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November 2014

He Climbed Up in a Sycamore Tree

We all know that Zaccheus was a wee little man. Anyone who has come up through Sunday school and vacation Bible school has that song indelibly stamped in memory, so much so that the truth of the story lacks its punch, becomes trite and worn. It need not be.

He climbed a sycamore tree. Ever wonder, why a sycamore tree?

Scripture is so very particular when it could easily not have been, and all the sermons that I have heard have focused on the important but general principles of Zaccheus’s curiosity, his sin, his repentance, and the fruit of that repentance. The tree appears in the backdrop as a mere prop to boost a diminutive man into the sight of Jesus. No matter that it is a sycamore. And yet when we are told that “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16), it made me wonder if there is a reason that we are told that it was a sycamore.

The sycamore tree was a common tree grown for its edible figs. It was often planted along walks because it had low-hanging branches. and large palm-sized leaves. So it was a tree in the right place for Zaccheus — convenient, easy to climb, and able to conceal a wealthy tax collector.

In her book, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells notes the legend that the leaves of the sycamore tree (a tree which actually derives from the oriental plane tree brought home to Britain by early crusaders), were believed to have been Adam and Eves’ first garments. This is not scriptural, of course, as it appears Adam and Eve were unashamedly naked until the Fall, when they were covered in animal skins and not leaves by God. No doubt the leaves came about in Britain because prevailing mores dictated some covering for the actors playing Adam and Eve in medieval religious mystery plays. And yet this large-leaved tree might have been chosen to remind us that though we may seek to hide our sin, there is, in the end, no place that Jesus cannot see and no one that he cannot reach — even a derided outcast like Zaccheus. And no one to cover sin but Jesus.

Wells also notes that Muslim poets said that in Islamic gardens the plane tree’s broad leaves, “fluttering like prayerful hands, led the other trees in praising God.” While metaphorical, the image does resonate with Isaiah’s vision of trees of the field clapping their hands (Isa. 55:12) and the Psalmist’s expression of Creation’s joy, with the rivers clapping and hills singing (Ps. 98:8). And so, in the end, what for Zaccheus was a place of covering for sin from which he could peer out in security at the latest Hebrew prophet, became a place of praise. Indeed, many commentators believe that because Zaccheus came down from the tree and received Jesus “joyfully” (Lk. 19:6), he believed while he was yet in the sycamore, even before Jesus’s request to lodge with him.

We’re not told, but perhaps as the smallish man descended, a wind stirred in that tree, and the hand-shaped leaves fluttered, and 2000 years later, the story of the wee little man still ripples across our lives. And the leaves of sycamores still softly lead in praise.

Whenever I hear that story now, I hear it fresh, and enfleshed. . . with a sycamore tree.

 


Altered States

I’m on drugs.

Last week, as a result of rotator cuff surgery, I was given some pain killers to help ease the pain. The oblong-shaped slick blue pill slips down the throat easily enough. More difficult is that I have to pry it out of a tall smoky green bottle. You have to push down and turn the top clockwise. That’s a test for a man who has had rotator cuff surgery. But the pill does relieve the pain you get from trying to open the bottle. Unfortunately, there are some side effects.

For example, my dreams are surreal. If I wrote them down, it’d be like the ramblings of what I imagine someone tripped out on acid might say. Last night, the family and I ran out of gas on a road near our neighborhood. No matter. We crawled through the window of a house owned by some old friends. Only they live 300 miles away. And their kids and ours are adults now. Our friends are excited to see us and not at all upset that we crawled through their window and didn’t knock on their door. Within what seems like minutes, we’re all sitting around watching a floor model black and white TV that our family had in the Sixties while dressed in pirate’s outfits. Just as if we do that all the time. We appear sober.

But that’s just one episode. Imagine having six short naps throughout the night, each one accompanied by such a dream, like a multiple-feature at the local drive-in theater. Wait a minute. I think I dreamed that too. There aren’t any drive-ins left, right? Which is OK by me because the one drive-in movie I remember was in the company of a girl in middle school. And her mother. And my best friend. And her enormous dog which her Mom made me feed one-half of my hamburger. To the dog which sat between me and the girl.

