A Balm in Gilead, part 4

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

The next passage my dad underlined in Gilead is on page 53. I’m going to include most of the paragraph to give you some context. The words he underlined are in boldface.

I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. 

Another beautiful excerpt. The thing I like about these words is the love the character/narrator has for his son. His son is not “pretty” and a little “slight,” but these things don’t matter. They’re just adjectives. They don’t stand up against the wondrous fact that the boy is alive. Physical beauty and whatever the opposite of “slight” is (significant? important? large?) blow away like ash left by the fire of existence.

The film that has captured this beauty best is The Tree of Life. There are a couple of the movie’s posters that show the father looking at the beauty of his son’s feet. I don’t think he’s looking at the feet and thinking, “Those are some pretty feet.” In my opinion, he’s cradling the feet lightly in his hands and wondering at the beauty of life… of the fact that he’s now a father, of the fact that he’s now in charge of this precious son. If you have a son or daughter of your own, I don’t have to tell you.

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(In 2011 I wrote a post about Gilead and The Tree of Life and how both move us to worship.)

When I read the passage my dad underlined, I first thought of my own son. Yes, just the fact that he is alive is enough for me to love him with something I cannot describe. The love for both my children makes me value life so much. Fatherly love does make existence out to be “the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

It’s probably not too far of a stretch to assume my father was thinking of his children when he underlined this, and that’s a comforting thought.

The whole enchilada

I’ve been encouraged to put all the posts I’ve written for The Tree of Life in one place for easy access. Here they are:

The Tree of Life (part 1)

The Tree of Life (part 2)

The Tree of Life (part 3)

The Tree of Life (part 4)

The Tree of Life (part 5)

The Tree of Life (part 6)

The Tree of Life (part 7: “I give you my Son)

The Tree of Life (part 7: “I give you my Son”)

(This will be my last post directly related to The Tree of Life. I hope you’ve enjoyed them, and as always, thanks for reading.)

“Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.”

The final scene of The Tree of Life comes after Terrence Malick has shown humanity’s self-dependance is an illusion. There is a greater strength than Brad Pitt’s character’s self-made man, which is found through stacking up all we are next to the totality of creation. We are small indeed when looking toward the tops of redwoods, or when we ponder the creation of the universe. Humility is the natural corollary of such conclusions, and the Creator loves humility. “Unless you love, your life will pass by,” Jack’s mother says. There is no love if God has not loved first, and his love is truth that reveals human life is full of meaning and dignity.

Much has been written about the end of The Tree of Life. Many believe it represents Jack’s (Sean Penn) death. I don’t agree.

Adult Jack walks through a desert, admitting he has been wandering the earth and struggling between the way of nature and the way of grace. Eventually he walks through the frame of a door and meets his younger self. (Why is this the case? Could it be: “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”?) Suddenly they are on a reflective beach where he meets his family. They all stand on the shore, hugging and smiling. Reviewers have said this is their reconciliation in the afterlife, but I choose to believe it is Jack’s reconciliation with God. As the family members embrace, a voice says, “I give to you my son.”

This floored me and brought the movie exactly where it needed to end. Jack is a believer who has finally put his full trust in God’s love. He has accepted the way of grace, and therefore been able to fully embrace his mother, forgive his father, and–just as important–forgive himself for all his past and future transgressions.

In whatever spiritual state this scene takes place (Jack’s mind or heart or some spiritual realm unknown to humans), when the camera once again focuses on Jack in the “real” world, he is at his most tranquil since the viewer has been allowed into his life. A small smile suddenly shows on his face. Luckily, this is all we need to infer that he has found the peace that transcends all human understanding.


The Tree of Life (part 6)

It’s hard to describe the night my daughter was born. A few hours after entering the word, she was airlifted over 250 miles north to the Children’s Hospital in Madera, CA. I remember what it was like when they wheeled her away to the helicopter that had just arrived–although often times I try to forget.

My wife and I sat in the dark and empty hospital room silently. I don’t remember crying; I just remember feeling completely numb as I waited for morning when my wife could be checked out and we would be able to go see our baby in the Madera NICU. “Do we even have a daughter?” I remember asking myself repeatedly.

It was the first cold and foggy day of October, and at first the neonatologist wasn’t sure the helicopter would even be able to fly. Fortunately the visibility was deemed safe, and flight was a go. As I sat in the hospital room and waited, I pictured the helicopter flying through the dark and fog and cold with my little girl aboard. I thought about how vulnerable she was being so high off the ground in such inhospitable weather conditions. I thought about how I wasn’t allowed in the helicopter with her to watch over her. I struggled with how powerless I was to control the situation. There were many forces at play, but all I cared about was the safety of a baby who was high above the ground and not even 10 hours old yet.

