Last week I was invited to share at my church’s women’s ministry brunch on their theme for the year: the cultivated life.  It was a sweet time of reflecting together on the tree metaphors in the book of Colossians and how we’re growing through the hard things we face.   I would like to continue the conversation in this space. It’s a bit long, so I am going to break it into two posts, click here for the second part.  Much of the material for this post came from my dear friend Julie passing along a link to Margie Fawcett’s wonderful three-part teaching on Psalm 1.

Paul opens his letter to the Colossians with a picture of a garden. He describes the Gospel as a tree bearing fruit and growing in the whole world (Colossians 1:6-7), and he extends this metaphor from the growth and fruit to rootedness, encouraging his readers, “therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.” (Colossians 2:7)

 

 

When we speaking of being rooted, we often use the metaphor to talk about a primary way we receive water and nourishment and stay stable. In Margie Fawcett’s words, roots need to be “soft and porous” to receive the bounty of nutrients from the soil. It is a beautiful image of how we need to have soft hearts, open hands, and grounded feet to accept the love, grace, and peace that Our Father poured out in the death and resurrection of his Son and continually offers to us through the Holy Spirit.

But the other thing that roots do is reach down to break up rocks. And if you have walked around the sidewalks in the city, you’ll notice that roots can be incredibly strong as they inch slowly down and out. This was an image that JRR Tolkien employed as he wrote about his tree people —the Ents—who marched to destroy the evil stone tower Isengard, in The Two Towers. And Paul, writing from prison, who ends his letter with a reminder for us to “Remember [his] Chains” was no stranger to suffering, and said he did not cease praying for us to “be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience.” (Colossians 1:13)

 

 

When your little roots slam up against big rocks it can feel overwhelming. It is hard to remember that with time, patience, and perseverance the tree can break down large rocks.   But when we make a practice of remembering how faithful God has been in the past, we can recall how we have already overcome and broken through small parts of stone mountains. When I remember the way rocks have been cracked and hauled out in the past, it strengthens my hands for their current task. It helps me to remember that life is a messy combination of choosing to put ourselves in a position to receive all the abundant goodness that God provides and also remaining faithful in the difficult, slow work of breaking up rocks.

Two and half years ago was a time when I felt like I was facing rocks on multiple sides. I was constantly sick. I had a wide collection of doctors and diagnoses: mononucleosis, eczema, sinusitis, rhinitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, generalized anxiety, depression, sleep apnea, clinical mild obesity, and a host of ever changing secondary infections.  But no matter the course of medication,  I was still  exhausted. I was in the middle of a history PhD program, and I was also starting to question if I wanted to or could continue.  It was a hard place to be. It was rocky soil. I felt bruised and weary.

 

 

But that was not the first time that I had faced many of those rocks. When I was fourteen I moved to a small Wisconsin town. It was the first time I remember experiencing serious anxiety—the kind that robbed me of sleep and appetite and murmured lies into my racing heart, choking up my throat when I tried to speak. My first few months there were lonely and painful. Mostly I was just ignored, although a boy in my geography class enjoyed the power it gave him to hear the other boys laugh as he’d whisper three or four times a class that I was sexy and blew kisses toward me.

I can look back now and see that it was harassment, but it was like those words were rocks lobbed into my tender soil prepared by the anxiety of moving for my mom’s heath, a family history of body image issues, and the 15 pounds I had gained that summer at camp. All that was combined with the loneliness I felt staring at the outside of the tight-knit social circle of rural high school politics. So, I decided at 15 that to have friends, I needed to be beautiful or smart. I decided that I wasn’t beautiful, so I would have to be smart. It fueled a new kind of obsessive academic perfectionism.

 

 

That same year even though I had always wanted to be a novelist, because I couldn’t spell, or navigate grammar—I decided I wasn’t smart enough to be a writer. I didn’t know that I had dyslexia. In that same horrible geography class, my teacher spent the whole parent teacher conference talking about how gifted I was in social studies. So I decided to leave what I loved—writing—for the shelter of what would offer me a place to hide—history. It was like my roots just went around those great big rocks. But those rocks were planted deep, and they were not going to simply disappear.

Eleven years later, at 26, I could no longer run away from the loneliness and the possibility of failing by simply trying harder.  I had come to limitations of my mind and body.  I realized that I could no longer escape facing those rocks of anxiety, body image, sickness, and fear of academic failure. I had to stop and begin to break those rocks apart so I could live well. It was a very slow process. It is going to be a different process for you than for me. But I want to share a few notes from my journey about the slow process of breaking rocks. I have found that breaking rocks is about dwelling in the stable soil of peace and filling yourself up with God’s nourishment. I’ll close today with reflecting on being still, and I’ll pick up next week with being full.

 

 

1.) The first reflection is to dwell in the stable soil of peace. From the olive branch in the dove’s beak in Genesis to the trees of the promised land, trees are a sign of peace. In the third chapter of Paul’s letter to Colossae he reminds us that peace is about our minds, hearts, and body: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3: 2-4; 15-16) We are to be aware of what we think about, dwelling in the safe haven of knowing our lives are hidden with Christ’s death and Resurrection. We are to let the healing shalom of God’s full and abundant peace rule and govern our hearts. To that end Paul gives some practical advice: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving… making the most of the time.” (Colossians 4:2 &4:5)

For me, seeking peace through prayer has been a full and multifaceted attempt to become more aware and present. It has been a matter of making liturgical prayer a practice and of using yoga to get into my body, calm my heart, and practice rest through a savasana meditation. It has been about taking a break from school, and then leaving, and about overall being at peace with Sabbath rest. It has taken the form of creating daily rituals, journaling, taking long walks, lifting weights, and doing yoga instead of running. It has been in de-cluttering the apartment and keeping it clean, so it’s a place that reflects peace. I am not always good at keeping all the practices going at once, but when I stop, I can feel them missing.  We need to practice being still, open, soft and porous to receive the abundant peace that we are promised.

A tree is a beautiful image of the paradox of the strength of stillness. The rooted tree, which does not seem to move at all, is slowly, slowly cracking through the seemingly impenetrable layers of shale and granite.

continue reading with part two

 

 

How have you noticed being at peace breaking up the rocks in your life?

 

2 Responses to The Cultivated Life: Reflections on Rocks & Tree Roots Part One

  1. Alicia says:

    Thank you for these words, Amy. You have a way with words, my friend. Truth for my heart and mind. I love these images you’ve written of and captured with your camera. You’ve given me much to ponder…I will look forward to reading part two.

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Oh thank you Licia–you have such a gift of encouragement. I feel so honored to have you has a friend for long enough that we’ve witnessed the facing of many tough things together. I’m so glad you’re in my life!

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