In the neighborhood where Laura and I make our home, where the rectory and church I serve reside, relatively hidden from the public eye, there are a great number of sycamore trees. I have been here long enough to see them go from winter dormancy through their spring bloom, the summer shedding of bark and now the autumnal purge as they divest themselves of their leaves.
These trees have character, and I deeply appreciate their presence. At our previous home, we had a sycamore in our back yard. The blessing of its presence was tempered by the fact that we had sole custody and responsibility for its seasonal cast offs. That meant piles of twigs and small limbs, bags and bags of leaves and mounds of their puffy seeds. Here, in Matawan, those issues belong to someone else. I just get to enjoy waking the dog through mountains of leaves piled curbside, enjoying their scent and the distinct, dry rustle that both rise as our feet brush through them in the slough of the gutter.
Why the poetic love of sycamore trees? More than any other tree I know of, these long-lived giants seem to spend almost as much time casting off old, dead growth as they do in piling it on. There is always, even as dry bark, leaves and twigs build up on the ground around them, a sense of vitality pouring up from the earth into the canopy of their leaves.
In my imagination, I see them as being growing, vital and unattached to the bits that no longer provide growth and support to the whole. What is no longer needed or necessary is released....to become mulch-compost for new growth.
It is a deeply moving, disturbing and beautiful thing to view in nature. The transfer to our existence as Church is a bit discomforting, to say the least.
On one level, there is an anxiety that we all face in our lives, with our careers, our relationships and our vocations. Will there be a time when I, no longer "useful" to the group, will be cast off/out? Am I the dried up bark, the barren twig, the chlorphyl-deprived leaf drying on the branch? I fear that. We all fear that. Our particular arrogance as humans is that we too often suspect that success requires us being essential to the mix as the organism of our life's society. Let's be honest: None of us can sustain that vitality forever. We labor in this world for only a short time. We receive our work from those who have gone before and we will release it to those who follow. It is in being overly attached to anything-history, self-importance, domination of others-that we fail to live into our part. A leaf can only be a leaf. Human beings have a talent for insisting that we are something we are not. What a scandal...to offer God rewrites in our charter as created beings. Why not just learn to rejoice in our unique, human frailty and get on with being alive to this one moment?
In actuality...being a part of that tree for a time is a good thing...and being released to become compost is also part of who we are. Dried leaves, bark and twigs have as important a journey to make as the new constructs being added to the matrix of that living tree do in their own fashion.
Beginning to enter into mid-life, I am seeing my role as a priest to the Church in a much more transient manner. I am not here in this life to write "the" book, or to make a massive and life-altering change in a parish (or in the wider church). I am here to play my part and to work hard and long on getting the Church ready for the next wave of leadership. My job, if you will, as a leaf on that tree of life that is the Church, is to do my part in turning sun and wind into energy for the whole...and when I am used up to do my part in adding to the rich soul soil of life, becoming the compost that will give vitality to rising generations of Christians in the age to come.
Do your part, do good work...and then look behind you and allow others to rise. Finally, let the fall come and let us do out part to nourish the soil...
That's real hope...not trying to assert our imortality by carving our lives into living stone but instead by lending our voices to the symphony of seasons...one leaf and twig at a time.