The next morning my wife and I got into our car and headed toward Madera. (I wasn’t even sure where Madera was when I first heard about it, and now that’s where my baby was.) We stopped at a bagel shop to grab something to eat since we hadn’t eaten since the day before. Everything seemed so normal. The young lady taking our order was very pleasant. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her my daughter was born less than half a day ago and now she was in some place unknown to me. I wanted to tell her to thank God that her life was normal at the moment; that everything can be turned on its head faster than you can blink and it’s only grace that keeps it right side up.

This memory was present while I watched The Tree of Life. Yes, there is much in the film about being a child and being a parent and the relationship between both. This is not what brought the memory of my daughter’s birth to mind, however. It was many other things: the fragility of life; the fact that we have no control over our environment and no real security (only perceived); that pain has been around for countless years before my existence and will continue on as long as this planet orbits the sun; that death is just a razor’s edge away at every moment and it is up to us to rise and converge toward one another to find a common humanity with which to spread love; that though the way of nature is powerful and I cannot control a single thing, there is a freeing sense of following the way of grace and abiding in God’s love.

Is it true a simple movie can stir such feelings in one’s heart? Yes, it can–if it’s a good movie. It’s the same with a painting or a piece of music. The Tree of Life is why I watch movies. It’s rare that I just want to turn my brain off and be entertained. I want to watch something that hints at God. I would argue that this film is on par with going to church, for me at least. The film scares me with the enormity of God while at the same time calming me with the fact that I am small and timid and should be thankful that the way of grace is brightly lit for my weak eyes.

There is so much we don’t know. We set up our lives and construct frameworks and theologies for what we believe and how everything works, and then something comes along and decimates all our theories that once seemed so real.

This would all be troubling if it weren’t for the moments of grace I experience everyday: My son smiling. My wife holding my hand. The way my healthy daughter runs around our backyard with a lemon in her hand as I chase her and the yellow lab follows.

These are the ordinary events depicted within The Tree of Life. These are the things that we often overlook while we’re waiting for something else down the road to happen–or when we’re worried about some event that probably won’t ever happen. When we stop to appreciate the everyday moments and enjoy them in all their fleeting and heartbreaking glory, that’s when God truly smiles upon us and give us his peace.

The Tree of Life (part 5)

“No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end,” Jack’s mother says. “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

What does the first part of this dialogue mean? She isn’t saying: “No one who loves grace ever comes to a band end.” She’s saying: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”

So she believes a person who lives the way of grace daily will have a good end. Grace is the vehicle, not the thing to be loved. This is easy enough to understand, but defining the way of grace in objective terms is where one runs into trouble.

The Tree of Life depicts the way of grace by showing a brother forgiving a brother, a wife forgiving a husband, a dinosaur stepping away from its dying prey, creation coming into formation, and so much more.

I would define the way of grace by putting the needs and wants (yes, even the wants) of family and friends before oneself. Also–and this is tightly connected to what I just wrote–living a life without bitterness and despair concerning missed or failed opportunities in life. This is what the movie teaches. The mother loves her family and cares for them all. She holds them and embraces them. She whispers in calming tones. She shields her sons from the sight of a man having a seizure. She cares for the prisoner in the back of a police car.

The father loves also, but he more often attempts to control all that’s around him by creating patents, playing cards, weeding the lawn, teaching his boys how to fight, and punishing the children when he senses impertinence. There is one scene where he becomes aggressive with one of the boys (the one who will die an untimely death) during dinner and chases the rest of the family from the table. He then sits back down and continues eating his meal vigorously with bitter anger.

But what of coming to a bad end? The mother says following the way of grace will result in a good end, but this does not occur in the young brother’s case. He dies early in life, after living the same way his mother did.

This can be interpreted in many ways. Some may say the good came after his death, in heaven. Others may believe the way of grace served him well in life, and he never faced the bitterness and anger of his father or older brother (which is a peaceful gift).

Perhaps the good end is a bit of both. Certainly people can experience hell in this world by their own devising. The same can also be said of heaven, to a certain extent. Peace and harmony come with loving those around you and from accepting one’s place in creation. Malick says this through dialogue and breathtaking visuals. If you haven’t watched the above video yet, please do. This is creation coming into formation, and the sights and sounds are truly beautiful. Seeing this scene out of context doesn’t do it proper justice, but it will sway you toward wanting to view the film in its entirety–or avoiding it completely.

It’s the big things, such as creation, that can overpower humanity with love–but it’s also the little things that are just as potent. That’s the amazing thing about The Tree of Life, it communicates the ways of nature and grace throughout the spectrum of what a human can and (in some cases) can’t experience. Either way, each shot is saturated with love and splendor.

