The First Orphans: Silent in the Trees

Have you ever wondered what life was like for Adam and Eve during Genesis 3:7?  This verse, which happens between the moment they fell to temptation and the moment they next meet God, says “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”  Since they were able to figure out how to make clothes for the first time, we can guess that the time frame within Genesis 3:7 was more than a few minutes.

The song “Trees” by the band twenty øne piløts may be a contemplation of that time, and if it is, the song imagines that Adam and Eve had some time to think about it.  Songwriter Tyler Joseph crafts lyrics that allow for religious and secular meanings, but also that sometimes also apply to multiple audiences.  In the song’s lyrics, “You” is sometimes capitalized, and sometimes not, and therefore I think the song has two intended audiences, God and the band’s fans.

Reading between the lines a bit, I’ll explain below what I get from this song, in each audience perspective.

You = the Father
The lyrics are relatively compact, with the repeated verse of:

I know where You stand, silent in the trees
And that’s where I am, silent in the trees
Why won’t You speak where I happen to be?
Silent in the trees, standing cowardly

Our first ancestors had lived a perfect life in fellowship with God in the garden of Eden, but the fall into temptation changed that relationship, and the verse imagines how.

  • First, the sense of togetherness was gone.  They were still in the garden, but the sense that God was also there was gone.
  • Second, although “the eyes of both were opened,” the voice of God guiding their activities had gone silent.  They had chosen to determine their own way but had not considered the consequences.  Wherever they were, He used to guide them, but now they were confused.
  • Third, instead of being comfortable in God’s presence, they were terribly afraid of Him.

And a repeated chorus of:

I can feel Your breath
I can feel my death
I want to know You, I want to see
I want to say
Hello, hello
Hello, oh, hello

In the original Hebrew Genesis was written in, the words for “breath” and “spirit” are sometimes the same word.  Therefore, the first two lines of this chorus mean that our ancestors could still feel God’s presence (His breath/spirit), but instead of it being a comfort, they now felt something they never felt before – their mortality.  This is a foreshadowing of their being cast away from access to the tree of life.

Also, instead of the constant conversation with God they had known their whole lives, now they wanted to speak with God and know Him again, but He was not responding.  In the context of the song, maybe it was then that “they knew that they were naked.”  They knew they had done wrong, were exposed, and thought judgement was what they should expect.  Adam and Eve went from perfectly hearing their Father’s and Master’s voice, to feeling like orphans and castaways from His family.

What came next?  Genesis 3:8 says, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”

You = The Fans
The “you” in the song is also the band’s fans – and Tyler sings out to them, in the trees.  Tyler says the song is also about a personal experience he had, which he doesn’t publicly explain, but He does publicly display tattoos of both the cross of Christ and of bands around his wrist, which likely represent rubber bands people wear to manage and prevent self-harm.  These tattoos are like permanent memorials – or Ebenezers – from his life, and his ongoing recovery from mental illness.  Many of the band’s fans are going through similar struggles and many feel left behind by the world.

Therefore, the “you” of the song is those who feel alone and silent in the trees, who feel ashamed before God, hiding themselves.  They expect God to show up in judgement, as Adam and Eve expected, and hid their nakedness.  Tyler could be calling out to them: God did not judge me, and neither will He judge you if you call out to Him.  God will speak to them, “where they happen to be.”  After all, Genesis 3:9 says: “But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  It was God who desired and initiated reconciliation with His people.

The outro of the song has Tyler screaming HELLO over and over again, before the song ends with 12 seconds of intentional silence before the track ends.

What will be the answer?

When you find someone alone and silent in the trees, remember James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

If you find yourself alone and silent in the trees, tell your Heavenly Father you want to say hello.  He wants to know you and He wants to see you.

Coda
For many years, “Trees” has been the last song played at every twenty øne piløts concert.  Why is this?  On the album “Vessel”, “Trees” was the next-to-last song and other parts of the album built to it.  The first song on “Vessel” describes demons and spiritual warfare, the second song is called “Holding On To You,” and the third song, “Migraine,” has the repeated line:

And I will say that we should take a moment and hold it
And keep it frozen and know that life has a hopeful undertone

It seems like from the beginning of the album, that moment to hold on to when you’re battling whatever demons you have was coming.  So, in each concert, the fans know that the moment to hold on to is coming.  The song is a moment you can remember when you’re down and know you’re not alone.  The song an Ebenezer in its own way, and a bold statement that the band is not going to ignore the problems of people left behind, the metaphorical widows and orphans of the world.  Also, if they pay close attention, those fans can find the message of Christ in the lyrics.  God doesn’t wait until our affliction is over and we make ourselves acceptable to come to us. He bridges the divide Himself.

