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Bristlecone Lives

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

Sometime in the summer of 1994, my first wife, Melissa, and I traveled from sea to shining sea -- Seattle to Princeton -- in our old, blue Toyota Land Cruiser, camping at state and national parks on our way across the country. It was a sublime trip, and the most lasting memory was the 18 hours we spent at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, at the time the smallest national park in the U.S. We drove up to the campsite at 11,000 feet one late August afternoon and pitched our tent in some soft grass in a small grove of old trees next to a babbling brook.

After setting up our tent, we followed an unmarked path up to 13,000 feet and stumbled upon a grove of Bristlecone pines. We pulled out the map we'd been given at the park's entrance and read about these magnificently old and gnarled trees, at the time the oldest known living organisms on the planet. The oldest one, which met its fate in 1964 when a geologist inadvertently killed it while studying its age (and aptly named Prometheus), has only its trunk to mark the place where it met its "premature" death. It was estimated to be nearly 5,000 years old. It was a sapling, in other words, before the pyramids of Egypt has been built. It was already an old tree by the time Solomon became king of Israel, and it was positively ancient when Jesus walked the earth.

Missy and I walked around the grove alone in a rapt state of wonder among these magnificent trees as they quietly looked out over the Nevada desert like silent sentinels, living testaments to sheer tenacity and endurance, to cosmic patience in an otherwise harsh and unwelcome environment. Indeed, as the park's brochure puts it: "Bristlecones survive longest where conditions are most strenuous":

This strange tree, shaped by the wind, snow, and rain has survived over thousands of years, overseeing the rise and fall of great empires, growing through ice-ages and catastrophic volcanic eruptions. But their ability to survive these harsh environments and adverse growing conditions is exactly their secret to great longevity.

You couldn't help but wonder if the same principle could be applied to human beings. I remember learning, on my first trip to Ghana, W. Africa in the summer of 1988, that the Ghanaian people were known throughout Africa for two things: their laughter and their story-telling. These people, most of whom lived at, near, or below the poverty line were remarkable specimens of good humor and generosity, and it was both incredible and disarming to be surrounded by such destitution and laughter, such hardship mixed with generosity and good humor, all at the same time.

I remember in particular a conversation I had with a Ghanaian pastor on my second trip to that beautiful country ten years later, in 1998. We were enjoying a late-night dinner under a tent lit by candlelight, and he and I were talking about the devil, which always makes for good conversation, and we were remarking how easy it was to see the devil's footprint in places like Africa, where the devil's operating procedure was to rob people of what they needed: food, shelter, peace, safety. We were then left to ask the obvious question: does the devil have geographic preference for countries south of the equator, for so-called "Third World" countries? By implication, of course, that would mean that God had preference for countries north of the equator, so-called "First World" countries. No, we concluded, God did not enjoy home field advantage in the northern hemisphere, nor did the devil do his only -- or even best -- work below the equator. He just used different means to the same end, which is ultimately despair and nihilism. In the South, the devil took everything you needed, where in the north, he gave you everything you wanted. Both led to the same place.

Which brings me back to old truths, and to old things. They really are the newest things, the most surprising truths. That ancient grove of Bristlecone pine trees Melissa and I walked into were a living parable of one of the deeper truths of scripture: that trial, hardship, adversity... all the things, in other words, that we are conditioned to avoid can be the most life-giving things, and they can make us stronger, more patient, kinder, and more generous versions of ourselves. There are no guarantees that difficult things produce nobler virtues -- just see the despair in many places south of the equator -- but it is a guarantee that one cannot attain virtues without going through trial and tribulation.

Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses, not simply because that's what the life of a disciple entails, but also because, in doing so, we are walking the road to redemption. The very sinews of our spirit, like the wood of the bristlecone pines, are being twisted into something enduring, something beautiful, something lasting. As Paul's letter to the Romans puts it:

Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.

And yet so many of us in the church assume -- even preach -- that God both promises and desires for us to have easy, comfortable lives. We want to be like the grass, which grows so quickly and stands so tall and bright, but withers and is gone tomorrow, when God is calling us to have bristlecone lives, which thrive in dark and difficult places and resist the short-lived advantages of an easy life.

We have grown accustomed to the staid, the stale "newest thing" and "biggest thing" when, it turns out, the oldest things are the newest things, and the smallest things the greatest. The Gospel, full of its old truths, really is today's breaking news:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

~ G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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