I want to be a tree
“I want to be a tree.” I felt these words deep in my bones as I stood before the largest tree in the world. His name is General Sherman, located in Sequoia National Park in California. He is 2,200 years old (already a big tree when Jesus was born). He is 275 feet tall (the WW1 Memorial is 217 feet tall), 36.5 feet in diameter (that’s roughly 4 parking spaces across) and weighs 1,385 tons (that’s about 600 minivans). He is a big tree.
When I saw him, I thought, I want to be a tree. Now, of course I much prefer being a human, made in God’s image, and all that. But. If I could be anything else, I just might pick a tree. At the very least, I want to be the kind of tree talked about in Scripture.
Trees in the Bible
Jeremiah 17:7-8: Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.
I want to be that tree. So rooted in God and drawing on His unending resources that nothing can shake me. When life heats up or droughts last way too long, even then it has no fear and is not anxious. I want to be that tree!
If you are familiar with the Scriptures, you may have noticed how God loves trees. He talks about them all the time. They are in the first pages of our Bibles, the last pages, and even the climax of our story happens on a tree. Trees in Scripture are often a sign of God’s blessing and favor, and humans are encouraged to model our lives in some ways after them and are often compared to them (just a few examples: Psalm 1, Psalm 52:8, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 17:7-8, Matthew 7:17-19).
So when I saw this tree it grabbed me. We actually spent the better part of three days in old growth sequoia groves, far below their towering canopies. We could see these magnificent trees flourishing in every direction. We touched them, smelled them, climbed on the fallen ones, stood inside hollow ones, picniced among them, drove our minivan through one of them, and hiked for miles below their stunning presence. These are the weird things the Millers do on vacation!
Lessons from a Tree
There are many things trees teach us. God’s Word explicitly uses trees as living illustrations and I want to mention three things that make me want to be like a mighty sequoia.
- Take the long view
First, trees take the long view. Every time I plant a tree I feel like it is an act of faith, looking ahead into a distant future. I plant knowing full-well that the greatest size and beauty of this tree could likely be long after I am gone. Planting a tree is always for the people who outlive us. Trees take the long view and they encourage us to do the same.
I have never once looked at a tree and thought, boy, that thing is sure in a hurry. I have never seen one appear to be concerned about the moment or focused solely on the present. Instead, trees give me a sense of history and stability. It has been there a long time and will probably be there a longer time still. Trees are patient.
When I look at my life, I’m almost always in a hurry and obsessed with right now. It is easy in a year filled with as much turmoil as 2020 to imagine that things have never been more challenging or more divisive or disappointing. I’ve caught myself thinking things like: never before has our nation been so divided. Never has a virus had so much influence. Never has being a pastor (or parent, or teacher, or business leader, or medical professional—fill in the blank) been more exhausting.
Then I look at this tree. How many revolutions, civil wars, and contentious elections has it seen? How many nations rise and fall? How many viruses and diseases, economic downturns, and unanticipated situations? How many pastors come and go and how many apparent setbacks or divisions within the broader church?
Oh right. I’m probably not the first human to feel any of these things.
Of course, none of this minimizes the things we are feeling today. Our struggles are uniquely our own and as such, feel uniquely personal. Yet instead of looking at the last eight months, or the last four years, or even the 40+ years I’ve been alive, a tree reminds me that God also sees a bigger picture. And I need that bigger perspective.
Psalm 90:1–4: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
A tree has seen a lot.
God has seen it all.
Nothing surprises Him or catches Him off guard, and as such, I can, like a tree, wait patiently. I can trust in Him and rest in His provision. Trees encourage me to take the long view.
- Suffer with purpose
They also encourage me to suffer with purpose. I find this remarkable about sequoia trees; sequoias are quite literally built for suffering and come out better because of it.
I tend to worry about all the fires in California and everywhere out west. Even more, I worry about the fires in my own life and work and relationships. Not only are sequoias designed to withstand most forest fires, they actually need the fires in order to thrive.
