The Baobab Tree and Faith

During the Blogging Upheaval and for a quite a while during the last few weeks or so , the image of the baobab tree has been uppermost in my mind. 

I have not refined these thoughts yet ( who knows, there might even be a book in it if I put my mind to it  so these are just the sketchy jottings so far )

There’s something sacred about trees. 

On his “Gospel of Trees” website, Alan Jacobs writes this:

The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the  Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree.
The last chapter of the last  book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
If you understand the trees, you understand the story. 

“Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds,” says one character in The New World to Pocahontas. “If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching towards the light.” The New World is about resiliency—about pushing on amidst hardship, pain, suffering, and striving to make the best of one’s circumstance. 

Trees are like  that—always growing, pulled toward the sky, even when winds and rain and hardship come. They weather all seasons, even if they lose some pieces  along the way and this is the journey of  life. We’re all familiar with the story."

I was first  introduced to the baobab tree in the story of the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery and then I was lucky to see them when I was teaching in Malawi some years ago.

The symbolism and allegory of the tree is rich with meaning and helps me to think of faith and other issues as metaphysical axes I am grappling with at the moment in the church.

It is hard not to marvel at the awesome possibilities of growth that these trees   show yet paradoxically they are the upside down tree, and therein is the message : Christ turned the world upside down and at Pentecost we pray for the Holy Spirit to do the same : to expose our roots and shake us up !

Image credit: Daniel Montesino [flickr])

Knowledge and wisdom are like the trunk of the baobab tree.

No one person's arm span is great enough to encompass them.

Saying from Ghana 

  "The existence of a plurality of religions is not to be interpreted as a  failure on the part of those who have the truth to carry out their  divine mission to bring all humankind into the fold.  Nor does this point to the hardness of the hearts of other people.  On the contrary, it expresses the spirit of God which blows "where it will". 

And to  insist on the same response to the experience of God's spirit is to  argue for a uniformity which refuses to respect differences. 

It  has become clear to me that our inability to live with differences or pluralism is a measure of our limited knowledge (arms too short to  embrace the totality of the baobab tree of truth), rather than an  incomparable divine command to impose uniformity in belief and  expression on all humanity."

Kofi  Asare Opoku  is Professor of African Traditional Religions and Cultures 

There are many myths and legend about the Baobab tree:

One African legend of the Baobab tree describes what happens if you are never satisfied with what you have:

"The baobab was among the first trees to appear on the land. Next  came the slender, graceful palm tree. When the baobab saw the palm tree,  it cried out that it wanted to be taller. 
Then the beautiful flame tree appeared with its red flower and the baobab was envious for flower blossoms. 
When the baobab saw the magnificent fig tree, it prayed for  fruit as well. God became tired of the complaints and so yanked it up by its roots, and placed it upside down to keep it quiet."
All the animals were alarmed, and so was the huge tree. For after that, the magnificent tree only grew leaves once a year.
The other months the roots seemed to bend and grow towards the sky.

“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky; we fell them down and turn them into paper, that we may record our emptiness.” Khalil Gibran

And  all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord;

I bring low  the high tree, and make high the low tree, 

dry up the green tree, and  make the dry tree flourish.

I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do  it.

— Ezekiel 17:2

The baobab is one of nature's remarkable creations and has evolved to make maximum use of the scarce resources around it, just like I imagine the early church to have been.

It is among the largest and longest lived trees on earth capable of growing to 98 feet tall and 36  - 60 feet wide.

It can survive long periods of drought with it's massive sponge like trunk that
which can be hollowed out to provide shelter. 

The spiritual drought we face in the Western Christian church from denial and repression has taught many to find water and drink from other sources and the horizontal branches of social networking are revolutionising the way in which the church dialogues about and within itself.

When in leaf its fruit provides Vitamin C and the leaves Vitamin A and it has more calcium than cow's milk. The potential nurturing power of Christianity is a given but the diet we crave these days is fast food.

It provides shade for all living things in the sub Saharan heat. So too can the church shade us when the events of the world get too hot to handle !

Baobab near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (Image credit: ironmanix [flickr])

For millennia the baobab tree has provided a meeting place for dialogue, sharing stories and debate of important issues and ideas.

 I think of these properties of the baobab and compare them to the Christian church:

It can undergo a huge amount  of mutilation, and still continue to thrive and heal. 

 For some cultures it is the tree under which man was born.

It is a symbol of endurance, conservation, creativity, ingenuity and dialogue.

