It's funny that I don't even remember the man's name. It was a Sunday night, and my husband and I had gone to church for an evening program with a Christian comedian. Really, it was a rather ordinary day, ending with our regular Sunday evening church attendance. When we walked through the doors that evening, I had expected to laugh. What I did not expect, however, was to be hit to the heart with a vision that would become the mission of the rest of my life.
In between the jokes about choir bus tours and fellowship meals, the comedian became suddenly serious. He began to tell a tale of his family history--immigrant great-grandparents who had to make their way in this vast, new land called America by the sweat of their brow. And, considering that they settled in Texas, they sweat A LOT. He spoke about the bush trees in West Texas, how they don't provide much relief from the sweltering Texas sun. One day, when his great-grandfather was still a very young man, a neighboring farmer saw him out in front of the family home, meticulously burying dozens of acorns. The farmer approached the grandfather, laughing, and asked, "what in the WORLD are you doing?"
"I'm planting shade trees," the grandfather quietly replied as he continued dropping seeds into the warm soil.
"Shade trees?" the farmer exclaimed, "Don't you know it will take YEARS before these things are big enough to provide any shade? You'll be long gone before then!" he stated smugly. The grandfather continued planting--determined.
"I'm not planting them for me," he said patiently, "I'm planting them for my grandchildren."
That's when my heart skipped a beat, and God took the words of a comedian I don't even remember and began to reveal to me His plan for the rest of my life: PLANT SHADE TREES.
The comedian revealed that he had heard that particular story about his great-grandfather while sitting under some cool, refreshing trees during a Texas summer--the very trees planted decades before by an ancestor he hardly knew. Before that night, I never even had a concept of a multi-generational view of family. My own immediate family was no longer in tact; my parents divorced when I was nine. The brokenness from that affected me profoundly. Because of that, I knew that I wanted to do things differently with my own family, but I never thought beyond that or, specifically, HOW I wanted to do that. When God, through that comedian, gave me a vision of planting shade trees, I began to seek out ways that I could be intentional about planting seeds of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty--seeds of the Gospel--into my own heart and the hearts of my children. I wanted everything I did to one day bear fruit for the Kingdom. And one of the ways that I found that I could do that most effectively was through story.
I began to see stories as "shade trees" one day when I realized how much the stories I read had (and still were) shaping me. I had decided to make the switch from reading the popular best-sellers to reading books more intentionally. I was deliberately seeking out various stories that were edifying, or convicting, or just filled my heart and soul with beauty and life. And the stories were changing me. I realized that there were several ways stories were acting as "shade trees" in my own life, and I knew the same effect would be true in the lives of my children.
Like shade trees, stories give us roots. Stories connect us to the world and show us what it's like to be human. When we read of those who have gone before, who have struggled or wrestled or hurt, we know we aren't alone. The effect is that we can feel less isolated and can grow in empathy for other people, but it's also more profound than that. Stories give us glimpses into the human heart and help us to recognize that we all are affected by the same condition, and we all fall short. When we read the stories that were born out of the hearts of our fellow human beings, we know that Paul was right when he told us in Romans that "there is no one righteous, not even one." Sometimes we are able to see this truth more clearly through stories than anywhere else.
But stories also remind us of the hope we have in the Gospel. The story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is the most important and greatest story ever told. Biblical stories and stories of church history that tell of lives transformed by Christ help us stay rooted in our faith and connect us to the Church.
Other stories, like family histories and local lore, can also ground us in our sense of self, place, and community. I don't know a child who doesn't love to hear the story of his/her birth. Family stories remind us that we might have our grandmother's spunk, or our grandfather's wit. They can explain the origin of family customs or traditions. ("And that is the reason why, every single year, each child picks a new angel for the top of the Christmas tree." And every Christmas, as that story is told again, the family unit that was fledgling and very fragile when the original story took place, now decades later, is woven together a bit more tightly.) Stories knit our hearts to the hearts and minds of other people. It is through stories that my boys will understand what connects them to generations before, and that we do things that way simply because we are Showmakers.
Like shade trees, stories inspire us to great heights. Occasionally my boys and I will take a blanket outside and lie on our backs, attempting to look straight through the tops of the majestic oak trees, trying to see bits of blue sky through the vibrant green leaves and the dappled sunlight. We always marvel at how tall the highest branches are, and we wonder what the world looks like from the very top. Stories inspire us with the same sense of wonder and imagination. It is through story that we can catch a vision of all that is possible in our amazing world. We read of heroes, inventors, explorers, creators, and we began to think, "if he can do that, maybe I can too!" Our imaginations come alive and creativity flourishes. We begin to imagine ourselves within a story--our life story--and we want to live an epic adventure. "What kind of hero will you be?" we ask ourselves and our children, as a result of the inspiring stories that we encounter.
Like shade trees, stories offer protection. When we hear tales of tragic choices or misguided decisions and see the disastrous consequences, those lessons are stored up in our hearts and minds and, hopefully, keep us from making similar mistakes. A child who knows very well the story of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will think twice before allowing greed to rule him. The one who is familiar with the tale of Beauty and the Beast will hesitate before judging a book (or a person) by its cover. One whose cup has been filled brimful with biblical stories knows the ramifications of sin and is encouraged to chose the right path.
Stories also offer protection in the way that they form and restore our souls. Tales abound of people who survive difficult situations and circumstances because they called on the power of stories in the midst of their trials to sustain their hope. Corrie Ten Boom, in her book The Hiding Place, tells about how, night after night, the Biblical stories sustained her and her fellow prisoners in the concentration camps. I recently heard a speaker, who had been intentional about filling her sons' hearts with stories every morning, tell of how her son had recited a beloved poem over and over in the midst of war, and it sustained him.
Like shade trees, stories yield fruit. The purpose of planting stories as shade trees in the hearts and minds of ourselves and our children is so that, ultimately, the seeds come to fruition. I want to surround my children with wonderful stories to cultivate wisdom and virtue. I want them to grow up to be human beings who reflect God's glory, proclaim his gospel, and bring his kingdom to bear here on earth.
"Storyformed children grow to adulthood understanding that they have been specially formed by a loving God, destined for his kingdom, specially crafted to love, create, and conquer. They have reason to respond to their parents' training, to work and learn, hope and know, because stories assure them that right choices and brave actions are the force behind happy endings." -Sarah Clarkson, Caught up in a Story
The fruits of the immigrant great-grandfather's diligent work of planting shade trees were enjoyed by his descendants for generations. But he planted more than physical trees that day. He told a story, and that story made its way to me in that wooden pew 1000 miles and three generations away, on an ordinary Sunday evening. And a spiritual seed was sown in my heart that continues to grow to this day. He never saw the fruits of his labors. He never enjoyed the relief from the oppressive Texas heat. He never even knew that one day a woman in North Carolina would catch a lifelong vision as a result of his tale. But the fruit remains. Like him, as parents we may never see the fruits of our labors as we diligently work to surround our children with the very best stories, in hopes that the stories will shape them.
Blessed is the one...[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1)