Standing Up Crooked
There’s a tree near Colorado Springs that I admire. It’s a pine tree sitting on the property of The Hideaway Inn and Conference Center, where my family and I attended MTI’s Debriefing and Renewal several years ago.
This tree is surrounded by other pines, but this one’s different. While its trunk starts out on a vertical path, after several feet, it breaks to the side at a ninety-degree angle. Then, over a few more feet, it makes a slow curve, working again on an upward climb.
Near the end of the retreat, we were told to find a place to be by ourselves, and I knew where I wanted to be: sitting in front of that tree. I must not be the only one who appreciates it, since there’s a bench facing it close by.
I don’t know what trauma caused the tree’s shape. Maybe it was a storm, maybe a disease, maybe the blade of an axe. Or maybe it was more of a heart thing—a promise unkept, a hope deferred, a joy shattered.
Regardless of the cause, the reason I admire this tree is that though having faced trouble, it still reaches upward. It’s “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed;” wrecked, but not ruined. No, not ruined at all.
Can you identify with this tree?
Have you ever had your feet knocked out from under you because of some tragedy?
Have you ever tried to take hold of something beyond your reach and fallen in the trying?
Have you ever been bent to the point of brokenness?
Have you ever been laid low by the realization that you are the cause of someone else’s pain?
Have you ever wrestled with God, refusing to let go until you get a blessing, and walked away limping?
While I admire this tree, I also feel a tinge of sorrow for it, because even surrounded by fellow pines, it seems alone. Most pines stand up straight and tall. That’s part of their pineness. This tree is no less a pine, but I wonder if it feels that way sometimes.
That’s not how it has to be.
Standing Up Together
In another part of the world, there’s a strange cluster of trees, not far from the town of Gryfino, in Poland. These more than one-hundred pines are much like the one in Colorado. They are all bent in the same way, in the same direction. The grove is called Krzywy Las, or the Crooked Forest.
Theories abound as to what happened to the trees. Some think it was caused by heavy snow or unrelenting wind. Some say it’s the result of tanks flattening young trees during the German invasion before World War II. Still others believe (and this seems to be the most accepted explanation) that the trees were intentionally bent by people, wanting to used the curved wood for building ships or for making furniture. The trees were then left untended, they say, due to the war.
I’m glad that the trees have each other. C. S. Lewis famously writes in The Four Loves that Friendship happens when one person says to another, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.” This Friendship is defined by Lewis as a kind of love. It is more than simply Companionship. He says,
Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).
In the forest, companions occupy the same plot of ground, but friends share their wounds, their vulnerabilities, their breaks, and their bruises. They peel back the bark to show the twisted wood beneath. They give up their striving for long, uninterrupted lines. “What? You too?” must always come in response to someone else’s revelation. How many Friendships have been avoided because no one was willing to be the first to speak?
Lewis goes on to warn that a danger of Friendships is that they can become clubs that exclude others, leading to “a wholesale indifference or deafness” to those outside. Even in sharing one’s woundedness, there is the temptation to leave out others whose hurts don’t reach the level of ours.
The club of those hurt on the mission field should not be a club that extols suffering. Rather, it should be one that extols honesty. Anyone can join. All it takes is a willingness to speak what is all-too-often hidden. It is the kind of honesty that so many have prayed for.
Have you ever been the answer to someone else’s prayer?
I hope you can find friendship and community among the crooked trees of the forest, whether it be at a debriefing, during a retreat, over a cup of coffee, via email or phone conversations, in the pages of a book . . . or possibly through a blog.*
All are welcome in the Crooked Forest. If you’re not yet able to stand, then come and sit in the shade. If you can’t even raise your head, then come and lie down and be watched over. If you can stand but your past keeps you from standing up straight, then come and let’s stand up crooked together.
(C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Geoffrey Bles, 1960)
[photo of the Crooked Forest outside Gryfino, Poland: “Krzywy Las w Nowym Czarnowie,” by Artur Strzelczyk, used under a Creative Commons license]
*I hope A Life Oversees can provide this kind of place for you, but there are other great online communities for missionaries, as well. In fact, I’m not the only one who’s expressed this idea in this way. After I wrote this post, I was over at Velvet Ashes (a site for women overseas that many of you are familiar with) and saw that Amy Young, also a contributor to this blog, curates a weekly blog party called The Grove. In her introduction, she uses a collection of trees to represent a missionary community (thus the title), and she even alludes to Lewis’s ““What? You, too?” I really didn’t read Amy’s post until after I wrote this one. (Honest!) Anyway, I wanted to protest my innocence and also give a shout out to The Grove. My ideas may not always be unique, but I’m in good company.