The tree with the lights in it

Have you seen the tree with the lights in it? I don’t mean the Christmas tree you took down months ago or the outdoor tree with the landscape lights. I mean one like the backyard cedar Annie Dillard described as suddenly “charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.” She wrote that her experience was “less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” “I had been my whole life a bell,” she confessed, “and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).

After reading of her experience, I looked for years for such a tree until I finally found it, or it found me. After visiting an old hilltop cemetery at Neely’s Landing on the banks of the Mississippi in Southeast Missouri, I glanced over my shoulder for one last look at the place, and then I saw it. It had been the furthest thing from my mind, but there it was, an old cedar, the spaces between its dark green branches pierced by light from the clear blue summer sky, glowing like globules of liquid cerulean ready to drop on anyone who passed under them.

As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared, the liquid blue fading to sky again, the tree with the lights in it becoming merely a tree again. But the chill I felt in my spine remained long afterwards, and it still returns when I think of that tree. I’ve not seen it since, though I sometimes look for it. But once, it was as if a curtain parted for me alone and allowed me to see into another dimension. As Annie Dillard wrote, “The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.”

The tree, of course, had no real lights in it; the liquid blue was only sky. There was no change in tree or sky; the change was in me. A possibility planted long before when I first read of that tree, and a moment of artless, uncontrived readiness, made it possible for me to see what was right in front of me but to see it differently, in rare and grace-filled splendor. And I wonder, which was true? Was the tree with the lights in it simply a momentary illusion, or were cedar tree and sky the illusion that held and hid and then revealed something eternal?

Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of the Astellas Institute for Regenerative Medicine and an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, wonders if any objective physical reality exists independently of us. Or is everything created by the perceptions of those observing it? Lanza believes the physical world we perceive is not something separate from us but is created by our minds as we observe it. He proposed that, “Observers ultimately define the structure of physical reality itself” (“Is Human Consciousness Creating Reality?” by Paul Ratner, Thinking, 7 June 2021).

To my unscientific mind, the idea seems a stretch; still, something in it rings true. We create reality all the time by the way we look at things and think of things. Label one of the plants in your garden a weed, and it becomes worthless, a nuisance to be plucked up and thrown away; you can forget it’s something God created and called good. Think of a child as worthless, and you act as if that child is worthless, and before long the child thinks of himself as worthless and loses touch with his inherent value.  

Genetics professor, science broadcaster, and environmental activist David Suzuki also believes the way we think of things creates its own reality and governs our behavior. “The way we see the world,” he said, “shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity – then we will treat each other with greater respect. This is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.”

This is our challenge, to look at creation from a different perspective and see something of the divine in it. Scripture tells us the mystery of God’s will has been made known to us (Eph. 1:9), yet we continue to see things dimly as though in a riddle or a thick fog (1 Cor. 13:12). Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth, yet people don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113). We’re like little fishes swimming around looking for the Ocean and seeing only water. Or we’re like Nicodemus, who came face to face with his own new birth yet failed to comprehend what was in front of him (John 3:1-10).

Yet there is a way to see and to know God’s will, at least in part. So Paul urges us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Don’t allow the world around you, the world in which you have been raised and socialized, to be the lens through which you look for God and for God’s will. Be transformed – become different people – by the renewing of your minds, by changing the way you think, so that you may see what’s right in front of you.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “You wish to see; listen. Hearing is a step toward Vision.” “Open your ears, O faithful people,” the Hasidic hymn goes, “open your ears and hear God’s word” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 519). “Open my eyes,” the Clara Scott hymn goes, “that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me; . . . / Open my ears, that I may hear voices of truth thou sendest clear” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 454). And it happens! “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” Paul says, and he goes on in that chapter to give us what seem to be instructions: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; out do one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:9-11). His list goes on, things to do, as well as we’re able, even mechanically if that’s all we can manage, until the scales fall from our eyes and we see truly. Practice faith until you have it, then practice faith because you have it. Stand under the trees and keep looking until you see the one with the lights in it.

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