Topping the Tree

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season.”- Psalm 1:3

One of the highlights of my boyhood years was heading out to family land to find a Christmas tree.  There was a cedar grove down in the bottom land by Lindsay Branch, and this was always Dad’s destination.  We had to drive through a pasture and through several gaps to get to the grove.  Once we crossed the old crosstie bridge and passed through the muddy ruts around it, I knew we were almost there.

Early on, there were plenty of young cedars from which to choose.  But with passing years the grove thinned out, and we had to resort to “topping” the older trees.  For those that don’t know, “topping” refers to cutting and using the top out of a larger tree.

At first, I didn’t like this concept at all.  It seemed unnatural.  We were supposed to find the best young cedar in the woods, cut it at the base, load it in the truck, and trek out through the gaps and mud and crosstie bridge to home. The old trees were second choice trees for me.  But then I learned that some of the most beautiful Christmas trees we ever had were ones that had been topped.  And before long, I began to focus on the tree tops to find a suitable specimen for family Christmas gatherings.

When the Gift of gifts arrives, we are moved to share our best, to yield up our prime.  God desires our finest at any age. We will bear fruit in our season, according to God’s plan.  And we are never too old or frail to give our presents, and our presence, to the newborn King.

We all grow there, in the bottom lands: a stand of cedars near the creek bank, “planted by God to display His glory.” (Isaiah: 61).  Everlasting waters feed our roots, and the sap of life wells up inside and fills the air with incense.  The source of it all: water, sap, fine green tops, prickly perfume; the Logos, comes from Heaven through the muddy ruts for us.  He wants us all to fill the house with the spirit of Christmas.  He loves us, and wants our love, too. And He comes as an only Son to prove this Love, and to offer us eternal life beside the everlasting stream.

Young and old. Tops and all.

(Original watercolor by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist with Alzheimer’s)

The Importance of Intergenerational Relationships: An Illustration

My grandfather, Lester E. Potts, Sr, who died when I was 10 years old, was my best childhood friend. We shared a special bond forged over Sunday afternoon cedar-shaded stories and Wednesday morning fishing adventures. “Let’s throw a party,” he would say, and proceed to make a little celebration out of a mundane moment of our relationship. There was a good bit of quiet time with Big Daddy (as I called him). Or, it seemed that way to me. But there was a lot of communication, all the same.

Shortly before Easter, 1976, Big Daddy told us about a spell he had experienced while walking down the side walk in front of his home. “I froze, couldn’t move for a minute.” I remember Dad suggesting that he seek medical attention, something he rarely did (Rubbing alcohol had been his only medication). This led to a diagnosis of TIA, and a hospital admission for cerebral arteriography to look for blockages that could lead to stroke.

I remember with intense clarity what happened in Big Daddy’s hospital room that night after the arteriogram.  Somewhat agitated and appearing afraid (I had never known him to be this way) he began to try to tell us what the experience of the arteriogram had been like for him. But he struggled to get his words out, to express his thoughts. He seemed frustrated by this, and the fear showed more clearly in his eyes. Obviously, he had sustained a stroke during the procedure, my parents later told me. But right then, all I knew was that my Big Daddy was scared, and I needed to help.

I remember looking at him with compassion that his old spirit was pulling out of me. I wanted to help him find the words he was groping for, so that he could let us know how the experience had felt for him. He needed us to know, and he was growing more and more angst-ridden with each broken phrase, babbling farther and farther from language we could understand.

He appeared to be giving up in exasperation. Then he turned and looked directly into my eyes. I feel I will never forget this moment that happened 40 years ago. All the relational intensity of our times together seemed to well up right then, and he said three words. As he said them, a peace seemed to come over him. “Danny Boy knows.” And then he leaned back in his bed.

He needed someone to understand. He needed communication, communion. Someone to validate his anxiety, to know what he had felt. To hold his hand and comfort him. He needed his 10-year-old fishing buddy by his side. And I was there because he loved me, and I loved him.

Brain cells had been disconnected from each other. Spirits had not.

