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Gentle Giants

By David O. Williams

Not long ago our family embarked on a two-week tour of the American west. We followed some of the most scenic highways in the country, including the “Loneliest Road in America” (U.S. 50), the Pacific Coast Highway and the Historic Route 66. As you might imagine, we saw a staggering variety of breath-taking vistas and awe-inspiring wonders of the natural world along the way. But there was one particular sight that stood out above all of the rest… literally.

During our visit to Yosemite National Park, we took a short hike down a peaceful trail that leads to Merced Grove, one of the few places left in the entire world (outside of fairy tale books, that is) where one can stand in the presence of genuine giants and live to tell about it. The Giant Sequoia trees that populate the western Sierra Nevada may be gentle giants, but by no means does this reduce the “shock and awe” factor when they are beheld for the first time.

Giant Sequoias are the largest trees in the world. Record trees have been measured to be over 300 feet tall and more than 50 feet in diameter, with bark as much as three feet thick at the base. With a total weight of several million pounds, these pine pillars are true freaks of nature. Like Frodo and his friends from the Shire, my family and I felt like Hobbits in the presence of the Ents.

Upon further review, however, we discovered that there is much more to Giant Sequoias than initially meets the eye. What was most fascinating, and most compelling in correlation to Christian discipleship and spiritual formation, is what is actually required for Great Sequoias to grow so strong and tall:

• Longevity: Giant Sequoias are no overnight sensations. In fact, it has been documented that some of these trees have been around for more than 3,500 years, dating back to the days of Moses and the founding of the nation of Israel. They don’t speak the language of instant gratification. On the contrary, they stand as towering testimonies to the truth that the best and most beautiful things in life take time. Needless to say, in order to reach their full potential, Giant Sequoias require lots of time. So do we (Ecclesiastes 3:11a).

• Adversity: Giant Sequoias cannot reproduce without the stress and pressure that accompany an occasional forest fire. Fire brings hot air high into the canopy which in turn dries and opens the Sequoia cones so they can release their seeds. Periodic
wildfires also clear competing vegetation. Without fire, other shade-loving trees will crowd out young Sequoia seedlings, preventing germination.

Clearly, Giant Sequoias must be willing to endure the heat in order to bear fruit. So must we (James 1:2-4).

• Community: Giant Sequoias cannot survive on their own. They only grow in groves. Their shallow roots can extend more than 200 feet from each tree, creating a massive, interdependent root system. The sustainability of each individual tree hinges upon the health and vitality of the wider community. There are no lone rangers among Giant Sequoias. Cooperation is non-negotiable.

Without question, Giant Sequoias must remain closely connected to one another in order to thrive. So must we (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Longevity, adversity and community are three essentials for the healthy growth and development of Giant Sequoias. Three essentials for the healthy growth and development of spiritual giants as well.

David O. Williams, D.Min., is a Professor of Discipleship & Spiritual Formation, the Director of the Center for Spiritual Renewal and the Director of the MATL-Spiritual Formation at Barclay College in Haviland, Kansas.