The lower falls on the Yellowstone River tumbled perfectly in the just-right summer heat. A coniferous tang brushed over the family in waves and the breeze swayed the thousands of perfect pines together. Beautiful.
My eyes followed the canyon rim, down the ledge from the scenic overlook, to the base of a nearby hoodoo, one of those impossibly-balanced towers of rock. Then up the colored layers of time laid down in stripes, all the way to the top, where a twisted and craggy pine was hanging on for dear life. It seemed out of place both because it “shouldn’t” have been able to grow there and because of the comparison to other trees.
Its stunted trunk was turned back and forth in a way that should have choked off the flow of sap, but deep green needles bunched on every branch. The bark was in mangy condition. And the roots had wedged themselves into crevices barely large enough to support moss. The tree wasn’t ugly, exactly, but it held my attention as an impressive side show act of nature.
Presumably, the tree was as old as other larger trees nearby. The original seed had floated into a rough-hewn crack and done what seeds do, despite the narrow opportunity. Meanwhile, the sibling seeds had probably found actual soils. By now those other seeds were probably twice as big, more majestic, and certainly straighter, more the way trees were “meant” to be. I wondered if the hoodoo tree ever regretted its placement or got tired of the miserly nutrients conceded by the rock.
Of course, it’s only thinking beings that bother with questioning their own instincts. Plants will simply grow as much as they can within the limits of their environment. It’s automatic. There is no need to evaluate the environment beyond certain basics, no mechanism of calculating future risks, nor choosing other sites. The seed, with just a few minimal cues, takes root and makes a life right where it lands. The sapling does not bother with self-evaluation, nor with comparison with well-sited brothers, nor with imagining what might have been. In the end, if the tree grows ugly, it still wins because it still lives. That has its own kind of beauty, even when surrounded by trees less bent by circumstance.
How are you reckoning with your site and circumstance?
How can you make the most of the crumbs of soil you have to work with?
How can you be determined to grow by choosing what a plant takes for granted?
When the present shows that you’re trying to make a living clinging to unforgiving granite, do you fail to appreciate that growing ugly can still be a triumph?
Early in this New Year, to cultivate growth in harsh climes or tough soils, I suggest spiritual disciplines. They are the roots that will split rock to find water and live.
Yes, of course, read your Bible, but chew your food slowly. Find some way of slowing yourself down through possibly-familiar texts so that you have to think. Try reading the Bible in a second language if you can. Ask questions like, “Why did God include this detail?” “How would I respond if I were one of the characters?” “How does God’s word or deed tell me about Him?” Find theme verses for your year. One pastor I know begins every day with “May the word of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O God.” (Psalm 19)
Take a time for prayer that is long enough that you run out of words. That way, instead of asking God to “be with” all your concerns, you might be able to take time to be with God. Do that enough and you will realize or renew the truth that prayer is a two-way conversation.
Commit to Sabbath. Do what is good for you to rest: get lost in the woods, read that silly novel series you can’t put down, go for a walk with someone, watch the game, savor the hot drink with Italian suffixes. Defend that day, in its entirety, from incursion. Leave the computer off, set aside a device or two, or at least ignore the news and neglect your email. One day every week. You can’t bear the weight of even the illusion of being essential to God’s world or work. Leave the essential reality to Him. The world will go on without you, thank God.
Decide to wrestle a sin into submission. Choose to do what is necessary. Get the counselor, structure accountability, join the group, ask trusted people to pray for you. If you do manage, by grace, to get the log out of your own eye, you might become particularly useful in the Kingdom. Be ruthless with evil because you have received the mercy of God.
Discern among what you are doing for God in service in the world or church. Ask yourself if it is time to stop doing one ministry or service because it is time to do something new or unusual so that you can be stretched spiritually. If you are too comfortable, you might have stopped growing.
Growth, after all, is the goal. It can be done no matter the soil, no matter the conditions. 2020 was conditions. 2021 will be, too. But should the tree growing atop the hoodoo be any less proud than those straight trees on loamy ground next to the stream? Each has found a way to become what they were meant to be: trees that grow.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy 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 61:1-3, NIV)