Will you be a John Lennon, or a Zacchaeus? This may seem like a nonsensical dichotomy, but stick with me. It all has to do with trees.
Try not to see a tree. Where I live, and in many other places around the world, you can’t look out the window without seeing one. Trees have had significance literally since the beginning of recorded history, whether it be Adam and Eve indulging in forbidden fruit or Gilgamesh whacking down Humbaba’s forest.
Last summer, while driving to get dinner before work, I listened to the brilliant song “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles. In said brilliant song, there is a line that goes “No one I think is in my tree. I mean it must be high or low.”
Previously, I had done a little research into the song’s lyrics, through a website that was definitely not Wikipedia. I found this Lennon quote while not searching Wikipedia:
“I was different all my life. The second verse [of Strawberry Fields Forever] goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius—‘I mean it must be high or low.’”
Back to my car on the way to dinner. It’s the middle of Summer. I’m feeling a bit disconnected after spending a year away at school. I’ve just finished writing a story with a complex metaphor that I’m not sure anyone will understand. My grandmother’s neighbors and one of my old best friends are separately combatting hydraulic fracturing—a process which I’ve just finished a research project on and concluded is harmless. My dad wants me to read a book which I’m not sure is theologically or historically sound, but I really want to believe it, because he does, and I trust him and love him and he wants me to believe it. I feel somewhat alone in a fractured storm of ideas, metaphors, stories and lyrics which I have cultivated over the school year, and which I am now left with on my own.
Everything inside of me says that fracking is harmless, and that my grandma’s neighbors are just scared and overreacting. But am I really right—do I really know anything about this fracking company that’s moving into their town? Everything in my head tells me that this book my dad wants me to read is over-stretched sensationalism—or am I just being too critical? No one, I think, is in my tree. I mean, it must be high or low. Am I wrong or right? Am I crazy, or am I a genius?
I’m in my car on the way to dinner, and John Lennon is singing to me about being alone in that tree. “Myyyy tree,” he sings, spreading out myyyy over two beats. Finally, somebody who gets it! No one is in my tree.
But wait. That sounds kind of lonely. No one else is in my tree? At least John Lennon’s there. But he’s dead.
And what am I doing in myyyy tree, anyway? Is that really whose tree I want to be in?
As I pulled into the Wendy’s parking lot, I remembered one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes:
“Christ says . . . . ‘I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down.’”
What is my tree? I’ve climbed high up into my ideas—my thoughts, my beliefs, my tastes, my philosophies, my religious rituals, my coolness, my writing abilities. My my my my my my my. My natural self, as Lewis said. Myyyy tree. And just as Lennon found, it’s lonely up there—or down there, or wherever the tree is. Living in it leads to nothing but shyness and self-doubt. I will never be smart enough or cool enough to be smart enough or cool enough.
Therefore, God doesn’t just want to trim my tree and make it nicer looking. He doesn’t just want to correct little parts of my natural self. He wants to uproot the whole tree. And that tree will come down, whether or not I’m still in it. So the question is: am I going to get out of my tree now, and let God cut it down? Or will I stay up in it, relying on my own ideas until they tumble down and bring me down with them?
The Bible tells of another guy who was up in a tree. His name was Zacchaeus, and if you grew up going to Sunday School like me, you’ve probably sung about how much of a wee little man he was. Indeed, today we would euphemistically call him “vertically challenged” (sidenote: at what point is a euphemism so overtly clinical that it becomes a dysphemism?) So when Jesus came into town, Zacchaeus climbed up a sycamore tree so that he could see Him. And Jesus looks right up at him in that tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today (Luke 19:5, ESV).”
Now, whydidZaccheaus get into the tree in the first place? It was to see Christ. Can you think of a purer motive? If you can, tell me so that I can tell you you’re wrong. But the thing is, Christ calls Zacchaeus out of the tree. Jesus didn’t simply want him watching from a self-attained, distant perch. He wanted to come over to his house. He wanted to know him.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible says this on the passage:
“Make haste, and come down; from the tree. The dangerous estate and condition of a sinner requires haste; it is like that of Lot in Sodom, when it was just going to be destroyed . . . and so it became Zacchaeus to come down with all speed to Christ, who was come hither to call and save him; and the enjoyment of Christ, and his grace, calls for haste . . . . Such who come to Christ must quit all their exalted thoughts of themselves, of their riches, fulness, and self-sufficiency, and come to him as poor and needy, for such only he fills with his good things . . . . ”
I don’t know anything about John Gill other than that his last name makes me think of fish, but his words on this passage still stand. Jesus called Zacchaeus to leave his tree, leave his riches and self-sufficiency, because those things are coming down, just like Sodom. Christ called him to get down quickly and come to Him.
But what if Zacchaeus had stayed in the tree? What if he’d said, “Nah man, it’s nice and warm up here, and I can see and hear you just fine!”
It’s hard to have a conversation with somebody when you’re up in a tree. It’s definitely hard to host house-guests from up in a tree. Likewise, it’s hard to relate to somebody if you’re high up (or low down) in your own ideas, skills, and strengths. Especially if that somebody is God, whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). Our tree will always be low compared to His, and it’s honestly just silly to stay in it when He is calling us to Himself. Jesus sees Zacchaeus in that tree, and He’s saying, “Dude, get down. I’m over here. I don’t want you to just be up there watching me. I want you to get down here and I want to know you.” (Luke 19:5b, New Living International Expanded Jonathan Version).
