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Keeping life lines clear
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On the southwest corner of our property, just inside the tan brick wall that separates our office from the mad rush of downtown Stockton activity, stands a still tall sentinel of a tree.  With broad leaves expanding wide, it shields us from harsh afternoon sunlight and the endless drone of cross-town traffic.

This friend of St. Mary’s has been growing proudly for perhaps a hundred years. Look at its solid trunk, scarred with numerous burls and the marks of branches cut away.  Count its growth rings - as recently we’ve been tempted to do - and you’ll discover the history of generations in Stockton.

Alongside our monument to nature’s place in the Christian world view, run a number of critical conduits.  These aging pipes carry the life-blood of our office and upstairs lodging for priests, seminarians, and visitors.  Forged in days gone by, they lack some of the essential elements which make modern pipes more resistant to nature’s onslaught.  They are not infallible.

And so it was that, roughly three months ago, we dwellers of the upstairs (from Nigeria, India, Seattle, the Philippines, and even from Stockton) one day sensed that something had changed.  The water that once ran so fresh and transparent suddenly smelled of minerals.  The spigots now spewed out yellower, then tanner, and finally nearly brown liquid.  By mid-July I was already afraid to take a shower, having long since given up brushing my teeth or combing my hair with whatever-that-was.   Yet neither offended nor sickened enough to call in the authorities, we let the whole thing slide.

“I probably dumped too much salt in the filters,” our maintenance person speculated.   As for me, I figured that one of our pipes was shedding its rust.

Strange, how it all got so bad and we just kept minding our business.  That is, until this past Friday, when our man came in covered with new red mud.

“I put my foot in the wet spot, and almost sank to my knee,” he marveled. “I stuck my arm in, and it sunk all the way to my shoulder.”  Now this is a tall man.   He was describing just how much water had escaped the pipes.

Over the years, it turns out, this wonderful guardian of a tree had sent its roots deeper and deeper.  Sensing the presence of water in the pipes, they’d snaked around them and began, gradually, to squeeze, and crush, and bend the helpless rusting metal.  Finally, some months ago, the old arteries began giving away.  Tiny fissures grew soon into expanding cracks, and these, into gaping holes.  Our worker claimed the jets of escaping fluid were strong enough to cut off his fingers.   He began hacking away roots, only to find that the grip of this beloved tree on our water life-line was overpowering.

Now we’re faced with the alternative of a long process of excavation and aggressive trimming back of roots (together with shielding the new pipes) or simply cutting down the tree.  That’s where counting the rings comes in.

Well, while I’m around we’re not going to topple that sentinel of the ages.

We need its shelter, its insulation, its majesty, its message of great patience.

But while we spend a few days restoring and reinforcing our water mains, we’ll be mediating on just what that tree might be teaching us about life.

Today is Sunday.  I’ll spare you the sermon, since you ought to be getting one in your own favorite church.  But I’m sure you, too, will find a treasury of godly wisdom in the dilemma we’ve been facing.  I’d rather dig deeply ahead of time and chop away at hardened roots than have the lifeblood of my salvation choked off or drained away due to my indifference.  There are too many parasites and corruptive forces in this world - often masquerading as benefactors, care-takers, or patronizing partners - to risk being apathetic.

Whatever form that beloved companion takes, we do well to make sure it doesn’t settle in too close to the channels of life-giving water.   In fact, we probably do best to locate those pipes of salvation so deep that no one, and nothing, can reach them without the supernatural grace of Almighty God.
Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church, Stockton.  Written August 22, 2009.