When I was younger, I remember watching the original Karate Kid movies. Please tell me I’m not the only one but I didn’t realize at the time how those tiny little Bonsai trees worked. I assumed they were a special kind of tree. The reality of a Bonsai, like the one pictured above, is that they are just trees that are kept small by growing them in a shallow pot. Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees stay little because of the limitations placed on the roots. (I still think it was a bad business model, Daniel-san. Trees take a long time to grow; how much do you think he can sell those things for?)
Jesus has something interesting to say about little trees.
“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.” (Matthew 13:5–6, ESV)
When we look at trees, we think about how tall they are and how they grow above the surface. In reality, trees don’t grow up so much as they grow down. It is considered a “golden rule” among people who are really into trees that the root system will grow to the size of the canopy of the tree and sometimes even bigger. Downward growth provides two things. It provides a sturdy anchor in the ground that can support a tree without falling and it offers enough root with enough reach to pull water and nutrients in to feed the tree. The plant without the root withers. It doesn’t last and it doesn’t produce fruit.
Sadly, I think we look at Jesus’ parable and think He is talking about three kinds of lost people and one type of “good soil” people who are the Christians. Truthfully, churches contain all four types of people from the parable. Just because one has trusted in Jesus for forgiveness and life doesn’t mean he or she isn’t dried up, choked out, and occasionally the victim of having their truth stolen. We’re Christians, we just aren’t producing any good fruit.
This tree with no depth for it’s roots is interesting because I think we have actually built a church culture that looks like that. It would be nice to think that all those people “out there in the world” are the subject of this story but maybe we have made our organized Christian practice into a shallow pot for growing little trees. We tend to hand people a list of thing to do and not do as soon as they join the church (we have an unwritten list of things they must stop doing before we even let them feel welcome visiting the church). This list is essentially our expectations for how tall they should grow. Deep spirituality and communion with Almighty God, on the other hand, seems like something we expect from experienced older believers. We expect growth and fruit without making a priority of growing down. We start with the fruit and we will add the roots later. It’s as if we plan to build a tall building and just slide the foundation under it once we’re done building.
Can you feel truth in that?
This is why so many Christians feel withered. This is why so many Christians are stunted. This is why so many young believers leave churches and feel unsatisfied with the lecture/performance worship model. It is simply not sustainable to act like a tree on the surface without having deep roots that grow down into the Spirit of God, anchored in Him and finding their nourishment from Him. When our praxis is based on a laundry list of “do nots” rather than an organic outgrowth of being connected to the source of life and love for others, we wither…. we stop growing, or even shrink… we fall down.
But we can change this.
It starts with seeking God in the deep places and growing down. The upward growth will happen almost on its own. We need to seek deeper roots in our own lives, in small clusters of believers who want more, and little by little in the way we think and talk and value things as entire congregations and as the global Church. I’m not always sure how to wrap up these thoughts but I hope these words have mattered to you as you read them and will impact your life. There is more. It’s down there.