Behind my parents home is Bull Creek. The stream runs through the middle of the Mark Twain National Forest, slow and shallow but crystal clear. There is one particular spot that has always caught my imagination. It is a small stone ledge, shaded by large oak trees, just above the creek’s bank.
It isn’t much—just a dirt clearing and a path down to the water. But in the center is a landmark, an old bent oak tree. The other trees climb straight up, the way of least resistance to the sun at the top of the canopy, but this oak takes a unique path. A few feet above the ground, the trunk bends sharply, almost back parallel to the ground, and then slowly begins its climb upward again.
As strange as it looks few people probably notice it. But it has a story—one only a few locals still know. They call them, Native American Trail Trees and there is more than just this one. In fact, the Ozarks are full of them.
They are a reminder that others walked these woods long before I wandered into them. Like the stream flowing past this tree, time has carried away almost any evidence of their existence, but they were here—at this particular place, at work on this particular tree.
While still a young sapling, the tree would have been bent and tied to the ground with leather straps. As it grew, its shape was slowly transformed. Years later it would become an easily recognized reference point for those who knew what to look for. Placed beside Native American trails, the bent trees pointed travelers to important landmarks like water and shelter.
It would take decades for a freshly tied tree to grow into one of these mighty oak markers, surviving generations of natives who used them to shape and guide their paths. They marked the trail, but also a way of life. They represent a story larger than any single pair of hands which crafted them.
They are a common act of kindness; a gift, pointing complete strangers and future travelers to water and safety. But why? There is no tip jar to compensate their creator, not even the guarantee of a thank you or a handshake at the end of the trail. Yet still, they were built. They were built by those who belonged to something greater than their own interest. They were built for more than reward. They are the markings of a people, a commitment to a community and a place.
It is exactly what I want my faith and this church to be. A people, embracing this particular ground—home in these woods—serving and sacrificing for those we may never receive from or be thanked by. A path to life. A path to Christ. A bent oak.
Let’s be clear, it isn’t instant gratification. It’s not a flashing neon sign—a crowded interstate full of billboards clamoring for the attention of the next passing van of religious sightseers. It is a faith of decades—a faith of gradual, unhurried growth. Challenged, yet strengthened by the seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall. Ring by ring, taking shape. More deeply committing to the small piece of rocky soil beneath us, and finding in that soil purpose and identity— a calling. Never imposing, never demanding, always pointing.