Eulogy to the Trees: A Covenant Story

Rothaus_Eulogy_Trees_shortThey tell me that when they built this building, they plotted its location just so, where as few trees as possible would have to come down. To this day, there are trees in the middle of the parking lot because no one wanted to take them out. You must swerve around them to slide into a parking spot. The building is set way back into the acreage, with the overgrowth in front of it so wild and thick that passing cars cannot see us from the road.

Occasionally someone points out to us that this is poor advertising. How will we attract visitors if no one even knows there is a church back here?

For a few minutes here and there, we will ponder this insight until someone rises up in objection, “But it would change who we are, to remove trees and increase visibility. It would no longer feel like you’re pulling away into a peaceful retreat.” And with that, the discussion is over nearly as quickly as it started and nothing new is done or decided, which is the way we like it, truth be told. We consider our trees sacred around here, and we would just assume you not mess with them.

This year, a surprising thing began to occur. The Spirit started stirring and the conversation began expanding. This time we were almost serious. We started to ask with patient earnest: what does it mean for us to be visible to the outside world but maintain our ethos of quiet respite? We quickly understood this was not so much a practical question as it was a spiritual question. It most certainly was not a publicity question. How we chose to answer it directly correlated to the state of our souls.

This sort of question was not asking us for a committee or a strategy session (what a gross misdirection that would have been). No, this was a question that was asking us to pay attention to its inquiry and open ourselves to wisdom.

Since we host retreats on our property every fall and spring, it became apparent, first to Ben, and then we all agreed, that this next retreat ought to explore that question. How might we engage our world while living the contemplative life, and what on earth did that mean for our trees? We would call it “The Clearing.”

We made plans for the retreat. Poetry was a must. Paul would read to us from Wendell Berry novels. I planned the silent meditation, and instead of retreating to the back of the property like we usually would for such a thing—where the labyrinth was and the trees were thick and the cactus blooming—instead we would all sit somewhere between the woods and the rushing street, where we could hear and see both birds and cars simultaneously. There was no agenda for this meditation. Just see what happened if you placed yourself in relationship to both the outside and the inside. Ben planned a walk around the property where we would, as he said, “Listen to the land and see what it had to teach us.” As it turned out (this part wasn’t planned), Cynthia would write a poignant short story that personified the land and the church, and she let us listen in to her work of art.

A few weeks before the retreat, the strangest thing occurred. Adjacent to our parking lot has always been an empty piece of property on which nothing has ever been built. We like it this way because their woods join with our woods and provide extra cover. Those trees are what block the north side of our church from the sounds of the rushing vehicles. But one Wednesday we pulled into the parking lot for Lenten prayers, and the trees were gone. They had been torn down. We felt shocked and violated, even though we had to admit, they weren’t our trees and no one needed our permission to cut them. Still, those trees had been a part of us, and their absence weighed heavy.

I wondered what the pastoral thing to do at such a time was. I thought about taking up the mantle of justice, rushing over to the neighboring plot, and shouting at the tree-killers to stop. I predicted this would be ineffective. Instead, I sat on a bench facing the genocide and wrote a eulogy to the trees. Then I shared it with my congregation, so that we’d all have some words to grieve by.

We went ahead with our retreat plans, although it ended up we had more to ponder about the clearing that had been created for us than about any clearing we would initiate ourselves. It turned out the unexpected death of the trees was just as relevant to our souls and just as full of lessons. At the closing of the retreat, Ben remarked that he didn’t know if it was God or satanic force that destroyed the trees, but something or someone had orchestrated the timing. Clearly it was the thing we were meant to grapple with that weekend—the tension between exposure and retreat.

Funny thing is, months later, I don’t notice the missing trees so much anymore. And for the first time, I can see the church building as I am driving up to it, if I come from the north. I don’t know what this means yet, but I try to remain open to what is. I know that something about attending to the land is shaping our souls and watching the trees is teaching us about church.

Rothaus_pic_bench_smKyndall Rae Rothaus is pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. She graduated with her Master of Divinity from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor. She blogs Here and her sermons can be read or listened to Here. Her first book Preacher Breath is being published by Smyth & Helwys later this year.

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