The Tree of Life – April 4, 2021

For our first anniversary, I wanted to do something special for Kathy, something memorable.  I pride myself on giving meaningful gifts, so I felt a significant challenge for this milestone.  I wanted to give her something as a testament to our unending love.  And because she loves weeping willow trees, I decided to purchase one of these trees to plant in our front yard.

I took the afternoon off of work to accomplish my surprise.  Stopping by Owens nursery, I loaded the tree into the back of my truck and set off to home for the planting.  When I arrived at home, I decided to do a couple of chores before putting the tree in the ground.  So I took the tree out of the truck bed, set it on the ground behind the truck, and went down the hill beside our house to feed the birds.

This is where I need to tell you of a deep-rooted fear – my fear of snakes.  I am petrified of them.  Even seeing them on the television is too much for me.  I’m not sure where this stems from.  One of my earliest memories is of my father battling a huge snake in our neighbors’ yard with a hoe.  And witnessing this carnage may have scarred me.

It is on my way down to the bird feeder that I see my biggest fear.  As I look back on it now, I envision a twenty-foot snake as big around as my thigh, but I’m sure in reality it was much smaller.  To compound my problems, I was wearing flip flops with little to protect me from attack by this monster.  So in an effort to preserve my life, I took off at a run and got into my truck.  I threw it into reverse, drove into the garage, and closed the door.  And in an act of extreme courage, I jumped up on the kitchen counter.  It was only when I looked out the window to find the massive beast that I saw what I had done.  In my quick escape, I had driven over my just purchased symbol of love.

Throughout Lent we have examined the Gifts of the Dark Wood.  The Dark Wood symbolizes those times in our lives when we feel we are wandering without a sense of purpose, when we encounter hardship, when we feel God is distant.  We typically think of these as places to be afraid of, a journey to be avoided.  We don’t step into the Dark Wood unless we have to.  We may have come to the conclusion that the adversity we endure in the Dark Wood is a result of our own failures in our lives.  And because we misperceive the Dark Wood and what it means, we continue to wander aimlessly, never finding our way out, never finding the right path before us.

What we have seen over the past weeks is that the Dark Wood does not just present hardship.  Our times in the Dark Wood actually offer us gifts.  We have examined things that typically we would not consider gifts – things like uncertainty, emptiness, and temptation.  And I hope you have seen that when we embrace the time we spend in the Dark Wood, we discover our connection to what we consider sacred, rediscover who we really are and what we are here for.  That the struggles we experience in life can be the seeds from which grows a spiritual awakening to the fullness of life possible.

There is an image in Scripture which speaks to this life which comes after our time of wandering.  And it is my favorite image – the tree of life.  The tree of life is what is represented on the stole my wife gave me at my ordination.  It is represented on the communion vessels which were a gift to me from my mentor.  For me, the symbol of the tree of life sums up the entirety of my spiritual journey.  Just as the trees we see outside us now come alive from their dormancy, show signs of life, this is what happens for us when we embrace the gifts of the Dark Wood and emerge on the other side.  We experience what Easter represents, the power of life from where it seems there is only death, the power of resurrection, the gift of new life.

The tree of life is not just an image we find in the Bible.  This idea of a tree, the fruit of which would lead to eternal life, was widespread in the ancient Near East.  For example, one of the best known stories from the Babylonians is “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”  In that story, Utnapishtim, who was similar to a Babylonian Noah, tells Gilgamesh that there is a special plant of life which provides eternal youth to the one who eats its fruit.  Besides its presence in many ancient stories, the tree of life is also a symbol present in faiths other than Christianity.  In the Islamic faith it is referred to as the Tree of Immortality.  In Buddhism, it is represented as the tree under which the Buddha sat when he gained Enlightenment.  Recognizing the prominence of the tree of life in so many cultures and faiths, we wonder what it is about this image that makes it so meaningful, so pervasive.

The story of the Garden of Eden is one of the most evocative and well-known stories from the Hebrew Scriptures.  And while it is not a historical account of creation, that does not mean that we cannot find meaning in it.  The tree of life was one of two special trees which stood in Eden, the other being the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  When Adam and Eve are created, they have free access to this fruit leading to eternal life.   And what we often fail to realize is that Adam and Eve were not barred from eating its fruit.  Rather, God said “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die.”

Rather than eating of the tree of life, Adam and Eve chose to eat of that one tree from which they were barred.  In seeking to disrupt the relationship between God and humanity, the serpent tempts Eve.  The serpent tells her that God knows when you eat the fruit of the forbidden tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.  Adam and Eve then make the decision to eat of its fruit.

