Fig Tree Blues

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

The vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their names, answering to the Word that gives each its distinctive identity.1

The parables Jesus told were as common as dirt. Nothing fancy. They were drawn from real life or at least from a life that could be imagined.

So here is a story, a parable told by Jesus. You can read it for yourself in Luke 13.

There was a man, says Jesus, who had a fig tree. I’ve had this tree for three years, he says. Every year I’ve looked for figs on it, but I’ve got no figs. What’s the matter with it? Chop it down, he says to the hired man. Why should it go on using up the soil and I get no figs?

Well, says the hired man, give us another year. I’ll dig round it, pile a lot of manure around it, and we’ll see what happens. If it bears fruit, then well and good. If not, I’ll cut it down. Fair enough?

What the hired man knew and the fig-tree owner did not know is that it takes about three to five years for a fig tree to bear fruit. After that, given water, good soil, and a generous amount of manure, figs will appear. The year after that there will be more figs and the year after that, even more. Within five years there should be enough for a bountiful bowlful. But it takes time.

This is one of those parables from Jesus that stops me in my tracks. It’s in a section of Luke where Jesus rails against the blindness of his audience. You know how to read the weather, he cries, but you can’t read the danger of this present hour. There is a judgment coming.

“I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!2

And if there was any doubt, it’s Jesus who will cause these ruptures. “Do you suppose I came to establish peace on earth? No indeed, I have come to bring division.”3 Perhaps this came as no surprise to his disciples and those who sought to kill him. It’s a surprise to us, though. Who is this man?

He gets numerical about it. In a family of five, three will be against two and two against three. Son against father, mother against daughter, mother against son’s wife, son’s wife against her mother-in-law.

As if there weren’t enough tension built into families already. As if all that Oedipal rage of sons against fathers weren’t already lurking, and the sniping and resentment between a mother and her son’s wife wasn’t the cause of silence between husband and wife on the cold drive back to their apartment.

In the news of the day, a tower had crashed down in Siloam, and eighteen people were killed. Conventional wisdom claimed that they had (literally) brought this down on themselves. Only such flaunting sinners died so swiftly and so gruesomely.

Not so, said Jesus. Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else living in Jerusalem? The world is not divided between the sinners and the sinless. Everybody sins. You should take this as a warning, not that you should fear that towers will fall on you, but rather to live right and do well before you die. Only the living can repent.


I was eleven years old and I was looking to find the first figs on our tree. We lived on a mountainside overlooking the Napa Valley and I was standing, barefooted, in the garden my grandfather and I had made by wrestling aside the mounds of red volcanic rock scattered like cannonballs across the slope of our back yard.

Planting the fig tree was a promise of discovery. Where we had come from, just outside Toronto, there were no fig trees. But in California everything grows, so we planted one when we moved into our new home.

Wherever my grandparents moved, they created a garden. Not just rows of vegetables, but springs of flowers, curves of hedges, conversations of saplings. They took the landscape as it was and sculpted it. They had the patience to work within the arc of the seasons. They sifted the rough earth and planted the colors they loved.

But on this September day in 1963 the sunset filtered greenly through the lobed and glowing leaves and the bowl in my hand seemed absurdly large, for there was only one fig. The leaves were rough to the touch as I slid my arm through them to where it was lodged. I felt it carefully. It was green at the stem, plump and compact. I had come too soon.

I withdrew my arm and backed out from under the low branches. The air was still, cooling from the heat of the day. My shirt, so new the collar was still scratchy, shifted as I straightened and stood listening. A car was passing on the road below me and through its open windows a song blared. That would be the teenaged boy who lived across the street, who knew all the latest songs, who, in the days to come would tell me of Bob Dylan and his song, “Blowin’ In the Wind,” the song that was playing on his car radio, although I did not know it at the time, the song of this voice, plaintive but insistent, whose questions were the first fruits of a harvest long in the making that would not wait.

When we are young, the future takes the shape of our formless hopes. When we are older our hopes take the shape of our expectations. In November of that year, not long after I filled my bowl at last with ripe figs, shots were fired into the head of the President. With that, my childhood was over, and though it took awhile to realize it, it came to seem as inevitable as the trajectory of the bullets on that day.


The parable of the fig tree lends itself to shifting thoughts. The default reading might assume that the owner is God, that God is quick to judge on performance, that appearance is all, that return-on-investment is the sole measure of worth.

Another reading might find that the owner is the dominant world, brusque, ruthless, as hard as flint. We are the fig trees. Jesus is the hired man whose knowledge of the trees is as deep as his care for them. He knows how we are formed, how long it takes for the leaf, the bud, and the fruit. Young trees must be given time; their potential is real, visible to the trained eye, hoped for by the expectant.

