White bark peeling but holding on, the birches spike high into the sky, into the blue, craving sunlight. The pines do too, brown bark firm, graciously extending multiple arms fringed with green lace to hug their neighbors. The birches’ golding leaves whisper gratitude as wind incites community dance. Breath of heaven, may we respond this same way, growing together, drinking in light, mutuality our song as we embrace unity and grow together, our palette of colors stunning the world.
Let’s take a moment to go up north again into the forest in the Upper Peninsula. The community of trees fascinated me; I took photos every time I walked around the lake. But most of all I drank in the daily beauty of the evergreens and birches right in front of the window where I sat each morning.
There was a surprisingly obvious face silhouetted on the left side of the birch closest to me. Yes, it was sculpted by the peeling birch bark. He was so contemplative, and I guessed he might be watching all that was going on in neighboring trees and enabling me to see some new truths in the way that they were growing together.
The trees each obviously had one ultimate purpose: shooting straight up to get the sunlight essential for their health. They were close together, with a few lower branches reaching out to touch a neighbor, whether it was another birch or a pine. But most of their leaves, especially for the birches, were higher up. When the wind blew and the rain fell from the sky they all danced, especially the birches, whose leaves were also turning golden and falling one by one. Their neighbors, however, stayed dark green, while dropping some needles and cones. Very different species, but living in harmony. They touched each other, branches waving, heads bowing.
All the turmoil going on in our world these days, even in our church communities, is often like that strong wind and rain as it pummels the pines and birches. They sway, their branches sometimes hitting each other, but they stay together. When one gets toppled it often lands in the arms of its neighbor, who holds it up as long as it can.
The birches and evergreens really differ from each other, and other trees add to the diversity, such as oaks and beeches. People are also very different from each other in our communities of believers. Maybe the difference is ethnic or racial, maybe it’s political opinion or musical preference. Whatever it is, we are called to stand together, held together by the bond of mutual affection:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Pet. 1:5 NIV)
And what is that reason? To share in the divine nature (v. 4), which means to be like our Lord! A series of virtues is listed, each one important. But when I think of community living, it is the last two that intrigue me. What is the difference between “mutual affection” and “love”? Mutual affection is what many translate as “brotherly love,” which is caring for one another in the Family of faith. “Love,” here, is agape. A great way to understand agape is (according to the Danker Greek New Testament lexicon) “a relatively high level of interest in the well-being of another.” That can reach beyond the boundaries of mutual affection in the Family. Say someone is in a difficult or bad situation, in or outside the group; “agape” love reaches out to offer help. It is like the love of God expressed in John 3:16, his love for the world. While we were still sinners, Jesus died for us!
Growing in this kind of love cannot be done if we ignore each other, or just lash out instead of listening to each other.
So even though we may be very different people, we are to live out this truth that we need to grow together, demonstrating unity. We all need to seek the Light (like those very tall trees reaching past all other growth to absorb the light that gives life). How do we do that? By growing in our knowledge of the One who is the Light of the world, through his Word, and by living in his Presence and following his instructions. And the two commands that englobe all the others are, as we keep reminding ourselves, to love God with our entire being, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If we can grow ever upwards in the Light, and ever more in harmony with our diverse neighbors, we will be a forest full of beauty even as the seasons change or storms sweep through. Like the tree that provides a resting place for the branch or trunk that is blown over, we can find ways to provide support for the weaker person and forgiveness when we take a hit:
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:13 NIV)
White peeling birches, mysterious dark pines, sturdy oaks or other varieties – whoever we are, let’s each do our part to grow together into a beautiful community!