by Jake Hall

published in Family Matters Newsletter, February 2015

I love evergreens. We are now firmly in February and I need them. Autumn’s passing and winter’s march have left our part of the world drained of color. Gone is the rose that perched in my window, gone is the pastoral green of the hill across the way, gone is the shade provided by the leaves. The whole world seems cold and dark and waiting for something to warm both hearth and hue. In worship, we have reached the season of Lent, a season marked by contrasts of dark and light, virtue and vice.

At Highland Hills, we use symbols to create sacred spaces in which we worship, learn, and serve God. For me one of those symbols lives as a reminder on the front of the bulletin and on the wall near the porte-cochere. It is a tree, an evergreen. Evergreens remind us of the persistent life in all things. They are living symbols of vitality and they just remind me of the ongoing work of the creator.  

For around 60 years, the outside wall of the church, at the parlor entrance, has hosted a live loquat tree. The loquat tree has been cultivated and its leaves used for medicine, its fruit used for wine and stature for beauty. Its presence by the porte-cochere is no accident. Founding member, Mary Willingham, planted, planned, and espaliered this evergreen on the wall of the church. Espalier is a practice of training a tree to grow against a wall, or structure what provides protection and warmth. Careful bending and pruning forces the energy of the tree away from vigorous vertical growth towards natural branches that flower and produce fruit. The process of espalier causes the tree to produce flowers and fruit at a higher rate that ordinary trees.

The Lenten season provides us a similar process, structure, and space. During this season, we are encouraged to consider carefully how we are living and where we are directing our energy. One popular way to do this is to give something up—something that is bad for you or something that distracts you from what you should be doing. Others take on a practice that adds to or nurtures their spiritual life. This kind of life pruning forces our energies away from our well-kept vices and directs our time and attention towards producing the fruit of the spirit in our lives. The presence of love, joy, peace, and compassion in life is no accident. These qualities come through the careful cultivation of a life that grows towards God.