Make Like a Tree

By Katie Helmreich

For nearly a hundred years, our silver poplar tree has graced the backyard. We have dozens of other trees, but this gigantic tree and the shade underneath it seem to be the essence of the yard. Our sixtyish-foot tree is literally a tree planted by streams of water, and has survived floods, winds, ice, and drought for more than twice my lifetime. 

Of course, it hasn’t come through unscathed. We’ve noticed a few dead branches; some broke off more than a decade ago but haven’t fallen because they got stuck on other branches. Every major windstorm reminds us just how close to the house this big guy is… 

Calling in a tree service has been on the to-do list for quite a while, but we finally had them come out this past week. They brought all sorts of big equipment, and eight guys spent nearly four hours working on pruning and cleaning up. 

To be honest, I didn’t expect to be so intrigued by their work. We’ve cut down and chopped up several trees ourselves, and I figured it’d be pretty much the same. But pruning a tree of this size was really fascinating. 

Trees just grow. They bulk out along whatever branches and forks happen to be there. There’s no intentional prioritizing, just an unceasing pursuit of life.

The goal? Get massive. Grow all the places. Branch out as much as possible and put out as many green leaves as you can! 

A silver poplar doesn’t know it can’t sustain that kind of weight so far from the trunk without risk of splitting. A silver poplar can’t shed dead or damaged limbs on its own. As old and wise as she is, this regal tree can’t clear the broken branches that snag in dense undergrowth and drag down healthy limbs. 

A tree needs an expert who can see its beautiful shape and character underneath the excess. A careful pruner understands that even some of the healthy branches have got to go for the good of the whole tree. 

Most of the time, just a bit of a trim isn’t enough. If I’d attempted to prune the tree (assuming somehow I acquired a cherry picker and learned mad chainsaw skills), I wouldn’t have taken off as many limbs. I don’t have the expertise it takes to see what the tree truly could be, and I wouldn’t have kept going long enough to reveal it. 

I never expected to identify so closely to my silver poplar tree, of all things. But I find myself in need of a good pruning, too. 

The past several years have been full of amazing experiences, learning, and growth in all sorts of directions! Which is fantastic! Except that no one can do all the things all the time without risk of splitting. 

I have a tendency to say yes to lots of good things as opportunity arises without always thinking through how close to my central purpose or abilities they are. Too many small commitments or projects encroach on the mental and emotional margin I need to be able to process and let go of garbage thoughts and feelings that weigh me down and increase anxious tension. 

Advice from friends and information gleaned from podcasts, videos, and books like The More of Less (by Joshua Beckers), Essentialism (by Greg McKeown)and The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (by John Mark Corner) have all helped me tackle a much needed trim in my home and on my calendar. 

But I recognize the need for a more expert eye and purposeful pruning. 

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

John 15:1-2 (ESV)

I can’t prune myself. I don’t have the expertise or the ability. But God does.

God knows me more intimately than I know myself. The Father created me, redeemed me, and has planted me near streams of baptismal living water. The Vinedresser looks at me and sees beyond my excess. Careful pruning encourages more and more good fruit. In fact, the very Spirit of the Vinedresser is revealed in me more and more with every expert trim.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father … that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend … the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19 (ESV)

The giant silver poplar in my yard shares a root system with every other silver poplar along the creek. The roots grow deep and wide and provide strength and lifegiving food for each tree in this enormous living system.

I’m not planted here alone, either. I’m rooted in Christ, and connected and supported by my fellow brothers and sisters as we all speak God’s lifegiving Words to one another! 

The Holy Spirit grants me peace, patience, kindness, self control, and more, especially when pruning comes through difficulty or trauma.  The Spirit produces endurance from suffering, character from endurance, and unshakeable hope! (Romans 5:2-5).

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 (ESV)

The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.

Psalm 33:11 (ESV)

God will continue divine pruning work in me. (It takes a lot longer than four hours.) I don’t know yet which areas of growth my Vinedresser will encourage and which will be cut away so that I can bear more fruit within God’s plans for me and the kingdom. It’s exciting and encouraging to know that the work God does in my heart isn’t just for my own benefit, but will bless others, including those in the next generation! 

I used to describe our silver poplar as gigantic. The tree’s primary characteristic was simply hugeness. But after a good pruning, she seems almost elegant. The canopy seems to flutter and wave more gracefully. Limbs that were once shrouded in leaves now reveal the delicate bark distinctive in poplars. The weight of the limbs is now balanced in such a way that it poses less of a danger to the house (and to the tree). God willing, our silver poplar will continue to stand for many more years, blessing my family with shade and beauty.

We don’t very often see ahead of time what the Vinedresser has planned for us. But by the grace of God, you and I continue to be transformed in the pruning process. We live our lives planted by streams of living water, rooted in steadfast love, embraced by a lifegiving system of relationships that holds us together as one interconnected organism, one Body. God carefully and skillfully directs the pruning process, as Jesus is revealed more and more through our lives.

Leave a Reply