Thinking About the Magnolia Tree

Many years ago now, I offered a message for chapel at the Virginia Conference office about the magnolia tree in the yard of the house next door to the one in which I grew up.  I have a number of pictures of my mom holding me on the day I was baptized in April 1961under that magnolia, talking with our neighbor. The tree was fairly small at that time, but so was I! All of the important issues – where acts of faith and witness were needed – first came into my life in the community around the magnolia tree.  It was faith taken from the pews of the church and put into action. Faith called upon in times of illness, war, hunger, disaster, personal challenges, and so much more.  Faith which made celebrations more joyful and loss easier to bear.

On the eve of another round of disaffiliations from The United Methodist Church, I’ve been thinking about the magnolia tree again. I know what happened to the tree. I wonder what happened in the congregations, including some important in my faith journey, that led to the decision to leave the denomination. What changed? Was it society in general? Was it individual understandings? Or am I just in a different place in my journey as a disciple? Tonight I’m wondering…and thinking about that tree.

No matter what time of the year, you could look out the windows on the side of our house and see signs of life in the magnolia tree – from the birds that roosted there to the evergreen leaves. The smell of those large sweet scented flowers filled the air around our house when they were in bloom and when they were not blooming, you could see those hairy flower bulbs which are borne at the tips of the twigs and know that they would blossom again.

Living in that particular house was a family whose only child had come back to live with them in her middle age, following a mental health crisis.  I grew to love and care about JoAnn because my mother and father set the example.  Even though she had some rather unusual ways of doing things and preferred to stay in the house alone, she was a part of our neighborhood and loved and cared for.  We looked in on her for many years after her parents’ died and until her death.

Families not far from the reach of that magnolia tree lost at least 4 sons to AIDS in the 1980s.  I went to school with two of them, one was the first boy to walk me home from school – and the whole reason for the “Walking Martha Home” name of this blog.  Of course, we were in the second grade and it was only a short distance!  In a small town, 4 men dying of AIDS during that time was a tremendous number.

Next door and in another house just across the road were adult children with intellectual disabilities. When I returned home to worship at the church in which I grew up, a friend with Down Syndrome was often the one to serve one of the communion elements. It was always special to receive the bread or cup from her.

There are many more stories I could tell of how our community around that tree cared for one another.  But each one centers on strong faith put into action – sort of like the trunk of the magnolia tree – standing firm, deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus and an ever-present faith in God.  A faith that has been passed on from generation to generation.  But without the outstretched branches that tree couldn’t show life – there would be no evergreen leaves or flowers, no birds singing.  Faith cannot stand by itself.  Like the branches of the magnolia, it is when the faith reaches out in service to others that it blossoms.  Remember that the magnolia flower is at the very tip of the twigs on the branches.

The lessons I learned from around the magnolia tree were about an active, living faith.  As John Wesley wrote, “Faith hath not its being from works (for it is before them), but its perfection.” 

The magnolia tree had to be cut down in 2001 because of disease, but it keeps on giving.  I have several bowls made from its branches.  I have a rolling pin made from the wood of the tree in our kitchen and a hand mirror on one of our dressers. They will always be reminders to me of the lessons learned from those in my neighborhood about the importance of a living faith.  For as James wrote, “If you keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.” (CEB)

So tonight I once again ponder the lessons of the magnolia tree.

Tomorrow will bring the probable ratification of disaffiliation for 64 churches in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church. One is where – if you were at our Annual Conference session last year – as a teenager I so awkwardly tried to sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” When that church name is read tomorrow and the picture shown on the screen, a lump will form in my throat and more than one tear will flow from my eyes.

A part of my faith story will be different from that point forward – and I will wonder what changed in the congregation. Was it society in general? Was it individual understandings? Or am I just in a different place in my journey as a disciple?

Tonight I’m wondering…and thinking about that tree.

One thought on “Thinking About the Magnolia Tree

  1. Thank you for a beautifully written statement and sharing.

    It really does help me try to put in perspective … a challenge for sure as it is difficult to understand any of the disaffiliation

    Open Doors…. ?

    Keep up your ministry.. Thanks Be to God .




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