IT’S ONLY OUT OF PLACE IN THE SUMMER.
Steve Dresselhaus – November 2012
The magnificent old tree is dead. Of that there is no doubt. The massive old tree has lost all of its twigs, leaves and life, leaving nothing but a huge trunk, lots of stout limbs, and hundreds of branches. The bark is long gone, leaving only a sun-bleached skeleton which seems to reach skyward with outstretched arms pleading with God above for one more chance at life. It ain’t gonna happen. The tree died of old age with its main structure intact, no rot evident anywhere. It is now dried out and as hard as rock; it will likely stick around for decades to come. Now this once grand tree is an object of artistic curiosity but as lifeless as a brick.
The dead tree stands guard at the edge of a property belonging to a Catholic convent where , for the third time, I am doing my annual personal spiritual retreat. I am not Catholic, but I do appreciate the solitude, reverence, artwork and serenity of a place that was designed to promote encounters with God. I truly have benefited from having come to this place.
Earlier this afternoon I spent a good long time looking at and touching the battered, dead old tree. A battered old pickup with a battered old driver approached, slowed and stopped. The driver was the convent’s groundskeeper. “Saw you looking at this old tree,” he said. “Kind of pretty, isn’t she? Some people want me to cut her down, saying she is a hazard. Most people tell me to leave her as is. She symbolizes a lot of things to a lot of people. You’ve been here for a long time looking at her. She must mean something to you.”
I agreed with the bearded, baggy-wool -sweatered groundskeeper that the tree meant something to me–but what, I didn’t know. I was captivated by the tree. In the climate of late fall, none of the trees in the area had a single leaf; they all pretty much looked alike–bare. In the world of forestry art, they were stick figure nudes. Yet this barren old white tree held my attention and wouldn’t release me. The groundskeeper started up the pickup and as he drove away said, “She only looks out of place in the summer.”
It was then that the jumbled thoughts beginning to form in my mind coalesced in an understandable direction. Here was a massive structure which had once been living but which is now dead, formerly productive but now non-reproductive, formerly vibrant but now nothing but a dwindling memory of what it had once been. In the winter, all trees look alike, leafless and seemingly dead. In the spring, summer and fall, this dead tree looks exactly like it does right now, while all the neighboring trees live and give life to other living things. It is only when next to fully foliaged living trees that its death is apparent.
In my brisk walk around the convent grounds I had been asking the Lord to speak to me, to show me what the theme of this retreat was to be. Being stopped in my tracks by the dead tree, and then hearing the words of the groundskeeper, showed me what the Lord wanted me to think about. He seemed to be telling me that Christianity in America is like the big dead tree. The structures are in place but much of the life is already gone. To a large extent we are beginning to look just like every other religion – stuck on ritual, programs, activities, transfer of knowledge, calendar dependent scheduled-in-advance relationships, budget driven strategies and the goal of keeping the structure alive. We may claim uniqueness in our beliefs; but the outward workings of our faith, in the eyes of an outsider, are likely no different than those of a thousand other religions. Tom Bodet , in one of his ads for Motel 6, used to say, “When your eyes are closed, all hotels look alike.” The relentless death march of the American church becomes evident when we open our eyes and compare ourselves to living churches elsewhere. Just like the old tree, our death only becomes apparent to us when we see life elswhere.
I’m writing this in the convent chapel. The stained glass windows are beautiful as the late fall sunshine pours through. To my left is the main crucifix with the dead Jesus. Around me are the stations of the cross, all of them initially depressing. I am surrounded by images, some of them artistically attractive but all of them spiritually moribund, devoid of life. All of them are as white and as hard and as lifeless as the old tree. While I don’t know what they mean, there are enough lit white candles to make me believe the Catholic Church is the primary cause of global warming. The nuns are old, somber, not too energetic. Only 15 of them left, and every time I come here, fewer of them remain. One of the nuns told the groundskeeper not to cut down the tree since she is like the old tree–useless, lifeless, past her prime and just biding time while she awaits the inevitable. Lifeless: I am surrounded by a massive religious structure, in this instance Catholic, but which could be any of dozens of US Christian groups, every one of them on a one way street to becoming as lifeless as the big, old dead tree 200 yards from where I am sitting. It all looks good, but there is nothing here.
The Bible talks a lot about trees: the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the “tree” on which Jesus died, the vine and the branches, the root of Jesse, the burning bush, the trees used to build the ark, the cedars of Lebanon, the fruit producing trees in Heaven, and the tree into which the Gentiles are grafted. The church in America is dying: we are not dead yet, but it won’t be much longer. We are becoming like the old dead tree across the yard. Let’s call the American church to a fresh and renewed commitment to being the branches on the vine. Attached to Jesus, let’s live again. Let’s get back to our roots. Let’s jettison our programs, our boring services, our buildings, our budget busting self-serving activities, the fallacy of seeker services and our clock based worship. Let’s get rid of everything that is leading us to our doom. Let’s build the body of Christ by loving, caring, “gracing,” serving, giving, teaching, comforting, forgiving, correcting, sharing, encouraging, sheltering, and accepting each other, our neighbors and our world. Let’s do so many good things that our neighbors will see them and want to glorify the Father with us.
At the base of the old tree something caught my eye. The gnarly old roots are covered with moss, fungi, small flowering plants, recently sprouted seedlings, insects –life, beauty, reproduction. The lawn mower can’t get into the confined space between the knobby knees of the roots, so the tender new life has not been destroyed. While we may lament and mourn the passing of the church in America, we do so with gratitude for what has gone before and appreciative of the gnarly roots of our history which give us shelter and protection from which to launch new life. Our old structure is clearly dying, but as it dies, it will provide us with a safe place from which to spring into new life.
John 15:5-8 (NLT) reads: “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”