We put the task off as long as possible, wishing to linger in the quiet afterglow of the season for as long as possible, but yesterday we finally decided that it was time to take down the Lowry Family Christmas Tree (2012 Edition).
As always, this was a bittersweet chore; after all, it’s always kind of sad to “put away” Christmas for another year, and yet, even as we undecorated this year’s tree the precious memories of holidays past and present continued to fill the air even as few far-reaching plans for next year were discussed. And it was a beautiful tree, one that decorated with all our various and a sundry heirlooms, helped to transform this still new house/parsonage in which we live into our true home for the holidays. It was, in a word, perfect.
As you can imagine, the selection of a suitable tree for our home has always been an important part of our Christmas ritual each year. Given that as a pastor’s family we’ve lived in a number of homes over the years with different kinds of rooms and ceilings of various heights, these trees have necessarily had a variety of shapes, sizes and forms; though, if anything, we’ve followed a tradition of choosing the biggest, fullest, most beautiful yet inevitably top-heavy Christmas trees we can find – which, at times, has led to difficulties that have bordered on potential disaster!
I remember one year we had a tree so big and heavy that when it began, as expected, to tip over, it literally snapped the bolts on the Christmas tree stand! So a couple of days just before Christmas, we’re out trying to find a new tree stand (no small feat), and I’m underneath the tree trying to remove the tree trunk from the broken stand without completely toppling the tree and losing any ornaments in the process! It’s interesting what you remember, however; what I recall about that experience is reaching into the well of the broken stand and noticing that there’s still water there – but not water, exactly, but rather this liquid substance that’s probably best described as “goo,” a thick and sticky mixture of water and pitch that even at that moment was permanently adhering itself to my hands and clothing.
At this point, I should mention that I really hate pitch – I hate getting it on me, and especially hate how hard it is to wash off! But I also have to say that I have great respect for the stuff, because it’s representative of the many and wondrous ways that nature takes care of itself. Pitch is, after all, a healing ointment, a sticky resin that seals a cut and “wounded” tree and protects the life-preserving fluid and within. That’s why, properly watered, you can keep a fresh-cut Christmas tree inside for a couple of weeks, because the pitch helps it stay green and moist and fragrant the whole time. Without pitch, the tree quickly dries out, its needles will fall, its green turns to brown, and it becomes less a festive holiday decoration than a serious fire hazard.
It’s no coincidence that the evergreen is often considered a symbol of the Christian life. As the old carol suggests, this tree with “faithful leaves unchanging,” staying “ever” green in summer and winter does seem to evoke the on-going fruitfulness of a spiritual life. In fact, there’s an obscure verse of that carol, “O Tannenbaum,” that I’ve always loved and says this very well:“O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, Your leaves will teach me also . . . That hope and love and faithfulness Are precious things I can possess. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, Your leaves will teach me also.”
In other words, like an evergreen tree, in faith, our lives are meant to be rich and full with the qualities of God; we are given what we need to maintain a “greenness” about our life and living that is fresh, vital and life-enhancing, in which we are both saturated with, and sustained by, joy and love. And indeed, there are many times in our lives when life is good and full and easy, and we do feel like the evergreen, full of beauty, vitality and unchanging purpose. And yet, if we’re honest, we also know how quickly and easily circumstances can arise that can turn a life from green to brown! A death, a divorce, a job change, or simply the accumulated and overwhelming amount of stress that builds up in the course of daily life; wherever it comes from, the end result is the same: we end up sapped of strength and enthusiasm; left not unlike tired, worn-out evergreen boughs that have been cut from the tree, dry and brittle and ready for the fire.
If you’ve ever felt this way inside, then you know what it is need a deeper kind of nourishment and healing.
The true beauty and wonder of a fir tree is that it does have that pitch to promote its healing and wholeness, remaining evergreen even in the face of injury and danger – the pitch, as sticky and annoying as it can be, is in fact a real and visible sign of the tree’s ultimate vitality and power! You and I are also given such a sign, and while we don’t have tree sap oozing from our pores, what we’re given is no less healing and life giving. And it comes to us in the words of Jesus himself: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
One of the great truths of our Christian faith is that it is always God’s intention for us to be full and green, with the sap of the Spirit flowing through us that we might know true life, and giving us the healing and renewal we need when we’ve been hurt and wounded by the harshness of the world around us.
But the thing is that this all comes about only in our connection to Christ and thus to God. Just as the fir tree needs its sap to thrive, you and I need to be rooted, grounded and well-established in Christ in order to fully live and grow as God intends. It’s our faith in Jesus Christ that keeps us evergreen; without that faith to nourish and strengthen us, sooner or later – be the source of the damage the wear and tear of this world or the fear that festers in our hearts – we’ll eventually dry out, becoming brittle to all of life’s challenges. But, thanks be to God, it doesn’t need to be that way.
It’s a brand new year full of hope and promise; truly, if you’re starting off 2013 feeling a bit like the discarded Christmas trees awaiting pickup on the curb, now is the time to abide in the one who wishes us to always bear fruit in this life; reconnecting with a faith that will always touch the heart of our real, live day-to-day existence, and renew our spiritual health, vitality and freshness.
Even in the cold and barren days of winter, both in New England and within the soul – this is what will make us evergreen!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry