I take this religious walk way too seriously. Or maybe it takes me.
I find that the work of leading people towards Good Friday means that the story absorbs me in its emotion and in its utter disconnect from the mainstream life and culture of the everyday middle class Canadian consumer.
Spending time creating worship experiences that take people down towards the suffering place means that the story gets into my bones.
The in-your-face courage of Palm Sunday. When Jesus and his tiny band of followers walked like sheep into the slaughterhouse of Jerusalem’s power politics. They didn’t sneak in – they danced in – taunting the authorities to do their worst.
The anger of the overturning tables in the temple. Jesus confronting the hypocrisy of the business of religion. Keeping the priests and the temple and the traditions rolling along costs money sure enough. But when the free gifts of god get lost in the exchange. When the rich get what they came for - but the poor get turned away empty without oil to keep their soul’s candle burning – then who is going to turn things right? DAMMIT!
The heavy hand of power crushing the rebellious prophetic voice is not a new story. It happens every day. The stories get told in the news and in the TV dramas we love to watch. Our cynicism gets fed daily doses of how the voices of the voiceless – First Peoples’/the creeping Extinction of species at the cost of progress/cuts to assistance for Canada’s poorest/innocent victims of war’s competition for resources/ - all those victims’ cries fall on deaf ears behind closed doors.
And to make the sting even sharper, the story churns up memories of the personal betrayal of friends once bound in a cause, now torn apart in the heat of the most critical moment. It’s a white hot poker shoved into our most vulnerable places. The most courageous heart cannot bear being stripped of the love of compadres.
To soak in all of this for weeks of preparation, I find harder and harder each year. Even though I’ve done it all before. Even when I simply recycle good liturgy that’s worked well before. Even when I let the liturgy and symbols do the talking and I don’t have to prepare messages about all of the above. It affects me.
To faithfully walk towards the cross. Because I have to. Because it’s my job. Because to turn off my emotional taps and just go through the paces would be even more soul-sucking than this fight with my own need to run, to avoid it, to just get through it. It draws from my soul’s resources the last of the juices I have left. And, as so often happens in ministry – I’ve been drawing on those resources – making small week by week withdrawals – so that when I get into this place of deepest neediness – I find the cupboard’s bare.
And we haven’t even got to the mock trial, torture, and crucifixion of this most worthy, far from innocent lamb. He knew what he was doing. He takes us there. He leads where we don’t want to go. For the sake of redeeming love that is found in that lonely path.
Now that I’m tapped out. Bummed out. Distraught and confused and torn up some good. I wake up Sunday morning and it’s my job to bring out the good news. Spread the table full of joy and good tidings. Lead the song of victory. Ring the bells of daylight cause it was all just a bad dream. Nothing can touch us in this new place. We’re raised up above it all with Jesus dancing from the tomb.
The best analogy I can come up with to describe this sudden reversal is the car chase scene in your favourite action movie. You know when the hero is escaping by going full speed in reverse? Then there’s the cool move when the brakes are hit, the car fishtails 180 degrees and they take off - now going forward.
It’s not a great analogy I know. But it’s hard to describe how - even though - the whole time through Holy Week I know that I’m heading in one direction - there comes this sudden emotional reversal - this light switch flip - this need to turn on the joy from the bottom of my emptied heart.
And I do it. And I did it. And I loved it. But I find that for me - it takes time – time for Easter’s message to really sink in.
So, we went into the woods for the full week after Easter. At the cabin at 3 brothers falls, we’d tapped 20 maple trees back in that March mild spell. Finally, after 3 more weeks of winter, the sap was running.
The 50 yards between the cabin’s clearing, and the cliff wall, is a dense spruce bush. We’d cut a path through it last summer so we could climb/scramble up a steep ravine to the top of the rock wall. A 30-foot high wall of bedrock cliff runs for 100 metres until it drops down to where the Burnt and Irondale Rivers join to pour through.
We’d noticed some mature maples along that path so we scrounged together taps and buckets from Lynn’s family farm. Doug Aldworth added his collection that he was no longer using. He also gave us an old stainless sink he’d used for the boil up and a few tips - and we were set.
We ended up with 27 buckets on 20 trees strung along under that cliff wall. A swale, or spring run off creek, runs beneath the rock face so there was a bit of a natural path where trees hadn’t grown along the marshy strip.
