Monthly Archives: August 2013

My Trees


I live in next door to a state university in an old industrial city where green space is at a premium. A little over a week ago, a crew from the university’s buildings and grounds department planted seven young trees around a new parking lot that happens to be right outside my windows.

Even as they were going into the ground, I felt an almost irrational concern for those saplings. I worried that the B&G guys had not planted the little root balls deep enough. I fretted that they were piling the mulch too high around such slim trunks. I wondered if they’d watered them enough during the first three days when the sun was blazing hot.

Now I find myself looking out the window and checking their progress every time I get up to get a snack or retrieve the mail or find a new book or start supper, as if my looking will prevent them from shriveling up and dying from moment to moment, or help them grow twenty feet from mid-morning to noon.

I hope I’m not turning into a nosy neighbor who peers through the drapes, keeping a prurient eye on everybody’s comings and goings. I’m not sure it makes much sense, my proprietary concern for seven saplings around an asphalt lot; but these are my trees.

I wish I felt this way about everything that lives.

My Baptism(s)

There’s a family story about my birth that, like a lot of family stories told and re-told over the years, is probably only tenuously true, but it’s a good story all the same. This is how it goes:

My parents had decided that if they had a girl, they would name her Janice. This was a merciful way of naming a child for my grandmother without actually saddling the child with my grandmother’s name, which was Janetta. But my mother’s labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and her pain was great, and at a particularly difficult moment, she—who had never been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus—was heard to scream, “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”

But there’s another story about my birth that I cherish more than this one. It seems that when I finally did come out, I came out yellow. I must not have looked very strong, because one of the nurses, who was Irish and Catholic and devout, took me quietly to the far side of the room, dipped two fingers in some water, traced a cross on my brow and baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Now, in the Catholic theology of 1947, this was known as a provisional baptism—an emergency baptism in case of death. Had I expired in the delivery room that morning, what that nurse did to me would have been a real live valid sacrament, and I would thereby have been spared an eternity in Limbo—a state of being in which the unbaptized soul of an infant enjoys all the natural happiness one could possibly enjoy, but where God is not present, and never will be.

But I didn’t die. I pinked up! And so I was baptized officially a month later with an honest-to-God-priest and a big baptismal font. My provisional baptism had indeed been provisional. It didn’t ‘count’ in the end, and so it became simply an amusing story about the way I came out yellow, but not a story about the day I became a Christian. That happened, according to my baptismal certificate, on January 21, the Feast of St Agnes, when my family brought me to St Mark’s on Dot Ave in the Ashmont section of Dorchester.

The church I belong to these days does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. In this community of faith, we don’t baptize babies because we believe they need to be baptized. Baptism for us is the cool forgiving river through which we are swept into the church. It’s a sign that we belong to the family of faith. It’s the way we pledge allegiance to the new polity we call the kingdom of God. It’s the act by which we are called to follow Jesus, and it’s the moment when we are given a ministry to carry out with him in the name of God’s compassion.

It isn’t a cleansing of original sin, but a promise that if we do sin, we will not be left in our sin; there will never be a moment in all our lives when we will be bereft of the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord—for God’s is a love that is incapable of holding our sins against us. No, we do not baptize in order to snatch people from the jaws of hell. We baptize in order to bury them deep in the heart of Christ’s life.

God knew me and loved me from the day I was formed in my mother’s womb, as psalm 139 so beautifully sings. Some scriptures say that God knew us even before we were formed in the womb. The point is that there was no place on the day I came yellow into the world, nor is there any place now that I’ve gone completely gray, that is devoid of God’s presence. Catholics have finally come around on this conviction too. You never hear talk about Limbo any more. That nurse need not have worried about my being cut off from God on the day I came weakly into the world. I was never in danger, mortal or immortal.

I do not, of course, remember my baptism, either one of them. But I like to imagine the day I was baptized because it is a source of comfort and courage and hope for me to know that, once upon a time (well, twice upon a time), the God who is always kind and merciful was merciful and kind to me in a very specific way, by enrolling me in the company of the faithful, making me a member of the body, a daughter of the church.

