Seasons of Creation 2019
I have been reading a novel lately, one recommended by Dr. Larry Rasmussen in our Environmental Ethics class on Care of the Earth. The opening chapter of the novel, The Overstory, by Richard Powers tells a story about a family and a chestnut tree. The novel is beautifully written novel about trees and people who understand them. Jørgen Hoel is a Norwegian immigrant in the first half of the 1800’s who has settled in life in Brooklyn, NY. One fine fall day, Hoel joins other men on Prospect Hill who are enjoying the bounty of the chestnut trees. They throw stones at the tree and each time a stone hits, the tree rains down chestnuts. It seems like a game between the men and boys and the trees and there is much laughter and joy. Later in the evening a large bonfire is built and the whole neighborhood comes together to enjoy roasted chestnuts and the stories that gatherings like this always bring about. One of the stories of the evening is how Hoel is the king of the chestnut harvest as his throws brought down the most chestnuts.
Buoyed by the day and his chestnut success, the Norwegian asks his sweetheart, Vi Powys, an Irish immigrant to marry him. They marry before Christmas and begin their lives together as two young people, who escaped the trauma and pain of two countries that could no longer support their own, but who had found each other in a new country, full of promises. Before the chestnut trees bloomed in the spring, they were expecting their first child and making plans to resettle in the mid-west.
Taking all of their worldly possessions, placing them in a wagon, the couple traveled overland to Iowa and hope for the future. They didn’t have much but strength and determination and one more thing. They had six chestnuts that had been stuffed into Hoel’s jacket pocket that fine, fall day. They planted the chestnuts and on the windswept prairie the chestnuts sprouted and began to grow into a chestnut grove, offering promises for a growing family.
Over the years the young couple are faced with all the kinds of adventures and traumas that life can present. Children were born. Children grew. Some children died. Harvests were successful. Harvests failed. Winters were brutal. Winters were mild. Food was plentiful. Food was scarce. Chestnut trees grew. All but one chestnut tree died and with only one surviving tree, there were no chestnuts.
Despite all that the young family endured, the one lone chestnut tree stood watch over them. It was a sentinel tree, offering shade and hope. It marked boundaries and served as a signpost. It grew and grew and was a memorial to all the members of the family, standing guard through birth and death, success and failure, hope and promise.
When the blight killed all of the chestnuts on the east coast, this one lone chestnut survived because it was so far away from the ravages of the disease. The family began to honor it by taking a photo of it at the same time and same place, month after month, year after year. Generations later, there are thousands of photos of the tree, each one showing the growth and changes of the chestnut and even though the changes in the family were not a part of the photos, somehow, even those changes were present in the pictures of the tree. The tree is a part of the family’s history and hope. They understand it and it understands them.
In my own life there is one tree that will always stand out among all the trees that have captured my attention and memory. In the front yard of the place that I call home—my grandfather’s farm—there stood an old elm tree. It was tall and beautiful, and the shade was perfect on a hot summer afternoon. In three seasons of the year, there was a certain ritual that occurred that extended back into my mother’s memory. When the last of the weekly cleaning and the last of the Saturday chores were completed, a table was brought out, set under the tree and on the table was placed a big bowl of whatever was in bloom. I remember most my grandmother’s daffodils in the spring and her roses in the summer.
For my family, this ritual signified the beginning of the day of rest. It was a memorial tree, a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.
Often on Sunday afternoons family would gather around that table or move to the front porch. I remember singing hymns under that tree and when my cousin returned on a break from her missionary work in Viet Nam, the whole neighborhood gathered under that tree to hear her stories and the evening would end with homemade ice cream and prayer.
For years, that tree was noticeable to me a quarter of a mile away from my grandfather’s farm and as we traveled in that direction, I would look for the tree for miles. I always wanted to be the first to spot it.
The first time I came to the farm after the big storm was disappointing to me. The tree of my childhood was in pieces on the ground and yet it still gave of itself because several winters later, after it had seasoned, the tree provided the wood for the winter warmth that always came from the wood burner in my grandfather’s house.
Can you image a life without trees?
There are places in this world where trees are very scarce, and the rarity of a tree is a precious gift.
It is easy for us to forget about the importance of trees in our lives. Is it because we are so used to them and think that they will always be here?
Trees are gifts to us, provided for us by God, who created the trees and gave them to us to enjoy. However, trees were not created just for us and our benefit. Trees, like us, were created to be partnership and to care for one another and all of Creation around us. It is easy for us to think that Creation is here only for our benefit, but the reality is that you and I and all of humanity is part of Creation and we depend upon this interwoven creation that God called into existence and pronounced good. Every breath we take, every morsel we eat comes from God through Creation.
