OVERNIGHT, AN EYE-CATCHING CURLY WILLOW TREE in my front yard crashed to the ground. I’m thankful nothing else was damaged. My family had marveled at its corkscrew branches, but harsh cold, rain, and then wind in the Pacific Northwest finally toppled it. We’ve since learned that Curly Willows have a really shallow root system. Now tipped on its side, we can see the root ball is only a couple feet deep compared to the upright tree’s 30’ height. These roots truly weren’t up to the challenging conditions.

What if you or your faith community were a tree? How are your roots in the Spirit through our challenging times? Through uncertainties, sickness, a culture roiling with untruths and contempt?

A tree rooted solidly by a river is a favorite scriptural image of mine (Jeremiah 17: 7-8). The Biblical tree also faces harsh circumstances. In the Middle East, that means life-sapping drought:

“… blessed are those who put their trust in God, with God for their hope. They are like a tree planted by the river that thrusts out its roots toward the stream. When the heat comes, it feels no heat; its leaves stay green. It is untroubled in a year of drought and never ceases to bear fruit.” (IB)

Sermons on this passage abound, and I won’t try to compete with them or expound on the historic Jewish context. Instead, I’m drawn to reflect alongside what we know about actual tree roots.

What Roots Can Teach Us
First the obvious, tree roots are mostly hidden from our sight. We also know they anchor the height and weight of a tree, some species better than others. We’ve learned they draw up sustenance required for the tree’s functions from the ground around them; they even store nutrients for hard times like winter storms. Trees remain standing better in “stands” or groups of trees that can help buffer strong winds. And recent science has explored how roots connect to soil, bugs, microscopic fungal networks, and even other trees in a constant invisible interchange.

If tree biology illuminates something about relying on God and living in improbable abundance (endless fruitfulness!), what does it mean for me, you, or our faith communities? Here’s some of what I’ve learned from roots:

  • What’s not visible matters: Like roots, inner prayer can keep us invisibly immersed in the Life of the Spirit all the time, not only on Sundays or in times of trouble. Prayer or spiritual practice helps hold things up or anchor the weight of our outward actions.
  • Our hidden connections feed us: Modern Western cultures teach us we’re supposed to stand alone, become self-sufficient, and that our strengths are about us and for us as individuals. The Life of the Spirit, and the roots of trees, reveal that we belong in a sprawling ecology of faithfulness, in relationships with others, to our biological and faith heritage, and through inconspicuous connections to the Source of Life.
  • We’re meant to be “receivers.” Spiritual rootedness means absorbing or taking in something from the Spirit, beyond our own capacities or limited self-interests. Holy resources are always flowing, available to us. Like roots, we can grow in capacity to receive sustenance.

A quirky detail in the text from Jeremiah caught my eye or heart. Did you notice the Hebrew word in v. 8 translated as “thrust”? Other Biblical interpreters use varied English terms like stretch, send, or spread. Regardless of the verb you prefer, I’m appreciating that what roots do is active, purposeful. Jeremiah’s tree roots are not passive in seeking the Living Water. We too—personally and in community—can be active in our receiving of God’s limitless nourishment. It sounds like a contradiction—active receiving. How is that possible?

Receptive Roots in Prayer
There’s an orientation to prayer that nurtures active receiving. In Christianity, it’s called the contemplative path. The liturgical season of Advent, before Christmas, honors this approach. The world waits in hopeful expectancy, for the here-and-not-yet of God-with-us. Contemplative receptivity can happen in silence, movement, or music. Varied contemplative tools increase our willingness and capacity to receive from the Holy One in mind, body, and heart.

My prayer focus for many years has been receptive. In Quaker unprogrammed worship, a group sits in silence until someone is moved by the Spirit to speak, to minister to all. It’s been a graced model for me over decades now. A powerful personal practice has been Centering Prayer. I have a daily, quiet 20 minute “sit” without agenda except to be present and let go into the Spirit. There’s a nifty little app on my tablet with a prep reading and timer-chime (from Thomas Keating’s contemplativeoutreach.org).

In Centering Prayer, I’m gently noticing what’s going through head, heart, and body, and then…releasing it all. I’m allowing for inner spaciousness to receive what the Spirit might offer. It’s a surprisingly active receptivity. I use a key word inwardly to remind me to let go whenever my attention is captured by thought, feeling or sensation. Then I can rest, soak in the Presence beyond all self-referential experience, sometimes a microsecond at a time. There are no fireworks, but I learn and relearn that I don’t need to be so attached to what I think or feel. Then throughout the day, I “hear” the Spirit more often—in affirmation, guidance, compassion for others. Centering Prayer has changed my life and my relationship with God.

Imagine for a moment, the tender, microscopic hairs at the ends of bulkier woody roots. Those fragile tendrils take in most of the water a tree needs. Remembering Jeremiah’s river imagery, a vital reason to stretch our capacity to “receive” is as delicate and important as those tendrils: For people, and for the human soul, love is like water. We experience it through a sense of belonging, acceptance, encouragement, and intimacy. Receiving love is a powerful fuel for growth. When we feel loved enough, we can face pain, losses, and the most challenging storms of our lives. We have strength to stand, not topple like my Curly Willow. That kind of love is Divine. It can come through people around us; it can well up within us from a Greater Source. It is always available as we are able to receive it, and it changes everything.

Receiving the Love of God allows us to live fully, to come home to ourselves and the Divine Spirit. If there’s any way we clog our receiving, we hinder our own greater good as well as the greater good of the Commonwealth of God.

Tend Your Roots in Prayer

There is an experience of the Eternal breaking into time, which transforms all life into a miracle of faith and action. Unspeakable, profound, and full of glory as an inward experience, it is the root of concern for all creation, the true ground of social endeavor.
—Thomas Kelly (Quaker)

Receptivity is the root of faithfulness. So, how are your receptive roots? If you’d like to stretch them, consider joining a Way of the Spirit spiritual direction group, or enjoy a personal retreat with two spiritual direction sessions with Christine Hall. Three-night stays available in a sweet, private cottage on Whidbey Island, WA, $450: February 14-16th and March 7-9th Inquiries to: christine@goodnewsassociates.org