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It was a warm mid-November day. Too warm really. I took off my jacket and started walking a familiar trail through a West Michigan, lakeshore forest. The trees were aflame with color: sugar maples dropping their leaves and laying a carpet of red and orange at my feet; birches, elms, aspens, and beeches holding theirs and spreading a canopy of yellow above my head; pines and hemlocks standing firm and green, seemingly impervious to their surroundings.
I was walking through a forest sunset, and the colors passed through me, chasing away some of the darkness in my heart. It was late in the season to be enjoying this healing touch of the forest. Too late really. The natural rhythms of the forest were disrupted, and its vitality was waning. A peculiar feeling welled up in my heart, the same one I felt when visiting my parents in their last years at their senior care facility: the sweetness of communion and the bitterness of the slow decline and approaching end.
The Sweetness of Communion
One of the most significant affirmations in the Bible about the created order is this one: The glory of God fills the earth. Glory is a hard word for modern people to understand, and therefore they tend to ignore it. Glory refers to the inexhaustible, life-giving power of God. Like a spring in the desert, glory wells up in the heart of God, overflows, and fills the earth. A glory-filled earth is saturated with goodness and abundance. Created as God intended, all the creatures of the earth from the flowers to the trees, from the fish to the birds, from the animals to the humans (cf. the sequence of creation in Genesis 1) enjoy this abundance together, knowing no scarcity, no want, no hunger, no thirst, and therefore no anxiety.
Jesus plays upon this understanding of a glory-filled earth when he says in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
With these words, Jesus addresses a breach between the human world and the natural world, a breach that leads human beings to believe that they are on their own and have to depend on their own resources and ingenuity to survive. This belief leads to worry and worry leads to hoarding and hoarding leads to injustice and oppression. Jesus wants to heal the breach and reconnect his disciples to the created order. He invites them to consider more closely how birds and plants calmly live in God’s abundant world. This calm is a balm for their anxious souls.
Erazim Kohak in his landmark book, The Embers and the Stars, points out that the natural world is “calm and unjarring, living its own familiar life,” so unlike the threatening, unpredictable environment “of our manufactured worlds.” He adds that God has created the natural world in part to absorb our pain: “When humans no longer think themselves alone, masters of all they survey, when they discern the humility of their place in the vastness of God’s creation, then that creation and its God can share the pain.”
Kohak points out that a pain-bearing creation is the age-old wisdom of the Book of Job. When God finally comes to Job asking questions, all of them point to the vastness of creation. God is not badgering Job but trying to overcome the isolation that suffering brings and trying to reconnect him to the natural world. “God is not avoiding the issue. He is teaching Job the wisdom of bearing the pain that can neither be avoided, nor abolished but can be shared when there is a whole living creation to absorb it” (45).
A pain-bearing and anxiety-alleviating creation is also the age-old wisdom of Jesus: Do not worry; look at the birds of the air; consider the lilies of the field. Walk the forest paths.
The Bitterness of the Slow Decline
For years activists have employed the metaphor, the window is closing, in order to capture our hearts and move us to care for our threatened world. Its employment has not been effective. Our hearts have not been moved, and now the window has closed.
Our consumptive lifestyle has laid waste to vast stretches of land and upset the natural rhythms that sustain life on our planet. We are now experiencing the consequences of our actions. The glaciers melting in the Alps, raindrops falling in Greenland, fires raging in California, and floods whelming in Germany get all of the attention, but the gravest consequences are those pending: the mass extinction of species, the migration of vast numbers of people whose homelands are being rendered uninhabitable, and the strife over scarce resources, especially water. We are at a critical juncture in earth history, and the critical question for us in the affluent West, but especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus, is whether we have enough heart to care for the remnant of creation and to love our displaced brothers and sisters who huddle at our borders in ever-increasing numbers?
I paused on my mid-November walk through the forest, sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, and tried to sort through my bittersweet feelings. I grew up on the edge of a forest punctuated with a creek and pond, and I have been taking my pain to the forest since I was a boy.
I have always felt that trees were my siblings and that their branches were arms embracing me. They have absorbed my pain for years, and now the relationship is reciprocal. I am absorbing their pain, and I hear their pleas that I intercede for them.
To whom should I turn? To humankind? I have little hope that humankind has enough heart to respond, we in the West being too addicted to consumption and our international organizations too weak to act. To God? One prayer repeats itself, a prayer drawing on an ancient promise made by God at another critical juncture in history, “O Lord, remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh.”
I get it. Thanks. I was thinking this morning that if I could choose a place to die, a hospice bad, I would choose it in a stand of white pines.
Beautiful Tom, thank you.
Kohak’s message is more urgent than ever. Thank you for this beautiful and poignant word, Tom.
Thank you, Tom.
Wonderfully set forth, my friend!
Only one slight quibble: the glory of God is more than his power in the goodness and abundance of the cosmos. It is all of who God is in justice, mercy, undeserved grace, patience, shown in all God’s works.
The trees of the forest sharing your pain and now, you sharing in theirs. Quite a powerful image.
Thanks for this needed reflection on the road we must take: away from consumption to conservation.
Beautiful, prophetic, and right. I share your instinct to bring one’s pain to the woods. I suspect many of us do. Thanks for this contemplation. I have my summer field teaching on my mind, and these are helpful thoughts to add to the mix.
Beautiful piece, Tom. Thank you. (I trust you have read Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory? If not, I think you would love it.)
Thank you Tim! Good to hear your voice!
Tom—This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching piece. I remember so well your connection to the trees. Have you read The Overstory?
Thank you for inspiring me again—and still.
Exquisite, poignant writing. Having recently moved to a home surrounded by trees, I sense this will help me better understand and engage with the landscape to which my wife and I have been graciously led. “Caring for the remnant” — that is an incredibly helpful phrase. Thanks, Tom.