Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Difference Between The Barren Bush And The Fruitful Tree

Ryan Hamilton; his wife Renee; his mother Sandra Hamilton; and Ryker on the day of the tragedy .

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 15, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Jeremiah 17: 5-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2004]

This past Christmas Day, 3-year-old Ryker Hamilton of Norfolk, Virginia got onto a boat in Honolulu, Hawaii—along with his parents, Ryan and Renee—to go on a whale-watching tour. It was supposed to be one of the highlights of a very special family vacation. And it was—until the boat they were on accidentally struck one of the whales they were observing. The force of the impact caused Ryan, who had Ryker in his arms at the time, to slip and fall backwards. Tragically, on the way down, Ryker’s head struck the rail of the ship, and the little boy died.

You might have seen this story on the news sometime during the week following Christmas. I know about the incident because a young couple originally from Westerly—Joe and Meghan—are close friends of the Hamilton family. They and the Hamiltons currently live in the same neighborhood in Virginia.

A few days after the accident, a distraught Meghan called me on the phone, looking for some spiritual comfort and guidance. Giving it, as you might imagine, was not easy. The death of a young child is a senseless, horrible tragedy, and those who have suffered the loss need to grieve deeply. I didn’t want to interfere with that process in Meghan. Grieving is painful and emotionally draining, but it’s also healthy. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

The truths of faith are not meant to eliminate the grieving process. We need to be clear about that. But they can—and should—sustain us in the midst of our grief and help us to pass through it.

On that note, when Meghan called me the other day, she told me that Ryker had recently been baptized.

Knowing how important Baptism is, I began to speak to her about the power and meaning of this sacrament. I reminded Meghan that from the moment he was baptized, Ryker was an adopted son of God, a member of the Church—and an heir to the kingdom of heaven! And since he was obviously too young to have committed a mortal sin, I told her that we can trust, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he is now there, with Jesus his Savior, in eternal glory!

When baptized adults die, the Church speaks in terms of “hope”: we hope the person died in the state of grace.

We recognize the fact that they might not have, because they were beyond the age of reason and were capable of committing a mortal sin.

But infants like Ryker don’t have that capability. Consequently, when they die after baptism, the Church speaks in much more confident terms. Beyond any reasonable doubt, we are to trust that they are with the Lord.

For example, here’s one of the funeral prayers for a baptized child: “Lord in our grief we call upon your mercy: open your ears to our prayers, and one day unite us again with this child, who, we firmly trust, already enjoys eternal life in your kingdom.”

I also shared with Meghan some of the things I had said at the recent funeral of 2-year-old Travis Shawn from our parish (who died suddenly just a few weeks before Ryker), and I sent her a copy of the tape of Travis’ funeral Mass.

When she was finished listening to it, she sent me an e-mail. I received it a few days ago. In that letter, she made reference to what I had said at the Mass—and what I had said to her on the phone—about heaven. She wrote, “I can’t even begin to imagine heaven. These little children that have gone before us are in a place where they will never suffer, cry or feel pain. [That thought] is what helps me get through this. They will never be in harms way. [I believe] they are little saints. At least I know someone upstairs personally now who is watching over me and praying for me all the time.”

Meghan opened her heart to the truth—the deeper, spiritual truth; consequently, in the midst of her grief, she is now living as a fruitful tree and not as a barren bush. At least, that’s what her e-mail indicates.

Here, of course, I’m making reference to our first reading—that powerful text from Jeremiah 17: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth. [But] blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”

Notice in this passage that both the bush and the tree are forced to deal with heat and drought. Outwardly, their experience is almost exactly the same. The decisive difference, of course, is that the tree has stretched out its roots to a nearby stream of water, where it finds nourishment and refreshment in the midst of the oppressive weather. The barren bush, on the other hand, has no water around it. Hence it gets no nourishment, and no relief.

Now every analogy breaks down somewhere along the line (no analogy, in other words, is perfect in every way); and such is the case with this one. I say that because neither the bush nor the tree “chooses” to be where it is. The bush does not make a personal decision to be in the desert; the tree does not choose to live near the stream. Bushes and trees do not have free will—they do not have the power of choice. But we do!

And there’s the difference!

That’s not to say that we can always control the “weather” of our lives (as much as we might like to!). As Meghan and the Hamiltons know, the heat and the drought can come upon us suddenly and unexpectedly.

But we do have the power to choose where we will experience those realities! We can choose to experience the heat and drought in the desert as barren bushes, or we can choose to experience the heat and drought by the stream as fruitful trees. We can even choose how close to the stream we’re planted.

Why is it, for example, that some people are better at dealing with temptation than other people are? Is it because they have better genes? Is it just good luck?

No! The spiritually strong are in that condition because they’ve planted themselves very close to the stream of God’s grace! They’ve made God and their Catholic faith the top priorities in their lives.

And so when the “heat” of temptation comes—be it the temptation to anger, or lust, or one of the other seven deadly sins—they immediately draw on that grace to overcome it. They draw it in through their spiritual “roots.” They’re not perfect at dealing with temptation—no one is; but they’re much better at it than they would otherwise be if they didn’t take their faith so seriously.

So obviously the crucial question of the day is this one: What am I doing to “plant” myself close to the stream? What am I doing to plant myself—and to keep myself—close to the river of God’s grace?

At the end of her letter, Meghan shared with me one of the things she has started doing: she’s begun to pray with her husband. Praying with others—or alone—is, of course, one of the primary ways of staying close to the stream of God’s grace. Meghan wrote, “[This tragic experience of losing Ryker] has transformed people around me. Joe and I have been trying to read a passage of the Bible every night before we go to bed. Sometimes I fall asleep too early—but the point is that I’m trying to show Joe who Jesus really is. He may even convert to Catholicism. That’s good news, isn’t it?!!!”

Yes, Meghan, it is good news. But that’s precisely the type of good fruit Jeremiah tells us we should expect to see when we make the effort to plant ourselves close to the stream: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord . . . he is like a tree planted beside the waters . . . in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”

O Lord, our God, by the power of your grace, help Meghan and all of us to be fruitful trees in the many times of drought that we face during our lives. This we ask through Christ, our Lord. Amen.