The three trees and the end of the world

Crisis, Hope, and Imagination, The Blessings of Beginnings and Endings

by Donald Schell

I’m thinking our annual year-end collision of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic, last judgment readings just might be a happy or blessed accident. Reflecting on our experience of beginnings and endings, praying to find God present in both, we can’t escape the territory of personal and human crisis, fearful and hopeful imagination, and our faithful practice when we see that things we’ve counted on will certainly pass away.

Talking recently with my twenty-five year old actor son, I asked whether he felt the broadly generalized cynicism I feel from many in his generation. (“Sarcastic” is what they seem to call it).

I know as well as you do that cynicism is far from universal among twenty- and thirty-somethings. And in fact I’m inspired by the splendid hope that my son and his friends invest in their acting work and the unwavering hope they show as they struggle to make lives for themselves in heart and soul intensive poorly paid artistic work. When clergy colleagues at or near retirement edge lament the state of the church, I insist that I see steady, faithful risk-taking ministry led by younger adults. And then through my wife’s work in international development, I’m privileged to know some very young committed health and development workers. Sincerity and whole-heartedness are by no means dead.

But my son knew what I was talking about, voices we both know that match the cultural snapshot, the media presentation, and the stories from parents and friends

-cynicism about relationships,

– a mistrust of any leader or artist who presumes a whole-hearted quest for compassion, truth, love, or beauty, and

– a fixation on amusements that seem calculated to numb with deliberate banality or adrenalin-driven intensity.

“It looks like a holding back,” I said to him, “Do you sense people are protecting themselves by anticipating disappointment? Are these people afraid to imagine or trust something good or hopeful?”

“Dad,” he said, “don’t forget that we’re the first generation in history to know that the world could literally end in our lifetimes.”


“Global warming. Losing the planet.” And to the threat of climate crisis, he added his memories of 9/11 when he was fourteen and in his first month of high school.

“With terminal threats around us,” he said, “I’m not surprised that some people don’t find much reason to hope,” he said.

“But you haven’t quit hoping,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed, “I do hope, but sometimes I don’t understand why.”

Then he was surprised to hear that at his age, I and many of my friends expected our political leaders would blunder us into thermonuclear war. I didn’t expect to reach the age of 30. People our age who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” didn’t expect to live beyond that threshold themselves.

What keeps us hoping when we have good reason to believe the world as we know it might end? I notice that in neither my son’s case nor in mine did the end of the world itself seem like something to hope for. In the religious environment that I grew up in, I suppose that made me a bad fundamentalist. And yes, I did have one very scary “left behind” moment at about twelve when I woke up from a Saturday afternoon nap and couldn’t find anyone in the house.

Did first century Christians and Jews actually HOPE the world was about to end with a trumpet and apocalyptic destruction? Sometimes it seems they did, sometimes it seems they enjoyed imagining the collapse of any pretense of civil society as much as they believed the collapse would also prefigure or provoke a divine cataclysm. Was theirs an ironic or satirical vision? Did they look and pray for apocalypse to protect themselves from disappointment? Whether they enjoyed it or not, Jewish communities in Jesus time and early Christian communities that sprang from them had a taste for apocalyptic, lurid, hair-raising evocations of the end of the world.

My generation, born just after World War II’s Jewish holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has little taste for apocalypse.

While writing this piece I came across Christy Wampole’s New York Times piece, “How to Live Without Irony.”

Wampole’s ironic hipster is just slightly older than my son. But she’s describing a related phenomenon and positing similar reasons; glimpses of apocalyptic destruction like 9/11 and our many hurricanes, despite the Advent readings, don’t add up as Good News. Church (and other value-shaping community organizations) aren’t speaking a trustworthy hope for people in their twenties and thirties.

My actor son was three in 1990 when we moved to the house he grew up in. Around the perimeter of 25×40’ city garden I planted twenty trees. Some grew tall and full (and some of them didn’t make it).

Two of the tall trees are out front. Our California live oak, literally grown from an acorn, is now big enough to support our gardener standing in its branches eight feet up to shape and trim it. The more delicate, feathery Norfolk Island Pine is as tall as the house.

