My beloved dogwood tree died. I never should have planted it in the first place. Dogwoods don’t grow well at my elevation in northern California. I knew that when I chose to plant my tree 10 years ago, but I didn’t care. “Plant it anyway,” I told my husband.
I wanted to plant a dogwood tree as a reminder of the two happy years we spent living in North Carolina. When I think of our Cary, North Carolina home, I think especially of the huge tree in our next door neighbor’s front yard. Miss Joan had two dogwoods, one white, one pink, that had somehow grown into each other over the years so they appeared as one tree producing two colors. I wanted a huge tree like that in the front yard of our California home to represent the years when our young family was happy, healthy, and hopeful for the future.
Each winter my tree stood naked and, more than once, someone wondered if it was dead. “Wait for it,” I would say. Sure enough, just as the weather hinted of spring, buds would appear overnight. Then, a few blooms would break forth, their soft pink color a stark contrast to the still leafless trees lining the street. Within days, it was an embarrassing display of color. Countless times, I witnessed strangers stop on their daily walk to admire my dogwood tree in full bloom. It truly was beautiful.
A SEASON OF OVERWHELM
This spring, just like always, the tree blossomed. Except this year, the leaves didn’t come. One day, I stood looking at my tree wondering, What happened? A week later, with still no leaves, I spoke my fear: “I think my tree died.” I clung to hope for one more week before I admitted the truth. “My tree is dead.” And I cried.
Of course, it wasn’t simply about the tree. The death of my tree was just the last in a string of losses, and there was no holding back the tears. This particular spring, my family was not thriving. Within a month, we experienced the death of a close friend and the death of our brother-in-law. We were still in quarantine from the coronavirus, which meant we couldn’t be with our friends and family to hug them, help them, or just be with them as they grieved. Nor could we have them near us as we processed our own grief.
Within the limits of my circumstances I did what I could: I sent cards and flowers, I checked in with frequent texts, and I prayed for my loved ones constantly. Still, it didn’t feel like enough.
The physical boundaries that were out of my control frustrated me, adding to my grief.
After the death of my brother-in-law, my husband left to help his sister manage the many details that come with a sudden death. It was during the two weeks of his absence when I noticed my tree had died. Over the phone, I tried to explain how overwhelmed I felt. I listed off the losses in order: “Diane died. Peder died. And now, my tree has died.” Of course, those things are not equal, and it surprised me to hear those last words escape my lips. Really, the tree is on the list? But yes, the tree was on the list because it was a loss of something special. In this season, I simply didn’t have the reserves to handle the death of a tree.
I struggled with the timing of these events. Why would God allow these things to happen at a time when isolation felt like the worst thing and all I wanted was community? Just weeks earlier, my soul was satisfied with quality friend time, a vibrant Bible study group, and meaningful work. Now, physically isolated from my friends and my husband, my soul felt dry and withered. I was brittle and easily overwhelmed. Like my dogwood tree, I’d gone from blooming to dried up.
Usually, I’m the person people go to for encouragement in times of despair. I have made it a practice to find hope in remembering God’s attributes and applying them to the situation. “God is sovereign, therefore He is sovereign in this.” But in this season, I found it difficult to keep up this practice. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe those things to be true or that I had forgotten how to walk the steps to find hope. I struggled because I was overwhelmed. I found it hard to think clearly, as if my brain was moving through mud. Information came at me fast, but my response time was slow. Life continued—my kids needed to be fed, my bosses needed me to work. But everything felt heavy, slow, and difficult. My daily rhythms of waking early for Bible study and prayer fell by the wayside. I functioned in survival mode.
RHYTHMS OF FAITHFULNESS
Still, I found ways to process those things in the safety of my relationship with Jesus. Despite my muddy brain and emotional overwhelm, I refused to give up what I have learned is my lifeline in times of despair: my ongoing conversation with my Savior.
Without feeling any change or relief, I continued to pray and to praise. I fell back on my rhythms of faithfulness, trusting them to carry me through. They looked different than in a normal season, chaotic even, but the foundational steps remained the same.
In 1 Timothy 4:7, Paul urges Timothy to “train yourself for godliness.” He uses the analogy of training for a physical endurance test. We know that to train for something like a marathon means to be faithful to the training program. Run daily. Eat nutritious meals. Get meaningful rest. Do it all whether you feel like it or not, keeping the goal in focus. Paul teaches Timothy to persist in faithful living like training for a marathon.
