Isaiah 55 and Trees Clapping their Hands – Reflections in memory of my mom

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there

but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;

instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

and it shall make a name for the LORD,

an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Isaiah 55:10-13

My mom died a year ago today. A year has never passed so quickly. Our daughter said it seems like it was only last month. I spent the year not knowing what to feel. The experts claim that grief comes in waves. I certainly experienced swells. A set would come in when buying chocolate chips in the grocery store or while watching the kids score a goal this Fall on the soccer field. I cannot guess the number of hours she spent sitting on cheap aluminum bleachers over the years. She would have loved to watch them this season and she would have noticed their progress. My dad transferred our old land-line number to his cell phone and seeing the number I dialed thousands of times as a kid each time I called him raised memories of my childhood home and with it memories of my mom.

I lived most of the year tending to life as normal. Life does not pause. Work still needs to be done. A hundred-and-eight-year-old house needs repairs. Kids need to eat and play and study and run and laugh. The day after my mom died I remember thinking it vexing that I still needed to make my son breakfast as if somehow I expected Greenwich or Cupertino or whoever is in charge of time these days to take notice. But life on the whole quickly slipped into routine. Video evidence might prove I was more distant with Katie, lost in my own head, home but not really home. But, that has always been a symptom of my own heightened self-importance. Was my patience shorter with the kids? Was my preaching less hopeful? Was I quicker to sit mindlessly before mindless episodes on Netflix? It is hard to tell. I did not consciously feel different much of the time – a reality that caused some level of guilt. Should I have been more affected?

Easter was different. For some reason I was fixated on the fact that the resurrected Lord ate broiled fish. How did one broil fish in the first century? My mom used to say that she planned to eat Panera Bread in heaven for the first thousand years. I’m not sure Panera Bread has any fish on the menu. A few weeks later John tells us Jesus ate fish again at the beach; this time cooked over a charcoal fire. The resurrection narratives are anything but ethereal. They are as Jonathan Rogers would say written “close to the earth.” I listened to Andrew Peterson’s resurrection songs in season and out of season which are equally close to the earth. The only funeral I officiated this year had more energy, more hope, more fire in my belly, more Jesus and far less concern about what anyone thought about what I said. It has become more fun to tell death it is doomed.

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We installed a bench near the library in West Des Moines in memory of my mom. She loved to read. The proximity to the library is certainly appropriate. The bench overlooks a small pond with trees on the bank as seen in the picture below. A small plaque reads, “In Loving Memory: Glola Caskey Basler, Isaiah 55:12.” I am not sure it was her favorite verse. But she loved to imagine what it would look like for the trees to clap their hands. She knew it was an image, a literary device, personification, she knew trees don’t have hands but her faith had matured her enough into a wonder-filled child to hope that some of the images in scripture might just be more literal than we can imagine. And given the setting of the bench it seemed like the right verse. These trees, or ones just like them, will one day clap their hands. The weeds and thorns and thistles blocking the view of the pond from her bench in the summer will whither and fade. The cypress and the myrtle will grow and blossom in their place. And my mom will live again.

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In an uncertain world the certainty of Isaiah 55 is startling. Words come out of my mouth all day to no avail. My dog is either now deaf or too old to care to mind me anymore. The socks cast aside in haste this morning remain in the corner of the living room as I type in spite of repeated commands to our four year old to pick them up. The basketball team I coach doesn’t slide its feet on defense or box out after a shot or at this point in the season even seem to comprehend that you can’t run with the ball no matter how loud I bark from the sidelines. But, there is no uncertainty in Isaiah 55. “It shall accomplish that which I purpose.”

I remember giving an impromptu pep talk to our worship team just moments before an Easter service a few years ago. Looking out over the congregation as we gathered for prayer I was struck by the reality that it was likely that dozens of people in the room did not believe in the resurrection. They were there for other reasons. But rather than being disheartened by this, as I easily might have been, I was encouraged. I was encouraged because exactly no one believed in the resurrection at the start of the first Easter morn. Nobody expected it. The women were at the tomb for other reasons. “Why do you look for the living amongst the dead,” the angel asked. But lacking any intellectual category for resurrection didn’t prevent faith from being birthed in their hearts that day nor in other hearts on any day since – “my word…shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

The tomb was empty. God’s word is not. The mountains and hills will sing. The trees will clap. I too hope these images are more than images. We had an oak tree in the front yard in my childhood home, it was named Luther. I imagine my parents named it because of Luther’s likely apocryphal but still hopeful line about planting trees even in the face of impending doom. I like to think Luther the Oak Tree will clap its hands one day. But regardless of what trees do with their hands when Christ returns, my mom will most certainly clap hers and she will sing unhindered by any bashful self-awareness.

Andrew Peterson’s resurrection song, Is He Worthy, is a call and response song, a musical liturgy of sorts. It was on repeat in our house much of this year. The second verse says this:

Is all creation groaning?

It is.

Is a new creation coming?

It is.

Is the glory of the Lord to be the light within our midst?

It is.

Is it good that we remind ourselves of this?

It is.

            What certainty in its simplicity. It is. It is. It is. It is. Whenever I am in Des Moines to visit family I will sit on my mom’s bench. And I will look at the pond and I will read Isaiah 55 and I will remind death that it is doomed. And that a new creation is coming. And I will imagine the willows clapping their long stringy fingers in joy as my mom is raised to new life with the rest of the saints in light. Is it good that we remind ourselves of this? It is.