I am a transplanted Cajun, and my family roots are deep in the moss-covered woods of South Louisiana. When I have the opportunity to visit home, I often sit on a big porch and let the tranquility and beauty of the live oak and bald cypress trees work as a salve on my soul. On a recent visit with my family, my heart was healed yet again, this time through the image of a tree. My big sister shared with me an analogy of our Christian life as a tree, where the roots are relationship, the trunk is identity, and the canopy is mission.
God created us to be rooted in him. God’s Word, the sacraments, and personal prayer are the main ways that we can cultivate and nourish our roots. If a tree lacks deep roots, starvation can weaken it, and a storm can blow it over. For my faith to be strong and endure, it must be rooted in my personal relationship with Jesus. And from the roots of my relationship with the Lord, my identity grows as the trunk of the tree, the true knowledge of who I am. And so my identity as a beloved daughter of God (my trunk) is strengthened and grows as I read Scripture, receive the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation, and both speak from my heart and listen to the Lord during daily prayer. Connecting with God allows him to pour his very self into my roots. Then I will stand tall and straight, secure in my identity as the Father’s precious daughter. Only then can my mission to serve others and build the kingdom be able to bloom and bear fruit, becoming the beautiful, life-giving canopy.
Jeremiah tells us that the man who trusts in the Lord “is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream; it fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit” (Jer 17:8). This beautiful picture resonates with me. I want to be like that! No fear. Showing no distress. Filled from the stream of life-giving water. When fear creeps into my heart, and my husband and kids see distress on my face far too often, I now recognize that I have allowed my identity to be defined by my mission, which is my inverted rendition of God’s plan. If my identity is dependent on my mission, then my tree will surely shrivel and eventually die without the deep roots and a strong, straight trunk to sustain it.
Growing up as a foreign missionary, I have often fallen for the trap of identifying myself through my works for God—maybe serving the poor, teaching the faith, or doing pro-life work. The tempter’s lie is that what I do for God makes me his beloved daughter. And as a mom, I have fallen into the trap of discouragement when I am living as if my children (my fruit, my mission) define who I am. Any flaw of theirs means I am a failure. Another manifestation of the same lie. Through my sister’s lovely tree imagery, God is reminding me that my works and my beautiful children do not make me who I am. I am his, and that does not change when my mission seems to be nonexistent or my kids are not making great choices. I am his because he loves me and chose me as his own. My life’s worth is in no way dependent on my accomplishments or failures. Rather, my life matters because I am intimately connected to Jesus, and he lives in me. Keeping the image of the tree in my mind’s eye has been so helpful to me. Roots of relationship, trunk of true identity, and canopy of mission must all remain in right order for the tree to flourish.