Friday, April 18, 2014

Rooted to the spot?

I'm sure you've had an experience like this. Your mouth has gone dry, your heart's racing, your palms are sweating, you're in full "fight or flight" mode as the adrenaline is coursing through your body - you're facing something frightening but somehow you're rooted to the spot. Like a rabbit in the headlights you can't move and time seems to have slowed down like a scene from the Matrix.

One summer I found myself climbing across the famous Aonach Eagach ridge in Scotland with two best buddies from University and one of their dads. Now if you know me you'll know that I haven't really got a great head for heights - it's not the heights that particularly bother me but sheer drops! With this in mind you might be wondering what on earth I was doing traversing Aonach Eagach, which has sheer drops aplenty, and to be honest I was wondering that myself but didn't want to be a killjoy to my friends, who were skipping away like mountain goats.

Fortunately for me there was low cloud that day, and while this didn't take away the thousand foot drops either side, it at least meant that I couldn't see them, which sort of helped. Until the clouds parted that is, and I could suddenly see how big a drop was beside me. My heart rate soared and I clung for dear life to the ridge! 

With some steady nerves and calm encouragement I'm pleased to say I made it across the ridge (to everyone's surprise if I'm honest), but it remains one of my most vivid experiences of being rooted to the spot.

Strangely enough, after that introduction, this week's theme is actually trees (and not fear, as you might have been led to believe), and I'm hoping the connection will become clear as you read on.

One of my favourite types of tree is a Plane tree. Here in the UK you tend to find them in cities, lining Victorian boulevards and especially in city centres. I pass at least a dozen of them on the walk to my office each day. What I like about them is their mottled, almost camouflage multi-layered bark. They are well suited to urban situations as they can tolerate higher atmospheric pollution as well as root compaction - something almost guaranteed in our cities!

Trees are great, and public health studies show that we experience lower stress levels and the corresponding health benefits when we are amongst trees. A colleague of mine recently travelled to Doha, and when I spoke to them out there they were looking forward to being home and seeing trees again!

Different varieties of trees have different personalities, they're suited to different places - a willow tree wouldn't last long in a city centre like a Plane tree, since they need to be around water. Pines like acidic soil. In order to thrive and flourish, trees need to be planted in the right places with favourable conditions. The thing is, living in a dynamic environment, conditions have a habit of changing around us, and if we're rooted to the spot we can find ourselves over time in a position that's doing us no good, or in which it's harder for us to flourish.

I heard a Swedish climatologist speaking about potential changing climate scenarios for Sweden over the next hundred years. Sweden's a big place, and average temperatures vary from south to north by about three degrees C over around 500km. A possible future scenario for some parts of Sweden is that temperatures increase by three degrees over the next hundred years, which means that the average temperature line would begin move north by around 0.5m an hour. This is not very fast.. in fact a snail's top speed is (apparently) around 1m an hour, so this pace of change is not even at a snail's pace! However, if you're a tree that's very sensitive to temperature ranges, then within your lifetime you could find yourself in conditions that don't suit you at all.

Sometimes I think that we can be rooted to the spot in our opinions, our behaviours, our relationships - 'stuck in a moment that you can't get out of' to quote U2. We've planted ourselves somewhere, but over the years circumstances have changed around us, perhaps without us being fully aware of the changes! In terms of our 'fight or flight' response, there's an argument that says this developed specifically in response sudden and urgent dangers (like predators) - and that it's not trigged by gentle changes in our environment. The classic story of the frog being slowly boiled comes to mind.

So a question for us to think about this week is whether we might have become rooted to the spot anywhere in our lives. The good news is that unlike trees, we can change. We can re-plant ourselves somewhere else, in a different position or better place. Perhaps in this manner we're more like Tolkien's Ents instead!

I'm writing this during Easter week, and this Easter marks twenty years since I made the decision to plant myself in the best place of all, in relationship with a loving God. I've had my ups and downs in this time, but I passionately believe that my life has been immeasurably changed for the better as the result of a relationship-based faith in God. These past few months I've been reading and re-reading the book of Psalms, and I love the picture painted in the very first psalm about people living in relationship with God:

"They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
and they prosper in all they do"
(Ps 1:3, NLT)

Over the last twenty years I've been sinking my roots deeper into this relationship, and I want to encourage you to consider doing so as well. Maybe you feel rooted to the spot, stuck in one place in your relationship with God. How about this weekend you get out amongst the trees? It's good for your physical health, but perhaps if you take that time to listen to God's whisper to you amongst the rustling of the leaves if might do your spiritual health good too. 

As we celebrate Easter how about refreshing yourself with God's story - why not read one of the gospel accounts in the Bible? If you don't feel you know about God's story, let alone God himself then why not look out for an Alpha course near you? This is a simple course which enables you to ask questions and find out for yourself.

Let's not find ourselves rooted to the spot, and lets be willing to make changes in our lives when we realise that our environments have changed. And on this note, I'll bid you a Happy Easter and leave you with a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything"

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