What I like I about Autumn is the falling leaves. I know, I know, I know, you like the colors. You like the fiery yellow and orange maple leaves, the burgundy and salmon white oaks, the red dogwoods, the gold poplars. Sure, I like the colors, too. But I love the fall of the leaves.
Every leaf, after its color is spent--the dull leaf withered--finally lets go and falls to the ground. And when all the faded colors are stripped from the trees by wind and rain we can see that all that remains is a trunk and branches. They all look very naked.
Jesus said, I am the vine, you are the branches. But I wonder what his metaphor would have been if he had grown up in a deciduous forest?
I am the oak and you are the branches? I am the oak and you are the acorns? I am the oak and you are the leaves? I am the oak and your only hope is that a squirrel carries you off to another field because you are not going to grow in my shadow?
I am the forester, and I am looking for tall straight timbers to build my church, white oaks rooted on dry south-facing slopes.
Better a straight white oak that draws the deer with sweet acorns after twenty years, than the bitter cherry that draws raccoons every night.
I like that one.
Beware the cherry tree, that snake, winding its way through the canopy, sneaking leftover sunlight from any direction it can find, it’s twisting dance outdone only by the furniture maker who cuts its twisted trunk into short sections to make jewelry boxes for queens! Oh, vanity, oh, vanity, you snake of the woods! Driven by cloud shadows instead of my pure light! No wonder it’s fruit is so bitter it is only eaten by raccoons, those thieves of the night. But you, be rooted as white oaks, strive straight away for the sky above the canopy, stretch skyward like grass! Make every channel of your being straight and firm so that, rooted in God’s soil, you can carry his nourishment skyward. Make thick and tall the great canopy of God’s forest, so thick and dense that no light falls to the forest floor and nothing can grow beneath it!
Er…well…uh…ok, maybe not quite so thick.
I do think it is safe to say Jesus may have said this: The shape of the tree when the leaves fall betrays how the tree answered light’s call.
It’s pretty revealing. Some are tall and straight, some a little more serpentine. Some have had their tops snapped off by wind or splintered by lightning. Some of these die. Some send up stout new branches. Some trees remain bent over in arcs, and it is obvious heavy trees fell on top of them years ago and they grew arced their entire lives. I have seen all these types of people.
When that final autumn comes and God comes with his saw into the woods, what will he see of your shape?
You will be naked before him. All your leaves will be stripped away: your job; your spouse. Your parents; your children; your friends; your extended family; your pastor; your haircut; your doctor; your work; your hobbies; your government; your style; your alliances; your enemies; the house you built; the bank account; your favorite flannel shirt; your property; your wedding photos; your marriage; your education; your degrees; your stocks and bonds; your jewelry; your country; your sight; your hearing; your youth group; your club; your students; your musical talents; and your voice. And with all these external things will go everything that made up your insides: your hate and your love; your envy and your charity; your fears and your courage; your weakness and your strength; your cowardice and your bravery; your despair and your hope. All of it will be gone. Every memory and relationship that makes you you will come to an end, and your life will be no more than the life of a leaf in the grand scheme of the universe, and all the noise you have made, the poems and prayers and promises you have made or sung or penned will be silenced, and all the laughter around all the church campfires you’ve gloried in will be reduced to this, the life of a leaf. A leaf makes three major sounds all it’s entire life: the first is fish-a-fish-a-fish-a and only that because it can only make a sound when a breeze or wind rustles it against its neighbor. The second is the scraping clutch at a branch or tree limb as it falls out of the tree, and the third is the nearly inaudible pht! as it lands on the ground. This is your life. All your leaves are one day going to fall away and nothing will be left of it. Nothing.
There is only one person in the universe who stands between us and that bleak anonymity. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that he sent his only son that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. And so today when you are invited to stand before Jesus and take communion to remember that he died for you and wants to live in you, I would invite you to close your eyes and walk through God’s woods and imagine what kind of tree he sees you as.
