Most people who know me know that I like birds. I have, for three decades now written a monthly column in the IRCC newsletter concerning birds. Those who know me better also know that I am equally fond of trees. I find trees amazing. I always remember the day I looked at the mature hickory in the pond lot of the little farm I grew up on and thought to myself, That’s essentially a really big parsnip. I’m not entirely why parsnip came to mind rather than some other vegetable, perhaps the profile of a stand-alone hickory is a little carroty. My family has long since grown weary of my attempts to teach them to recognize tree species. We go somewhere new and the next thing they know I am nosing about at the base of some tree or other and they just shrug. But I have learned new species of trees almost everywhere I’ve ever gone. In Georgia I learned the Soap Berry. In Oregon I learned the Cimarron. In Oklahoma I learned the Western Hackberry – which is considerably different from the eastern variety I grew up with. Also in Georgia I discovered the tree that owns itself. Look it up! One of the most exciting moments in our visit to Hershey, PA was the discovery of the biggest Willow Oak I have ever seen. My wife would probably pick a different moment. In Louisiana I first discovered the Crepe Myrtles. And so it goes. What amazes me is that when I find a new tree in a new locale – none of the locals can tell me what it is. I have to search that out for myself! Most people everywhere, it turns out, share the views of my family – It’s a tree. What else do I need to know? It’s almost inconceivable to me, this not wanting to know what kind of tree it is. Is there any edible fruit? Is it a good source of lumber? Is it highly prized as an ornamental? Did you know that people have used hollowed out sycamore stumps as pig pens? Did you know there are a million leaves on a mature American Elm – and there aren’t so many of those left. Have you seen the width of the floor planking and barn boxing that came out of those old Chestnuts? Not many of those left either. Were you aware that a Weeping Willow will dry up wet spots in your yard? Of course, it will also invade your septic system, so…
I first learned to climb trees in the Catalpas at my maternal grandmothers. I quickly added to my ‘species climbed’ list. I knew the Tulip Trees were the tallest in our neck of the woods long before I read it. Climbing to the top of a large Tulip Tree gets you a good view of – everything – including being able to look down on the tops of all the other trees. I have helped with maple syrup enough to know which of the Maple species are preferred. I have made root beer (not just tea) from Sassafras trees. I like the taste of Beech nuts, Tupelo berries and Black Haw. I will never forget the massive old Black Walnuts in the virgin forest at Turkey Run State Park. I love the varying size range of trees. I love the varying profiles of trees. It astounds me how many shades of green there are. Don’t even get me started on texture – though I will say I have always been fascinated by the muscley/sinewy flow of the American Hornbeam. OK, I will also add that the gator hide/pebbly bark of Persimmons is cool. And since you brought it up, the peely bark of Birch trees is pretty interesting.
There are 60,000+ known species of trees on earth and my knowledge represents only a pitiful handful of those. To date, my favorite is the Redbud - though I understand there are maybe twenty species of Redbud – I guess I like them all about equally. And, of course, I may yet discover a species I like better.
At the end of the day, everything I know about trees leads me to this conclusion – God is infinitely creative. And when I think about all the things trees do for us I realize God is also infinitely good. And when I think about how complex trees are I realize God is also infinitely smart!
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that my all-time favorite poem is A Ballad of the Trees and the Master by Sidney Lanier. You might look that up too.
I remember a day in 1969 – rummaging around in Taylor’s Music Store in Martinsville, Indiana. My older sister and I were both recruited to the marching band before we reached high school age and we were there so mom could float a second mortgage to get Leann a flute. I looked around at this and that – all pretty much out of my price range at 12 years old – until I came across a ukulele. I had enough paper route and lawn-mowing cash to afford a ukulele, a felt pick and a copy of Mel Bay’s Fun with the Ukulele instruction book. It was an impulse buy. I mainly played the Sousaphone in the marching band and made do with a model owned by the school as there was never a serious question of really mortgaging the farm to afford a Sousaphone or figuring out where, in our small and crowded home, such a thing should be kept! In retrospect, all my siblings got their own instruments – flute, clarinet, trombone, and saxophone! Was it my fault the band director needed me to play the biggest and most expensive thing? But – I digress. The uke was an impulse buy and I learned to play it (It’s not that hard!) Just a few years later two friends and I formed an impromptu junior church camp counselor band writing and singing our own material accompanied by guitar, ukulele, and a set of spoons. We called ourselves ‘Spoons, Strings and Other Things’. All the third and fourth graders we helped look after that week loved it. There were several local pulpit ministers involved in that week of camp and we actually got invitations to visit their congregations (and one county wide hymns-sing) to provide special music. The gig ran through the summer and into the fall. If Alan and Brad ever happen to read this, I hope they remember the thing as fondly as I do. Brad had recently acquired a new guitar and gifted me with his old one. Back to Taylors for a set of guitar strings, a plastic pick and a copy of Mel Bay’s Fun with the Guitar! Also, a harmonica – hay baling money by this time. I went off to college able to get along on all three instruments – and of course, the Sousaphone. My friends Roger and Sue – who subsequently married – and I played together a lot; some Cowsills tunes and the Christian Choruses popular at the time. Sue recently passed away but I hope she and Roger also remember those times with as much happiness as I. As I made my way into youth ministry, I worked harder on the guitar and, like my friend Brad before me, purchased better instruments and gifted Brad’s old guitar to another aspiring musician. I spent many years keeping up with the changing choruses and camp songs, led worship for a thousand weeks of church camp (in many of which little impromptu bands got put together), played for my own youth group, and formed a quartet with three other