Just across the street from one of the houses in which I lived while I was a boy was a small forest. It wasn’t anything spectacular, just some small (maybe twenty foot tall), broadleaf trees which grew in an L-shaped, 8-10 acre patch on two sides of the neighborhood. At its widest point it was only about 100 feet from first tree to last, and from the middle of the stand, one could generally see and hear the cars zipping by on the street which bordered it to the south and east, but on the north and west sides the roads on those sides were obscured by a high hedge. The hedge served to not only contain the wood, but to also give it the illusion of depth. As a kid, when once you crossed the halfway point of the forest, the light grew dimmer and the air grew more still as you approached the impassible hedge barrier on the far side. And that’s why it felt lonely at times in there, not to mention much larger and more solemn a place than it actually was.
Being home in the middle of the day, I had a lot of chances to explore those woods solitarily. True, one day of that type of exploration was enough to see just about all there was to see in such a small wood. I knew where that stack of old tires was. I knew where the thin pieces of plywood had been dragged in and placed around tree trunks by kids before me as they attempted to build a fort. I knew where the old, half-broken swing had been tied precariously onto a half-rotten branch. I knew the one place in which the hedge was thin enough to see through and one could watch auto after auto drive through the intersection, their drivers none-the-wiser about being watched. I knew the place where a particularly old tree had grown, gnarled and lined, and reached its head above the rest of the canopy.
It was this tree which kept calling me back. I don’t know why it was my destination so often in my forest campaigns. Maybe it’s immensity in comparison to the younger, slenderer trees around it made me want it as a companion? Maybe it was how the small clearing created by its out-stretched branches seemed to open the otherwise stuffy air and make the entire place feel more open and free? Or, maybe it was the 30-foot patch of clover which rose up in its shadow?
It was probably all of those things, in truth. But the last one gathered my attention quite a bit. The clover was so perfectly green … all of the time. It grew, three-quarter shaded in beautiful monochrome uniformity, with only the occasional gorgeous beam of golden sunshine breaking through the canopy and resting upon it. Now that I write about it, it might not have been the green which I thought so beautiful; it might have been how the filtered light was green, the identical legions of clover were green, but the shafts of light which broke free were so gloriously golden. It split up the green. Instead of one shade of somber simplicity, it was split into dozens by the joyful dance of the sun’s rays.
I remember on at least a dozen occasions going in to the forest, wandering under the buttress-limbs of that natural cathedral and stooping to gaze intently at the little clover. Most of the time they were still – nothing seemed to move for minutes on end – but then a slight rustle would start in the foliage above my head and a tiny breath of it would descend to sway the three little leaves on a few of those slender herbs. For a moment, it was as if ten or twelve of them would hold hands and rock together in some sort of coming-alive dance; they broke free of their petrification for just an instant and became animated in a deeper and more meaningful way than vegetation can generally boast.
Occasionally one of the clover would move outside of the life of a breeze. A beetle (or some-such) would alight on one of its petals and bend it just enough to gather my attention and I’d sit and watch it move around. I’d wonder why it landed there. Why had it chosen that clover? Why was it walking in circles? Was it looking for food? What did it eat? But no answer ever came before the insect moved along to some other pointless place.
Many times, it was the clover itself that caught my attention. I looked at each one carefully and individually. I’d bend them gently and look at them from several angles. I’d run my flat hand over the tops of them, splitting them apart for a moment before letting them rebound back to their point of equilibrium – one with each other. I did this because every young boy knows that a four-leafed clover is a source of good luck! So there I was, the entire forest at my mercy for time that was not afforded to others, and an entire patch of clover to search and plunder.
I’m proud to say though, that even though I was a young boy, somehow wisdom overcame my instinct. Part of me wanted to pull them all up. To look at them without the pain of bending over and hold and possess them; to know they were mine. With that seraph’s voice of wisdom in my ear, I instead checked my hand and got something more wonderful than even luck. In fact, I got many somethings that were more wonderful than good luck.
After all, what is “luck?” Is it a force? Is that force impersonal? Is it even real? Do some have it and some not? Or do we all have the same amount and it just varies on the spectrum from good to bad? Whether you believe in it or not, you more than likely believe in an almost synonymous idea of providence, and I suppose that my boyish brain was actually looking for that. Even at the time, I think that I was too practical (in impractical ways) to believe in “luck.” But, as my gray-matter probably reasoned, Perhaps God uses objects to bless us, in the same way that objects are a blessing?
It’s all so silly and, to be honest, pretty dumb. Though my intentions at the time were innocently and boyishly selfish, and my time there proved remarkably unproductive … I can look back at it now as something truly worthwhile … and NOT just because I eventually DID find a four-leafed clover. After all, what’s most funny about this story I’m telling you is that my recollections now are so much more vivid than they were at the time. After spending an hour or two in the little wood, I wouldn’t have been able to describe to you what I had seen or done if you asked me at the dinner table that night. If you had phrased the question, “So, what did you do and see today?” I would have responded, in true little boy fashion, “Nothing much.” Sure, I may have followed it up with a, “I saw this dead bird on the street today with hundreds of ants crawling all over it. It was really neat!” With either one of those responses you could be forgiven for thinking that I had just wasted my day; another youthful day of squander, another lost day of childhood.
