The Rev. Barbara Anne Keely smiling

The Rev. Barbara Anne Keely visits after one of her keynote addresses at the 2010 ARMSS convention in Bloomington, Minn. Photo by Duane Sweep

For the Rev. Barbara Anne Keely the Christian's journey can be described through an analogy with trees — trees she grew up around in the northwest and others she watched in winter at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.

Keely, associate professor of Christian education and congregational spirituality at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minn., delivered keynote addresses here  Sept. 10 and 11 at the 2010 convention of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Association of Retired Ministers, Their Spouses or Survivors (ARMSS).

Beginning with the root system and moving outward and upward, Keely used trees as a metaphor for Christian life.

 Keely said a tree's root system represents the relationship with God. "We must be intentional in our rootedness in God so that we will survive the heat and droughts of life. … Without being rooted, a tree will die," she said.

Another aspect of tree roots — spreading as "broad as the reach" of the tree above ground — is the interconnectedness of root system. She pointed out that the loss of one tree's root system can damage nearby trees.

The complementary relationships of the root systems exhibit the need for community among Christians.

She said she was disturbed by some who use the "battery" as an analogy for their life's journey. Batteries require charging but then work independently from the power source, she said.

"Why do they choose to get charged up and then disconnect from the power source?" Keely asked, arguing that a well-rooted tree stays connected.

Above ground, she said, "The trunk of the tree gives it both definition and substance." While all trees have "much in common in many ways," she said they are — just like people — all "very unique."

The trunk reminds her, too, of the commandment to "love your neighbors as yourself." But she added, "Sometimes those of us who are ministers forget the last part of the phrase." And that brought Keely to another aspect of trees. "We need each other to lean on," she added, pointing out the ability of strong, healthy trees — and others — to provide support.

"A tree is kept alive," she said, "by a strong, healthy trunk and a deep root system."

Healthy trees also have the ability to be resilient. Keely recalled the trees she saw in winter at Montreat. She described how the tree branches dipped downward under heavy snow, dropped the snow and then bounced back up, Keely said, "Sometimes we need moments of passionate renewal."

An ordained Presbyterian minister and an oblate of the Order of St. Benedict, Keely said the trees branches are a "manifestation of us reaching out."

And that’s where Keely's presentation, "Growing Our Relationship with God: Going Deep and Reaching Wide," spoke to the convention’s theme, "Called to a Lifetime of Service – God's Plan or Ours."

She pointed out the tree's value to the world "is to produce something of value to the world, be it fruit or foliage." And she added, "We live not for ourself, but for the purpose of God in the world," working toward the "salvation of the world through our service."

Just as a tree, Keely said, "We need to be deeply rooted to draw our strength" while above ground we are "empowered by the Holy Spirit."

Duane Sweep is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.