Lessons From a Broken Bradford

If you ever visit the southeastern United States, there are a few things you should expect to find—sweet tea, for instance. You’re going to find that before you ever set eyes on a glass of water. You’re going to find front porches and unhurried talking. You’ll meet someone who can play the banjo, and someone else who either has or knows someone who has a moonshine still. You’re going to be driving on windy back roads with unmarked lanes. Some of them won’t be paved. During your travels, you’ll come across little old country stores, herds of livestock, sprawling acres of land, and front yards proudly displaying a beautiful little tree.

The first thing you’ll notice about this tree is its shape. While the trees around it might grow wild and untrimmed, this particular tree looks stately and immaculate in its appearance. It heralds the springtime with a chorus of beautiful white flowers, and in the fall its tear-drop frame takes on the visage of fire with leaves of crimson, yellow, and orange. The tree itself reaches maturity in no time at all, and so for very little investment in time, money, or effort, homeowners can have themselves a beautiful ornamental tree as a showpiece for their yard.

It is the Bradford pear, and it is a horrible, terrible mistake.

Bred for failure

The Bradford pear is a specific cultivar of the Pyrus calleryana, and if that makes no sense to you, don’t worry—I had to look up half of those words myself when I was researching the tree. What it means, in layman’s terms, is that someone took a Callery pear tree (native to China and Vietnam) and kept selectively breeding it until he got a result he liked. That result was the Bradford pear, and beginning in 1963, it was marketed for two decades as one of America’s top ornamental trees. Unfortunately, those who sung the Bradford’s praises did so before learning what the tree would mature into—the promising adolescent cultivar produced beautiful foliage, showed a noteworthy resilience against disease, grew at remarkable pace, and was tolerant of poor soil and even pollution. It was everything anyone could ever want in an ornamental tree and then some, and customers snatched it up.

Those first customers (and many more to follow) would learn the hard way that the Bradford pear cultivar came hardwired with a serious genetic defect: most of its main limbs branch out from the same point on the trunk. As the tree grows in height and stature, those same limbs begin to choke each other out—each one requiring more and more space, but finding less and less. With the trunk under this stress and the limbs already so weakly attached, even a mild windstorm can easily knock off several branches of the tree, if not split the entire thing in half. The end result is a disfigured tree and a messy yard—and with Bradfords, such a disaster is not a question of “if,” but “when.” Author Steve Bender notes, “This unfixable quirk effectively reduces the useful life of a Bradford pear to about 20 years.” Despite its impressive appearance, the Bradford pear is genetically doomed to fall to pieces as soon as it faces any real strain.

It’s also worth noting that, although the Bradford is a member of the pear family, it doesn’t actually produce fruit—at least, not the kind you’d expect. The Callery pear is about the size of a marble and has all the edibility of a piece of wood, which is not a characteristic people tend to look for in a snack. In fact, the only thing these fruits tend to be good for is producing more trees like the one they came from.

The test of time

There’s a passage in the Bible that describes God’s followers in terms of a tree. A psalmist was inspired to write,

“Those who are planted in the house of the Lord
Shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall still bear fruit in old age;
They shall be fresh and flourishing,
To declare that the Lord is upright;
He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.”
(Psalm 92:12-15)

That description hardly fits the Bradford pear. Flourishing in old age? A Bradford is lucky if it makes it to old age at all; that it should make it there flourishing and bearing fruit is almost too much to ask of the poor thing. It’s a flimsy showpiece that has little going for it besides appearance—certainly not the kind of tree the psalmist was speaking of in these verses.

There’s probably a reason that, among the pages of the Bible, you won’t find any references to the Pyrus calleryana. You will find, however, more than a couple mentions of the Olea europaea—known more commonly as the olive tree. The olive tree is the polar opposite of the Bradford pear. While the Bradford opts for a flashy appearance, the olive tree tends to go for the “gnarled” look. (There’s a reason you don’t usually hear olive trees described as “immaculate.”) The Bradford has a useful life of maybe 20 years; the olive tree can outlast entire civilizations. The Bradford’s fruit is essentially useless to anyone but itself; the olive is edible on its own and is also used in creating olive oil, one of the world’s more valued (and expensive!) resources.

So let’s take a look at Bradfords and olives, and see if their differences reveal a better picture of the kind of tree God called us to be.

1. Godly trees anchor themselves to all of God’s truth

The key structural problem in the Bradford pear is the location of its branches. As we noted before, the main branches of the tree tend to naturally diverge from the same location on the trunk, putting the majority of stress on one single point. As the limbs grow thicker, the problem only worsens, until one day—snap. It doesn’t take much more than a stiff breeze to break Bradfords in this condition to pieces.

What would your life be like if you focused exclusively on only one of the Bible’s truths? Let’s say you dedicated all of your time to the study of prophecy. Prophecy in the morning, prophecy in the afternoon, prophecy at night—your spiritual diet was all prophecy, all the time. You’d end up with a firm grasp of the chronology of God’s plan for mankind, but would you really understand it? Would you know what you need to be doing to be part of that plan? Or would you just have a nice viewing guide to keep tabs on the most incredible work ever done in the universe as it passes you by?

Pick something else. Pick anything. What if you strove constantly to tithe as God commands, but knew nothing about keeping the Sabbath holy? What if you knew the importance of overcoming sin, but not of replacing that sin with Godly character? In any of these scenarios, it doesn’t matter how firm your grasp is on that one aspect of God’s truth—your life will be lacking because you’ve ignored all the rest. You’ve attached all your branches to one single point of the trunk of God’s word, instead of seeking to cover as much of that trunk as possible. When a Sabbath-related trial comes, your myriad skills in tithing won’t help—and that same trial could tear you to pieces like a Bradford in a storm.

Olive trees, on the other hand, are sturdy. Their trunks grow to be noteworthy in width, their root system is extensive, and their branches are rooted in many locations instead of just one. As Paul said to Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, emphasis added). If we wish to be complete, equipped, and sturdy, we must ensure we are internalizing all of God’s truth—not just a point or two.

2. Godly trees seek fruit, not flash

The Bradford is a pretty tree; there’s no doubt about it. There’s a reason it’s featured so heavily in yards across America: people like how it looks. But as we’ve seen, all that flash doesn’t make the tree useful; it just makes it something nice to look at. That’s great for yard ornaments, but it doesn’t fly well when it comes to following God. Christians are expected to produce fruit, as emphasized by John the Baptist when he said, “even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). Unless we are actively bearing fruit—and not just any fruit, but good fruit, we are at risk of being converted into kindling.

The tiny, wood-like fruit of the Bradford pear is not good fruit. It’s not edible, and you can’t do anything with it. It’s useless, except in producing more of itself. The fruit of the olive tree, on the other hand, is vital to the production of olive oil—one of the world’s most treasured resources. The Bible mentions the olive tree around 25 times; it mentions olive oil more than 160 times. It was a key ingredient in making meals (1 Kings 17:12), it was valuable enough to pay off debts and provide a comfortable retirement (2 Kings 4:7), and it was used by God to consecrate people and objects (Exodus 29:7). All this was possible because the olive tree produces good fruit.

So what’s the difference between spiritual good fruit and bad fruit? Paul lays it out for us in Galatians: the works of the flesh (bad fruit) are like the fruit of the Bradford pear—not beneficial to anyone and only good for creating more of itself. The fruit of the Spirit, on the other hand, benefits not only those who produce it, but all those who partake of it. It’s the difference between fornication and faithfulness, between hatred and love, between outbursts of wrath and self-control (Galatians 5:19-23). One kind of fruit is going to guide us to the Kingdom; the other steers us toward the lake of fire.

God isn’t interested in trees that look nice but can’t produce a single useful fruit. He wants trees that provide something worthwhile. It doesn’t matter if you are the prettiest lawn ornament in the world—if you aren’t producing fruit that evidences God’s Spirit playing an active role in your life, you aren’t the kind of tree God is looking for.

3. Godly trees prepare for a marathon, not a sprint

Part of what makes Bradfords so popular is their knack for rapid growth. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time waiting for a tree to grow, a Bradford fits the bill—it’s extremely quick (as trees go) at reaching maturity. Unfortunately, it’s also extremely quick at falling to pieces—so quick that it’s known within the tree industry as the “self-destructing tree.” In the short term, a Bradford produces great results. In the long term, it isn’t even a contender.

The olive tree, on the other hand, is a huge investment in time. It won’t see maturity for about 20 years, and it won’t produce its best olives until it reaches the 35-year mark. In other words, by the time a Bradford pear has grown and died, an olive tree planted at the same time will only just be reaching a state of maturity. And here’s the kicker: while an olive trees optimal harvest begins at age 35, it doesn’t end until around age 150. The olive tree’s time of best output lasts almost six times longer than the entire lifespan of a Bradford.

But the olive tree doesn’t just stop producing at 150 years. Or 200 years. Or 300. Properly cared for, an olive tree can last several millennia. The olive tree of Vouves, on the island of Crete, is an estimated 3,000 years old—and still producing fruit. In Palestine, an olive tree known as Al Badawi (“The Big One”) has been dated between 5,000 and 6,000 years old. These trees are resistant to drought, disease, even fire—and despite having outlived multiple civilizations, are still able to produce fruit.

The path to the Kingdom isn’t traveled by growing the tallest the quickest. A Bradford pear shows remarkable growth in a short time, but none of it is substantial. An olive tree might stand while kingdoms rise and fall; a Bradford can’t outlast a single human lifespan. What God is looking to find are sons and daughters who “still bear fruit in old age” (Psalm 92:14)—and it’s worth noting that the olive tree of Vouves and Al Badawi are both potentially old enough to have been around when God inspired the writing of that psalm.

Separating the olives from the Bradfords

As spiritual trees, God wants to see us grow into sturdy, dependable olive trees—not flimsy, flashy Bradfords. So what enables us to have the kind of continual spiritual growth that sets the olive tree apart from the Bradford? The Bible tells us that God:

…gives power to the weak,
And to those who have no might He increases strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall utterly fall,
But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:29-31)

And that’s what it really comes down to. A spiritual Bradford is blind to the bigger picture, focused on appearing productive, and unable to endure. In this scripture, it’s among the young men who “shall utterly fall.” A spiritual olive tree finds its strength waiting on the Lord. Through continual study and communication with God, it seeks to grasp all God’s word has to offer. Through the continual production of Godly fruits, it shows itself approved by God. And through continual service to its Creator, it renews its strength, becoming a tree that can stand strong after other generations have faded from memory.

The trees that are “planted in the house of the Lord” and who “flourish in the courts of our God” will not be Bradford pears. If you want to be the kind of tree that will “still bear fruit in old age” and call the Lord their rock, be a tree that will stand the test of time. Be an olive tree.

Until next time,

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