To understand this story you first must know two things about me: first, I love trees. Some people have pet animals; I have pet trees. I have been known to go outside during tornadoes and ice storms to lay hands on my trees and pray for them. We’ve never lost a branch in a storm!
Secondly, I was raised in the country, miles from our nearest neighbor. Moving to Nashville, Tennessee, was traumatic for me, and living in such a large city was almost unbearable to me until we found the house we live in now. We have a back yard, small, but full of trees, and best of all, there was a 10-foot-high hedge enclosing it on two sides. A beautiful hemlock fir grew in the corner where the two sides met. I could sit in my back yard and the hedge would block out all the other houses and the streets. I could almost pretend I was in the country again. My hedge played a big part in my adjustment to city life.
We were friendly with the neighbors whose property backed ours, and sometimes we visited through the hedge. I knew they had moved away, but the hedge prevented me from noticing that new neighbors had already moved in–until one day, I came home to find my hedge was gone! I ran to the back yard and gazed in horror at the little stumps, cut off at the ground. I fell to my knees and wept aloud.
At that moment, my new neighbors walked up, gathering up the last mangled limbs of my hedge. “Oh,” the woman said, “was that your hedge?” The man just laughed and said, “Don’t make such a fuss. It’ll grow back.” I was sobbing too hard to say a word to them, and I decided to let my husband deal with the situation. I was only thankful they had not also decided to cut down my hemlock tree in the corner. Of all the trees in my yard, it was my favorite.
Four years later, I watched over my pathetic, twelve-inch hedge as the bush-whacking neighbors moved out. Soon I saw through my kitchen window that a new couple was moving in. My children and I were all sick with walking pneumonia and I decided to wait until I was better and then I would bake some bread and welcome the new couple to the neighborhood.
But before I was fully recovered, the new neighbor paid a visit to me. She came over on a Sunday evening to tell me that she and her husband were putting up a fence in the morning and that, by the way, their property map put their property line four feet over into our yard. I didn’t know what to say. Our yard is beautiful, but very small. Removing a four-foot strip from the back would take sizeable chunk out of it. Worse, it would put my barely recovering hedge and my precious hemlock tree on the wrong side of the fence. I told her I would dig out our own property map and would talk to my husband and we would be over in the morning to discuss the matter. “Come early, then,” she advised. “The fence installers will be here at 9 a.m.”
In a daze, I woke up my husband so he could get ready for work. He is a police officer and works the third shift, so he starts his day at 8:30 in the evening. As he dressed, I told him about the neighbor’s visit. He was furious that they had waited until the evening before the work was to be done to tell us of their plans, making it impossible for us to do anything about it. He started talking about lawyers and courts and surveyors. I could envision a legal tangle stretching out over years, and no matter who won, hard feelings between us and our neighbors for as long as we both lived here. It was a nightmare.
I got my husband off to work and the kids all into bed, and then I was alone with God. “Lord, what shall we do?” I asked.
“Remember Isaac and his wells,” God said.
I said, “No, really, what do we do?”
“Remember Isaac and his wells,” was the only answer I received. My ladies’ Bible Study had recently gone through Genesis, and so this story in Genesis 26:18-25 was fairly fresh in my mind. Rather than fight with his neighbors over the precious, life-giving wells of water he had dug in his desert home, Isaac chose to let them have the wells and move to another location. He did this several times before he found a place where he could live in peace. But I had other passages of scripture running through my head!
“What about that verse in Leviticus about not moving your neighbor’s boundary posts?” I asked.
God said, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
“But you told Joshua to go to war over land,” I reminded Him. I was actually trying to argue with God by using His own word!
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace,” (Romans 14:19) He said.
I got the point. Living in peace with my neighbors was more important than keeping my property. I said, “All right, I can give up the land. I can even give up that pitiful hedge. But, God, I just can’t give up my tree. You know how much I love that tree. You might as well ask me to give up one of my kids!”
“Isaiah 55,” I could almost hear Him sigh. I looked up that chapter, which is full of God’s promises of blessing to His people, many of which will not be fulfilled until the Millennium. One of the promises is an abundance of trees. God told me gently, “You will have all the trees you can possibly love–later. This tree in Mine. I put it there for a purpose.”
For the first time, I considered the possibility that God’s purpose for that tree might not actually include me! Might God have had a purpose for the hedge, as well? I asked Him, and He simply said, “Who was your neighbor?”
I went cold, because I didn’t know the answer to that question. For four years, my previous neighbors had lived behind me and I never even knew their names. In fact, I never spoke to them after the day they destroyed my hedge. If I had to refer to them at all, I simply called them “The Hedge Killers”. It was easy not to speak to them, as they were also avoiding me. I had not realized how much bitterness I had held for them. They had cut down a hedge, but I had built up a great wall between us. I might have shown them what Christ is really like, forgiving and loving; but instead I showed them what I am really like. Now God was showing me what I am really like, too.
“Don’t do it again,” God said. It was too late to be a witness for Him to the previous neighbors, but I had a chance with the new ones. I had a choice. I could go to them with the attitude of protecting my property and my rights at all costs; or I could go to them with the attitude of reaching out to them for Christ, whatever the cost. Would I let this fence they were building become a wall between us, or would I use it as an opportunity? God was showing me that their eternal souls were more important than a hemlock tree, a hedge, a piece of property–or my own rights.
I began to pray that my husband would come to the same conclusions so that we could approach the neighbors with a united sense of purpose. The next morning, when Rich came home, almost the first thing he said to me was, “Do you remember the story about Isaac and his wells?” That night as he had patrolled, God had shown him all the same scriptures that He had shown to me.
We went to our new neighbors that morning and we were able to talk to them about Christ. And, incidentally, they apparently concluded on their own that we were right about the boundary line and they put their fence up just where we would have wanted them to, if they had asked us–which they didn’t! We never even discussed it. We were too busy talking about more important things.
I thought I had surrendered everything I had to Christ: my house, my money, my car, my time. Yet when it came to something that was really important to me, I found I was still claiming ownership. This incident forced me to concede that everything belongs to God: all my stuff, all my property, my privacy, my comfort, my kids. Everything is His. He’s just letting me use His stuff for a while. The minute I gave up ownership over my tree, I felt a great burden roll from me. Since He owns everything, it’s up to Him to take care of it. Since He’s taking care of everything, I have nothing to worry about. I had known this in my head, but this knowledge needed to enter my soul until I could truly believe it. The only thing I am responsible for in this world is being obedient to Him.
“Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-40