or reasons I honestly cannot fathom, on this hot summer day my mind is wandering around the farm I grew up on. It is the middle of winter. Even in South Carolina in the days before drastic climate change, a severe winter storm has set in bringing ice and freezing rain. The thirty-seven acres on the farm seem huge to this boy. Woods border the fields on three sides. I stay out of the woods in hot weather for one reason only: snakes. But in the wintertime it is safe to wander through the woods. I do. I put on some boots. I walk across a frozen field and enter the wonderland. Trees bow down under the weight of ice. Sunbeams dance on bare branches caked in crystal. Hiking through Low Country woods the morning after an ice storm is not necessarily easy. It certainly isn’t fast. Trees have fallen. Ice across little streams turns out to be too thin to support my weight. I zig and zag my way forward. The adventure of moving through a tangle of vines and saplings and brush combines with the awe-inducing freeze to transport me so deep into the heart of Nature that I feel unnaturally connected to an unearthly Something. I’m seventeen. Suddenly I’m venturing into a world of rare beauty that inspires and puzzles me.
|Ice Storm in the South|
Long lost to me is what I wrote when I returned to the house and warmed myself to the point that I could pick up a pen and put down some thoughts in the form of a theme for English class. What I do remember is wanting to preserve the experience, to dissect it just a bit, to get into what it was I felt when moving over a landscape at once so familiar and so mysterious. I don’t know that I grasped the paradox of great loveliness and peace a fierce storm had made possible.
Fifty-seven years have passed since that winter morning. What I believe I experienced then was perhaps not the first, but certainly one of the most memorable instances of finding my own place in creation. I was never a boy much at home in the outdoors. I liked staying inside much more than venturing outside. Reading, playing the piano, studying, and writing were much happier pursuits for me than practically anything I could name like football or baseball, hunting or fishing. I did not at first feel as if the natural world was home to me. I had a lot to learn.
On that morning walk through the ice-laden woods, I had already discovered the great Romantic poets of English literature. I learned from people like Wordsworth and Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emerson that Nature was a Bible that communicated wisdom and truth to me. And I learned all that from a wonderful high school teacher who opened my eyes to see Truth in the world around me.
The gravest problem the human species is facing today is the destruction of the natural world. The problem did not begin a few years ago, but has been steadily increasing in scope and severity over the last half century. A great source of the problem is that our religions in this part of the world have taught us that our individual souls are of far greater importance than our environment. They have gone so far as to school us in believing that the native and ultimate habitat of the human soul is in fact not in this world but in another world. They have been rife with images of God as having a home in a heaven that is distinctly not a part of this world. Our hymns and our preachers have told a fairly consistent story that the heaven where God lives is a land beyond the river that we call “the sweet forever,” and to that land we are bound if we are good and pass the grade. And while our religions have insisted that God is the creator of the world, their attitude has been by and large that God really doesn’t care very much about anything in this world except human beings and what we happen to prize. We have had the blessing of our religious establishments to dominate, exploit, use, and exhaust natural resources, with scarcely a murmur about the consequences.
What you and I are trapped in, namely this wholesale cheapening of the natural world, is nothing less than a broad example of what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “slavery.” I’ll be the first to admit that when we hear words like “flesh” and “self-indulgence,” our minds go first to our appetites—especially to sex. But I invite you not to go there, just in case you like thousands of others think that Christianity in particular harps all the time in a sex-negative key. As a matter of fact, behind what we hear in Galatians, Romans, and elsewhere in the New Testament are echoes of a great struggle that goes on both within the human person and in society. Paul sometimes refers to it as two aeons or two ages. One is the Age of Adam and the other is the Age of Christ. Paul writes in First Corinthians, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Clearly what differentiates the two is not mortality—because all humans, including Jesus, face death. But Christ represents passage, and not just at death, into a new quality of life, a new way of living, a distinctive redirection of life’s purpose. We struggle because we live in both ages at once. The question is whom do we follow. Adam represents our own human willfulness. Christ embodies free submission to the desire of God to dwell within us.
