It stuck out, an anomaly. In the collection of toothpick-thin pine trees, one tree stood towards the front, as if pushed forward as a rejection from the others. This tree stretched straight towards the sky with its neighbors, but about two stories up, took a curvy right sideways turn, permanently bent over at its hips. It bowed low.
From my very beginning, I too stretched straight, following those around me. In my seat in the front pew or back pew or choir loft or wherever else a preacher’s daughter might feel like sitting, I absorbed what it meant to be a Jesus girl. As the years passed, the churches to which my dad was called changed—the quaint little white church atop a steep hill, the sprawling brick chapel on an Army base, and those back-to-back picturesque Main Street churches in two different tiny towns. With each move, I did what was expected of me. After all, I was a church girl.
It was so natural to go and be and do that I didn’t really even have to think about it. I knew the answers and the fancy words. I’d hear the verse, “Do not be conformed to this world . . .” and I’d think, “I’m good, right?” After all, I’d lived my life inside steepled buildings. I always stretched to grow “right,” like all of those straight pine trees.
But sometimes a strong posture can hide a weak practice.
My posture might have looked tall and tidy, but pew-sitting and list-checking don’t grow roots. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I walked through a treacherous and hard season in our marriage that pulled at those shallow roots. My faithful performing and blending weren’t enough. I faced the edge of my own wisdom, and only then did I see what I’d missed.
No, I might not have conformed to all of the world’s ways, but I had still conformed. I conformed to church —and completely missed Jesus. After, “Do not be conformed to this world,” Romans 12:2 continues, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
My practice of holy conformity relied on empty comparison and puppet-like mirroring of the people I loved. I might have fooled others. I definitely fooled myself. Those beautiful people I sat with in those pews and served with in ministries couldn’t transform me. The things I did for God—all of those neat, checked boxes as a youth group leader, small group member, regular church attender, faithful tither—couldn’t renew my mind. I didn’t understand that there’s a difference between seeking to be like others and seeking Jesus. I turned to people instead of God. I listened solely to wise counsel, not knowing that I could hear the Holy Spirit.
Nobody ever called me on it—maybe they knew, maybe they didn’t. I could have just kept writing the checks, filling the pew, saying amen. But the veil that hardship lifts exposes what’s waiting underneath. And, well, for us, not much was there. My conformed mind remained untransformed, its void filled with things about Jesus, but not Jesus himself.
When I saw that hunched-over tree that day, I immediately felt a connection with it. It was kinship. I saw myself in that tree’s choice to grow suddenly, differently, mid-way to the sky—because hard things change how we grow. Like that tree, I didn’t choose to change my direction or posture. How my story unfolded folded me over.
After thirty-three years of doing things for him, I finally met Jesus. When he was in front of me, what I didn’t see before became clear. All those years, when I tried to grow perfect and stay straight, I was focused on those around me. But when I set my gaze on Jesus’s feet, and bent to get closer, he began freeing me of a life that looked to others. Transformation began when I changed where I was looking.
Cover image by Peter Law.