This week I was browsing through the book section of a local Goodwill store when I came across the autobiography of James Michener, author of Centennial, Hawaii and two dozen other bestselling novels. I only glanced at it, but one small vignette caught my eye. Michener was describing a formative event during his childhood. Apparently there was an apple tree that was falling in its annual yield. In the winter the farmer took eight rusty nails and pounded them into the trunk of the tree. That year and for ten years after the apple tree produced an abundance of apples. When Michener puzzled out loud about the transformation, the farmer told him, “Sometimes an apple tree has to be shocked into remembering who it is.”
I was immediately struck by the wisdom and the truth of this farmer. In recent years I have found myself using the term “holy chaos” to describe a certain period and quality in the process of growth and transformation. Sometimes the only way to a healthier place in life is through a period of chaos and uncertainty.
One of my favorite movies—campy though it is—is Stuart Saves His Family, about a self-made self help TV personality who is famous for ending his shows with this affirmation, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Stuart, played by Al Franken, is the oldest son in an alcoholic family system. While the family is highly dysfunctional (the mother enables the drinking father, the daughter drowns her anger and pain in food, the younger son is following in his father’s footsteps, and Stuart is the rescuer) there is also an unspoken covenant between family members that serves to keep the peace. Each person plays an important role to keep the real problem (the father’s drinking and abuse) from being acknowledged.
One would think that everyone would want to live in and enjoy a healthier family environment, but that is not the case. When Stuart refuses to rescue the family one last time (he was asked to lie for them), the family is catapulted into chaos and Stuart becomes the family pariah. At the height of the family tornado the father nearly kills the younger son in a drunken hunting accident. This is what I would call “holy chaos” because it is the storm before the calm, the blowout before the makeup.
“Sometimes an apple tree has to be shocked into remembering who it is.”
I write this just a little over a week after returning from my seven week, 3,000 kilometer cycling pilgrimage from Rome to Konya, Turkey. I believe that our souls sometimes ache and yearn to stir things up a little. I also believe that if we don’t build a little intentional holy chaos into our lives and our organizations, life will do it for us. If we don’t do the continual work of “remembering who we are” life has a way of reminding us.
And I don’t know about you, but rusty nails make me squeamish.