Rooted or rootless?

Happy New Year? To be honest, after the stresses and trials of 2020 and 2021, and the lingering uncertainties of 2022, it’s hard for me to come into 2023 without a bit of wariness. The times still feel odd and unsettled. We’re not “going back to normal,” in the sense of a pre-pandemic reality, and I’m still adjusting to what’s emerging as the new normal.

Case in point: I’m glad to be back in person in the classroom, but I still feel a pervasive sense of dislocation outside the classroom. More and more students are online rather than in-person; there’s no longer the same buzz of student activity on campus. A large number of staff as well, forced off-campus by the pandemic, now continue to work from home. The hallways are frequently empty; the typical gathering spaces lack life. I have spent my entire professional career on this campus, and sometimes it feels like a ghost town.

I’m certain I’m not alone in that sense of unease. Don’t get me wrong: things are generally going well, and I’m grateful to still be doing what I do. It just always feels like there’s something missing; there’s a vague sense of rootlessness.

Maybe you’ve felt it yourself. Maybe you still feel it. Some changes wrought by the pandemic left you feeling up-rooted, torn away from the familiar, transplanted into strange soil. Perhaps you even feel un-rooted, unsure that you’ve been planted into any soil at all. You feel dry. You thirst.

What we need is to rediscover for ourselves what it means to be in-rooted, to lean by faith into the knowledge that we are rooted in Christ.

. . .

Having been a homeowner for so many years, I’ve had to learn about trees. Some came with the property, while others I planted. But my wife and I refer to all of them by pet names. Our crepe myrtle tree, naturally, is Myrtle. Our magnolia is Maggie. Our gold medallion tree is Goldie. Our lemon tree is… Jack. (If you understood that, you’re dating yourself.)

Given the long and ongoing years of Southern California drought, I’ve learned the importance of deep roots. Because of mandated restrictions, I no longer water our trees from the surface, where much of the water will be wasted. I now use a spike like the one to the right, that delivers water well below the surface, encouraging the roots to grow deeper. It keeps both the trees and the public utilities happy.

Psalm 1 presents a lovely image of those who follow God’s way in life. They are like trees planted by a stream: well-watered, fruitful, and always green. But the rest of the Psalter complicates that idyllic scenario. The righteous don’t always prosper as Psalm 1 seems to promise; indeed, it often seems like the wicked and those who scoff at God have all the blessings. The righteous suffer and lament. They cry out to God and wonder what went wrong. Some of the psalms are written from exile, where the people feel uprooted from their home and unrooted in Babylon.

Indeed, even in the New Testament, the apostle Peter addresses his readers as exiles (1 Pet 1:1, 2:11), scattered and rootless, not quite at home where they live. I don’t want to minimize the suffering wrought in ancient times by the Babylonian exile or the persecutions that dispersed the Jews to the far ends of the Roman Empire. But we know a bit of what it means to feel rootless, in small ways or large.

. . .

What would it mean to be in-rooted instead? Our union with Christ is one of the apostle Paul’s great themes. He says it often and in many ways: we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. And because we belong to him, we also belong to each other. It’s easy to feel rootless when we don’t feel like we belong anywhere or to anyone. So what do we do?

First, remember that Psalm 1 doesn’t simply say that the righteous prosper by divine right. Before the righteous are described as flourishing trees, they are describe as delighting in God’s instruction and meditating on it constantly (vs. 2). Simply put, we cannot be deeply rooted without time in God’s word.

Second, and especially against the background of the instability of the pandemic years, we need some sense of ritual and routine. Combining these first two points can be especially helpful. Whatever it takes, even if it means starting small, find a way to establish a daily routine of spending time with Scripture and in prayer. My morning ritual these days always involves three things. I make a mug of Irish Breakfast tea (hot or cold, depending on the weather). I take a minute to do that day’s Wordle puzzle from the New York Times. Then I spend some time studying and journaling on the Psalms. That simple routine has helped me stay grounded throughout the pandemic.

And third, again, we need each other. Community doesn’t drop into our lap, nor will we ever find one that is perfect or conflict-free. We need to cultivate relationships of mutual support and encouragement. We need to be willing to hang in there and work out the difficulties rather than bolt at the first sign of trouble. Only then will we be able to find and deepen our sense of belonging.

Who knows what new challenges 2023 will bring? But my prayer for all of us is that we would finish the year feeling more rooted and secure than before. Be in-rooted, and may your year be blessed!