We are all under judgment all the time. Mostly, we judge ourselves and each other, usually quite harshly and often unfairly.

Our judgments upon ourselves come from disappointment and fear; we are less than we wish to be. What we are for the good we scarcely know.

Our judgments on others come from what we can see—and we see in a mirror darkly. There are times when we do what we should not do, and we cannot answer why. There are times when the good we could do stands bright before us, but we glance away.

And there are times — praise God — when who we are and what we do are one, when being and deed emerge quietly, miraculously, greenly from the bud, as beautiful as September light.

  1. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 149.
  2. Lk 12:49, NEB.
  3. Lk 12:51, NEB.

Simple Truths

Photo: Andrej Chudy, Unsplash

“Jesus said great things so simply that he seems not to have thought about them, and yet so clearly that it is obvious what he thought about them. Such clarity together with such simplicity is wonderful.”1 — Pascal

Is there a spiritual innocence that comes with age and experience or does our trusting nature diminish as our gathering knowledge increases?

I attended the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting recently, in San Diego. There were ten thousand people, maybe more, crowding the hallways, gathered in clumps, striding along the sidewalks, and holed up in restaurants and bars. The catalog of sessions for the five-day event was an inch thick, the venues included most of the hotels along East Harbor Drive, as well as the massive Convention Center.

It is daunting to remember that all of this—the sessions, the monographs, the books, the societies, interest groups, units, bylaws and constitutions, debates, discussions, arguments and extended soliloquies—all of it can be traced back to a Jewish peasant whom we wouldn’t have recognized were he to stray into the Gaslamp District of the city or wander down by the Marina. Would we see him in the faces of the homeless outside the Hilton or tip him for bussing tables at the trendiest fusion restaurants?

I stopped into a session on Liberation Theology, recalling my courses in it years ago in graduate school. It was for me back then both liberating and troubling, and I entered every class session with anticipation and adrenaline.

The liberation theologians we were studying—Gustavo Gutierrez, Rubem Alves, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, James Cone, and many others—read the Bible in ways that scorched the fair pastures of my white, middle-class, upbringing. They read the prophets as if their words were fire, the Psalms were their battle cries, the Gospels arose from the streets of the favelas and Jesus was black, and he was red and brown and yellow, and most of all, he was poor. For the first time in my life, I was seated at the back of the bus.

Now I was listening as a Jesuit priest from Dublin read a paper about his friendship with a well-known priest who had been murdered in El Salvador along with four fellow Jesuits. They were killed in the bungalow they shared near the campus they served, the priest in question having been marched out to the darkness behind the house, made to lie face down, and shot at point blank range. The soldiers who killed him and his friends had been trained, armed, and inspired by American officers, backed by the full authority of the United States government. The Dublin priest was assessing the legacy his friend had left behind, the practical methods of teaching scripture that he pioneered and the effects of the lay Bible study groups that he set up.

I allowed my imagination to be there with him, trying to feel my way into his heart and breath as the soldiers burst through the door. A young PhD student was reading from his paper now, commenting that the men had been warned the week before that they were targets. One of their group had left for another town just a day before; he had escaped for the moment. But our priest had not believed the parishioner who came to tell him he and the others would be killed. The priest did not think that soldiers would kill priests, nor did he think it was honorable to abandon his station over a threat. But the soldiers came and shot them all anyway and left their bodies to be found by others as the sun inevitably rose and people went about their business.

I slipped out as the questions began for the presenters. I was in a jumble, trying to square the polite and distanced discussion with these imaginal fragments of violence I was now carrying. Did Jesus feel fear like an icy knife between his shoulders when the temple police surrounded him in the garden? In the torchlight did he see his death in their eyes, these men who would go off shift near dawn and return to their homes? Peter had reacted instinctively, drawing blood with a glancing blow that sheared the ear off the High Priest’s servant, no doubt the only unarmed person in the mob. Jesus wryly comments that they had had plenty of opportunity to take him when he was speaking in the temple; did they really need the weapons that were bristling in their hands?

Outside our conference room, the late afternoon light sparkled on the waters of the bay and the palm trees swayed in the breeze. A festival of rap and hip-hop throbbed near the hotel entrance and the light-rail cars glided past the clanging alarms that held the crowds at the sidewalk’s edge.

Did the priest and his friends die believing that their lives had not been lived in vain? They had been boys in Ireland, wedded to the Church from an early age, marked even then by sectarian fury. When they took their vows, did they have the slightest premonition that decades hence they would seal that covenant with their own blood?


