Friday, November 27, 2015

The Heart in the Silver Birch Tree


To the amazing, beautiful young lady the Lord will lead me to someday. Claiming God’s grace and forgiveness for the mistakes in my past, may I keep my heart for you, complete and pure, so that my love legacy will not be one of a rotted stump, but of a vibrant, thriving tree.

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Romance, who can understand it? A man and a woman attracted to one another. Two lives intertwined. Two hearts falling for the other. Two souls bound forever. That’s how it should be.

But often it’s not. Hearts can be broken. Love can be lost. So beautiful, yet so dangerous. So pure, yet so easily defiled. How I wish I could understand it! But I am old now. I have experienced it all—first love, lost love, true love, enduring love—and I still am no closer to solving the mystery.

There is an old, rotted stump at the edge of my property, and it brings a pang to my heart every time I walk by it. So much heartbreak, so much pain. But no, there is joy now as well, for God is gracious. That stump was not always bug ridden and crumbling with decay. Once it was a beautiful Birch tree—thriving, it’s silver bark a sharp contrast to its cloak of dark green leaves.

A young boy roamed the land in the days when that Birch tree was vibrant and pure. He would splash across a clear trickling stream and throw himself on the lush green grass, eyes merry, head thrown back in laughter. How I can see him, even now! With legs outstretched and hands behind his head, he lay there under the Birch tree in the grass, dreaming of what he would become and what he would do.

She was there too, smiling down on the boy. Her brown hair was in beautiful disarray from running with the wind, her clear brown eyes sparkling. They had been friends from early in childhood, but as he held her gaze that moment, something changed forever. The boy was new to the mystery, but he did not wait for caution. His heart went out to the girl, and it seemed a small price to pay to love her, so pretty and perfect she seemed.  

The boy walked the girl home that afternoon feeling as if he was walking in the clouds. On the way back, he stopped by the Birch tree again. The boy knelt and carved a heart and a pair of initials deep in the silver bark of the tree and then threw himself back on the lush green grass. He gazed up into the silver and green canopy above him, now tinted golden with the last rays of the sunset, and at the heart carved at the base of the tree, and he dreamed another dream.

But it never came true. The boy loved the girl, and she loved him, but one day the girl’s eyes were not sparkling when she met the boy under the Birch tree. Her father had taken a job at the opposite corner of the nation, and they would be moving soon. She had come to say goodbye.

The boy swore to her that this wouldn’t be the end, that one day, when he was a man, he would come for her. The girl smiled sadly and promised to write him, and the next minute she was gone. He watched her go, helpless and brokenhearted. How he wished he was older and could somehow save the girl from leaving! But he was but a boy, and for the first time he wondered if it would have been better to wait till manhood to love.

They stayed in contact for a few months after the move, but overtime, the letters started coming longer apart, than not at all. The boy wandered aimlessly through the forest, no longer carefree and innocent, but sober and hurt. He found himself under the Birch tree one day, staring at the heart and initials carved into its trunk, and somehow the tree was less beautiful to him. He suddenly threw himself to his knees and removed his pocket knife, carving away feverishly at the heart and initials. In seconds, they were gone. But the pain wasn’t. He wanted to forget—but could not. For though the symbol of his lost love was gone, there was still a deep scar in the Birch tree.

The boy grew older, and then he met his second love. She was perfect, he thought—beautiful, smart, funny. They lived hours apart, but he found ways to keep in contact. Soon they were e-mailing every day, and he felt himself again giving his heart away. He was no longer completely naïve to the mystery, and caution warned him to be careful lest he be hurt again. But she was worth it, he thought. One fresh, crisp morning he splashed across the stream to the Birch tree, and clasping the same knife that had been used on the tree before, he carved a heart around another set of initials in the trunk. To him, it was a new beginning in every way, and he barely glanced down at the scar in the silver bark. It felt good, very good.

Months later, the boy used his knife to shave off strips of bark, till all that was left was another ragged scar. His stomach was tight, and he felt sick. How could this happen to him again? Yet though he had tried to rationalize and ignore it at first, he had learned from their e-mails how different he was from her, his second love, and she had too. The relationship had felt good, but now it was over. It hurt, almost more than it had ever been good. He promised himself that the next time he carved a heart in the Birch tree, it would hold the initials of his wife. In his grief, he couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Years passed, and the boy became a young man. He purchased a small chunk of land from his parents with the intention of building his own homestead on it, and 23 found him striding along the clear, trickling stream at the edge of his property. He glanced up at a withered, silver tree as he passed, and his stride faltered. A flood of memories came to mind.  A smile played at the corners of his mouth as he remembered a young boy stretched out under the tree, carefree and dreaming.  He had spent so much time like that!  But then his eyes traveled to the scars carved in the trunk , and his smile faded. He looked away quickly, not caring to count the scars. Not again. Not anymore. How quickly he had pushed aside his promise in the thralls of infatuation, but again and again the relationship had not lasted. He was so sure that she would be the one that it seemed silly to wait till the wedding day to carve anything more on the Birch tree, but he had been proved wrong so many times that he no longer cared to even think of the tree. It was dying now, perhaps from some disease, or perhaps from its scars. The young man shook his head and strode past.

