The Tree

by The Rev. Reagan Cocke

The man looked at the tree. He was happy with his work. It was good. For several years the man had worked in the woods in this secret place. One day, years ago, as he rested from a walk in the woods, he saw a beautiful, young tree. Perfectly shaped, the tree was surrounded by a thick matte of other less perfect trees. The man immediately recognized its beauty.

Days later the man returned with a scythe, an ax, and a meal. With the scythe swinging, he cleared the saplings and underbrush around the tree. A few of the older saplings required a swing from the ax. But soon a manicured space surrounded the tree. It was free to grow. The man unpacked his meal and rested. His work was good.

Several weeks passed and the man returned. He swung his scythe again to level what had grown back. He did this quickly, then sat down to admire the tree. It was a hot day. He sipped some water, and what he did not finish he poured at the base of the tree, giving it a drink. He noticed a shadow had been creeping slowly towards the tree since he had arrived.

The man came back the next day with a saw. Around the tree, other larger trees cast shadows when the sun was not overhead. Since it was early in the morning, the man climbed another tree on the east side of the tree. Up to the top he went and began to saw. Soon the shadow on the tree fell away as he pruned the top of the other tree. The man saw his work was good. He climbed the adjacent tree. As the sun rose in the sky the long shadows shortened and the man rested from his work. He ate and drank. He would return next week to this secret place.

On several occasions at weekly intervals, the man returned to the woods to work on the other trees. By pruning and removing encroaching branches he created a perfect space for the tree to grow. The other trees could no longer crowd it out, stunt its growth, or deform its shape. He smiled as he unpacked his meal under the tree. Now he could bring his wife to see his work, to see this small area of perfection he had found and formed in the woods. The tree brought him great pleasure. It would grow old with him.

One day he did bring his wife. Reluctantly she came through the woods. She did admire her husband's work and enjoyed resting and eating a meal in the tree's shadow. Over the years the man brought a handful of close friends to his secret place to see the tree. Before each visit he swung his scythe to remove unwanted undergrowth and pruned the other trees to control their shadows. Occasionally he pruned the tree itself to help it maintain its shape, but only occasionally.

Today, as he ate his meal, he realized that he and the tree were some thirty years older. "Wow!" He had worked with and for the tree, shaping it into a mature adult. Although there were other taller trees in the woods, none was as perfect. None had as straight a trunk. None was as beautiful in the eyes of the man.

The man went home, promising to himself to return within a month to prune on the south side of the tree as the shadows of the other trees were creeping in again.

* * * * *

He swallowed hard. It was gone. No tree. His work, his love—gone. Who had removed it? Who cut it down? He picked up some broken limbs. He felt the stump with his hand. He let sawdust fall out between his fingers. He cried—not loudly but softly inside. A part of him was gone. His good work, gone. His personal garden, desecrated. He felt empty and lonely inside.

* * * * *

At home he asked his wife, “Joanna, how could someone have found my secret place and removed the tree?”

“They did,” Joanna replied. “They needed a tree, a perfect tree—straight and tall. A tree to be lifted high for all to see. A perfect tree for a perfect man. Your tree stands on Golgatha.”

“Why does she have tears in her eyes?” he thought.

He left the house and passed through the city wall. He saw three crosses carrying three men. Which one was his? It must be the taller one in the middle. He heard the words of the man in the middle. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” He breathed aloud, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And then with a louder cry, “It is finished!”

The Romans had stolen his tree! They used it to kill. He had worked for over thirty years to achieve perfection. All his work, all his sweat, all his love poured into raising up the tree. And now a naked, dead man desecrated it. A criminal, an upstart, an enemy of the people hung dead while the men on either side of him had their legs broken. They soon would die too.

* * * * *

The tree was dead. His loving work sacrificed for the sake of the nation. The man returned to the woods after his Sabbath rest. He sat on the stump. He ate his meal. Sweat rolled down the back of his neck. There was no shade. There was no tree. Death—the tree's death—brought bright light to where there had once been comforting shade. The man squinted. What a waste he thought as his eyes closed.

Then he saw it. Out of the side of the stump grew a young, green shoot. “Of course!” he said out loud. It was spring—a time for new growth. The new growth wasn't straight like the old tree. It was coming out crooked. But it was reaching for the sun. With the old tree gone it would grow fast in the sun. However, the man realized even though the old was somehow being resurrected, it was not and would not be the same. His heart was sad. He could not understand.

A month or two later he brought Joanna to see what was growing out of the stump. “I know,” she said. “He told me that I would see new life. He told me to believe in him. He said, ‘Come into the light. See what I have done, what God has done.’”

Joanna kissed the man. He put his arm around her waist. His work . . . HIS work . . . this was unexpected. They walked home together—she somehow carrying him. How would he respond? His tree sacrificed. His tree used to lift this man up to death. Now new, fragile growth. He had to think. He had to respond. He had to believe.

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