The first leaf

There was this tree …

I saw it in the middle of a flat Iowa pasture, standing solitary sentinel over rusty yellow wildflowers and tall weeds spiked with leaves tapering to dagger points. I was conscious of the tender flesh of my palomino’s legs as I guided her closer. Those sharp points would hurt and the mare was skittish anyway. Painfully unexpected scratches by one those plants might land me on my own tender flesh, watching Flicka take off for greener and safer spaces.

But that tree drew me. The summer sky was a cloudless blue, hazy with heat, and the leafless splintered branches twisted into that sky like spear-tipped rockets crazily off course. From my perch on Flicka’s sun-warmed and saddleless back, I could see where the gnarled base had been split by some outside force. One piece drooped close to the level ground beneath it, fastened to what remained of the main trunk by splintered tendons, the once raw wood grayed by exposure to nature’s moods. The larger piece remained upright, vainly pushing dead branches skyward in a search for life.

Life, however, was gone. There was no green, no fruit. It had once been an apple tree, part of a tiny orchard that had long since been abandoned. Only the surrounding stumps testified to its earlier existence. This tree must have been the lone survivor; perhaps bearing such a rich harvest that the owner chose to leave it untouched as long as it proved useful. The lightning strike that had split the trunk had also dealt a fatal blow to its heart. Roots no longer drew sustenance from the loamy soil. And without that living connection to the source of life, no amount of external sunshine was going to resuscitate the stricken tree.

I was eleven, and I was fascinated by the architecture of the barren tree. At the time I wasn’t entertaining lofty philosophical thoughts or analogies about the meaning of roots and life. I just liked the twisted design the branches painted across the horizon. It was cool. Plus, it was the first time I had been allowed to take the mare out of a much smaller paddock, unchaperoned, so I felt very adventurous as we roamed the field. And, I was aware that Mrs. Rust was standing at the back of the farmhouse’s wraparound porch, keeping nervous watch over her young protégé and her aging steed.

That was a very long time ago. Six decades, to be exact. Flicka, Mrs. Rust, the dead apple tree, and even that farmhouse have long since been returned to and become part of the Iowa soil. But the image of that tree has stayed with me and been buttressed by many other trees I’ve seen in the intervening years.

The Ficus Microcarpa trees on Okinawa that display stunning aerial root systems. The stories-tall, military-straight yellow pines prevalent in East Texas. The stately, colorful and leaf-shedding pin oaks in Ohio farmland. The knobby and mysterious cypress trees that flourish in the swamplands of America’s southern states and give rise to dark tales of creatures and nefarious strangers. And what may be my favorite: the banyan tree.

Native to India and other parts of the eastern world but common in Florida, the banyan boasts an astonishing and intricate root system that burrows deep into the ground and also births aerial roots that hang from its many limbs. These trees have an architectural quality that testify to both the order and artistry of the Creator.

At this point, I could wax poetic (that really is a strange phrase) about the many healthy root systems of these trees; the necessity of staying connected, of burrowing deep, of searching out nutrients in challenging and difficult locations – and actually, I will do that in the future. At least I will attempt to do so. That’s kind of the whole point of what I want to say in this blog.

But why do you suppose the image of that first tree, seen so many years ago, has stayed with me in such detail? I think it’s because it has consciously surfaced, countless times, to portray what has felt like the state of my soul. Stricken. Shattered. Broken. Dry, brown and brittle. Lifeless. Useless. Barren. Hopeless. Twisted. Alone. Old.

To be honest – which I intend to be in this medium – I still feel like that occasionally. And it can be brutally hard to overcome those emotions – especially when they seem to be based on facts.

If you haven’t already done the math, I’m in my 7th decade. I’m slowing down, wearing down, breaking down. I’m not whining, I’m just telling the truth. I’m in my last productive season of life, and there’s an expiration date on it that only God knows.

There is, however, a world of difference between how I may feel and what I actually am. Between emotions and truth.

I am not a barren, lifeless, abandoned, lonely tree. To the contrary, God says in Psalm 92 that I am a living, deeply rooted, still-growing, full of sap, green tree – planted by God’s grace and faithfulness in the house of the Lord. And by his grace, even in old age, I can bear fruit.

And so can you, regardless of age or circumstances or emotions – if you are rooted and built up in Christ Jesus (Colossians 2:7); if you have been attached to the Vine (John 15); and if you have been planted by and are drinking from streams of living water (Psalm 1:1-3; John 4:10).

So, in “Reflections of a Green Tree,” I hope to both encourage (1 Thessalonians 5:11,14) and exhort (Hebrews 3:13) as I share thoughts and lessons from my life. And perhaps I can even introduce some of you to the Master Gardener, who once died on a tree in order to give you life.

He is worthy. And he is enough.