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October 2018

Call to Worship

A042C3F3-0C29-4146-A229-8F20D658A5ACThis morning, while my wife went off to a heathen art class (her words), my son and I attended church. While it is not an unfamiliar church, we visit only once a year . . .if for 37 years. That makes us regular attenders, sort of, or at least something other than just visitors. We were early. My son said, “Oh no, we’re early. I don’t like to be early. We may have to talk with someone.” I said, “It’s OK, maybe we’ll see Winston.” Winston is a pastor here who once impiously yet innocently used the word “HELL” in a conversation in the narthex of the church. I have admired him ever since. I even wrote him a letter after that.

After glad handing with the doorman (and door-woman), I strode into the sanctuary and made my way to the front of the 500-seat room, to the second row, and sat. It’s a holdover of an old, somewhat contrarian habit dating from my children’s childhood - contrary, that is, to the observation that new people sit in the back of the church and will leave if there are no open seats. Not us! Plenty of room up front, particularly in the penumbra of the pastor. If we sit up front in a new church, the reasoning also went, they (and we) would pay better attention and they would better behave (the children, that is). Mostly, it worked. I was better behaved.

I sat, yet my son informed me that I was sitting on the wrong side, motioning for me to move. Heavens. How could I forget? I did move. He was right. We sat down behind a man I did not recognize, with a balding head and a microphone attached to him. Oh, the new pastor. We didn’t speak. I don’t make it a habit of speaking to pastors prior to the sermon. I might distract them. They might forget the tightly coiled script in their heads and somewhere in the sermon forget an apropos anecdote, the punch line of a joke, or commit some Freudian slip. I don’t want to be a cause of expositional error. We sat mum.

The music was. . . Well, never mind about the music. I took leave and rewound the clock to this morning. When I could sleep no more and could count the bedsprings so insistent were their jabs, I arose. It was 5:30. Based on what I was told by another occupant of the room, my electric razor, zinging behind the closed door of the lavatory, sounded like a lawn mower, and the quarter inch crack of light that beamed blindingly from the finger-high space beneath the shut door was much too much light, too too soon, on vacation time. So I left. Taking care with the door, I stepped out under a sky lit by a waxing 5/8 moon, turning right down the brittle asphalt path that encircles the property.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus. . .

I’m mindful of rattlesnakes, though I’ve never seen one on this walk. The lead landscaper, a reticent man named Jeff, took down all of the Beware of Rattlesnakes signs because, as he was told, they “made people nervous.” He gave them to us, depositing them on our balcony with a plastic vase of purple flowers, a small kindness from a shy man. Occasionally we see him out on the property, in a rare idle moment, meandering along the path, a hand behind his back. He’s holding a cigarette but is embarrassed by it. My wife let’s him know that we’ll keep his secret.

To the east there’s the faintest light behind the peaks of the Catalinas, highlighting a few brooding clouds, outlining the jagged peaks. Rabbits scatter as I walk, their white tails flashing. I planned to listen to music but unplug so as to hear the birds wake, the doves cooing, two spaced 15 feet apart on the telephone line, staring straight ahead, as if they had a spat during the night. Surely it will be repaired. Or, perhaps, they await the rising sun, like me, to see the colors of the mountains change, the cacti swathed in new light, the desert floor coming into sharp relief.

And, can it be, that I should gain and interest in the Savior’s blood?

Wondrous love, desert love. Somehow when I come here I am interested in everything - every tree, bush, and flower, every rabbit, range and river, dry or running wet - when at home the life in the world so often passes unnoticed. A runner overtakes me and passes. I turn up the road to the horse corral and stop. A coyote emerging from the corral path walks away from me, a hundred feet away, his body and head outlined against the mountain. He turns to look at me, his province invaded, and then moves away. Twenty feet more and he turns again to check my progress, before moving away into the wash.

I round the east side of the property, muscle up the incline, pass the vacant tennis courts, pass out onto the road. At the patch of grass around the fountain, the sprinklers wet my ankles. Back on the sidewalk, the black of the night sky melds to indigo. A couple walk ahead, and I’m gaining on them, so I circle back to give them room, turn, and then they disappear down the sidewalk. I press on. Meeting an smiling older woman walking toward me, cane in hand, I tell her about the coyote. She wants to know how many there were. One, I say. She waves her stick, says “I’m not worried about one, but I keep the stick for if there’s more than one.”

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart.

