October 08, 2020
Damon and I had a wonderful week in Estes Park last week celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary. Thank you for all of your well wishes! We stayed a few nights in a cabin at the YMCA of the Rockies and one tree that was just yards from our front porch gave me some powerful moments of reflection and insight.
This lone tree stood majestic in the middle of a sparse field. As I looked at it from 30-40 feet away, I contemplated the contrast of its height and majesty compared to its sparse and thinning branches. You could literally see the outline of the Rocky Mountains through its branches. And through these sprawling stick-like arms, I marveled at the beauty of the ever-changing sky that shifted colors frequently due to changing winds, smoke/debris from wildfires, and the setting sun. As I softened my gaze, the branches became like frames that held the silent motion picture of clouds and haze moving in slow-motion behind it.
It was a breathtaking sight. I wondered how old the tree was and how long it had been there and why it stood by itself. Had there once been other trees around it? Was it planted here intentionally to stand by itself? It’s an odd sight to see a lone tree this big at a place where almost everywhere else trees are clustered densely together as forest, blocking whatever stands behind them. Unlike all the other trees in that area, this tree allowed the beauty of the surrounding landscape to take center stage, which in turn, enhanced the tree’s own beauty and strength.
Eventually I got up from my chair on the porch and walked closer to the tree to study it. And what I noticed really struck me. Much of the tree was dying from beetles or disease or something else (I’m not sure). Many branches were already dead or had been cut off, while the few branches still on the tree were struggling to survive. There were other tree stumps around it that had been cut down, indicating other trees around it maybe didn’t make it. The very thing that I thought made this tree so beautiful was something that was causing disease, decay, death. Had it been fully healthy and lush, my experience of this tree would not have been the same. What looked like life and beauty to me from far away, was actually death, decay, and disease up close.
This tree invited me to examine three different perspectives/insights:
First, it’s always good to take a second look and examine more closely those things which look healthy and thriving to us on first glance. Maybe someone that we think is beautiful, successful, and strong because of how they portray themselves (or how we see them) is actually suffering and hurting and we don’t know it because we never stop to truly get to know them or ask them genuinely how they are. This seems especially important in an age of Facebook, Tiktok, and Instagram – where we can craft our image and how we are doing based on the pictures we post – disclosing what we want to disclose and hiding other parts of ourselves, or at the very least, not showing the fullness of our life experiences or sharing the fullness of our story. Thank you Pastor Morgan for the reminder in your sermon last Sunday about learning to tell and re-tell our story!
Second, signs of decay, disease, or death and/or experiences of struggle and illness do not preclude us from being beautiful and strong. In fact, our suffering, or our faults and frailties could even enhance our beauty or strengthen our presence or allow someone else to see or experience something they otherwise would not see or experience. This is not to say we glorify suffering or justify needless suffering. Rather, in our imperfections, beauty and inspiration can be seen, and perhaps even enhanced. Without the dead branches gone off this tree or the disease keeping new leaves from growing, I would not have been able to see the glorious mountains and sky behind it. Beauty is not about perfection or our own perfect health, sometimes it is about our imperfections and how those allow us to see something differently. Perfection rarely inspires. Imperfection, vulnerability, and authenticity inspire.
Third, how does how we stand and place ourselves in the world allow people to see not just ourselves, but the landscape (i.e. people, world, circumstances, situations) around us? When I looked at this tree, I saw not just the beauty and strength of the tree itself, but the beauty and strength of everything around it. Just as this tree enhanced the mountain landscape and sunset to me, how do I stand and be in the world in such a way that allows people not just to see me, but to also see others around me? Is how I live in the world self-serving OR do I live in a way that illuminates the life, beauty, voice, and perspective of others around me?
These are just three of the thoughts/perspectives that came to me the longer I stared at this tree. There are so many ways to see things in the world, and many ways to interpret what we see. In the end, I suppose the most important thing is to stop and take the time to actually see what is in front of us (rather than just keeping our heads down or looking away or ignoring), and then to draw in closer to take a second look and make sure we are understanding the complexity of the full picture rather than just taking what we see at first glance as the full truth.
There’s a lot we can learn from trees. And one another.
I love being a student of life, of faith, of nature, of people…don’t you?