“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’” - Gen 2:16,17 NIV
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”
- Gen 3:6 NIV
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” - 2 Cor 12:7-9 NIV
“So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.” – Ruth 1:22 NIV
“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.”
- Is 55:8 NIV
I’ve been watching trees a lot lately. I mean this literally and figuratively. I take a long walk in my neighborhood nearly every morning and I’ve become captivated with the transition and beauty of the trees as they transform from the lifelessness of winter into the hope and newness that spring brings. Every day, there’s a little more growth to be seen as leaves, color, and fragrance emerge in small, subtle bursts. There are times I get lost in my mind, analyzing all the little things in my life for meaning and then I chide myself for paying such close attention to the particulars when there’s a ginormous world with ginormous problems breaking God’s heart. But then I look more closely at a flowering tree, and I see the intricacies in each petal, the subtle sway of a leaf in the breeze, and I realize that there is no way to notice such things unless you are being slow and particular and focused. And so I search for the balance.
The trees that have claimed my attention in a larger way, though, are of a different sort.
There are tree people and there are forest people. Both are important, and desperately need each other. Forest people gravitate towards the big picture; there’s an expansive sense of vision for the greater community. Sometimes I am a forest person; that is in situations such as world events or politics I tend to view the big picture in sort of interpreting God’s movement in the world. Forest vision reminds me that it just isn’t about me, and life is not fragmented into little tiny individual boxes where one person’s choices do not spill over into another’s compartment. What I may personally lose might be for the better gain of society as a whole.
For most things, though, I am a tree person. I observe the particularities of the people and circumstances around me, and zero in to search for meaning. This is important because when viewing things through the lens of forest only, beauty and pain, among other things, can be missed altogether or abruptly ignored, sadly, maddeningly, heart-wrenchingly so. There, alone and hidden in the middle of a million brazen, healthy trees can be one dying tree, but that dying tree can bear the marks of perhaps what once was or could be a beautiful fruit-filled, community-nourishing life. If there are no tree people to observe this, the forest will groan with mourning when death comes and the beauty of that tree is never cried for.
My own trees, though, have been consuming me lately, and I’m not sure whether I should stay and soak in this tree-staring season for awhile or if I need to snap out of it. It’s one thing to turn on my forest vision because it is imperative to remember there’s a bigger story going on. It is quite another to try and avoid having to deal with the immediate trees in front of me that in whatever way are causing me grief, just because I don’t feel like it.
If my life of late were to be measured by the hours in a day, I think I’m hovering in those moments where night makes its last gasp as streaks of brightness and clarity breathlessly announce the arrival of the sun. There was a dark night; one that probably would be small potatoes for many people who can internally juggle the complexities of life in ways that I can’t, but to the moderately intense and overly contemplative (aka me), it was a long, dark, mysterious thing. I’m not there anymore. I finally handed the bag of breadcrumbs over to God, full well knowing He is the only One who knows the path. He had good things planned in this dark night; I never doubted that, just ached that it seemed so long. Still I await the full presence of sunshine, warming and illuminating my path in clearer ways. It is nothing I am entitled to. Yet I look for it because God promises it will come.
How tempted I am to manage the trees. There are some here that I lament the presence of, such as the Tree of My Own Awkwardness. Just as its name, it juts and bends in ways that make it stand out and not seem to fit. It blocks the path through the forest, forcing extra steps to deal with its intrusiveness. Its fruit is misshapen. The color seems off. It tastes as perfectly sweet inside compared to the beautiful-looking fruit, yet I fear it dilutes the grandeur and majesty the forest, in my belief, is meant to exclaim. I despise this tree at times. I envision all that it keeps the forest from producing.
There are other trees I don’t get. I don’t get why they are there or their particular placement within the forest. Some of the trees I love and cherish, at times to the point of worship because of how much I enjoy their fruit and beauty. Sometimes, though, I’ve heard the pain-stricken call that they must be removed for the sake of the forest. I’ve wailed as they’ve come down, all the while knowing they had to, for a bazillion holy reasons, all culminating into the only reason that matters, which is Because He Said They Must.
And some trees I hate. Some have toxic roots that threaten to poison all the other trees around them and I wait in desperate anxiety for them to be removed. But the work is too big for me. I hack away over and over, and the bark chips and splinters. Progress is made. But the stranglehold of the roots underneath the soil into my heart is no match for me and my little ax of determination, pure as my endeavor may be. All I can do is trust and listen for Someone Stronger to do the work of excavation, even as He tells me to keep swinging. I stand helplessly by, humbled, as He sets the pace. If I am out of sync with Him, I labor in vain.
So yes, I’ve been staring at a lot of bark lately. I’ve been going from tree to tree, feeling, smelling, staring. Trying to figure out why some of them are there. Wondering when others will finally start to bear fruit. Hoping some will be removed. Desperately fearful that others will be removed. I continually resist the temptations to compare and to strategize. And I’m tired from all of it. Perhaps it’s time to just sit in the forest and worship the Someone Stronger, that He would even care about me and my trees.
When Eve walked through the garden, the serpent told her that managing the trees herself would be worth her while; more so, she could manage things better than God could. He told her that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil had a different purpose altogether that God was preventing her from experiencing. But she was never the author of the tree or the garden or of herself. She was merely placed there.
Trace a path through the verses at the start of this post. Eve, Paul, Naomi, Jen……we all struggle(d) with our trees. Things could be so much different if, well, the trees were different. But the trees aren’t different. They are the trees they are, in the places they are, and anguished or not, our walk is in believing that God knows full well how to manage them, maneuver us around the ones we cannot move past on our own, and provide us all we need to exist among them if it is not in His will that they are immediately disposed of. The barley harvest had already started for Naomi before her dawn broke, though she could see no evidence of light approaching. Paul pleaded for God to remove the thorn that he believed hindered him from serving God more successfully. God said His grace was enough. He left the thorn where it was. He didn’t remove that tree. Eve believed God was withholding the best from her, and so she took the tree into her own hands……
Observing bark is probably what I do best. It is in stopping and being still and noticing the intricacies of life that are right in front of me that the rest of the forest begins to make sense. I can’t escape the blazing truth that everything has intentionality to it, and the razory small pattern of the bark on one small tree is absolutely connected to a gigantic oak in another forest on the other side of creation, even if I never in this lifetime figure out how. It is that way because God says it is so. And so therein lies the tension within my identity…….bark or forest, I search for God’s leading and definition in my life and in the world around me, never quite feeling like, ridiculously, I’ve gotten Him figured out for long. But long enough to trust Him with the trees and the forest.
I need to thank my friend deAnn for letting me use her tree/forest analogy. Of course, it is now mine forevermore. Wink, wink.