On a brisk, but blue April Saturday morning nine years ago, I woke up humming an old, familiar Monty Python tune, “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay, I sleep all night and I work all day…” Humming all the while, I donned the kind of clothing that befits such classic lyrics. With my manly arsenal of rope, chain saw, axes, and shovels, I set to work severing the mature Bradford Pear Tree in our front yard from its seventeen-year-old root system.
Normally, I am not one who looks for opportunities to cut down perfectly healthy trees. And there are few trees in this world as pretty to look at as the Bradford Pear. But anyone who knows anything about this species knows two things. First, despite its name, this tree produces nothing that could be mistaken for respectable fruit. Second, it is made of an unusually soft wood. At a certain point in its maturity, when the strong winds blow, and the hard rains lash, its soft wood will give way, and the prettiest tree on the block will split and splinter like a bewildered beauty contestant in a math competition.
This Sunday, the camera lens of John’s Gospel (John 14: 23-29) zoomed in on Jesus at that moment when the strong winds were just starting to pick up, and the hard rains were beginning to lash at him. Firmly rooted in an abiding relationship with the source of all life, and a profound sense of mission, Jesus neither split nor splintered. His fidelity was made of solid timber. Just before going to his death, he offered his disciples the opportunity to tap into the same source that fed his root system. Like the Beatitudes of Mathew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels, The Farewell Discourses in John’s Gospel (Chapters 14-17) take the reader into the heart of Jesus’ sense of mission, and sense of self. There one finds over-and-over again promises of an indwelling source of presence and peace.
About three weeks after my lumberjack adventures, Annalise was to receive her Confirmation within the same week that she would graduate from eighth grade. Now I knew which gifts had the power to make my fourteen-year-old Confirmanda squeel with middle school delight: a Justin Beber poster, a Justin Beber CD, or a Justin Beber second-class relic (i.e. a Styrofoam cup touched by his lips, a used sweat-towel, etc….). [i]
In the pages of another article, I asked the question,
“How can I intentionally shape a suitable memorial for nodal moments in my family’s life?” In that essay I described my conviction that the ways in which we sacramentalize the important events of life, through a gift, a letter, or some other gesture, have transformational power. A gift or gesture given with intentional love can become part of the lens through which our loved one views the world, and/or themselves.
Both of my daughters, like their mother, are as pretty to look at as a Bradford Pear Tree, but that’s where the comparisons end. Over the years, I have come to see, that like Jesus, my not-so-little girls, as well as their brother, are made of strong timber. As Annalise was set to move into the next phase of her life, I wanted her to see herself as I see her. I wanted the frame of her inner self-portrait to contain a picture of strength. I knew that nothing grows strong timber like remaining rooted in the source and summit of life itself. That’s where the flower and fruit of everything worth having comes from over the long haul.
And so, in my front yard, in a spot where a Bradford Pear once waited to be splintered by a storm, a memorial to my daughter’s ongoing spiritual, intellectual, and physical growth thrives: one of the most tall, strong, and beautiful of all the trees—Liriodendron tulipfera (tulip tree). On the other side of the lawn complimenting her tree, stands a thirteen year old Quercus rubra(i.e. red oak). At his First Communion, I planted this tree, that at the time, was not much taller than my point-guard-sized son. I thought I had chosen a redoak merely because John Harry loved the Cardinals. How was I to know that I had chosen one of the tallest trees in the Midwestern canopy, whose wood is made of incredibly strong and beautiful lumber? Now my little boy has become a man. My decidedly un-point-guard-like six-foot-three son has grown tall and strong like his arboreal totem (“Dad, it’s a legit tree now!”). Like the rings of a tree that accumulate one-year-at-a-time, John Harry’s daily disciplines have resulted in a brand new NCAA first place finish in his signature event—the anchor leg of the 400 meter relay. Like a tree’s unseen root system working constantly out of view, his daily rituals of exercise, prayerful meditation and study is forming sturdy timber in this son/friend of mine.
One of the most resilient of all the trees in the forest is the Taxodium distichum (the bald cypress). Capable of surviving floods, or drought, this tree is unique in that it is simultaneously a conifer and deciduous. In the next two weeks, it will be planted in honor of my decidedly unique third-born who is incapable of giving up. Whether it is a school project, a soccer or basketball game, or an argument with her father, one of Lizzie’s great strengths is her ability to hang in there.
Over the decades, I want these living memorials to stand as symbols of who Annalise, John Harry, and Lizzie will be—women and men rooted in a peace that the world can neither give nor take away. Like the trees that will shade our front yard, I pray that when the storms come, and the winds blow, that they will stand laughing in the rain, and flexibly swaying in the breeze.