August 15, 2005

An Old Pine Tree

I love trees. There are many wonderful and beautiful trees surrounding the house in which I live: Junipers and Zelkovas and Chinese elms, Redwoods and Mulberry and Sweet Gum, and several others. Most are almost 50 years old, and reach upward about 30-40 feet. They provide nesting places for different species of birds. They provide shade for me and my family. Those that lose their leaves in the fall provide a reminder of the changing seasons.

For four years, I worked at a boy scout camp as nature director. I taught scouts how to tell the difference between a Jeffrey and a Ponderosa; simply pick up a pine cone and say to yourself, "gentle Jeffrey, prickly Ponderosa." At times when I've been surrounded by other tree-lovers, I've even allowed myself, once or twice, to be convinced to hug a tree.

Know what it's like to hug a tree? Well, if you bury your nose into it, you may get a whiff of a wonderful aroma, the sweet smell of the sap that runs through the tree. Otherwise, though, a tree is hard, rough, and cold. A tree rarely hugs back. And it just might happen that some of that sweet, wonderful smelling sap ends up on your jeans and t-shirt, leaving a sticky mess.

This morning on the radio, I heard an essay read by an older woman who has found "church" in a pine tree. (It was part of NPR's "This I Believe" series.) She used to go to an actual church, she said, but then, because of some perceived or real injustice against her, she left the church, and never returned. She found her church, she said, in the old pine tree that grew next to her house.

I listened to her story with interest. I often find God in nature. These past few days, I found God in the waves crashing against the rocky shores at MontaƱa de Oro State Park. I found God in the caterpillars and snakes and raccoons and butterflies I got to see. I found God in the wildflowers, the hills, and yes, in the trees.

And yet, even though spending time in nature is an important and even essential part of my spirituality, I've never found it to be an adequate substitute for being a part of a Spirit-filled Christian community. In fact, that's partly why, 5 1/2 years ago, I left my home on that beautiful section of California's central coast, and settled here, in the Sacramento Valley, with its comparatively boring scenery and lack of topography. The scenic beauty of the central coast does not compare to the beauty of the people in the Sacramento Valley.

It's sad, actually, that the woman on the radio finds more comfort, guidance, and inspiration in a tree than she does in one or two (or more) real live human beings. After all, it is humans who are created in God's image.

It's sad that churches will sometimes act in such a way that an elderly woman will see God more clearly in an old pine tree than she will in a community of God's people.

I hope that someday, Christian churches will be as welcoming and nurturing to all people as an old pine tree.


Michael said...

Beautiful post.
It touched home with me.

Take Care

Jim said...

A great post and right "on" with the subject matter; and yet it remains, as far as I can see, a truth that the "church" must ask itself: "How could we have prevented this departure? What can we do to regain this woman's trust?" While we are not perfect in our humanity, yet there must be enough divinity within us to convince us of that fact without excusing it in our treatment of others..........