Another way Paul frames this struggle is with the terms flesh and spirit. Think of flesh as not simply the human body, but as life that never quite gets beyond the basic struggle that all flesh engages in: the struggle to survive. Following the Spirit is not negating the body, but reorienting our purposes for living in a radically new direction. Among other things that direction involves a change in the way we approach the natural world.
|Owning, Possessing, Hoarding: Not Quite the Art of Living|
Joe and I were watching a couple of nights ago a detective mystery in which a very wealthy man was thoroughly enamored of ancient Chinese artifacts. He was a collector who had amassed a museum-quality collection of various objects, many very precious and fragile. To him they were not to be shared, but to be prized and hoarded, only rarely to be seen by select visitors whom he could perhaps impress. What was important to him was owning the artifacts, to the point of engaging in whatever criminal activity he needed to in order to protect his ownership. That is a perfect example of the Age of Adam in full swing. That is a chilling example of walking after the flesh, living according to the gods of this world called self-indulgence, greed, avarice, malice, egotism. Our place is within the created order, not to exploit it to puff up ourselves with power, influence, fame, or privilege.
Jesus is going forward, his face firmly set in the direction of Jerusalem. His agenda is constantly to confront the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. His ministry of healing directly challenges diseases of body and spirit that infect people. He is constantly calling out the authorities both political and religious that oppress the poor and powerless. He consistently ranges himself on the side of the outcast. And along the way to Jerusalem, where he will pay the ultimate price for his witness, he calls people to follow him. One man says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replies that he has no home, no bed, but is perpetually on the move, restless, tireless in his mission. Are you really willing to follow that example? To another who wants to delay responding to Jesus’ call, he says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Who is dead? Those who live according to the flesh, those who are stuck worshiping the gods of the Age of Adam, those who hoard their art and possessions, their money and their food, instead of sharing. Someone agrees to follow but first has to say farewell to those at home. Sounds reasonable. But this is the third metaphor that emphasizes the urgent call of the Holy One asking for admittance to the human soul.
|Mary Cassatt, "The Child's Bath," 1893|
And that is the simple truth at the bottom of all this. In everything, the great Soul Maker is sitting silently in the depth of our being, simply waiting to be noticed, waiting to be acknowledged. Waiting and waiting, the Great Mother can think of nothing better than to shower love and affection on her children. Nothing pleases her more than for her children simply to play lovingly with her and with each other.
A life in the Spirit, life lived in the age of Christ, is not a drab and tedious thing that is ridden with guilt over imagined sins and weighed down with shame that cannot accept itself. No, it is like a trip to a fabulous farmers market at the height of the growing season where there are fruits and vegetables aplenty. Some of them are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You won’t find laws that prohibit such things, because on both the deepest and most obvious levels those are the very things that human beings and societies most hunger for. We never quite have them until we have turned our faces in the direction our Leader is going. The fruits come with following the one through whom all things are made.
I’ve grown a bit since that icy morning many years ago. All I could see then was the sheer beauty of a world so much larger than I. And that was enough. Now I understand that the enchanted frozen forest was not simply something that I was exploring, but a vast and profound territory that was as much inside my heart and mind as it was on the farm I called home.
At the end of the day, when the sunlight has melted the last of the ice and has begun to sink into night, I can see the truth now. Walking by the Spirit, living in the Age of Christ, following Jesus, putting my hand to the plough and not looking back, is essentially acknowledging that I am a part of this marvelous world and all that is in it. The trees, the ice, the streams, the rocks, and even the snakes and spiders are a part of me and I of them. And so are you, my brothers and sisters. And there is absolutely nothing to do but love everything and everybody just as I love myself. We are all one, and it is all good.
A sermon preached on Proper 8, Year C, of the Revised Common Lectionary, on the texts Galatians 5:1, 13-25, and Luke 9:51-62.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019