The big blue pill makes me sleepy as well. Some friends came to visit while I was high. . . I mean, medicated. I’m carrying on a conversation with them with my eyes closed. They are smiling. “What?,” I say. “Did I say something funny?” “You’re going to sleep,” they say, and they smile, knowingly, as if they have a secret. “No, no. . . I’m listening,” I say, as my eye lids flap shut. I added, “Just turn the TV on and hand me the remote.” Or did I just think that?

I went back to work today, hoping for normality. That was probably a mistake. I was on the telephone with another attorney and somewhere along the line, I lost the thread of the conversation. No matter. Attorneys are used to talking in order to hear themselves. He didn’t even notice. I signed some documents too. I tried not to do anything that required intelligent thought. And you can stop thinking that, right now.

Sometimes my mouth hangs open, and I’m not aware of it. I mean, just when I’m on the medication. They could cast me in Dumb and Dumber, or for that matter an old Cheech and Chong movie. You don’t need to be awake for those. Move slowly and mumble. Laugh at everything. Talk with your eyes closed. I got that.

But really, all of this musing on my altered state is just a set up for a deeper theological meditation on the nature of God. Wait for it. Granted, this is dangerous, given my state of mind, but just consider how it is for God, who is timeless and body-less, to be in all places at once and see all times at once. J.I. Packer, who definitely doesn’t do his theology while on drugs, says this is part of what it means to say that God is transcendent, that is, he is “limited neither by space (he is everywhere in his fullness continually) nor by time (there is no “present moment” into which he is locked as we are).” And thus, God’s “present”, His reality, is marked by a singular type of propinquity: all things in time and space are near.

Which brings me back to my dreams, or yours, which seem to ignore the inconvenience of time and space, juxtaposing different times and spaces in such a way as to give us a glimpse of God’s singular propinquity — all things are “here” and “now.”

So you see, a little blue pill can be your ticket to ride after all. Nevertheless, surgery is a hard road to enlightenment.

“Honey, where’s my pirate suit?”

 

 


Along the Natchez Trace (Day Four)

At Sweetwater Branch, just after crossing into Tennessee, we walked down the incline to stand on the wide bank of the creek, listening to the water sing over the rocks, on its way to the Tennessee River. We went closer, the earth giving slightly under our feet. Then closer, I squatted and rested my hand on the water, then plunged it under, letting its cold etch the place in memory. “Well, OK,” she said, “if you're doing it so am I.” She moved closer, putting her hand in. To prolong the image, I picked up a leaf and threw it on the slow moving water, watched it spin and pick up purpose, the current catching it, watching it waft by the undercut rock cliffs.

“So you think we should wash our hands after putting our hands in that water?”

“No, it has to be clean,” I say, hopefully, and besides I think, that would be like wiping off a kiss.

As we moved deeper into Tennessee, the leaves took on the appearance of late Fall, the curves became necessary and not just a part of the aesthetics of parkway construction. At two points we left the paved road to travel segments of the old Trace, one lane and rugged, bumping over ruts, a fast breeze blowing through the car. We saw no one. And that's how it's often been, like entering Yosemite or Yellowstone and finding only a handful of people around, greeting you but reticent to intrude on your solitude, or similarly struck dumb in wonder.

Once we saw a coyote standing in the right-of-way, head lifted, catching a scent, oblivious to our passing. Writing this now, I was reminded of the estrangement from fellow creatures that Annie Dillard writes of, her sense that we belong here at times and at other times “seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy — or a broad lampoon — on a thrust rock stage.” We are “strangers and sojourners,” she says, echoing a biblical theme, “soft dots on the rocks.” But maybe she was having a bad day. Or more likely, she has a half-truth, as there is both tragedy (sin), comedy (grace), and fairy tale (hope) in our days, and we belong here and yet we don't.

The closer we came to milepost 444, the more I felt it slipping away. I knew that we were on the outskirts of civilization. The traffic picked up. The grass was cleaned up, citified. And then, at TN 100, it just ended. Terminus, said the map. No announcement, no farewell signage, no waving trees in my rear view mirror, no coyote looking wistfully after us.

She said, “Let's do that again.” And I would if… but there are too many ifs. I settled for a picture of the sign, a crumpled leaf, a tingle of Sweetwater cold in my fingers, the bark of a bald cypress, the cold stones atop the final resting place of a “melancholy” Meriwether Lewis, the feel of cotton on a bush in a field of white that stretched to the horizon, and…

Someone to share it with.


