I"ve seen it many times, but I never know what it will look like.
* * *
Once upon a time, there was an orchard. The trees of this orchard were most beautiful indeed. There was nothing lopsided or irregular about them. Because they had been pruned with care, the trees of this orchard stood straight and tall. Their graceful branches were arched above them, like ballerinas in fifth position.
Because they were kept free from insects and disease, every leaf was perfect. The trunks were smooth and unblemished.
If the winter's snow became too heavy on them, someone would come out and knock the snow away, lest their branches crack and break under the strain. If the summer's heat became too unrelenting, then someone would come out with water to sooth their thirst.
All throughout the summer, the trees wore a splendid mantle of green. In the autumn, the trees were dressed like royalty, in robes of scarlet and gold. Even in the winter, their bare branches were held aloft in poses of quiet dignity. In the springtime, the trees were most beautiful of all. Their statuesque branches were covered in fragrant blossoms.
The flowers were delicate and plentiful. Some were purest white. Others were pink at the center and white at the tip.
Despite these numerous blossoms, the trees of this orchard never produced any fruit. They looked beautiful. They smelled wonderful. But despite all the care lavished on them by their owner, these trees never produced a single fruit.
Needless to say, the owner was not happy. It was expensive to care for so many trees. It was expensive to water them. It was expensive to hire laborers, to knock the heavy snow from their branches, to prune them year after year.
In the springtime, when the orchard was pink and white and fragrant, the owner would walk between the trees. "Listen," she said to the trees. "This year, I want more than blossoms. I want more than brightly colored leaves. I want more than sculpted branches. This year," she concluded, "I want some fruit."
All the trees were all embarrassed by their failure. Their elegant branches drooped with shame. And every spring, the trees promised that this year would be different.
* * *
One night, the trees gathered all together in one corner of the orchard. Yes, the trees in this orchard were strangely mobile. Their roots did not descend beneath the surface of the earth. Instead, their roots lay curled on the surface, like the hairy legs of a spider or the tentacles of an octopus. The heaviest, largest roots were very stiff, and could only move a little. But the smaller roots could move in waves, like the legs of a centipede. And this was enough to propel the trees from place to place.
The trees were very pleased by this mobility. Each tree could seek its favorite spot. As the sun traveled across the sky, the trees could adjust themselves to the shifting light. They could gather for social events or move apart for solitude.
Being mobile gave every tree plenty of freedom.
With moonlight on their branches, the stately trees crawled together on nimble, finger-like roots. "What shall we do?" They asked one another. "How can we coax fruit from our lovely branches? How can we turn these splendid blossoms into fruit?"
In years past, the trees had tried all manner of innovations. They had made small talk with bumblebees, coaxing their sober-minded companions to linger over each blossom. They had insisted on more water, then less water. They had kept their faces to the east or to the west, or they followed the sun from one end of the sky to the other. They had tried everything.
"It must be something simple," one of the trees insisted.
At this remark, all of the trees looked over the fence. There, outside the orchard, stood a single tree. Unlike the pampered trees of the orchard, this singular tree was gnarled and bent. Its branches stuck out at awkward angles. All throughout the winter, through the spring and the summer, this misbegotten tree stood outside the orchard like a beggar.
But then, in the fall, this unsightly tree grew heavy with fruit. Fruit fell from its branches and rotted on the ground. While the trees of the orchard looked on with envy and loathing, the gnarled tree fed every bird and squirrel that came searching for a meal.
The trees of the orchard were fruitless, but they were undaunted. They were part of a great orchard. They were private property. They lived inside the fence. The dividing line had been drawn, and they were safely inside. They were chosen trees.
If that overgrown weed outside the orchard could produce fruit, then of course they could do the same. They could do better.
Despite their pride, the trees of the orchard kept staring over the fence. With furtive glances, they watched the gnarled tree for some clue. Without admitting it, each one of them hoped the misshapen tree could provide them with a lesson in productivity.
* * *
The malformed tree must have seen them watching, because it called out, "Hello, neighbors."
"Come here and talk to us," one of the orchard trees called back.
The outsider didn't budge. "I don't mean to be rude," the solitary tree announced. "But I'm rooted to the spot. My roots, you see -- they're buried deep within the soil."
The trees in the orchard were astonished to hear such a thing. No wonder the wild tree was so twisted and out of proportion. It was half buried in the soil. "How did it happen?" one tree inquired.
"There's no reason to make it sound like a tragedy," The wild tree replied with a chuckle. "I did it myself. I pushed my roots down into the soil. Every year, I push them further and farther."
"Why would you do such a thing?" asked a tree from the orchard.
"I draw life from the soil," answered the wild tree. "I draw life from the soil and it produces fruit. I know my poor soil is nothing compared to that rich loam you have in the orchard, but I dig way down and I manage to get by."
"...Okay!" called the trees in the orchard. "Nice talking to you. Good bye." Then they shuffled away to the far corner, to talk amongst themselves. "Did you hear that?" they whispered to one another. "Can you imagine? Should we try it? What if there was a fire? Or a flood? We'd be stuck in one place!"
The trees decided to compromise. They would carry a tub of good soil in the roots. They would carry the tub with them, so they could stay mobile. But they would keep several roots inside the tub at all times, drawing life from their portable patch of ground.
When the autumn came at last, the trees produced a small crop of hard and bitter fruit.
They were so proud. Now they had it all. The trees of the orchard were most beautiful indeed. They were graceful and fragrant. And now, at long last, they were productive as well.
For some reason, the owner was less enthusiastic. She looked beyond the fence to the solitary tree. She looked at all the fruit on the ground beneath its gnarled branches, and she wondered what would happen if she planted some of those seeds in her orchard.
* * *
When you pray, do you pray with your eyes open or closed? Do you pray with your hands folded together or with your hands held open before you? Have you discovered an outward pose that makes your prayers more effective? Have you found a way to sit or stand that makes prayer feel more real to you?
If someone mimicked your pose, would they be praying?
We must distinguish between what is outward and what is inward. There can be outward conformity, outward compliance, outward appearance. But these outward things are not the same as inward longing, inward surrender, inward trust. There is no power in the outward form unless it arises from an inward source.
Circumcision removes a piece of skin. Let's face it: half the population doesn't have this piece of skin to begin with. The outward practice of skin removal doesn't guarantee any inward, spiritual consequence. Paul says it quite succinctly in his letter to the Galatians: "Neither circumcision nor un-circumcision means anything; What counts is a new creation."
Being circumcised doesn't mean you are faithful to God. Sticking a flag on your car window doesn't make you Paul Revere. Dressing like a teenager doesn't make you young. Donning a Quaker hat doesn't make you peaceful. Dressing like Superman doesn't empower you to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
* * *
Outward trappings don't change the inward reality.
Jesus isn't looking for people to wear the uniform of faith. Jesus cares about the kind of fruit you produce.
* * *
Don't rest in outward things. Don't focus on the fence that surrounds us in the orchard. Instead, sink your roots down deep. Draw Life. And the fruit will come.