Just look at this sequoia cone, no bigger than a small chicken egg, with tiny seeds embedded. And look behind at the dark spot at the base of the tree–a burned out hole big enough to camp in. (For you history and nature nerds, this is the same tree John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt camped under in 1903 when they “invented” the National Parks.)
Take a look at that burn mark. It seems impossible to me, yet in all the hiking we did, it was harder to find an old sequoia without burn marks than those with them. I knew the trees needed the fires, but I was surprised to see the majority of them deeply scarred by their environment, yet still massively mighty! How does that work?
You see, the bark of a mature sequoia can measure up to three feet thick (yes, you read that right—three feet) protecting it from almost any fire. It will leave tremendous scars but the tree stands protected. Not only that, the fires actually help the cones open up in order to release the seeds. Fire then burns off any competing plant undergrowth so the new seeds and saplings can flourish at the base of their towering parents. The fires and trees work together demonstrating some of the keys to the trees’ endurance: thick skin, ample pruning, and new growth.
If I am completely honest, 2020 has felt like one fire after another. I still feel the heat, and there is a good chance the burns many of us have experienced could turn into scars. Let’s not naively imagine it all rosy. There are things that, after this year, may never be the same. Not everything survives a forest fire.
I don’t want to be one of the casualties. I want to emerge stronger, with bolder faith, more resilient hope, and deeper compassion. Tender but thick-skinned. I want to see a church purified and pruned, longing for and working toward the Kingdom. I want to sprout new growth in my life, my family, my community, and our church to God’s great glory and our great joy. I want what Peter wrote to be true of us.
1 Peter 1:3–9: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
When I see a scarred sequoia it reminds me to suffer with purpose. I don’t have to enjoy it or pursue it, but I do have to let God use it. If you let Him, He will not waste the fires in your life.
And if you’re thinking, yeah, but how? You are not alone. I feel it right with you. Left to my own devices I tend to retreat back into my self-centered focus on the present and waste my suffering. But there is one more lesson from these mighty trees.
- Stand tall. Together.
Sequoias stand tall together. They need one another and they almost seem to know it. In fact, I was puzzled when the ranger told us that while you may occasionally see a lone sequoia, it will almost certainly fail to flourish. It might survive. It might grow to a decent size and even live to a decent age. But it will never be a giant. It will never really be what it could be. For that to happen, these trees need a community.
You see, sequoias have remarkably shallow roots for their size. Again, imagine a tree that is 275 feet tall, weighing 1385 tons. Think about the foundation required for a building that size. Now picture that tree swaying and being whipped about in storm after storm after storm for 2,200 years. And it’s still standing.
Mature sequoia roots are only 12-14 feet deep. How do they possibly withstand every storm for thousands of years? The roots form a community. They spread out (each sequoia can spread out underground across an entire acre), twisting and turning and intertwining into an entire community of roots, holding each other strong. It can be a cluttered and tangled mess down there yet it allows them to flourish through nearly every storm.
When I am tempted toward despair or apathy, toward destructive distraction or unhealthy busyness, toward doubt or anger, it is the people standing with me who keep me standing.
Who are those trees in your life? How, even in the difficulty of today, are you pursuing those relationships? How are you helping each other stand tall?
Life and community and church all look very different right now. It is hard. Isolation creeps in. Old habits die. If we’re not careful, at some point we’re going to look around and realize that we are alone, and then, even the smaller storms will shake us. What will happen when the big one comes?
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
May our roots grow deeply entwined together, so that in this unusual community, we might stand tall and endure every storm.
Will we be this tree?
Will this be us—God’s church—in this world? Will we be this tree? Rooted in Him and never fearing. When the storms rage, when the fires come, when the immediate feels so pressing. When elections overwhelm us, when viruses disrupt us, when fears and disappointments and frustrations loom. Will we keep trusting? Will we learn from the trees?
Next time you feel the tensions rising up within you, look up at a tree. Sure, you may have trouble finding a sequoia nearby, and not all trees are the same, but any tree will do. Let it remind you anyway.
Take the long view.
Suffer with purpose.
Stand tall together.
And as you look up at the tree, may you also lift your eyes up to the God who promises to make you into the forest described by Isaiah 61:1-3.
For our God comes: …to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.