Most people enjoy crepe myrtle trees for their lavish, brilliantly colored blooms in summer or for their fiery fall foliage. I enjoy those - but I think most of all, I love the bones. The tree trunks and branches, enjoyed best in winter when those show-stopping blooms have faded and even the bright leaves have drifted away, remind me of fine, elegant bone. The rough bark peels away in winter, leaving only the smooth inner trunk that feels like finely sanded wood when you rub your hands along it. Stripped of pretense and adornment, the tree is bare bones and pure essence, deeply rooted in the earth, reaching for the sky.
Native Americans called trees our “standing brothers and sisters.” We both stand upright, with a vertical orientation to life. Trees grow deep into one small piece of the earth. They bend and flex with the wind, aching against the storms that blow through. The leaves reach for the sun, as the branches grow and stretch upward.
Thoreau knew what is was to be a friend of trees. He writes "I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines." Sometimes, it is enough, just to sit with the living bones of the crepe myrtle, breathing in God, knowing that my own roots reach deep and that I, too, can reach for the sun.
I spotted my first tulip trees last week, chocked full of pink blossoms that resemble slender ballerina slippers on point. It’s one of my favorite trees, more subdued than its flashier cousin, the lovely Magnolia, with its blossoms the size of Sunday-go-to-meeting hats. What I love most about these trees, though, is how they bloom first, in the midst of a dreary winter landscape. You have to admire their panache, how they fly in the face of possible freezing weather. It’s a reminder to me of the season change to come, and the precious things happening in the bleakest moments preceding the avalanche of spring.
Much of life happens in these bleak moments of limbo. When I see these blossoms that open up like cups, it reminds me of the popular Zen story about a university professor who goes to visit a Zen master. The master serves the tea, pouring his visitor’s cup full, and then to the point of overflowing. Unable to restrain himself, the professor tells him, "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," the master said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
When I see a tulip blossom, I take a breath, and remember to empty my cup.
Recently, I spent a good three or four hours pulling weeds in my yard. My knees and back are still screaming at me about it. When I bought a house last year, I was excited to have a backyard of my own for the first time. However, the previous owners had left the yard a terrible mess, and I have been working on it little by little for the past six months, whenever the weather and my schedule will allow.
The weeding is the worst. It seems to me that I just pulled all these weeds from exactly the same places in the yard, and now they're back. And in a few weeks, I'll have to do it all over again. I hate maintenance. Once I do something, I want it to stay done. I'm still angry that I worked really hard and lost 60 lbs a few years ago, and now I'm trying to do it again because all those pounds came back and brought friends. It is so disgustingly unfair!
As I pondered the injustice of it all during those hours pulling weeds, it occurred to me that this is the rule for everything in life really. It would be wonderful if you could say your vows and then just get to enjoy being married for the rest of your life, but it takes a lot more work to stay married than to get married. I'm sure every mother would love to relax after delivering the baby and say, "Whew, I'm glad the hard part is over," but of course it only gets much harder from there. Learn a new language, play a sport, or buy a car, and you will have to continue the work of maintenance if you want to keep it.
When I first joined a church, I heard the old Baptist adage, "Once saved, always saved," and I think I got the idea that I would be safe coasting through my Christian life with no maintenance. But now I realize how foolish I was to think that faith would be so different from the rest of life. Much as I hate to contradict old Baptist adages, I'm much more inclined to agree with Paul's admonition (Philippians 2:12) to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." That is what I find myself doing, and it is often frustrating, painful, difficult work. It is the love of God that keeps me motivated to continue, but also the fear -- not fear of God, for if I did not believe God was on my side I couldn't do it at all, but fear of the terrible mess my life would become without constant weeding.