PERSISTENCE (7/10, Blessing of the Trees)

Desire can be a scary thing. Those of us who have had our desires thwarted as children have learned to lower our expectations, to settle for giving other people what they want (rather than pursuing what we want) in exchange for their approval. We don’t trust our own desire, even in the spiritual realm. And it’s true that 1) desires are not always fulfilled, and 2) the feeling of longing tends to wax and wane, and so feels unreliable. But let’s explore the tree as an illustration of an intriguing life lesson: how desire creates persistence, which determines our destiny.

“Your desire for God is the truest and the most essential thing about you.”

Ruth Haley Barton

OK, so here’s your 3-dollar phrase for the day: positive phototropism. It means turning (topos) towards light (photo). We’re all familiar with this and know that, in order for our houseplants to grow evenly on all sides, we have to occasionally turn them, because they will always tend to reach for the window. But can you imagine what it’s like for some of the slowest-growing of all living things? I wonder how many years the tree above has supported itself in this sideways direction? Probably decades! Now that’s perseverance!


a younger tree catches my eye

on the edge of the dense shadow

she has grown sideways

leaning and yearning toward the light

her thirst for the sun never wavers

and her long obedience sets her path

and determines her destiny

from The Blessing of the Trees

I like the image of a tree going to such great lengths to reach the light. It speaks of longing, especially a thirst for meaning, for significance, for peace . . . in a word, for God. In her excellent little book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Ruth Haley Barton says something that has stuck with me for years: “Your desire for God is the truest and the most essential thing about you.” Wow. That makes it something really important to get in touch with, don’t you think? In fact, she says, “Desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life.” Why? Because sometimes true desperation is the only force powerful enough to move us out of our comfortable rut towards what ultimately satisfies.

I have always had a desire for God, as long as I can remember. When I was a lonely and depressed young teenager, that longing was a catalyst for the beginning of what I call my first spiritual journey. It was then that I became a committed Christian, started attending churches I wasn’t raised in, and made a whole new set of friends and mentors, which in turn shaped the adult I became. It determined whom I married, and the course of my life of ministry and service. Then, in my midlife, a physical and psychological health crisis and its attendant desperation propelled me on what I call my second spiritual journey. It’s a journey inward, of self discovery and healing, a path of creativity and compassion that in turn leads back outwards toward others. This journey is shaping how I want to spend the second half of my life.

So a desperate thirst is often what initiates our spiritual journey. But what about when we lose touch with that feeling, when everything feels flat and dull? Eugene Peterson wrote a book with a title that has become a description of perseverance: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. When my husband was a young man in Bible school, one of his teachers gave him some very good ministry advice: If you’re not sure what God wants you to do next, remember the last time he gave you direction . . . and keep doing that. There are lots of times in our lives when things just don’t seem to be going anywhere, and we feel like quitting. But there’s something to be said, when in doubt, for sticking it out until you get some more clarity. Someone who dabbles, trying out one life course after another and abandoning each course of study, each job, and each relationship when the going gets tough, is someone who will never accomplish anything of worth. More than anything else, it is the quality of persistence that shapes one’s destiny.

I invite you to ponder these questions: What is it that you long for most deeply? For what would you sacrifice almost anything? Does how you spend your time reflect this deepest desire? What would you like to change in your daily habits that would be a step in the right direction?

Next post: Outburst, a Christmas poem (taking a little break in The Blessing of the Trees series)

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