Mortals are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow.
On a recent professional development tour of California churches, Tamara and I took a morning off to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park east of Santa Cruz. I had never seen the enormous trees known in the scientific world as Sequoioideae and was anxious to witness firsthand what I had read about so many times in the past.
The mighty redwoods did not disappoint. We walked awestruck for nearly two hours through the stunning stand of trees, marveling at their majesty in the morning sun.
In the realm of living things, few organisms can rival the immensity of the redwoods, the tallest plant species on earth. Get this: in 2006, amateur biologists discovered a spectacular Sequoioideae that stands 379 feet, two inches tall. It’s believed – and you can look this up – that only damage from a woodpecker has prevented the colossal conifer from crossing the 380 foot threshold! With branches filled with birds and other forest animals, and with trunks wide enough to comfortably park a car inside, these beautiful pines are indeed among God’s most extraordinary creations.
The size of the redwoods are matched only by their antiquity. Dendrochonology – the study of tree-rings to determine organic history – suggests that many of the these members of the cypress family are 700 years old; it’s likely that a few of the especially hardy Sequoioideae were already soaking in California sunshine when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As a species, the redwoods have been around since brontosauruses were nibbling on their branches.
But Tamara and I took in another compelling image while we were hiking in Big Basin. It was not just the stateliness of the standing trees that fascinated us; it was also the great numbers of fallen ones. There were almost as many redwoods lying on the ground as there were standing up.
All through the park were formerly majestic redwoods in varying states of decay. Some had been toppled in storms decades earlier. Others had been felled by park rangers. Most had simply died of old age, rotting from the inside out until they became food for the fungus of the forest floor.
This got me thinking: If a young redwood tree – and by young, I mean a juvenile of merely 500 years – could consider his own mortality, surely he would think himself invincible. “While all these other plants and animals come and go,” he might surmise, “I live on. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century I stand as the forest’s sentinel! Higher than all others, stronger than the rest, depended upon by many yet relying on none, I am indestructible!”
And yet, his time comes. In some bitter winter, or because of some woodsman’s blade, the redwood topples.
And so it will be for all of us. Unless the Lord returns in our lifetimes, there will be a passing for each of us. As the 14th century poem affixed to a tomb in Canterbury reads:
Whoso thou be that passeth by;
Where these corps entombed lie:
Understand what I shall say,
As at this time speak I may.
Such as thou art, sometime was I,
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
All of us have to have the guts to acknowledge that we aren’t invincible, that our bodies are temporary, and that we will all end up horizontal, just like those redwood trees. The Bible’s point is not to depress us with this news, nor to ignore it. It’s to tell us that beyond death, there is a reconstitution of the body, a return to physical life at the resurrection, and to prepare us to take part in that great Day.
The end will come for us all. But it is only the beginning.