Burned Out Forest
Editor's Note: As you read Karen's blog, you may wish to consider the abstract acrylic painting above that she created as an expression of her journey.
A picture formed in my mind’s eye. A picture of a burned out forest. Blackened stumps of trees all around. Ashes. Barrenness. Devastation. Scorched trees and dead branches and black earth. I walked through the hauntingly quiet area, looking for signs of life – looking for any shade of green that would signify a remnant of life. I saw nothing but shades of gray and black. I felt hesitant and nervous, until I remembered to ask Jesus to be with me. Then I sensed stillness, a silence that felt almost peaceful.
I sighed, inhaling slowly and then exhaling with more slowness.
Then the thought came, “I need to accept that season of my life. “
Thoughts of resistance surfaced. That time in my life, which was more than 20 years ago, was like a “war zone.” Like what you see on a map of the world, outlining areas inside countries that are marked as battle zones: not safe, scary, war torn. A red zone, as they say. A place you wouldn’t want to visit.
That season caused great pain and turmoil. There was so much self-doubt, paralysis, fear of not being in control, feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and isolation. It went on for days, and nights, and then weeks, and then months. Until I felt like a walking dead person.
I couldn’t trust God’s heart anymore because he didn’t protect me from it. None of the praying, scripture reading, advice from others, counsel from those in spiritual authority helped. I talked to so many people, trustworthy, knowledgeable and wise people, yet no one could accurately name the root of the problem, and therefore no effective treatment was offered. My faith in a good God eventually withered into nothing.
Over time, it seemed like God had let me fall into a black hole that took years to get out of.
Years of slow healing. Years of recovery. Years of rebuilding trust in His goodness, His faithfulness, His heart of love.
Long, slow, crawling-inch-by-inch, years.
Years of battling questions, like “Where were you, Lord? How could you let that happen? Why didn’t you intervene? Why didn’t you stop it?” The intensity of those questions had faded over time, while I walked a path of healing, a traveler in the desert, wandering from watering hole to watering hole. Until finally, slowly, the watering holes turned into a lasting oasis, and I could let those unanswered questions go safely into the Lord’s hands.
Another memory came to mind. Something I had read a long time ago about Jack pines. An article about how this type of tree is dependent on fire or severe heat to be able to reproduce. Jack pines have cones that are sealed with resin, and they remain tightly closed until heat from fire or sunlight melts the resin and opens them, allowing the cones to release their seeds, to be spread by gravity and winds. (1)
In essence, nature - and the God of nature - uses devastation to stimulate new growth. (2)
That season of life that was heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, unplanned and unwelcomed, a very long-and-drawn-out detour in my life, could very well have been what God used to release new seeds, to regenerate and restore and improve the landscape of my soul and my future, to fully become who He created me to be.
“Although it may seem counterintuitive, when older forests burn at the highest intensity, some of the best wildlife habitat in the forest is created.” (3)
And so, as I reflected on all of this, yet another picture came to mind. One where the burned out forest showed a flicker of hope, a tiny sign of life growing in its dark shadow, a sprout of greenery growing stronger and taller. Up through the devastation, a young pine tree, opening up and rooting down, a quiet symbol of resurrection, seemingly pointing to the sky – as if to say, “See? He is doing it again. He is doing a new thing! Now I, a little sapling, am springing up, in the midst of this burned out forest, do you not perceive it? He is making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Is 43:19, paraphrase mine)
And so I accept, and continue to pursue acceptance, of that season where life was stalled, where hope was burned up and joy was buried in the ashes. Because “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” (4) Because God caused the seeds of life to be released and planted in the soil of devastation and despair, even before I knew it or could perceive it.
Those new seeds sprouted and grew into little, green saplings that produced a type of fruit I hadn’t experienced before: deeper wisdom, more genuine humility, greater dependence on God, greater awareness of my limits, a greater desire to make room for self-care, and a greater appreciation for my humanity and the humanity of others.
Now as I walk into the burned out forests that others are facing, when we together survey the blackened wood and lifeless landscape, I can extend a deeper compassion, a deeper empathy, than I would have ever been able to without that season of devastation in my own life. When others are reeling from the sight of ashes and barrenness that they never thought would happen to them, I can grieve with them, and yet also say with conviction: God will see you through. Seeds will take root and sprout. New growth will come. And our Redeemer God will do a new thing that you never thought possible.
(4) Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: A Journey Toward the Undivided Life (San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004)
Karen is a Licensed Professional Counselor working in private practice. She helps lead the Healing Care Ministry in southwest Michigan, where she’s lived for ten years with her fun-loving husband, two adorable children, and their miniature pinscher named Moka. (She is an Ohio transplant—but don’t hold that against her.) Karen completed a one-year internship with HCM International in 2016 and is currently attending a two-year training program in spiritual direction. An introverted artist at heart, she specializes in offering workshops using art journaling techniques and contemplative Christian practices. Karen’s long-term passion has been helping others grow in wholeness through pursuing a right relationship with God, self and others. Real, relatable, and relational, Karen believes transformation happens best when experiencing the unconditional love of God in the context of safe friendships and community—and if you ask any of her friends, they’ll tell you she endeavors to live this out daily.