If you were a visitor to England from a Tropical Rain forest at this time of the year, you might think that a lot of our trees are dead. Huge trees with bare branches and not a leaf in sight can be seen on every side. We all know that this is what happens in Winter in Temperate Zones, and that the trees are very much alive, even if they appear dead, and that I think is a message for us when we find our faith going through a dead period. I’m always sad when I hear of people going through a tough time and giving up on their faith. “I used to feel that God was with me.” they say “But now I feel nothing at all.”
The trees we hear of in our 1st Reading (Jer 17:5-8) and in our Psalm (Ps 1) show us the other side of this picture. Here the trees are in leaf, whilst everything else is dried up by the sun. Here again we can hear people saying to us “How can you believe in God, when there are so many awful things happening in the world?” The answer of course, in each case, lies in the roots of the trees; roots that go deep into the ground, so that the tree can draw from deeper resources than what appears on the surface. How then do we humans develop the kind of roots that will take us through the storms that life throws at us: storms in our minds, or storms in the world around us?
Part of the answer must lie in our expectations. If we expect life always to be easy as Christians, then we haven’t paid much attention to all the warnings Jesus gives us. If we read the 16th Chapter of St John’s Gospel, we’ll find it all laid out for us. It begins with warnings. In Verse 1 that we may face death for being his followers, and in Verse 20 we are told ‘You will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” The Chapter ends by encouraging us to strengthen our belief and our trust in God, for Jesus says “Take courage, I have conquered the world.”
This is a very hard message to take isn’t it, especially for us softies living at ease with houses and cars and running water and all the other things that make modern life comfortable? We look at people displaced by war, and are often astonished to find that their faith, their trust in God, is much stronger than ours. They know they need God in a way that we can hardly imagine, for they, as Isaiah says, are “like a tree by the waterside that thrusts its roots to the stream.”
Jesus says the same in our Gospel today (Luke 6:17.20-26) when he says “Blessed are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, for then your reward will be great in heaven.”
I must admit that I find that very difficult. My instinct is to avoid people who are nasty to me, or to try to find ways to make us all friends. Jesus is much more realistic, even if he exaggerates the situation in order to make the point more effectively.
St Paul does much the same in his letters as he writes of his own experiences. I’m thinking particularly of his passage in 2 Corinthians Chapter 6:9-10 where he writes, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” He is dealing with people who are full of themselves and their successes and are beginning to scorn those with less apparent blessings, less spiritual gifts.
Like the trees in winter in England, we must never assume that things are going badly just because they appear dead on the surface, or that God has deserted us, just because we feel he has. All the way through Christian history great people of faith from St Paul to the present day have written on this, because it is a recurring problem for most Christians at some time or another in their lives. There is no easy answer as to how to manage the times when everything seems to have gone wrong for us. How can I trust in the Lord when I feel nothing? How can I put out roots deeper into God when I do not know where God is?
The only answer I can give is to allow the faith and the struggles of other people to support us. That is why it’s so important not just to go to Church, but to be the Church supporting one another on our Christian journey. You might be surprised how much you can help someone else by sharing with them how you struggle to believe, and yet somehow carry on. Be like a tree even if you do not feel like a tree, and as we spread our branches over one another, we will hopefully find a way through.