The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all those who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be
Isaiah 61:1-3 (NKJV)
One of the difficulties in ministering to one another’s needs in tragedy is that it is very like watching a wildfire on television. You look at the horrific scene of the destruction taking place, often in the West of the American mainland, and you see the night sky lit orange, or the daytime shrouded in black clouds of smoke. It is surreal and unreal. It just doesn’t quite sink in that it’s a real fire. I think it’s because you can’t smell it, personally. The smell of a fire makes it very real. It brings the panic.
We once lived in a house in the Mauka region of Oahu, that is to say the part that was up the hill toward the mountains, versus the Makai region that is down toward the ocean. One summer, there was a fire in the forest around Schofield Barracks. It dropped ash on us from miles away. It clouded up the sky and made visibility extremely poor. When the fire hit the eucalyptus trees, however, things got real. The smoke of a burning eucalyptus tree is noxious. It feels a lot like crowd control gas. It burns in the lungs. It burns in the nostrils. It makes you want to run far, far, and further away from it. When you’re close enough to a fire to smell its smoke and to wear its ash, you know what is happening and how to move to help the people displaced by its fire. You give them shelter, but you also give them air and a shower.
In human tragedy, we seek to do good things for people and to serve them, but it is sometimes so surreal and difficult to understand how because we can’t smell what is happening. Or so we think.
We should all know what not to do when someone is suffering from tragedy. Don’t quote “all things work together for the good of those who love Him.” Don’t say, “Well God has a plan for this.” And definitely don’t ignore their pain and suggest that God is teaching them something. If they are kind, they will simply ignore you and forego asking you for advice on simple things, like where to find a bathroom. If they are having a very bad day, and it is likely they are because tragedy, they will probably give serious consideration to breaking your nose and vomiting your advice back to you about your free rhinoplasty.
Pine cones are fun. They are compact, nature-made projectiles. They can be gripped firmly in the palm of any young man with an imagination full of adversaries and lobbed into the woods. If they strike a tree, they make satisfying cracking noises before falling to the ground. Thank you Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and eighth grade angst.
If you’ve ever held a pine cone for long, you will notice that your hand comes away sticky with sap. If you’ve ever wondered why a tree extends its life-preserving goo to the item that is destined to fall from it, something I never wondered until I read up on this, it has nothing to do with some sort of natural world vendetta against those that would be so obnoxious as to throw pine cones through a forest.
It has to do with a process called “serotiny.” Serotiny is the process through which some plants store seeds in pods, not to disperse at regular intervals, but to disperse in case of great need. There are different events that cause serotiny to take place. Sometimes it is drought. Sometimes it is limb death.
Sometimes it is fire.
In the case of the sappy pine cone, the cone is held shut, hiding the life spawning seeds within. When a wildfire whips through a forest, it destroys much of what is there. Have you ever thrown a green pine cone into a fire? First, don’t do that. Don’t be that guy. You know the guy. The one who throws styrofoam plates into a Boy Scout campfire and lands the entire troupe an hour long lecture on why global warming is a hoax, but don’t be stupid. Buuuuuut if you’ve ever been that guy and thrown a green pine cone into a fire, you find out those suckers are hardy. They can put up with a lot of fire. The sap on the outside protects the cone. It also holds the cone shut. Once the sap is consumed and melted off of the pine cone, it opens, exposing the seeds for a new tree.
If you try and tell me from some of my difficulties that God has a plan, don’t worry. I’m not going to punch you in the nose. I totally get it. You see the potential for new life in me. I’m an open pine cone. And you’re excited. I get it. I’m still not asking you where to find a bathroom. I don’t need someone excited for my growth.
I need the rain.
The genius of the creation of the pine cone is that the seeds do not release when the cone opens. There is one more trigger.
Following a fire, the ground becomes nutrient wealthy. Nitrogen is all over the place. Ash is full of it. Burnt woods, underbrush, and the occasional unlucky woods occupant create a carpet ripe for new growth. And there is one thing that is needed for the new trees to regrow the forest back to new life. When water hits an open pine cone, the last part of the serotiny process occurs. The seeds drop en masse into the fertile new soil, watered by the rain, and ready to begin the forest anew.
It calls to mind the monologue from The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”
A life in tragedy doesn’t need altruism. It needs mercy. Be the rain, not the news camera to document the fire.
Casting Crowns, Hillsong, and North Point… All three of these Christian music forces of nature recorded songs I have sung in the past six months for worship songs. Each of their songs feature one specific phrase from Isaiah 61:3 that has harassed me in its evocative picture.
One of our close family friends has her email address patterned from this verse. I was entirely ignorant of verse three in Isaiah 61, because Jesus stopped reading half-way through verse two. After all, the day of God’s judgment was on that day not yet fulfilled. Quite remarkable how much time takes place between God’s commas, huh? But anyway, I always thought, as it was also a play off of her name, that it was just our buddy being poetic about trading beauty for ash.
But in the day of the Lord, God says He will comfort us by trading our ashes of mourning for beauty.
“And there will be beauty where beauty was ash and stone.” -Casting Crowns
“Proclaiming freedom for all, this is the day of the Lord, beauty for ashes.” Hillsong
“Ash was redeemed only beauty remains.”- North Point
I might be completely off base here, but I don’t think these three very different and very separated groups of people all got together and said, “let’s all write music about exchanging beauty for our ashes.” I think there has been fire. I think there is freedom. I think people are ready to exchange the harsh scape of a place that has been destroyed to see new life come forth again.
What is clear is that God is planting. He is planting something in the soil. He is planting giant trees in the fields where you have been destroyed, and crushed, and persecuted, and maligned. He is doing it in the lives of the people you see suffer. He is doing it to people you have never met.
Statistically, you are more likely to observe the tragedy than suffer it, day by day. So let’s be the rain. Let’s be mercy. Let’s take part in what is taking place. From these ashes, the beauty of life is coming. God has not made us for suffering. He has made us to survive and be even more beautiful after. He has not made us for slavery, but He has made us for freedom, and He has sent Himself for that freedom. He did not make days of slavery to sin, and condemnation under the law. But he is making the day that is His that the death we created will not be the end of us. The serotiny of our souls is the miracle of His life after our death, and the beauty that comes to life because of His great love, and the mercy he rains on us through the ones He sends.