[singlepic id=327 w=625 h= float=]This is Austin Smith. He's one of three downtowners from the team that shared their experience in worship on a special Sunday in early November. The full text of Austin Smith's reflection is below. The scripture for that Sunday was Luke 6: 46-49. Oh yeah, that's Austin above on the hills behind Bethel Evangelical Secondary School (BESS). [hr] This morning, I want to talk about sticks. In Ethiopia, sticks are everywhere. They are cut, bundled, and sold for everything from firewood to home building to scaffolding on huge commercial buildings. One of the first things a visitor to Addis Ababa notices is the construction of commercial buildings… everywhere… and the second thing they notice is the sticks. Building after unfinished building all around, five and even ten story towers of concrete, completely enveloped by scaffolding built of sticks. To be clear, this is not machined lumber, but rather limbs or trees with the branches stripped off.
The sticks you see in Ethiopia are from Eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus was first introduced from Australia to the rest of the world by the British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. In the late 1700’s Sir Banks circumnavigated the globe with Captain James Cook to explore the then uncharted lands of the South Pacific. Soon after discovering the tree, people learned that the tree grew at a fantastic rate, and began cultivating it for the medicinal properties of its oil.
A little over a hundred years later, European advisors suggested the fast growing tree to the Emperor Menelik II. The land around his mountain top capital, Entoto, perched above what is now Addis Ababa, had been deforested and the native juniper trees took many years to regrow. Faced with a quickly diminishing supply of building materials and firewood, Menelik directed that the trees be planted all around Entoto and Addis Ababa. The tree, considered an invasive species in some parts of the world, effectively saved the city and allowed it to flourish.
Even today, the trees quite literally fuel a shadow economy of sorts.
An estimated 15,000 women, ranging in age between 10 and 70, make their living selling Eucalyptus branches for fuel wood in Addis Ababa markets. These women and girls, many of them barefoot, pull down branches and bundle 60 to 80 pounds of them to be carried across their narrow shoulders down Mount Entoto.
Some of the women receive support and new opportunity through a network called the Former Women Fuel Wood Carriers Association, otherwise known by the catchy acronym F-W-F-C-A. The women weave scarves and baskets for sale in the markets of the Shiromeda district where our group shopped for souvenirs.
These emerging opportunities are few, however, so many women persist in carrying the sticks. In fact, our group traveled to Entoto to see the home of Emperor Menelik, and during our ascent, we watched from the comfort of our vans as these tiny women bore tremendous loads down the steep grade.
The persistence of these remarkable women is only matched by that of the eucalyptus trees themselves. The speed of Eucalyptus growth is due in large part to the fact that one can cut it to the roots, and new growth will sprout from the stump. The wide, thirsty network of roots sustains the tree as the trunk grows anew. Within ten years, the tree can be harvested again.
Roots, as you all know, are sometimes used as a metaphor for the human experience. When we say we put down roots in a place, we mean to make our home there. This roots metaphor is often swapped out for one used by Jesus in today’s scripture – the foundation that sustains a house. Much like the eucalyptus tree sustained by its roots, Jesus describes a house that withstands a flood due to its solid foundation. This notion of remaining grounded in a set of values, in faithfulness to what God calls us to do and be, can sometimes be enhanced by perspective – perspective that can only be gained by stepping outside of the homes and familiar institutions, even unpleasant ones, that give us comfort.
I’ve been asked a lot why we needed to travel half way across the world to connect with people. Why those in a foreign land, costly and difficult to access, were more worthy of our attention than those in and around our city. I’ve yet to formulate a satisfying answer, but this idea of perspective keeps coming back. I don’t mean the kind that rich people fleetingly gain by stooping to be with poor people and counting their shiny blessings. I mean the kind of perspective that allows you to connect the present with the narrative of your life, and fit it in amongst the worldly, yet heavenly, narratives Jesus delivers in Luke, chapter 6. The kind of perspective that teaches us that a house built on a solid foundation will withstand any flood.
The author and agrarian, Wendell Berry, tells a story about his grandfather and the foundation he built out in the sticks of rural Kentucky. His grandfather, Berry tells us, harbored great affection for his old Kentucky home, and its pastures, animals, and crops. Berry’s grandfather died after 82 years right where he was born – having only ventured far from home once.
In his sixties, Berry’s Grandfather made that only real trip of his life, traveling across Kentucky and into Tennessee with Berry’s father. When they returned to the old Kentucky home, Berry’s father asked him what he thought of the trip. Berry’s grandfather replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”
Berry’s point is about his grandfather’s unwavering affection for his homeplace, but the way I read it, his journey into Tennessee only enhanced his connection to home. His grandfather returned to what really amounts to a pile of sticks on a rock foundation. A foundation that enabled him to persist through storms of creditors, recessions, and wars.
How about your pile of sticks? What will happen when the inevitable flood arrives? Are your sticks likely to end up washing down a gully or are they driven deep into the foundation of God’s grace?