Below is a video I took at last night’s concert in Philadelphia.  Apologies for the video quality, especially when they fired massive amounts of confetti into the air, which fans collect to remember the moment later.  My phone camera just couldn’t keep up, but I offer it as a 5-minute moment you can take and hold and know that life has a hopeful undertone.


And what’s all this about widows and orphans? This post continues a series on James 1:27, which began here. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

An Ethic That Applies to Every Society, in Every Time and Place

Photo by Free Walking Tour Salzburg on Unsplash

If Christianity is a message of salvation to all people, in all times and places, then the practices it recommends must apply in every situation.  The political and cultural societies we each live in today have only existed for a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of history, and people reading this post may be living in societies entirely different from the one I’m writing this in.

When James wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” he didn’t just mean “pure and undefiled” right here and right now, but that to an eternal God whose character doesn’t change, there is a religion that remains pure in all circumstances.  There is no expiration date on James 1:27.

To apply James’ words that way doesn’t mean he was using “orphans and widows” only as a metaphor for something other than actual orphans.  He does mean to take care of them.  But he was also using them as the best example of people unloved in his society and by the world – the ones who fell through the cracks of society, and that “to keep oneself unstained from the world” means that pure religion leaves nobody behind the way the world does.

The world has many people who believe perfect society is only a matter of time, effort, and ingenuity, and it also has many people whose very existence shows the folly of that belief.  This tension reflects human history all the way back to Adam and Eve, who had to decide whether the kingdom of God they already lived in was what they wanted, or whether they wanted to build a kingdom based on their own ideas.  This tension existed when Jesus ministered on earth in the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace” of the society He lived in.  The Caesars declared in what they called “gospel,” or “good news,” messages that they should be revered as gods for producing the most peaceful and prosperous society the world had ever known.  When Jesus came, all He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire. [1]  Jesus didn’t shake his fist at the utopians in protest, He just loved those in need of love, exposing the immensity of the flaws that exist in any human system, and proving by example that His kingdom is better.

WWJD
So, when James says “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” he means to do as Jesus did – to seek out and care for those left behind by the utopian imaginings of the world, and its related denials that these people matter.  This does include literal windows and orphans, but it’s also whoever is left behind in your area of the world.  The people in your neighborhood, country, organization, or even your church that the system doesn’t notice because there is nothing worldly to be gained by noticing them.  In Jesus’ eyes, even Zacchaeus, a wealthy Jew in a Jewish society that valued wealth, was one of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” because nobody saw him as a person with a personal and spiritual need.[2]  These “lost sheep” Jesus referred to in Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 need to know “the kingdom of heaven is at hand[3] because this world’s kingdoms have failed them.

Each and every world system leaves some behind, proof that Adam and Eve made the wrong decision to go their own way.  There are always those who it is unpopular or uncool to pay attention to, even in your church.  Therefore, James calls us to love the unloved and the genuinely oppressed, whoever they are, wherever you are.  By definition, there’s no program to reach these people, because they are the ones who were missed.  It takes the actions of individual, loving people to reach them and that’s kind of the point.  Christianity is about the restoring of relationships, not systems.

But does this really apply in every time?  How is the ethic of James 1:27 eternal, while other ethics are not?

At the risk of oversimplifying (inevitable in a blog!), the difference is that worldly ethics depend entirely on “progress” – on a solution that is theoretical and in the future.  Those pursuing worldly utopia hope they will progress to a solution for the orphans and widows’ problem, but what about the widows and orphans of the past?   Or right now?  In a framework of Darwinian evolution, death is just part of the process and an inevitable circumstance we must except until we find a solution.  Death itself is the philosophical orphan or widow they don’t want us to notice.  A solution in the future has no real hope for people in the past or present.

In Christianity the solution already exists – it was available even to our first ancestors – and death is only the result of refusing to accept it. And in all times places and situations “love God and love neighbor” is the right ethic, epitomized by James 1:17 and to be consummated in Heaven.  All those who have ever turned to God and accepted His solution, in the past, present, and future, will see His salvation.  We don’t have to hope that someday our children, or their children, and so on, will be loved, and know love, perfectly.