men from Harmon Chapel Christian Church in Shady Valley, Tennessee and another group with some of the members of the youth group there. Both groups got some invitations to sing here and there and we had a lot of fun – at least I did. If Tony, Kevin, Lonnie, Brian, Barry and Rob ever read this, I hope they’d say they did too. The time eventually came for me to become a Senior Minister and I took my first pulpit in Indianapolis. While there, I learned to play bass as part of a quartet called the Red Letter Edition. This group (with a bit of a shifting membership) lasted many years – outliving my decade long tenure at Drexel Gardens Christian Church – and travelled more than any other I have ever belonged to. We made a pretty good-sized splash at a national men’s preaching clinic in Oklahoma. Iterations of the group have even come to my congregation in East Canton, Ohio a few times. It was a blast. Harold started the whole thing and has also gone to be with the Lord many years ago. But I hope he, Will, and Richard – and then Bob, Wally, Dianne and a few others over the years were as blessed as I. I still play but it finally happened that the current praise music has moved on without me and I am no good at leading it. Mostly, I play mandolin and sometimes harmonica for our contemporary praise band – led by a young family man to whom I gave his first guitar lesson. My son – whom I taught, plays bass and sometimes guitar. I work with other youth trying to keep the music going into the future. I do some programs here and there and play guitar for a southern gospel team that leads worship for our congregation once a month or so. It’s still a great blessing and I hope the dozen or so folk I currently play with would all say the same. I have recently started messing with a five-string banjo. Maybe someday soon I will break it out at church but first I would like to meet the sadist who thought it was a good idea to put the high treble string out of order! I am not and will never be a professional musician – or even a particularly good one. But praising God through music has tied me to so many people over the years and been such a source of happiness. Passing on the blessing has been a blessing. Things should always work that way!
I write this particular blog because one of my grandsons has recently taken up ukulele and harmonica. I smile because he has no idea!
Lord willing, come May I will make a trip to serve as a volunteer on the archaeological dig at Shiloh in Israel. This is something I have wanted to do since my early twenties and I feel blessed to finally have the opportunity. Just last week, the outfit I will be working with (ABR) made an extremely important discovery. They were ‘wet sifting’ the spoil piles of another organizations previous dig at Mt. Ebal. Wet sifting has not been used much in Israel to this point and much remains undiscovered among piles of dry sifted dirt and debris. Among the seeds, pottery fragments, and other small items, they found a curse tablet – a 2 centimeter square piece of folded lead with a curse scribed on the inside. (There is writing on the outside as well but a translation of that has yet to be released.) The lead could not be unfolded without destroying the piece so the reading of the letters inside the fold was done radiologically. Curse tablets are a known quantity. Many such have been found. They were a ceremonial item – the appointed leader making him/herself subject to the terms of the curse specified should they fail to fulfill their accepted obligations. (Think of the phrase from Ruth – ‘The Lord do all this and much more to me if ought buy death part me from thee.’ – only formalized for a ceremony.
This particular curse tablet is important for several reasons.
Why does this matter? Critics of the Bible have long contended that almost none of the Old Testament could have been written within hailing distance of the events it purports to record because they thought the Hebrews were an illiterate people until the period of forced education in the Babylonian Captivity in the 5th Century BC. The curse tablet – dateable because it’s lead, remember – backs the timeline for the literacy necessary to have written the Old Testament up 500 years – and shows that said literary ability existed prior to that (The advanced proto-Hebrew alphabet in the curse tablet was not invented out of whole cloth just for the occasion.) The people who formed this tablet were intellectually capable of writing any and all chapters of the Old Testament.
This serves to increase our confidence in the direct knowledge of events possessed by the O.T writers. At least it should. I predict that the skeptical crowd will not be moved. And, I realize that backing up the development of writing half a millennia doesn’t prove the divine agency of the destruction of the walls of Jericho but – if the assumption of the late development of literacy counted against the reliability of the Bible, surely the destruction of that assumption must count for the reliability of the Bible. But I repeat my prediction – to the minds of the skeptical scholars, it won’t.
The skeptics used to say the absence of any evidence of an actual Assyrian Empire rendered a large portion of the Old Testament non-credible. The discovery of the evidence for the Assyrian Empire and the relationship of that empire to such figures as Omri and Jehu did not convince them to regard the Bible any more favorably. They used to argue that absence of any evidence outside the Old Testament for an event like the destruction of Sodom showed the unreliability of the Old Testament – if something THAT BIG happened there would be evidence and we’d have found it. Well, recently, we have found it (Tell Hammam). And again, I get it – discovering this city on the north shore of the dead sea where the buildings were melted into puddles and the ground rendered uninhabitable for the next 700 years by the close passage of a meteorite – does not prove divine agency. But if the lack of evidence for such an instance of destruction by fire falling from heaven (interesting description, eh?) tells against the Bible then the discovery of such a place – in the region indicated by the Old Testament – ought, in equal measure – to increase confidence in the Bible. But it hasn’t.
I realize I’m getting old and crotchety but – I have reached the conclusion that most of those who cry out for proof – ‘Come on, just a little proof of what the Bible says!’ don’t mean it – or want it. There is no proof that would move them. Any proof that arises only increases their discomfort and hostility against God’s word because they have already made up their mind that IT JUST CAN’T BE!
I can only say that the more I learn the more I am convinced of the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church