(You may watch video of me delivering this sermon here)
What’s been helping you cope these days? (If you’ve been coping at all – it’s understandable if we haven’t.) But have you found a little sanity project? You know, some project or practice that’s helped you keep it grounded, keep it real in the bigger reality of things.
I’d love to hear from you about this, I’d love for us to share with each other what project or practice has been helping us in these challenging times. It can be something explicitly spiritual or religious – religious practice can be key for times like these – but often times it isn’t explicitly spiritual, though it may well be deeply good for the soul.
When we get anxious or scared or angry, that can give us tunnel vision. So, for example, if we’re outraged about something that someone is doing or saying or not doing or saying, we can then easily get into a state of mind where we only see the people who are acting terribly, and we don’t manage to notice everyone else and everything else, that’s encouraging and affirming and life-giving. When we’re anxious or overwhelmed or scared or angry or desperate, we get reactive, always going for the knee jerk reactions to what flashes up in front of us. We can then act in ways that stray from our values as followers of Jesus. It can really help to have practices or projects that keep reminding us of a bigger view of what’s real and what’s possible than what’s jumping out to our attention in the moment. A regular practice like this can help us be responsible in how we respond. Now, of course, if I’m talking about a bigger view of things, that may be what we feel like we want to avoid: A big view of things these days can be upsetting – we are after all in the midst of historic level problems and crises. I won’t be a part of denying that.
But a bigger big view – a view, a vision, that scopes out to what is not only ancient but even eternal – this is the kind of big view can indeed bring comfort and courage.
My little sanity project these days, for what it’s worth – and I’m not claiming that I’m altogether keeping myself together – my little attempt at a sanity project has been to hang out with trees more. I’ve just endeavored to become a little better acquainted with the trees in my neighborhood. So, most mornings now I go on a little walk, oftentimes I take my prayer beads to just remind me to be in a prayerful way, and I just let myself be curious about the trees I come across. What can I notice about them? Each day I just pick one to look at. What do I notice about the leaves or needles, and seeds and bark and trunk and branches?
Then when I go home I take a minute to look through my tree book and try to figure out what kind of tree it is. And then I try to remember that the next day.
That’s it. I don’t have a lot of time; I’m not trying to become an expert; I started this knowing next to nothing about trees; I’m not making this a big deal. It’s just something to enjoy.
One reason this has been helpful to me is simply being in the open air with this spirit of openness and curiosity. Curiosity is the antidote to anxiety, after all.
But more than that, it’s also a nice break from humans (God bless us & God help us). And it just feels good to hang out with a tree, right? Just sit up against a trunk of big old cottonwood and slow down, root down, ground out and ease into a longer, slower, more stable rhythm of life. And just sit and listen as the wind blows through the leaves, And feel how the tree moves in its limber and strong way with the forces around it. And then settle as the wind settles And be quiet and still.
It is good to connect with a more-than-human rhythm and scope of things. Trees are beings that often live a lot longer than people do, when they’re left alone – 100 years, 200 years, sometimes even 2/3/4,000 years. There are trees alive today that were already old when Moses came along. And there are species of trees still going strong these days that have been around since before the dinosaurs. Trees are ancient beings that have survived and thrived with forest ecosystems through tremendous changes – times of plenty, times of want, through fires, floods, cataclysms, mass extinctions, and awesome outpourings of new and abundant life.
Maybe trees have some things to teach us, especially as we humans face some species wide challenges.
It’s not a mistake that at both the beginning and the end of the Bible we encounter the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life is at the center of the Garden of Eden. It is at the center of the harmonious abundance of Creation, as it is envisioned before the first wounds. And the Tree of Life rises again at the end of the Bible, at the completion of the Biblical testimonies about humanity’s fall from and return to unity with our Creator.
The book of Revelation is this dreamlike, at times nightmarish vision that unveils the self-destructiveness of human pride, which denies God, denies our place within the order of God’s creation, and instead lives by human might & violence & exploitation.
All this passes away, at the end of the book of Revelation, to a new heaven and a new earth, renewed and re-united, through the cosmic Christ. In the center of this vision is the Tree of Life: “Then the angel showed me River of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb … On either side of the river is the Tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelations 22:1-2)
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Biologists have discovered that most trees are part of this whole underground gift economy – literally underground. Through their roots, trees swap all kinds of nutrients with fungi and with other trees, even across species. They’ll send out signals about threats, so other trees in the forest can prepare defenses against infesting insects. When an elder tree is going to die, it sends out this big mineral dump through its roots to its neighbors, basically giving away its inheritance. Then of course when a tree falls and rots it provides life for countless species of plants and fungi and bacteria and insects and animals, for countless years. Now, trees compete with each other, for sure. But big picture they cooperate in enlightened self-interest – it is in giving away that they receive. They thrive through providing for a vibrant forest ecosystem.
Trees are just water and minerals and sunlight and gas. But they are the toughest, gnarliest lifeforms. Trees know how to survive.
You ever see a sawed-off stump with these scrawny branches and little leaves sticking out like a ring around it? That tree is still alive. Those roots are still churning, it’s still putting out leaves to gather in the sun.
“A shoot will sprout from the stump of Jessie” – that’s the prophet Isaiah (11:1), singing the divine vision about how his people can survive the destruction wrought by their hubris Survive and thrive in a new way, a holy way, in alignment with our God, Guided by the spirit, Isaiah says, “of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council and might, the spirit of knowledge and reverence for the Holy One Beyond Name.” (Isaiah 11:2).
Our ancestors knew that the ancient way of trees are models for life, especially in times of upheaval: Be Strong Be limber Be tough Be generous Tend to the health of the ecosystem around you. That’s wisdom we need to heed right now.
But as much as we can learn and be encouraged and comforted from ancient beings such as trees, they are themselves limited creations. So, let us also be led beyond to the boundless abundant realms of God, the Creator “all-powerful, true and incomparable Present in all things, yet limited by none, Untouched by place, Unaged by time, Unhurried by the years. beyond all change immutable Invisible, yet made known to us Manifest in the glories of creation You, O God, are found by all who seek with sincere heart And so, we seek you now, O God, In our adoration, in our yearning, in our reverent awe. Amen.”
(Delivered Sunday August 9, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational United Church of Christ of Walla Walla)
References: “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben; “Overstory” by Richard Powers; “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond” by Wes Howard-Brook
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