Make the Tree Good: the Secret of Bearing Good Fruit

"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit." (Matt 12:33-34 NKJV)

The fall is cherry blossom time in the nation's capital. Our church is just ten miles from the Potomac River and the Capitol Mall. Multitudes stream to the District of Columbia to see these pale pink flowers on the small trees that line the lanes of monuments and memorials. We have a row of them on our church parking lot. I asked our staff this morning if our cherry trees ever produce any cherries. "No, just flowers," was the answer I heard. "That will preach, I thought." It is possible for us to spend our lives in the ministry of music and produce only pretty flowers, not nutritious fruit. People flock to see them in their season, but no one is nourished by them.

In 1975, in my first year of professional music ministry, I prayed a particular passage of Scripture repeatedly. Today my mind pictures myself at twenty-five years of age, much thinner, with hair almost black, and without a beard, kneeling at an old couch in the office that had once been a Sunday School room in an old church building. My Bible in front of me is open to John 15:16, in the King James Version, of course: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain . . ."

I didn't want to be a flash in the pan. In my short teaching career, I had seen band directors who built their programs on their own personalities. When they moved on to larger schools, the band programs they had built fell apart. The base had been removed. I wanted something more in my music ministry. I wanted to build things that would last. I wanted to touch people in a lasting way. Of course, it is for others to say whether my prayers have been answered in the thirty-one years of ministry since those early days. I can only say that I am still learning how to bear fruit that remains, good fruit from a good tree.

As artists, we musicians are focused on the things we produce--our songs, choirs, orchestras, productions, concerts, recordings, and worship services. We are also focused on people. We seek to make disciples of all our singers, players, actors, and technicians. We long to see our brothers and sisters in the church become worshipers in spirit and truth. Souls for the Kingdom, disciples for the Lord, and true hearted, skillful worshipers of God--these are the different kinds of fruit we expect the tree of our life and ministry to bear. The words of Jesus demand that we look inward to the kind of tree we are, not just the type and quality of the fruit hanging on our branches. How can I "make the tree good" so that it can bear good fruit?

A tree that produces good and lasting fruit must, first and foremost, be a spiritual tree.

"God is Spirit," Jesus told us, and this is the absolute key to a fruitful life. We must tend our spirits as a gardener would care for a prize tree in his charge. Music, theatre, drama, visual arts, literature, and all the other arts we deal with are products of the soul, not the spirit. When realize that we are made in the image of God in that we are each a trinity--body, soul and spirit--we can begin to understand how to care for each part of ourselves. Caring for the body is obvious in terms of exercise, rest, nutrition, and stress management. Care for the soul--the intellect and the emotions--is just as readily apparent in continuing education, good mental health, and life-crisis management. Music, literature, drama, and the other arts are outlets for the soul. To sing or play or act or write or read or design or build or to create in any way, refreshes the soul. Bodily exercise and disciplined living are profitable indeed, but we dare not neglect our spirits. "For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim.4:8 NIV).

To carry the tree analogy a little further, spirituality is the life of the tree. With our hands we reach toward the Lord in worship and service just as the leaves of a tree reach for the sun and the atmosphere. We absorb the life-giving energy of God's grace through those outstretched leaves-of-praise-and-service. We also soak up the life-giving water and nutrients from deep in the soil as our roots go down into the truth of God. With limbs reaching up in worship and roots tunneling deep into truth, we are nourished in our spirit-person. Prayer (praise, worship, confession, petition, intercession), reading the Word, worshiping with the saints, working together in the harvest, conversing together within the family of God, and celebrating at the Table of the Lord are all called "means of grace." In other words, these activities form the spiritual disciplines of life that strengthen the spirit. These are ways the Lord has chosen to "make the tree good."

As spiritual as we are, we are still spirits housed in a body and enabled by an eternal soul.

In other words, each one of us is a human tree. The physical, emotional, social, and educational needs of life make the tree good or bad as well. I had a minister of music friend who had worked in a church just ten miles from Lake Michigan. When I visited his church for ministry, I suggested we go to his favorite spot on the lake for a sightseeing trip. To my amazement, he told me he had never been to the lake! He was so absorbed in the ministry of music that he had no life outside of the church. He didn't last long as a music pastor.

We are people, too! We need hobbies and sports and friends and family and recreation just like others do. We need to keep growing intellectually. What I knew in my mid-twenties, kneeling at that couch in my office would not get me through the week today. I needed that master's degree and the doctorate. I needed to sing in the Camden men's chorus in 1975 and to play in the Kingspark Community Band in 2005. I needed to play on the church softball team and follow the Braves, the Bucs, the Rays, and the Razorbacks. I needed to go to the gym and to the beach and to the park. Today I need to ride my bike, read good books, take a role in a play or a class at the university, follow the Nationals, enjoy my classic film collection, and be enriched by the amazing culture in the nation's capital. I won't even mention the blessing of time spent with family and friends. All these things help me be a good tree bearing good fruit.

Finally we get to the art part. Each one of us needs to be an art tree. Yes, we are artists: singers, players, writers, designers, builders, administrators, conductors, actors, and on and on our amazing skill list can go. And these things matter. The fruit hanging out there on the limbs of our lives is important to us and to the Lord of the orchard in which our life-tree stands. "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph 2:10 NIV).

The Lord wants us to bear much good fruit, and he wants our fruit to last a long time. That is why He is so interested in what kind of tree I am, and what kind of tree you are. He doesn't want us to be like those cherry trees on the Mall in DC--all bright and fragrant, drawing the crowds--but never bearing a single piece of fruit that someone can actually eat.

About the Author

Steve Phifer has worked in fulltime music ministry since 1975. He has served on staff at six churches in various parts of the United States during that period, some of them with congregations as large as 2500 people. The focus of Dr. Phifer's ministry has been encouraging individual Christians and entire congregations to submerge themselves fully into the Lord's presence through worship.