The great baobab tree —  the tree of rest and resolution.

The five leaves of the Baobab Tree resemble an outstretched hand, hence its Latin name Adansonia Digitata, as if reaching out in friendship. 

Baobabs create their own  ecosystem with hollowed-out trunks, leaves, foliage,  nectar, fruit, and bark providing habitats for many different creatures, just as the church thrives in diversity.

The  baobab's bark, leaves, fruit, and trunk are all used. The bark of the  baobab is used for cloth and rope, the leaves for condiments and  medicines, while the fruit, called "monkey bread", is eaten. Sometimes people live inside of the huge trunks, and bush-babies live in the  crown.

It is not very often that you see a Baobab tree picture with leaves on  the tree, usually only seen in a short  rainy season for a couple of months.
Some  baobabs can store up to 120,000 gallons of water from the rainy season to   sustain themselves through the dry times.

When the long dry season returns the trees drop their leaves.

Image of baobab in leaf from Brian Gatwicke Flickr from here

 A tree of life...redeeming, restoring...making all things new. 

 A tree that thinks of heaven.....

 that provides so much for many

 the upstretched roots longing for relationship.

The writer Moroslav Volf uses the remarkable image quoted in The Gospel of Trees based on  the closing pages of Scripture that has become a touchstone for the way he thinks about faith and culture. 

"Amid its descriptions  of the New Jerusalem, Revelation includes “the tree of life, bearing 12  crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the  tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). 

The tree holds out  hope that whole cultures will be healed and mended, becoming places  where people can flourish and it sets an agenda for faith as a way of  life that contributes to that flourishing, in anticipation, here and now."

Come with me, to the Baobab tree,            
To the Baobab tree
where eyes will shine,
And hearts will leap
And  feet will dance
And  hands will touch
In one-two time.
Come with me, to the Baobab tree,
To the Baobab tree, where tears will dry,
And lips will sing
And hearts will breathe
And  feet will dance
In one-two time.

- Julie Redstone            
                                                            Music the Baobab Tree 

At the edge of the crimson horizon,
The last crescent of light dims,
As a veil of darkness,
Adorned with precious jewels,
Settles across the vast land.
The howlers, the prowlers,
The day-scavengers fall into a deep sleep,
As a new world awakens.

An oasis lies near.

Touch, let the golden grains of sand
Run through your fingers
Feel the warmth that remains.
Smell, the brisk mountain air
These ancient peaks stood tall,
As a mighty deluge consumed the world.
Taste, the evening dew
As it trickles down every leaf
Carrying the sweet nectar of life.
Listen, to the nightingale’s soliloquy
The melody, a tribute to the heavens
Flowing, piercing through the landscape.
A river, riveting, reviving.
Watch, as the rays of light slowly penetrate
Through the entwined branches
Of the ancient baobab tree.
Fall, fall on your knees
Before this majesty, before this splendour.
The misty morn settles across the plains.
The night, a fleeting memory
As the pitch black
Transforms into a heavenly azure.
- Marzieh Ghiasi (March 2005)

*Image Source Baobab tree at sunrise. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Link to still images and music here from the Japanese film "Baobab no Kioku" ("A Thousand Year Song of Baobab") by Seiichi Motohash. 

At the heart of the film is the baobab  tree— the source of sustenance,  spirituality, medicine, fuel, and identity for the villagers.

Rest of this wonderful review of it is here

"For his new film, he went to the village of Touba Toul, 30 km west of  Dakar, where he recorded the changing of the seasons and the planting of  millet and peanuts, the two main crops. His focus, though, is the still  abundant baobab. 
The villagers feed the leaves to their animals, or dry  and pound them into a nutritious powder called lalo; they pick  up its fallen twigs for firewood, while using its bark to make rope, its  pulp to make juice and its roots to make medicine; and they commune  with the spirits of the dead that are said to inhabit it. 

More and more Senegalese see the baobab not as a source of natural  riches and spirituality, but as an impediment to the latest strip mine  or real-estate scheme."

Silent sentinel of time
Spread across the plains
Worshipped, revered, remembered
This legend does remain.

Shelter us mighty Baobab
As we rest on common ground
Reveal your inner beauty
And God's mercy, thus profound.

Phyllis C. Murray '88

Let's sit down under the baobab tree
Man woman and child to discourse
Let's call a meeting, a Vatican III
Let Cardinals and Bishops   
meet with us there
And pray to set the Holy Spirit free 
In our church, in our hearts,
Turn us upside down
And bring us together. Amen.

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