Professional conferences like this one are cornucopias of knowledge and scholarly diligence. The daily schedule runs from early morning to late in the evening. They are opportunities for graduate students to begin the process of publishing and presenting, building their resumés, and making contacts. They advance knowledge in hundreds of areas of scholarship and sustain debate and discussion across a multitude of areas of interest. At a micro level, wherever individual presenters and participants are, their subjects are for them of consuming interest. At a macro level, seen against the backdrop of global problems, they are examples of how wide the breadth of human knowledge, how curious the particulars, and how incremental the effects of their presentation.

Yet, there is pleasure in mastering a subject and joy in learning about it. Not everything need be pressed into service for immediate problems; there is room in the human experience for extension of one’s imagination and understanding. We are inspired to join our thoughts to those of the giants in our fields and to create something beautiful out of the strength of our curiosity.

Beyond the joy of discovery and the pleasure of a willed collegiality, there is the satisfaction of vocation, the recognition of answering to one’s calling. The characteristic of our times, for many people of faith, is the sense of the absence of God, but for many it is an absence that calls to us. Our vocation, our calling, is to respond with all of our being from within the places that we find ourselves. “The Christian layperson is homo liturgicus, comments Rowan Williams, “the man whose whole life is directed to God, and who thus is able to direct all that is in his world to God, ‘to be in love with all of God’s creation in order to decipher the meaning of God in everything.’”2

The student toiling away at a paper may agree that “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh,”3but that which is offered in honesty from the heart of one’s experience and understanding “becomes the vehicle of theophany in the world, we become transparent to God, and the light of the divine energy shining through us transfigures all things.”4

At conferences like these there are displayed a wide range of writing and speaking styles. Some are like windows: we see through to the speaker’s purpose with quickness because of the lightness and transparency of her words. Others are like walls: we must scale them to see the point far in the distance and pray we don’t fall first. “Explanations must be as simple as possible—and no simpler,” Einstein said.

To the extent that the writer’s skills of beauty, clarity, and simplicity point to the purpose—to that extent they are truthful and honest. In our time we use symbol, metaphor, “figures of speech,” as Jesus said, in order to carry our meaning through the cacophony of competing claims. The world’s greatest sages spoke their truth simply and profoundly. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “I am the Way, the truth, and the life,” said Jesus.


It is greatly to be desired that the farther we travel on the Way, the more we trust the path to take us where we should be. This would mean a radical innocence, knowing the danger, yet remembering the joy that transported us as we set out on some new adventure. It will mean shedding some of our baggage on the way, learning that sense of precariousness that comes from stepping forward into empathy with others, silencing our sounding brass and our tinkling cymbals.

  1. Pascal. Pensées. Translated with an Introduction by A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books, 1966, p.125.
  2. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action. Louisville, KT: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 33.
  3. Ecclesiastes 12:12, NRSV.
  4. Williams, 33.

The Magnificent ‘If’

Photo: Sebastien Hietsch, Unsplash

”I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” — Thomas Merton

Among the benefits that today’s smartphones have brought to us is the GPS. It’s true that it is a mixed blessing: my location can be known as I can know the location of others. The idea that I can pinpoint my own stance under the heavens, relative to the world around me, is both intriguing and slightly spooky. Do I know where I am? Other people do.

But for someone with SSD—Suspected Spatial Dyslexia (my diagnosis)—GPS has been a godsend. It means that despite my ability to get myself completely turned around on a simple foray into unknown territory, I now can be reasonably assured of arriving at my destination. Best of all, if I make a wrong turn, the eye in the sky will find an alternate route, smoothly adapting to my errant ways.

I love maps. I have spent hours poring over world atlases, fold-out maps of the United Kingdom, maps of Europe, the South Pacific, Asia—tracing out mountain ranges, sounding out city names, and learning the shapes and boundaries of countries. But for me, driving while mapping my route is like watching a butterfly in a field of flowers—there’s a lot of motion, but little in the way of consistent direction. Having a plummy British female voice guiding my every turn is so much better.

When it comes to plotting out my life course I haven’t shown much navigational skill either. I’ve never had the ability to plan, much less to predict, where I’ll be in five years, something apparently not covered by the Americans with Disability Act. The question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” assumes a linear progression farther along and higher up. Asked during a job interview, it hints at ambition, not necessarily spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of life’s vicissitudes.

I had friends who were pre-med—for them, the future was laid out with admirable clarity. They knew where they would be and what they would be doing for the next ten years. After that, their lives would unfold with the assurance of upward mobility and the rewards of discipline. Me? Not so much.

