Lessons from the Large Trees
In late spring, from a place of being worn out, we called out to our Father, trusting Him to speak and guide us to a place where we could begin to heal. We read Exodus 15:25-27, and He first called us to Himself as our healer:
“There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them. And He said, ‘If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.’ Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.”
We retreated to the desert of Fresno, California, where we spent time in a program of growth and restoration for missionaries. Once we learned that the name “Elim,” where the family of Israel retreated in the above verses, means “large trees,” and that not too far from the retreat grow the largest trees on earth, we set our hearts to “camp there beside the waters,” to receive the healing touch of our Father. He has been faithful to comfort us and guide us into truth. Like bookends that mark the beginning and conclusion of our retreat, we twice ventured away from Fresno’s desert palm trees to walk among the giant sequoia trees in the nearby mountains. The truths observed in these oldest living wonders of creation frame fresh insights and commitments for our family’s New Creation story of “a long obedience in the same direction.” Observations from visits to the sequoia trees appear in italics below, followed by specific connections to the lessons from our retreat.
Entering the national forest and the national park, we caught our first glimpses of a few giants amidst the surrounding trees. Already amazed, and we had not yet encountered the groves with the largest ones. Once we parked and began to walk through a grove a sequoias, we all experienced awestruck wonder. As God’s temple of creation, made with His own hands, it felt like holy ground. Perspective permeated the very air we breathed.
After arriving in California, the Spirit led me to read Psalm 118:5-7a: “From my distress I called upon the LORD; The LORD answered me and set me in a large place. The LORD is for me among those who help me…” We gave thanks to be in a “large place.” We could breathe. We took a posture of openness, believing God was “for [us] among those who help [us].”
We located the largest tree in the world, according to the circumference of its base, and then we drove thirty minutes further to see the largest tree in the world, as measured by volume. Both of these giant sequoias were named for major figures in American history, the General Grant and General Sherman trees, respectively. Though their human accomplishments marked the history of this nation, the contrast of human achievement paled in comparison to the sheer longevity of these towering behemoths. The historical reference that helped us put the longevity of these trees in perspective was not their names, but the fact that they were growing when Jesus walked on the earth.
Human achievement appears small at the base of the largest trees on the planet. Such perspective provided a measure of comfort to us. When considering the place of comfort in my (Mark’s) life, a contrast became clear between my own drive to achieve, which pales in comparison to the power and presence of God Himself. My time away has pointed me in a fresh way toward the comfort that only God can give. Comfort through lifestyle and cognitive reasoning have their place, but they also have limits. There is a comfort that only God’s presence can provide, and there is truth to which only He can lead us.
When we arrived at the largest trees, we discovered how these trees do not grow in isolation, but rather in clusters. With their interlocking root systems, the sequoia groves provide communities that help the individual trees thrive and remain standing.
Our learning focused on relationship systems that are healthy and strong. Our marriage constitutes our first team in life and ministry. We have seen once again the special gift God has given us in our marriage. A vital inter-locking system in our family is our relationship with our children. Our retreat and ensuing vacation focused on re-connecting with our children, believing that a strong connection will sustain our own healthy family system in obeying God’s call.
This past April, Caleb accompanied me to Pennsylvania for a week, at the end of which we camped at Gettysburg as a rite of passage to inaugurate his teenage years. We praise God for His hand on Caleb’s life and our strengthened connection as dad and son. His summer experience built upon all of this. Jacob demonstrated awareness of the stress our family has faced over the past months, and particularly how this affected each family member. He acknowledged seeing us improve over the summer, and he continues to be a joy to our family. Rachel continues to display confidence. It is a privilege to give her the opportunity to continue expressing herself as she grows into a young lady who understands her confidence first from the inside. Overall, our children continue to process with us our life of transitions in open and trusting ways. This summer has been a positive experience for our kids.
We explored in depth how difficult ministry circumstances have impacted us. Even the Good Samaritan did not do everything, but helped within limits. In order to protect against the effects of vicarious/secondary trauma, guarding personal boundaries is a priority. The responsibility for establishing and maintaining boundaries that protect our wellbeing rests on our shoulders. Being diligent to take care of ourselves helps us serve others. Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16 resonate with us: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
When evaluating the size of a tree, the mammoth sequoias are especially measured by volume, because of their unique characteristic of consistency in size from the base of the trunk to its top. Even once the top of a sequoia tree stops growing upward, it continues to thicken.
In the course of a career, good ideas on self-care practices from earlier seasons become requirements as responsibilities and experiences mount. As our life and leadership “thickens” with responsibilities and lessons learned from experience, some good ideas have become requirements for us “to be on.” We heard a story of a professional athlete who had to adjust his daily and practice routines near the end of his playing career. These were not luxuries but rather represented necessities for him “to be in the game.” We now better understand the requirements for us “to remain in the game” as our journey continues.
Some trees need a certain amount of chill to produce in the summer time. Pruning must be accompanied by a protective oil, to prevent the invasion of insects in that time of vulnerability. We believe that this retreat provided this protection for us through this time of pruning. Winter is the most important time of the year for some trees.
