(Not once upon a time, but just a few weeks ago in real life)…there was a lady of the forest. She loved the trees and walked among them, getting to know each one’s unique place and contribution. She’d look at unique turns of the trunk or places in the bark that had been compromised, and seek to understand that tree’s story, and strength. While not a daily occurrence, she was with them often enough that she sometimes felt a sense of oneness and solidarity with them.
The lady came to sorrow, then, when more progress came to her street. “Everyone needs a place to live” she’d say, “but do so many trees need to be removed?” As she walked she saw the cut down trees piled up. The big part of the tree, the “good for money” logs, were hauled away on big trucks. The rest, the leftover pieces, piled up, creating little mountains of stumps and roots, branches and tops. Those mountains would eventually be fed into a machine and turned into chips that would find their way to people’s gardens, or back onto the forest floor.
It was in one of these mountains of leftovers that the forest lady found a tree top, and even though it was October, she had enough foresight to see that it would make a perfect Christmas tree. “It will just be destroyed if it’s left alone” she said. “I think it has one more chapter in its life. Perhaps the best chapter.” Her husband, also a forest dweller, agreed.
So it was that a tree top from a tree that was standing in the way of progress, was picked up by the man and woman, and taken to their house in the forest, where it sat in a bucket of water behind the house for many weeks. At the end of November, with the water in the bucket frozen into a solid ice block, she worked on freeing the tree, and soon it was in the house.
There, quoting Linus’ words from the famous “Charlie Brown Christmas” she said, “It never was a bad little tree. It just needs a little love.” And just like that, the man and woman began loving the tree; attaching lights, hanging icicles, hanging ornaments from their over four decades of Christmases, each one a sign of some Christmas past, or friendship, or departed family member. There are extra special ones as well, because these two had given each other ornaments as anniversary presents during the first years of their marriage, and even enjoyed Christmas ornaments during their honeymoon because they spent it (of course) in the forest.
The forest lady went back later, perhaps hoping to find another tree for someone else, but alas, the pile of stumps, roots, and tops had disappeared. When she told her husband later, it made him think about a story in the Bible. It’s a story about how God sees a baby that’s been tossed out into a field, and left there to die. When God sees the baby, God brings it home. Like the tree, God cares for it, feeds it, loves it, in hopes that the baby will thrive, and become beautiful, and bless the world.
I know there’s a lot that is wrong these days - in the world, in the church, in my own heart. Still, because this is the tale of our tree this year, my Christmas tree reminds me that if there’s anything good in me, it’s because others have loved me, chose me, brought me in. In my case, it’s literal. As an adopted child, I was chosen, like the tree, and story in the Bible. And like the tree, and story, I was loved by those who chose me, and that love was felt most deeply when I was with them on vacation in the mountains, among (of course!) the trees. That love filled a void, gave a meaning, gave a hope and healing to my child soul. And when the one who I thought loved me best (my adopted father) died, that loss set the table to find a different, deeper, eternal Father, one who loves, not just me, but all humanity with an everlasting love.
My thoughts, though, don’t stop at gratitude for the profound gift of being loved. I’m mindful this Advent season that God’s heart is for those who feel as if they’re on the pile of castoffs. God’s heart has always been for orphans and widows, for the poor and those on the margins. God sees. God cares. God acts.
Choosing to love a tree destined for a chipper is simple. These days, though, people on the margins have been labeled so much that for many, its hard to see them as people made in God’s image, people who, like Linus said of Charlie Brown’s tree, “just need a little love.” They’re hungry, lonely, afraid, angry, on the run. But instead of seeing, they’re given labels: “illegal,” “drug dealer,” “lazy.” Labels of ethnic identity, sexual identity, social status, are too often used to push people, ironically, onto the pile of cast-offs, rather than to rescue, feed, clothe, or heal.
If you want to look like Jesus this Christmas season, the friendly reminder is this: Look for the cast-off, the frightened. They just need a little love.
Our tree was redeemed by love. I’ve been redeemed by love. The question still hanging in the air: Who am I seeing loving, blessing, redeeming?
An Advent Prayer
O Lord who sees
You were at a party once and a woman burst through uninvited
She wept at your feet, kissed them, wiped them dry with her hair.
All the religious experts could see was her label: sinner
You asked the party host, “Do you see this woman?” and it wasn’t rhetorical
Because in truth they saw her label, but not her love
Saw her reputation but not her gratitude
Saw her failures but not her worship
And in so seeing, didn’t see at all
What do I label, so as not to see?
What do I judge, so as to pass by?
What do I fear, so as to close my heart?
May I see with your eyes
And love with your heart
Lord have mercy