“A disciple is someone who has been captivated,” says the pastor, “by the most beautiful person of all, Jesus.”

The moon blinks off. The sun peaks the corner of the Catalina’s. I turn for home, remembering all I have seen.

Rejoice, the Lord is King.


Trees, Unforgotten

C3098F86-A1C0-4F6A-AD46-824C4B4A5165“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” (John Muir)

Over 34 years ago, our patch of land was hewed from a mostly loblolly pine forest, a relatively young stand which grew up after the mature hardwoods that originally grew here were painstakeningly cut and the land farmed. The red clay dirt proved unsuitable for farming and was abandoned, and the pines, the eager first comers, grew their lanky trunks and green crowns, such as they were, until profit was in sight and the cutting began. I wasn’t here, of course, for the cutting, digging, and plowing and surmise this only from the relative youth of the trees and knowledge of the area. This wasn’t always suburbia; out on the edge of my memory, it was country, a land of red dirt roads and farm houses, clapboard churches and volunteer fire departments, fields of tobacco and woodlots.

To his credit, the developer of this land cut as little as was needed. Some homeowners cut more. We didn’t, preferring forest to sunlight. Sometimes in strong winds the pines bend and wave and creak, aged denizens as they are. One fell after an ice storm, dropping parallel to our house, breaking our fence yet sparing our roof; it lay there like an apology, welcomed. No tree has ever hit our home. I like to think there is a collective gratitude, a wooden pact to spare their guests that indignity, all of which makes me think carefully about whether to take any down.

In our front yard three of those pines lean slightly toward our neighbor’s home, threatening. They’re not much to look at, as what branches and green they have are near sky and all on one side, the side facing my neighbor’s home, like awkward, cock-eyed giants reaching for the West. A couple of weeks ago I called a tree man to discuss my problem. I expected a sympathetic knower of trees, a dispenser of palliative care, but he was matter of fact, all business. He never even touched the trees.

Later I lay in the hammock under the trees. A hammock is a wonderful place to think. And I must think. I lay there thankful for tree-shade, for green against blue, for the aged trunks, for pine cones and tree pollen which is the dust of life, and the sap of the sage - for life so abundant in the trees.

In Lives of the Trees, Diana Wells spends all of five pages on the ignoble pines - all variety of pines. Pines can grow in poor soils and adapt to very different climates. Their cones hang down and not up like firs. And those pinecones that littered my driveway after Hurricane Michael? They are the female reproductive organs of the trees. That explains why some cultures regarded them as symbols of fertility. Pine needles can be eaten and provide some nourishment, though, having tried some, I cannot recommend it. Pine bark can be used to make a kind of tea, though I haven’t tried that and won’t. Wells writes of Li-Li Weng, a seventeenth century Chinese artist and gardener who wrote “When one sits in a garden with peach trees, flowers and willows, without a single pine in sight, it is like sitting among children and women without any venerable men in the vicinity to whom one may look up.” Some respect is accorded age, even the age of a tree.

In reassuring his people through the prophet Isaiah, God says “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isa. ‭41:19-20‬ ‭ESV‬‬). So in God’s redemptive history, even the often misshapen, wopsided pine is exalted, made part of the greening of the desert, part of the comfort of a God who says “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you’” (Isaiah‬ ‭41:13‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Knowing that, I can never look at a pine again without assurance that I need not fear, that the God who made the pines and held them up for all their years will hold me up too.

“I believe the Bible has a forest of trees because trees teach us about the nature of God, says Matthew Sleeth. “Just like a tree, God is constantly giving. Trees have been giving life long before human beings had a clue oxygen existed. Trees give life, beauty, food, and shade. . . . No wonder God uses trees to instruct us about life, death, and resurrection. Trees, like God, give life even after death.” Sleeth says that trees are the most mentioned non-human living thing in scripture, a number that says “pay attention.”

For love of neighbor, the trees may need to go. I’m neither a tree-hugger nor overly sentimental and recognize the utility of trees and the God-allowed natural calamities that fell many thousands of trees each year if not month. Yet it would be wrong not to pause before ending the long lives of these trees and recognize that they too are a kind of neighbor entitled to neighbor-love. The felling of a tree is not earth-shattering, and certainly will not register in human history nor, for long, in my personal history. Yet it is no small thing. It matters as much as a sparrow that falls from a tree. “[N]ot one is forgotten before God” (Lk. 12:6).

I think I’ll call an arborist. An arborist may understand.