Can Dead Wood Live?

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“I am the Vine, you are the branches.”

An image from early this Spring is burned into my mind. It is not the image above, but the themes are similar. I was driving home from a distance and I passed a dogwood tree that was growing in front of a rustic, weather-beaten home. Muted shades of gray wood, freed by the mostly-absent white paint marked the siding of the home. Trim sagged over the header of the front door. The young, supple dogwood had tender green leaves pushing from buds, amidst abundant white flowers. The contrast between the two, symbolized something that has been a growing tension in side of me.

The home was strong, carefully constructed of tediously prepared pieces of wood and metal, fitted neatly together, according to a well-thought out plan. It appeared strong, rigid. It seemed like a comforting place to find refuge from the storms in life. It has weathered decades of use, perhaps centuries. Yet, I was struck with one thought: “It is dead.” From the day that construction has ended, the place has been deteriorating. Much labor has gone into protection from the elements, throughout its existence. How many times did coats of paint need to be renewed or replaced? How many floor coverings were worn through? Despite these efforts, oxidation, heat, and cold have had their effects.

For many years, I have liked to think of my belief structure in similar terms. Perhaps also, in an expanded sense, the faith tradition I participate in. Strong, carefully crafted upon a sure foundation, easily defended from external forces. Sure, from time to time, I would have to research new application principles to engage new manifestations of external forces. But, I would usually find ways to respond that protected the integrity of my theological frameworks. An added security was the ease with which I could tell, who, or what, was within the framework, and who,or what, was outside of it.

Yet, one thing nags in my mind. The analogies Jesus gave of life in God’s kingdom tend to be dynamic things—trees, vines, welling springs, people on discovery, growth. In truth, it seems like the Kingdom is more like the tree, in spite of the fact that many of our religious structures are more like the house.

The tree (or the vine or spring) are alive, growing. It is not as neat or proper. I cannot define it, especially its direction, so easily. Neither can I control it. How does one know where the next bud will push out? In what direction will the newest tendril grow? I would like to identify this growth, or that growth, as a wild shoot. I want to prune it off and send it off to the fires of judgement. Yet, I note that that somehow it is connected to the same branch. The same life-giving flow from the root is evident in them, as it is in me. Yet, how can twigs, connected to the same vine, appear so different? Perhaps they are a deceptive wild growth, deserving to be pruned? Yet, who decides this? Me? The branches consulting together? Only the gardener? As part of a vine, I lose control over these things. I feel more vulnerable. The tree, though, is also strong and resilient in its own way—strength brought about through living connection.

I decide that I deeply wish for my life to display the character of the dynamic living things. Yet there many things about the structure of the house that appeal to me. The craftsmanship, the memories, the connection to history, stability. Is it a choice of one over the other? Can the elements of life be incorporated into a rigid structure? I have not yet become very wise regarding living in the dynamic tension between the two.

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