April 23 | Wisdom is a Tree of Life, and a Nurse Log

“Wisdom is a tree of life,” and a nurse log
Texts: Proverbs 3:13-18; 1 Peter 2:2-5
Speaker: Joel Miller


“Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver…all her paths are peace.  She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.” (Proverbs 3)

A little over a decade ago I found wisdom in the trees of southern Ohio.  If you’ve been around here a while this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this conversion story.  It might be 10th time.  It was the first and only Sabbatical I had while pastoring in Cincinnati.  It included a weeklong tree ID course at the Arc of Appalachia in Highland County, about a half hour southwest of Chillicothe.  I figured it was about time to learn the names of the most common trees I’d been surrounded with my whole life, only to find out that knowing the name of a tree tells you about as much about a tree as knowing the name of a person tells you about a person. 

Little did I know these trees have stories and personalities.  Origin stories, like the apple tree’s wild beginnings in the mountains of Kazakhstan; tales of migration, like the pawpaw’s generational journey from the tropics of the equator up to the Midwest of the US; retreat, survival, and, spread like pretty much all of our native trees that went south for the long winter of the most recent ice age, reclaiming land as the glaciers retreated north. 

There are trees so ancient all their near relatives have died off, like the gingko.  Trees still hybridizing and differentiating like a campus full of youthful college students, like the oaks.  Sycamores and bald cyprus like to hang out by rivers and swamps, the perpetual water cooler conversationalists.  Honey locusts prefer to hang out on the edges, an early succession tree repopulating disturbed areas.  They are John the Baptist-like, preparing the way for the slower growing later succession trees like the mighty maples and beeches and hickories.  Honey Locust must eventually decrease so the others can increase.  Their long spikes, perhaps their way of saying, “Back off, I’ve got work to do here.” 

This was right around the time the studies were just starting to circulate that showed how trees can link roots underground, mothers feeding children, partnering up with mycorrhizal fungi which channel distant water into the trees in exchange for food the trees photosynthesize above ground with the additional ingredients of air and sunlight.           

We use words for tree behavior that carry the pain of our human stories and raise all kinds of questions we must live with.  Trees, like other plants, colonize suitable land.  The trees we call native to Ohio were once migrants from somewhere else.  Could there be such a thing as cooperative and compassionate colonization?  How might an invasive species such as ourselves come to live in balance with other life forms who occupy this land?  How long does it take to become native to a place, for a guest to become a host, like that American Hornbeam?  How many generations? 

When you go from barely knowing any names, to learning names and stories, to feeling like you’ve encountered long lost elders whose wisdom will take more than a lifetime to internalize – all within a week – it takes a while to let it all sink in.  Ever since that summer I’ve been trying to be more like a tree.  

When the book of Proverbs speaks of Wisdom it stretches for the loftiest of metaphors to claim its value.  Happy, or blessed, are those who find wisdom – an ancient beatitude Jesus perhaps has in mind when he gives his own beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.  Wisdom is the ultimate investment  — The NRSV says “her income is better than silver, her revenue better than gold.”  Wisdom has a stock that outpaces Apple and Amazon combined.  The value of wisdom appreciates more than Clintonville real estate. 

“Nothing you desire can compare with her,” Proverbs says.  Nothing.  Think of everything, anything, you want in this world: cars, clothes, a degree from an elite university, a raspberry glazed donut from Destination Donuts across the street – if you haven’t tried it you really must.  Just tell yourself you’re supporting a local business, which you are. 

Nothing you desire can compare with wisdom.  Proverbs says “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, all her paths are shalom – peace, wholeness, wellbeing.”  Wisdom is – are you ready for this…the ultimate incalculably valuable source of goodness….Wisdom is a tree of life.  That without which there would be no life.  Wisdom is a tree of life to those who hold on to her,  Proverbs 3:18.  Ancient confirmation that God loves tree huggers.   

