Figs trees are native to the arid climates of Israel and Iran, and can thrive on sunny slopes in Tuscany. In New York and New Jersey, they are botanical foreigners. Maybe that’s why Italian immigrants were so keen to coax the luscious fruit from their northeast plots. The fig trees reminded them not only of home, but of themselves, transplants struggling to lead fruitful lives in a strange land.
Years ago, you could see fig trees in so many postage-stamp backyards in Queens. Our cousins all had them in Astoria, descendants of clippings carefully tucked into skirt pockets and tattered valises arriving from the old country decades before. One cousin brought a tiny sapling to my mother, who planted it hopefully on the sheltering south side of our New Jersey home.
This tree needed special care. It had to be protected from the cold and damp of our northern winters. Insulated with a mound of dried leaves. Wrapped in a blanket. Covered with plastic.
When the plant was barely knee-high, that was an easy job. But under the care of my mother’s green thumb, the tree grew ever larger, and our task, more challenging. We would cut some side roots, allowing us to ease the tree into a prone position. We’d pile on bushels of leaves and half the contents of our linen closet, then encase it all in a huge tarp, creating a mysterious, lumpy hulk that terrified the neighborhood children.
Then, one autumn came, when I was away at college and could no longer help with putting the fig tree to bed. And that tree had grown too big and my parents had grown too old and they decided “Enough.” Basta. They could no longer tuck it in for its cozy winter slumber. It was the end of an era. We watched it, lifeless, through the winter, and mourned its passing.
Then spring arrived, and amazingly, the tree leafed out, as vigorous as ever. We had babied it, this botanical visitor from another land. We had nursed it along as best we could. But ultimately, the force that kept it alive did so even without our help, and under the most adverse conditions. And though it may have been our imaginations, its fruit tasted even sweeter than before.
I often find myself thinking of the Kingdom of God as something akin to a fig tree in New Jersey, a delicate exotic in need of tender care. To be sure, there’s truth to that. The ways of the kingdom aren’t homegrown, and often don’t feel native to our biology. And never before in my lifetime has the surrounding climate seemed quite so inhospitable. There is no doubt that the buds and shoots of compassion, justice, forgiveness and love are in need of special nurture in these uncertain days.
Yet, the word of good news I need to hear right now – and maybe you do, too – is that the force behind this kingdom is capable of keeping it alive, even under the most adverse conditions, and even when our efforts are flagging. That when those moments arrive and we feel the task of its upkeep has grown beyond our reach, we can rest for a bit, knowing that God is still at work, bringing promises to fruition. It will survive and thrive because it is an unstoppable thing, this kingdom. And, God willing, all will enjoy its sweet fruit.
The Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY. She has one husband, two kids, one dog, five cats and, this year, an outstanding crop of weeds.