In college, I had a vague notion that my future would be the product of what I carried in two bags—ability and affinity. If I was lucky, these two would combine at a point where I could do something I liked and was fairly good at. I did not want to be in the position of friends whose parents demanded they take on a certain profession because it was lucrative. They may have been good at a number of things, but none of them were what they wanted to do or be the rest of their lives. And if their hearts weren’t in what they had to do every day, it was a job, not a vocation.

Having choices is a precious gift, one that we probably don’t appreciate enough when we’re young. To know that one has options about the most important aspects of life is something we should never take for granted, especially when it’s most likely the case that a majority of people in the world have little say over their careers, where they live (or wish to leave), who they marry and how they live their lives.

On the other hand, in more trivial matters, we have too many choices: do we really need six flavors of Ritz crackers or eight kinds of Doritos? Walgreens sells three hundred and fifty-six cold remedies in their stores and another one hundred and eighteen online. By the time I’ve figured out the exact remedy for my bespoke cold, I’ll be over it.

When I was advising college students on a major course of study, there were always those few who were stymied by having to choose among the disciplines. Choosing one felt to them like closing the door to all others, especially those for which a student felt a burning curiosity. We insist that young people have a full life-plan worked out by the time they graduate from high-school, when most of them haven’t yet distinguished their affinities from their aptitudes.

Early in my teaching career I fancied that I could read a student’s abilities well enough to steer them toward a specific profession. This was more a mark of my pride than it was a real service to a student. In one particular case, I advised a young woman not to choose a career in public relations because I thought her too impulsive, too distracted, to work well in a field that demands constant attention, not only to details, but to the global picture. She took it as a challenge, graduated in the major, and recently celebrated more than a decade of successful work in project management, a field where a grasp of detail, process, and goal is essential.

Where does God fit into all this? Michael Mayne, once the Dean of Westminster Abbey, wrote in his last book, The Enduring Melody, — a journal he kept of his harrowing journey through the ‘country of cancer’—“Do I believe that God was guiding me in this direction rather than that at the most important forks in my path? Yes and no.” He goes on to say no to that which would compromise his freedom, as if there was always only one plausible outcome for his life. But ‘Yes’ to his prayers for guidance which resulted in “a deepened understanding of myself and my motives, and of where I might best fit and have something useful to share.”1

In high school I cherished the notion of becoming a marine biologist, not because I had the slightest aptitude for it, but because I loved the beaches and tide pools of Northern California and I thought the character and life of Doc in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was worth emulating. I lasted two days in Chemistry I before opting out, shuddering at the long slog through sciences I could admire from afar, but could barely comprehend. Because writing came easily to me and because I loved it, I thought I might be a newspaper journalist. So, I took a double major in Journalism and Religion. Then I discovered I had no appetite to be shouting questions at public figures and I wrote too slowly to meet daily deadlines. Well, okay then. How about religion? I had already tried being a youth pastor, and while I was passable at it, I knew I would inevitably hit the wall over evangelism methods and bowing to authority.

What then? How many ‘what-if’ scenarios could I imagine? I remember climbing an apple tree and writing up a list of pros and cons about going to graduate school in philosophy of religion and becoming a college teacher. I wrote in two columns everything I could think of that would recommend for and against this. And while I wasn’t comfortable with prayer, I laid it all out to God as best I could, what I thought I could do and what I was sure I couldn’t do. Then I showed the list to friends and listened to what they had to say. After that, I went back to the apple tree, and from its branches I put the proposal to God that I was going ahead with plans for graduate school. I felt that I wanted to be a teacher and that I had the qualities for it. I asked God to slam the doors if I wasn’t meant to do this, on the theory that it would take something obvious to pull me up short.

I applied to five universities, got rejected by three, and chose one. My teaching career was a long and winding road, with numerous detours, reversals, chasms and heights. I can’t imagine having done anything else quite so satisfying and challenging.

What if I had decided to take that editorial position right out of college? What if I had followed through on my interest to study Church History at Aberdeen University in Scotland? What if I had turned down the offer to teach at Trinity? Perhaps most important, what if I had skipped the committee meeting at which I met my wife, Joy?

“We all decline so many alternative lives,” comments Mayne, “yet if we’re lucky we end up feeling that the life that has been ours had to be the way it was, and we wouldn’t wish it otherwise.”2

I still love maps and I am blessed to drive with a GPS. In my life, as I look back on it, I imagine God nudging me patiently, adapting on the fly as I swerve or enter a blind alley, graciously offering me another way home, always and ever leading me on to that which lies at the end of this journey.

  1. Mayne, Michael. The Enduring Melody. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2006, p. 137.
  2. Mayne, 137.