The three trees and the end of the world

Crisis, Hope, and Imagination, The Blessings of Beginnings and Endings
by Donald Schell

I’m thinking our annual year-end collision of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic, last judgment readings just might be a happy or blessed accident. Reflecting on our experience of beginnings and endings, praying to find God present in both, we can’t escape the territory of personal and human crisis, fearful and hopeful imagination, and our faithful practice when we see that things we’ve counted on will certainly pass away.

Talking recently with my twenty-five year old actor son, I asked whether he felt the broadly generalized cynicism I feel from many in his generation. (“Sarcastic” is what they seem to call it).

I know as well as you do that cynicism is far from universal among twenty- and thirty-somethings. And in fact I’m inspired by the splendid hope that my son and his friends invest in their acting work and the unwavering hope they show as they struggle to make lives for themselves in heart and soul intensive poorly paid artistic work. When clergy colleagues at or near retirement edge lament the state of the church, I insist that I see steady, faithful risk-taking ministry led by younger adults. And then through my wife’s work in international development, I’m privileged to know some very young committed health and development workers. Sincerity and whole-heartedness are by no means dead.

But my son knew what I was talking about, voices we both know that match the cultural snapshot, the media presentation, and the stories from parents and friends

-cynicism about relationships,
- a mistrust of any leader or artist who presumes a whole-hearted quest for compassion, truth, love, or beauty, and
- a fixation on amusements that seem calculated to numb with deliberate banality or adrenalin-driven intensity.

“It looks like a holding back,” I said to him, “Do you sense people are protecting themselves by anticipating disappointment? Are these people afraid to imagine or trust something good or hopeful?”

“Dad,” he said, “don’t forget that we’re the first generation in history to know that the world could literally end in our lifetimes.”

“Meaning?”

“Global warming. Losing the planet.” And to the threat of climate crisis, he added his memories of 9/11 when he was fourteen and in his first month of high school.

“With terminal threats around us,” he said, “I’m not surprised that some people don’t find much reason to hope,” he said.

“But you haven’t quit hoping,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed, “I do hope, but sometimes I don’t understand why.”

Then he was surprised to hear that at his age, I and many of my friends expected our political leaders would blunder us into thermonuclear war. I didn’t expect to reach the age of 30. People our age who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” didn’t expect to live beyond that threshold themselves.

What keeps us hoping when we have good reason to believe the world as we know it might end? I notice that in neither my son’s case nor in mine did the end of the world itself seem like something to hope for. In the religious environment that I grew up in, I suppose that made me a bad fundamentalist. And yes, I did have one very scary “left behind” moment at about twelve when I woke up from a Saturday afternoon nap and couldn’t find anyone in the house.

Did first century Christians and Jews actually HOPE the world was about to end with a trumpet and apocalyptic destruction? Sometimes it seems they did, sometimes it seems they enjoyed imagining the collapse of any pretense of civil society as much as they believed the collapse would also prefigure or provoke a divine cataclysm. Was theirs an ironic or satirical vision? Did they look and pray for apocalypse to protect themselves from disappointment? Whether they enjoyed it or not, Jewish communities in Jesus time and early Christian communities that sprang from them had a taste for apocalyptic, lurid, hair-raising evocations of the end of the world.

My generation, born just after World War II’s Jewish holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has little taste for apocalypse.

While writing this piece I came across Christy Wampole’s New York Times piece, “How to Live Without Irony.”

Wampole’s ironic hipster is just slightly older than my son. But she’s describing a related phenomenon and positing similar reasons; glimpses of apocalyptic destruction like 9/11 and our many hurricanes, despite the Advent readings, don’t add up as Good News. Church (and other value-shaping community organizations) aren’t speaking a trustworthy hope for people in their twenties and thirties.

My actor son was three in 1990 when we moved to the house he grew up in. Around the perimeter of 25x40’ city garden I planted twenty trees. Some grew tall and full (and some of them didn’t make it).

Two of the tall trees are out front. Our California live oak, literally grown from an acorn, is now big enough to support our gardener standing in its branches eight feet up to shape and trim it. The more delicate, feathery Norfolk Island Pine is as tall as the house.

Out back three redwood trees I planted by our back fence just shot up as redwood trees do – California’s giant and long-lived redwoods grow tall very, very fast for their first twenty or so years. When ours got to thirty feet, we started topping and thinning them, hoping the garden book was right, that by planting them close together and keeping them topped and thinned, we could cajole the giants tree into making us a tall hedge. As they got big, I planted a Cecil Brunner climbing rose in their shadow. It snaked up through the redwoods toward the sun and began blooming in their crown, shiny levels and radiant pink-white blossoms giving the trees a regal glory.