But a strange thing happens when I imagine my baptism. In my mind’s eye I never see the sanctuary of St Mark’s on Dot Ave. I always see a delivery room at the Boston Lying-In. I always hear a capped nurse murmur the trinitarian formula. I feel her fingers trace a watery cross on my head. I see me, pathetic, in her arms, a new creation in Christ. And I have to tell you that I always well up with affection for her. As far as I’m concerned, her baptism of my jaundiced little soul was anything but provisional. If I am indeed a Christian by baptism today, I believe that it was at that moment in that place and by her hand that baptism “took.” 

I don’t believe what she believed about baptism. But it doesn’t matter. What moves me so much, and the reason I prefer her baptism to the priets’s, is that on the day she baptized me she was worried sick about what would happen to me. She didn’t want me to get lost. Baptizing me was her way of making sure that the little creature she held in her hands who was created by God for God and destined for the divine vision, would in fact see God. What she intended for me was the fullness of temporal life in the church should I live, and the fullness of eternal life in God should I die.

I was in no danger. Baptism was not required. Even if I had been in danger, it still would not have been required. But that is not to say that it did nothing for me. Her baptizing of me has given me a way of thinking about the church into which the sacrament ushers us. She has become in my mind a prototype of the church at its best, the assembly of graceful people who care about what happens to you, today and tomorrow and forever. People who would move heaven and earth to help you get free of every danger, mortal and immortal. People who do everything in their power to set you safely on the Way, keep you there, and not let you get lost.

The church is about a lot of things, but if it isn’t at least about this kind of concern, we may have missed the point.

Like A Tree Beside the Water


—Photo by Dan Burkholder

In the beginning, God planted a garden and at its heart God set the Tree of Life. From that moment on, we have been tree people. We cannot tell the story of God’s love without speaking of trunks and roots, vines and branches, leaves and fruit. The oaks of Mamre, the root of Jesse, the burning bush, the olive, the mulberry, the willow, the cedar of Lebanon, and the fig—as we learn their names in the stories of our tradition, we come also to know the God whose mere presence, the psalmist says, causes all the trees to stand up and applaud.

And so it’s not surprising that when God drew even closer to us in Jesus, his story also unfolded tree by tree. We remember that Zacchaeus became his disciple while draped in the branches of a sycamore. Nathaniel went after him too, after Jesus summoned him out from under the shady fig. We still tell each other the story of the mustard seed that grew into a great tree whose branches hosted all the birds of the air—no matter who they were, or where they found themselves on the journey of life.

A tree that is not producing anything, Jesus said, need not be cut down, but commended to the care of the arborist for another year—a mercy (we suspect) that was probably extended the year after that as well, and the year after that one too. Other unproductive trees were not so lucky, but they made his point about the urgency of responding actively to the gospel. Jesus was hanged on a tree. They buried him in a garden full of trees. And in the end, when God re-creates all things, a tree will straddle the River of Life and produce fruit in every season, and its leaves will be for the healing of the nations.

Sometimes we imagine the church as a club you join. Or we think of it as an organization that has business to do. Or as a center of advocacy and the promoter of causes. Our attention tends to focus on membership, activity, programs, and numbers. But the Bible tells us a different story about who we are.

The church is not a club, nor an organization concerned with bottom lines and the size and success of the franchise, nor a social service agency or political action group. The church is a people set apart, a priesthood, a new kind of family, God’s adopted daughters and sons, citizens in a new commonwealth, an assembly, a holy gathering for God’s praise and purposes. And it is, the Bible says in many places, a tree—a cedar, an evergreen, an oak of God’s own planting.

Not only does God gather us under trees for shade and protection; not only do God’s trees welcome us, their fruits nourish us, and their leaves heal us; not only are trees parables of God’s patient mercy and faithfulness, as well as of God’s urgency and impatience; not only are they places of epiphany, encounter, and decision; not only does our life with God and with each other unfold tree by storied tree, we ourselves are a tree planted by God and in God, who is the living stream that feeds us.

