Many summers, as I’ve walked with camera in hand, I’ve ended up with hundreds of sunrise and sunset photos. This summer, different things caught my attention: spiderwebs pearled with morning dew, bright red mushrooms and white bracket fungi, children learning to balance.
And roots, roots, and more roots.
I saw them knuckled and gnarled, poking up through the carpet of spruce needles. I watched them lifting slabs of concrete sidewalk into uneven planks. And I noticed them hanging free where waves had worn away the soil in which they’d first settled and grown.
Perhaps I noticed them more than usual because at the same time I was reading Jeffrey Tacklind’s book, The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility. It had arrived in the mail a month or so before my August vacation, and after I’d read the first few pages, I set it aside to take with me. I could tell from those first few pages that it was a book I wanted to linger with, reading slowly and letting it question me as much as I questioned it. I was not disappointed.
Near the beginning of the book, Tacklind tells how he sensed God saying to him, “This is who you are.”
“I looked up and in front of me was this thin, white tree, standing alone in the midst of the creek bed. A white alder. It caught me off guard.
This tree? This unimpressive, wan, frail-looking specimen?
My heart pushed back, resisting the image and the calling that came with it. It wasn’t just the tree itself that made me withdraw, but where it grew, this rocky middle place. . .” (p. 15)
It’s not easy living in the middle places of life. And yet it’s in the middle places, the uncomfortable, lonely places where we recognize our lack of control and our desperate need for God, that our faith deepens.
“. . .[T]he white alder alone remains in this barren space. This is because of several unique strengths the tree possesses that allow it to endure where other trees are uprooted and perish. It is incredibly flexible. When the floods come, it concedes. It bends. . .
But it is not simply the pliability of the alder wood that allows it to remain. Its root system also is distinct. It possesses what is called a taproot: essentially the trunk of the tree continues to grow down and down, digging deeper and deeper in its thirst for more of the water it needs to survive. Not only does the taproot allow the alder to endure the floods, it also allows the tree to survive when the creek’s water level is at its lowest. Oak and pine trees have breadth but not necessarily depth. Their shallower root systems cannot endure the barrenness of the middle place when the soil and nourishment they need have been leached away.” (p. 16)
Everyone I’ve met who is wise and grace-filled has suffered deeply. Those who shine with Christ’s beauty have allowed suffering to press them deep into Christ, pushing down to find the water that they need in that barren place.
Wise men and women throughout the ages agree: suffering is a necessary part of becoming truly alive and holy and whole:
"Wisdom comes only through suffering."—Aeschylus
"To be most fertile, the soil must first be torn up; and shall not thy soul accept suffering for the sake of better growth?" —Ivan Panin
"The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust - not only for all the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God." —Brennan Manning
It's not suffering itself that brings about transformation. It's grace. And it's choice. Will I put my energy into fighting the suffering, or will I let it press me into Christ? Will my roots spread wide as I seek relief in things around me, or will they go deep as I turn again and again to God, pouring out the honest emotions and lingering in God's presence long enough to let him meet me there as the One who is both the slain Lamb, suffering with and for me, and the Lion of Judah seated on the throne?
I've been pondering all this again in the midst of the worst flare of my chronic illness that I've had for years. For me, both the greatest pain and the greatest gift comes not in the physical limitations, but in what those limitations show me about the strength and location of my roots. Sure, it's unpleasant feeling exhausted and light-headed and finding my eyes unable to focus. But it's more painful to discover, as I need to back out of commitments and accept help with shopping and cleaning and cooking, how much I still care about what people think of me. (Will they think I'm lazy? Selfish? Irresponsible?)
I see how my roots spread wide, seeking affirmation from those around me. The seeing is painful, and yet it's a gift. Seeing makes sense of the struggle within me. It calls me to keep opening this part of myself to God's healing love, to choose again and again to follow him and not let my fears of what others might think guide my decisions. In other words, it invites me to pray and act in ways that let my taproot grow deeper and deeper into the spring of Life rather than relying on my superficial root systems for runoff.
The process isn't comfortable, but I’m grateful for the dryness of this place that is pushing me to dig deep for water. And in the moments I don't know how to proceed, how to let my struggles press me into God? Here I'm encouraged by the promises that accompany the challenge:
"Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing. If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking."
—James 1:2-5, The Voice (bold mine)