Friday, April 30, 2010

The trees of the field shall clap their hands

(Note: Happy Arbor Day!  I wanted to post a little earlier in the day to remind you in case you plan on planting a tree on arbor day.  I might get a chance to post something else later or on Sat, but here's an excerpt from a report I gave to the Fund For Theological Education, who gave me a grant when I started seminary.  It's not every day I sing the praises of a pharmaceutical company, but Lilly really has provided me a lot of opportunities in my education as a minister, including what I've gained from the FTE.)  

....In Wyoming, I had the opportunity to take time to connect with the outdoors.  Here I attended a workshop with Belden Lane, author of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, and Landscapes of the Sacred, Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality.  At this workshop, the general theme of a landscape’s influence on our spiritual lives was explored.   Because one of the participants was a geologist, we also considered the timeframe and history of a landscape as a spiritual journey in itself.  In this glacial valley, sitting among petroglyphs that were expressions of mystical visions, I received a message from the Holy Spirit through the wind blowing through the trees.  This is the prayer with which I responded:
                        Fill us, o wind of God—Great Spirit of Transformation
The trees taste your presence and shout their thanks and praise.  In the whistling of their needles and limbs, they sway in a dance with you.  They display openness to your guidance.  Help us to be more like the trees in their wisdom.  Blow into our heads and refresh our minds, o mighty wind of God.  Stir the embers that reside in our hearts.  Fill our lungs like you fill the lungs of these pines.  As they give voice to your movement, we will also sing your praise.  As the trees move with your breath, unite the fire in our hearts with the newness of our ideas to make manifest in our lives a reflection of you.  Blow through us, Spirit.  Make us your tongues in this world, as you did on Pentecost.  Help us speak the same language with all creation so that we might have communion.  Lord you have written your vision in the interdependence of all things in nature, but we have attempted to escape that beautiful purpose for the rickety designs of our own greed fear and ignorance.  Lord, give us the voice of the tree. 

...At Sequoia National Park, my wife and I camped among the lodge pole pines that surround the “Giant Forest” of Sequoias at 6500 feet.  As we walked among these trees, which have a magnificence and gentleness that are unparalleled in creation, we learned several things about God’s intentions for creation.  Though the Sequoias sometimes grow too tall and massive to be supported by their own roots in a shallow three feet of soil on top of solid granite, the trees interlock their roots to support each other.  Though this fact does not make much sense to a scientific worldview of competition, it does show that God’s purpose for creation is for us to welcome our interdependence and not live outside the relationships that support us all.  As I sat among the mighty Sequoias, I read the thoughts of John Muir. 
Do behold the King in his glory, King Sequoia! Behold! Behold! seems all I can say.  Some time ago I left all for Sequoia and have been and am at his feet; fasting and praying for light, for is he not the greatest light in the woods, in the world?  Where are such columns of sunshine, tangible, accessible, terrestrialised? Well may I fast, not from bread, but from business, book-making, duty-going, and other trifles, and great is my reward already for the manly, treely sacrifice.  What giant truths since coming to Sequioia gigantea, what magnificent clusters of Sequoiac becauses. 
~Letter to Ezra Carr, 1872

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jesus and the Fig Tree (Happy Arbor Day, indeed)

Note: between Wednesday, April 27 and Friday, April 30, which is arbor day, this blog will be devoted to trees.  Why don't you celebrate by planting a tree?  Please comment and tell me about your special trees.  If you're so inspired by this post that you can't wait for tomorrow's post, you can look at my tags for trees and treehouses.)

I’ve noticed that Wesley’s Christmas tree (that blue spruce next to the East driveway of the church) has been putting out bright green new branches lately.  That tree has been in the ground for four years now.  Blue Spruce are known to be slow growers, and the tree has only grown a six inches a year or so.  I’ve recently Julianna’s 2nd Christmas tree too.  (We bought tabletop trees to plant for Christmas when the children were two—we found it easier to keep ornaments on the tree).  Wesley’s tree’s growth is especially noticeable because it sits next to Julianna’s tree—which has not yet put out any new growth.  I haven’t been able to find any information as to whether this is to be expected with a new tree that was just put in the ground in January, so if there are any horticulturists out there who have good advice, let me hear it because I’m worried about it! 

