April 22, 2018

I joined the National Arbor Day Foundation over a decade ago. I thought of the organization as similar to the ASPCA, rescuing living things and finding new homes for them. So I began adopting plants, mostly trees. The main reason was for the birds. Seeing them in our yard lifts my spirits. (Well, except for the grackles.)

I especially enjoy watching goldfinches. Their flight pattern has been described as a rollercoaster. They swoop down from a tree branch and along the way to the feeder bounce up and down as if riding a rollercoaster's hills. Their brilliant yellow plumage accented with jet black brightens up the yard even on the cloudiest days.

Karen and I set up several small birdhouses around the yard to give them more shelter. We also acquired a large stone fountain, and Karen also placed several birdbaths around the yard. The bubbling water was like a neon "welcome" sign to the birds. They'd eat some seed, then flit over to the fountain for a sip of water, then flit back to the feeder. We also hung a hummingbird feeder, and we'd thrill to the glimpses of the tiny creatures as they darted about.

Occasionally we'll throw some stale bread crumbs into the yard. Invariably, that attracted crows. One of the most intelligent birds, crows will somehow sense the bread is there no matter where they happen to be. There won't seem to be a single one in the vicinity, but only a few minutes after the bread is on the ground one will appear and then signal to the others that a snack is waiting. Within an hour, all the bread has been devoured.

While some feel bluejays are aggressive, I find them to be just as intelligent as their crow cousins. I've noticed them taking their turns and sharing food with other birds. They too can spot food from a long distance away. Another related bird is the cardinal, a frequent visitor to our feeder with their brilliant red plumage and distinctive song. As time went on we began to see pileated woodpeckers, grosbeaks, red-winged blackbirds, juncos . . . our yard became a veritable aviary. Because of the trees we planted, which provide nesting, safety and food sources, we are privileged to view a daily display of nature's best, filled with bustling activity, melody and color.

And then there are the grackles. I don't know how they discovered our yard. A few years ago, they just appeared. And you never get just one grackle, and you never get just a few. You get an inundation -- dozens of them, as if they've brought their entire family tree with them. They're iridescent black, with disturbingly shiny yellow eyes. They too are smart, but they're also extremely aggressive and will often crowd out any other birds that are trying to feed. And they will often hang around until they've devoured every bit of food they find, usually leaving behind an empty feeder.

Originally, we had a standard carriage feeder. Though grackles are large birds, they would contort themselves so that they could grip onto the feeder and nosh. I eventually discovered a solution to that problem: a feeder specifically designed to repel grackles. It had a strong mesh surrounding it that allowed only birds of a certain size (up to about the size of a cardinal) to reach the seeds. The grackles seemed noticeably annoyed with that feeder and eventually stopped trying to feed there, contenting themselves to pick up any stray seeds dropped on the ground by other birds. About the only advantage to grackles being there is that they would scare off the squirrels that otherwise would attempt to climb onto the feeder.

Squirrels are a whole other story. We have about a half-dozen in our yard, some grey, some red but most black. Their entire existence is spent figuring out how to get at our feeder that hangs from a branch off our hemlock tree. (I long ago had given up mounting the feeder to a post.) I hung a plastic baffle above the feeder but the squirrels chewed through it. I replaced it with a metal one; they chewed through the cord holding the feeder. I discovered that the one weakness squirrels have is that they're generally lazy and will always opt for the easiest-to-reach food source. So I bought a Ferris-wheel like contraption and affixed it to the hemlock tree. I attached dried corncobs to it and watched in amusement as the squirrels would grab on to one of the easy-to-reach cobs, only to then spin around, clinging desperately to the food. At least that distracted them from the bird feeder.

Anything that the squirrels dropped was immediately picked up by the family of chipmunks that burrowed all over our yard. The cute but destructive critters could be seen daily darting between the squirrels and birds, stuffing their cheeks with as much seed as they could handle and then disappearing into the brush.

At night, as the day's frantic activities tapered off, the al fresco restaurant that was our yard would host a family of skunks, including albinos, plus a few possums and raccoons. And the next morning, the birds would wake us with their songs and the whole process would start anew.

This process wasn't a natural one. If we hadn't planted those trees, maintained the feeders, placed water sources around the yard and managed the food distribution, our yard would have seen far less (if any) activity. We welcomed the variety of animals into our lives, with our only reward being their presence.

In today's scripture, we hear mention of the tree of life. That reference occurs repeatedly in the Book of Revelation and also in Proverbs and Genesis, where it's sometimes confused with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the tree of life is different, and various passages hint that it bestows immortality to God's people. In Revelation, John also writes, "... the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations." So what exactly is this tree?

It's important to realize how barren are the lands depicted in the Bible. Although bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the land is harsh, bounded by sharp mountains and deserts. Sand is more common than forest. Fresh water sources are scarce. So trees in general are a precious symbol of life. In Bahrain, there's a 400-year-old Tree of Life (actually an Acacia) in the middle of the Arabian Desert; to this day no one is certain how it has thrived.