When our roots drink deeply from that stream, we are a tree whose leaves do not wither and whose fruit never fails, a tree capable of welcoming, shading, feeding, and healing, planted at the heart of the garden of this world to offer life.

When the church welcome new members, then, it’s not like signing people up on the dotted line. It’s more like grafting new branches into the trunk of a tree. God makes new life circulate to everyone through such new branches. And by God’s grace it means that there will be even more room for many more birds of every kind to flock, to feed, and to rest.

When the church meets, it’s not primarily to cast votes, fill committees, and discuss budgets, but to marvel at and give thanks for all the ways God provides for our health and wholeness, watering, pruning, and dressing us, so that we might thrive, so that we might be a blessing, so that we might give ourselves away.

And when the church worships, it is not to talk a lot to God and to each other and to come away with insights to improve our lives, but to join the praise of trees and all creatures, who by being alive, or by just being, please the Maker.

In a world where great forests are clear-cut for profit, where ancient olives are bulldozed and torn up by the roots from a land called holy, and where young human saplings are cut down by bullets on city streets, never to reach full stature; in the face of all the life-destroying things that human beings may do on this earth, God stubbornly plants and cultivates trees. God does not give up cultivating life—like the life that is in us, life for the sake of other life, life for the sake of the world.

Would anything be different about its way of being and doing if a congregation knew it was a tree?


He Passed

This is primarily for my Christian colleagues, but anyone else who may have ideas to contribute, please do!

Do you use the term ‘passed’ as a euphemism for death? I’m hearing it often these days. (Maybe it’s been around forever and I’m just now catching up.) If you say ‘she passed’ instead of ‘she died’, I wonder why you prefer the euphemism and what it suggests to you that the straightforward term does not?

Euphemisms for death are a dime a dozen, of course. We have used them from time immemorial, often in an effort to sweeten the sour reality of death. But not always. Euphemisms can supply the fact of death with specific religious content.

For example, our ancestors in the Christian faith spoke of “falling asleep” to describe the death of those who died before Christ’s expected return. It made emotional sense to speak that way when you thought that his return—and with it, the bodily resurrection of all the dead—was imminent. The person who had died would stay dead for only a little while; it was as if she were sleeping through an ordinary night and would open her eyes and rise again in the morning.

Although few of us hold to the hope of an imminent return these days, this euphemism may still be useful and ‘true’ in that it speaks to a specific Christian hope—the resurrection of the dead. Other common expressions for death and dying may do that too, but their connections to the Tradition seem to me more tenuous.

I almost always prefer to speak plainly about death, forgoing substitute expressions that seem to me to be indirect. For some reason, I especially dislike the expression ‘he passed,’ which is the shortened form of ‘passed away.’ The longer form had the virtue of indicating that a person is gone, passed away.  The shorter ‘passed’ leaves you hanging with unanswered questions. Passed to what, through what, over what, into what?

I have wondered if this expression is trying to be Pauline, as when the Apostle says that by our baptisms, we have “passed from death to life. ” But Paul was speaking of a mystic death—the Christian’s sacramental participation in Christ’s death and resurrection—not our actual deaths, although the term works for our actual deaths by pious extension (which is why in some traditions, a white cloth symbolizing baptism is draped over a dead person’s casket or urn). Although there may be some tenuous connection here, I suspect the term ‘passed’ is more likely to have gained currency not from a biblical starting point, but simply from the human tendency to condense things.

What I resist about ‘passed’ is that it makes death sound like a simple transition from one ‘shore’ to another, or one life to another; or as the lifting of some sort of veil or curtain through which one serenely steps into another realm or dimension of existence. The hard fact of death is made to appear sort of gentle, even harmless—there’s nothing to be afraid of or resist. This may work okay for quiet deaths (up to a point, that is, for a death is a death, and all deaths are brutal in some way); but it seems especially inadequate for miserable deaths, of which there are many.

