On nickels in trees and moving forward
About fifty years ago my father, on one of our drives around the tiny country roads that snaked through Macoupin County, Illinois, wedged a nickel in a young sapling - right where a sturdy branch had grown out from the new tree's trunk. We marked well the spot - it was just past a small bridge and quite near an abandoned cemetery - and each time our drives would take us by that spot we would stop and check on our tree. As I grew taller, so did our tree, and whereas at the beginning my father had to lift me up to see that nickel, eventually my growth exceeded that of the tree and I could observe firsthand how the tree was growing around that nickel, a slow but constant embrace that made it - more and more - a part of the tree.
My connection to Macoupin County, Illinois basically ended when I went away to university, and very soon after my family moved away as well. Although the boyhood days of Sunday drives on country roads (of me sitting on my father's lap and steering the car!) had ended, we knew that nickel was there, even if we no longer went to find it. Its unseen presence became a story in itself: Remember when we put that nickel in that tree? Even just the memory of it was lovely, like an old quilt it surrounded us with familiarity and commonality.
Some years ago - maybe thirty-five years after our father placed the nickel in that tree - I said to my sister Kathy that we should go look for it. Kathy was always up for a good trip back into our stories, so we hopped in her car and drove the thirty miles or so to the weave of country roads that would lead us to our tree.
But, after so many years of being away, the landscape had changed. Houses that once marked spots to turn had been torn down. The bridge didn't seem a bridge at all, merely a fortified dip in the road. The cemetery was lost - perhaps reclaimed by the trees around it. "Even the dead are hiding from us," I said to Kathy who - although I didn't see her - probably rolled her eyes. As the shadows deepened and the locusts began to sing their intoxicating song of dusk telling us the day had ended, we admitted defeat and headed back to Kathy's house.
Our mood was understandably melancholy. We got back home and Kathy began frying chicken as I sat at the table and watched her, struck by how much she reminded me of our grandmother as she did so - all the way down to dirtying seemingly every pot and pan in the kitchen. "Maybe we can try again tomorrow," she said half-heartedly, but I think we both knew it was a lost cause.
But later that evening after supper, playing cards and drinking ice-cold Diet Sierra Mist cola, good cheer having returned and brought with it stories in abundance, I had a thought. I suppose calling it a revelation might be hyperbole, but if it wasn't revelation, we could certainly see revelation from where we were. Going back to look for that nickel in that tree was all good and well, but what was far, far more important was that everything that caused that nickel to be placed there in the first place - the love of our father, the strength of our common story, and the awareness of who we were - was still with us. And it would be with us until the intoxicating song of dusk would tell us that our days had ended.
As a person who loves stories, I can understand the Israelites murmuring in this morning's first lesson. I completely get looking back to those famous flesh-pots of Egypt and - though there is certainly some selective remembering going on (they seemed to have forgotten they were slaves in those flesh-pots) - I don't blame them a bit for their murmuring. Life was tough in the wilderness; they don't call it a wilderness for nothing, after all.
And I think Moses was not averse to them looking back, as to that point he had constantly pointed out that this confusing God they were following was the God of their past story, the God of their fathers and mothers: of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel.
But the whole point of the Exodus was to move forward. And moving forwarded included remembering - remembering was a principal element of moving forward - not just by focusing on the past, but rather by understanding what that remembering had to say about where they were going. Their future was illuminated by their past as if by a pillar of fire. They needed to move forward.
The story of the Exodus is a great story to tell during this season, not just because of its links to Christ and the new Passover, but also because it is an example of a people remembering their past but not being limited by it, and thus being able to move forward mindful of it.
This Easter in particular I have been guilty of perhaps wanting to look back a little too much. I miss the community, the coffee, and - of course, above all - the gathering to praise God in our beautiful churches. I have been pining for the metaphorical flesh-pots of Colegate and Tombland! And I think that's natural, and that I am not alone in this.
But I hope I am also not alone in the awareness of how our great stories and customs and traditions will most certainly aid us as we move forward beyond this period. For move forward we must do. I'm not sure what a post-quarantine Church will look like, but I'm pretty sure that it won't exactly be like the pre-quarantine Church.
But there is one thing about which I am certain: all that caused our churches to be built centuries ago, all that still bids us come - the love of our Father, the strength of our common story, and the awareness of who we are - it's all still with us. And it will be with us until the intoxicating song of dusk tells us that our days are ended.
We've just got to keep moving forward.