My husband ran a trail marathon at our local state park this past weekend, and I went out to cheer him -- and the other runners -- on. The marathon organizers had put mile markers out, as well as other signs of encouragement or warning. The one I saw as I was walking back to the finish line said, "Welcome to Cemetery Hill." You might think that's a discouraging sign or a word of warning, but it's the last big climb before the finish, and an old family cemetery sits at the top of the hill.
After the race, Chris and I were talking about the signs, and he mentioned one that has really stuck with me: "Beware the Tree of Death." Now, before all you Harry Potter fans head out to the park and start searching for the real, live Whomping Willow tree, let me explain.
Trees can definitely be a runner's friend, providing shade on a hot day, a good prop for stretching out, a back rest after you're done and need to sit for a bit, or even a privacy barrier when, ahem, nature calls. But a tree's roots sticking up from the ground can range from a mere nuisance to downright danger, especially on narrow trails like some in this race. That's what the sign was cautioning: Keep your eyes on the ground ahead as you run through here, or you'll find yourself at eye-level with the ground before you know it. Apparently this tree's gnarly roots are such a tripping hazard that they warrant a warning sign.
The Tree of Death got me thinking back to the Bible. There's a Tree of Life at the beginning (Genesis) and end (Revelation) of the Bible, and I'll talk more of that tree another time. There isn't a Tree of Death, though there are plenty of dead or dying trees throughout the Bible.
Isaiah warns of a foolish carpenter who cuts down a tree for good uses (wood to create a fire to warm himself and cook food) but then makes a terrible mistake of carving the remaining wood into an idol.
"No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, 'Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?' He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, 'Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'" (Isaiah 44:19-20, NIV)
I think that passage comes as close to talking about a tree of death as there is in the Bible. In the carpenter's case, he created an idol out of leftover wood after he was warm enough and full enough of food, but the passage cautions that in doing so, he was feeding on something dangerous -- the desire to worship something tangible instead of staying focused on God. He's so deceived by his idol that he cannot even realize that the block of wood is not something that can save him.
The idols we worship can likewise become huge stumbling blocks in our walk with God. They can start out seeming like necessary parts of our life, just as the wood for fire was to the carpenter. But we can distort their good purposes and begin relying on them for fulfillment rather than relying on God.
The roots in your path
What are your idols? What roots are waiting along your path to trip you? Unlike the trail marathon, there's not always a handy sign to warn us that we're even in danger, and it's likely something more difficult to identify than the carpenter's carved idol.
Lent begins tomorrow, a traditional time of giving up something until Easter. For many of you that may take the form of chocolate or alcohol. I also hope we will use this season as a reminder to be vigilant for the more insidious idols -- objects or activities or passions that could be our own "tree of death." After all, once we know what roots lie ahead, we can learn to avoid them and keep on running a strong race.