Sometime in the summer of 1994, my first wife, Melissa, and I traveled from sea to shining sea -- Seattle to Princeton -- in our old, blue Toyota Land Cruiser, camping at state and national parks on our way across the country. It was a sublime trip, and the most lasting memory was the 18 hours we spent at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, at the time the smallest national park in the U.S. We drove up to the campsite at 11,000 feet one late August afternoon and pitched our tent in some soft grass in a small grove of old trees next to a babbling brook.
After setting up our tent, we followed an unmarked path up to 13,000 feet and stumbled upon a grove of Bristlecone pines. We pulled out the map we'd been given at the park's entrance and read about these magnificently old and gnarled trees, at the time the oldest known living organisms on the planet. The oldest one, which met its fate in 1964 when a geologist inadvertently killed it while studying its age (and aptly named Prometheus), has only its trunk to mark the place where it met its "premature" death. It was estimated to be nearly 5,000 years old. It was a sapling, in other words, before the pyramids of Egypt has been built. It was already an old tree by the time Solomon became king of Israel, and it was positively ancient when Jesus walked the earth.
Missy and I walked around the grove alone in a rapt state of wonder among these magnificent trees as they quietly looked out over the Nevada desert like silent sentinels, living testaments to sheer tenacity and endurance, to cosmic patience in an otherwise harsh and unwelcome environment. Indeed, as the park's brochure puts it: "Bristlecones survive longest where conditions are most strenuous":
This strange tree, shaped by the wind, snow, and rain has survived over thousands of years, overseeing the rise and fall of great empires, growing through ice-ages and catastrophic volcanic eruptions. But their ability to survive these harsh environments and adverse growing conditions is exactly their secret to great longevity.
You couldn't help but wonder if the same principle could be applied to human beings. I remember learning, on my first trip to Ghana, W. Africa in the summer of 1988, that the Ghanaian people were known throughout Africa for two things: their laughter and their story-telling. These people, most of whom lived at, near, or below the poverty line were remarkable specimens of good humor and generosity, and it was both incredible and disarming to be surrounded by such destitution and laughter, such hardship mixed with generosity and good humor, all at the same time.
I remember in particular a conversation I had with a Ghanaian pastor on my second trip to that beautiful country ten years later, in 1998. We were enjoying a late-night dinner under a tent lit by candlelight, and he and I were talking about the devil, which always makes for good conversation, and we were remarking how easy it was to see the devil's footprint in places like Africa, where the devil's operating procedure was to rob people of what they needed: food, shelter, peace, safety. We were then left to ask the obvious question: does the devil have geographic preference for countries south of the equator, for so-called "Third World" countries? By implication, of course, that would mean that God had preference for countries north of the equator, so-called "First World" countries. No, we concluded, God did not enjoy home field advantage in the northern hemisphere, nor did the devil do his only -- or even best -- work below the equator. He just used different means to the same end, which is ultimately despair and nihilism. In the South, the devil took everything you needed, where in the north, he gave you everything you wanted. Both led to the same place.
Which brings me back to old truths, and to old things. They really are the newest things, the most surprising truths. That ancient grove of Bristlecone pine trees Melissa and I stumbled across that late August afternoon were a living parable of one of the deepest truths in scripture: that trial, hardship, adversity... all the things we are conditioned to avoid like the plague are, turns out, the most life-giving things, that things that can make us stronger, more patient, kinder, more generous and redeemed versions of ourselves. There are no guarantees, of course, that difficult things produce nobler virtues, but it is a guarantee that one cannot attain such virtues without these difficult things. This is why, I suspect, Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses, not simply because that's what the life of a disciple entails, but that in doing so, we are simultaneously redeemed, or at least on the road to redemption. The very sinews of our spirit, like the bark and deep-down wood of the bristlecone pines, are being twisted into something enduring, something beautiful, something lasting. As Paul's letter to the Romans puts it:
Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.
And yet so many of us Christians walk around assuming that God not only promises but actually wants us to have easy, successful, comfortable lives. Why do we assume that freedom brings happiness, or that love must always have a romantic angle to be whole and true, or that our anger must have a victim in order to be satiated? Why do we build so many of our our theologies around lies? Why do we wall want to be like the grass, in other words, which is bright green and here today but withers and is gone tomorrow, and not like the bristlecone pines, which outlast empires, outlive whole histories, survive the rise and fall of entire civilizations? Why, indeed?
Because we have grown accustomed to the staid, the stale "newest thing" and "biggest thing" when, in reality, the oldest things are the newest things, the smallest things the greatest. The Gospel, it turns out, really is breaking news. As Chesterton writes:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
I end with this poem from e.e. cummings, an ode to new things, to broken, gnarled, and twisted things. May it speak its truth to us in this age of ours, in this Cult of the New, in this never-ending parade of distractions that we now, alas, have mistaken for living:
"may my heart always be open to little"
may my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living whatever they sing is better than to know and if men should not hear them men are old may my mind stroll about hungry and fearless and thirsty and supple and even if it's sunday may i be wrong for whenever men are right they are not young and may myself do nothing usefully and love yourself so more than truly there's never been quite such a fool who could fail pulling all the sky over him with one smile