Out back three redwood trees I planted by our back fence just shot up as redwood trees do – California’s giant and long-lived redwoods grow tall very, very fast for their first twenty or so years. When ours got to thirty feet, we started topping and thinning them, hoping the garden book was right, that by planting them close together and keeping them topped and thinned, we could cajole the giants tree into making us a tall hedge. As they got big, I planted a Cecil Brunner climbing rose in their shadow. It snaked up through the redwoods toward the sun and began blooming in their crown, shiny levels and radiant pink-white blossoms giving the trees a regal glory.

Topping and thinning the trees didn’t stop them from thickening their trunks. My wife feared we had a tiger by the tail, that, despite the gardening book’s assurance we could keep them a hedge, we were in danger of losing a battle with their wild nature. “They’re blocking the sun,” she said. “They’re determined to keep getting taller, and won’t they eventually drop a huge branch on someone’s head?”

I loved the intense dark green of the trees, their mysterious shadows, and the radiant glory of the roses that topped them, but eventually agreed that the three trees needed to come down.

It took a crew of three men and several days to get the trees down and out and to dig their massive roots out of the earth. In the process we learned that the middle tree’s roots were badly diseased. It was more than a big branch poised to fall in the wind.

We replanted with trees that wouldn’t aspire to such heights, and in the restored sunlight of our garden, we planted tomatoes, green beans, and lettuce.

I was showing our newly sunny garden to a guest one afternoon when our next-door neighbor – not the downstairs neighbor we knew, but the upstairs neighbor who’d never spoken – began shouting at me from his fourth floor deck, “How dare you take those trees down?!” I tried to offer a neighborly explanation, but he flat refused to believe that I’d planted the trees and dismissed our discovering the decaying roots. “They were beautiful,” he said. “You had no right.”

I told him we’d replanted with new trees that would do better in the limited space, trees that would stop growing at about the height we’d been forcing the redwoods to stop. “They’re gone and it will take a whole generation for anything new to grow up,” he insisted. “I cried to lose them.”

Sometimes I miss them too.

Another friend recently shared this poem from Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alvez –

What is Hope?

It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks.

It is a hunch

that the overwhelming brutality of facts

that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is a suspicion

that reality is more complex

than realism wants us to believe

and that the frontiers of the possible

are not determined by the limits of the actual

and that in a miraculous and unexpected way

life is preparing the creative events

which will open the way to freedom and resurrection…

The two, suffering and hope, live from each other.

Suffering without hope

produces resentment and despair,

hope without suffering

creates illusions, naiveté́, and drunkenness…

Let us plant dates

even though those who plant them will never eat them.

We must live by the love of what we will never see.

This is the secret discipline.

It is a refusal to let the creative act

be dissolved in immediate sense experience

and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love

is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints

the courage to die for the future they envisaged.

They make their own bodies

the seed of their highest hope.

―Rubem A. Alves, Tomorrow’s Child, 1972

Trees that threaten to fall. Global warming and mutually assured destruction in a thermonuclear war. Contemplating a possible end and making art. Founding a new church congregation when “the church is dying.” Might the seeming contradictions of this double season bridging Thanksgiving to Advent give us a hint for finding God’s work in the seeming contradictions of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic readings? What lets people find creative tension and god-like hope from looking unflinchingly at destruction and still risk new creation?

By the way, Advent hasn’t always been “the beginning of the liturgical year.” An older tradition (still remembered in Elizabethan times) regarded the Annunciation to Mary (March 25) as Christian New Year. Ancient Christian tradition had fixed the Annunciation on the same calendar day as Good Friday (calculated from other calendar considerations). But calling Advent with its eschatological, end of time themes our beginning, the Christian New Year may be on to something tying all that destruction, stars falling from sky, earthquakes and portents, fire and brimstone to the birth of Jesus? T.S. Eliot in the “Journey of the Magi” has his wise man narrator ask that and observe,

“…were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.”

Maybe there’s a beginning of Good News there, a hint of how to get from apocalypse to steady hope. A friend wrote a brief haunting, tune on a simpler line from Eliot that points to the same paradox – “In our end is our beginning, in our beginning is our end.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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