On a brisk, blue April Saturday morning many years ago, I woke up singing an ancient, 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 clothes befitting these 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 16: 23-28) 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 the Synoptic 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 squeal with middle school delight: a Justin Bieber poster, a Justin Bieber CD, or a Justin Bieber second-class relic (i.e. a Styrofoam cup touched by his lips, a used sweat-towel, etc….). I gave her none of these.
A few weeks ago, in the pages of another article, I asked myself about how I could intentionally shape a suitable memorial for another nodal moment in my daughter’s life, namely…her marriage. 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.
In my estimation, Annalise is 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. At her Confirmation, I wanted Annalise to see herself as I see her. I wanted the frame of her inner self-portrait to contain a picture of strength. At her Confirmation, I wanted Annalise to know that nothing grows an inner kind of strong timber like remaining rootedin the source and summit of life itself. 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).
My prayer for Annalise and Matt is that they will live their lives rooted in a peace that the world can neither give nor take away. Like the trees that 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 wind.