Under a Tree One Wednesday Afternoon
I had many things to write about, all jostling for space in my head as I drove home from a mid-week theology conference near Calgary… Things like the nature of Scripture and interpretation and inspiration and violence and barbarism and inter-textuality and transposition… All these things and others milled about in my head during the two-hour drive south, eager for release, to find expression on the page, to be assembled into some kind of coherent whole.
But it’s funny how a single image or experience, even of the briefest kind, can reduce all of these things to ephemera…
I drove by a playground on my way to get the mail on my way home. It was recess and I saw a little boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, sitting, alone, under a tree, by a chain link fence. His legs were crossed, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. His little shoulders were shaking as he stared into the ground. His back was to the other kids who were laughing, running, playing, oblivious to whatever sadness or anger or frustration was lurking over by the fence.
How can one write about scripture and theology and inspiration and interpretation when there are little boys crying under trees on Wednesday afternoons?
I wondered about what cruelty had driven him out there, to the edge of the playground, what words that had led him to find refuge under that tree, alone, shoulders shaking, staring at the ground. I wondered what it was that the others could not tolerate about this little boy, what difference made him dispensable, what behaviours made him objectionable. I wondered what the future might hold for him and the countless children and adults who so often find themselves on the outskirts of the acceptable, the places full of sunshine and approval. Most of all, my heart just hurt for this little boy under the tree by the chain link fence, head in hands, shoulders shaking, staring at the ground. Alone.
I thought of a stanza from David Ray’s poem called “Thanks, Robert Frost” (found in Music of Time: Selected and New Poems):
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear…
We speak often of hope for the future, and this is good and necessary. But as I drove past this little boy under the tree, I found myself hoping for his past or for his present that will one day be his past or whatever. I hope that he will one day be able to forgive others, that he will be able to mine the pain that came his way for whatever goodness and redemption it might contain. I hope his past will become something that he can bear.
And I hope that all of our pasts, with all of the influence and pressure they exert on our presents and futures, will prove one day to be bearable. I hope that all the messes that we make, all the sadness and frustration we stumble through will be transposed into a new key, and the result will be a song whose chorus is light and life.
Based purely on the evidence at hand, this can often seem like a slim hope indeed. But we have this God, this Christ, this Alpha and Omega who says, “Behold, I make all things—past things, present things, future things, first and last things, ugly and destructive things, hateful and hopeless things… all things—new.” New. And the hope that this God holds out is big enough, even for the past.
When I was almost past the school, I cast a plaintive glance in the rearview mirror. One last look at the boy under the tree on a Wednesday afternoon. I saw another little boy approach him, lean down, and put his hand on his shoulder. And I said a silent prayer of gratitude for the little ways that newness inserts itself into all of our tired, old, death-dealing ways.
Image above courtesy of Ruth Bergen Braun.