John Calvin thought that the tree of life represented the life that God had given his people. The John of Revelations mysteriously states that, "On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit." How can a tree stand on each side of a river? Some have interpreted that as meaning there's more than one tree of life. Or perhaps the tree is so large, like the one in Bahrain, that it can span the river. Since Revelations are a series of prophecies (or dreams), perhaps that's why Calvin leans toward a more metaphorical view of the tree.

When God banished Adam and Eve from Eden for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (notice that no apples are mentioned), he said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So from this passage, it definitely sounds that there are two separate trees, and that the tree of life can bestow immortality. But that still doesn't answer the question of what exactly it is. Is it some sort of magical fruit tree, as many have interpreted? Or is it just a metaphor?

Over the past few decades in the Amazon, trees were felled at an alarming rate. Cattle ranchers and farmers so far have cleared an estimated seventy percent of the forest. Many of the trees were burned to the ground, causing a toxic cloud to hang in the air. Brazil was trying to satisfy a growing demand for beef and crops. The irony was that the more the trees were removed, the less rain fell on the land creating poor crop growth and very little net gain for the economy. In the Amazon, the trees literally were a source of life to the entire region, not only for the rare and varied wildlife but also for indigenous tribes who were forced out.

In the United States, deforestation on the coasts in order to construct expensive homes ended in disaster when the homes washed into the sea after heavy rains. The trees were necessary to absorb the impact of rain and keep the ground from eroding. Again, trees were necessary for life. Maybe the tree of life means just that: trees, and by inference all of nature, bestow life to us.

So I planted trees in our little backyard. And within a remarkably short time, it was teeming with life. It's all a cycle. Plants attract birds. Birds drop seeds and help pollinate, creating more plants attracting more birds. Even those grackles have their own beauty and are part of the cycle. All of God's creatures have a part to play, even if we may not understand it now.

In the middle of our yard is a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, standing in a small garden surrounded by stones. Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals, fully realized how God is manifest in all of earthly creation. The sun, the moon and the stars are God's. And so too are all the living things in our realm. The daily display of nature in our backyard is testament to how, with a little care, we too can follow in St. Francis' footsteps and be ministers to God's creation. "Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us." Amen.

August 12, 2018

Last month on a bright sunny mid-morning, I was taking one of my routine walks downtown. About a quarter of the way there, as I approached a cross street, a small red sports car quickly pulled up in front of me, blocking my path. The man inside, concealed by dark sunglasses, urgently warned me, "Don't go down the street! There's a bear up in a tree over there!" He pointed straight ahead of me. The tree was about a hundred feet away. "Okay," I replied. "Thanks. I'll head over to the other side of the street."

So I crossed to the south side of the street, staring in the direction the man pointed to see if I could spot the bear (which I couldn't). When I looked back at the cross street, the man and his sports car had vanished. I cautiously continued walking toward downtown. And then I saw it: a black bear, about five feet long, climbing down from a small maple tree on the north side of the street, just where the man had said it was. I paused and watched it. The bear leisurely looked around and then lumbered across the street toward my side. It hadn't noticed me, or if it had it didn't care. And it didn't seem to care about the traffic, which came to a dead stop in front of it. So I cautiously walked back across to the north side of the street. When the bear reached the south side, the traffic sped off and startled it, and it then galloped off into a nearby backyard and disappeared from view.

There was a very real possibility that I could have been mauled. The tree was right next to the sidewalk. If the man in the sports car hadn't interceded, I would have walked right into that bear. Where did this man come from? How did he spot me, and why did he stop? How did he see the bear as he drove by, when I was nearly on top of it and hadn't noticed it?

There are people who live their entire lives in fear: fear that a friend or relative will perish; fear that they won't have enough money; fear that the world is going to end. Fear is not rational. Fear is an emotional reaction to something in the future that hasn't occurred. It's a reaction to an imagined threat. For example, if someone points a gun at you, you're not afraid that they're pointing a gun at you; you're afraid they'll pull the trigger. And if they pull the trigger, you're not afraid they're pulling the trigger; you're afraid the gun will go off. And so on. Obviously, fear has its uses. It can make adrenaline flow, enabling a quick fight-or-flight response to danger. But in many cases, fear is crippling; it can serve as an excuse not to act on something, or cause panic where no threatening circumstances actually exist.

Imagine if every time I went for a walk, I lived in fear that I was going to encounter a bear on the street: I'd essentially become non-functional. I'd be in a continual state of panic, uncertain whether the next step I took was going to be my last. Fear was a useful life-saving reaction for our ancient ancestors. But in our current relatively comfortable world, it can also be debilitating.

Notice how in Psalm 56, the writer is besieged with fear of people unjustly trying to ruin his life. He is sure God knows of his plight, though. I love the image of God keeping the writer's tears in a bottle. Even in his deep distress, the psalmist insists, "In God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?" Think about that: by leaning on God, no fear in the world can have any effect. By trusting in a power beyond you, you gain an impenetrable spiritual shield.