But how do we do that? How do we persist when we don’t feel like it or when we’re overwhelmed? How do we train for godliness when we’re grieving and our minds are stuck in mud? We remain faithful to the patterns and habits that get us to our goal, patterns that throughout our lives have steadily progressed us towards our goal. Our goal is godliness. Training for godliness involves regular practice of prayer, Bible reading, fasting, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. Paul uses phrases like, “devote yourself,” “practice these things,” and “immerse yourself”—words that instruct us to continue training whether we feel like it or not. It all adds up to consistency. Consistency is required to continue on a path that leads to godliness.
Of course, training for godliness is simpler when life is humming along. When daily rhythms make space for uninterrupted times of Bible reading, journaling, and prayer, it isn’t too difficult to just do it. The coronavirus and two deaths severely interrupted those rhythms in my life. However, I discovered in my season of overwhelm that consistency doesn’t mean exactly the same. A consistent walk along the path doesn’t have to look like the same step, the same way, every day. One step—any step—down the path continues my progress toward the goal. Simply keeping my face turned toward my goal, looking with my eyes when I am too tired to walk, is enough.
My goal in this season of grief and overwhelm was simply to keep my focus on God, to remain conscious of His presence with me in the midst of so much chaos. Thankfully, a God-conscious life is one that simply stays rooted in faithfulness even when, or especially when, everything else is falling to pieces around you.
Don’t confuse consistency with orderliness. Faithfulness can look very disorderly. A short prayer in the shower, a whispered, “Jesu Juva” (Jesus, help!), or a softly sung praise chorus while preparing breakfast all kept my face pointed in the right direction. There are many small acts of faithfulness that can keep us God-conscious in a moment-by-moment season of overwhelm. During this season, my journal held long gaps between entries. My playlist was filled with songs of psalms and reminders of God’s faithfulness. My home was littered with verses scribbled on Post-It Notes. It wasn’t orderly, but it was all I could do to remind myself that God was in control when everything else appeared out of control.
THE FRUIT OF PERSISTENCE
Seasons of grief are difficult, but by God’s grace and keeping rooted in faithfulness these seasons will not completely overwhelm you. One day, a few weeks after the death of our brother-in-law, my son pointed out a new leaf on my dogwood tree. It made no sense but there it was, small and red and very much alive.
Even though my tree isn’t as big and healthy as Miss Joan’s, my tree has deep roots—roots that carried it through a season of overwhelm. An unexpected heat wave had shocked it so much that it appeared dead, but the shock didn’t kill it. Persisting in your training in godliness is like growing deep roots of faithfulness. Roots that will hold you firm when this life sends you shocks that threaten to overwhelm you. With roots like that, by grace, you will never be completely overwhelmed.
Jeremiah 17:8 promises, “They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (NIV).
Are you in a season of grief or overwhelm? Persist in the habits that keep your face turned toward God. Remain rooted in Christ and trust that He will sustain you.
What are the rhythms of faithfulness that have sustained you through your own seasons of overwhelm? Share with us in the comments!
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Thank you for this ❤️ It is easy to relate this tree to a life of overwhelm. This is a hard time for many and you’ve given us the steps and examples to keep us close to our Savior. I think God knows how much this little tree brings to your day, and because you have been trusting and so faithful he let your little tree be alive. There’s a tree in my town also with pink and white together. So pretty. Amen for Gods love ❤️
Thanks you Nanci for your sweet perspective. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if God allowed my tree to live just to send me a message of his love for me. He is a personal God. I’m glad you can relate.
Nicole, such an emotional piece you have shared here. I am along with my family currently in that land of overwhelm and yes, confusion.
Knowing the attributes of God and His names is so very encouraging to me. El Roi, the God who sees, reminds me that God is very aware of all that is happening in my life and every little detail matters to Him.
I smiled BIG when I came to this sentence “my son pointed out a new leaf on my dogwood tree. It made no sense but there it was, small and red and very much alive.”
Doing the next right thing (Elizabeth Elliot) keeps me grounded. I may not know what life holds but I do the next right and needed thing knowing Who wolds my life, El Roi.