Scriptures say that God expects and hopes for us to show new growth in our Spirits.  Much is said in the Psalms and Prophets about fruitfulness and it is a major theme of Paul’s letters to the church.  Paul encourages the believers to bear fruit in their spiritual lives.  Just to make things clear, Paul spells out how that looks on a practical level. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal 5: 22-23)
 Jesus speaks of the urgency of us bearing fruit in prophetic action, recorded in Mark 11 and Matthew 21.  Jesus walks up to a fig tree (which Mark says is “not in the fruit bearing season, but had leaves”) and finds that it has borne no figs.  He curses the tree, and the disciples watch in amazement as the tree withers from the root.  I’ve always felt sorry for that poor fig tree.  It seems so out of character for Jesus to curse and hurt a living thing. I took this question to Brother Aidan, a hermit monk I had the opportunity to stay with for a week around 10 years ago.  He spoke about the importance of bearing fruit when we have an encounter with Jesus.  It’s not good enough just to just be in proximity to Jesus, we must respond to that presence.  Whatever we are called by God to do, even yield fruit out of season or tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea, we must be bold enough do it. 

 But I’m not the only one who has a soft spot for the fig tree.  This is one of those interesting stories that is contained in Mark (which Matthew and Luke utilized to compose their own Gospels) that Matthew adapted, but Luke left out entirely. Actually Luke doesn’t leave it out, he simply rewrites it as a parable.  In Luke 13: 1-9, Jesus tells the story of a man who has a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and seeks fruit from it, but finds none for three years, and then tells his servant to cut it down.  The servant then pleads with the landowner to spare the tree for another year, in which he will tend it carefully, putting manure at its roots, and then see if it will finally produce fruit.  Tradition says that Luke was a physician.  Perhaps he just couldn’t see Jesus cursing a tree because of his own interest in helping people recover from injury and disease.  Instead, he recounts Jesus being the servant.  He’s here to tend to the tree and stave off destruction.  Still, urgency is implied in Luke’s story as well. 

I like Luke’s story much better than Matthew and Mark.  I can see Aidan’s point about the urgency and necessity of complying with God’s call on us, but I think Luke’s picture is more in harmony with Jesus as Master Physician and Finder of Lost Sheep.  I think God looks at us with the same sympathy and hope that I look at my kids’ two Christmas trees.  I see the one putting out new lush green branches, and I see the other looking more brown and brittle by comparison.  Instead of being angry with brittle tree, I wonder what more I can do to help it become vibrant and growing.  

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tree Crime and Punishment

Note: between Wednesday, April 27 and Friday, April 30, which is arbor day, this blog will be devoted to trees.  Why don't you celebrate by planting a tree?  Please comment and tell me about your special trees.  If you're so inspired by this post that you can't wait for tomorrow's post, you can look at my tags for trees and treehouses.)

 In the 30 foot willow across the street, my neighbors and I once broke out a bunch of branches to build a little platform for a neighborhood cat.  I was about 8 or 9.  We didn't ask the cat if he wanted a 20 foot high platform in the tree, and he didn't seem to like it that much.  I remembering him scampering down after we flopped him out into the sunlight, never to return.  We didn't ask our neighbor who owned the tree either, and he called the police to pay us a visit.   I vividly remember the blue uniformed police officer coming to 3115 Cherokee drive.  He asked for me, and my stomach dropped.  I lied and said I didn't do it.  I remember the feeling of my throat swelling as I told the lie.  It didn't feel that easy, so I imagine he could probably see the truth on my face.  

Years later, I still felt horrible to lying to the policeman.  I sent a confession to the police department, and they wrote a letter back to me which commended me on the bravery of telling the truth.  (I had conveniently moved out of their jurisdiction by then.)   I think I still have the letter in a chest at home.  

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Arboreal locomotion

(Note: From now till Friday, which is arbor day, this blog will be devoted to trees.  Why don't you celebrate by planting a tree?  Please comment and tell me about your special trees.  If you're so inspired by this post that you can't wait for tomorrow's post, you can look at my tags for trees and treehouses.)

I used to love climbing trees.  There were two maple trees next to my house in Fayetteville that I used to climb, and I remember liking how the bark was smooth against my palms and shorts clad knees, rather than grating and rough, like an oak or pecan or sweetgum.  That maple was the tree I learned to climb in.  It was small enough that I could climb to the top of it, and big enough to give a thrill. I used to sit in one branch that hung down like a little bench in the air, and my Kangaroos would dangle before I'd jump six feet to the ground.

