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9 November 2020
Words Dean Clarke
After months of social distancing with family, friends and community, my wife Vicki and I escaped it all with a week by ourselves on a Murray River houseboat.
Slowing down to ‘river speed’ helps you to see what is around you – the birds that fly alongside the boat and sing through the day, the fish jumping for joy with the sunrise and the changing colours of the landscape as the sun sets.
As we cruised, or I kayaked, along the river, I was caught by the beauty of the trees. From the depths of my memory came an episode of The Muppets, which included the recitation: “I think that I will never see, a poem as lovely as a tree*.” After which the tree fell.
Out of respect to The Muppets, I kept my distance and, with time on my hands and no internet connection, I pondered their beauty.
Every tree was different, and their differences made them beautiful, perfect even. The colouring of the bark, although similar, was never the same. The root system told its own story. Some roots were in the air where the bank used to be, others went down into the water, while others still grew firmly away from the water’s edge.
However, what truly gave each tree its beauty was the life it had lived as evidenced by the formation of its branches. What would once have been strong branches have gone and splintered wood remains. Knots where the tree had closed and healed from the loss, remain. Each tree has its personal shape and design, looking lovely because of its brokenness.
As I sat in my kayak looking at the trees and listening to the sounds of nature, I began to recall some of my broken branches. Employment in an area that sucked the joy from my life. Another work placement that caused me to review all that I thought I knew about myself and how others saw me. The impact of death in my family and of others I’ve loved. The breaking up of friendships. My actions that have caused pain and suffering to others or myself.
As I looked at the tree, I realised that I was looking at my own life. It hasn’t turned out as I planned. Some things have been broken or twisted or, like the bank, fallen away from underneath me. My life isn’t perfect in the ways I planned it, but neither does the brokenness and trauma make it a failure or ugly.
My life experiences make me unique.
Paddling back, another thought came. Not from nature, but from my working with those in recovery [from addiction]. “God made you, and God don’t make junk!”
Most of our lives don’t go as expected. But that has never diminished God’s interest, involvement or help. In the Bible, the 23rd Psalm speaks of God travelling with me in good and difficult times, while the book of Isaiah, chapter 49, verse 16, states: “See, I have written your name on my hand”. Not a tattoo, but the scar from Jesus’ nail-pierced hands that were fixed to a cross when he died to show his love for me.”
* Originally taken from the poem ‘Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer.
Major Dean Clarke is a Salvation Army officer (pastor) in South Australia.