Keep the faith, baby.
I was walking my friend’s dog the other day. We regularly go out together on long walks, hunting for squirrels. And usually we have the good fortune of finding a few along the way, which means that I am dragged behind her as she suddenly lurges into attack mode, always confident that she will actually catch the pesky critter before it scampers up a nearby tree. Of course she never does, and we spend some futile moments while she jumps onto the trunk of the tree, her head pointed up towards the upper branches where the squirrel is looking down, laughing his little butt off, naaah na nah naaaah na.
The other day we were doing just that at the base of a tree outside my office, which is above the garage on the grounds where I live. It’s a giant oak tree---I mean a GIANT one. Actually, until that moment, I hadn’t really noticed what an awesome tree it is. I tried to guess-timate how tall it is, and I think it could be at least ten, maybe fifteen stories high. I’m pretty sure if I climbed to the top branches and fell from up there, I’d die. This colossal, towering, magnificent tree…I’ll bet it has been there for a 100 years or more.
It is just one of millions of trees in Connecticut, and like all of them, I had taken it for granted. But looking at the massive trunk, its spine of central branches, the muscular spread of the offshoots, layers of green-leafed wings fluttering in unison this way and that in the breeze, well, I was mesmerized. Wow. This creature before me, planted in the good earth, reaching up as best it could to the heavens above, keeping the faith, day in and day out, fall to winter to spring to summer to fall again. It is being what it was created to be, the best possible tree: did it have even the slightest idea how it was inspiring me?
I was reminded of the poem, Advice from a Tree, (paraphrased from Ilan Shamir) in which the tree says:
Sink your roots deeply into the Earth while reaching for the sky.
Reflect the light of a greater source.
Think long term.
Go out on a limb.
Be graceful in the wind.
Stand tall after a storm.
Be prepared for each season.
Be still long enough to hear your own leaves rustling.
Provide shelter to strangers.
Remember your place among all living beings.
I felt that this great oak was indeed somehow speaking to me about life: my life and the life of the world all around me. About keeping the faith from season to season, year to year, through storm and sun. I’m in the middle of a fairly big transition in my life, and sometimes everything seems topsy-turvy and it’s easy to lose your bearings.
As I stood peering up at the tree, an acorn came whizzing down and hit me right on the head. It’s been ejecting acorns quite a lot lately, and as I sit at my computer in my office, especially on windy days, they hit the roof above me and sometimes it sounds like I am under attack by enemy fire.
I picked up the one that hit me on the head. Acorns are sometimes called oak nuts, and they are a pretty important source of food for all kinds of animals-squirrels, birds, even deer. Their rich nutrients have also been important in the diets of people, including native Americans who used them to make soup and flour. But more importantly, inside the tough leathery outer shell is an oak seed, and they keep the Creator’s faith by growing into giant trees like the one outside my office.
Keeping the faith is what all the readings today are all about, God telling us in the first reading to hang on there, just hang on-- the “vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint’; St Paul telling Timothy to hang in there--the “spirit of God…will stir you into flame...make you strong, loving and wise’. And Jesus giving us a parable about the power of faith as small as a mustard seed. Or an acorn. It’s all about keeping the faith, baby, keeping the faith, and helping others out when the fire has been beaten out inside.
Tuesday is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, whose faith was so humble, and yet so powerful. He was lit up from within by the fire of God’s spirit and he lit up the whole world around him—the whole world—with the love of Jesus that was flaming up inside him. Given what we know of him, I wouldn’t be surprised if Francis had conversations with the great trees of his day, and I’m pretty sure he would have been inspired by them as well. He was so in touch with the faith embodied in the creation all around him--Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and all the rest of it. It was said that the birds flocked to him, even the little sparrows listened to him. There’s that famous story where he preached to hundreds of birds about being thankful to God for their wonderful clothes, for their independence, and for God’s care of them. The birds stood still as he walked among them, only flying off when he said they could leave.
