Atop a panoramic overlook above our home stands a tree beside a trail. For the last 20 years, I have hiked past the tree and noticed increasing numbers of people take it upon themselves to carve their initials into the tree. It is causing damage to the tree and in some places, the bark has died. The long-term survival of the tree is in question. The tree, more scarred than the attached photo can reveal, stands quietly alongside each visitor as they look out over our beautiful valley. Some stand in a moment of reflective silence, others pull out a pocketknife to scar the tree.
When I was a young pastor trying to plant a new church in Montana, we had enough to eat and not much more. Times were tough. In the first few months, we only had a partially intoxicated older woman attending our services. Over the months that followed, we began to see a slow trickle of people begin to attend. I remember a Sunday toward the end of the first year when 10 people showed up. I thought if I quit then at least I would have attained double digits.
One evening in the middle of that first year, I was seated on the couch with my daughter and son. They were both pre-school age. I was reading the classic book titled The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The book is the story of a boy who became middle age and finally an elderly man – all the while in a relationship with a tree. The young boy would swing in the tree’s branches and carved his initials into the tree bark. As the boy grew, he spent less time with the tree and would only visit when he wanted something from the tree, like its fruit and wood.
At each stage of life, the boy would carve his initials into the tree. He also began to cut off the branches to build a home, and then a boat until the tree was only a stump. The boy had finally become an old man. He returned to the tree stump and sat with his old friend. When the final chapter of the tree’s life had come, the author wrote, “The tree was happy.” For the tree, it was always about being in the presence of the boy-turned-old man.
When I finished reading the book to my kids, I began to weep. I felt like the tree was me. I was being cut down, one limb at a time until nothing was left of me. The cuts did not come from my family who loved a supported me but from the demands of ministry and what I naively understood as success. My little ones did not know how to respond to their weeping father. Jan came over and simply laid her hands on me and prayed. I had just experienced a spiritual and emotional cleansing.
What 40+ years of ministry have given to me was the gift of understanding. Our most painful times, the seasons of life when we give it all and we are reduced to a stump of what we used to be, are the times the Lord is putting something into us that will have a much greater value than trying to produce a level of success based only on numbers or someone’s expectations.
There are times when we are called to simply stand like the tree above our home and allow people to leave their mark on our lives. The cuts hurt and will alter our appearance. To someone not in tune with the Spirit, it will look like unnecessary loss or even abuse, but to the Lord, it reminds Him of His time on the Cross. People shouted mockingly at Him to come down and prove He was Lord to stop the pain. What they did not understand, was that only by staying on the Cross could He prove He was their redeeming Lord. Only by sacrifice can we prove to the world we are His followers.