A few summers ago, I traveled to Israel at the generous invitation of friends. One memorable afternoon on our trip, we walked down the hillside of the Mount of Olives and passed through the Garden of Gethsemane. The smells and sounds of the landscape from that day have stayed strong in my memory.
I was wearing sandals and we had taken a bus up to the top of the hill, so I hadn’t realized how steep it was. But walking back down, the hot asphalt beneath my feet was like the surface you’d find at a theme park somewhere in middle-America. I thought of Jesus walking this same hill. I could barely keep my feet in my shoes for the angle of the path, so I took them off.
As we came to the bottom of the hill, we stood among the ancient olive trees in the garden where Jesus spent hours in prayer. The trees framing the outdoor sanctuary are some of the oldest living things around. Their sorrowful, faithful presence is unmoved there in the middle of this changing world. They bear witness.
Our guide told us that olive trees have some special characteristics. Most trees report their growth by adding a ring each year, but you cannot tell an olive tree’s age or experience by counting its rings. As an olive tree ages, instead of growing rings, the trunk expands inside and becomes more spacious. The older the olive tree, the wider and more hollow the trunk.
Back home in Tennessee, we read the story of the trees by their rings. Our trees hold their memory in layers, each storm and drought recorded in organic detail. But the olive trees hold memory more densely, compressed and magnificently refined. They make space as they mature.
In my own growth, I would like to be more like the olive tree, remembering the good stuff, the faithfulness of God that strengthens who I am. I want to stretch my branches out wide (Isa. 54:2) and let the rough details of each passing trial slough off. I want to make space in the center of my life, to welcome the Holy Spirit right in the middle—reviving, refreshing, renewing.
But when I am under stress, I am inclined to harbor my frustrations and keep a record of my complaints. Left to my own sinful nature, I document my hardships and vent my frustrations, carving rings of memory. But the grace of the olive tree tells a better story.
When I look back, I can see God’s good providence and provision as opportunities for growth, even in the times of great discomfort. The wood of the olive tree grows more smooth and compressed over time, demonstrating to me that I don’t have to harbor every relational injury. “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5).
And I am humbled when I focus on the substance of God’s provision for me. “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Pet. 2:24). When we suffer, we can entrust ourselves to the one who keeps the record straight. To entrust ourselves to God is to actively give over to him our grievances and our circumstances beyond our control. In this, the core of our life is strengthened, hollowed, and made more fruitful. Despite its hollow core, the olive tree is a historic symbol of strength, intelligence, and productivity. One mature olive tree can provide as much as 20 gallons of oil.
As I remember the trees from the Garden of Gethsemane, I think of Jesus’ tears poured out on the ground, like oil poured out for healing and blessing. I remember the sensation of my bare feet on the Mount of Olives that afternoon on the asphalt, like the hot pavement in the summertime at Six Flags in Missouri when I was a kid. God’s presence is real then and now. He shapes our stories into smooth beauty, like a master gardener. “I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God. I will trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever” (Ps. 52:8). He visits us in the garden and breathes his renewing Presence through the sacred center of our lives, making space for what was, what is, and what is yet to be.
Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville. Follow her on Twitter @Sandramccracken.
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