By Daniel Schantz
The sharp blade of my shovel slices into the soft dirt. I am planting an apple tree. I lift the heavy scoop of brown gold and fling it to the side, and the fragrance of fresh earth meets my nostrils. When the crater is about a foot deep and three feet wide, I stand my bare root apple stock in the middle and spread out the spidery roots. Then, I pack black loam over the roots until the cavity is filled, and stand back to admire my work.
There’s not much to see. Just a “stick” about four feet tall. No limbs, no leaves, nothing. It appears to be dead, yet in five years this stick will turn into a big, bushy apple tree, smothered with sweet, red ornaments. It’s like a miracle! I plant a tree in faith, and God does the rest. What a deal!
I have been planting trees all my life. The fledgling freshmen that wandered into my Bible college classroom had little more than potential. They were just skinny “sticks,” but they were eager to grow. They gobbled up nutrients from the Word of God as eagerly as they devoured hamburgers in the cafeteria. They lit up like Christmas trees when I gave them praise and encouragement. Even when I rained on them with gentle criticism, they welcomed it. And when I had to prune them drastically, they cringed, but then responded by putting out more branches and fruit than ever.
Before these students even graduated they were bearing fruit—on campus, in churches, on mission trips, around town.
Some of my striplings have now been in the ministry for many years. They are tall, sturdy trees, with candelabra branches reaching out for sunlight. Their leaves look to God all day. Their limbs are heavy with fruit that church members harvest, in the form of sermons and songs, lessons and counseling.
These are beautiful trees, even if they are not perfect. Their imperfections give them character. Smooth limbs are bruised from the storms of church conflict, but they have healed strong, with handsome scars. Their trunks are rough from brutal treatment by some disgruntled church members, yet it has left their bark with a rich, interesting texture. A couple dead limbs are a reminder of the drought, when income was hard to find.
Few of their leaves are perfect. Some are tattered by the winds of change, others gnawed by the insects of temptation, and a few are mottled with the fungus of failure. And yet, every leaf is functional, gathering light for growth and providing shade for a picnic. The tree even produces apples for pie at Thanksgiving.
Trees are always producing. They are among the most useful things God ever made.
I am proud of this orchard. Only God can make a tree, but I was privileged to plant and water these seedlings for a few years. Now that I am retired from teaching, I enjoy watching these brave beauties, still hard at work.
On weekends I travel to area churches, to preach or just to visit. Seldom do I find a church where there is not at least one of my young trees busy with something useful: serving on the church board, teaching Sunday school, or homeschooling their children.
On Monday, I drop by the Bible college where I taught for 43 years and note that many of the staff are former saplings of mine, including the college president, the academic dean, the chairman of the board, several professors, the coaches, and many of the support staff. My role in their training was modest, supportive. It takes a team of teachers to get a young tree well rooted.
Back home, I find two letters in my mailbox from former saplings. Almost every day I receive e-mails, cards, letters, phone calls from former students. Most of these missives are from the Midwest, but some come from exotic places, like Alaska and Australia, Indonesia and Ireland, where graduates are serving as missionaries.
In their letters they tell me, “Ministry is harder than I ever imagined, but it’s also satisfying. I love helping people get close to God.”
“Yes,” I write back, “ministry is hard, but equally rewarding. Life itself is hard and long, but it’s precious, and it’s not endless. Remember, a harvest is coming.”
I peck out a reply to an old tree that is ill and discouraged. “You are loved. You are needed. You are one of God’s showpieces, you know? God is proud of you, as are we. Keep going; the finish line is closer than you think. Be brave during this time of suffering. Your courage gives us courage. We love you and we are praying for you.”
I hit Send, then lean back in my chair, and my lips move with gratitude. “I thank you, Father, for these brave, upstanding trees, a forest of faith to the glory of God.”
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus with Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.