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What looked like signs of illness turned out to be signs of growth.

This morning an arborist came out to inspect the maple tree towering over our driveway.  Over the past few years the branches developed an odd drooping stance and long cracks appeared in the bark of the largest limbs.  To top it all off, Spanish moss has grown on the lower branches. Our tree is the only one in the neighborhood with the long beard-like growth.  I hadn’t noticed any other tree with cracks either.  I assumed the tree was ill.

Assuming the worst, I had put off the phone call for a year.  The arborist would probably tell me to cut my beloved tree, the one that provided relief from the searing southern sun.  He would tell me my roof was in danger from a sickening fall from a droopy limb during hurricane season which was about to intensify.  He would ask why I hadn’t done something sooner, considering the obvious.

Instead, the soft-spoken arborist explained how young bark splits on the limbs and older bark begins to appear beneath . . . how droop does not always indicate disease . . . how healthy moss grows where it finds a gap in the leaf growth . . . how growth comes in spurts.

The “obvious” proved a poor indicator of actual health; my tree is fine.  It doesn’t resemble the other maples in the neighborhood because, well, it doesn’t.  I have a drooper, with cracks.

What looked like signs of illness turned out to be signs of growth.  I’ve noticed the same growth pattern lately in cardinals out by the feeder.  At first glance, a few of them looked patchy and a bit scrawny.  Uneven color.  Skimpy crest.  Did the birds have some strange disease? Avian something or other? No, they were growing fledglings and had not yet become all they were meant to be.

When I think of symptoms of mental disease or trauma which can twist and split “normal” thoughts and actions, I often think of the regular process of growth going on underneath the illness.  How can we separate the ordinary slow growth of a person—which includes long periods of dormancy alternating with years of crooked sprouting and expanding—from the messy symptoms of sickness?  Sometimes they look the same.  Most of the time droop alarms us, even when it doesn’t need to.  (Hence, helicopter parenting.)

We can forget that someone diagnosed with schizophrenia grows, too.  Or, like many healthy people, he or she can also choose to refuse growth, for which we fall to our knees and pray.  Either way, a diagnosis of “mental illness” does not automatically equal emotional and mental stagnation.  Underneath the symptoms of sickness are elements of growth—a man or woman facing obstacles and having to learn how to grow around them.  That process takes time, doesn’t it?

The arborist gave some advice on how to help the tree grow, advice suitable for people, too:

  • Get some pruning around the upper, outer edges so the inner growth can become more compact and more even.  Don’t lop off inner growth in your effort to avoid the extra climb to reach the edges. Don’t lop off too much.   Working with someone who’s growing takes self-restraint. When “correcting” others, don’t stab at the heart, which is usually the quicker and easier route.
  • Don’t worry about the roots cracking the foundation of the house—the roots naturally grow around dense deep obstacles.  Place an obstacle – a manmade root barrier—at the edge of the sidewalk to cause the roots to go around the pavers instead of disrupting them. Adding a slight obstacle in order to redirect a person can prevent destruction in the future. 
  • To accommodate our sidewalk which had developed a dangerous bulge due to a root, we could safely cut the large root and remove a segment.  Chuck knew the safe distance from the trunk where a severing of one root would not kill the tree.  When in doubt, seek counsel.

God is able to give growth regardless of symptoms.  As you already know, he uses the obstacles to grow us into Christ’s image—to form Christ in us.

This afternoon I saw a bright red cardinal at the feeder with a short sprout of feathers poking up where a crest will one day be.  He reminded me of Alfalfa, one of the notable Little Rascals of long ago.  The bird looked scruffy, almost ridiculous, but I know what God will do with the bird in the days to come: reveal Himself as Creator and Provider through one small life that lives totally dependent upon Him. Glorious.

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