Lesson from the lonely tree…

About halfway between my small town and the closest city of any size is a tree on a hill. Of course, there are actually many trees and many hills in that stretch of countryside, but this particular tree on its hilly perch has long garnered attention for its solitary silhouette against the vast prairie sky. The lop-sided sweep of its branches testifies to the determinate force of the west wind’s blustery tendrils. An exacting tussle with a common prairie storm left the already hunched tree bereft of one thick branch on the leeward side. Yet, it still stands amidst the brown, green, gold, and white of passing time. What is it about a crooked, gap-toothed, lonely tree on a hill that attracts photographer and artist alike? Is loneliness that picturesque? Or is it the iconic symbolism of the rugged individual, of survival, of fortitude and determination that draws the eye and the heart to value such a tree?
Years of almost daily journeys past the lone tree have dulled my awareness of it. Once a striking image, it has become as common-place as the growing forest of billboards that lures passersby into the city away from hills and trees and fields. Perhaps it was a need to escape the tediously symmetrical silhouettes of advertising that made me search the horizon for something with more character, something unique and individualistic – and that is when I discovered that the lone tree is no longer alone. In fact, it is only barely discernible in the grove of younger, strong, straight saplings that now encompass it. My first reaction was one of surprise; how did they grow so quickly without my noticing? My next reaction was one of disappointment; why is it that a small grove of trees on a hill is not nearly as appealing as a single, gnarly one? As I contemplated this question, I began to see another of life’s metaphors…
As much as our society values self-determined individualism and applauds the wounded survivor, God has actually called us to live in community. It is in community that we find strength when storms tear at our souls; it is in community that we find shelter that allows us to grow and flourish in spite of gaping wounds. While the image of community may not be very picturesque to a society that values the “self-made” person, we are not meant to live alone. However, living in community often requires much more fortitude and determination than living in isolation – it can be a messy and challenging place to be. And perhaps that is one reason why we often find ourselves settling for the myth behind the lone tree – the myth that we can make it alone. A single tree on a hill or in a field may reflect a measure of compositional artistry, but there is nothing picturesque about loneliness. True beauty and tremendous blessing come from functioning in community as God intended, and I am now reminded of this every time I look for the solitary tree and see instead a thriving grove.

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