A few months ago, a friend invited me help her plan a women’s retreat she was hosting at her house. I didn’t know back in the spring how much I was going to need to be part of this event when the time came in the middle of July. But I was excited about her vision and happy she asked me to lead the women in a creative moment as part of the retreat.
One of the things I loved most about the retreat is that it wasn’t organized by a specific church or group. The women who attended came from all different churches to be together for a morning to “Encounter” God, community and themselves.
My role was to lead the women in a moment to express themselves creatively. I talked with my friend about several ideas that might tie into our theme of “Encounter.” We could watercolor? Paint a canvas? Create an art journal? I pulled a painted wood slice out of my bag, and we both agreed that was it!
Back in the winter, my beautiful River Birch tree had been covered in ice from a big winter storm. It split from the top down, leaving three massive branches on our roof. My husband cut the branches and piled them on our deck. I begged him not to burn them until I came up with an idea of how to use them.
This was it!
We could cut the wood into slices so the women could paint them. I have hosted a project like this in the past at my house so I knew what we needed to do to get ready. I was so excited to finally have a good use for my tree and a motivation to do something productive with the wood.
For a few weeks leading up to the event, we worked on the wood slices. First, Kent cut them with a chain saw.
The wood had been outside for nearly six months, so it was already starting to crack, mold and decompose. I coated each slice with a conditioner, and then we sanded them with two hand sanders. Sadly, we don’t have a tool that is really heavy duty enough to do this well, so I had to accept the fact they wouldn’t be as smooth and perfect as I would have liked.
I spent many hours with those wood slices, pouring my heart into the task of getting them ready for the retreat. It was interesting how my perspective about them changed as I invested in them.
We needed 30 wood slices, so I had to accept the fact that I couldn’t be picky about which ones we would use for the project. Many had large cracks spanning to the middle of the slices. The thing I love most about a River Birch tree is its white peeling bark. But the bark was starting to fall off in places, and I even used hot glue to put it back in place on some of them.
The slices had large grooves across them from the marks of my husband’s chain saw blade. They were covered in cuts and scrapes that I couldn’t possibly sand down with just my hand sander.
But the more I worked on trying to buff out those imperfections, the more I embraced them. (What choice did I have, really?)
As the day of the retreat grew closer, I had started to love those wood slices not in spite of all of their imperfections, but because of those cuts and tears and cracks that made them unique.
I thought about all of the women who would be attending that day. All but a few were strangers to me. I thought about how they would come in with their own cuts and tears and cracks. I thought about how they would be stepping away from their real lives for a day to seek rest, recovery and time with God. I thought about all of the worries, stress and disappointments in life that leave real marks on our lives that can’t be sanded or smoothed or buffed away.
I thought about how much God loves us not in spite of our imperfection, but exactly as we are. Torn. Cut. Bruised. Split. Peeling.
We had an incredible day together, and I was so thankful to get to be part of it. We did yoga that included a spiritual aspect.
We ate beautiful food. We heard from women who challenged us with their words. We walked outside through fields of wildflowers and hundreds of trees planted on what had once been barren farmland. We ran through a sprinkler!
I was thankful to send pieces of my beloved River Birch tree home with each person who attended. The women did a great job painting their wood slices and adding the word “Encounter.” Some of the paint peeled. They were messy in spots.
The slices weren’t perfect, and that was exactly how it was meant to be.
When I look at mine, I’m reminded of how thankful I am for all of the imperfection in the people around me. I’m grateful for people who let me see their scars and wrinkles. I’m blessed by the authenticity of bruises and cracks. I’m reminded not to try to hide the experiences and trials that have made me unique and given me something real that I can share with others.
My River Birch tree was planted more than 20 years ago by the family that built our house. It had lived a beautiful life, and it did its best to stand tall against rain and wind and ice and storms. I cried the day its big branches came tumbling down from the weight of the ice. But I’m so thankful for the lesson it taught me the past few weeks about embracing the cuts and marks and scars in my life.
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