A gust of wind played among the treetops, dislodging the last few crisp brown leaves from their precarious perch. With the wind came the sound of an axe ringing through the forest. The young man hacked away at the Birch tree. The biting wind seeped through his coat and gloves, but he kept swinging relentlessly, ignoring the cold. The rhythm of axe on wood was steady and unbroken. It was as if he wanted it this way, as if he was willing himself away from any other feeling. He needed firewood to last him through the winter, but deep down inside, that was not the only reason why he was cutting down the Birch tree.

The tree finally fell with a loud, splintering crash. It lay there on the frozen ground—a pathetic, leafless thing—and the young man stared numbly at it. But something inside him had snapped with the tree, and he tossed aside his axe and collapsed. He lay there once more in the grass, but he no longer dared to dream. Instead, the tears he had bound up for so long came loose, and he hugged his knees to his chest and sobbed silently.

I know the site of a young man in such a prideless position is foreign, but I hope you can understand what a broken, empty heart can do to a man. I can, for I was that young man.

Yes, it’s true. It is painful for me to tell my story, but I must in the hopes that you will see the truth in it. Some will say that heartbreak is just all a part of life, but I don’t believe it has to be that way.  I finally understand this at least: love was not made to be broken. It is made to thrive, to grow ever stronger till in death do us part. Thankfully, my story didn’t end that bleak winter day. I finally met the woman I was to marry, and 25 found me with a ring on my finger. I held my wife’s hand, and we walked together down a little, winding stream. She carried a shovel in her free hand. I carried a tender Birch sapling in mine.

Together, we planted that Birch tree by the stream. It was a symbol to me of a new chapter in my life, a commitment to the everlasting love I would have for the woman beside me. For a long while we sat together in the lush green grass, her head on my shoulder, and admired our work. The little Birch tree, as twig-like and unaspiring as it was as a sapling, seemed all the more beautiful to me. At the same time, my eyes traveled to a rotting stump a short distance away, and I smiled sadly. Yes, the hurt was still there, but the joy and contentment was so much stronger than that now. I pulled my wife closer and kissed her. My dream had finally come true.

In a few years, the children came, and I was launched into the daunting occupation of a father. How often I needed God’s grace to raise my family! I strove to train them up in the Lord, and praise be to Him alone, my children all accepted Christ even from a young age! My family grew and thrived just like the little Birch tree at the corner of our property.

My oldest son reached the teen years, and hormones took over. One day I took him to the old, rotted stump and told him my story. How I wanted something more for him than what I had gone through! I cried out to God that He would help my son keep his heart pure and undefiled for the young woman he would marry.

My son saw my pain, and he saw my love for him. I will never forget the day that he came to me and promised that his love legacy would be different. In the same breath he implored my help, for he was just as baffled with the mystery as I was. And it was hard. My son noticed quite a few pretty girls, of course, and then the time came where he was interested in one in particular. It was all he could do to keep his feelings for her in check. He began to question if it was all that wrong to start pursuing the girl, and I implored him to hold fast to his promise to guard his heart as I had been unable to do. I urged him to give it time. He was still so young, and so much could change before he was actually ready for marriage.

And it did, of course. The girl turned out not to be the one the Lord intended for my son, but praise be to God he didn’t have to find that out the hard way! You could often find my son down by the Birch tree in those days, sprawled out on the grass, reading the Bible I had given him. I smiled when I saw him down there. Like father like son, a Birch tree had become a part of his young life too. He asked me once if I would mind if he carved a heart and a pair of initials in the tree when he was married. I told him that nothing would make me happier.

The Birch tree grew stout and vibrant, and in much the same way, my son matured into manhood. Finally, the waiting was over. For several years his friendship with a certain young lady had grown only stronger, and after much prayer, my son decided to pursue a relationship with her. In the season of courtship that followed, he got to know her better and seriously evaluate if she would be a good match, and every day they drew closer together. Still, though it must have been hard at times, he waited to carve a heart in the Birch tree, steadfast in his promise.

At long last, there was a wedding ceremony. My son kissed his bride for the first time that day, and with that kiss he gave her his heart, complete and pure, to love, honor and protect her all the days of his life for as long as they both shall live. What a joyous day that was!

They had a honeymoon to run off to, but their first stop was at the corner of our property. They splashed across a little stream hand in hand and ran across a bank of lush green grass till they stopped before a lone, silver tree. They were still in their wedding clothes—my son in his tuxedo, my daughter-in-law in her gown—but they didn’t seem to mind.

What they did next can still be seen to this day. My son knelt down, and with great care he carved a heart and a pair of initials in the silver Birch tree.