Trees give so much to us: food and oxygen, shade and coolness, materials for building, fuel for warmth, medicines for healing. They provide homes for wildlife and provide moisture in the ground and in the air.
And they are beautiful!!!
Isaiah 55 calls to us to pay attention! It is a part of a body of work that is called the Reverence theology and is placed in what theologians and biblical scholars have called II Isaiah. It was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile, a time when the Hebrews were uncertain about their future and about who they could trust. In Reverence theology, God’s “towering mystery dwarfs humanity and draws us to recognize our finitude, frailty, and dependence on God and each other.” (from David L. Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.).
In the midst of deep, dark days for Israel, there was the reminder that God is present, and God’s creative imagination is beyond anything that mere mortals can comprehend.
The Reverence theology that we find in this section of Isaiah calls for us to abandon all of our claims of self-sufficiency, control, and pride and to align ourselves to God’s words and ways and it reminds us that much of Creation has understood this call so better than we humans have.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” –Isaiah 55:9
Here, we are reminded that all Creation understands just who God is and that even trees express that knowledge and joy by clapping their hands and growing hope in the midst of desolate or abandoned places:
Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you;
all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
13 In place of the thorn the cypress will grow;
in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow.
This will attest to the Lord’s stature,
an enduring reminder that won’t be removed.
The third chapter of the Gospel of John has a beautiful way of making Isaiah’s message clear. Nicodemus has come to Jesus to be instructed and in the midst of teaching Nicodemus, Jesus utters the words that most of us can repeat on cue:
For God so loved the world…
That one verse has become so isolated that we often forget that the whole of the passage indicates that Christ came to save the whole world—the whole of creation—by giving his own life away for our sakes, over and over again. It is true that God sent Jesus to us so that all who believe should not perish but have eternal life but believing requires something more than just saying the words and going on with our lives as if nothing happened. Believing means that we pay attention to Jesus’ words in the Gospel and that we pay attention to the way he lived his life. It means that we allow Jesus’ life and love to guide our ways and that we try to develop the same kind of love and compassion that led him to give his life away.
Over the past several years, my favorite tree has been a maple tree on the campus of WVWC. I would pass it twice each day as I walked to and from the Upshur Parish House. It was a tree of both sadness and beauty. It had been damaged and half of it had died, but half of it still stood tall and strong, producing glorious green leaves in the spring that provided shade to many, many squirrels and glorious red leaves in the fall. It’s bark was a work of art, gnarled and knotted, silver grey and lovely in its uniqueness. I loved walking by that tree because it spoke to me of how we all deal with pain in our lives and yet, we can still offer hope and beauty to the world.
When I left for my renewal leave in Germany, I placed my hand on its rough bark, blessed it and said good-bye to the tree and thanked it for its bravery, its beauty, and its hope.
When I returned from leave, the tree was gone. The damaged side and the thriving side were both cut away, leaving a stump in the ground. I grieved over that tree. My walk to work each day was not the same. Day after day that year I would walk past the stump and gaze upon it.
When all the other trees began to put out shoots and leaves, the stump just sat there. At least I thought it did. And then as summer turned to fall, I began to notice that there was life in that stump. I noticed that fungi began to cover the stump and there was such beauty and life there. Different kinds of fungi would spring up overnight, along the remaining bark of the stump and from the ground all around it. Then I began to notice green moss and tiny gauzy spider webs. The tree—the stump had given its life away. The life that thrived on that stump would never have thrived on a healthy tree that took all of its own energy to grow, but on a stump, the remainder of a tree that had given its life away, life was thriving and it was beautiful.
Today, God’s blessed and beautiful Creation is in trouble. The trees, the plants, the water, the air, you and me. It will take all of us, making some sacrifices for God’s Creation to thrive in the midst of what is happening on our planet. But it is not just God’s Creation, it is our Creation too and we are a part of it. You and I cannot solve overnight the problems that have been hundreds of years in the making, but we can think and pray for our Creation, learning to appreciate what God has made us a part of and learning to protect it and help it thrive. We can learn all that we can about what is happening to our trees, what they offer us that we might not know and how even the most insignificant choice that we think we make, might indeed mean life or death for our trees or indeed, even our planet.
The trees remind us of all of this and something more. The trees remind us that all of Creation is life—trees, forests, sun and rain, ground and air, you and me and all the creatures of the earth. And the trees remind us that sometimes for life to endure, life must be given away. All of Creation can remind us that Jesus chose gifts of Creation to help us understand that he gave his life for us—the fruit of the ground for bread, the fruit of the vine for wine.
This day and every day may we hear the voice of Christ whispering to us, to believe, to pay attention, to repent, that we are forgiven, that we have life abundant, and that we are called to help all of life to thrive.