Divorce, Grief, Retirement, Seasons of Life, Transitions, TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS, Widowhood

BLESSINGS OR CURSINGS

Today, I am going to walk you through a forest of different stories, they are linked by a theme of blessing or cursing. What does this mean for someone who has been widowed, gone through a divorce or lost their home?  What does this mean for those who are transitioning to new places? These stories symbolize to me God’s providential care and provision represented by the place trees held in the stories.

I was fascinated to learn the role trees played in early Biblical history. In the beginning God created trees and declared them good: they were to be used for man’s food and enjoyment. After Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit from the tree in the Garden of Eden, the first thing Adam and Eve did was to sew leaves together to cover themselves and hide in the trees. Instead of food trees were used for cover and protection!

Growing up in Africa with shady trees; we enjoyed many a meal or afternoon tea under a tree with our guests, a place of hospitality and protection from the sun. Abraham bought a plot of land at Mamre that had a cave and trees on it, he entertained God’s messengers under the trees, this is also where he buried his wife Sarah and others who died. Have you noticed that old graveyards have trees planted around them, especially the ones with tall cypress trees standing like sentinels to watch over the dead? Trees provide peace and protection to the dead and living alike.

When Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go, God sent a hailstorm that shattered the trees, and so began a pattern in the Old Testament of destroying trees as judgement. When they were about to besiege a city, the Israelites were instructed not to destroy the fruit trees, so they could eat the fruit but they could cut down non fruit bearing trees to make ladders, portable towers, and battering rams to get into the city. After the enemy was captured quite often the bodies were hung on trees. Jesus was hung on a tree when he was crucified; the symbol of redemption too, provision for our salvation protecting us from God’s wrath. Even in modern times this practice of hanging was practiced as a form of capital punishment.

There is a correlation between blessings and cursing with trees. When people turned away from God, their crops would be stunted, locusts would eat their plants, there would be droughts and fire and olive and fig trees be destroyed or not bear fruit. In other words, their provision and protection were withdrawn. On the other hand, when God blessed the people, their fruit trees and fields yielded bumper crops, and everyone lived in safety. The prophet Habakkuk said even if the fig tree did not blossom and there are no grapes on the vines and the crops and livestock failed, he would continue to rejoice in God his Savior. You may ask whether you are suffering under a curse when things seem bleak after your loss? Turning to God, will help transform your mindset to blessings even if you can’t see them right now, if you rejoice in the presence of God, you will still be under His covenant of provision and protection.

Trees were also used in decoration and celebration. God gave the blueprint for the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, to be made with richly carved and gilded wood. Solomon’s Temple was made with wood brought from the forests of Lebanon, firs, pines, and box trees carved and gilded to beautify the sanctuary. Medieval churches were also richly decorated, something modern man could be missing out on! The Festival of Booths, (boughs were cut from trees and booths were made from them) was to remind the Israelites they had lived in tents in the wilderness and God had provided both food and shelter for them and when they arrived in the Promised land, he gave them vineyards and olive trees they had not planted. This festival was at the end of the natural harvest cycle and was a joyful celebration. Our modern Harvest Festival has a similar tone, to celebrate the provision of God in the harvest.- Even families were likened to olive trees, the psalmist wrote “your wife shall be contented in your home, and the children sit around the dinner table as vigorous and healthy as young olive trees!” Again, a symbol of fruitfulness and provision and children would be a protection in their old age.

We may be travelling through a desolate place right now, through the wilderness, and yet God provides food and shelter in those places. When I think back to the times I have been through the wilderness after my divorce and widowhood, there has always been a roof over my head and food has been provided in one way or another. When I first started my new job in Johannesburg, the company put me up at a hotel for a couple of weeks. As I had made an international move, they extended my stay until the end of the month and my first paycheck.  I then stayed with a family member for a month until I could get my own apartment. The company also had a policy of ‘Meal Tickets’ which you could exchange for a meal at the local fast food stores.  I had had to move forward in faith not knowing how I would get by until my first paycheck and yet there was not a day I was not provided for. I have had to trust the Lord to protect me to take care of my children going to school, when I was seriously ill with a deep vein thrombosis and when they had to move overseas to make their own way in the world.