I have to confess something to you. For a long time I have been saddened by the seeming slow death of faith all around us, by the ways in which the Church has not seemed to matter to people anymore—especially young people. I can tell you that for most people 18 to 30, the Church is mostly irrelevant to them. They receive no life from it. And they have abandoned it in huge numbers. When confirmation comes to eighth graders, it often means graduation, and we never see them again in our church. And to tell you the truth, I don’t blame them. The truth of the matter is that the incredible love of Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit has not been felt in the Church by many many people. For many, the Church has only been a place of obligation, of strict doctrine, of hierarchical obedience and clerical elevation, and, as Pope Francis has said, a place where you go to hear boring, interminable homilies ‘where you don’t understand a word of what they are saying’. It is often not a place of joy, or warmth, or acceptance, or sometimes even forgiveness. Despite the hunger we all feel deep in the core of our being, many do not perceive the church as a place to be fed.
But it goes deeper than just participating in the life of the Church. At a lecture about faith recently, the speaker was taking questions from the audience. One young man in blue jeans and a baseball cap and a troubled look on his face raised his hand. "What if you used to believe in God and everything, but now you can't?" he said. "How do you keep believing when all of that seems unbelievable?" He was clearly struggling with something, and the question was no academic matter. It's a question we, all of us, face--in a world where belief in the mystery of God is hardly ever proclaimed.
Did you ever have trouble believing? Not only in God, but maybe in a friend, or relative or co-worker after they let you down? Or maybe were you the one who didn’t keep the faith and let someone else down?
What does it take to keep the faith when your world is falling apart, when whatever dreams or hopes you had have disappeared? How do you believe in others, how do you believe in yourself, when even God seems to have given you challenges that are unbearable? Indeed, how do you keep the faith when the you look around and it seems like faith is nowhere to be found in the world, when people everywhere seem to be only looking out for themselves, their wealth, their own happiness? How to keep the faith when death takes away the people we love, and the economy takes away our house, when sisters and brothers fight over mom and dad’s little inheritance, when husbands cheat on wives and women choose to abort their babies, when political candidates and public officials are so corrupt, when neighbors murder neighbors over arguments that go back centuries, when race and sexual orientation are directly or indirectly used to attack others, when love is taken for granted or simply taken and never returned?
Well… there is the great oak tree outside my door, and its acorns. There are oak trees still to come.
"The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it. It will surely come." I’m encouraged by the Pope, because for the first time this humble man is bringing us back to the real gift of the Church---the love of Jesus, the mercy of God, the care for the smallest and most insignificant of creatures among us, especially those most poor, most despairing, most lost. This Francis is reminding us what the Church was truly founded upon, and he is helping us to find our way back to it.
Keep the faith, baby, like St. Francis, who cut away all the complexity and saw things as they really are. God made us all in his love: birds, fish, dogs, humans…and God takes care of us all too. Look around you and see what he has made, keep the faith and let us, as the Pope asks of us, let us take care of one another in the love we receive from Jesus.
Most High, omnipotent, good Lord,
To thee belong the praises, the glory, the honor, and every blessing.
To thee alone, Most High, are they suited.
And no man is worthy of pronouncing thy name.
Be thou praised, my Lord, with all thy creatures,
Especially dear Brother Sun, who brings us the day, and through whom thou givest light;
And he is beautiful, and radiant with great splendor; he signifies thee to us, Most High!
Be thou praised, my Lord, for sister Moon and the stars;
Thou hast formed them bright, precious and fair in the sky.
Be thou praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind
And for air and cloud, calms, and all weather thou hast granted us.
Be thou praised, my Lord, for Sister Water, who is humble, and dear, and pure.
Be thou praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire, through whom thou dost illumine the night.
And he is beautiful, strong, and merry.
Be thou praised, my Lord, for our sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and holds us to her breast
And produces abundant fruits, flowers and trees.
Be thou praised, my Lord, for all your creatures, our sisters and brothers,
who inhabit this earth with us and bring us joy and make us sing.
Praise you, and bless you Lord. We give you thanks and serve you with great humility.