Zacchaeus got into that tree for a good reason. But if he’d stayed in that tree, had never gotten down and into the frightening process of knowing and being known by the Creator of the universe, it would have been disastrous. Likewise, it is good for us to have our own ideas, and philosophies, and even a certain measure of self-esteem. But if those things are what we cling to—if they are what we rely on, what we live in—then we will miss the reality of Christ. We will be lonely, shy, self-doubting, and we will ultimately go down with the whole tree.
But the funny thing is—and by funny, I mean funny in a “isn’t funny that a puppy died” sort of way—that so many people get this, get out of their trees, get to know Jesus—and then go back and plant another tree. And not just another tree, but an even stronger tree.
In the book that my dad has me reading, the author talks a lot about Isaiah 9:10. A lot. No, seriously. The entire book is on Isaiah 9:10. That particular verse recounts a proud boast, made by the people of Israel in defiance of God after He had judged them. The second half of the passage reads as follows:
“The sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place (Isaiah 9:10b, ESV).”
In God’s judgment, their sycamores (remember a certain tree climbed by a certain wee little man?) were cut down. God wanted the whole tree out. But instead of taking the hint, God’s people decided to plant new trees. Bigger trees. Better trees, as a symbol of their own ability to bounce back. Their own self-reliant ideas, based in their natural selves.
In the same way, when God cuts down my natural self, along with the ideas I have leaned on, I easily miss the point entirely. What I should be saying is: “Hooray, my tree is gone—I’m no longer stuck leaning on my insufficient half-knowledge and self-doubt, but I’m free to trust God! Jesus, I want to know you!”
Instead, it sounds more like: “Hooray, my tree is gone—I’m no longer stuck leaning on my insufficient half-knowledge and self-doubt, but I’m free to trust God! Let’s go plant another one!”
It’s one thing to be prideful enough to stay in the tree when Jesus calls. But to have the sycamore cut down, to feel that weight, and then go back and plant a cedar?
But even a huge honkin’ cedar is no match for God:
“For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan; (Isaiah 2:12-13, ESV).”
To put it less poetically, God’s going to take the proud and cut ‘em down, even though they are as magnificently cool as the hugest trees in all the land.
There are two ways to look at this passage. Just like the sycamore fell, so will that strong, sexy, and magnificently cool cedar. And though, like cedars, our ideas may be strong, sexy, and magnificently cool, they are not enough. Maybe I’m an Einstein. Even so, all that Einstein ever did was discover things that God created from scratch. No matter how big and bad my tree is, God’s is bigger. Mine is insufficient, and it is coming down.
My response to this information hinges on one vital question: will I get out of my tree? Will I leave my lofty pride and come down to Jesus? Or will I stay up there?
If I’m John Lennon, staying up in my lonely tree, wondering if it’s high or low, then this passage should scare the whatever out of me. The tree’s coming down, myself and all. All the ideas I’ve clutched onto—the foundations I’ve laid—are coming down. And if I’m not crushed in the initial fall, I’ll still be hanging out there with nothing to support me, nothing to hold me up or get me through. I’m going to be a hermit crab without a shell. Extrapolated to eternity, this is known as Hell.
But if I’m Zacchaeus, scrambling out of the tree and running for the reality of Christ, then this passage should make me rejoice. Christ has called me to Him, and I don’t need to live with that big ugly tree in my backyard, because Jesus says He will uproot it. The same words that are a terrifying judgment for the me who wants to stay in the tree, are instead a cry of freedom for the me that wants to climb down and know Christ.
The bottom line is this: if I am too interested in myyyy tree—my ideas, my being right—to come down and get to knowJesus as a person, and put my trust in Him, then it’s all for naught. God wants me to think, to dream, and to have ideas—but first and foremost, He wants me. Period. And he doesn’t want me to just have ideas about Him, He wants me to have Him. Not my silly, little sycamores that pale compared to His reality.
As Jon Foreman sings in the Fiction Family song “Prove Me Wrong,” I’m tired of being right. In Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller writes:
“Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”
What Miller describes can be seen in the debate topics of any internet forum, or the comments of any religious youtube video. Discussion about God is, most often, just about being right. Sadly, the same often applies to entirety of life. How often is life just about being right, having the correct ideas, the correct political views, liking the right things, the cool things? This mindset is completely self-centered. If I’m talking about God, but my biggest concern is whether or not I’m right, then I’m not really talking about God at all. It’s all about me. All about me defending my skimpy little sycamore tree.
I can “be right” about God, and books, and politics, and fracking, and what’s the best item on the Wendy’s dinner menu (it’s the Apple Pecan salad) until the cows come home, but that is not enough. God doesn’t want a bunch of people who can be right about things. He wants people who know Him, and who love Him.
God is always right. That sort of comes with the whole being God thing. Trusting God is the only thing a person can do that is always right, and all attempts to be right outside of him will inevitably fall short. Any attempt to find security outside of him with my intellect, my coolness (or lack thereof), my natural self, myyyy tree, will be uprooted.
So get out of the tree. Know Christ. Nothing short of this can rescue from shyness and self-doubt. Our trees will always be lonely places. Christ’s everlasting embrace—made with those arms, spread out on the tree we sacrificed him upon—is the only solid ground we have. No matter how much we talk, no matter what kind of face we show to our friends and family, we know that we are not always right. Our friends know it, too. God knows it. So why are we still in our trees? To quote from Back to the Future, let’s make like a tree and get out of here. Jesus is calling us down.
Get out of your tree.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Revised ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986), 153.
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts On Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 103.