on the side of a hill
What have you seen in your long years?
What can you teach me?
Stretching up to look at you
snowflakes kiss my face
covering cracks in your skin
resting on your limbs
but still reaching up
only God knows why
Old tree, I feel like you
young, but troubled too
Maybe I'll grow up like you
reaching straight up
Friend, what have you seen in your long years?
Can you see what you've taught me?
At twenty-four, I’d lived enough to see the uneven pattern of life. I’d discovered how life could kick you in the teeth, sometimes in the form of friends. Church friends. Or pastors.
So, I wasn’t a rosy-glasses idealist. This poem came out of that. I took a break from a college conference planning session in the southern California mountains. Strolling through a snowstorm, I came across a distinctive red cedar. It had faced storms and become gnarled, received some lightning strikes and showed the burns, yet still reached toward heaven. I liked that, and wanted it as a model for my life. I didn’t expect perfection; I’d lived long enough to get disabused of that notion. But I did expect to establish consistent spiritual progress for the rest of my life. I wanted to do all for Christ. I really did.
I could accept a little bent. I didn’t expect to become a majestic redwood stretching straight to heaven, but I wanted the rest of my life to be more straight up than twisted. Then one choice nearly destroyed my new growth, not long after it started. Other choices, later, gave my spiritual life the gnarled, twisted look of that original cedar. I’m still heading upward, but I’m too aware of how much I’ve missed over the years. I know I’ve grown spiritually during this time. But when I look at what I should be, at what I haven’t been, I sometimes feel gnarly, bent, twisted.
God tells us life is uneven. We will sin. We will regress. That’s biblical. Honest. Even sold-out followers of Jesus continually not only face sin, but sometimes lose: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
Where does that leave us, as we begin to craft the tapestry of our lives? I encourage you to examine your expectations. About God. Jesus. The spiritual life. Friends. Family. Associates. Careers.
Do you have unrealistically high hopes for how things will go? Do your aspirations match what God has promised in his word? Take some time to ponder them now, ahead of time. Run them through the grid of scripture. And when disappointment comes from a hard time, go back and evaluate it. How can you cooperate with God to bring some good from it? And most of all, expect to lose some battles. That expectation certainly will be met. But we can lose some battles, as long as we win the war. Small things, these expectations. But with huge impacts.
Kick Starting the Discussion
Think a bit about your expectations for following Jesus. Have they come true, or have you experienced some flaming burn outs? Are they realistic? By that, can you link each to a specific promise found in the Bible, or are they from wishful thinking (Hint, Frederick Buechner has a marvelous book by that title, a fine and challenging read). How might you shape and recraft them?