There’s only been one time in my life when I was jealous of a tree.
I had just moved to Japan as a missionary with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was living in Tokyo and getting acclimated to being a foreigner, which meant I never understood what was going on. I was learning as much as I could, trying to laugh at myself whenever I said something incorrectly or looked foolish. I was meeting some amazing people, being cared for by other long-term missionaries who understood well what I was feeling and welcomed me with hospitality. I knew I was safe, and I knew I would be cared for, but there were times that I knew I just did not feel at home.
Most of the Lutheran missionaries worked at high schools in Kumamoto, the southernmost island of Japan, a short plane trip from Tokyo. At a missionary retreat, we all gathered together to learn about the history of Christians in Japan, which went all the way back to the 1500s, like the same time Martin Luther was in Germany trying to reform the church, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries like Francis Xavier were sharing the story of Jesus Christ in Japan.
And while in Kumamoto, where Lutherans from the United States showed up in the 1890s, we toured the schools and ministries of the church. It was a lot of information to take in, but what stuck in my mind was touring the grounds of Jiai-En, a children’s home. I remember asking one of the long-term missionaries what Jiai-En means—I was imagining the English letters G, I, and N, thinking that spells “gin,” what a weird acronym for a children’s home. And she told me, “Jiai-En means Garden of Love and Mercy.”
And I’m thinking that those words starts with entirely different letters, and how can this make sense? This was about the time I looked up and noticed a huge pine tree, and it struck me because I grew up in a pine forest in East Texas, so it was familiar and somewhat comforting, but I was jealous that tree never had to move, never had to speak another language. I envied that tree’s ability to stay rooted in place, even though I felt certain God had called me to that new place, even though I trusted God was indeed with me while I felt so strange.
It took a while to get familiar with Japanese—I never fully learned to speak it—but I learned that Ji, Ai, and En are not just letters but also entire Japanese words. Ai is love, and en is garden. It would be many more years before I’d realize that very pine tree I envied could have been present during bombings and wars, bearing silent witness to the terrible pain that humans can inflict upon each other. Maybe it isn’t always so great being a tree.
Until I read this section from the prophet Jeremiah, I had never given a lot of thought to how trees feel. Trees that don’t fear heat, trees that are not anxious during years of drought—these are trees planted by water, who know clearly their proximity to nourishment. These trees are like people who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
What is it like to be so certain of God’s providence that you don’t even have anxiety or fear? I’m not sure I even know what that’s like. And then I wonder: does having anxiety or fear mean that I don’t have enough faith or I don’t trust God enough? Can my fear be so enormous that it could effectively cancel out God’s power?
Well, no—God’s bigger than that, even bigger than my biggest fear, even more persistent than my anxiety. What if God’s grace is bigger than my fear? What if I’m so rooted in God’s goodness that I cannot uproot myself, can’t even be removed from God’s goodness?
The people of Judea and Jerusalem heard about Jesus, and they heard that he could heal, so they showed up—they wanted to hear him, they wanted him to heal their diseases, they wanted to touch him because power came out from him. And he did heal them—he healed their sicknesses and in speaking about blessings and woes, he healed their souls as well.
Is anyone here in need of healing? Is our society in need of good news? Is this world broken and in need of healing? Absolutely. And there’s good news here for us.
It’s important to be gentle with yourself. We have been through a lot in this pandemic, and no one is unaffected. Last week, our bishop here in the Central States Synod, Bishop Susan Candea, shared with leaders a recording of a lecture given by Dr. Betsy Stone, a psychologist who spoke about trauma and how the pandemic has affected our bodies and our minds.
According to Dr. Betsy Stone, trauma is not an event but is the body’s response to a deeply distressing event which overwhelms our ability to cope while causing feelings of helplessness and diminishing our abilities to feel like ourselves or act in predictable ways. So not all trauma is the same, and people can react differently to the same event—one person may have a trauma response while another person does not. It’s all about how the brain responds.
Anyone else feeling a little bit adrift during this ongoing pandemic? Feeling less like yourself, or wondering why you feel apathetic, maybe like you’ve lost your sense of compassion or you don’t feel it as deeply anymore? This is a part of a trauma response: your brain has been undergoing so much stress over the past two years that it’s exhausted. The part of your brain that thinks deeply isn’t getting as much blood as it should.
Dr. Stone said the brain is built to work, then rest, then work, then rest—the body is built to withstand periods of great stress and can release hormones like cortisol to increase heart rate and blood flow and help the body respond. But then there’s supposed to be a time of rest, when the body gets to recover. The thing about this pandemic is that we have never had the chance to rest, to recover and grieve and integrate our experiences.
And because repeated episodes of high cortisol are bad for your long-term health, when there’s repeated stress, much like what we have lived with during this pandemic, the body reduces the amount of cortisol and you feel apathetic, like you can’t respond. It’s not because you’re lazy or uncaring or broken: it’s because your body is conserving your resources to keep you alive.
It isn’t going to be possible to simply think our way out of this stress response, this societal trauma of a pandemic. But finding ways to understand and accept what we have been through, what we are still going through, can give us a measure of grace with ourselves. Learning about the human brain has given me an immense gratitude for the wisdom with which God created our human bodies—God said it was very good.
We are not abandoned by God, but we find out God is here, too, always with us. And for the record, I didn’t spend all my years in Japan being jealous of trees—I experienced the truth described by the psalmist who said if I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. Plenty of times I felt disoriented but I was never utterly lost--where could I flee from God’s presence?
God will not lose track of us here, either, even if we have rarely left our homes in the past two years. There is grace for us. There is healing for humanity. God’s power really is that big. Like trees planted by water, we are rooted in God’s grace.