Sometimes we may have escaped from a situation where we felt like there was no fruit, no joy and no blessings, that we were being punished for what has gone wrong in our lives and bad choices we had made, our person-hood was under siege or we were the victim of other people’s choices. When next you look at trees, stop to think about what they symbolize – Enjoy their beauty and know that God will provide and protect you especially when you are going through the wilderness. “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Isaiah 46:4

Chopped tree
Divorce, Grief, Retirement, Seasons of Life, Transitions

TREES AS METAPHORS FOR LIFE, GROWTH AND DEATH.

My grandfather had a saying, ‘I am nearer God’s heart in a Garden than anywhere else on earth’.  In many ways I think this is true, God walked and conversed with the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden.  There is a peacefulness among trees shading you from the sun as you listen to wind rustling in their leaves. There are so many sayings and metaphors written about trees – poets, artists, writers and philosophers have sat and thought great thoughts under trees.

Author L M Montgomery has captured the essence of trees through the voice of Anne of Green Gables, ’I could not live where there are no trees, something vital in me would starve’; Anne named trees that delighted her senses. This probably rubbed off on me as I sat in my beloved tree house reading Anne of Green Gables and being entranced with the lovely purple tubular flowers of the jacaranda tree.

Oak trees have associations with death. At the Memorial Service for my late father one of our friends said, “A Mighty Oak has Fallen”. This was appropriate for my father, who had been well respected leader in the institutions in which he worked in Africa. Another tree that spoke of death was the tree upon which the Savior of the world died, the old rugged cross. People were buried under oak trees and David’s son Absalom caught his hair in the branches of an oak tree and died.

Trees have many symbolic and metaphorical meanings. A sapling needs protection from the wind and deer, it needs to be watered and nourished until its roots are deep enough to find its own nutrients and water. As children we require the protection and nourishment that our parents give us to grow strong enough to stand on our own two feet. Sometimes they overprotect us, and we don’t develop our own strength and become dependent on others to support us when the parental role has gone.  Sometimes they don’t protect us enough and we are stunted or get damaged by droughts or predators. This can cause difficulties in our adult life and in relationships and sometimes it takes a failed marriage to understand what needs to change and maybe a bit of pruning or reshaping is required to grow strong and healthy again.

Growing a heathy tree takes time and good practices. You will notice the growth rings on a tree that has been chopped down, these rings are year on year growth, emotional intelligence, mental capacity, physical strength and spiritual growth.  When the rings are even and close together the trunk of the tree is strong, when there are gaps, unevenness or damage, these are places when rot can set in. Protect them by renewing your mind, getting rid of old belief systems, choose actions that protect and not harm you, making you strong and healthy.

Once the roots of the tree are well established, they go deep down into the soil to find nutrients and water necessary to sustain the life of the tree. The sap runs up and down the tree, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing it as oxygen, keeping our environment healthy too.  The roots in a forest entwine with other tree roots making a stable tree community in the forest. We need to be kept accountable by being rooted in a community where we will flourish; a lone tree stands danger of being struck by lightning, eaten by deer or being chopped for firewood. If we don’t have a supporting community, we are an easy target for those who would harm us.

The trunk of an established tree stands firm supporting the branches and carries nutrients from the roots. It has some flexibility when the wind blows, its strength preventing the tree from being blown over; year on year it becomes stronger and stronger.  Our growth into maturity should be supporting all our activities (the branches) our relationships and our emotional intelligence. Each year a layer of wisdom added from our life experiences, we should be able to discern our places of weakness and attend to them so we become strong and not be swayed by the winds of other people’s opinions, but be confident in our decision making abilities with the help of our inner guide, the Holy Spirit.

