We’ve all had to find our own ways of coping with a restricted way of life while we co-exist with COVID-19.
Apparently, lots of folk have been tuning in to Bob Ross, the American painter, instructor and television host on his own program, The Joy of Painting. It helps them sleep during the anxieties of daily life that have become everyday experiences for all of us, they say.
His soft playful voice, gentle enthusiasm and conversational style make watching him at work a form of therapy for the imagination. Even the titles, often in unapologetic clichés, sound like an invitation to somewhere not far from Eden: Twilight Meadow, Bubbling Brook, Winter Stillness, Cabin in the Woods, Lazy River.
But nearly all of his paintings have trees; foreground, background, on horizons, up close, forests of fir trees, dominant, solitary majestic pines, unobtrusive thickets, low hanging branches over lakes and streams – all over the place, trees.
This is the man whose words became a meme, “There is nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.” I agree. Wholeheartedly. Without reservation.
I don’t paint, at least not with oil, acrylic or watercolor. If mixing and working stranded cotton counts, then I paint in textiles. But I do take photographs, and among my favorite subjects are trees.
During these past months, we have done a forest walk most days. The paths, the trees, the flora, lately the fungi and the wildlife all have been sources of healing and quietening.
But the trees? They have become familiar companions, known faces, and we have enjoyed them through early spring, summer and now well into autumn.
Trees are a big deal in the Bible. From the Tree of Life to the avenues of trees in the Holy City, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
My favorite prophet, Deutero-Isaiah, had a soft spot for trees. There is that word painting of nature’s loud applause of the Creator at the end of chapter 55:
“You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the cypress,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”
Walking along the banks of the River Dee recently, these trees were applauding in color. Isaiah 55 is a chapter deeply rooted in faith and hope, faith in the God of new beginnings and hope that the prophet and people will be part of that new thing that God will do.
That phrase, “Instead of,” is a summons to comparisons. Instead of this, that! Instead of the wounding scrubby thornbush, the elegant tall cypress; instead of tearing briars, the beautiful myrtle, its flowers and leaves used by brides and in victory parades.
Isaiah is anticipating the reversal of the curse and the fall, when God renews the earth and the whole creation rejoices and bursts into applause.
Going back to people who have found some solace and quietening in watching Bob Ross painting, it isn’t difficult to imagine the sheer tedium of chronic anxiety, and for many the slow erosion of emotional nutrients as we all try to cope with distancing, face coverings and the prohibitions on gathering together for mutual comfort, support and companionship.
Isaiah’s words are a promised interruption to the tedium and a confident looking forward to the shared rejoicing of those who may now be near despair.
The words that come before the promise of applauding trees are the words from which faith springs and hope flourishes:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
The uncertainty and widespread suffering caused by COVID-19 have taken a huge toll across our world. There is no end in sight; while there are many reasons to be hopeful, and much that encourages us in the kindness, cleverness and commitment of all kinds of people, it’s clear that life will not be back to normal any time soon.
Isaiah, and his love of trees, is a contrary voice to those inner anxieties and persistently negative voices that are in danger of undermining our faith and our hope. We will rejoice together again.
Our thoughts are always limited, often self-concerned and understandably preoccupied with those corrosively worrying what-ifs. God’s thoughts are different.
There is a heaven of difference between God’s thoughts and ours, between God’s words and our speechless fears. God’s promises are made in words that don’t bounce back empty; they accomplish and achieve God’s purposes.
These trees I have come to know as signposts on our walks.
One day they, or their seeds some time down the years, will clap their hands at the surprising joyfulness that surges through a creation being made new. The cypress will point the way, and the myrtle will clothe the roadsides with the flowers and foliage of a cosmic celebration.
Sometimes, just sometimes, theology requires imagination unplugged.
That’s how hope is sustained: By thinking the previously unthinkable and by a vision as ludicrously hopeful and Godlike as trees applauding a world made new.
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.