Topping and thinning the trees didn’t stop them from thickening their trunks. My wife feared we had a tiger by the tail, that, despite the gardening book’s assurance we could keep them a hedge, we were in danger of losing a battle with their wild nature. “They’re blocking the sun,” she said. “They’re determined to keep getting taller, and won’t they eventually drop a huge branch on someone’s head?”

I loved the intense dark green of the trees, their mysterious shadows, and the radiant glory of the roses that topped them, but eventually agreed that the three trees needed to come down.

It took a crew of three men and several days to get the trees down and out and to dig their massive roots out of the earth. In the process we learned that the middle tree’s roots were badly diseased. It was more than a big branch poised to fall in the wind.
We replanted with trees that wouldn’t aspire to such heights, and in the restored sunlight of our garden, we planted tomatoes, green beans, and lettuce.

I was showing our newly sunny garden to a guest one afternoon when our next-door neighbor - not the downstairs neighbor we knew, but the upstairs neighbor who’d never spoken - began shouting at me from his fourth floor deck, “How dare you take those trees down?!” I tried to offer a neighborly explanation, but he flat refused to believe that I’d planted the trees and dismissed our discovering the decaying roots. “They were beautiful,” he said. “You had no right.”

I told him we’d replanted with new trees that would do better in the limited space, trees that would stop growing at about the height we’d been forcing the redwoods to stop. “They’re gone and it will take a whole generation for anything new to grow up,” he insisted. “I cried to lose them.”

Sometimes I miss them too.

Another friend recently shared this poem from Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alvez -

What is Hope?
It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks.
It is a hunch
that the overwhelming brutality of facts
that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is a suspicion
that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
and that the frontiers of the possible
are not determined by the limits of the actual
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way
life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection...
The two, suffering and hope, live from each other.
Suffering without hope
produces resentment and despair,
hope without suffering
creates illusions, naiveté́, and drunkenness...
Let us plant dates
even though those who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let the creative act
be dissolved in immediate sense experience
and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love
is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies
the seed of their highest hope.
―Rubem A. Alves, Tomorrow’s Child, 1972

Trees that threaten to fall. Global warming and mutually assured destruction in a thermonuclear war. Contemplating a possible end and making art. Founding a new church congregation when “the church is dying.” Might the seeming contradictions of this double season bridging Thanksgiving to Advent give us a hint for finding God’s work in the seeming contradictions of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic readings? What lets people find creative tension and god-like hope from looking unflinchingly at destruction and still risk new creation?

By the way, Advent hasn’t always been “the beginning of the liturgical year.” An older tradition (still remembered in Elizabethan times) regarded the Annunciation to Mary (March 25) as Christian New Year. Ancient Christian tradition had fixed the Annunciation on the same calendar day as Good Friday (calculated from other calendar considerations). But calling Advent with its eschatological, end of time themes our beginning, the Christian New Year may be on to something tying all that destruction, stars falling from sky, earthquakes and portents, fire and brimstone to the birth of Jesus? T.S. Eliot in the “Journey of the Magi” has his wise man narrator ask that and observe,

“…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”

Maybe there’s a beginning of Good News there, a hint of how to get from apocalypse to steady hope. A friend wrote a brief haunting, tune on a simpler line from Eliot that points to the same paradox - “In our end is our beginning, in our beginning is our end.”


The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Comments (5)

Thank you, Donald for this wonderful post.

As a musician whose tastes run toward the the sweet end of the spectrum, somewhat to my embarrassment, I've often wondered about this problem. (At one point, I was convinced that alternative rock radio favored darker moods, but now I think this is not the whole story.)

One thing I concluded, as I considered music from across the spectrum of moods, is that monochromatically sunshiny music and monochromatically bleak music had nearly equivalent staying power. The music that most sustains my interest allows elements of despair and hope into the picture. Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," to name one example, oscillates between these two poles. Here is the second verse and chorus:

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way

But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away

I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all

I particularly enjoy how she lets the darkness and light sit side by side and pushes forward through her unknowing. She hasn't censored one feeling or the other.

It reminds me of listening to sermons at places such as Saint Gregory's and Saint Lydia's, where we in the congregation complete the preacher's sermon by sharing pieces of our experience that the sermon stirred up. For me, the sermons and the sharing feel especially complete and satisfying when we've heard a wide range of emotional experience.

i can empathize with the expense you had to incur to have the redwoods, root and branch, removed from your garden, and for the unmerited wrath of your neighbor.

A former neighbor, long since deceased, planted what grew into two huge trees in her yard, adjacent to ours. (For years I thought they were redwoods, but in fact they are Canary Pines.) They grow to the southwest of our garden.