Branches grow upwards and outwards, they provide shelter to birds and small creatures, they provide shelter from the storm and shade from the sun. The branches bear fruit providing food or beauty for the eye of the beholder. As we mature, our branches are our children, families, and relationships with others, providing for them, shelter, food and pleasure. We reach out to our neighborhood and beyond with the abundance of our excess. Some of the fruit remains on the branches, for the birds, animals and the poor and hungry.  This is mentioned as ‘gleaning’ in the Bible, people were instructed not to strip their fruit trees but to leave some fruit for the widows, aliens and orphans. Giving to those in need from your excess, to charities helping the poor and needy.

What about the leaves?  The colors of fall are a delight to the eye when the leaves are their brightest, before they drop from the tree. Leaves are seasonal, they sing and dance in the breeze, and provide a mulch for the tree where the leaves break down and once again enter the soil as nutrients the tree will take up in its next season. I love the metaphor of the seasons, at times we can be so busy doing, we don’t have time to just be. After a busy season of growing fruit and harvesting it is time to rest. We think we have to be constantly busy doing and working, but that is not the pattern God set for our lives, there are seasons of growth and seasons to rest and be still, there are seasons to bear fruit and seasons where there is little or no fruit.

When we go through transitions, we are like trees that need to rest, to conserve and renew our energy, it is the end of that season in our life. We may even be transplanted if we move to a new location, this will take a long time before our roots settle down into the new soil and find their food and nutrients.  Until we become stable again, we will be vulnerable. These are the times we need to be nurturing and taking the most care of ourselves, so our roots survive enabling us to thrive and bear fruit in another season. Take the time to walk and talk with God in your new garden, so He can infuse you with life and vitality as the sap rises again.

Retirement, Seasons of Life, Transitions, Travel

PEEPING THROUGH MY TREE HOUSE WINDOW – The Blessings of Trees

Oh how my eyes just drank in the sight of those beautiful colors! In fact, I copied a painting in the Queensland Art Gallery of people sitting under a jacaranda tree enjoying tea, so that I could keep this little snapshot memory for when I wanted to pull it out again.

On many of my travels I have gazed out of the coach window at mile upon mile of forests, whether in Finland, Scotland, Australia or Pennsylvania. So this month my theme is trees.

Trees have played a big part in my life growing up in Africa, where trees were abundant. As children, we could climb without restriction and soon learnt not to climb where we could not get down again, our hand, eye and foot co-ordination became fine-tuned to climbing up and down trees like monkeys. My grandfather built us a beautiful double story tree house in a jacaranda tree, where we spent many happy hours (it could be used as extra emergency accommodation!) We spent most of our days outside, playing in or under the trees or hauling a basket of textbooks up a fruit tree to sit and do our homework where we could enjoy the fruit while we studied. Our primary school headmaster would say to the class “Take your Readers and go sit under the trees”, we did not think we were deprived, we loved being outdoors. On Sundays groups of people could be seen gathered in the shade of trees holding their church services.

I checked my Bible to see what God had said about trees. They were right there in the beginning in the Garden of Eden, God created them, and they were good! He created a huge variety of trees for different purposes, food, beauty, shelter and decoration as well as having symbolic and metaphoric meanings.

When I moved countries or even towns that had a distinctive climate, I had to adjust to different trees. It can be something as simple as a tree that will bring back memories and longings for a place you once lived. My first move was to Port Elizabeth on the South African east coast, it was not called “the Windy City” for nothing; the few trees that grew there were bowed in the direction the wind blew, and after a few months of living there, I admired their tenacity to thrive in that climate!  I missed the jacarandas with their purple carpets and flamboyant trees with their flame-red colored flowers, I missed the wet and dry tropical seasons, when the Msasa trees would come out in their cloaks of different oranges, reds and greens against the granite hillsides. I missed that landscape, I had to adjust to my new landscape which was mostly windblown, but on a good day there were magnificent beaches where you could walk for miles and hear the waves crashing on the beach licking the salt spray from your lips, enjoying the sight of seagulls coming into land and fight amongst themselves.  It took a while to adjust from enjoying my old landscape to embracing my new landscape and feeling at home in it.