In the week following Easter Lynn gathered the buckets of sap and boiled them down. I’d burnt two previous batches so I was sorrowfully fired from this job and given the task of keeping the fires burning.
Armed with my trusty Stihl 034 chainsaw, I began cutting deadwood out of that pine bush. While I’m not much of a gardener - pulling weeds from around veges isn’t my idea of fun - weeding a forest is another matter. I find the process strangely satisfying.
There’s an art to the weeding. Taking out the deadwood is an obvious part of the process. However, you want to leave the large dead standing ones - riddled with holes and cavities – because they’re natural insect-filled diners for the birds. Plus, those fallen dead trees are composting layers of soil - food for the next decades of growth.
Cutting living trees is a sacrilege. It’s a human intervention into the Maker’s perfect plan. To mess with god’s garden is what we, and beavers, do. The art of it becomes the choosing which small trees to weed out to encourage the growth of the trees we most value. Cutting away the ones that crowd and compete for sun and soil, allows the trees we choose to encourage to grow faster and better. Cutting the thicket of spruce clears room for the maples and birch and hardwoods I want to grow.
While the work of gardening happens over a season of weeks, the tending of a forest garden takes decades. One forester told me that the work of a generation is to add another inch of topsoil to the forest’s floor.
Trees and humans have a symmetry don’t they? Their lifespans are often similar. Many die young. Many grow up with beautiful deformities caused by bouts of disease, fire, childhood harm. The rare ones grow to ripe old age and become the grandmothers providing seeds and shelter for generations under their watch.
The work of trees, like humans, is to make homes. The forest is a home to myriad species. Like towns and cities, the more diverse, the healthier they are.
So while the sap dropped into silent buckets, tap tap tapping like seconds on a clock, I pulled gas and oil, motor and blade, into the roar of machinery’s decibels that nothing in nature can match. I butchered trees like the Romans butchered rebels. I slashed away at unworthy specimens like soldiers committing genocide. I cut and pulled and hauled corpses to the fire until sweat poured out of me and my body ached from the work of war.
While I put an end to the lives of many for the sake of firewood - winter’s heat in the cabin and the boiling up something sweet - the forest paid the price.
“This is my body, broken for you.” Each tree a son of god, an innocent killed for my sake.
“This is my blood, poured out for you.” The sap of life cut off from its flowing so I can live.
I’m a soldier in the cause of humanity. Lynn the druid priestess collecting the blood of trees, transforming it in the living fires of so many innocents, to create a sacred sweet communion taste of life everlasting in the midst of slaughter and the endless cycles of death and life and murder and peace.
As I cut trees along the rock face, it emerged as if given a shave. As I cut a clearing back away from it into the bush, the forest opened up for me. A way to now walk through what was before impassable. A place to sit and see the ancient face of granite. Patient beyond history’s ability to grasp. Enduring beyond flesh’s ability to know. Holding ageless secrets whispered in a language only faeries could translate.
They’d tell the mystery of nature’s redeeming resurrection that humans can only capture with myth’s unexplained nudges and ritual’s wordless telling.
I so I crafted a temple from the bush. Made, as all man-made temples are, from the blasphemies of humans wanting more and more. We take from god’s garden what we think we truly need. Putting in order the beautiful mess that was truly holy before we dared tear it down in sacrifice to the god’s of greed and hubris and the glory of our own imagined godliness.
So sweet is the communion of the blood of trees. So pure is the taste of spring’s new season. From the earth’s frozen ground there rises the unstoppable surge of life that transforms, in due season, into the miracle of another green and growing gift. We tap into it and it transforms us with just how sweet it is to live to see another spring.
With all the slugging of sap and hauling of wood and feeding of smoky fires, my physical exhaustion eventually matched my emotional exhaustion and from that bottomed out place, in the deep sleep of winter’s last nights, a new sap began to rise in me. Not with the sudden flip of a switch do I claim this new life, but with the slow and careful, labourious lessons learned from messing with god’s garden. I dare return to the city’s temple and work of making a home for all the Maker’s creatures.
Did we get enough syrup to share you’re wondering? Well, there’s nigh enough bottles to be handing out, but anytime you want to join us for a communion of pancakes, just give us a call.