There was a willow tree across the street, and I can't think of a better tree to climb in and sit under.  There were two at the pond I used to fish as a kid.  One had a big rock underneath the overhanging branches.  It used to seem like an Arabian tent with a big rock altar to our God of the outdoors. It made good shelter when we used to shoot our b-b guns at each other from across the pond.  If the hanging branches didn't deflect the b-b, the big sitting rock would.  

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In the Earth

At my recent college reunion, by friend Dawn was raving about my blog, and I was thinking, "Yeah, and I haven't posted on it in about a month. If you're a loyal reader, and this has caused you any grief or distress, I apologize. We've been taking advantage of some fabulous spring days to dig a garden. A lot of our churchpeople have taken that act as a communication that we are not going to be moving this year. As far as I know, they are correct.. I'm planning on harvesting what I'm planting. Perhaps it's being in the earth so much, or perhaps it's our recent acquisition of the ReNew VBS and how I've been impressed with it, or maybe it's just the beautiful weather we've had here in what we call "Green Country," but I've been "keyed in" to the natural world lately.

Last week I wrote my sermon from the front porch, listening to all the birds sing in our sweetgum trees, (because we now have wireless!!!) and I think my "attentive participation" in the Spring is making a difference in my spirit. The robins that hop around in our yard looking for bugs came right up to my feet, unafraid. There is something profound about not causing fear in a wild animal.

I think the way we are shaped by our surroundings is fascinating. I'll never forget the time I got to spend at a workshop at Ring Lake Ranch with Belden Lane on that topic. He wrote a book called "The Solace of Fierce Landscapes" that really resonated with me. I've always enjoyed mentally fishing on the stream that is formed by the merging of ecology and theology. I've had great opportunities to plumb those depths. (thank you, Lilly pharmaceuticals)

One thing that the winter does for me is give me enough silence and stillness, with only the constant sound of the wind, to re-acquaint myself with the wildlife and plant-life that comes springing back around. When I lived in Los Angeles and would come back to Arkansas in the summer, it would baffle me how green everything outdoors was. So, in the same way, winter annually lulls our eyes and ears to sleep only to have them awakened again, refreshed and renewed.

So, in the spirit of Belden Lane, beautiful weather, birds chiriping, and Earth Day, I introduce you to my surroundings:

First are our two big Sweetgums.  They give us a workout in the fall and winter with all the balls they drop, but they give nice cool shade in the summer, and I like to hang my dartboard on the closest one there.  They rise to about 40 feet or more.

Lao-Tzu enjoys the empty lot to the south of our house.  There's always something to prowl around for out there, and that makes a cat feel worthwhile, I suppose. (Although she's gotten stuck in Lloyd's skunk traps on occasion)

There are four pecan trees in the big lot to the south of our house.  We enjoy finding pecans and munching on the ones that don't have wormholes.  I can occasionally practice with my pitching wedge in the lot when it is mowed.  (It is not right now)

Even further south is a cow pasture with some Black Angus cattle owned by a church member.  One time we got 1/4 of a cow from him.  This made me feel sustainability superior to everyone else.  That is, until we left the freezer unplugged for a few days, and had to throw a good bit of it out.  (Palm to forehead at that memory)

Looks like our little birdhouse in the maple tree in the front has an occupant.  There are also a pair of huge barn owls that make their home in the top of that tree.
(I have a picture, but I can't find it.)  This is the prettiest maple tree in town in the fall. It turns a brilliant golden color.  (See!)

Last but not least is our fledgling garden that has been the source of much dirt in my fingernails over the past week or so.  I hope it isn't too late to plant lettuce, b/c we have some of that, peppers, onions, tomatoes, strawberries, squash, and zucchini.  I'm hoping the best for our garden, and I think we'll have plenty to share with friends.  As Wendell Berry says, "One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener's own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race." 

Soon I'll be putting up some lattice work on our porch to give some more shade and privacy on the west.  Then we'll be maxing AND relaxing.

I hope you've enjoyed your little tour of my yard.  It's not glamorous, but it's beautiful in a humble way, I think.  As Wendell Berry also says,"I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle." 

(Boy, the new formatting thing really didn't work on those photos--any pointers blogger geeks?)