On boab trees and the healing of the nations

For not a few, the boab is considered to be Australia’s most grotesque tree. Found only on the flood plains and in rocky areas from the south-western Kimberley to the Northern Territory’s Victoria River, their huge, grey swollen trunks topped by a mass of contorted branches make a fascinating spectacle, especially during the dry season when they lose their leaves and are transformed into ‘the tree that was planted upside-down’.

The boab might serve as something of a parable of the church and even of the life of faith:

  • They are awkward looking.
  • They seem like they belong somewhere else. It’s almost as if they are grounded in another world.
  • They store a deep reservoir of moisture in their trunk that they need to survive in hot and harsh environments. A sign of an unhealthy church is one which seeks to maintain its life by drinking deeply only every so often (whether at the Reformation, or at the Billy Graham crusades of the 50s, etc.) and then trying to sustain its life by drawing upon those every descreasing floodwaters which have long become stagnant and toxic. Conversely, a healthy church is one that is planted by a living stream and which drinks of that stream often.
  • Their moisture serves as a lifeline to those who are lost in the bush.

Trees are used frequently in the Bible especially to describe both the life of faithlessness and of faithfulness, and sometimes of both in the same passage. So Jeremiah 17:

‘Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’. (vv. 5–8)

Here Jeremiah warns us of making human beings the source of our hope and strength, and that those who do so will be ‘like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land’. Rather we are called to be those whose ‘trust is the Lord’, and who are ‘like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’.

Such trust, of course, is grounded in another tree – Calvary’s tree, the tree whose roots are planted on the violent conveyor belt of human history but whose branches reach all the way to the New Jerusalem. It is a tree, according to St John’s vision recorded in the Book of the Revelation, that lives beside ‘the river of the water of life, bright as crystal’, and which flows ‘from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city’. John tells us that ‘on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’ (Rev 22:1–2).

And so this tree of Jeremiah’s vision which is planted by water and which sends out its roots by the stream does not stop establishing itself until all of the nations, all of creation, is healed; this is to be about its core business, and that healing takes place by the very gift of the tree itself.

This post was inspired by a prayer penned by Chandran Devanesen that Jim Gordon posted a few days ago, a slightly-modified version of which reads:

O Tree of Calvary
send thy roots deep down
into our hearts.
Gather together the soil of our hearts,
the sands of our fickleness,
the stones of our stubbornness,
the mud of our desires, bind them together
O Tree of Calvary,
interlace them with thy strong roots,
entwine them with the network
of thy love.

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