Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

Out with Kiko, as Morning Breaks

My dog Kiko turns fourteen this summer.  His face is now mostly white, but otherwise his appearance has barely changed since he reached adulthood.  He’s as lean and trim as always, and because of his small size relative to the Labs and Doodles prevalent in our neighborhood, he’s still occasionally mistaken for a puppy.  But recently he’s begun to show his age.  When descending the stairs, his back legs move stiffly, as though tied together with an invisible cord.  On walks, he’s considerably slower, especially on the way home.  Walking with our usual pack means little these days, because we’re quickly out of step and far behind.  Kiko has always set his own pace, paying scant attention to the fellow canines he sees regularly.  He’s a very social animal in that he wants to greet every new dog he meets (or even glimpses at a far distance) but after that initial encounter, he’s off on his own.  For many years he typically led our pack, despite frequent stops for extensive sniffing, but now, more frequently than not, he dawdles and dithers.  He rambles, he meanders, he doubles back, then stops absolutely, as though gripped by indecision. And once home, he spends the greater part of the day in a sound sleep. 

Kiko, sampling the copious smells of a vinca patch..

Kiko’s hearing seems to be less keen.  Has his sense of smell become more acute, to make up for the other loss?  Sometimes he appears overcome by the sheer volume and variety of aromas he’s attempting to untangle.  He has always preferred smells to the actual dogs or humans associated with them, but now the preference is more pronounced.  I’ve heard that as long as a dog can smell, a dog enjoys life.  According to this measure, Kiko is enjoying life immensely.  I find this thought comforting. 

Usually now, Kiko and I head out alone.  We’re a pack of two, just as we were during his puppyhood, before I had a number of friends with dogs.  We tend to walk early, soon after sun up.  We go then because the day is at its loveliest, and because it leaves me the option of joining my friends later.  If it’s socializing or exercise I want, it’s best to leave Kiko behind.  Of course, he doesn’t like this.  If he’s home, he wants me there, particularly after all the togetherness we’ve shared during the last pandemic year.  After we return from a walk, he eyes me suspiciously, like a jealous boyfriend.  I pretend to settle in at the computer, and soon he hops up into his bed.  I sneak out quietly if I go.  

I’ve come to appreciate walking alone with Kiko in the early mornings, though.  There is little to divert my attention from the pervasive beauty around us.  I’m attuned to the springtime world, which often glows in a rosy, golden light, especially when filtered through deep pink cherry blossoms and tangerine-hued maple buds.  The birds are at their most active and celebratory.  Kiko lingers, his nose at the base of a clump of daffodil foliage, takes a few hesitant steps, then pauses again, and again.  There is no point in rushing him.  I summon patience, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the sparkling new April day.   If I surrender to the moment, and release the urge to speed things up, I can sense the natural world regenerating and rejoicing.  I can be part of all this daily morning glory, because my odd, old dog brought me to it.  Together, we’re fellow creatures basking in “God’s recreation of the new day.”  The words and melody of Morning Has Broken* seem to float in the sweet-smelling air:

Morning has broken like the first morning;

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning!

Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!
 

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning;
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day!

Kiko, sniffing, and sniffing, and sniffing some more.

*While Cat Stevens made this song famous, the words were written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931, inspired by this verse of scripture from Lamentations 3:22-23: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies begin afresh each morning.”  The tune is a traditional Scottish Gaelic one called “Bunessan.” 

Spring Beauty & Easter Cheer

This year, Easter in Northern Virginia coincided with perfect spring weather. That’s a rare gift, one that was even more appreciated after a year of covid anxiety, sadness and death. Easter’s hope of the resurrection was made palpable in the beauty of new life in nature that surrounds us.

Bradford pear and cherry trees were in peak bloom, fluffy with clouds of white and pale pink.

The bright red camellia at my mother’s was bursting into flower. 

The weekend’s festive, sunny warmth prompted me to bring our collection of big bunnies out for a top-down ride with Kiko.  Our skeleton friend Slim, currently slumbering in the basement, would approve.  Such a lovely day, he would say, needs to be seized and enjoyed.   

Kiko could hardly contain his happiness.  He did what he typically does when overcome with joy.  He fell asleep. 