On a visit to Australia, once again I could enjoy the beautiful jacaranda and flamboyant trees, the climate of Queensland being close enough to that of Rhodesia to support tropical trees.  Oh how my eyes just drank in the sight of those beautiful colors! In fact, I copied a painting in the Art Gallery of people sitting under a jacaranda tree enjoying tea, so that I could keep this little snapshot memory for when I wanted to pull it out again. Memories of the good days and what I had left behind, but without the longing for being there, it was merely the beauty I had enjoyed that fed my senses. When we leave a part of our life behind, we know we cannot go back again, but we can have a little snapshot or window we can peek through from time to time to light the spark of joy we felt then. Treasure those memories.

Journeying through the forests of Finland was a new experience for me, I had never seen so many fir and birch trees before.  The Finnish culture is built around their forests and lakes and I was fascinated to learn that trees are planted when someone is born so that in eighty years’ time, they will be ready to be harvested to pay the person’s death duties!  They have a wonderful way of planting and harvesting the trees that does not deplete the planet, the trees fall into the rhythm of life. Sometimes it is good to realize that life has stages in it and we need to adapt and plan for those stages, what foresight the Finns have in planting trees!

Modern life has made us feel that we need instant solutions or gratification, but when you go through transitions it take  time, it takes understanding of where you are in your life cycle, it takes understanding of your roots, (mine felt cut off when I left my land of birth). Take those happy memory snapshots to keep with you, but also learn to plan ahead for your future needs, which like a tree need time to grow. Remember the provision of God and the beauty in the variety of your inner and outer landscapes, you can grow with them and mature like those beautiful trees.

Divorce, Grief, Retirement, Seasons of Life, Transitions, Travel

THE BOUNDARIES ON YOUR TRIALS HAVE BEEN SET

One of my favorite places to visit when I lived in Cape Town was Blouberg Strand. Most of the iconic photos of Cape Town have been taken from here as you look across the bay onto the table like profile of Table Mountain with its cloth of cloud hanging over the side. The beach is wide and you can sit there wriggling your toes in the warm soft sand watching the seagulls scrapping for food and listening to the waves as they roll in and crash upon the beach. As the smell of seaweed wafts by and the seagulls screech overhead, the waves mesmerize you rolling in and sucking back.  I found there was something very healing just sitting watching the waves meditating on the timelessness of the ocean. It has been there from the beginning of Creation, the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters before there was light. God “laid the earth’s foundation on the seas and built it on the ocean depths, He assigned the sea its boundaries and locked the oceans in vast reservoirs.”

My move to Cape Town was several years after my divorce where I had to make a new life for the children and I. It was a beautiful place to make a new start and we would go down to the beach quite often. I enjoyed living at the sea after having lived inland for most of my life. That time of rest at the beach from the hard work of being a single parent used to refresh me as the children enjoyed playing in the sand at the water’s edge. In winter it was a different scene when gale force winds would whip up the foam and the sea became an angry and seething mass of waves crashing onto the beach bringing up flotsam from the ocean floor. Occasionally the tide would rise so high it crossed the boardwalk onto the road and I was reminded that the Lord “defines the ocean’s sandy shoreline as an everlasting boundary that the waters cannot cross. The waves may toss and roar, but they can never pass the boundaries I set.”

Years later after moving countries and I was in a serious condition with pneumonia and could not travel to visit my daughter for a special birthday, I was reminded of this time at Blouberg and I did a painting to comfort myself as my travel plans were cancelled, “All your waves and billows have gone over me, and floods of sorrow pour upon me like a thundering cataract.” I drew myself as a vulnerable tiny person held in God’s hand as the waves washed over His hand protecting me. In the curl of the wave I drew a tree representing Psalm 23, leading me besides still waters, that even though the waves were billowing over me, I could still find the peace.