The Tree of Life (part 4)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in things that have been made.” –Romans 1

In The Tree of Life, the main character, Jack O’Brien, asks God, “When did you first touch my heart?” He eventually answers this with: “Mother, brother, it was they that led me to your door.”

Here are two questions: 1) When did God begin to draw Jack to himself? and 2) Who did God use in the process?

The film is such a meditative treatise on life and suffering that it’s somewhat difficult to explain its attributes. Many of the scenes are simply the characters living their daily lives with what seem like prayers spoken to God in the background. During Jack’s early years, he plays in the neighborhood with his brothers and friends like any boy: summer nights and catching fireflies.

There’s the devious side of boyhood mischief on display as well. Again, I’m reminded of The Karamazov Brothers and how even the innocent youth can be cruel without guidance and the temperate presence of an adult’s supervision. Jack and his friends break windows and set off a rocket with a frog attached. Individually he breaks into a young woman’s house and steals her undergarments, which he immediately takes to the river and sends down the tow as if trying to absolve himself of the shame of his actions.

For a large portion of the film, Jack’s anger toward his father verges on bitterness. At one point he coaxes his younger brother (the one whose death at war is communicated to the parents at the beginning) into putting his finger at the end of the muzzle of an air rifle. Jack promises he won’t shoot, but once the trusting brother places his finger on the end, Jack pulls the trigger.

Later, the younger brother will forgive Jack in an extremely poignant scene–and it is this forgiveness that begins the process of Jack’s ascension back toward the way of grace.

If Jack’s brother is the catalyst, then the mother is the guide. Her kind words and sensitive nature whisper to him in reassuring tones. She weathers the storm of the father’s heated reactions to any impertinence he perceives, real or imagined. She lays down her life daily to keep the peace and hold the family of males together. She is the sun they unknowingly orbit around.

By the time Jack is an adult (played by Sean Penn), he has clearly retained the kindness his brother and mother instilled within him. Their way of grace also helped the germinating seed of sensitivity grow and persevere. Notice how distraught Jack is as a middle-aged man. It’s not explicitly stated, but he’s most likely dealing with the death of his brother in his later years, and the warring nature against the way of grace still rumbles within his heart. He seems to be as good a man as any, but the heart of every human is a complicated mess.

The Tree of Life (part 3)

There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one we’ll follow.

So says the mother in The Tree of Life. For young Jack, she represents grace while his father represents nature. She dances with her children, laughing and singing to them–twirling them around in the sunlight. At one point, a butterfly lands on her hand and rests as she is poised gracefully like a Greek sculpture from some other time.

The father is opposite, for his way is nature. He’s a loving man, but he’s been broken by his own missed opportunities in life. He’s a gifted musician who did not follow his passion. Now he indoctrinates his sons to accept that being a “made man” is the only respectable way to live one’s life. He forces his son, Jack, to control the yard’s grass by continually pulling weeds, and he also forces Jack to plant seeds where the sun doesn’t shine. He’s demanding life where none can thrive.

But I’d be remiss not to emphasize (again) that the father loves his sons. I think it’s one of the small aspects of this film that elevate it from the lesser movie it could have been. He’s not a sociopath; he truly wants what’s best for his family–the trouble is he forces it instead following the way of grace.

When Malick shows the galaxies, dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs), jellyfish, and lava flows, I’m not sure where nature ends and grace begins. The jellyfish is part of nature, but it’s movement is graceful. Humanity is also part of nature, but we can receive grace and bestow it onto others.

I mentioned dinosaurs. There’s one scene toward the beginning when a dinosaur lies in a creek, breathing softly because it is sick or injured or dying of old age. Another predatory dinosaur glides lithely across the water and approaches the wounded beast, ready to attack. This dinosaur puts its foot on the lying dinosaurs face in order to (presumably) kill it. But then, at the last moment, the predator lifts its foot and backs away. Eventually it leaves the dinosaur to die in peace.

Is this an example of the way of grace? Never mind that an apocalyptic event will soon occur, destroying all dinosaurs and forever changing the course of the world. In this one moment between dinosaurs, the way of grace is possibly born.

Malick lifts a large excerpt almost word-for-word from the incomparable Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov. The dialogue is spoken by one of the characters, and it reveals the way of grace through the power of love:

“Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”

Love leads to deeper love, and this is what the mother implies–if not outright states. Through loving even the smallest bit of creation, God can cultivate a love for all he has set before us.

The end of The Tree of Life delves into this idea very poignantly, but I have a few more posts to write before I get there.