Until mankind actually produces a utopia, it is unscientific to believe utopia is possible, but because Jesus exists and walked among us, it is scientific to say perfect love is possible, even in this world.  From this perspective, Christianity is only horrendous if false; other systems are horrendous if true.

Today you may live in the greatest empire the world has ever known, or the worst tyrannical state, or you may live in a country most people on the world couldn’t find on a map.  In every case, and all cases in between, there are orphans and widows among you because only the kingdom of God is a perfect solution and it will only be fully realized in Heaven.  Find them in their affliction and visit them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” – Matthew 10:7

This is the 2nd post in a series on James 1:27, which began here, and continues here.

Next up in this series: An Ethic That Shows No Law Can Provide Salvation


[1] For more on this, see an earlier post, More Than Truth
[2] See an earlier post, A Man in Need of an Ally, for more on Jesus and Zacchaeus
[3] Matthew 10:7

An Ethic That Epitomizes Love for God and Neighbor

Photo by Robert Guss on Unsplash

When James 1:27 was written, James wasn’t resorting to hyperbole for mere effect.  He meant what he said, which is: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  James didn’t choose his example haphazardly and he didn’t make such a strong statement just as a nice sentiment for a Hallmark card.  But what does he mean?

Because Jesus said that to love God and to love your neighbor were the greatest commandments, the highest form of religion, James is probably using “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” as the purest, most undefiled form of love.  In James’ time, these were the people genuinely unloved by the world – the ones who fell through the cracks of society.  Not only were they without a husband or parents, but society was not providing for them either and they were truly abandoned “in their affliction.”  Anyone caring for them would get no credit or recognition for it.  Therefore, the only motive for visiting them is love for them.  Pure love, with no impurity or stain from a desire to get something in return.

James specifically refers to “God the Father,” who has always taken His own, and His peoples, responsibility to widows and orphans seriously.  He wants to take care of them, but Psalm 94:6-7 says about the rulers of the nations, including Israel: “They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’”  They preyed on those nobody cared about, and also boasted that not even God cared.

When any group of people – even[1] one with God’s institutions of His law, temple, priests, prophets, and kings ruling the promised land – neglects the oppressed, their religion is impure and defiled.  All institutions – including ones provided by God – are useless outside of God’s purpose for them.  The temple was a way to approach God by sacrifice, foreshadowing Jesus’ death on the cross, but Judah used it as a way to appease Him so they could do their own thing.  Jeremiah criticized the religious leaders of his day, who thought they were free from judgement because “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD,”[2] treating the temple as more important than God Himself and a reason God would always bless them.  However, God doesn’t want us to follow a checklist of religious observance – He wants us to be His loving family.

Because they replaced love with empty religion, Israel was cast into exile under the Babylonians, and Jeremiah cries in Lamentations 5:3 that “We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows.”  Perhaps God would teach compassion to His people through painful discipline and experience, living like those they ignored.

Unstained
Visiting widows and orphans keeps one unstained from the world when it thinks that it’s ok to leave some behind.  That it’s ok to think we can’t do any better and that God doesn’t see, and that He doesn’t have an answer for it.  That if we follow the letter of the law, or rely on institutions, but not on the spirit of love, God will just look the other way because we tried our best.

Therefore, don’t visit widows and orphans because its popular, because a law tells you to, or for any reason besides Godly love, because when we mix in worldly motives, we risk loving only those who are popular to love or who our government and culture have put in favored positions.  Maybe we even reduce love to a comment about distant people trending on social media at the time, and not those individuals who are actually suffering the most.  These people are often right in front of us.

Heaven is for people who

love when there’s nothing

more at stake than

the person being loved.

It is by ministering to specific widows and orphans in their need that the Christian retains the preservative power of salt and the illuminating power of light to the world.[3]  It’s not the idea, but the actual visiting that is pure and undefiled.  Me writing this and you reading this is only an idea.  But it is a beginning.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Heaven is for people who love when there’s nothing more at stake than the person being loved.  Only Jesus has met this standard, but He has made a Way to Life for those willing to accept His Truth.  Jesus willingly takes our stain on the cross, and gives us His righteousness as a free gift, but only if we actually want His righteousness more than we want our stained world.  In Christ, the Father will change His people into people who care for widows and orphans.  People like that don’t need anything else to make a perfect society.  It’s loving people that make a perfect society, not rules and institutions, and certainly not good intentions that leave people behind.  Paradise will be a society that is pure, undefiled, and unstained, and where the only Institution needed is Jesus, our Prophet, Priest, and King.

