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Shades of Green

By May 10, 2013 No Comments

        As you outlanders might have noticed, the bloggers at this site who live in the upper Midwest have been musing out loud (it’s not complaining, because upper Midwesterners don’t complain; it’s not nice) that winter held on long in these parts this year, deep into April, and then was succeeded by a spring that was hardly worth the name. Cold. Grey. Wet. More cold. More rain. In West Michigan, a whole lot more rain. The Grand River hit its highest mark in decades, the basements of rich and poor were joined in a democracy of drowning, and my brother-in-law the drain commissioner had nary a moment’s rest.

        Well rejoice and be exceeding glad, Gentle Reader, for sun and warmth have well and truly arrived even here. The landscape has exploded with growth and color, and the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, yea, every living thing have burst forth into song and bleat and pollen and beauty. You walk outside and are dazzled by how green everything is. Bright, pulsing, screaming green. It’s enough to make the heart sing, except we upper Midwesterners only allow that to happen in private. Like kissing. There’s a room for such things; for singing, it’s called church.

        I’m not grousing about this warm turn one little bit. It’s just that the suddenness of it all cost me my annual turn to recite Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” A great professor of mine used to take his class outside to read that poem on just that pivoting day when spring makes it clear that it’s here to stay, that resurgent life is about to create a thick new covering in the trees above and on the ground below. Frost found this magical moment to be a little bittersweet: “Nature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold/. . . So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay.” I love to recite that verse. Maybe in honor of Ken Kuiper, maybe out of the sort of Calvinism that led a senior colleague of mine, one glorious June 23rd morning years ago to sit down heavily at lunch and sigh: “Yep, days start getting shorter now.”

        Since green blurred past gold too fast to notice this year, here’s a prose ode to the color. Green tends to have such (as the commentators say) contradictory valences. The balladeer waxes nostalgic for the green green grass of home, but it’s definitely wrong to be green with envy or so greedy as to pile up the green. The monetary green comes from greenbacks, a paper currency floated in the Civil War, then withdrawn to keep the bankers happy. A phenomenon unknown these days. Rather, green in today’s public discourse is very definitely a Good Thing, a sign of concern for sustainability, ecology, untoward waste, and the survival of the planet. Unless you’re in the Right, where it’s all black oil and red meat—and white skin. Al Green, an erstwhile fellow Grand Rapidian, is one of my favorite singers. At the first pop concert I ever attended The New Christy Minstrels opened with the folksy “Green, Green” (“… it’s green they say/on the far side of the hill./Green green I’m going away/to where the grass is greener still.”), while the nonpareil Gordon Lightfoot of my 20s nailed the color’s paradoxical character perfectly in “Bitter Green.” (I’m running up my word count—google the lyrics.)

        Oddly enough, the same paradox runs through biblical references to green. To descend from the lofty heights of redemptive-historical hermeneutics to Dwight Moody’s sermon-building by concordance, we find green laid out promisingly in Genesis as the hue of those plants expressly given to sustain animal life. By Leviticus it’s turned into a suspicious sign of mold (“reddish” is there right next to it) to be reported to the priest for ritual purification. In the Psalms and the prophets the same alteration: the righteous flourish like green plants and trees planted by the living stream, but punishment comes down upon the fickle and faithless in the sign of green things being blighted at noonday. Mark has people sitting down on green grass to receive the bounty of the loaves and fish, but Luke cites it in one of Jesus’ warnings, and Revelation has all of the green grass burned up but only a third of the earth and the trees (8:7).

        So where does this litany end? For me, in one of the few sermons I remember precisely. Oh, many of the rest have sunken in and shaped my heart and mind, no doubt about it, but perhaps because there have been so many, so few live on whole and clear. This one treated the most famous citation of green in all of Scripture: Psalm 23: 2, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Our pastor, who made a specialty out of Old Testament context, explained what this meant. Not the lush meadow of England’s green and pleasant land. Not the lawn-with-lamb on that cheesy sympathy card. But scattered sprigs of grass, peeping out of rock and dust in the cool of a Palestinian morning, glistening with beads of dew, just enough of them here and there for the sheep to find and make it through another day. A good shepherd knows where these few and fleeting things are likely to be, and so brings the flock around to avail themselves of the offering. Nature’s only green is soon gone, is the point, but it will be enough for those who feed in faith.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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