Along the Natchez Trace (Day Three)

A tunnel cuts into this greenness 
Under the roof of this wild place 
Down into the heart of darkness 
Along the Natchez Trace

There is no way to fill the silence 
Measure the lateness of this age 
But for the turning of the seasons 
Along the Natchez Trace

Oh, Mississippi 
Show your hand, I'll
Read your fortune and your fate
Oh, Mississippi
I'll trace your lifeline
Along the Natchez Trace

The journey is forever lonely
Each step a slow and measured pace 
Always mindful of the bandits who wait 
Along the Natchez Trace

Oh, Mississippi
I'd like to know you
But you will not show your face 
Lost in a dream state
Some still wander
Along the Natchez Trace

There is no way to fill the silence 
Measure the lateness of this age 
But for the turning of the seasons 
Along the Natchez Trace

(“Natchez Trace,” from Chase the Buffalo, by Pierce Pettis)

About twenty miles north of Jackson, there is a turnoff for Cypress Swamp. We take it. Leaving the car, we step carefully down a hill, down to a bridge that crosses shallow water filled on both sides with ancient bald cypress, the trunks of which splay out as they near the water, trunks that seem like twisted vines, wrapped together for encouragement. Above, their canopy needles the sky. Interspersed among them are the tupelo, a hardwood, their leaves softening a sharp blue sky. I read that the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto would have passed some that still live, and so we are hushed, listening, as if something important might be missed.

If I wore a hat, I would take it off to them. I don't, so I stretched out my hand and rested it on one cypress's sinewy bark, an acknowledgment of age, perhaps, or kinship, a help to self-forgetfulness. That this tree would stand here in silence all these centuries, see the turning of the seasons, while we come and go, renders me small, a child among elders.

Later, I put both hands on a pine tree, a soaring giant whose diameter at base must have been two to three feet. Unlike the cypress, it's bark was like armour, plate upon plate, mottled and crisp. Touching it brought me back to the pines of my backyard that real when the wind blows, awkward and gangly compared to this giant. Later, picking up a stick and swishing it in the air as I walked, I was following my grandmother again, through the woods to visit her friend, while she swishes a branch in front of her. I picked up a leaf, crumpled it in my hands, and remembered pressing leaves between wax paper during kindergarten.

I touch things as a way of knowing them and, perhaps, as a way of remembering. I don't think they have souls, but there is a way in which they speak. Creation is not silent. Even rocks cry out.

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Mississippi is dark. We prowled around Jackson last night in what seemed a room with the lights dimmed, squinting to make out details, to find Anjou, a recommended French restaurant. It was 6:00 and seemed like midnight, like everyone had gone to bed and turned out the lights. I wondered if it was just me and my failing eyes or something else. 

So I googled it. Of course. I got an earful, well, eyeful,about LED lights, low energy and dim. Most of the complaints were about Marxist, socialist city councils, at least the ones I can repeat. 

We crept back to the hotel under the cover of darkness. Had I a flashlight, I would have held it out the window to light our way in the darkness of Mississippi, along a Trace with no moon.

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We are sensual creatures, so things like ambient lighting or touch make a difference, even though we don't always know enough to articulate how they impact us. In a book I am reading called Stuff Matters, materials scientist Mark Miodownik explores the psychophysical aspects of materials, that is, why the way they feel or sound has such an effect on our experience of them. And yet, he recognizes that we can't live in such a way as to be attuned to their impact all the time. He rightly says that “Most of the time we ignore them. We have to: we would be treated as lunatics if we spent the whole time running our fingers down a concrete wall and sighing.” Or touching trees. I'll stop talking about that. I'll stop being that guy.

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From Jackson to Tupelo, the Trace unfolds on a beautiful ordinariness. Gentle curves, slight rises, hayfields newly mown, here and there a farmhouse set back off the road shyly reminding us that in most places the roads has no more than 800 feet of right of way, that what we mostly see is private land kept rural by cooperative agreements, easements, and economics. Mostly it is, after all farmland, not ripe for subdivisions.