Last Easter is a blur.  I remember little more than a bare-bones version of online church and an unseasonable meal.  We were avoiding the grocery, and we hadn’t yet got the knack of online food shopping.  Easter dinner consisted of what we had on hand, which happened to be pot roast, instant mashed potatoes and canned vegetables.  Deep in the freezer section of the fridge, under some forgotten Popsicles that had melted and refrozen a couple of times, I’d discovered a cylinder of frozen crescent roll dough.   It was a relic from the Witch’s Finger pigs-in-a-blanket my daughter made for a Halloween party during her first year in high school.  The use-by date was 2015.  Why not bake up this five-year old dough?  Let’s give it a try, I thought.  Evidently, it wasn’t a health hazard.  And while the rolls were rather flat, they were not actively bad.  Still,  I do not recommend them.

I don’t think I bothered with Easter decorations to accompany last year’s lack-luster meal.  But cheered by this spring’s lovely weather and the hope that an end to our covid odyssey may be in sight, I dove into our Easter-themed goodies and colored eggs from years past.  We have boxes and boxes of eggs, decorated in various ways. (I wrote about these in several posts from 2012. See here and here.) Unless they’re cracked, eggs boiled for a long time over low heat can last for ages.

For example, some of these reddish brown eggs, dyed by boiling with onion skins, are approaching the twenty-year mark.    

Our daughter, finishing up her final semester at the University of Virginia, couldn’t join us.  She would have appreciated my decorating efforts, and she’d have been happy that we had Easter dinner in the dining room rather than the kitchen.  In her honor, I set the table for four, using my grandmother’s old Noritake china, painted in delicate Easter egg colors.  Our daughter would also have found the meal, which included our typical Easter favorites, baked ham, scalloped potatoes, fresh asparagus and deviled eggs, far more satisfying than last year.  When we spoke with her that evening, she was finishing a tricky engineering problem set and running low on food choices.  But at least she wasn’t reduced to baking crescent rolls from 2015.  And we should be able to see her before long at an actual in-person graduation ceremony in Charlottesville.  2020 has made us grateful for pleasures we once took for granted. 

May spring’s annual renewal of life bring you hope and joy!

Up From the Grave He Arose

Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior,

waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Vainly they watch his bed, Jesus my Savior,

vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!

Death cannot keep its prey, Jesus my Savior,

he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;

he arose a victor from the dark domain,

and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.

He arose! He arose!

Hallelujah! Christ arose!

–words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874

Mission Accomplished! (Good Friday 2021)

“It is finished!” And he bowed his head and released his spirit.

The Gospel of John (19: 30) records these final dying words of Jesus, spoken from the cross. A quick reading might prompt one to hear this utterance as the sad lament of defeated man. Not so fast, though. The Gospel writers Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:37) don’t report Jesus’s last words. They tell us only that he “shouted out again” or “cried out again in a loud voice” before breathing his last. If we use all three accounts as evidence, what the Son of God likely said was a single word evoking not loss, but satisfactory completion. He spoke in Aramaic, but the original Greek of John’s gospel translates it as “tetelestai.”

This word would have been familiar in several contexts to the people of first-century Palestine. Having completed the last task of the day, a worker might tell his boss, “Tetelestai.” An artist, putting the final touch on a painting, might use the same word. A debt paid in full would be stamped “Tetelestai.” For Jews, the word would have been the Greek equivalent of a familiar Hebrew phrase announced by the High Priest each year on the Day of Atonement. After offering the proper sacrificial animals at the altar of the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, the priest emerged to tell the assembled crowd that God had accepted the sacrifice of the people.*

Jesus’s final cry before dying was therefore no whimper of pained surrender. Instead it was an exclamation of triumph.** The various frames of reference for “tetelestai” mentioned above are all helpful in understanding Jesus’s use of the word and what his death means for us. His earthly work is done, the masterpiece completed, the debt paid, the perfect sacrifice offered and accepted. In other words, “Mission Accomplished!”

Three of the Gospels include an often overlooked, but immensely significant detail that stands as proof of the change ushered in by Christ’s death. According to Mark 15: 38: “And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This was the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. This sacred space housed the Ark of the Covenant, considered by the Jewish people to be the very throne of God. Only priests could enter the Holy place. The High Priest alone entered into that sanctified inner realm, the Holy of Holies, and then, only once a year, on that holiest of all days, The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.

