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Hope is Now: I am like a crooked tree

Reflections from Our Pastors

   “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever. I will thank you forever” (Psalm 52:8-9). The Psalmist, maybe David originally but really anybody who’s faced intense hostility and peril, finds a place that feels “like a green olive tree in the house of God.”

It’s “green,” like the trees in my neighborhood that have come into full leaf lately. Signs of life and hope after a season of chilly barrenness. Trees, in general, give us much good reason to stop, reflect, marvel. Trees didn’t plop down in their place yesterday. And their strength is in the dark, underground, where you can’t see. Nourishment comes from rain and soil nutrients that happened long ago. In the thick of challenges, I want to think of myself as such a tree.

Thomas Merton, living in Kentucky as a Trappist monk, wrote these poetic words in his journal back in 1951: “As long as I do not pretend, as long as I do not trade in false coin nor camp too much upon flowers, prayers can always mend me. The windows are open. Let the Psalms fly in.” Let Psalms fly in the window! I love his way of thinking about counterfeit money as a way we delude ourselves or fake others out. And then the idea of camping too much upon flowers! I can only guess he means how we stay on the surface, fixate on what’s pretty or cute instead of dealing with the depths of life, and especially our life with God.

Merton continues: “There, there is a crooked tree, the moss with my secrets. Every man is his own Jacob. He wakes up at the foot of his own ladder, angels going up and down, with God at the top.” Recalling Jacob’s dream, of a ladder extending up into heaven.

Merton’s “crooked tree” takes us back to Psalm 52:8. “I am like a green olive tree.” Olive trees live for many centuries, but they are gnarled, knotted, twisty marvels. Jesus prayed among such twisted olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. And – maybe I’m wrong – but since olives are the most common trees around Jerusalem, could it be he was crucified, not on a smoothly planed piece of wood like we see in our churches, but on an olive shaft, gnarled, curled in on itself, as if expressing in its shape Jesus’ agony, almost forming a question mark.

The Psalmist’s olive tree is in the courtyard of the temple. Merton’s is in the woods, but it becomes access to God’s presence, like Jacob’s ladder. I hope one of the learnings of the pandemic is that God is indeed in God’s Holy Temple, but God is out there, and in your home, wherever you’re reading this. There’s a ladder, right where you are right now. Open the windows and look. Let the Psalms fly in. If you don’t pretend or trade in false coin or camp too much upon the flowers, prayers really can mend you.

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