Someone in a tree

I want to make a confession. And I’ll get to it in awhile.

First, let me tell you about a writing assignment I’m working on. It is a set of short daily devotions on the Gospel of St. John to be published in The Journey in 2019. The editors ask the writers to make use of personal stories to help find common ground with the readers. I was thinking about the next passage I had to address, one that began at

John 8:13. The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” 

I was praying, asking the Lord where to begin, when the memory of an old song came to mind. It was from a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. It was not one of his great successes, running for barely 100 performances when it opened in 1976. It was called Pacific Overtures. I’d never seen it, but, being an admirer of Sondheim’s work, I had, along the way, picked up the cast album and the published script.

It told about the 1853 arrival of American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry to open trade negotiations with the formerly closed and isolated empire of Japan. The story was told from the Japanese point of view. In Japanese Kabuki-style staging. As you can guess from my description, it presented little competition for audiences accustomed to The Sound of Music or Cats. But it is a Sondheim gem.

The song that came floating back to me as I prayed was called “Someone In a Tree.” It is a droll testimony by an old Japanese man who, as a ten-year-old boy, had witnessed the meeting of government officials with Commodore Perry and his delegation. The young boy had climbed a tree so he could peek in the window of the Treaty House where the meeting was going on. He couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t really understand what was happening. In the musical, the Old Man and the Young Boy up in the tree talk back and forth, correcting each other’s account. But both take great pride in just being there for the moment.

I saw everything! …
Where they came and where they went —
I was part of the event.
I was someone in a tree!

Without someone in a tree,
Nothing happened here.

If I weren’t, who’s to say
Things would happen here the way
That they happened here?

Sondheim has great fun playing with the undeserved pride of this witness to history, while it is clear to the audience that more was happening than this witness could grasp then, or, in memory, now.

The humor lay in the assumption by the witness that he could see all there was to see. Sondheim is slyly inviting the audience to realize there was more going on than could be seen, or comprehended, by someone — a ten-year-old boy, at that — limited to peeking through the window.

And I realized that John was describing the same approach by Jesus’ critics. They ask for witnesses to back up the incredible claims Jesus has made. But they are expecting only a certain category of witnesses. They want witnesses of a familiar sort, ones they can own and control. They want to exclude Jesus, himself, from offering testimony. They are certain that if “no one else is in the tree” to say what they saw, then “nothing happened here.” If there was no one else who was “part of the event,” then there was no event.

Jesus confounds them when he calls his own Heavenly Father as a witness. It is confounding because, Jesus says, “You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:19) Here is a witness the Pharisees cannot control or box into a corner.

After I wrote the devotional commentary, I kept thinking about Sondheim’s song. The logical flaw he has exploited in his clever song made it a perfect rally cry for atheists, I thought. They, too, want to limit their list of acceptable witnesses on the God question to narrow categories they can own and control. If you can’t see all you need through the “window” of natural human reasoning, then “nothing happened here.” That’s a simple enough argument that any ten-year-old can understand.

I said I had a confession to make. Several years ago, in a chapter meeting of the Order of St. Luke the Physician prayer team at my church, the chaplain invited team members to speak briefly about why they had committed to that ministry. At the time, I had a very clear reason for my interest. I believed Jesus still manifested works of healing and miracles today. And I wanted a front row seat from which to see them. I told the group that was why I was happy, eager, to pray for the sick. You have not because you ask not. I wanted to see Jesus do his stuff, so I was ready to step up and ask in prayer with as many people as I could.

In the years since, I’ve had that opportunity to ask for others and for myself. Hallelujah, I have seen Jesus do his stuff many times. And I’m grateful. If I hadn’t asked, who’s to say things would have happened here the way that they happened here?

But I have come to think I shared a poor motive at that OSL meeting back then. Jesus is not here to heal people for my satisfaction or entertainment. One of the things I learned from listening to John Wimber was, after asking people what they wanted Jesus to do, to then ask Jesus what HE wanted to do. And then ask for that. Sometimes — most of the time? — there are things going on that can’t be seen just from looking through the window while climbing some tree. If Jesus isn’t answering my prayers in the way most satisfying to me, maybe it’s because this boy needs to grow up a bit more.

And anyway, when it comes to how things look from a tree, Jesus is the one who can really tell us something. The words resonate more deeply than even Stephen Sondheim is likely to have anticipated.

I saw everything! …
Where they came and where they went —
I was part of the event.
I was someone in a tree!

Without someone in a tree,
Nothing happened here.


About Deacon Rick

I am a retired Deacon in Lakeland Florida.
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2 Responses to Someone in a tree

  1. Nancy says:

    Wonderful insight. Beautifully expressed!

  2. Elva Hoover says:

    Dear Rick,   I really appreciated this post.  I am sure a lot of other people do too.  Your gift of writing  as well as spiritual insight to share–casting the bread upon the waters of the web–will help many people.  Like the one who wrote you how he was enlightened by something he read in the Mystery of Faith. But most people will not think of getting in touch.    May the Lord continue to use you in this ministry to bless others as well as possibly clarifying some things in your own thinking.    My eye doesn’t let me write much, so will close.    Blessings, love, prayers, Mom    

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