Although sometimes referred to as a veil, the Temple curtain was no delicate, gauzy thing that might have ripped easily in a gusty wind. It was a heavy, brocaded cloth, woven with images of protective angels. Only an intentional act of great force could have caused the Temple curtain to be torn fully asunder. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that it was divided from top to bottom, as though from on high. Human hands had no part in this. This was God’s work.

Having destroyed the barrier to the Holy of Holies, God invites his people to approach him directly. Middlemen are no longer needed. The ultimate gift of atonement invites us to be “at one” with God. Having willingly offered his own life for our sins, Jesus and his father tell us that animal sacrifices are a thing of the past. The perfect Lamb of God has paid our debt in full. We are redeemed. Tetelestai!

This is what Jesus referred to earlier at the Last Supper, when he took the cup and told his disciples, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. “(Matthew 26:28) We, and all generations before and after us, are among the many. It was on this same night that Jesus reduced the entirety of his message to this one essential commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” (John 13: 34) See yesterday’s Maundy Thursday post.

So, what then is required of us in these days of the New Covenant? It’s simple. Accept the gift that was given to us in love by our brother and savior Jesus. Admit our shortcomings and try to do better. Focus less on ourselves and more on others. Get back to basics: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Think about that. We have a God who truly desires to walk with us. He wants to walk the road with us, to share in our sufferings as well as in our joys. And if we’re willing to walk with God day by day, in good times and in bad, loving him, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, we usher in his kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.

The Temple curtain has been torn. No barrier remains between us and our loving, faithful God. Tetelestai!

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 38-39)

*Michael Maynard discusses the various meanings of “tetelestai” here: It is Finished. . .The Last Words of Jesus, June 25, 2017. 

** See Final Words from the Cross, by Adam Hamilton, pp. 103-104. Our church’s Lenten study (on Zoom) has focused on this insightful book.

Our Time together is short: Here’s What’s Important (Maundy Thursday 2021)

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day in the Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus’s Last Supper. The unusual word “maundy” (not Maunday) comes from mandatum, the Latin for command, because we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave his disciples on his final night with them.  I wrote this post two years ago, but it’s as relevant today as it was then.  Perhaps, more so, during Year II of the covid pandemic.  Why not do our part in changing our troubled world for the better by listening to, and following, Jesus’s valuable life instructions? 

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered with his disciples for one last time to share the Passover meal together. He knew that his life on earth was drawing to a close. He had tried to explain to his dearest friends that he would soon be facing death, and doing so willingly. But the disciples didn’t understand. Probably some of them were expecting to witness a magnificent earthly triumph. Judas, the betrayer, may have been counting on such a victory. None of the disciples, it seems, were expecting their friend, teacher and Messiah to die an ordinary criminal’s death on the cross.

But the group must have been fearful and confused. They were back in crowded, dangerous Jerusalem, where Jesus’s life had been threatened multiple times during clashes with the Jewish religious leaders. And so, on that fateful final night, Jesus had the full and rapt attention of his disciples. He chose his words, and his actions, with care.

According to the Gospel of John (13:1 – 17), after the meal, he did something completely unexpected: he got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his friends. In those days, traveling, for people of ordinary means, meant walking, in sandals, or even barefoot, along dusty, dirty roads, through fields and stretches of sandy wilderness. A servant typically washed the feet of guests as they entered a home. If there were no servants, guests usually washed their own feet from a basin near the door. John the Baptist refers to this practice when asked by Jewish leaders if he is the Messiah. According to John 1:27, he replies, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” The disciples were clearly uncomfortable with their leader and teacher washing their dirty feet. Had foot washing been done upon entering the upper room that night? It’s uncertain. Maybe there had been no basin set up for the purpose until Jesus poured water into one, as mentioned in John 13:5. The Pharisees had criticized Jesus when they noticed that some of his disciples failed to wash their hands before eating (Mark 7: 1-5). Certainly, Jesus’s focus was not on Jewish rituals of purity. External, physical cleanliness was evidently not one of his primary concerns. He may not have been a stickler for foot-washing prior to that last gathering.

