The hawthorn tree

by Mark E. Swanson

Text: Isaiah 43:16-21

I’ve been reading a book about a favorite painter of mine, Harlan Hubbard, an impressionist from Kentucky, who lived on a shanty boat. One of his paintings is titled “The Hawthorn Tree.” In the image, a lone hawthorn tree blooms among all the darker and taller trees in the woods. The river has recently flooded and the water is going down, leaving smooth mud. As the water drops, spring begins, and that is when this tree blooms.

The author says about the artist, who was an old man when painted this, “It was the habit of Harlan’s mind to look upon every disruption as a new beginning.”

Disruption leads to new beginnings.

That thought sticks with me as we find ourselves in the midst of a major disruption. It is one thing to respond with fear, or nostalgia, as I have done at times throughout this whole pandemic. But to have a habit of looking at a disruption as a new beginning is another angle.

Many generations ago, in the sixth century BC, there was a disruption that led the people of Israel into a difficult phase of their history. There had been a string of disobedience, including the neglect of the poor and the vulnerable, along with the worship of idols that represented power and strength. While God had given them prophets to lead them to reform, their warnings did not work. And so, we are told, God allowed for them to be hauled off into exile into Babylon. And they remained in exile until finally being freed by the Persians and able to return a generation later.

This was the exile, a major disruption. The people were now returning home, but…something had changed, it was not going to be life as usual.

As they returned home a prophet by the name of Isaiah, gave this message:

Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah had earlier recounted the works of God in the past. There was a time when the people were on another journey out of slavery in Egypt. It was miraculous, as the people escaped through the Red Sea, which swallowed up the Egyptian chariots that tailed them. This had been the defining narrative of their time. It shaped who they were and perhaps more importantly, it shaped who they understood God to be. It was his almighty character reference.

This makes Isaiah’s response all the more puzzling: “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past.” It sounds like he is dismissing their experience. Rather what he is recognizing is that there is a new narrative being written that emphasizes the new thing that God is doing. This will be a defining moment for the people of Israel for generations to come.

“See, I am doing a new thing!”

He gives this as a message of hope, a springboard from the past into an uncertain future, where God is making a way. Can we see it?

The entire testimony of scripture recounts a long legacy of disruptions. God disrupts life as it is. Sometimes such disruptions are referred to as Kairos moments. Of the two biblical concepts of time, one is Chronos, like chronology or chronicles. It is the idea of a timeline marching on. The other is Kairos, which has no direct parallel in English. In these moments God disrupts, appears in a unique way, and offers a reorientation to how the people of God are living.

We see this as God speaks to Abraham, and chooses him and his lineage to be a blessed people who will bless others. We see this in the Exodus, as God hears the cries of the enslaved, and delivers them. And here we have this in the exile and the return. All these disruptions lead to new beginnings.

The most significant disruption to the chronological timeline was the person of Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection–the good news–is the disruption around which all our lives turn. The Apostle Paul, that teacher and missionary who experienced his own major disruption in life, speaks about this new beginning: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

A new creation has come. This is who we are when we trust in Christ.

For those of us especially feeling the weight of this disruption, will something new come from it? Some disruptions seem unquestioningly good–a baby being born or a marriage for instance. These are disruptions to life as it was, yet they prompt us to ask new questions and think new thoughts. Can the same be said for even those disruptions that seem wholly tragic, like the death of a spouse, the loss of a job? Can the pandemic we find ourselves in also lead us to new beginnings?

Two caveats. First, I’m not about to walk a tightrope of prescribing God as directing a virus, or that anything like what we have experienced so far as being something by God’s hand. Such proclamations seem almost always to be directed as a personal judgment on someone or a people group or a nation. Rarely do such sermons seem to come from a deep self-reflection on one’s own faults, sins, or disconcerting behaviors. Those voices often stoke hate rather than speak love.

Yet, I do believe that out of any situation God can bring something good. As Paul wrote, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

And second, imagining what new things might come does not dismiss the pain and the hurt and the grief of right now. This is hitting some of our communities hard. By early May, a sister church in the Bronx, Promised Land Covenant Church, had already lost thirteen people to this virus…thirteen image-bearers of God, lost in a matter of weeks! We need to name and lament that grief. It’s real and it’s painful. We should never, ever be too quick to move on from these losses.

There was also plenty of grief before the Coronavirus hit. I keep catching myself, wishing for that moment in time, before all of this. We will all continue to process this pain, in our own way. Yet a disruption has happened and there is no putting back the clock.

So, what is on the other side of disruption? What is our hawthorn tree, which the flood has made possible?

What is God saying to you? Rather than hold them as a manner of your own reflection, invite God into the process.

What new energy and/or movement is starting to emerge in me?

What is starting to happen and what am I taking hold of?

Where am I being called to embrace something new?

Where are there issues or areas in need of healing or change?

I know in my own reflection, this has been separating some of the wheat from the chaff, asking where I want to put my future energy as an individual, as a husband, a dad, and as a pastor. What story will I be writing with God about what is ahead, if this disruption is leading to new beginnings?

These are not just questions for us as individuals, as valuable as that is. These are questions for us as a community of faith.

Disruptions lead to new beginnings. And when we are open to God, those new beginnings can be places of flourishing and life, and possibility.