I may have mentioned to some of you the story of my uncle, Myron Munson. His son, Lyman, was my best friend when I was growing up. We slept over each others' houses, had picnics with our families, went to beaches and amusement parks together (with, unknown to me at the time, my future wife's twin brother). The Munsons were like a second family to me. Myron also was a model railroad enthusiast and had built a magical layout in his basement.

In the 1970s, Myron was diagnosed with liver cancer and given a year to live. He went through radiation treatments and chemotherapy. After a year, he felt worse than he did when he was diagnosed. So he told his doctor that he was through. He was sick of the treatments and he didn't care if he died. The doctor urged him to continue his treatments, saying that Myron was the most successful patient he had ever treated. But Myron was adamant; the treatment was over. I went to visit him years later. He was in his backyard in 90 degree weather cutting his grass with an old manual push mower. "Uncle Myron," I asked incredulously, "what are you doing?" His response was quick and wry: "I'm trying to kill myself, but it's not working!"

Over a decade after he stopped treatment, Myron's doctor died. After nearly three decades, his wife died. His son at that time was a successful lawyer and insurance executive living in a million-dollar mansion overlooking a pasture near San Francisco. Lyman was happily married and had a busy life doing pro-bono work in the city. He returned to Massachusetts to bring his father back to California with him. Ironically, Myron had always wanted to live in California. But now the move was bittersweet. He dismantled his model railroad that gave him so much pleasure, gave me the pieces and moved three thousand miles away. We stayed in contact, writing often. He would always say how lonely it was up on "the hill", as he called it. He said no one ever bothered putting up trees or lights at Christmas. The surrounding mansions might just as well have been empty, owned by executives too busy to live in their own homes.

Myron would get up early each morning to take Lyman's two dogs for a walk in a nearby park while Lyman jogged. Lyman would also go out running when he returned from work late at night. One day, while Lyman was at an executive dinner, he fell forward into his dinner plate, dead at 56 of a heart attack. Myron couldn't understand it. Why had he outlived everyone around him, when by rights he should have been the one to die forty years earlier? What kind of game was God playing with him?

He comforted Lyman's wife, who was broken with grief. About four years later, with stubborn pride and rapidly declining eyesight, he insisted that he be moved into an assisted living center, rather than be a burden at home. A few weeks after that he passed away at the age of 96.

Where was his fear? How was he able to face tragedy after tragedy and yet continue on in spite of it? Most elderly people dread the day that their children put them into an assisted living center or nursing home, but Myron willingly put himself there. Why had God given him so much determination and strength, such a fearless attitude toward life?

Recall the words from Peter's letter: "Now who will harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed." There's a comfort in knowing that if, in your heart, you feel you're doing good then somehow that creates a spiritual shield. And even if there's suffering, God has a purpose (even if you don't yet know what it is) and He will carry you through difficult times.

It's difficult to look at suffering as beneficial, especially for someone in the middle of a tragedy. But by successfully weathering difficult times and reaching the other side of a tragedy, there's a sort of comfort in knowing that the difficulties are now behind you. And the knowledge that you were able to survive can give you the strength to go on; it can lessen the fears if you encounter something similar in the future.

For instance, when I was in college going to UMass Amherst, I was living in Holyoke. I used to catch the bus at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. But to get to South Hadley, I would have to walk the five miles there every day. I met another student on my walk, Steve Thomas, and we became friends. One day he invited me to go cliff jumping with him. I had no idea what he meant. He took me to a sand quarry in Granby. With abandon, he would jump off the edge of the sand pit's cliff and plunge thirteen feet down onto the pile of sand below. Then he'd run back up and do it again. When I was a kid, I had flirted with the idea of becoming a stunt man. But this seemed like lunacy. I stood at the edge of the cliff, paralyzed with fear. But I realized that if Steve could safely jump over and over, maybe my fear was irrational. So I took a deep breath and threw myself off the cliff, landing in the sand and rolling down the mound. I felt a lightness and an exhilaration; I had conquered my fear. I ran back up and did it again. The activity was now fun instead of terrifying, and at that point Steve lost interest in jumping. It was as if his mission was to get me to conquer my fear. Once that was accomplished he was ready to move on to something else. It was a good lesson: face your fear, conquer it and then move on.

There are media outlets that invest a lot of their time in making us fearful, inundating us with news reports that paralyze us with fear about events over which we have little-to-no control. In those cases, there are no cliffs off of which we can jump. We can't conquer a fear far removed from us. So what can we do in those circumstances?

Perhaps the psalmist gives us a clue: "In God, whose word I praise; in the Lord, whose word I praise; in God I trust.... My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you."

There is much in the world that is out of our control. But it's never out of God's control. The way to lessen fear is to realize that for the righteous, God is standing beside you. Fear may rise but it also will fall with God by your side. And when you've arrived on the other side of your fear, take a moment to thank the Lord for being your guide on the journey.

I don't know who that man was who warned me about the bear. But I'm grateful that God was at my side then, guiding me down the street, "delivering my soul from death", as the psalmist writes. When God is with me, what can a mere mortal -- or even a confused bear -- do to me? Amen.