Monday, November 25, 2019

The Beauty of Trees

   Many of us have just erected a tree indoors. "O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree." Aren't all of them works of art? Charlie Brown's pathetic little tree "just needed a little love."

   Thomas Merton said "A tree gives glory to God by being a tree." Indeed. God made the tree. Like so many of God's most beautiful gifts, the strength is unseen, the roots reaching deep into the ground providing nourishment and stability, the rings within telling a story of years of growth, weathering storms, seasons passing. Beauty takes much time, and much is hidden.

   My book club just read The Overstory (which won Richard Powers the Pulitzer Prize!), the saga of nine quirky people who gradually find one another and protest the destruction of forests. My mind was blown, and awestruck by the wonder that trees and forests are, as Powers unpacks immense information about them while spinning his drama. Trees communicate, grieve and network. It's tree-hugger heaven: "Patricia sees it in one great glimpse: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will lose by winning." Frankly, as Christians, we have great cause to hug, admire, and protect trees, for our own good, and as an act of praise of the one who created them. Beauty isn't something we wantonly chop down for short-term profits; we revere and preserve beauty.

   J.R.R. Tolkien loved trees, and created (in The Lord of the Rings) treelike creatures who speak "Old Entish": "It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to." The beauty of words, the beauty of listening.

   Jesus was an apprentice in his father's woodworking shop, and spotted diminutive Zaccheus up in a sycamore tree. He prayed under a gnarled olive tree, "Not my will but yours be done." Then he was nailed to a tree. A medieval poem, "The Dream of the Rood," imagined the wood of Jesus' cross narrating its own life. "I was a sapling by the edge of the woods. One day men cut me down, staked me up, and brought the young hero, nailing him to my branches. I trembled under his weight; his sweat and blood soaked into me. Later, they threw me into a pit. But then others found me, and adorned me with gold and jewels. Now people look up to me seeking healing and hope."

   Recently a friend reminded me of a song by Nicole Nordeman, which reflects on the season "when the trees have just surrendered, forfeiting their leaves, bracing for colder winds," and how everything in creation "finally falls asleep," that "even now, in death, you open doors for life to enter." What greater gift do we have than trees to enable us to dream of life after death, and the beauty of God's unfailing provision and care?