No better solution exists than God the Father’s plan to build a family where everyone loves Him and loves their neighbor as themselves, and when we visit widows and orphans, we illustrate the truth that God sees them and cares for them, even when nobody else does.

Visiting widows and orphans is an ethic that epitomizes love for God and neighbor.


Look for more posts based on James 1:27 in the coming Saturdays.  The more I think about the verse, the more implications of it I see.  Next Up: An Ethic That Applies in all Places and Times.  There are always widows and orphans. Also, this series is part of the ongoing Beatitudes series but this one skips to Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.


[1] Perhaps especially.
[2] Jeremiah 7:4
[3] Matthew 5:13-16

This Mother’s Day, Celebrate the Caregivers

I was recently invited to a workshop on “Caregiver Bias,” which was explained as a problem in our society that people who take care of children, older or sick relatives, or others in need don’t do as well in their careers.  In addition, they said, since Caregiving is more often done by women than by men, these social norms are discriminatory and need to be corrected.  The workshop was part of a broader Diversity and Inclusion initiative, which includes support for women’s reproductive choices.

But shouldn’t Caregiving for children, the elderly, the sick, and the needy be what we celebrate and admire most?  Shouldn’t we choose Caregiving?

In that spirit, for this Mother’s Day post, I choose to salute a diverse set of Mothers:

  • I salute those mothers who choose to serve their families and communities full-time.  Those who volunteer on the PTA, at the local church and food pantry, and who make the school plays and concerts run smoothly.
    I salute the working mothers who choose to make time for the PTA, their church or food pantry, and the school play.
  • I salute those full-time mothers who choose to keep their calm when asked “so, what exactly DO you do all day?”
  • I salute those mothers who choose to run their own business in a way that allows time for them to spend with their children.
  • I salute those mothers who didn’t plan on having children but choose to love and care for them always.
  • I salute those mothers who choose a partner who can focus on Caregiving where they can.
  • I salute those who choose to support those in need who are someone else’s children and relatives, as if they were their own.
  • I salute those who choose to support the choices of all mothers, even if their choices aren’t what they would choose themselves.

Mothers[1] very often sacrifice for the benefit of others, and this Mother’s Day let’s celebrate and admire them all, especially the ones who demonstrate that Caregiving might be the most important career of all.  Let’s be biased in their favor, not today but every day.

After all, aren’t our careers a way to provide what not only we need, but also what others need and can’t provide for themselves?  As suggested by the Apostle Paul a long time ago:
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” – Ephesians 4:28


[1] Fathers do too, but this is Mother’s Day.  Look for my Father’s Day post about a month from now.

Compassion for the Harassed and Helpless

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” – Matthew 9:35-36

Jesus lived under the greatest empire the world had yet seen, and in a deeply religious Jewish culture developed over centuries.  The people had powerful leaders, both political and religious.  Why then were the people seemingly without a shepherd to lead them?

The Roman Empire touted widespread peace and prosperity due to the Caesars and their government.  But the people still had many unsolved problems and no hope.  “Throughout all the cities and villages” were diseased, afflicted and helpless people, and Jesus could help them all in ways the Romans could not or would not.

The Jewish Pharisees, jealous of Jesus’ ability to solve problems they could not, claimed “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”  They rightly described His power as supernatural, but they called it evil.  Even as He was performing life-saving miracles, they could not tolerate Him as a rival, and so rejected the people’s only hope.

So, the people remained “harassed and helpless,” not knowing who to trust.

Is your culture also faithless?  Your workplace?  Your community or household?  Jesus encouraged His disciples to see rampant lack of faith as an opportunity to show the crowds the compassion of Jesus: “Then He said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” – Matthew 9:37-38

Today, pray for workers to bring in the harvest.  Also, know that God might make you and I those workers.  As in Jesus’ day, it is up to individual disciples to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom – through compassionate action and often in spite of what those in charge of other kingdoms might prefer.  Harassed and helpless sheep can be frustrated and difficult, but only humble disciples know the problems on the streets of their cities and villages best.

Pray for the compassion of our Great Shepherd who can work miracles. Is there a need He can meet through you today?