Take a moment and think about a tree. Visualize it. Think about its characteristics.
Now let these familiar words from Scripture speak: “Blessed are those [professors] who do not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night. They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers . . . For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1:1-3 and 6a, RSV).
May I suggest that, since God’s Word uses language as intentionally as God does everything else, we can benefit from thinking through the metaphor by considering a tree’s characteristics: a tree is sturdy, which allows for fun and laughter with swings and tree houses; a tree is a shade-giving, slow-growing, photosynthetic haven for birds and others; a tree is a stabilizer of the soil, chattering with leaves, fruit-producing, long-living.
How might these characteristics apply to teaching and communicating with students? For example, could professors provide sturdy dependability and shade for them, as in the professor who was approached by a student who said that he had heard that “he was someone who would listen”? How might tree attributes make sense in interaction with colleagues? Consider offering shade from the heat of constant competition, or giving protection from rough conditions when a colleague is newly planted in a career or on campus, or perhaps providing a haven while the winds of economic change blow and tenure protection is way over the horizon. How does it apply to research and to campus leadership? Fruit yielding in season may be an apt metaphor as we develop labs, engage in faithful study, and as we take an active role in service at our institutions.
A few other relevant points about trees in Scripture may help us further. Their mention is particularly striking because “of the special status of trees in a world where they are scarce” (_Dictionary of Biblical Imagery_, p. 890). The apocalyptic references to trees in Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22 are wonderfully similar in their pictures of trees which provide monthly abundance of different kind of fruits (kind of a sacred fruit of the month club!) and whose leaves are for healing. Trees as used in Scripture are both objects of God’s provision — “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly” (Psalm 104:16) — and the means of God’s provision to both people and animals: “The birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees” (104:17).
The tree in our metaphor has qualities of the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, an image “of life and immortality, but also of irretrievable loss” (_Dictionary of Biblical Imagery_, p. 889). It represents in one image both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. This tree of life appears in the two gardens that bookend Scripture, Eden and the garden which is contained within the great city of God in John’s revelation. In the middle, perhaps at the center point of space and time, is the tree of death perhaps most poignantly captured as both the humility and humiliation of death on a cursed tree at Golgotha (Deut. 21:23 and Gal. 3:13). Let’s remember that the word, in Latin, is “crux” as in the crux of the matter, the central point, the crossing point of all things. On this tree death, mortality, and irretrievable loss became for us, life, immortality, and unimaginable gain.
Let’s look, then, to the character of God — the character into which we most want to grow. God says of himself, “I am like a flourishing juniper; your fruitfulness comes from me” (Hosea 14:8c). And Isaiah’s prophesy of Jesus says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Isaiah goes on to prophesy, “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples…He grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground…, by his wounds we are healed…, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53:2, 5). The offering on the death tree returns the tree of life with its branches and offspring, with its fruit and healing, with its present and ultimate havens, and with its promise of the will of the Lord prospering in the world and in the university.
We who know him are a part of his family tree. God, Creator of the Universe, King of Heaven, our Holy Father, chose in Jesus to root himself and grow in the poor and damaged soil of humanity. Jesus, who grew well and healthy in the light of God. Jesus, who is the light of the world and calls to believers to drink from him so that “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-39). These rivers of water of the Holy Spirit benefit not just us but our students and our colleagues as well.
The desire to be the kind of righteous professor who is notable in a university world known for its scarcity of righteousness need not seem too high and holy to accomplish. We can instead be humbly grateful for the realization that we are following our design. We can pray for ourselves and for each other as Paul did that we, “being rooted and established in love may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17b-19). Then we are capable of considering ourselves as the tree of the Scriptures — part of His family tree, absorbing and growing in the light of His Word, satisfied by His water of Life, empowered and motivated by the winds of His Spirit. May we be that tree on our campuses, providing a sturdy haven, offering shade, yielding our fruit in season.