, ,

Maybe it is true that all Christians are trees because they have chosen Christ. I do not believe this is correct. In fact, I know very few people who are trees.

Walter Ciszek was a tree. Walter Ciszek was a young American Jesuit who had been sent to Poland in the late 1930s. Through legitimate but convoluted circumstances, Ciszek ended up working in the Soviet Union, where he was arrested by the Soviets as a spy, and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. One day, Walter Ciszek was a humble Jesuit priest doing the best he could to serve and love God, and the next day, he was arrested, wrongly convicted, and sentenced as a spy. Now in a labor camp in the middle of nowhere, knowing that the American embassy, never mind the Jesuits, had no idea where he was, he wondered how long this would last. A couple of weeks? A couple of years? In 1947, four years after his arrest, the Jesuits declared Ciszek officially dead. From his point of view, he was officially abandoned.

Though he was an innocent man, Ciszek ultimately spent half his life in a labor camp. In 1963, the Soviets released Ciszek and he flew home to the United States. In With God in Russia, he describes what he did as his plane took off from the airport: “Slowly, carefully, I made the sign of the cross over the land I was leaving.”

Only a tree could do that. Had Ciszek been chaff, he would have concluded that the Soviets had unjustly robbed him of half his life and he would have been bitter and angry as a result. That anger would have been directed, for certain, at the Soviets, but if Ciszek were like the rest many of us, he would have been angry with God, perhaps angry enough to have walked away from Him.

Life in a prison camp is harder than any of us can even imagine. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, describes how many of his fellow prisoners in the German concentration camp found life to be so intolerable that they committed suicide by throwing themselves into the high voltage electric fence that surrounded the camp. Frankl, himself, almost died from typhus but many others did not survive that disease or a host of others. Starving to death was the rule, not the exception. The descriptions of life in the concentration camp that Frankl includes in his book brought me to tears. Reading about inhuman brutality conducted on a mass scale was nearly intolerable. Several times I had to stop reading, but was eventually compelled to continue.

Anyone who reads Frankl’s or Ciszek’s accounts must eventually ask the question, “How did they survive?” Each of their books contains the details of their answer to that question, but Psalm 1 provides the fundamental principle, one that applies to every person, in every circumstance, in every age:

He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

A Jewish friend of mine explained why he no longer believed in God. “One word,” he told me. “The holocaust.” Ciszek had a far different reaction to his own personal holocaust: he continued to serve and love God even while in prison. He risked his life to offer communion to those who wanted it. Ciszek was a tree. His roots ran deep; he continued to bear fruit; and his leaves did not wither. When he left the Soviet Union, he blessed the country that had kept him captive for 20 years.

When people wonder, “How did they survive?” you can be sure that the real question is, “How would I survive?” Trees survive. Chaff doesn’t. It is as simple as that.

None of us lives a life that is as difficult as those of Frankl and Ciszek while in their respective prison camps. Regardless, the same principle of survival applies. If the question is, “How am I going to survive, no matter what?”, then the answer is, “Be a tree.”

In the affluent, free West, we entertain the question of survival mostly vicariously as we read books and watch movies. Our wealth and our government protect us from the brutality that much of the rest of the world experiences on a daily basis. My daughter, who lives in Zambia, told me once, “October is not just the start of the rainy season. October is when people in the village start dying from malaria.” That’s brutal. Jesus warned us in the West, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the brutality of life strikes, it is the rich who are least prepared, because we have so much to lose. We are not trees. We are chaff.