I am of the generation that did not have a smart phone while attending university. In some ways, I am very pleased about this fact, because I suspect I would have wasted a lot of time on it while there. Also, I feel like as a society we abide more in smart phones than in the true Vine. But, today, I am sad that I do not have proof of my memories. Not because I need proof, but because it would be so wonderful to see the exact tree and the exact day that I realized God was writing love letters to me. It would be like a shoebox of love letters saved from early in our relationship. I hold them in my heart, and I know that they will never fade away in the eternal vaults of memory. Still there is a little bit of an ache that I don’t have them physically to look at today.
You see, my love letters from God started with an eastern red bud tree planted near a church near a bridge on the path I took to my art building for class everyday. The botanical name for this tree is cercis canadensis. You see, I was in a season of beginning to pay attention. I was in a season of learning to enjoy walking again. In college, I started taking different routes to get to different classes to see what I would notice. But, I always had to go by this tree. Now, if you are not familiar with the red bud, it is gorgeous in bloom. What surprised me was watching it grow from the dormant sleep of winter to the full maturity of the year in summer. I did not know that the buds stick out from the whole branch. Before the flowers bud, it looks like something has gone terrible wrong, like a bad growth of some kind. It fascinated me. I paid attention. And then, well, suddenly one day, a peeking out of bright purple appeared. Day after a day, I would see this tree slowly change as the buds came out in full bloom, in all their colorful glory. All the branches were covered. It was quite a sight. And my joy was increased. And then when I thought it was over, the leaves started next. And did you know the red bud leaves literally look like little red hearts when they come out of the buds? I was so surprised. I thought it just couldn’t be! This tree is already so interesting with the weird buds and the bright purple flowers (and seedpods too by the way ) all over the tree. And the leaves slowly over time grow bigger and greener into the tree-like-looking tree we think of when we think of trees.
I felt like this tree was a secret just for me. I would stop and look every day for weeks. I felt like God wanted me to see what He was doing. I felt like God didn’t want me to miss a thing. And I didn’t want to miss a thing either. He was sending me a love letter, a special homemade valentine with those heart shaped leaves. I think he was smiling at me being reawakened to the beauty of his creation. More than ever, I realized the Gospel was more about falling in love than doing the right thing. I think He knew exactly what He was doing. He was and is paying attention to me.
I have been listening to a lot of different talks online over the years, and a theme I’ve been picking up on is the idea of paying attention being linked to love. Isn’t it true? Whatever we pay attention to is what we are actually loving. If we say we love reading, but we never read—Do we actually love it? It’s interesting. Paying attention to someone is loving them. Don’t you feel it when someone looks in your eyes and listens. And don’t you NOT feel it when they are distracted, glancing at their phone or obviously more interested in another conversation at the table than yours. I’m definitely guilty of not placing my attention on the right things and therefore not loving the right things. Or rather, I’m missing the love letters of God, right in front me. The faces, the places, the promises, the growing, the hope.
A family I know is eating dinner by candlelight in this time of the coronavirus quarantine to make dinner special and to help them pay attention to what is being put in front of them. I love that idea. I grew up in a sports family with divorced parents. Let’s just say, we didn’t linger at a table, if we even ate at a table, or even together at all. Often, our practices were at different times, and we ate when we were ready. We missed that time of being at the table and paying attention to each other. Now, that’s not to blame anybody, and I think God has redeemed our story in a beautiful way, but I have a deep desire to be better at lingering at the table. It’s a difficult practice for me. I so quickly resort to scarfing down my meal, and moving on to what I have to do next.
What if I savored the bites of nourishment provided for me? What if I listened to everyone share about their day? Would I be more human? Would I love them better? Would I have more joy? I think so.
Lately, I’ve been hearing the phrase “More than ever” in almost every conversation I’m having or listening to online. I think the whole world is challenged to pay attention all at once, and the magnitude of pandemic fears is inviting our hearts to engage in a more real way. Now, I think that might mean that our hearts will also be tempted to disengage more and more as we face some dark times.
I’ve been through some dark times in my life. I know I can seem lighthearted and silly and all that, but I am really acquainted with grief and fear. I am reminded of this feeling in this season, but I have hope. I know the end of the story is good.
One of the ways I’ve heard the phrase “More than Ever” used is that the arts are needed more than ever. We are running to the Virgils to hold our hand as we walk through the inferno, that a little Dante reference if you are not familiar, and it keeps coming up this week. Yes, that is a beautiful thought. That the arts can be a hand to hold in the dark. The poets, the writers, the singers, the painters, the actors, the beauty will remind us of the good news. The beauty of the flower will remind us that Spring is not cancelled. That God is in control. That there is a love story with a happy ending of union and feasting playing out in all of creation.
In February, before all this craziness, I watched Sleeping Beauty with my neighbors. They had not seen it, and it was my joy to show my favorite princess movie to my little friends. I will have to process Sleeping Beauty with you someday, because I can go on for a while, but suffice it to say—it is a beautiful picture of the Gospel. A princess who does not know her true name is cursed to live outside the kingdom until it is time. She meets her true love in the forest but does not know he is the prince. There is a familiar gleam in his eyes. When she is deceived to prick her finger by the enemy, her only hope comes from true love’s kiss. Luckily she has magical friends, a royal family—community that support her, and a prince who will do anything to save her even face the powers of hell (they even say that word in the movie) with his shield and sword to break the curse. The kingdom is made whole. The feast and the dance begins with everyone reunited.
When I was in middle school, people started making fun of me because she was my favorite princess, because she is a passive princess. I should be more in support of women who can take care of themselves. This is the 21st century after all. It took me until after college to realize my love for this story is a beautiful thing. I learned that passive righteousness is actually a beautiful thing. I can’t earn it. I get the righteousness of Jesus by trusting Him.
“Awake, O sleeper”, the prince whispers in our ears. Do not miss it.
Do not miss this time to pay attention. To love. To give flowers. God sure isn’t. He whispers to us, “Today if you hear him, do not harden your heart.”
I listened to a talk in 2009 while at conference about art and faith in New York City. I can’t remember any of the details. I don’t remember who talked. I don’t remember the exact reference of the history. Here’s what I remember. I remember being in a place deciding if art was worth pursuing. I was asking God to help me choose a path for my life. This speaker shared of a fire in a big city where people lost their homes. So the helpers showed up. They handed out bread and blankets to meet their needs. And then a group came and handed out roses. Now, some people were outraged. “What are you doing? These people need food and shelter.” And do you know what the rose givers said? “Yes, but they need their roses too.”
MORE THAN EVER, we need our roses. We need to remember what’s good and true and beautiful. We need to see the love letters that Jesus has for us. May we pay attention to the red bud trees on the paths of our lives.
I do declare these words to you from Mark Chapter 14, verses 3-9.
And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
HAPPY EASTER! HE IS RISEN!
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