Sometimes we may have to navigate more than one transition at a time, suffering a loss and having to relocate at the same time.  This can certainly put a strain on you as you work through grief and starting a new life somewhere else. At times life may just throw you a curved ball on top of this and you feel overwhelmed with the difficulties as they seem to roll in one after another in waves. That was certainly how I felt at that time.  But it was having imprinted on my memory the happy and beautiful times of sitting on Blouberg Beach, that I could make this a place of refuge in my mind. I would repeat The Lord is my Shepherd to myself and imagine I was sitting on the beach with the Lord beside me and knowing He had set a boundary for the sea, He also had set a boundary on my trials, the psalmist said “Give your burdens to the Lord. He will carry them. He will not permit the godly to slip or fall” and again, “He reached down from heaven and took me and drew me out of my great trials. He rescued me from deep waters.” Yes, I missed my daughter’s birthday, but I recovered my health and was able to visit another time. I was disappointed, but I was given the grace and the strength to see that trial through and my painting has encouraged others too when they have felt overwhelmed by the billows of life crashing over them.

Divorce, Grief, Retirement, Seasons of Life, Transitions, TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS, Widowhood

YOU WILL NOT BE BURNED

2019-03-02 09.44.52For the past three weeks I have spoken about wind, how it disperses seed to grow, lifts us above our circumstances and give us energy to move forward.  Today I want to focus on fire which is also a necessary element to growth.  

There is a beautiful flower in Cape Town, in fact the national flower of South Africa, the Protea. This plant amongst other ‘fynbos’ plants requires fire before the seeds can germinate.  Fynbos needs to burn at least every decade to keep regenerating the species and the local ecosystem. Dormant seeds which may have been buried under the soil for a few years are triggered by the heat of the fire to stimulate growth. The fire burns out all the old undergrowth and seeds that have been carried away or buried by rodents, birds, ants and insects lie waiting and when the rain comes continue with the growth process. Depending on the heat of the fire, some may only be triggered to germinate after waiting fifty years! Fire can occur naturally with a lightning strike, accidentally with sun rays through a broken glass shard or deliberately with arson. Fires are unpredictable and so it is with the germination of different seeds after each fire and its intensity and how soon the rain falls after the fire! This is such a marvelous example of what is was like at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrived with wind and fire to empower the disciples after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and His continued work in the world today. They did not know what would happen next! Neither do we – growth happens in unexpected ways, in fits and starts.

Sometimes when we are going through a time of intense grief and struggle, trials and tribulations, God is using the same process that the protea requires. Perhaps there are a lot of old ideas and beliefs that hinder us and need to be burnt out.  Perhaps our ‘shell’ is so hard it takes the extreme heat of the trials to trigger growth for us.  Perhaps it is the timing – it is also unpredictable.  How often we want the predictable and understandable, our routines and comfort zones.  It may then take an extremely hot fire to move us to growth. We need to learn to let go of the predictable when we go through these life transitions and rather hold on with faith, that at the right time and conditions we will grow and flourish and maybe even bloom in the desert.

Fire in the Bible had a very special symbolism. God said, ‘When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not consume you.’ God stood with Shadrach, Mesheck and Abednego in the fiery furnace and they were not burned. So, Moses was given his commission at the burning bush; Isaiah was given his when the seraphim placed a burning coal on his lips and sent him on his mission. Fire is used to refine gold and silver to burn off the dross, it symbolizes holiness, intersession and worship and incense on the altar as our prayers ascend to God.

If we were to look at our current trials through the lens of God’s growth and refining process, it enables us to use the energy of the heat to spurt on new growth and momentum in moving forward.  We may not know what happens next, but if we allow the process to take place, will we indeed bloom like the beautiful King Protea and know that God is still working with us and preparing us for our mission in life.