The disciple Peter’s reaction supports this (John 13: 6-11). Peter was fiery, passionate and impulsive. Like many of us, he was often a bit dense. He couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus abasing himself to wash his feet. Foot washing was the job of an underling, a slave. Peter jumped up and exclaimed, “You’ll never wash my feet!” When Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me,” Peter was all in. “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”

Jesus went on to explain his puzzling behavior. “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. . .Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (13:12-15, 17).

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he had in mind much more than literal foot washing. Following his example is to mean humbling oneself in order to serve and help others. To further drive home his point, he continued: “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (13:34-35).

Jesus had spent three years traveling with this rag-tag group.  They’d heard him teach and preach, seen him heal the sick and cast out demons.  On three separate occasions, he’d even restored the dead to life.  The disciples had been with him as he confronted the Jewish authorities and challenged their interpretation of the Law.  Sometimes his words and actions had been difficult to comprehend.  But on the night before his death, Jesus summed up the essence of his ministry in the simplest of terms:  Serve others.  Love others.  Just as I have served and loved you, so you should love others.

Let’s take this Maundy Thursday message to heart. Let’s heed the wise counsel of our dear brother Jesus. Do our best to follow his example. Try to model his caring, compassionate behavior. We won’t always succeed. Sometimes we’ll backslide and act in ways that are selfish and petty. But let’s persevere. And change the world, little by little, through service and love. 

 

 

 

Palm Sunday: Doesn’t everyone love a winner?

On the day that we’ve come to think of as Palm Sunday, Jesus was hailed as a celebrity, a military and political hero-to-be.  As he and his disciples entered  the city of Jerusalem, cheering crowds greeted him with cries of “Hosanna,” which means “Save us.” The news was out: at long last, the King of Israel was here.  He was the chosen one sent by God to restore power to the Jewish nation.  He rode on a donkey to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9:  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.

PalmSunday0141

It was a time of great rejoicing for the people of Israel.  A new day of freedom and empowerment was dawning, thanks to the advent of the conquering Messiah.  The palm branches they waved were emblems of Israeli nationalism.

In just a few days, though, the tide would turn. The admiring throngs would scatter when it became clear that Jesus was not the kind of king they had desired and expected.  Even his dearest friends would desert him.  He would be betrayed by one of his own, turned over to the Roman authorities and crucified. On Good Friday, it would appear that this man was no winner.

PalmSunday005

Good Friday, however, is not the end of the story.

This post was first published on April 1, 2012.

Ash Wednesday 2021

It’s a bitterly cold Ash Wednesday here in Northern Virginia, as in much of the country. An icy breeze whips up from time to time. But the sun is shining, and at least perhaps until tomorrow, nothing frozen is falling from the sky. The weather seems appropriate. It’s conducive to imagining the joy and beauty of an ideal Easter morning while experiencing the big chill of Ash Wednesday. This is a day for a clear-eyed, head-on look at our mortality, a time to peer into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace. It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged. Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry.

If you venture out today, you’ll probably see messy smudges on some foreheads. Our church and others in our area are offering do-it-yourself ashes this year because of the pandemic. So, what’s the deal with the ashes? It’s because of these words from Genesis 3:19, declared by God to Adam and Eve, just before He ushered them out of Eden, the paradise garden He had intended as their eternal, blissful home. 

You are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

Tough words from the Creator and landlord.  What did the privileged first couple do to make God so angry?  Incensed enough that He sent the two, created in His own image, out into desolation, to eke out a living through toil and pain? 

Many of you who didn’t grow up attending church and Sunday School, along with some of you who did, no doubt consider the saga of Adam and Eve just another myth for the simple-minded who are ready to believe anything.  Whether you see it as God’s literal truth, an interesting folk tale, or something in between, it’s a powerful story worth contemplating.  Here’s my take on the Fall and its particular significance on Ash Wednesday.

Adam and Eve lived in a glorious garden created by God, suffused with His divine light, life and love. They had full-time leisure, full-time luxury. God walked with them there in the garden. The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking. All except for the apples on one tree. A tree with an impressive-sounding name: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Life was wonderful.  Life was beautiful.  