I know what kind of tree I am. I am the tree that was bent over young when a heavy dead tree fell on top of it. And I have come to accept that God needed me in the bottom of his forest because every day from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. children pour into God’s forest and they playfully use that crushed but still living tree as a bridge and run from end to end. And today if you are feeling that a wind at some point in your life snapped off your top, then know that it is you who will make a great eagle’s nest. Or if some cancerous growth carved out your inside and you are feeling hollow and almost ready to topple, is not the hollow tree the only one in the forest that can protect the sleeping bear from winter? Maybe you are supposed to be working with troubled children, children rambling over the country looking for home. Or perhaps you are the tree here today that has been struck by lightning and you feel you have been split open. Open more. Let the small birds and squirrels take refuge inside you, for it is the birds and squirrels who scatter the seeds and litter the forest with color in the first place.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?
SAP IN THE BLOOD
It’s spring again and, like the sap rising in the maple trees, that masculine urge to get outside and rip boards and pound nails is beginning to surge. So I thought I would send out some encouragement to you young men who may be embarking on that first remodeling project your wife suggests. After all, it is one of the forms of love you will need to develop if you intend to stay married.
One spring when Regina finally got tired of looking at the soffit drooping outside her kitchen window, and after the droop had grown from one to almost four inches over the previous three years, I decided the loving thing to do would be repair that soffit. But if I was going to repair that one piece of soffit, let’s say a two hour job at most, then I really should upgrade from plywood to vinyl; and, if I was going to replace that one section, I really should do the entire back side of the house to make it match the soffit we had on the front of our house; and, if I was going to finish out the entire soffit, then I might as well replace all the maroon, clapboard siding with a more modern vinyl look; and, if I was going to put on tan vinyl siding, then now would definitely be the time to put that handsome tan and brown ledge stone on the block foundation, which had not seen a new style or color since 1963. But, of course, if the basement was going to be covered in stone, then the basement door needed to be widened from 32 to 36 inches, the windows needed to have better fire egress, and suddenly there is a concrete saw and plumes of dust, and instead of simply replacing a piece of soffit, I am shaving five years off the back end of my life due to silicate-induced lung cancer.
Young man, if you think you are going to replace one piece of soffit, you are not. You are going to end up tearing off all the siding and discover that none of the partitions are insulated, nor are the baseboard water heaters (at least now you will understand why the bedrooms are so cold), the old Celotex has drawn moisture and needs to be replaced with blue Styrofoam, and there is a hornet nest you were not aware of until you are flying off the scaffolding without wings. You will also discover the wall studs are not laid off on 16 inch centers. This is not a problem if you remember to buy wooden crutches after the scaffolding incident because wooden crutches can be notched at 16 inches. Tape or crutches, either way, scrap your hobby plans for the summer. Instead of fly-fishing or plunking bass lures into the river or lake, you are going to spend your entire summer, peck, peck, pecking like a woodpecker with a hammer and nail, trying to find the studs. Make sure you have gallons of coffee stored up so that you can stay awake enough your wife doesn’t stumble in on you at 5:00 a.m. and see you standing at the sink with your tooth brush pecking on the mirror.
You are also going to discover that one wall of your house is bowed out an inch, and since it is the wall you will see coming up the driveway, you will need to spend three weeks of evenings custom cutting 8-foot shims if you want to avoid seeing convex, vinyl stripes every time you approach your house.
What all this boils down to is this: instead of $25.00 and two hours to fix the soffit, you are going to sink exactly $25,000.00 and five months into your summer project. So you can take my advice or leave it. If your dear wife complains about the soffit hanging down outside her kitchen window, do the most loving thing: buy her a curtain.
I Corinthians 13: 5
Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful.
As a child I was bullied almost every day. Back then the culture was not as litigious, and so the county school system where I grew up thought nothing of letting students from one bus get off at a local dairy farm and stay there until a second bus could pick up the students and take them to their various homes. So about twenty minutes a day—it was probably only eleven, really—my face became familiar with most of the hay bales in that barn.
But occasionally when I rode my bike by some of the homes of those bullies, or stopped in for a pick-up baseball game, I would hear their fathers or mothers yelling at them, often swearing at them. Even as a child I felt sad for them because I understood where their meanness came from.
While my affinity for hay has waned, my affection for bullies has not. I was probably more surprised than anyone though when one day I awoke and found myself in an 8th grade classroom—the year I hated more than any other. Oops! Where am I? What? I’m the teacher?