In Need of a Good Topping

Six years ago, my husband and I bought our first house in the dead of winter. It was a momentous decision, committing ourselves to a mortgage and embarking on the journey of making this place into something we wanted to call “home.”

Hubby running the stump grinder and creating a big mess for me to rake out

Hubby running the stump grinder and creating a big mess for me to rake out

For starters, we knew there were 27 very large stumps scattered throughout our 3-acre yard that we needed to grind. Grinding them isn’t so bad as that just involves standing around while running a big, noisy machine. Ask my husband—he got that job. But raking out the stump grindings is bicep-busting, dust-eating drudgery. I should know because I scored that lovely duty.

Then, there were the mountains of “prickers” to unearth. These weren’t your ordinary variety of soft, green “prickers.” They were purplish-red, hard, and thick with a truly evil degree of tenacity. Removing them could be used as part of a torture regimen. Armor would have come in handy. There were also large chunks of quartz to move that would have been lethal to our mower blades come spring. We loaded and hauled enough rock to start up our own landscaping business. During a visit to our home, my in-laws were so impressed with the size of these rocks, they filled the back of their SUV with some prize specimens and strategically placed them in their beautifully manicured backyard. But the most daunting job was picking up large sticks and branches scattered throughout our yard and hauling them to the woods to dump. In our first 6 months in the house, we engaged in “stick duty” for hours nearly every weekend.

A few months into all this yard work, as spring burst forth in a whirl of blooms and leaves and pollen, the reason for all those sticks in our yard became obvious. Our yard had areas that were open, but most of it was sparsely wooded—enough grass that we were going to have to mow it, but a lot of trees to mow around.

A photo of part of our backyard shortly after we bought our home--it was full of trees. Most of these trees would turn out to be dead.

A photo showing part of our backyard shortly after we bought our home–it was full of trees. Most of these trees would turn out to be dead.

As spring took hold, instead of a glorious canopy of green, we had a bunch of toothpicks interspersed with lots of trees badly in need of some arboreal Rogaine—they were completely bald on top but sprouting leaves lower down. Only a few trees actually had a full head of hair if you know what I mean.

Thus began 18 months of serious tree work. We felled. We sawed. We hauled. The brush pile in our woods began to resemble some odd rendition of Burning Man, and we gave away firewood like it was candy because of course, this house had nothing that allowed us to burn wood. We joked that if either of us lost our jobs, we could always start a tree service because of our vast experience.

Finally, all that remained were the dead trees that were either too large or just too close to the house for us to do the work ourselves, so we brought in a professional tree service. In all this time, we had anxiously watched the trees that were bare on top but had leaves lower down, hoping they would resurrect themselves and praying they wouldn’t die because we were ready to give up moonlighting as lumberjacks.

But the second spring, those trees had died back a little more, so we asked the tree service we hired if anything could be done. They told us the trees would have to be topped—a fancy term for cutting off the dead limbs until all that remains is the part of the tree that is still producing leaves. This process requires a tree climber to scale the tree with chainsaw in hand and painstakingly cut each and every dead part of the tree. He then seals the open places in the trunk and branches caused by the pruning to protect the tree from further damage and deep-feeds the tree’s roots to encourage its recovery. It’s a costly procedure, but if you leave the dead limbs, the tree will inevitably die. The roots continue to divert most of the tree’s energy and resources into reviving the dead limbs at the expense of the limbs that are healthy. So the tree dies back a little more each year until all that is left is dead limbs.

Most of the trees we had topped back in 2009 are doing well now. Looking at them today, you would never guess they were half dead just a few short years ago. When they were first topped, they had this stunted look, but new growth has sprung up from the very places that were pruned until the awkward scars are no longer visible. Our neighbors also had trees that were dying back, but they chose not to have them topped. Those trees are mostly bare now, each spring bringing them a little closer in their march toward death.

Lately, as I’ve pondered this season of my life, I haven’t been able to get that picture of those pathetic trees out of my head. Day after day, they waste their energy trying to bring life to dead limbs. They don’t realize it’s impossible. They don’t know it will cost them their life in the end.

The trial that God has allowed into our lives in the last year and a half has dealt so many blows. How I have wished at times that its damage had been limited to that first painful strike. But it has killed off so much more. Like a malicious pest, it has bored its way into so many areas of our life, killing off things we cared about so deeply—our connection to a beloved church community, friendships that we treasured, and ministry that we loved. We are left looking up at a bunch of dead limbs where once there was a beautiful green canopy under which we lived, served, loved, and felt loved. It is ugly, and if I look on those dead limbs, the pain is nearly unbearable.

Lately, I have been pondering all that we have lost in this season. And when I think on it too much, I am desperate to bring those dead limbs back to life. My time, my thoughts, my energy are consumed with pushing life back into them, and I can’t nourish the leaves I have left for my sorrow over the ones that are gone. In those moments, I am like those trees, hopelessly lost in a futile battle to resurrect what is dead.

I don’t know why God has allowed so many branches in our tree to die. I won’t pretend to like it. It is the hardest thing I have ever endured. But I know God has a purpose even for the evil He allows to touch my life, and I know it is redemptive, transforming, refining—even right now when it often just seems harsh and unjust.

I know that He loves me. I know He’s the Climber who can cut away my dead limbs, bind the wounds left by His pruning, and feed me with the deep well of His grace and mercy so that I can heal from this season.

I don’t want to look like my neighbors’ trees, withered and defeated. I want to look like the maple in our front yard. Before we had it topped, it was particularly pathetic. That tree lost nearly half its height in the pruning. It now graces our yard with a stately, tempered beauty.

I am tired of gazing on these dead limbs. Climb up, sweet Jesus. I am trusting You for the day when I will have a beautiful canopy again.

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