Since writing trees and chaff, part I, I have had conversations with a few people about the applicability of the notion of trees and chaff. One said, “We don’t really know how we might respond were our lives to take a turn for the worse. I suspect we’d be better off than we think.” That might be true. It is possible, though, that behind such a statement lies a psychology of denial. Few people live in fear of encountering a disaster equivalent to being doomed to death in a concentration camp. Thus, the whole idea of needing to be a tree is either purely theoretical or else, considering the very low statistical probability of catastrophic events, not worth thinking about. The analogy of trees and chaff in Psalm 1 is, therefore, an inspiring notion, but not one that is particularly useful in dealing with the ordinary routines where we live most of life.
Denial can express itself in yet another way. The thinking goes something like this. Christians are steeped in Biblical thinking, have a hope that is rooted in God’s sovereignty and focused on an amazing future where the Kingdom of God predominates, and believe that God is good and nothing can separate them from Him.
That’s very good theology.
But theology does not make a tree.
* * * * *
Thirty-five years ago, I was let go from a job. The details are not important. Suffice it to say that I was so angry at God that I beat walls and threw hammers. I was not angry at myself or my former employer. I was angry at God. Really angry.
Maybe I am unique. Maybe everyone else would handle such a catastrophe with aplomb. Maybe you are thinking, “Wow. Time for some anger management, man.”
I would say chances are much better that you know exactly what I am talking about. No one leads a charmed life. As one of Job’s friends correctly noted, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Trouble in life is a certainty. We lose our car keys, get locked out of the car, get a flat tire on the way to an important appointment. The landlord won’t return a security deposit; the bank reports an overdraft; the credit card company charges a late fee. A favorite glass breaks in the sink. Miles of cars sit on the interstate seemingly for hours due to construction. The baby fills her diaper just as you are heading out the door. The price of gas soars. You have a fight with your spouse.
Pick your problem. Over the years, I have watched people, including myself, respond to trouble and in most cases, the picture is not pretty. I’ve seen denial, self-justification, anger, depression, resignation, loss of hope, defeat, impatience, rage, confusion, despondency, resentment, disgust, shame. These are the responses of chaff, not trees. Whatever happened to the future hope of the Kingdom? the sovereign oversight of God Almighty? the abiding presence of God Himself? Where is great theology when you need it most?
If I get upset because I can’t find my eyeglass case, who am I to think that I would adapt perfectly well should the global economy tank and I lose my entire way of life? The way I responded thirty-five years ago to a lost job has been repeated time and again over the decades in big and small ways. Each and every time, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God came to the forefront. If God is sovereign over all things, then whatever happens is somehow God’s fault. For crying out loud! Being Almighty, He can do anything. And He is supposed to be good all the time. Where the heck is my eyeglass case? Is finding it too hard for Him?
My problem is never with the missing eyeglass case or the trouble du jour. Trouble brings into stark relief the fact that, although I may say that God is good, I do not really believe it.
* * * * *
Christian theology is sound, but, in my experience, many Christians do not believe it in practice. Like Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” It is easy to believe that God is good when the gas tank runs dry just as you roll into a gas station. The whole notion of God’s goodness is cast into doubt when a tire goes flat on the way to a wedding, one week after your AAA membership lapses, and you are dressed in a suit. And it’s raining. Things like this happen. All the time. It is one thing to believe that God is good; it is another to understand what that means in the midst of trouble. The common conception of the goodness of God leads us to expect that the car will work perfectly well on the way to the wedding. Why wouldn’t it, if God, who is almighty, really desires to be good to us, His children?
My wife and I attended our nephew’s wedding recently in New York City. The night before the wedding, we had a wonderful time with the two families at dinner. After the meal, my wife and I, along with her brother, headed back to our hotel. A very light rain was falling. I volunteered to stand at the edge of the street to hail a taxi while my wife and her brother stood under a storefront canopy. The rain became heavier, but I had no umbrella and no option but to hold my position in the downpour. An angel appeared, telling us that all of the taxis passing by would be filled, heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel, and that we should go around the corner. We went around the block and, standing under the canopy of a restaurant for several minutes, concluded that taxis did not know the street in front of us existed. We traipsed in the rain to another corner and, due to the wind that was now picking up, were barely protected from the rain under another restaurant’s canopy. Meanwhile, the downpour became a deluge. Scores of taxis went by. A small group of people exited the restaurant and within a couple of minutes entered a taxi right in front of us. Water was running down my scalp into my shirt. More taxis sped by, showing no interest in the poor, soaking out-of-towners on the side of the street. Finally, mercifully, an empty taxi pulled over. Three people and gallons of water soaked up by our clothes slid into the taxi.
It would have been easy to conclude that God is good had we left the dinner that evening and immediately found a taxi, avoiding both a long wait while tired from the day’s activities as well as the unpleasantness of carrying the weight of cold, wet clothing. The theology of the goodness of God as expressed by most of the Christians that I know is not up to the task of dealing with the real world. In fact, commonly understood theology fails miserably. The best we can do is say, “Well, God must have had His reasons for all the shenanigans, and I’ll find out when I get to heaven what He had in mind.” But, having to wait until I get to heaven before I can make any sense out of my life makes God’s presence in this life superfluous. Those who are more inclined to give God some immediate credit might admit that God’s plan in the current circumstance must have something to do with character development. Rarely do we know exactly what He is working on and even more rarely do we appreciate His tactics.
Besides, do I not have a right to be annoyed if God makes me stand in the pouring rain while waiting for a taxi? And, is it not reasonable to think that God is not being particularly good in that circumstance? There is certainly plenty of scope for Him to do better!
It seems to me that this line of reasoning is not how trees go about living their lives.
Thomas Merton, writing in New Seeds of Contemplation, is one person who understood the goodness of God in all its manifestations:
“For it is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain. It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting. It is the love of God that sends the winter days when I am cold and sick, and the hot summer when I labor and my clothes are full of sweat: but it is God Who breathes on me with light winds off the river and in the breezes out of the wood. His love spreads the shade of the sycamore over my head and sends the water-boy along the edge of the wheat field with a bucket from the spring, while the laborers are resting and the mules stand under the tree. It is God’s love that speaks to me in the birds and streams; but also behind of the clamor of the city God speaks to me in His judgments, and all these things are seeds sent to me from His will.
“My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom – still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: “Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this His love is found, and in accepting this I can give back His love to Him and give myself with it to Him. For in giving myself I shall find Him and He is life everlasting.”
Merton is not inventing new ideas here. Indeed, he is simply putting into modern terminology what the prophet Isaiah wrote 2700 years ago:
“I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Only trees know that the waters and the fires of life are direct manifestations of the goodness of God, not in any abstract sense or as part of some larger plan in life. Chaff cannot possibly know this. Only trees can. Only trees.