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“Tom, it is good to see you again…it has been a while!” “Yah, I know, my class load is way too heavy to include an institute class. Problem is that it will probably stay that way from now on.” I tried in vain to persuade him with quotes from the prophet and “first things first” dialogue, until we parted. A few years later, I saw Tom again and we had a chance to chat. He was very successful in his professional pursuits and even had begun his family.
Our relationship had been close, in those undergraduate years, he had sat in several of my classes, so I wasn’t surprised when he asked if I had time to give him some counsel. How, he wondered, can I be true to my advanced knowledge and not alienate my family. He explained that with the new availability of historical church documents, and his advanced training in logic, that he just couldn’t continue to act as if he believed in the “only true church” concept…in fact he found it offensive.
I assured him that any questions that he had could be adequately answered, if he was really willing to turn his doubts into honest questions…those that require real faithful research to find answers.[i] He was confident that he had already read as much as he desired and wanted to put those pursuits behind him. He didn’t want to take more time away from his children and wife. He reassured me that he wasn’t seeking to be liberated to live a sinful life. He even saw the church as a viable organization doing good in the world that was worthy of his financial support, just not ten percent.
I finally asked him if he would read with me. He consulted his watch and phone and then reluctantly consented. We turned to Jacob 5. He mourned, “That is the longest chapter in all scripture!” I reassured him that we would only read one verse. I asked if he remembered that the allegory was a history of God’s dealings with the house of Israel. He vaguely remembered but showed a detached indifference. So, I asked him what each of the trees represented. His response showed me that he wasn’t interested and was a little embarrassed by memory loss. So, I quit asking questions.
“Tom, I am not trying to test your “advanced training” or even your memory. I am just trying to set a context for the one verse I think will help answer the real question you asked me.” “Ok, he apologized, I just know that this issue is huge here in Utah. It has the potential of either leaving me living in the darkness of pretention to something I just don’t care about any more, or ruining my family relationships, on many levels!” “I agree, Tom, but my training begs me to answer in terms that don’t just address the symptoms but the cause of this frightening cancer. So, please, let us think in those terms for a few moments so any discussions about managing symptoms will have real meaning, not just masking or appearance.”
He was humbled with the thought of cancer, having just buried his mother after several years of family angst over her declining condition. “Spiritual cancer takes time to subtly develop, as does the physical disease, so we miss the symptoms of the early cause. Sometimes, we get so focused on the disease care that we omit the health care. Disease care mostly uses external tools while health care focuses on internal attitudes and life-styles. We are grateful for the disease care tools but how much better off are we, if we never have to use them. Then, even if we must turn to them, they are enhanced with proper health-care life-style processes.”
“You remember that the Master and the servant invested centuries of effort on nurturing their olive trees. Each time they left the trees to thrive, the fruit eventually became wild. With deep despair born of a love for His trees, the Master cries, ‘What could I have done more in my vineyard?’[ii] He knew that the inevitable result of bearing wild fruit, after having submitted to pruning, grafting, and fertilizing was the fire. He loved the trees and had finally brought the servant into that same love. Tom, this whole allegory representing the history of the scattering and gathering of Israel would only have historical value unless we focused on the relationship the Master and finally the servant seemed to have with each tree. At first, the servant was simply consumed with task delegation. But, as things progressed the servant, motivated by this love, eventually stood blocking the Master from exercising the natural justice due the trees for bearing wild fruit. It isn’t coincidence that both Moses[iii] and Enoch[iv] experienced the same crescendoing love for those they served. In fact, it is the servant who responds to the master’s despair with insight born of observant watch-care, and a blossoming love born of long-suffering in labor. He asks,
‘Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard—have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold, I say, is not this the cause that the trees of thy vineyard have become corrupted?’”
“Tom, let’s take this apart a little more. What differences are there between branches and roots?” “Well, that isn’t too hard. The branches get nourishment from the sun through the leaves and they bear fruit while the roots draw nourishment from the ground and establish the tree’s stability against the wind.”
“I like the way you put that, Tom. I notice, too, that the branches are seen while the roots are hidden, practically invisible. For a healthy thriving olive tree, the roots should be the same size as the tree though shaped differently.[v]
Your professional efforts bear fruit. These visible successes are not only financial but also in what they make of you; your mind, appetites and character. These are all visible to neighbors and colleagues at all levels. How many hours and years did you spend in formal training to qualify you for what you do now?”
“Well, of course, if one were counting, it would never end. I have to continue my training to maintain licensure and stay up-to-date to qualify!”
“Yes, it is very impressive, too! The reason I ask this has to do with the proportion between your visible branch growth and hidden spiritual, root growth. How many years of formal training have you invested in things like scripture study? I do not want to put secular study and mastery in opposition to scriptural, they are both vital to the Lord’s purposes and our becoming. And, you become what you consume. But, if the Olive Tree teaches us anything, it shows that without balance, wild fruit will result, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise.
It isn’t the presence of difficult questions that cause alarm, on the contrary. The alarm sounds rather at the absence of a desire to pay the price for answers. And, even then, it isn’t the answers that are most sacred. It is the revelatory process, more than the product that changes who we are becoming! ‘Why’, you ask? When you experience Him, you will not need to ask! Nurturing spiritual health care will obviate the bareness that allows the growth of most spiritual cancers eating away at your discipleship. As the karate master once said, “Balance, Daniel-san, Balance (between your own roots and branches)!
[ii] Jacob 5:47
[iii] Numbers 11:14; 14:11
[iv] Moses 7:28-44
[v] Arborists typically use trunk diameter to determine a root protection zone during development. A common guideline recommends a tree protection zone with a radius of one foot for every one inch of trunk diameter – a 12 to 1 ratio. https://www.deeproot.com/blog/blog-entries/how-wide-do-tree-roots-spread
Wilford Hess provides a botanical explanation for (the need of root-branch balance): “There is a distinction between mineral uptake by roots, particularly the influence of nitrogen compounds, which are necessary for wood growth, and carbon assimilation by photosynthesis, which takes place in the leaves and supplies carbon for the forming of the plant body, including the fruit. In order to get a full crop of olives an equilibrium must be maintained between these two processes.” Wilford M. Hess, Daniel Fairbanks, John W. Welch, and Jonathan K. Driggs, “Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to Jacob 5,” in The Allegory of the Olive Tree, 524. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1728&context=re