I started my half day retreat with my journal and a chai latte. A spindly tree, devoid of leaves and white as bleached bones caught my eye.
Then I headed into the bush where I meandered and meditated.
It’s one thing when a great old tree comes to the end of its days, with scores or even hundreds of rings exposed once the fallen giant is cut. But it’s sad when a young tree dies.
I wandered amongst the gorgeous tall gums, many with ribbons of red bark hanging off silver trunks. I listened to squawking cockatoos, cackling kookaburras and the ‘toot toot’ of Puffing Billy, the distant steam train. A gentle breeze in the canopy above me rustled the leaves, though down below the air was still. And then, around a bend, I would be confronted with another dead tree.
Why do trees die before their time? Perhaps there are environmental problems, such as strong winds and wet soil combined with root systems that are too small to keep a tree upright during a storm. Perhaps the tree is diseased, infected by insect, fungus or some other pathogen. Perhaps it has been strangled by vines.
Does nobody love these trees? Why has nothing been done to protect them?
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
(Proverbs 3:11-12, quoted also in Hebrews 12:5-6)
As I meandered through the forest, stopping to admire tiny birds which flitted across the path and butterflies which danced in a beam of late afternoon sunlight, I also kept my eyes peeled for lyre birds and kangaroos which I’ve seen here before. And I quietly whistled the tune of the prayer-song, “Search me, O God….”
Towards the end of my retreat afternoon, I sat with a takeaway bowl of Pad Thai by a path running behind homes. The sun, now low in the sky, highlighted scars on a tree. The tree had clearly had some branches removed. It had obviously had vines wrapped around its trunk at some point. But all that was history. The tree is now flourishing. Somebody has cared for it. Somebody loves it.
At home this past week, I arranged to have a diseased branch cut off a gorgeous Japanese maple which graces my front window each year with its autumnal display. I was loath to have the branch removed, but it was diseased. I was concerned that the rest of the tree would die if I didn’t act quickly. I love that tree.
How much more, then, does God loves us? He loves us too much to let us grow too tall for our root systems to support, to let vines wrap around us and eventually strangle us or to allow the fungus or insect infestation of unconfessed sin to destroy us. Pruning hurts, but it is for our good.
Suffering isn’t all about discipline. Reasons for suffering are usually complex and can rarely be summed up with a simple ‘cause and effect’ statement. Nevertheless, the message of Hebrews 12:4-12 is to accept hardship as divine discipline and to take courage in the midst of it. That’s easy to say when you’re enjoying a glorious afternoon in a gorgeous forest.
As I write, I am grinning after an uneventful physical check-up last week, follow-up from some serious physical ‘pruning’ a couple of years back. Today, God reminded me afresh of the importance of remaining spiritually healthy too, and that means having regular spiritual examinations to nip any problems in the bud.
Speaking of buds, what I’d really like to be in God’s great garden is a rose bush. A fragrant, gorgeous, flourishing rose bush.
But what am I saying? Roses do best with annual pruning!