A Tale of Three Trees

Aug 9 / Terra McDaniel

There is an enormous cottonwood tree near my house. I walk past it daily, usually with my dogs. Sometimes I place a hand on the massive trunk and imagine the life to which its branches have born silent witness. I love noticing the yellow heart-shaped leaves it drops to the ground in the fall.

The tree is around 98 years old, planted before the Great Depression or the second World War. The eastern cottonwood is named for its feathery white seeds. Writing this, I learned cottonwoods don’t typically live longer than a hundred years. Which makes me a little sad. And underscores that life is precious and not to be squandered.

A young man once sat with his back resting against the tree as I passed. He was gazing up at the branches, laughing with delight. “It sounds like rain when the leaves blow,” he exclaimed. “It does!” I smiled. In all my trips past my tree, I’d missed that delightful fact. His joy was contagious. We laughed together before I walked on, transformed by the holy moment. I’ve thought of the brief interaction many times since. If I’ve ever met an angel, I have no doubt it was then.

Where is the Creator inviting you to find joy in connecting with the world around you?


Not far from the cottonwood, another invitation is often present that requires a different kind of attention. My homeless neighbor Sean is frequently slouched on the sidewalk under an ornamental pear tree. He often positions himself near the community center’s power outlet where he can charge his phone, his overflowing grocery cart nearby. Sean rarely speaks. He regularly stands and stares blankly into the distance or scrolls endlessly on his phone. Occasionally, he follows me or other neighbors a few paces. I think it’s his way of attempting human connection, but it can be disconcerting.

The truth is that I would rather not pass by Sean. The way his soul is wounded means it won’t work to smile briskly, hand over a snack, and keep walking. He can’t respond to such acts which make me feel polite and accommodating but are in fact more about protecting me from discomfort. Sean is my regular invitation to compassion for the broken, refusing to pass by on the other side like the priest and Levite of Jesus’ parable.

There are countless moments in Jesus’ life when the sick or oppressed cried out to him. Being fully human, this sometimes frustrated him, especially when his body and soul needed rest and sustenance. But he never failed to turn toward the least with care. I’m particularly moved by the story of the leper. When he asks for help, Jesus does more than simply heal him. He reaches out and touches him (Luke 5:13). Contrary to some teachings, “no Jewish law forbids touching a person with leprosy,” though Josephus indicates it was frowned upon.[1] If Jesus isn’t flouting the law, which seems likely since he urges the man to follow instructions to become ceremonially clean, then what was happening? I think he’s demonstrating that the sick and broken are to be honored as humans worthy of care and connection rather, not problems to be solved. I wish I could reach out and heal Sean and others like him. But what I can do is choose to see, offer a piece of fruit, bus fare, or simply an empathetic gaze.

How can you join Jesus in bringing more compassion or healing for the broken or hurting around you?


There’s a third invitation I’ve noticed this summer as I’ve taken our recently rescued dog Albert to puppy school (which is mostly me learning how to be a better human with my dogs). The trainer emphasizes the importance of standing tall, highlighting my tendency to hunch over. I do it for all kinds of reasons. In kindergarten, I was a full head taller than my classmates. Now, I’m frequently the tallest person in the room. Most of me loves that but I sometimes unconsciously try to shrink myself. I also struggle to keep good posture at my computer. And when I’m sad or overwhelmed, I often notice my shoulders slumping.

Part of the solution is attention, remembering good posture has a host of benefits, physical and otherwise. I’ve been focusing on it several times a day, letting my shoulders drop and my chest open, taking up more space visibly and spiritually. This reminds me to welcome the world around me as it is, full of both incredible beauty and breathtaking suffering. In my yoga practice, tree pose helps me attend to all this, fostering balance and making me holistically stronger. I like to welcome my childhood self to the posture, waving my arms around like branches.

All three trees are part of my chance to allow myself to be changed by the world around me. Refusing to remain aloof and distracted. To be ready to be delighted by the created world and her inhabitants of all shapes and sizes. Following the good Rabbi “who himself lives in tune with the natural world, knowing about growing seeds and harvests, clouds and sunsets, fig trees and weeds, sheep and mother hens.”[2]

What helps your heart and body have more peace & openness to the world around you?

[1] Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament: NRSV, Oxford Univ. Press (2011), 110.
[2] Johnson, Elizabeth A, Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, 1993 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality, Paulist Press (New York), 8.

Terra McDaniel

Terra is a spiritual director, pastor, teacher, and writer who loves making space for people of all ages to tune into their own souls. Terra is convinced that the Spirit is working both within the church and outside it and feels particularly called to host those who feel spiritually homeless. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and terramcdaniel.com.