Many mature sequoia trees have burn marks and other scars from fires. The mature ones can withstand the fire, and the community of sequoias can actually benefit through these fiery ordeals. Essentially, the fire results in new life. As we read at the Giant Sequoia Museum: “Fire has influenced every sequoia in the Giant Forest. Over thousands of years, lightening fires have burned here as often as every three to nine years. Fire kills some sequoias but benefits many others:
Heat opens cones on sequoias and seeds rain down.
Seeds land on cleared soil fertilized by ash.
Heat kills insects and fungus that may attack seedlings.
Trees that compete for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients are killed.
Once burned, an area is less flammable for several years, giving seedlings a good start.”
There is grace in the midst of the fire. God gives us strength to endure the heat. After resting and being renewed, we lift our gaze to look forward to the new life that is being released in and through our family. The heat through which we have persevered has refined our self-care priorities and strategies. Self-care must begin with us so that we can better grow in relationships with family and others.
Before we left Peru earlier in the middle of summer, one mentor wrote to remind us: “God does not use people – that is what people do to each other sometimes. God partners with people. He is concerned about your long-range wellbeing and fruitfulness.”
Kristin read through Dan Woolley’s book, Unshaken: Rising from the Ruins of Haiti’s Montana. Near the end of the book, Dan summarizes scary experiences in this way:
“We do not know when an earthquake may come into our lives or what form it will take. But when it comes, God is not taken by surprise; nor are his plans for us frustrated…he uses it for his purpose. Earthquakes in our lives shake us – but they can also be used by God to bring about the development of our character and spirit, to fulfill his plans for us.”
In our retreat, we had the opportunity to re-fill our tanks, which had emptied during the chaos of the preceding months. We identified some key factors to fertilize a new season of growth in our life and leadership. We also discussed the necessity of clearing away distractions and circumstances that suffocate and hinder restfulness. We were reminded how a weekly sabbath observance must flow from daily restfulness. Otherwise, the noise of busyness during the week will creep into the weekly rest.
On the Giant Trees Trail at Sequoia National Park, we circled a beautiful meadow with giant sequoias around its perimeter. While the meadow displays its own beauty, sequoias are notably absent from the tall grasses in the meadow. Sequoias cannot inhabit its soft and squishy soil. A strong sequoia on shifting soil will fall.
The hypervigilance of even normal life in the jungle paired with traumatic circumstances both contributed to us reaching a point where we knew we needed to retreat. We were cautioned against stealing others’ pressure as our own. We found it helpful to ask ourselves, “Are we feeling others’ pressure or our own pressure?” We can encourage others, but their wellbeing is ultimately their responsibility before God. Staying out of the shifting soil of the meadow in the middle of the sequoia trees means setting boundaries. Another key question for ongoing consideration is: “Are we in ‘doing’ mode or ‘empowering’ mode?”
In the case of one sequoia monarch on the edge of the meadow, the soil at its base became too soft, and it collapsed in a fire. By creating the space for the sun and the ash to dry and prepare the soil it once occupied, a new sequoia took root and grew in that space.
As we walk in the way of His healing, we feel like a seed that has been husked and is ready to be planted afresh. We likewise see our restoration and growth as one that creates space and healthier soil for a new planting in Peru.
Hollow areas near the base of these large trees result from damage, decay, and forest fire. These tree caves provide shelter and a refuge for other forms of life.
When healed by the Father’s touch, brokenness builds capacity for blessing others. Healthy systems with complementary alignment in ministry teams, lifestyle routines, and the wellbeing principles highlighted in this testimony do not require perfection. We simply desire to meet the requirements necessary for “being in the game,” building our capacity to serve broken people and broken situations. This motivation to serve others keeps self-care from becoming self-serving.
It is very rare for a sequoia seed to advance from a seedling to sapling and then a mature tree; and it is extremely rare that it reaches the ultimate monarch stage. To ensure that one tree might survive, a tree drops numerous seeds.
There were numerous words of wisdom and knowledge that were scattered upon the soil of our family’s heart through our summer. One fellow missionary remarked how through it all, our “family is still doing this together.” This caused him to say, “God is in this.”
We carry with us from our visits to the sequoias a very small sequoia seedling, with a vision of what it could become over the decades and centuries to follow…to stand as a sign of strength for generations to follow.
We see how God has worked for long-term changes through His purposes for this time of restoration and growth. From Fresno forward, God seems to be opening our eyes and heart to continue following Him with long-term vision for the lands where He is at work through Kids Alive International.
We left California for nearly a two-week vacation adventure. With Rachel’s status as a fourth grader granting us free admission to national parks, we visited twelve on our cross-country trek. Each park has its own unique characteristics and a common story of formation through time. We trust that this summer retreat, with all that the Holy Spirit has planted in us, will yield to a renewed planting of our family for healthy presence and faithfulness. May it lead to many children and their families being planted in the kingdom of God. Beyond decades and centuries, this vision can only be contained by our eternal hope for a new heaven and new earth. Resurrection reckons with time throughout the decades and centuries by reaching eternity. There is nothing instant about the process of a sequoia growing into a monarch. Our King works His purposes within time from outside of time, bringing victory by grace that will stand forever. To Him we give thanks and give all the glory!
 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books) 2000.
 Dan Woolley, Unshaken: Rising from the Ruins of Haiti’s Hotel Montana (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 222.
Living in His “large place,”
Mark, Kristin, Caleb, Jacob, and Rachel
Discipleship and Development, Kids Alive Peru
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