Today was a long drive, but it was musical, like a dance through wood and meadow, serenaded by the songs of Alabaman Pierce Pettis. We listened to his Chase the Buffalo at least three times, and yet my wife said she didn't tire of it. At dinner, I said, as we often say, “What was your favorite thing today?” She said, “Driving.” Just that.  Well, maybe she added "with you."

At one point, we exited the road and walked a bit of the Old Trace, perhaps a lane wide, its surface tread by thousands upon thousands of feet and hooves. I walked until it simply vanished in a tangle of trees and scrub, indiscernible. Lost. I wished it back.


Along the Natchez Trace (Day Two)

Most profound of all things I heard today were the words from a man picking up cigarette butts from a road that led down to the Mississippi River from downtown Natchez. We were ascending the road and he was bent a bit, at his task, and my wife said “Thank you for keeping things so beautiful.” He said “I need to make a difference.” I appreciated that man rooting me in place, reminding me that I was not just hovering over Mississippi, like some detached observer, but could rest there, if lightly, among flesh and blood, on streets called Pearl and Auburn and Canal, under live oaks decorated with the dreadlocks of Spanish moss, under the rich sky so blue and branches so green.

Later, we pretended to be Natchezians, walking among the people at a Chili Cook-Off to benefit the Childrens' Home. I tried 14 different chili concoctions, sharing them with my shirt, but finally settled on that served up by the local fire department, which was surprisingly lacking in smoke and fire but rich with flavor. Even the brief exchange with the fireman had the effect of keeping me from drifting in my own thoughts, the words we exchanged solid and earthy and real, tethering me to the ground.

At 4:30 AM this morning, I finished A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships, by Paul Miller, and he quoted a passage from B.B. Warfield. Warfield was talking about how Christ took no account of himself, even his divine self, but was “led by His love for others into the world, to forget himself in the needs of others.” And then Warfield lays down his pen and points his finger at himself and at me through himself and says

“Self-sacrifice means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption in them. It means forgetfulness of self in others. It means entering into every man's hopes and fears, longings and despairs: it means manysidedness of spirit, multiform activity, multiplicity of sympathies. It means richness of development. It means not that we should live one life, but a thousand lives - binding ourselves to a thousand souls by the filaments of so loving a sympathy that their lives become ours.”

Perhaps that's why I write. So I can live a thousand lives. So for a moment I can forget about myself and my incessant needs and complaints and try to imagine life by making a difference picking up cigarette butts, fighting fires, hawking lunch to passersby, sweeping streets, cleaning rooms, or selling cars. So I can walk along the ancient Sunken Trace and hear the footfalls of “kaintucks” and post men and circuit riding preachers, cold and hungry and tired, watch them play cards and write letters to their wives and talk about their days at a “stand” like the Locust Inn, where a solitary ranger jumps to welcome us like she's not seen anyone all day. I wonder what she does when no one comes, if memories of those who came here take substance and speak to her, if maybe, all alone, she begins to speak to them.

And yet I've barely scratched the surface of self-forgetfulness, let thousands of souls pass unnoticed. But writing them down, here, is a start, anyway, the beginning of the end, a pebble rippling through the sea of forgetfulness.


Along the Natchez Trace (Day One)

The last thing I placed in my suitcase was a ragged copy of my Rand McNally Road Atlas. I shook my head. 2010. I should have upgraded. I had a brief vision of our rental car on a narrowing blacktop that peters out in dirt on a deserted road in rural Louisiana, beneath the gaze of toothless inbred Cajun renegades ready to rob us and take our car, leaving us stranded there in Acafaluka. I made that name up, Acafaluka, yet it sounds believable, has a ring to it. In fact, the whole thing sounds believable. I close the suitcase, vowing to purchase a new atlas soon.

I apologize if you are from Louisiana.

Our flight brings us into Baton Rouge which, I know, sounds French, which, I know, makes me think wine and lax morals and Napoleon and guillotines and a certain book I reviewed a couple of years ago about a Frenchman who tried to make sense of the tragic tsunami in Asia but lacked the moral categories to know the questions to ask.

I apologize if you are from France.

Our route today, just a red line on Rand McNally as yet, meanders north, through St. Francisville, where Ruthie Leming (of the book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming) lived and died too soon, where her family still lives. We'll stop there, at least briefly, so I can soak up littleness, which, lived to God's glory, is huge, rippling out across space and time, like Ruthie.