The imprecision of this expression is said to be more comforting to mourners than the hard cold edges of the words ‘dead’ and ‘died.’ I have heard pastors say that those frank expressions are too unbuffered for the family to hear, too shocking for those who are so freshly numb with grief. Maybe. And yet it seems to me that those who are suffering the sting of a loved one’s death hardly need to be shielded from a reality they know all too well is a painful and final one. I always thought that it helped more to name things candidly in a kind and thoughtful way, rather than to call them something else in the hope of avoiding more pain. But I could be very wrong about this.

The expression ‘passed’ is indeed sufficiently vague as to allow us to fill in the blank with all sorts of different ideas about what happened when the person died, and about what happens next, if anything. It also allows us to supply no ideas or affirmations at all if we want to remain comfortably agnostic about the whole business. It sounds sort of “Celtic”—the thin veil, etc.—and anything Celtic these days seems better than other things to many Christians, since we have come to believe (thanks to the ‘Celtic spirituality’ industry) that those Christians were more enlightened, earth-centered, body-centered and lyrical than other Christians were, and are.

The vagueness of ‘passed’ mirrors the fuzzy state of modern Christian theological reflection about death and about what happens after death, as well as the aversion some pastors feel to naming and proclaiming a distinctive biblical message about ‘last things.’ In the past, theologians felt more confident in speaking of particular and general judgments and resurrection of the dead at the Parousia. These days we more often say ‘No one knows’; and we are right—no one knows. No one has even known; but millions who did not know nonetheless believed certain things. Not to take those beliefs seriously into consideration is to write off our ancestors (and many of our contemporaries) as benighted and unsophisticated. This is something the arrogant modern does too often, to our detriment, I think.

We also say that what really matter is living, and living well, in loving service to others and in persevering militancy in causes of justice. Speculation about the form and function of the afterlife, if it exists at all, is fruitless. It diverts us from the more pressing issues of the here and now. Yet many people experiencing the death of loved ones, even social justice activists, continue to ask questions about last things. They want to know, Where is she? Will I see her again? What did she ‘pass’ into? And most people, at least when they are wide awake in the wee hours, have deep questions about themselves and what will happen to them when they die as well. Do we have a way of talking to them about these questions that does not fall back on banal generalities that lack specific Christian content?

I have talked with pastors who think ‘last things’ conversations only reveal how egocentric and self-preoccupied we human beings are—the only sentient beings that refuse to accept the natural order of things, the only ones who have to invent an afterlife to calm our anxieties about ceasing to exist. Of course, we may be the only ones capable of such refusal, and one wonders what might happen if cats and snakes had the capacity to be aware of death in the same way we are aware. (I, for one, am glad they do not appear to worry about such things—my cat is anxious enough as it is just wondering where his next meal is coming from.)

Some pastors offer a reassurance that loved ones are safe in God’s hands and that they will be too; or they assure the surviving mourners that the loved one lives on in heart-held memory; but they sidestep the question of personal existence after death and eventual reunion. A few pastors I know have confided that they have stopped believing in ‘heaven,’ or any other notions of an afterlife, but they avoid saying so among their people, for fear of disappointing them. Others tell me that some of their people have stopped believing in ‘heaven’ too, but don’t admit it for fear of disappointing their pastors! ‘Passed’ seems to them a good expression in this circumstance; it commits you to nothing you don’t believe in anymore, but has a nice spiritual ring to it all the same.

At the same time, I am noticing the increasing popularity of All Saints Day celebrations in progressive Protestant churches. People seem to love the idea that we are, as Hebrews says, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They fairly shout all the umpteen verses of ‘For All the Saints,’ with its triumphant affirmations about the victors’ crowns of gold and a yet more glorious day. It seems odd that people who love the celebration of the Witness Cloud should be so diffident about speaking of the actual death required to be admitted to it, and about the character of the cloud itself.

I’m not quite sure what to make of all this, given that for millennia the promise of eternal life (whether in a heaven, or on a restored earth, or in a new creation, or in some other form we cannot imagine) figured as the greatest hope and consolation of the Christian life. What do you think? When you have to talk about these things, what do you say?

Just wondering.

[Unattributed image taken from