“ . . . . to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.” – Isaiah 61:3
I’ve spent more time than usual reflecting on a very common tree where I live – the oak. This passage in Isaiah 61 interestingly entered my summer at the same time we were remodeling our kitchen, and one of the main items we had to make decisions about remodeling was our oak cabinets.
Yes, oak cabinets. After talking to several people, we learned that our nearly 40-year-old cabinets were good, solid oak. After hearing that, I read that oak trees are considered to be a symbol of strength in many cultures and faiths. Oak wood has been selected by builders of furniture, timber-framed buildings, and even famous historical ships for its strength and endurance, and oak trees can stand up to tornados and hurricanes because of their incredible root systems. Clearly, cabinets made of oak would be cabinets to keep.
However, my oak cabinets didn’t look like anything I’d want to keep. They weren’t shiny and new like they may have been at one time. They were faded and discolored. Some had water damage. Some wouldn’t stay closed without tying a string or rubber band to the handles to keep them shut. They needed a huge amount of work, but refinishing them would save a lot of money compared to tearing them all out and replacing them with new, possibly poorer quality wood.
So, the renovation began, with the decision to paint them white. When we told people we were going to paint them on our own, most gave us encouragement, but also raised eyebrows and comments such as, “Cabinets can be tricky to paint correctly,” or “Okay, well, good luck!” After looking through several kitchen remodeling books and websites, we felt ready to try. We drove to Home Depot with a list of supplies to help us clean, sand, prime, and paint our precious oak.
About two days into the cleaning and sanding process, in 100 degree heat, with only 8 of 23 cabinet doors done, I remembered this verse I had heard about being “oaks of righteousness.” You see, I was trying to be that oak of righteousness. I was trying to be strong and positive through this task that now seemed daunting. I could feel my former ambitious attitude waning into a frustrated and grumpy one. So I tried to lovingly scrub and clean the grease and dirt, proudly sand away the dents and dings from these “oaks of righteousness.” I thought about the fact that Jesus was a carpenter and that if Jesus worked with wood, I should enjoy working with wood. I told myself how much more I would appreciate these cabinets once they were done because of all the hard work that went into them. I envisioned them in their glossy coat of white paint. The result of this self-talk? We told our contractor the next day that we would like him to do it.
Now, I know that sounds like the opposite result of what I’d hope any Bible verse to accomplish. But, actually it wasn’t. Even though I had come to terms with spending more money to have a professional paint our cabinets the right way, even though it sounds like I gave up, all my attempts to refurbish those cabinets actually began to refurbish me. All that time I stared at their grain, thinking of the tree they originally came from, thinking of how they had stood the test of time in my house, and how everyone told me they were a good, solid wood, I was reminded of the value and worth God sees in me and the strength he gives me. He values me even when I try and fail, even when I feel I don’t measure up, even when I’m facing a difficult task, even when I feel old and faded like those cabinets! He somehow sees a glossy new and strong me, and will not give up on keeping me rooted.
If God calls his people “oaks of righteousness,” if we are being compared to oak, that fine quality tree, then we are truly valuable in God’s sight. Further, the passage says we are planted for the “display of his splendor.” That means we don’t have to do anything to be valued because he is working through us. We don’t have to be the carpenter and the painter. We reflect him by being who he created us to be and by being grounded in him.
Since that week in my hot garage, I have spent a lot of time looking at my cabinets. I’ve seen them go from old and faded to bright and beautiful. They have survived a lot – many people, many hands, many heavy dishes, hot temperatures. But, with some love and attention, they have become new and refreshed, still holding strong. We survive a lot too. We become faded and worn out, damaged and broken. We encounter many people, carry heavy loads, experience heated and difficult moments. But even when we don’t notice, God is loving us, renewing us.
I shouldn’t be surprised that the day I’m writing this is also September 11th. I shouldn’t be surprised that the day I’m reflecting on “oaks of righteousness” is the same day Americans reflect upon such a devastating day in our history. I think it’s a message God wants us to hear. My prayer is that anyone who is sad, who is hurting, because of 9/11 or any other circumstance, will know who God says they are, will feel his love through the difficulty, will have hope enough to remain rooted in him. He calls us “oaks of righteousness,” so let’s stand firm, be the people he planted us to be, and display his splendor.