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Ralph and I looked at the sweetgum tree that was now leaning at a 45-degree angle. Its roots, pulling out of the ground, were pushing against a neighboring tree, threatening to topple it, too. And the tree was leaning heavily on a young oak tree. Oak trees are sturdy, of course, but the weight of the leaning tree might eventually damage it, so we decided to take off the pressure from the two nearby trees by sawing the dying tree away from its base.
That’s how we spent a very hot, very humid day.
Sweetgums have shallow root systems and compete fiercely with nearby plants for water and nutrients. Our yard has a lot of them intermingled with palm trees and oak trees and a few other varieties. The sweetgums grew tall during the drought years that affected Florida for two decades. Now that we’ve got our normal rain amounts back, they’re not able to stand up in the moist soil. They’re top-heavy.
There’s a lesson in that, and discovering this made the hard work of sawing worthwhile as I endured the sweat dripping into my eyes and the humidity that was steaming up my sunglasses.
The sweetgum tree is a good metaphor for Christians whose faith is not deeply rooted. For a while, they grow tall in their own estimation. They might even look tall to others when they take on leadership roles within the Church or community. But they compete fiercely with those who disagree with them, or they suck up the life from those around them, draining them of energy, time, enthusiasm, joy, and (sometimes, sadly) faith.
Sooner or later, when rains saturate their lives long enough, they topple, because their faith is not deep enough to keep them securely embedded in the soil of life where God has planted them.
When they do topple, they lean on those who are nearby. This can be good or bad. It’s good if they are ready to face that their understanding of the faith (and life and why they got into difficulty) needs reinforcement. It’s bad if those they lean on are not strong enough to support the burden of the challenges that caused them to topple. One falling sweetgum tree can pull down other, nearby sweetgums and knock off the branches of sturdy trees.
It’s worse if they are not willing to learn new understandings. When we’re the ones they’re leaning on, if we rely on Jesus, he makes us strong. But there comes a time when we have to let them fall, because they are only leaning, not growing and recovering. Hopefully — and we pray for this — they will gain new understandings and humility from their fall. Humility can fertilize their soil, producing new life. In my yard is a different tree that died three years ago, and a new tree is growing from its stump.
May your roots go deep and your strength become strong and your spiritual height become tall. And may you have the wisdom to know when others need your strength and whether or not they’re ready for it.