Despite my trekking poles, I still have an occasional stumble as I walk Chloe around the property in the mornings. Trees have a way of shedding limbs, especially in a brisk spring breeze, of pelting the ground with pine cones that roll beneath the feet, and showering the ground with slick leaves and needles. All of those things hide holes and depressions that can turn an ankle. I haven’t fallen in awhile, thanks to these sturdy fiberglass poles, but it’s still a little dangerous out there for someone with limited vision.
Most of those trees are ancient by human standards. After watching a live oak we planted grow from a one foot “stick” to a fifteen foot sapling in 20 years, I know the ones that spread over our house, so large it would take four people to hold hands around them, must be closing in on the century mark. The wonderful thing about those trees, especially in this climate, is the shade. With limbs stretching out thirty to forty feet, and dense foliage, the temperature beneath them can be ten to fifteen degrees cooler than in the sun.
Trees, then, can be either a source of comfort or a hindrance. On occasion, a tree has deposited a limb right in the middle of our driveway, and there are few places along its length where you can drive out of the road around a blockage. The older the trees, in fact, the bigger the problem they can cause. We pray constantly, especially in hurricane season, that one of those thousand pound limbs will not fall on the house.
As I become older, I realize the same is true of me. The aged can be a source of strength, wisdom, and encouragement. God surely intended that to be the case. Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days, Job 12:12. Unfortunately we can also be a source of discouragement and a hindrance to spiritual life. Instead of gaining wisdom, some of us store up hurts and slights, many of them magnified through the years or even imagined. Instead of learning the lessons of life, we become bitter. Instead of maturing and reaching out to others, we continue, as we so often did when young, to demand attention.
On this rural property we have learned through the years which trees are most helpful and which are most damaging. I step over far more pine limbs than oak, but even among those stately hardwoods are some we have learned to be wary of. A water oak will drop branches on your house or your car or your power lines, will in fact, be as likely as a pine tree to completely fall over.
It may not seem fair, but if you are a young person looking for a mentor, you must, as Jesus said, judge people by their fruits. If you find yourself hearing nothing but the negative, you are taking shelter under the wrong tree.
If you, like me, are heading toward that label “elderly,” you need to think about the shelter you offer the young. I will be judged by “every idle word.” Certainly around the young and impressionable, around those who may look to me for wisdom and advice, I must be careful not to cause them to stumble in their confidence by casting off branches of discouragement. I must not block their pathway to spiritual growth with selfish resentment about the past. I certainly must not squash their zeal with cynicism about either the world or their brethren. If ever there is a time when our choice of words is crucial, it is old age, when the young look to us for advice and help.
We cannot help becoming old. But we can all determine how we will act as one of those older “trees.” What did Jesus say about branches that were unfruitful? Do we really think he will do less to us if we fail in our purpose as the older, wiser branches of his spiritual family tree?
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. Psalms 71:17-18.