It appears the primary consequence of this action was only negative.  After they ate of the fruit, Adam and Eve for the first time felt shame over their nakedness and made clothing.  When they heard the sound of God walking in the garden, Adam and Eve hide from his presence.  When God called for them, Adam states that he was afraid of God.  Their decision to eat of the wrong tree caused them to feel estranged, to lose their close communion with the Divine.

The consequence of this fateful mistake is that Adam and Eve are removed from the garden of Eden.  And they begin their walk through the Dark Wood.  We generally think of this removal as a punishment.  That God was so angry over their disobedience that he no longer would allow them to enjoy paradise.  Or worse, we think that God simply wanted them out of his presence.   But in this story, I believe we uncover the true meaning of the tree of life.

It is only when Adam and Eve leave the garden so they could acquire the Gifts of the Dark Wood.  No longer would they simply live in the knowledge that the tree of life is there if they need it, growing within walking distance to pluck from.  If they remained in the garden, they would remain forever separated from the Divine, forever looking to this object as the source of life.  But by leaving the garden, by living their lives in the world, by living in the midst of the Dark Wood, they are able to recognize their frailty.  And to instead find their connection to the Divine as a means of finding life.

In our second reading for this morning, we heard a description of what it is like to find that connection to what is sacred for each of us.  The prospect of death can be frightening.  Mary Oliver compares it to a hungry bear in autumn, an iceberg to the shoulders.  But when I read this poem, I see Oliver reframing that fear, that dread of what is to come.  Oliver connects to the things that she finds sacred, the power of life, the singular beauty of each person, something precious, something courageous.  Rather than being preoccupied by the fear of death, she takes the world into her arms, a bride married to amazement.  And because of this she is able to recognize value in her life, that she has made something of it.

Each of us holds different things sacred.  But all of us do hold something as sacred, however you define that.  Whether it be our connection to the Divine, to the earth, art, poetry, working for social justice, the love we share with our family and friends.   And in our times of wandering in the Dark Wood, in the times when death comes, we are given a unique opportunity to reconnect to that sacredness.  To no longer find ourselves sighing, frightened, or full of argument.  But to take the world into our arms and be married to amazement.  To eat from our tree of life.

Something like Adam and Eve in the garden, my hopes were dashed by a serpent.  In my fear, in my need to provide for my own safety, I didn’t think of the tree and assumed I had destroyed it.  The bark was torn off by the wheels of my truck, the branches twisted and mangled.  It seemed the symbol of my connection to Kathy was doomed for the burn pile.  But I decided to plant the tree anyway in the hope it would survive.  I carefully placed it in the ground, staked it to support it, and watered it religiously.  And, to my surprise, that tree continued to thrive – even when it seemed there was no hope.  And the survival of that tree is an even stronger symbol of the love I have for Kathy, the connection we have, because of its ability to live despite the trauma it endured.

The same is true for the tree of life which we find in our connection to our sacred.  This life is hard.  Sometimes the pain we endure feels like it is more than we can bear.  The trauma we endure, the times we feel run over, make us feel like there is no hope.  But in those times, we must nurture our tree, that connection to something greater, to what we consider sacred.  We must recognize that those times in the Dark Wood do not doom us to eternally wander.  Instead, they are gifts which help us to grow in that connection.  Ultimately, it is up to us if we will seek that connection, if we will nurture its growth despite the damage sustained.  After all we have endured in this past year, may this Easter mark a time of new life, a time when we rise again, a time when we once again eat from the fruit of our tree of life.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wanted to offer something to mark the end of our journey through the Dark Wood, not only as our theme for Lent but as we begin to emerge from the pandemic which as pervaded so much of our lives for the past year.  As a symbol of our reconnection to our own trees of life, you might first wish to plant a new tree in your own yard.  And as you watch it grow, remember this time of wandering and the gifts you have taken from it, the fruit you have received.  If you are not a green thumb yourself, you can also donate to have a tree planted as a community.  Joe Grabill has indicated that for $175 we can purchase a tree to be planted either in Eagle Grove, adjacent to Normal West High School, or Songbird Grove on West Northtown if it is available.  If you would like to donate money for this tree, you can send your donation like you would your offering and put “tree of life” in the memo line.  Finally, I will be emailing a journaling exercise this week entitled “Tree of Life.” This exercise is intended to help us reclaim our identity and the direction we want to move forward on our journeys, to find our way to our own tree of life.  I hope you will consider one of these options as a way to mark your own journey through the Dark Wood and emerging on the other side.