Yes, sir. Danny boy knows.

And I hope I always will.


A Christmas Visitation

The Wooded Path

Down a broken gray road by slack-planked shacks and rusted, wrecked hope hulls the man trudged; blood spattered, bone weary, spat-upon and silent.  His pain dulled in the analgesic balm of weariness; he was ready to lay down his head for the last time.  All that might have been was lost.  All he feared, finally, had come.  Frightened love, itself, had fled.  And so it was with the man.  And so it was with the world.  This path was a cold dead-end.

This, the terminal mile, had been reached.  The last splinter of hope had been to find this place.  Now, there was no need to struggle to grasp it.  This, too, could be surrendered to the void.  To dust, the man could return.  He remembered who he was, too spent for weeping.  But his shriveled soul knew what it was to cry.

No gravity remained to pull him down. …

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Thanksgiving, 2012

My spirit, a russet leaf of oak

swirls to November’s windy wand,

swept along in a homeward spell.


Brushing by the old ones

I am green again, though briefly so.

For we all change hues in autumn’s breeze.


And the heat of held hands

and thankful hearts

has cut away the cold.


Filling ourselves with the gravy of good,

we laugh again at dinnertime

and for dessert we cry.


True colors show

around the table

in the fall of the year.

“Now Thank We All, Our God,”

for times of turning.

Joseph’s Gift

(John 19: 39-42)

I cannot let Him hang there,

naked and defamed –

A body bridging Heaven to the Law.

I will give Him, of Himself, a gift

His riven heart to me has borne.

Darkly down a skull-set Hill

I go to kneel and die.

From my stand, a distant pediment of stone,

I saw His kind hands softly touch them.

All of them. Even in their filth.

His fingers naming each unknown,

denuding layers of leper-skinned shame.

The weighted center of my world

swung wide away to where he bent and bore.

The sea, a mountainside, unruly wind;

I heard them pray His name –

Tectonic Holy utterings of praise.

Now this waning world-end day is split and still,

curdled in the blood-stirred dust of Death.

The lone warmth here, my clammy flesh.

Yet I will rise to lower Him –

take Him in my wooden arms,

pull spikes through sinews,

nail them to myself,

untangle a cruel crown.

This One whose ceaseless reaching

rescued even the dead and damned

now hangs on me without a twitch of pulse.

David’s desiccated seed.

His blood – the milk of Canaan – falls upon my robes;

Hope of Heaven seeps into the ground.

With my aloe and myrrh-soaked linens,

kneeling near the cliffs of Hell

I will love Him. I will love —

His pierced side, with water washing from my eyes.

Spike wounds, with my soothing spice.

His face, beneath a curtain of thorns,

parceled by bloody rivulets,

the primal gaze behind all truth,

all silence, sorrow, song;

first and last great missive

of the Glory that was once and is to come,

(and now can be) –

His face, with every drop of love

I’ve gathered from the cistern of His gaze.

Within me, walled desert citadels

fall crumbling in the sinkholes of His wounds,

embalming in His body the substance of myself.

My death, His viewing.

Today, forever, I must give this gift.

I will make His body clean.

Moments Matter

Moments matter, supremely.

As I think about this, I see that the times of deepest clarity of purpose, connection, truth, meaning and transcendence in my life have been moments…brief occasions where the veil between earth and Heaven has grown thin…when the barriers to spiritual communion between other people and me have been breached…when my full presence has harmonized with Presence itself so that I have been lifted to another realm where time is not counted by human means, but seems to be boundless…where nothing needs defending and everything is vast and open and safe…where all is truth and light and good and praise and peace, and prayer is the language for that time, the description of that time that can’t be described.

To think of this mystery makes the tears fall and simultaneously wells the joy up inside. Nature, music, words and art, deep connection with others, prayer, great sorrow or suffering followed by comforting love, and the experience of being at the end of my rope and sensing mercy’s hand unconditionally extended to me forever have made those moments real in my life. I am very grateful for them.

Somehow, I believe those moments live on and on, and are life itself. #momentsmatter