The book of Sirach, which made the Catholic Bible but got cut out of the Protestant Bible, portrays Wisdom speaking as if it were a tree: “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits…those who eat of me will hunger no more.” (Sirach 24:19,21).  It’s that first phrase Jesus references in Matthew 11:28 when he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  It’s that second phrase Jesus echoes when he says in John 6:35, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” 

Jesus becomes Wisdom and invites us to do the same.  Wisdom not as the accumulation of information, as if it were one more valuable resource to strip mine from the earth, store in containment until it’s ready to be spent down.  Slap a name on something and think you understand it.  But wisdom as the embodiment, the enactment, of that which leads to life and more life.  If you want to be wise, feast on me, Jesus says.  If you want to be wise, Wisdom says, be more like a tree.   

Last summer our family celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  It included a tree pilgrimage, several days among the coast redwoods in Northern California.  These are, no matter how you measure it, remarkable beings to be in the presence of.  Along with the vertical wonder of those tallest trees in the world, one of the many spectacular sights was the horizontal span of a fallen redwood.  For this particular tree there was a trail you could follow alongside most of it, from the upturned roots at the bottom of the massive trunk, along its several hundred feet of length.  It had lived for over a thousand years and had been dead for decades.  It would be there, we later learned, for several more centuries.  In its death it would feed countless beneficial insects and young redwoods.  On a different trail a guide told us that from a forest system perspective, it’s almost as if the purpose of a redwood’s existence is to grow full enough in order to fall, and thus enrich the soil for hundreds of years to come. 

One naturalist refers to these fallen redwoods as “condominiums of life.”  More generally these dead but life giving trees are called nurse logs, and it’s not unique to redwoods.  There are nurse logs in the ravines of this neighborhood and woods throughout the Columbus area.  I’ve yet to see any tree classified as a mammal, but they do nurse their young.  Even after they’ve stopped photosynthesizing their own food, they become food for the next generation. 

The nurse log is also an Easter image, and, like Wisdom in the Bible, a feminine image. 

We experience death both as a natural force to which all biological life must succumb, and an unnatural force that we inflict on others.  We’re so terrified of our own death that we harness the forces of death against anything that threatens us. Empires are especially prone to this and come with their own theology no matter how secular they claim to be.  Empires aspire to eternal life, and so must vanquish anyone and anything that might unveil its mortality. 

The salvation it offers requires a certain kind of faith, combined with works – fall in line, honor its gods, trust and obey for there’s no other way for you to be safe and secure. 

Jesus, as the embodiment of wisdom, as the Human One who teaches us how to be truly human, does not fall in line with the logic of empire.  He defies its violent gods.  For this, he is cut down.  He is sealed away in a tomb, no more a threat that the rocks that hide him. 

But Jesus had mastered photosynthesis, had created substance out of soil, air, and sun – body, spirit, and soul.  Rather than fade away in death, Jesus became a nurse log, a body that, in death, still offers life.  An invitation that still stands: “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits…those who eat of me will hunger no more.”

This isn’t the only way of speaking of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it could be one way.  The lifeforce of Jesus of Nazareth is now widely dispersed around the world in gatherings like these, like congregations of baby trees learning how to become a forest.  Learning how to live peacefully with our neighbors, unafraid of death. 

Maybe this is something like what the writer of 1 Peter imagined when he wrote: “Like newborn infants, long for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Creator is good.  Come to the One, the living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”

I’m not sure what you get when you mix the metaphors of nursing and stones – stones that are alive, but I guess you get something like us.  People who are familiar with the forces of death yet are somehow alive, being nursed into greater life so we might some day grow up and be wise members of this global family God is creating out of soil and sunlight.  

It was a month ago that Steve Thomas spoke to us via Zoom about the wonders of trees for a Lent sermon.  As part of his leadership in the denomination, he has been encouraging churches to hold this Sunday as a time to celebrate the wisdom and goodness of trees.  It’s the Sunday before Arbor Day which is this Thursday, and Earth Day, this Saturday, sometimes known locally as free veggie burgers at Northstar day. 

And so with the assistance of Ruth Massey and Tim McCarthy, we are not only going to talk about trees, but plant a tree right outside the front entrance of the church as part of our worship service.  I’ll have a few brief instructions of how we’ll do this after the sharing of joys and concerns.

This sermon comes to an end but trees keep sharing wisdom all seasons of the year, even in death.  Every tree is a parable, and we’ll see what all stories this one tells over the years. 
Proverbs 3:13,18: “Happy are those who find wisdom.  She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.”  In the name of Christ, our condominium of life, our nurse log, Amen.