I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree*

Photo Cred: Marshall Everett 

Photo Cred: Marshall Everett 

“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” Micah 4:4

There’s a part in the musical “Hamilton” where George Washington has decided not to run for re-election and he sings the above verse from the prophet Micah. He explains to Alexander Hamilton why he’s done being president, as he dictates his farewell address to him. He says he wants to sit under his own vine and fig tree—“a moment alone in the shade, at home in the nation we’ve made.”

One of the many genius things about “Hamilton” is that Lin-Manuel Miranda knows the writings of the founding fathers so well that he is able to weave real historical quotes into the lyrics and dialogue of the musical. I learned this week that the real George Washington actually quoted this verse more than once in his public writings, most notably in this beautiful letter to a Jewish Congregation in Rhode Island in 1790. While it’s depicted in the spirit of his rest and retirement in “Hamilton,” it was more often used to explore his dreams of religious liberty and peace that Washington loved to evoke in his writings. This all came to mind as I was thinking of figs this week (that’s our Icon), and it seemed timely, as it’s peace week and today happens to be the International Day of Peace. 

In thinking of this verse as it’s portrayed in these contexts, something came up for me:  

Would sitting under my own vine and fig tree make me feel peaceful and at rest? Not really...because I am not so good with plants. 

No one told me retiring to the peaceful Kingdom of God involved gardening.

Do you ever play the game I like to call, “instead ofs”? Say to yourself, “Instead of _______, I wish the Bible said ________. Well, I wish it said: “Everyone will sit under their own cabana and drink their own piña coladas” but, instead, we will tend to our own bushes, we will work the ground to make something beautiful and fruitful and it will belong to us

So, in this peaceful Kingdom of God that Micah is describing, we may actually be doing a little work. If we read it this way, I think it’s saying something deep about God’s character.

There is nothing in this creation that God will fail to redeem—and I don’t know about you, but work surely needs redemption from where I sit.

My attitudes around my work are far from peaceful. I toggle between burning the candle at both ends and burning out. I put too much value in how I’m performing as an artist and teacher, and when it doesn’t go perfectly, I feel defeated and lose my joy.

Somewhere along the way, my work became my worth.

And when you’re in the business of making things, like we artists do— making personal, deeply-felt things—when your vine and fig tree are synonymous to who you are, your work (read: worth) feels particularly vulnerable, volatile, and the opposite of peaceful. 

Maybe this verse is more about claiming the space for our own personal gardens to bloom and bear fruit. If so, it convinces me that God cares about not only how we live, but the art we make.

Any gardener knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in regards to working with the earth. My mother-in-law, a certified “plant whisperer,” comes to our home every couple of weeks and moves the plants around, watering, pruning, talking sweetly to them.... and lo and behold, these actions yield amazing results, better than Edwin or I could ever do. There’s a Spirit in collaboration with her in making those plants flourish, something beyond fertilizer and water and sunlight in the right amounts.

What if we too have a Collaborator with us in our work and in our harvest?

This wouldn’t allow us to take all the credit when things go well nor despair too deeply when they don’t.  

The life that George Washington longed for and the Kingdom of God that Micah foretold aren’t here yet. But, I believe that when Jesus came to live among us, parts of that world have entered into this one and remnants of it exist today. When we open ourselves up to the potential of our creative gardens within, we claim our spot for a fig tree and vine, a spot that can only be claimed by us. And our work matters, the things we make matter, so much so that God wants us to perfect that relationship with things to which we tend.

I want to make space for my creative self to be open to collaborating with God...who, by the way, lest we forget...is willing to get into the dirt with us. That means courage, patience, gentleness, and the right amounts of fertilizer, water and sunlight...and only you and your Maker can create the fertile ground for your fig tree and vine to become all that they were destined to be.

Next Tuesday, September 25, at Grace, we are starting a new Artist’s Way Creative Cluster—around these very topics of creativity and spirituality. If you’re looking for a community to help you heal or activate your creative impulse, this is it! 

There were surely people who made George Washington afraid as he tended to his vines and fig trees in the fertile fruit of his labor, America. And so there will be those making us afraid for a time, too. But we wait in the hope that the great Collaborator will return one day to bring the real peace—redeeming our relationships with each other, with our work, and with that elusive thing called rest.  

 *Title comes from the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer