“A Tree That Looks at God All Day…”

We have a dozen trees on the property.

It makes us sound like farmers or ranchers to say “on the property,” as if we have a back 40 to clear and plow. Our house is cozy and built in 1954. We mostly own grass. But out of that grass, we have twelve beautiful trees.

I forget who said it, but God didn’t merely make “trees.” He made oaks and maples and aspens and hickories. His artwork is utterly specific. I can’t decide if birds got me into trees or if Tolkien did. It was probably a combination of both.

When I worked as a shelver at a library, I snatched a wonderful book out of a pile that was being phased out of circulation. It’s called The Trees of Missouri by Don Kurz with illustrations by Paul Nelson. The state commissioned it in 2003 and I’ve enjoyed it since around 2012. It’s been a helpful friend to me.

On the east (facing the street), we have three silver maples. Silver maples are my absolute favorite trees. The name is delicious, but it’s actually the shape of the leaf that does me in. I haven’t found another tree that can best it. Silver maples are one of the earliest trees in Missouri to flower. They like the edges of streams, like the little creek on our northern property line. Their “whirlybirds” clog up our gutter, but delight my son to no end. I grew up calling them helicopter seeds.

The elderly silver maple with the ivy shawl is named Gwendolyn. The little one next to her is Jack. And the large fella caddycorner to the silver lady is Sylvester.

And then we have three sugar maples in a line along the south of the house. They are unnamed and untapped. Literally, I have yet to tap them for maple syrup. I bought a syrup kit a few years back, but I’ve yet to be of the right mind when the temperature is just right. It needs to be cool enough in the winter, but above freezing so that the sap will flow well. One of these days…

And then we have the sycamores. There’s a supporting character in the back yard outside of the fence, but he’s mostly just there to drop branches right where I need to mow. Treebeard, however, is the massive sycamore in our backyard. He dominates the landscape. When we bought the house in 2015, I dutifully measured his trunk to determine his age. While I can’t recall the exact number, I know it was only a few years old when our town was founded. By that reckoning, he’s easily over 160 years old.

It startles me, having something so massive and ancient living behind us while we sleep. It’s probably 110-120 feet tall, dwarfing our little cottage. Come winter, the goldfinches will feast on the seeds that Treebeard offers. The Osage Native Americans used sycamore inner-bark to make tea for flu season. As innocent as that makes our Ent sound, I’m still uncomfortably in awe of that enormous organism. I don’t want to even think about how far his fingers extend beneath the gopher-pocked earth.

Huddling awkwardly in the sycamore’s shadow is an eastern red cedar. She’s balding a bit on one side, but the fruit is lovely. Cedar waxwings love them, but I’ve yet to have them visit. Red cedars from the forests in Virginia and Tennessee used to provide us with the nation’s pencils before the incense cedar became the more popular choice. If Treebeard is old, Juniper (that’s her unoriginal name) might be downright antediluvian. Well, not quite. But some eastern red cedars down in the Ozarks have been aged at over 1,000 years. I hope Juniper keeps the faith.

And then there’s Dr. Seuss. He’s our other evergreen. I’m not entirely sure what he is. Possibly a cypress. His top is slumped sideways like a dog that just heard a strange noise. I respect his privacy so I’ll most likely leave him unidentified. He guards the corner of our yard, keeping watch on the two streets that entrap us.

Three silver maples. Three sugar maples. A mysterious conifer. Two sycamores. An eastern red cedar. There’s also a lackluster silver maple up by the south curb. But we don’t talk about him.

Rounding out the dozen is our Rose of Sharon. She’s currently in bloom and it’s incredible. My mom was the first to identify her. I didn’t even know she was there until our first summer here. Hibiscus syriacus is, as her given name suggests, not a Missouri native. Possibly Syrian (more likely Chinese or Indian), she made her debut on American shores around 1600. They don’t often fight the local vegetation except in Castlewood State Park. Don Kurz actually makes a note that it aggressively spread out into that St. Louis park and made it a stronghold for Sharon. That’s her name, by the way. Again, we save our creativity for other things. She holds sway with her purple buds by our overgrown garden.

Sharon.

“Only God can make a tree.”

Rood Dreams

The killing tree.

Roman crucifixion was a brutal and barbaric punishment reserved for slaves and thugs. And it is that cross, that holy instrument of torture that was set aside for Christ, for my salvation.

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet.2:24).

Around 750 A.D., an anonymous poet wrote a piece called The Dream of the Rood. “Rood” is the Old English word for “cross.” It’s a remarkable telling of the crucifixion from the point of view of the rood.

The author highlights the shame and the glory of that killing tree. Jewels and blood adorn it. It was tragedy and triumph all together. Today is what the Lutherans and Anglican call “Holy Cross Day.”

It is the tree of glory on which almighty God suffered for the many sins of mankind and for the old deeds of Adam. There he tasted death, but still the Lord rose again with his might power, to the benefit of men” (lines 68-70, para.10).

Enjoy.

This World is Not (Yet) My Home

I enjoyed the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, when it came first came out nineteen years ago. I still like it a lot. I’m halfway through the Iliad with the Odyssey next on my list as far as classics go. It was a beautiful blend of old South Americana and mythology. Not to mention, the music was excellent. Alison Krauss is the heartbeat of American music.

But as I’ve read the Bible and read the fathers and Reformed theology, some of the lyrical themes of that wonderful movie’s soundtrack no longer sit right in my craw, beautiful as they are. “I’ll Fly Away.” “The Angel Band.” “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” So much of that beautiful soundtrack is dotted with old poems about “going home” and finding final and eternal rest in a heavenly home. That’s appropriate for the movie because it’s loosely based on the Odyssey, a story about a man trying to get back home.

And yet, if we can’t feel at home in this world anymore because we’re just passing through, what good is this world? What real need do we have to care for it if God is going to burn it up (as a certain type of theology promises). I once heard a popular preacher (speaking about global warming), “If you think it’s hot now, wait until Jesus gets a hold of it!” There are few more wicked sentiments I can think of for a man of the cloth to proclaim from a pulpit. It implies that the Creator is somehow chomping at the bit, eager to obliterate everything good that he made that was stained by sin.

And I’ve heard it geared towards teenagers as well. Take this world and give me Jesus. I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. There could more harmful things to listen to on the radio. But this is just a more modern repacking of “I’ll fly away” and “this world is not my home.”

This is how Greek philosophy got its fingers around the gospel’s throat and never really let go. On the one hand, the Epicureans (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”) saw our bodies as cruise ships to be enjoyed until they shipwreck on the shallow reefs of indulgence. But on the other hand, the one that grabbed onto Christianity, the body was a prison from which the soul needed to escape. That’s what the disciples of Plato believed. Don’t indulge the body. Indulge the mind. Ignore the body. It’s evil and untrustworthy and too much like the animals. What matters is reason (the Logos). Feed the mind with knowledge. If you gain enough knowledge, you feed the soul and the soul is what matters.

Plato said that all the physical things you see are like shadows on a cave wall. There’s a fire behind you, but you can’t see the fire because you’re chained up in the cave and you can only see the shadows on the wall that the fire is casting. According to Plato, all physical reality is made up of shadows. They aren’t important. What really matters is the thing that is casting the shadow- the hidden thing, the thing that you can’t see. That’s what matters. In the words of Master Yoda, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

A good Platonist, Yoda was.

Plato believed that the young should be taught to welcome death, neither to regret nor lament it. Does that sound familiar? I’ve heard and seen too much nonsense about Christian funerals as a flavor of celebration. Grieving with hope gets replaced with the celebration of liberation. Plato believed that death is good, something to be greeted like an old friend. Why? He believed that because he believed death is the moment when the immortal soul is set free from the prison of the physical body.

Plato viewed death as a jailbreak for the soul. Biblical Christianity views death as the last enemy to be destroyed. What happens after death? Well, Plato said that judgment is based upon deeds. The wicked go to hell. But the righteous souls fly away to join the stars. Does that sound familiar? Socrates famously said upon his deathbed that the real “me” was not the corpse he would leave behind, but that which is inside the body before death. He said a human is a “little soul carrying around a corpse.”

Platonists believed that the virtuous joined the stars at death. They became stars. The immortal souls are implanted into human bodies (male, the superior, and female, the inferior) and the main task of the soul is to master the desires and emotions of the body: pleasure, pain, fear, rage, etc. Those who do that well enough go and join the stars.

Some prison breaks involve more pandamonium than others.

And so, if you believe the body is a prison and death is the jailbreak, why would you believe in a reality in which you are reunited with your prison? No prisoner wants to go back to the jail he just escaped. That’s why Plato is not very helpful in understanding the incarnation or the resurrection. Plato would certainly not have wanted to live out eternity in a physical world.

The Stoics, for instance, believed that at the end of the present age, everything would be dissolved by fire, and the whole order of the universe would end. Does that sound familiar? The Greeks didn’t want to live in a physical world. They wanted the physical world to burn so that they could have spiritual bliss.

Looking for truth in Alderaan places.

Epicureans said that death is the end of everything. Yolo. Carpe diem.

Platonists said that death is the beginning of everything. Don’t fear the jailbreak. Be ready to fly away.

If the world is Epicurean, the Church has become Platonic. In the first case, the resurrection is disbelieved as ridiculous. In the second, it is reduced as a irrelevant, a secondary curiosity that simply make our faith distinct. And on both views, this world is not seen as a home. It’s seen as a buffet to be used or an enclosure to be destroyed.

And yet, I understand the impulse to those songs. I understand the homesickness. But that other world for which we are made is a world that will one day come to this world so that “heaven and earth be one.” This world is not yet my home. But it will be. That’s my hope.

