Growth and Strength of Character Through Trials
My Magnolia Inspiration
Spring has come so late this year. The winter was so very harsh and cold, much colder and longer than is typical for Southern Missouri. I have a lot of plants in my yard that are very sensitive to the cold, and this winter I worried that the extreme temperatures had caused severe damage and die back. For me that means lots of extra work pruning and replanting, something I was definitely not looking forward to.
Today, to my pleasant surprise, when I looked outside, some of the trees that I was worried about were in full bloom. Only a week ago, the branches were dormant. Not a sign of life was apparent, but now with the addition of some warmer temperatures last week and the added hours of daylight, those dormant branches have come back to life. Even though today it was only in the 40's, the trees were pushing forward with their spring preparations in spite of the cold.
As I pondered on the blooming Magnolia, I saw an interesting parallel between it and my life, or for that matter, to anyone's life who is currently struggling with trials.
In the dead of winter, to the naked eye, the tree appears to be completely dead. We know of course that it is not, but that it is conserving energy by becoming dormant during difficult growing conditions.
All of it's energy for life is turned inward for conservation.
When a large trial first hits us, we may go dormant like the tree. We pull inward, we grieve, we try to emotionally find a coping mechanism. This is not a state that we can remain in forever. If we are to survive long term and to grow, we must prepare ourselves to receive the light again.
In spring, when the daylight hours become longer and the temperatures warmer, the tree begins to bloom and leaf out in preparation for summer; however, the tree starts its preparations while still in winter.
We like the tree must start our preparations. We pray, we study the words of the prophets, we seek to know God's will and to accept it. We listen for those first signs of spring. They are subtle and interspersed between cold spells, but if we are preparing and listening we will notice them. Because of our spiritual dedication, we will begin to hear the whisperings of the spirit again. We will know when it is time to leaf out and we will know what to start to do.
Some may think that the tree could survive longer and better if it simply stored it's energy. The roots take up nutrients and needed fluid. Why doesn't the tree just remain in it dormant state and use what it can gain from it's roots? Certainly that would be simpler than growing new leaves every year!
With all of our leaves gone and the chill of winter surrounding us, it is hard to think of the effort of leafing out again. We may want to stay in our protected state, conserving instead of reaching out.
However, a tree can only survive season after season by turning outward. It cannot exist alone on what it's roots bring. It needs the sugars produced by light during the process of photosynthesis in order to live and grow. (Now you are getting the scientist in me!)
In the uncertain temperatures of spring, it begins to leaf out and to bloom. The tree knows that summer will surely come. It needs additional food for growth, propagation and to survive the next winter. That food is produced by its leaves. It must put forth effort to produce the leaves that will glean the light. Those preparations, the formation of leaf and flower buds started months ago in the dead of winter when there were no signs of spring. The tree had to act in faith prior to confirmation of warming temperatures.
Leafing out in the cold can be a scary proposition. Some years an unwelcome frost singes the new leaves. Sometimes the blossoms are completely destroyed, and very little or no fruit is produced that season. Even worse, in extreme situations a late ice storm may cause enough damage that portions of the branches die back, causing the tree to run dangerously low on it's energy reserves as it tries to leaf out again.
Despite all of these potential dangers, the tree, sensing the arrival of summer, in faith begins that formation and emerging process. It takes it's internal energy and uses it to create something beautiful outward. Nectar for the bees, foliage to protect the birds, shade for me to lie under, and eventually fruit for me to enjoy.
The interesting thing is, that in turning outward to bless others, the tree receives renewed strength. Strength that allows it to grow and prepare for the next winter.
Sometimes when we have had a particularly cold winter in our lives, it is very difficult to have the faith to reach outward when everything that inside us says to just conserve our strength. This is especially true when we are in the dead of winter and only see the very volatile spring temperatures in the near future. If we, like the tree, will remember the pattern of past years, when the light and the warmth have always come, and act in faith to form those buds, then we will be ready to receive the light when it comes. Light or blessings always come after, not before our action.
I'm not saying that we won't sometimes need a little pruning to get rid of die back, or that some years our fruit load will be low. Nor will we have record growing seasons every year, but there will be growth and progress. We will receive added strength to go through our next cold spell.
God gives us light, but if we do not leaf out, we can not use that light. If we remain dormant and turned inward then we will have to rely on our own strength. The minute we choose to act in faith outwardly, then we can utilize and be blessed and strengthened by that light. Light, or grace, is the enabling power that helps our character to grow. It helps us repair and become stronger.
Just this morning before I looked out the window I was reading a book by one of my church leaders, David A Bednar, called Power to Become.
He said, "One of the greatest indicators of RIGHTEOUS CHARACTER is the capacity to recognize and appropriately respond to other people who are experiencing the very challenge or adversity that is most immediately and forcefully pressing upon us."
"Character is revealed for example, in the power to discern the suffering of other people when we ourselves are suffering... "
"Thus character is demonstrated by looking, turning, and reaching outward when the instinctive response... is to turn inward and to be selfish and self-absorbed."I thought of the Savior and the perfect example that He set for us. He always turned outward in compassion and service even if and especially when He was facing His own trials and pain.
Jesus epitomizes strong, righteous, moral character.
So why can't the tree just stay leafed out all year? Why do we need to even have the cold?
Interestingly enough, many fruit trees require a frost to set the new buds that will bear next years fruit. Without the winter, there would be no fruit.
Evergreen trees also experience very slow continued growth. Their growth and progress is much slower than their deciduous counter parts. A Deciduous tree experiences rapid growth in the summer. It's ability to store energy and then harness the light in the growing season makes for more rapid growth over time. So the difficulties actually strengthen the tree. During the winter, the tree is not idling sitting by and biding its time. It is actively preparing for the next spring by creating the new buds, moving sap to the roots of the tree, and strengthening it trunk. If the tree did not do this, the roots would die during the long winter.
In times of trial we have to work inwardly on our spirituality. We cannot just sit and wait for things to get better. We have to nourish our roots, we have to prepare our buds, and we have to strengthen our trunks so they will withstand the winds. The things we glean in the summer, will sustain us through the winter, but with faith in the spring we must bloom and leaf out again.
I have found added strength by reaching out to serve others in my time of trial. Service has lifted me from sorrow, it has given me a new purpose, and it has helped me gain empathy for others and better perspective in my own life. I am grateful for this cold winter in my life and for the things that it is teaching me. It is helping me to become a stronger tree, and I needed that.