And then it's back to the red line, the highway north, Mississippi in our sights, Natchez on the horizon, which makes me think of racism and civil rights and the third-grade spelling bee and a certain town called Petal, my friend Josh's hometown, which is too far from Rand McNally's course to visit but which seems like a whisp of a place in my mind, not a flower but a mere Petal, slight but beautiful, perhaps. . . A name dropped on a crossroads, perhaps, as an expression of hope?

I'm 56, and I have never been to Mississippi. But when Mavis Staples sings, I dream it.

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I like walking out of an airport and onto the tarmac to board a plane. Loading bridges mask reality, assuage fear even. But out here you can touch the skin of the plane, smell the jet fuel, hear the airflow in jet engines. I see the stairs leading to the door, and I think of Presidents waving to admirers, or the Beatles arriving in New York for a concert at Shea Stadium, seeing Gerald Ford at a whistle stop in Greensboro in the early 70s. 

I consider pausing on the stairs, looking back, nodding to my one admirer, smiling.

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Before hotels and motels there were motor lodges and, even earlier, motor courts which sprang up alongside the first modern highways. In my childhood in the early 60s, the motor courts were largely gone, replaced by the motels, the Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inns or, for our family's budget, the mom and pop brands like the old Vicky Villa, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, or the Skyline Motor Lodge, in Asheville, North Carolina (a truncated version of which still exists). You could drive right off the highway and sail up to your door in your Olds Jetstar 77 (our car) or Ford Fairlane. We'd open the door on air-conditioned air, jump up and down on the bed a few times, get some ice from the ice machine for our parents, and run around the premises and check out the pool while our somnolent elders, inexplicably, took a nap.

In St. Francisville, the motor court still exists, detached motel rooms, if you like, cottages, quaint, with the addition here of massages (unheard of in polite quarters in the 60's, but now a nod to the urbane). The Magnolia Motor Court is tucked back off the main road, right across from the bustling Magnolia Cafe. We sat by the door, where you can watch people come and go, mainly locals. "Look, that lady has a Chinelle pocketbook," said my wife, surprising here, we thought, in rural Louisiana. "She's wearing Tory Burch shoes." Ok, so the world has come even here, fashion piled on top of cows and deer blinds and hay.

I look over at the table in the next room and see a man I recognize. It's Rod Dreher, author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, not ten feet from me, surrounded by a gaggle of fawning women. I prefer to think they are relatives. Or maybe aspiring writers. I fight the urge to go speak to him, to do something grand, like buy a bottle of wine for the table, anonymously, just because I like his book, just because it make me laugh and cry. But I don't. I had lunch with him, I'll say, passed his home in Star Hill, saw the Orthodox church he attends. That's enough. No, enough is the bread pudding, the best we have ever had, like someone melted down four Krispy Kreme doughnuts and poured it into a pudding mold.

Crossing over into Mississippi, I realize that the land is not flat, as I imagined, but swells and falls, like the Piedmont, like Chatham County, with cows and hayfields and houses set back off the road with long drives lined by live oaks that must make you feel like royalty, arriving at your home. On the way, we had two conversations with Palo Alto and one with Wichita, and I have the surreal feel of being here, there and maybe everywhere, all at once. I'm thankful for technology but feel like I need to get out and walk, to be on solid ground, in one place.

In Natchez (pronounced like "matches"), we checked into the Monmouth Historic Inn. The cover of Travel and Leisure magazine, in the gift shop, claims it as one of the 500 best small hotels in the country. And it's fine. All I know is our room looks like Grandma's house - old and a bit musty. I prefer the motor court. I like the ice machine and outdoor pool and driving right up to your door that opens not on some hallway but on the great outdoors of the parking lot. I like eating at Shoneys and Bucks and Rays and all those family-owned restaurants. I like the feeling of ice cold motel room on a hot and humid summer day, even the smell of the room. I particularly liked that one motel where you could have the bed vibrate for five minutes if you inserted a quarter. (My Dad let us do it once, and my sister and I laughed and laughed.)

I even miss jumping up and down on the bed. Which is probably not going to happen at The Monmouth Historic Inn in Natchez, Mississippi. I might hurt something. Grandma might be upset.