What is it about trees? They have ever served as markers of time and place, they are sources of shelter and food, and they are symbols of both comfort and terror, of life and death (recall the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). The most familiar trees are there when we are born and are still there when we die. If you go back to your hometown after years away and everything has changed, you can often map out where you are by looking for well-known trees. Some of us use landmark trees more than signs when giving directions.
Trees ride out storms better than we do. They have deep roots and know how to flex when the winds blow hard. Their example has given my wife a nice proverb she likes to toss out in stressful times: blessed are the flexible, for they shall bend and not be broken. Good words for life.
Trees aspire upward, towering above us and ever reaching for the light. They seek out water and then dig in even deeper. Their many years bespeak of wisdom, and their varied colors and fullness or absence of dress mark the seasons. What tales the trees could tell if they could but talk! Just resting beneath an oak and staring up into its branches stirs the imagination and refreshes the soul, much as the shade refreshes the body.
Robert Frost wrote poems about trees. CS Lewis told stories of different-personalitied dryads in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia. Shel Silverstein wrote a brilliant little masterpiece for kids called The Giving Tree. And the ancients set up altars under the trees.
Worshiping under trees is as old as the patriarch Abraham. Probably much older than that. Sure, it’s true that pagans worshiped false gods and goddesses under trees too, and later the Israelites got in trouble for doing the same. But the problem wasn’t being under a tree. Many Christians all over the world still worship under trees. They are easy to recognize gathering places and they provide natural shelter for those who have traveled far by foot to call upon God.
Abraham’s first altar in the land God called him to (he was known as Abram then) was under the Oak (or Terebinth) of Moreh. (It just sounds like a landmark tree, doesn’t it?) God had appeared to Abram there and promised to give the land from which that tree sprung to Abram’s descendants. So Abram built an altar. He worshiped, under a tree, where God had given him a promise. Later he would move his tent to Hebron and build an altar to the Lord by the Terebinths of Mamre. God appeared to Abraham at those trees and promised him a Son, and there also Abraham interceded with the Lord for the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Two thousand years after Abraham, the true Son of Promise from Abraham’s lineage would make intercession from a tree. And under the shadow of the Cross God has declared love and peace and forgiveness for the world.
We might say we worship under the banner of a tree today (THE Tree), because that is where God has met with us. That is where God has promised us life in the One who still intercedes for us.
(If you’d like the experience of worshiping under the trees, we do so every Sunday starting at 9:30 on the corner of North Rhett and Braddock. At least until the COVID crud is past.)