Among the friendly and fantastic creatures of the garden, there was a serpent.  He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing.  Indeed, he owed his very existence to what he saw as the weak link in God’s great plan.  The serpent looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans.  He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home.  It wasn’t long before this scaly Con Guy Supreme made his move.  Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness.  Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to Himself.  She deserved better, didn’t she?  So Eve ate from the tree.  Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched long complacently.

God found out.  He wasn’t happy.  Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit.  We may think we would have known better.  But probably not.  Like Eve, we might have been tripped up by pride.  Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter.  If Eve says it’s fine, it must be.  In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have.  With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly.  Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust.

But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land.  Paradise is still within our grasp, as these words from Mark 1:15 tell us:

Repent and believe the good news!

On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our tendency toward pride, selfishness and petty meanness.  On our own, none of us will ever be good enough to work our way back to Eden.  But we don’t have to be.  The Christ that was already present within creation since God spoke the universe into existence, the very Word of God described in John 1: 1 – 5, came to earth in human form.  Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, took our sins upon Himself.  As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, He wiped our messy slates clean.

To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we merely need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep.  We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times.  We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.

The Ash Wednesday ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life.  Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting.  We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us.  But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.

On this frigid Ash Wednesday, the sun’s rays fall on the tips of new green daffodil shoots in our yard, just barely visible in the photo above . We are reminded of the new life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price. On this Ash Wednesday, look into the darkness of the ashes. Then give thanks for the love that pulls us back into the light.

After nearly a year of Covid hardships and precautions, many of us may be feeling as battered and unkempt as this snowman looks. The promise of Ash Wednesday assures us that our future is much brighter.

Most of the text of this post was previously published in Wild Trumpet Vine on March 6, 2019. The weather is much the same as it was then, and the photos are current.

Epiphany 2020

Yesterday, January 6, was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. In the Christian calendar, it’s commemorated as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to honor and worship the baby Jesus. Accordingly, our clothespin nativity now includes three richly dressed figures, accompanied by a fluffy and festively adorned camel. The biblical account reveals little about the identity of these visitors. They’re described as “wise men from the East,” likely astrologers, as they were led by a star to Bethlehem and the home of the holy family (Matthew 2:1-12). Their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh attest to their substantial wealth. Because of their Eastern origins, they were probably not Jews. Some sources suggest that they could have been priests of the Zoroastrian religion, widely practiced throughout Persia. Their inclusion in the nativity story serves to demonstrate that the baby Jesus was sent by God to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all nations. The first to arrive on the scene of the holy birth could not have been more different from the Magi. They were the shepherds, lowly Jewish locals who received a direct invitation from an angel. Thus, the message is clear: the divine child was sent for the good of every one of us. For people of all societal levels, poor and rich, servant and king, near and far. May those of us who profess to be Christians do our best to extend the message of Epiphany, and the message of God’s love, to all our brothers and sisters.

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This post was delayed by a day because yesterday I was transfixed, like people the world over, by images of a mob storming our nation’s Capitol. Ironically, this attempt to subvert our democratic process was carried out by supporters directly incited by the “Law and Order” president. A pastor friend of mine has referred to the calamitous events of the day as the “Epiphany Riots.” I join her in hoping that the sight of these disturbing images might prompt at least some Americans toward an epiphany* of their own.

*According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, an epiphany is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”

Christmas Eve 2020

In the absence of a live nativity at our church this Christmas Eve in the time of Covid, I cannot offer my usual photos of curious onlookers mingling happily with the sweet-tempered camels Samson or Delilah. Or with their other charming cohorts, the brown burro, the velvet-coated humpback ox, the several sheep or goats.

Here instead is this little clothespin nativity that my daughter and I made together many years ago. Simple and humble, made from materials we already had, it seems especially appropriate this Christmas Eve. It points toward what’s important, what’s essential, on this night and every night. The message of Christmas is, in one word, love. Love embodied in a baby. A baby sent by God to grow up and model love not only to his human contemporaries, but to all future generations. The message is so powerful that it remains as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago.

It’s the love that mingles the divine and the human. It’s the love that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, including the darkness of a pandemic, will not overcome it.

For more on the Christmas message of love (and for photos of our live nativity friends), see last year’s post: The Timeless Message of Christmas Eve.

