Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak at a dinner honoring the man who was the Head Football Coach when I was recruited to attend college. It was an honor to speak, more so because of who he is as a man and how I relate to him today. He was the head coach for just my first two years and his focus was mainly on the offensive side of the ball, so our connection at the ‘football level’ was not that strong.
As I was preparing my speech, one of his assistant coaches, who led the FCA Huddle while I was in college, requested that I include the ‘tree analogy’ we used back then. I had no recollection of a tree analogy from over 35 years ago. So, after searching the internet I believed I found what he was talking about. I came to learn after my speech that he meant something totally different, but he thought my analogy was well done.
The ‘Tree analogy’ that I discovered, attributed to Tyler Perry, struck a chord with me, not only for that evening, but also for our journey through life. We will encounter all types of people and this analogy fittingly describes how they might impact us.
Some people come into our life and they are like leaves on a tree. They are only there for a season. They can bring some color into our lives even provide some relief from the sun, but we can’t depend on them or count on them because they are weak connections. Like leaves, they are there to take what they need, drawing sustenance from the tree. However, as soon as it gets cold or a wind blows, they are gone.
Some people come into our life and they are like branches on a tree. They are stronger than leaves, but we must be careful with them. They will stick around through most seasons, but if we go through a storm or two in our life, it’s possible that we could lose them. Most times they break away when it’s tough and the burden is heavy. Although they are stronger connections than leaves, we must test them out before we put all our weight (rely) on them. In most cases they can’t handle too much weight.
Then there are the people who come into our life and they are like roots of a tree. As with roots, they are not always obvious while providing a foundation. They don’t need to be seen to do their job. They keep us grounded, they hold us up, and they nourish us. When we go through storms, they anchor us.
A tree has many branches and many, many leaves, but fewer roots. Root people are very special.
I thank God for the root people in my life. Everyone that was in that room that night, especially the Coaches, were root people for me at a critical time in my maturity as an adult. In nature when two plants are planted close together, their roots can become commingled and improve the quality of the soil such that both plants will thrive more than if they were separated. In a true team atmosphere, integrated efforts enhance the work environment and work culture. Everyone grows, more than they would by themselves.
This root analogy fits nicely with the metaphor of an aspen tree. Above ground, aspens grow as individual trees, but below ground they’re enlivened by one interconnected set of roots. Aspens are one plant, one living organism, and one living community. A single aspen grove in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, called Pando, Latin for “I spread,” spans 106 acres, includes 47,000 individual trees, and is estimated to be about 80,000 years old. There is a nice lesson there – shared roots live longer.
The Aspen tree uniquely connects through its robust root system with every other aspen tree in its vicinity. They share a collective strength and resiliency that overcomes stress and challenges, like disease. The huge root system allows trees that are close to water to absorb and send nourishment to the other connected trees. That is collaboration.
In today’s expanding social media world, contacts through Facebook and LinkedIn can be ‘leaf people.’ They ‘like’ our posts and are always there to share a nice picture, certainly adding color to our lives. However outside of these touches we rarely interact with them and they can disappear without us noticing. These weak connections are “a mile wide and an inch deep” that lack the deep-rooted links found within a face-to-face community. We can get caught up in the status that comes from surrounding ourselves with lots of leaf people.
I have seen ‘men of character,’ standing tall like sturdy oak trees only to be toppled by a storm because their roots were shallow, especially in faith. It is important to make the distinction of being a ‘man of Christian character.’ One must have a strong developed root system in biblical truths to remain upright and tall in today’s world. The Parable of the Sower, found in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15) and first presented by Jesus 2000 years ago, is just as relevant today. Seeds sown that develop no roots will be scorched and withered.
In John 15:5, Jesus tells his apostles, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” Grapevines and vineyards were culturally and economically significant during Biblical times. The difference between a fruitful vine and a vine without fruit could mean the difference between life and death. The prophets in the Old Testament used the image of the vine to describe the chosen people. Israel is God’s vine. “But I had planted you as a choice vine, all pedigreed stock;” (Jeremiah 2:21); “Your mother was like a leafy vine planted by water, fruitful and full of branches because of abundant water.” (Ezekiel 19:10); “My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside; He spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines;” (Isaiah 5:1-2).
A vine is made up of two parts. The top part that is above ground is a graft of the vitis vinifera and the part below ground is the rootstock. The rootstock has multiple functions, it anchors the plant to the soil, and it absorbs water and the minerals necessary for the vines’ development. In the analogy, Christ is the vine and we, his followers, are the branches. The branches are where the fruit is found, but the vine is what provides the support and nutrients to produce the fruit. Jesus also states in John 15:1 that “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” So, Jesus is the vine, his Father is the Vine grower, then I conclude that the Holy Spirit is the rootstock.
We need to have root people in our life, starting with the Holy Spirit. We also must accept the challenge to be a root person in someone else’s life. Being root people, we can share our collective strength and resiliency, we can overcome today’s challenges, and we can build a community such that we all thrive.