Who would want to be compared to a lemon tree?
Other trees have more admirable qualities. The strength of an oak. The height of a pine. The beauty of a beech. The stateliness of a magnolia. A lemon tree has none of those things. But it does have one trait that I value more and more as I grow older. A lemon tree bears fruit as long as it lives.
At least, such is the case with the Meyer lemon tree in a pot on my patio. That’s it in the picture above. It’s been with my wife and I for a while. I think it came as a gift—from a family member as I recall—and has been rooted in several places around our house. It started out in a sunny corner of the yard. Later, we replanted it into a container so that we could move it around according to the season. The tree spent a winter in our Florida room, a site that turned out not to have enough sun. We’ve now reached a gentleman’s agreement in which we leave the tree alone in its present location that, while not of its own choosing, it’s managed to make home.
An old tree that still bears fruit
We’re in the middle of a hard winter and you can tell from the picture that my lemon tree looks worn and weary. But looks are deceiving; and in a few months it will be so full of bright, yellow fruit that some of the branches will break beneath the weight. I’ve seen it happen too many times before to doubt that it will happen again.
Not that I’m a good gardener. The fact is, I’ve done about everything possible to kill the tree. Some years I trimmed it back too much. A few winters I left it exposed to the elements. During summer droughts, I often forgot to water it. I fertilized it only on those occasions when I didn’t have anything better to do. And during some seasons I neglected it so much that insects ate the leaves until they looked like latticework. The tree has been reduced more than once to little more than a stick with a few buds hanging on for dear life.
I thought several times about pulling the tree up and starting all over again with a different variety, one less common than a Meyer. A Eureka maybe—the perfectly shaped lemon found in grocery stores. Or a Limequat, a cross between a Key Lime and a Kumquat that tastes as exotic as it sounds. Maybe even a Santa Teresa Feminello—the name alone would impress people. Any other variety would be more imposing than my little Meyer.
Bearing fruit as we grow older is a biblical virtue
But through the years I’ve come to terms with my tree and now don’t mind comparing myself to it. Bearing fruit as I grow older seems to me a thoroughly biblical virtue, so much so that any likeness between us I take as a compliment.
I’ve learned to trust its secret rhythms of grace. They function according to their own nature and somehow defeat my lack of care and casual neglect. When the delicate purple blooms come out in the dead of winter (like it is now) and I lean in close to catch their fragrance, I know that in a few weeks there will be small green lemons making their miraculous appearance. A few months later they’ll grow into lemons so bright I can see them gleaming across the yard at twilight. I remember one year when I pulled off 32 lemons at one time—this from a tree that stands only four feet high! It was like a lit Christmas tree, and the fruit it offered was a gift.
Staying close to God as we grow older is key to fruit-bearing
I thought of my lemon tree this week as I read Psalm 92:12-14
The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.
As the Psalmist describes the life-giving power of worship, he settles on two familiar sights in ancient Israel. A palm tree—we’re familiar with several different species in our own state of South Carolina—and a cedar tree. While the two trees are clearly different in shape and size, they share one enviable trait. They both can live a long time—palm trees can live up to 100 years while cedar trees can live a whopping 1000 years—and throughout their lifetimes both continue to bear fruit. Evangelist Billy Graham, who preached his last crusade at age 85, knew a thing or two about staying fruitful. His explanation was to stay close enough to God:
When granted many years of life, growing old in age is natural, but growing old with grace is a choice. Growing older with grace is possible for all who will set their hearts and minds on the Giver of grace, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I blogged previously on a simple way to stay close to God through prayer. And that’s just what’s in the psalmist’s mind as he prays. A person whose life is properly aligned with God flourishes right up to the time of their death. They bear fruit until they see the Lord face to face.
Like a lemon tree.
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