However, that’s obviously not true, because I didn’t start this story with a stupid tale of a dead bird covered in ants. Nor did I just come right out and tell you, “Did you know that I found a four-leafed clover one time?” No, I described the specifics. I talked about the land, the trees, the plants, the colors, the feelings, the fun, the freedom, the solemnity, the breaths of wind, the light and shadow, the bugs, the things that were there before me and the things which were there after me. Even though each of those things was the periphery at the time – even though it was just the setting of my story of adventure and exploration and imagination (I can’t tell you how many times I pretended to be Robin Hood) – those are the things which stay with me the most fully and completely now. What brought me into the wood is now the periphery, and just being there is now my raison d’etre for recollection. The things which framed the memories have now become the focal point.
In a moment I’ll give you the reason that I believe this happens, but I want this idea to be personal for you too. If you don’t have a forest full of clover to think back to as a child, perhaps you have a special holiday memory to which you revisit in recollection sometimes? Maybe it was a Thanksgiving meal at grandma and grandpa’s? Maybe the turkey and spectacular side dishes were all being devoured throughout the day, while good conversation bounced around amongst uncles and aunts and cousins? Maybe the point at the time was getting together and celebrating the holiday, but now, when you revisit the memory, the point is to see your grandpa’s smile again and feel the joy in your heart once more at the thought of him happy? The smile that stuck in your head was probably caused by some stupid joke your uncle told at the time, and while the joke has long been forgotten it is now overwhelmed by the memory of the broad smile and tears of laughter on your grandfather’s face.
Instead of a holiday memory, perhaps you have a memory of a special trip taken with your family somewhere? Maybe you were heading to the Grand Canyon and, though the car ride was interminable and the heat repressive, you remember topping out on the rise and seeing it for the first time? Maybe the view was spectacular with the sun setting the sky on fire over the vast sweeps of pancaked rock dropping a mile to a broad strip of dark blue Colorado River? But you don’t recall that first sight for the panoplies of mesa, dotted with the deep green of cactus and fir. No, you recall it because of the powerful wallop of inspirational glory at the sheer authority of the sight. You can see pictures of the Grand Canyon which will take your breath away with their beauty, but nothing can reproduce the power apart from the recollection of the actual event … because the event leaves an imprint which is completely unintended and hopelessly uncontrollable! The imprint is the power of the memory.
Looking back at other times in my life, I realize that I have imprints that have overcome the specific reasons for the memory. For example, I don’t remember my first time riding on a bicycle, but I remember the freedom of going where I wanted to go … at my own speed. I don’t remember the first time I read a long book all the way through, but I remember how capable I felt when I finished. I don’t remember the first time I failed to do what my dad asked me to do, but I remember the shame of those times I did. I don’t remember the first time I hurt my sister’s feelings, but I remember the sick feeling at betraying her trust.
Because the impression is the point, isn’t it? If the heart is still able to feel, the specifics matter less than the lesson they teach us. If the soul is still pliable and open, the way we succeeded or failed matters less than the way in which it made us WANT to be better. And though the days run together into weeks, months and years – sometimes with little to nothing to show for all of the toil and drudgery – the impressions stay with us and become a part of who we are. We try to make memories which stick. Some of them will and some of them won’t. But the important things stay with us through impressions; through the things around the edges, to which we never fully paid attention, but which now are the focal point of life lived better.
Which is why I’m writing so many words to say something so simple and elemental: that God is everywhere and if our hearts are tuned to Him, He works backward in our memories to bring to the forefront the impressions that reveal Him most beautifully at work in our lives. Sometimes the impressions are horribly painful, as in hurting others or doing wrong, but sometimes the most simple, clover-focused moment gets overcome by the soft murmur of a gentle Creator communicating to a young boy in a forest.
If you have one of those seemingly throw-away recollections which will do anything but be relegated to the refuse heaps of our minds, you might know what I’m talking about. But if not, then I have a challenge for you: Be devoted to stillness. Stay in the word daily. Pray to God constantly. Think about Him when you have a moment of waiting, instead of pulling your phone out of your pocket. If you do these things the drollest and seemingly least plausible thing in the world will inevitably happen to you: God will work backward in your life to turn the simplest memories into glories. Why do I believe this? Because that’s what He’s already promised to do to you. He said that He’d make us new (2 Cor 5:17). He said that He’d give us a hope and a future (Jer 29:11). He said that He’d make His dwelling place in us (Lev 26:11). He said that He’d put His words in our hearts and in our minds (Heb 10:16). He said that He’d give us a new heart – of flesh and not of stone (Ez 36:26f). All of those things mean that He has promised to transform us. That’s not some of us – as if He will change our arms and head and abdomen, but not our legs. That’s not some of us – as if He will change what He can use and leave the rest to Satan. That’s not some of us – as if He will take who we are now and change us from there. It means that He’s changing everything in us all of the time. What was is gone, what is is changing, and what will be will be glorious because it will be more in conformity with Him!
So you might have good memories or bad, calm recollections or chaotic, great successes or humbling failures, and yet they all fade to the periphery when God becomes the focus.
As a young boy I sat in a small wood, looking for good luck, and it is only 30 years later that I realized how God was giving me so much more than that at the time.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
And the light become night around me,”
Even the darkness will not be dark to you;
The night will shine like the day,
For darkness is as light to you.