Deck the Tree stump (2013) + Update (2020)

In 2013 I wrote a post about decorating the tree stump at the edge of our front yard with a Christmas wreath. In the course of seven years, the stump has changed substantially, as most of us have. I didn’t hang the wreath the past two years, but this year it seemed fitting to do so. The original post appears immediately below, followed by the current update.

Deck the Tree Stump (2013)

This December, we hung a big wreath on the craggy silver maple stump in front of our house.  It seemed like an interesting, if unexpected, spot for a wreath.  And by decorating the tree, we could send a message to those who might see it as a business opportunity, as well as to those who think the stump is unsightly and wonder why we leave it standing.  The wreath says, We love this old tree trunk, and we’re letting nature take its course.

Then I thought a little more about it, and the pairing struck me as even more appropriate in its juxtaposition of life and death.  The stump is the opposite of the traditional evergreen Christmas tree.  Firs and spruces, retaining the appearance of vitality through the winter, get the privilege of being cut down, hauled into our homes, strung with lights and ornaments, and left to wither and die.  It’s tough work, being a symbol.  Our maple, though, would be in no such danger.  If intact, it would be gray-brown and leafless by now, like its neighbors in our yard.  But of course, it’s a stump, a snag, and already dead.  Yet it harbors vast, unseen colonies of creatures that go about the business of breaking down lifeless material.  It won’t be long before nature’s course is run.  The stump may not be here next year; its center is soft.  All the more reason to decorate it this year.

My husband and daughter hung the wreath one weekend afternoon, as I was napping, trying to get over a persistent cold.  When I trudged out to the road to see their handiwork, a new insight hit me.

I like to think that God works with us for good, despite ourselves, despite our selfish intentions and our vanity.  I initially wanted to decorate the tree because I thought it would look pretty, if a bit odd.  In truth, it was a way of declaring a certain pride in being different, in having the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness.

But once up, the wreath reminded me of a greater truth, of the essence of my Christian faith.  Out of death comes new, transformed life. How better to say it than in the words of John 3: 16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And then the snow settled beautifully on the wreath and the tree, on the green and the gray, on the quick and the dead, like a blessing from above.

Update: The Remains of the Stump (2020)

The stump lasted far longer than I expected. But nature, human error, and cars have taken their toll. It’s in a vulnerable spot, close to the narrow road, on a particularly sharp turn that’s proven problematic for drivers time and time again. Several years ago one May morning we were awakened around dawn by a policeman at our door. He asked if that was our vehicle outside. “What vehicle?,” I heard my husband ask in a confused tone, after he’d finally made his way downstairs to the door.

“The one in the tree.”

“What?”

And sure enough, it appeared that a dark minivan had merged with the tree. While most of the stump remained, it must have been considerably weakened, as its decline soon accelerated.

Two summers ago while we were away on vacation, a little red Honda found its way quite forcefully into the stump, demolishing half of it. The section that remained no longer looked much like a tree, or even a stump. When that final piece gradually eased to the ground one day this fall, we barely noticed. Why not, one might ask, remove it, at this point? One answer is that, even as a pile of debris, it serves as a barrier for future wayward vehicles.

Last week, returning from a walk with the dog, I surveyed the battered remains of the once mighty silver maple. It, with five others, was planted the same year that our house was built, in 1920. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012.) Several large patches of ruffled pale green lichen had sprouted from the decaying wood. Even in its final stages, the tree continues to serve as evidence of the circle of life. (See Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked. . . October 18, 2013.) I thought of the big wreath hanging neglected behind the hockey nets in the garage. Why not, during this Covid Christmas season, decorate the vestiges of the tree as it’s in the process of transformation? The wreath on the ruins is, to me, a reminder that hope does indeed remain. We can have hope in human ingenuity and resilience during the darkest of times, proof of which is offered by, among other achievements, the development of highly effective Covid vaccines in record time. We can have hope in a divine and loving parent, who created not only maple tree and lichen, but also each one of us human children, unique in our blend of talents, strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies. We were created for a life that increases in abundance as we love one another and rejoice in our differences. We were created for an abundant life that transcends the boundaries of this flawed and fantastic earthly realm.

. . .and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out on us through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

–Romans 5:5