Our town was built around a single tree. The Holy Oak stands in the cemetery of the Presbyterian Church in the center of town. It is the oldest white oak in America, and it has presided over this patch of land for almost six hundred years. The Holy Oak has watched centuries of life unfold, from Native Americans hunting in the local woods to Revolutionary soldiers marching to war to a brick and mortar town springing up around it to kids running around the courtyard playing Pokémon Go.
Over the years, the branches have provided shade over the headstones of revolutionary soldiers and the church’s own parishioners. The trunk has absorbed the sound of praise and prayers, and the leaves have swayed to the sound of children, my own among them, plinking away for a crowd of proud parents during piano recital season. The tree’s roots have held this town together from the ground up, as change inevitably swept through.
Once the oak reached its full height, it grew wider and wider rather than tall. This is an admirable goal in life, I think–to grow wider and deeper and increasingly broad. Tall is big, proud, imposing, but width is inclusive and encompassing. Depth is wise. To grow in depth is to establish roots that become smaller and smaller as the fibers bury themselves and fan out. Change occurs in the delicate, most vulnerable places.
The complexity of the tree lies at the tips of its roots and in the fine veins of its leaves. Our own complexities, the small and fragile parts we try to avoid or hide, are the ones that allow us to grow deeper in faith, in relationships, and in understanding. It’s where we absorb the essence of life. Just as the oak’s roots absorb water or sunlight or nutrients, we take in impressions, words, and feelings. These tender, rooted places are where we hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, whispering “Here is the way, walk in it.”
This year, when the tree failed to unfurl in all its glory, experts were called in for their professional opinion. Reporters arrived to tell the story. And artists set up charcoal and paper on easels to make sketches.
The Holy Oak is dying.
I found an old photo of my children standing under the massive tree in full bloom, and I felt sad, but also grateful. We stood in the shade of the oldest white oak in America, where George Whitfield preached to a crowd of 3,000 during the Great Awakening. The tree echoes with the sound of him proclaiming the gospel. It echoes with the sound of my daughter playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It echoes with the footsteps of countless people living ordinary lives across the ages.
While life played out beneath the Holy Oak’s branches, it rooted itself in the dark soil and stretched into the sunlight, growing tall and deep and wide. And we’re all the better for it.