Trees of Life

I have been doing a lot of thinking about trees lately. My ruminations go back to when I read a book called America’s Famous and Historic Trees. This book chronicles the story of trees that are associated with famous historical figures or events, such as the tulip poplar that George Washington planted at Mount Vernon, or the Honey Locust where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. I even found out there are places where you buy seeds from these historic trees. Imagine, you can plant a tree in your yard that is an offspring of the actual magnolia Andrew Jackson planted in front of the White House, or have a pin oak that comes from Graceland, or sit under the shade of a red maple from Walden Woods where Thoreau lived and wrote.

I have seriously considered purchasing one of these famous trees. It is the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Oak. The seedlings are grown from a tree in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was here, during the Valley Campaign, that Stonewall Jackson would retire early in the morning to begin his day in prayer. (In case you didn’t know, Jackson was a devout Christian man. He actually would not go into battle on Sunday because he did not want to dishonor the Sabbath!)

There is something comforting about trees. They evoke feelings of confidence, strength, stability. When all of life is insecure and chaotic, trees stand as steady reminders of realities that are permanent and sure. There is integrity in a tree; character in its limbs and virtue in its branches. No wonder the Scriptures use trees as emblems of the security found in righteous living.

I remember the trees I knew as child. I grew up in the suburbs of Richmond. We lived on a fair-sized piece of property—actually three lots that totaled about an acre of land. Our yard was filled with plants of all kinds. My mother had a green thumb extraordinaire. She was one of those people who seemed to be able to revive a nearly dead plant just by touching it. I fondly remember the flourishing beds of irises, jonquils, hyacinths and tiger lilies. And the roses! My… the wondrous sight and smell of those roses. My mother loved roses, and they appeared to love her in return. They thrived under her care. And then there were the trees. Lots of trees.

Some of the trees in our yard my father planted… apple and plum and cedar. But most of the trees were already there when we moved in. In fact, it was the attractiveness of the yard, with all its flowers and plants that first attracted my mother to this place. Including the trees. It was like they had grown there in anticipation of being loved by her, by all our family.

The first of these trees that I remember was a stately pecan tree. It grew very close to our back door. It was very tall, towering over our two-story home. Its limbs sort of embraced the back of our house. Its shade cooled the exterior, and provided a wonderful place for social gatherings. In my mind I can still see family reunions, neighborhood parties, special celebrations, yard sales and picnics—all being enjoyed under the shade of that noble old pecan. I don’t know its age, but it must have been ancient to be as large as it was. In addition to its shade, it annually provided us with a rich harvest of nuts, tons of leaves to rake in the fall, and hours of rest under its shade. My bedroom was at the rear of the house, so I grew up looking out at the world through its boughs. You might say that much of my early view of life was seen through the branches of this pecan tree. My perspectives and attitudes were colored by the greens and yellows of its leaves, framed by the wintry bareness of its branches. I loved, and still love, that old tree.

We had other nut trees. Not too far from one corner of the house was an English walnut. I can still see its yellow foliage in autumn. I can still recall the pungent odor of its leaves when crushed in my curious hands. And I remember when it fell, toppled by a high wind. In a valiant effort at life, the trunk produced small branches with gigantic leaves the next summer. But it was a futile attempt, and sadly the trunk had to be cut down. Stretching out from the trunk of the English walnut was a grape vine that produced a deliciously sour grape. It made excellent juice and jelly. This vine ran from the English walnut straight back through the yard until it almost touched the trunk of another walnut tree, a black walnut tree this time. No child should grow up without playing with the grimy, messy, slimy husks of a black walnut. What loads of dirty fun! I think that black walnuts may be a good symbol of life. You have to get through all the junk and crud to get at the meat, the yummy kernels of joy in life.

In our front yard there was a handsome old cedar. It was ancient enough that there were no branches anywhere near the ground. They were all very high up. This tree also suffered damage from a wind storm. We had the remnants of a hurricane come through. However, by the time the system reached Richmond, its worse winds were mostly spent and, oddly enough, only blowing at tree top level. We felt nothing at ground level, but up in the trees there was whistling and wailing as the winds rocked the tops of the trees back and forth. This old cedar fought the winds with resolve. But it was a losing battle. The very top of the tree broke off, its future now determined forever. It would not grow to any greater heights. But there was different fate in store for this patrician plant. For years we watched as a wisteria vine climbed its way up the height of this cedar until it reached the very top. And then when the wisteria would bloom! My! What an incredible sight. A lavender sheet of floral flame from ground to treetop glory. You may think I exaggerate, but I do not. We actually used to have people stop, pull their cars over, and get out just to gaze on this botanical wonder. It was truly awesome.

It occurs to me that this cedar also has a life lesson for us. Sometimes the hurricane forces of life seem to cut us off, block our growth, and kill our potential to reach the high places of life. But God in His great wisdom always has a better plan. Our stifled potential may only be an opportunity for great beauty to be produced in our lives. How awesome is our God!

I must hasten on if I am to even briefly mention some of the other trees in this child’s garden of Eden. There was the damson tree with its sweet fruit. (If you don’t know what a damson is, just imagine a small plum-like fruit.) There was a gorgeous apple tree, with the most delicious apples I have ever eaten. What dear memories I have of throwing apples in juvenile mock wars, mouth-watering fried pies, and soothing hugs amidst tearful wails given to lessen the pain of yellow jacket stings—all gifts of this kindly tree. There was the red bud tree with its heart-shaped leaves, exotic seed pods, and purplish blossoms. This must have been a very old red bud, for its trunk was thick and its branches sturdy. It was the perfect climbing tree for a young child. It stood in a comely row, between a majestic holly and a gorgeous crepe myrtle. What a charming tree that crepe myrtle was. And how I miss those hot-pink blossoms that announced the midpoint of summer, a cheerful sight on muggy days that were otherwise miserable. (I know I shouldn’t say this—I should be thankful for all seasons—but I do hate the heat of summer. I often say, I know I don’t want to go to hell. I can’t even tolerate July!)

Perhaps that book on historic trees is not the only reason trees are prominent in my mind right now. Lately, life has been somewhat chaotic. The past few months have been very busy… seminars, classes, preaching, traveling. I have done quite a bit of counseling. There have been people struggling with discouragement, depression and emotional trauma. And I often have felt very stressed. But then I remember, the words of the Psalmist, speaking of the man who walks a righteous spiritual path….

“He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, which brings forth fruit in season, his leaf also shall not wither and whatever he does shall prosper.”

And then I remember, that despite all the winds and storms of life, there is a sureness and steadfastness to be found in trusting in our great God… the Lord of life who created trees. It gives me hope and confidence. The One who made the oak also made me. And He will carry me through this time of stress and busyness. I can rely on Him.

And so…

I think I will go out into the woods, far from all people and traffic and human noise, and find a tree. I will sit in its shade, lean against it solid trunk, and learn of strength from its steadfast stand. I will let its leafy arms shield me from the blowing worries of life. I will revel in the beauty of its branches. And I will worship the God who wisely made trees.

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