Beautiful Stories to Tell in the Dark

So, this one time, C.S. Lewis stayed at a haunted house.

But that’s not the part he chooses to emphasize. I would love to read a short mystery novel about Lewis at this haunted inn on a windswept hill in Ireland. But it doesn’t exist yet.

Anyway, the spooks and ghouls didn’t have nearly the effect on the locals as “the good people.” In addition to being allegedly haunted, this building was said to have faeries. And that was why the townsfolk steered clear of it. Now, having said that, I know that someone just rolled their eyes and maybe even just clicked away to a Neil DeGrasse Tyson video to remind themselves that we’ve conquered all mysteries.

But Jack had a medieval mind. Don’t forget, his day job was to teach medieval and Renaissance literature. And he took seriously what they took seriously. But to overcome the modern stereotype of Tinkerbell, he preferred to call them the Longaevi (“the long lived”). And in The Discarded Image, he takes great pleasure in subdividing them into different types with references from Milton and Spenser as his footnotes.

But my point is not to argue whether or not C.S. Lewis believed that faeries were real. His mind was thoroughly pre-modern and so was his imagination. And when he sought to explain the Longaevi (nymphs, fauns, satyrs, dryads, etc.), he sensed the tension they introduce in the medieval system. You had the seven heavens and the earth and the fullness thereof. But then we see this third category that defies tidy organization.

“They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous” (Discarded Image, p.122).

A welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty. The philosopher Charles Taylor gets credit for introducing the term “disenchantment” to describe the secularization of the West. Jamie Smith, in his very helpful guide to reading Taylor’s The Secular Age, explains that the location of meaning has been moved from the world to the mind. Things aren’t soaked through with significance. Our minds, and their ability to perceive meaning internally, are drenched with importance.

The cosmos becomes the universe. Creation becomes nature. The curse of the lightbulb means that all the shadows and uncertainties have been banished from the haunted house. Things are, in Lewis’ words, “a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.” Charles Taylor calls it “the rage of order.” And faeries, sea monsters, ghosts, and goblins are that splinter of wildness wedged in the gears of a well-oiled and easily observed machine.

That’s my point in bringing all of this up. A hint of wildness and uncertainty can be a corrective to the secular mindset, the one that sees the world for what it appears to be. There’s that great scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which the children and Caspian are talking with a fallen star named Ramandu and the ever practical Eustace doesn’t quite have a category for what he’s seeing (despite meeting one already). He tried to correct the retired star on his own existence.

“‘In our world,’ said Eustace. ‘A star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’”

I remember reading that as a kid and shivering with delight. A welcome hint of wildness. Do you see? That’s why I like watching scary movies. That’s why I enjoy fantasy novels and science fiction. That’s why I’ll binge certain shows that offer up an intrusion of uncertainty into a world with too many lightbulbs and not enough shadowy corners.

We can’t put everything under the microscope, least of all God Almighty. The medievals understood that at first blush. Jack did as well. So, yes, maybe those stars really are what science tells us they are. That’s fine. But I’m holding out hope that I’ll meet Rigel enjoying his retirement on the new earth someday.

Wouldn’t that be wild?

Like Ferns.

Sometimes I think that I don’t really like books; I like sentences.

Now, that’s not entirely true. Some books I do love in their entirety, for the overall feel they give off. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was like that. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (probably my favorite fiction) is like that.

I’m working my way through Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley right now. It’s a story about a writer who wants to get more in touch with his country so he goes on an American road trip with his French poodle, Charley. As one does, I suppose. But there’s one line that I keep thinking about, probably best left without comment simply because it’s a smart sentence and a beautiful image. For your enjoyment:

“The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.”

Of Bono and Shattered Labels

So, here I sit. By light of the Christmas tree, by light of this laptop, uncomfortably propped up on the couch. An open Bible, flopped apart somewhere in early Deuteronomy. I read a Martin Luther quote last night. He was writing to a songwriter, a George Spalatin, asking him to turn the Psalms into hymns that could be sung. He wrote:

“I wish to follow the example of the prophets and Church fathers, and compose German Psalms for the people ; that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may dwell among them through the hymn. Therefore, we are seeking poets everywhere.”

Searching everywhere for poets? When did the Church stop doing that? Joseph Ratzinger contended that one of the final and true apologetic for the Church is her art. Bono famously lamented the state of the arts in the Church, especially in her evangelical subculture. Andrew Peterson helpfully pointed out that there are tons of honest and beautiful art made by Christians.

Luther’s quest to find poets is an ongoing one for the Church. They are there. They are creating. And beauty will speak in this secular age more than our jargon. This is especially vital since Evangelicalism as a cultural byword is losing its usefulness.

This proverb has been rolling through my mind the last few hours:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

Christmas Eve always ends, but Easter lasts for a lifetime. No emotion is permanent, but the glory of good beauty will always be a deep well from which to drink. Adoration-of-the-Shepherds