As the winds of life blow us around it is often that we might allow the fruit to fall and to bless others with what we have received. Jesus says what will it profit you to gain the whole world and yet not to give your life up for others?
This Lent perhaps we are being asked by God as HIs people to, like the ecologists, look for ways to add decay back into our world! A strange suggestion. But as we deal with old age, pain, sickness, sacrifice, loss … all of which we will experience .. what a wonderful message that in our yielding and allowing ourselves to be shaken a little the world is receiving our fruitful lives back in the form of love and hope and peace. Will we yield our fruit willingly to those around us that we might continue to be part of this great spiritual ecosystem which sustains all of us?
As a final message of course … Revelation 22. There will be a time where death is no more and where the fruit of the trees will produce a crop endlessly .. but it is for those who have learned that all fruit is for the healing of the nations and not for the glory of the tree.