As we are subjected to yet another bout of pre-presidential election posturing well before the designated year (2016) and we are force fed the usual dose of political promises that never seem to materialize, let’s pause to recognize that there are promises that are kept every year and in every season of our lives. Promises so sacred, so inviolable, so hallowed that if they weren’t fulfilled all would be lost – including us. These are the promises of new life, hope, and resurrection. It is the triumph of spring.
Take a moment to look at the painting above. It was sent to me by a dedicated Christian and a devout woman, Terry Donohue, my cousin, on Face Book the other day. She thinks it doesn’t amount to much. Just a finger exercise or the musings of a spiritual soul put on canvas. The kind people do to whittle away the time, like using a hobby knife on a scrap of balsa wood.
It’s not. Look at it again – seriously this time.
Does it make you think of promises? Does it tug at your heart and suggest to you that more things are possible than we know?
When my wife and I made our annual trek to our favorite nursery to fetch our Christmas tree last year (it’s just a mile away, but I like to make things seem adventurous), the young salesman with a new found knowledge of Douglas firs asked if a particular tree “spoke to us.”
I laughed. It didn’t – speak to me, I mean. But, it also didn’t have too many gaps in its symmetry that I couldn’t put the “holey” side towards the wall and away from view. The selection of a live tree has always been important to my family. It made Advent real to us because it fulfilled a promise.
My wife and I, as I’m sure is the case in many families, have a tradition where the trimming of the tree is combined with holiday music, wine, and a myriad of memorable ornaments, tucked away over a lifetime in plastic containers, which splendidly adorn our tree each year. I even go so far, in my best father-of-the-family role, to bless the tree with holy water. It’s a special day.
All of this came back to me when I saw Terry’s painting on Face Book.
Terry’s painting spoke to me.
It is ornamented not with glistening lights and shimmering balls, but with barren, yet budding simplicity. It’s an early-March landscape. The snow is still falling. Yet it speaks of hope and a promise of love. It’s the budding promise of spring.
Please note that there are two trees in Terry’s painting. They, slowly, and in God’s time, grow towards each other. One tree is decidedly male. The other is a smaller tree, though young, it is not a sapling. It is lithe and shapely. It is feminine.
Follow the story of the trees starting at the bottom of the painting. Early, in the wellspring of their lives, the two trees meet – they touch each other. But, then they separate. Yet, their first encounter is more than significant; it does something to them, something profound, for their growth is stunted after they part. You see, it’s not yet time for them. Individually, they have some growing up to do. This is a crucial life lesson so often ignored whether it pertains to promising baseball pitchers, prospective and discerning seminarians and religious, or political protégés not yet ready for prime time.
There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Speak to Me
Look at how the trees meet again, perhaps later on in life, but certainly not much later. This is the springtime of their life, probably last spring. Their relationship grows closer and closer. Yet the male tree tries to sow seeds elsewhere again and again. But he bears no fruit no matter how much he branches out into the world. It’s cold out there you see. True warmth is only to be found with the other; because this is his destiny. This is his calling.
Take one more look at Terry’s painting.
As the trees intertwine, a circle of heat envelopes their shared space. Actually, the circle began to form before they were even reunited. The circle started just after their first encounter and increases in intensity regardless of any sense of separation.
The branches of the two trees, briefly, but not inexorably, part. Here, a decision is made. Here is where free will, not the dictates of nature, but of human nature are realized. Two trees become one. Their heart-shaped, mutual existence is now filled with promise and may produce something else – something incredible and unique, hence the brilliant light surrounding them.
Notice how the male tree envelopes the female, providing a protective canopy over both her and the heartfelt promise of their love.
And here’s where political promises and the promise of spring diverge. Here is where the false promises of this world and the true and unchangeable promise of God forever part, like in Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The “sigh” is, of course, not one of lament, but in recognition of a choice well taken and it breathes relief in the very depths of the soul.
Better said, is this:
A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path and was trampled. And the birds of the sky ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky ground, and when it grew, it withered for lack of moisture. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold (Luke 8:5-8).
A hundredfold, indeed; and that is the story of Terry’s tree. Not much, she thinks, just a daub or two on an insignificant piece of canvas or butcher paper. To me, it means so much more. So very much more because it defines a generation, and an age that has forgotten the meaning of true love, self-giving, sacrifice, and more than that – if there can be more – promises kept.
Once more, Robert Frost:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
True love demands obligation. A promise made must be kept. And words said in humility are always to be depended upon. Terry’s painting, as humble as it is, speaks to our souls because it speaks of truth and of life. Here is a promise that will never be denied.