Each year, these trees shed two "crops" into our property with the prevailing wind. One "crop" consists of pine needles, the other of branches blown down on a windy day. I hate to think of how much this has cost us in gardeners' wages. It has continued for over 50 years, since my wife first moved here.

In the 43 years that I have spent here, I have had many Walter Mitty-type notions of poisoning those trees--but (of course) I have actually done nothing about them.

Nitpicker
NIgel Renton

Thank you for your post, Donald.

As an early 40s person and having grown up a more conservative Christian that has become more moderate, I have lived under the awareness of nuclear war all of my life, and global warming most of it. (I can remember thinking the first Gulf War was the pretense for what would become the Armageddon of the book of Revelation; I read Al Gore's EARTH IN THE BALANCE soon after it was released in 1988--in it he called for the retirement of the internal combustion engine.) I think I can feel some of the cynicism cum nihilism that so many young people struggle with today. "Whatever."

As people of faith our response can be reminding ourselves that the end is not near--it has already come. The rule of God has been proclaimed as present, and present it is. We are living with God into God's reign right now, no matter what occurs with the affairs of humans. This does not eliminate fear and certainly not hardship, nor for me a background static of despair. But despair is challenged by hope, and this hope is confirmed when the common sense of kindness prevails in the small and large actions of people. God's shalom is here in part, and our opportunity is to be with God in advancing it more fully. Every day can be a little transformational apocalypse that ushers in new hope. I think this is a possibility, in any case. So I think we can be thankful for apocalypse knowing that it can pierce our hearts and transform our minds.

Hi Donald,

Advent is a time when we talk a lot about looking forward, but I always find myself looking back. To my first memories of singing Silent Night with my mom, to the delight I felt at seeing the neighborhood sparkle with white lights, to the birth of my baby brother. And also to the years since then--now I am thirty one, and like most people who have lived long enough to find out that presents don't really don't come down chimneys, some of my Decembers have had a lot of pain in them, mixed in with the joy and the peace and the love.

I don't think that irony is a new problem--I think it is part of growing older and every generation sees and laments it in the next. I disagree with Christy Wampole; I think when you see hipsters wearing mustaches and big glasses it is because that is what their parents were wearing in the seventies and eighties, when those hipsters were still young enough to feel whole and loved in a way that wasn't complicated by change or loss, and they are grasping at that wholeness, trying to make it real again.

Anyway, I don't have any answers to the thoughts you offered above, except to say that I am thirty one, I feel both very young and very old, and I am hopeful. My mom has cancer, hurricane Sandy just made the possibility that the nieghborhood where I live and work will be underwater in a matter of years seem very real, and yet--my boyfriend and I recently made the decision to get married. We are building a garden together, and hope to plant trees one day. We belong to a food coop. We ride our bikes instead of driving cars. We are investing in all kinds of ways in all kinds of projects--both our own and those of our peers--that may not ever bear fruit. We live hopeful lives, and all of our friends live hopeful lives. We still love David Foster Wallace and Wes Anderson and Cat Power, and all the other artists and culture-makers who are carrying the banner of sincerity today. A little bit of irony, in the form of Jon Stewart or Katy Perry (who both have their deeply sincere moments as well) with our artisinal pickles helps the medicine go down, but in general, I wouldn't worry too much about the young folks. I think that if the sense of apocalypse we have absorbed through the events of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of global warming (and on and on) has shaped my generation's hope it has been to increase in us a belief in the value of the quotidian. A beet you grew from a seed, a useful object you made by hand, a community you formed out of mutual desire and interest with your nieghbors. Its a humble hope when you know the world might end, but a hope nonetheless.

Donald -- thank you especially for the Alves poem. I plan to share it profligately.

The part that especially spoke to me was 'a suspicion that reality is more complex than realism wants us to believe.' My heart shouts out AMEN!

I think perhaps that the sarcastic cynicism is much more fertile ground for hope than the angry attacks that so divide our civic discourse. In the cynicism there seems to be a tiny space for surprise. I remember you relating the comment of Jake Slichter's friend Eugene (Rivers?), a clergyman meeting with the newly elected George W Bush, challenging the president 'to surprise us' by living up to his rhetoric.

Increasingly I find myself not using the language of 'hope' as much as the language of 'wholeheartedness'. Part of that is a reaction to the passive waiting for God to DO SOMETHING that I hear in the word 'hope.' It's not necessarily there, but in my ears there is that subtext. Wholeheartedness can hold the full, complex, messy range of our experiences and still sing Halleluia, even as our full hearts might be breaking.

Leesy

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