One of my favorite places is the Ancient Bristlecone Forest in California in the White Mountains. These are relatively dry mountains inbetween the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley. At altitude (meaning above 10,00 feet) are the ancient bristlecones.
These trees can be thousands of years old. The oldest are estimated to be around 4,000 years old. That just blows me away. When I am in the presence of one of these trees, I understand that it was alive, and probably old, before Christ was born. I understand that, but it is really hard to fully grasp down deep. From our limited human perspective, Christ was born a long time ago. So many things have happened in human and church history since then. Yet no matter what happened, this bristlecone pine went about its business simply living in a very challenging environment.
When most people hear of bristlecone pine, they think of these ancient trees. Yet, in many locations up in the mountains, bristlecone pine grow like most any other pine in forests that look like many other pine forests. There are unique conditions in the ancient bristlecone area. The soil has a lot of a stone called dolomite — this makes the soil filled with some minerals that discourage growth of many plants and slow the growth of the bristlecone. In addition, the soil dries quickly. Even more, these trees are growing at altitudes of 11,000 feet and more, so winter conditions are severe. That keeps other plants out, which would cut wind, and further adds stress to the bristlecones. So they grow slowly, but can be damaged on one side or the other so that side dies, yet the plant keeps growing. Conditions are too difficult for most diseases or rot-causing fungi.
That kind of gives a perspective about God. We always want things to happen quickly (that certainly is true of me!), yet here is one of God’s creations that simply lives seemingly forever. A year or two is nothing to an ancient bristlecone pine. A 50-year-old bristlecone in this area is but a baby.
In Bishop Tutu’s wonderful book, Made for Goodness, he talks about how we often feel we fail or succeed on very limited timeframes. He feels that God may have success for us in mind, but it is on His timeframe, not ours, because He knows more about the world and what happens in it than we will ever know. In that vein, one might look at a broken, half-dead bristlecone and think it has failed to survive in a tough environment. Yet, God created this tree to live in this environment, to be in this environment, so loss of part of the tree does not matter because the tree is also alive and has been for centuries. Perhaps there is a lesson in the bristlecone that time is relative and that our demands for “success” or “failure avoidance” may be way too limited in their timescale.