Manassas. Antietam. Gettysburg. These Civil War battlefields are branded into our nation’s collective memory. Museums at each of these places have preserved artifacts and original sources so that we can hear the “voices” of those who fought here, through letters home. We can hear the politicians’ proclamations, the newspapers’ screaming headline. We can “hear” the pain in a letter from anguished mothers, sweethearts, and brothers.
And then there are the silent witnesses. Standing next to corn fields, peach orchards, and grasslands where the battles were joined are trees. They’re called Witness Trees because they were there when the battles raged. They saw it all. The barbarism. The bravery. The fear, the kindness. And the death, so much death. They stand there today, 150 years later, bearing silent witness.
Many of them were themselves victims of the carnage. Look closely and you can see faint pock marks on the bark where bullets grazed. Look again and see where the cannon ball lodged. Not obvious is the shock of looking to the fertile ground for nourishment and instead of finding life-giving water, only blood-soaked soil.
Although many of these Witness Trees are still standing, not all have flourished. Some are just scarred husks giving no hint of their former life. Limb-less with trunks reaching toward the sky at unnatural angles, like a bone hastily and improperly set by an overwhelmed field medic.
Yet some live on, their beauty belying the wounds within. Some have literally absorbed the cannonballs into their trunks, treating them as a mere inconvenience to be circumvented as they went on with their lives. Some continued undaunted by trauma witnessed and experienced, and on instinct or out of sheer stubbornness, just continued to form new cells, new branches, new leaves.
It is hard to imagine, when the world around you reeks of death and shocks you with unimaginable depravity, that you will ever see beauty again. I have felt that way lately. When your own wound is fresh and you fear for your own survival, flourishing seems impossible. Yet, standing on the sacred ground of Manassas or Antietam or Gettysberg, looking at their Witness Trees is to believe that life can come after death. It is to believe that grievous wounds can heal. It is to believe in miracles.
The trees did not heal themselves, and neither do we. God took those beautiful rolling hills defiled by suffering and death, and He sanctified them with new life. He did the same for the world after the flood. He did it for the exiles returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. And He did it for us, when the horror of Calvary gave way to the triumph of the empty tomb.
And He did the same for me the other day. In recent posts I have talked about struggling to feel God’s presence. And this week in worship, I felt joy. It appeared suddenly and certainly not as a result of any effort on my part to manufacture it. It just sidled up next to me, like it had never been gone. That first small green leaf appearing when you wondered if there was any life left in you. God is in the business of grace and miracles.
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord, God, you know.”
(Ezekiel 37: 1-3)