I cut down an oak tree the other day. This was quite literally "a tree planted by waters," as both Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 phrase it. I haven't counted the rings in detail on the exposed stump, but my best educated guess is that this tree was between 150-200 years old, and probably toward the higher end of that range. In the mid-1800's, the land around here was open prairie, and tree growth was mostly prevented by prairie fires that swept through on a fairly regular basis. This oak grew right along the lakeshore, on the leeward side of the lake, so it was probably protected from those fires. There are no burn scars I can see in the tree-rings. This has been a strong, healthy tree for almost two centuries, and it finally died of old age.
To everything there's a season, I guess, and while my delight is in living trees, there's also a stately grace to that massive dead oak that's overshadowed the north end of the beach, and there's a utilitarian satisfaction in chunking the wood up and splitting it to heat my cabin or to provide a bonfire looking out over the tranquil lake.
It always amazes me to think of what a tree like that has seen in its time, of course. Let's say it's 180 years old. That means it sprouted from an acorn in roughly 1838. Fort Snelling was a trading post a week's journey to the southeast. The military garrison at the fort was tasked with keeping peace between the Ojibwe people to the north and east, and the Dakota to the south and west. Protestant missionaries like T. S. Williamson and Stephen Riggs had just begun work among the Dakota near the fort. Two other missionaries, the Pond brothers, Samuel and Gideon, had accompanied a group of Dakota warriors on a hunt not far from here the year before, ranging far out into the wilderness searching for deer and bison, and they would later write an amazing account of what the Dakota life and culture was like in that time before white settlement. Oxcarts from Pembina, on the Canadian border, had been trekking past here for a few years en route to Fort Snelling, carrying furs south and trade goods north. The Dakota probably camped within sight of that oak sapling from time to time, as they still dominated this land for the first couple decades of this oak's life.
It's sobering to think about how much life has changed here. Now there are no prairie fires, and forests have grown up in this landscape. Four-wheel-drive pickups pull ice fishing houses out on the lake for recreation, and I have cleared a skating rink where middle schoolers slip and slide and skate. Towns with gas stations and grocery stores have sprung up like mushrooms on the prairie, and hunting is done for enjoyment, with food a very secondary concern. The Dakota were enclosed on reservations south of here along the Minnesota River in 1851 and 1857, and the State of Minnesota came into existence in 1858. A bloody conflict erupted between the Dakota and the white settlers in the late summer of 1862, with battles and massacres happening within walking distance of this oak tree. In the aftermath, the Dakota were deported to Nebraska and South Dakota and the trickle of white settlement became a flood fueled by famines in Scandinavia. Villages became towns full of taverns and churches. Horses gave way to automobiles, and half those tiny country churches closed their doors between 1910 and 1920. Minnesota boys flooded to Fort Snelling, now an army induction center, to travel the world to fight and die in a couple world wars and a few other conflicts.
It's a little intimidating to step back and ponder the sweep of history. What does it mean, from that perspective, to read these words from Jeremiah?
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water that sends out its roots by the stream and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.
Those words are emblazoned on my Bible cover. I've been confronted lately with just how hard it is for me to trust God. In a general way I think I trust him -- he's good, he's got my best intentions at heart, he is working for better things that I can even imagine. He's forgiven my sins and loves me. That's not hard in general terms. But what happens when the specific hopes I carry around don't seem to be realized? What happens when I have to trust in the specifics? What happens when those general promises run up against the specific details of my life, and I'm not happy with the way things are currently working out? Trust gets a little more challenging.
It's probably accurate to say that trust is only real, it's only really trust, when we have to rely on it in a way that matters.
I'm reminded this morning of something a guy named Hal Borland once said: "If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees." What would it look like for me this morning to sink my roots deep into the water -- to soak in the good things God has provided in my life, to trust that he has not forgotten his promises -- the broad theological promises and the intimate, heart-expanding ones -- to me? What would it look like for me to stand at the water's edge with strength and patience, seeing the sweep of God's activity over time, waiting not in a passive, resentful way but in an active way that anticipates all the good God is doing and seeks to participate even if the desires of my too-small heart are not yet accomplished?
In short, what would it mean this morning to be like a tree planted by water -- to trust?