Yesterday afternoon, when it had warmed up enough for gardening, I spent a good long while carefully combing through a flower bed out back, trying to pull the wild strawberry plants out of the Dianthus. I don’t begrudge the strawberries their exuberance—they have lovely green leaves, sunny yellow flowers, and bright red berries—but they are not supposed to be growing there. They’re taking over the flower bed and crowding out the Dianthus, which have a special place in my heart because they were my great-grandma Roos’s favorite flower.
Each year as they spring back to life in mounds of cheerful pink and white flowers, I think of her and how much she loved nature and all the ways she taught me to love it too. Visit after visit through my childhood Grandma would send me home with a tiny maple seedling she’d potted so I could take it and care for it. She pointed out birds and butterflies and encouraged me to make friends with the neighbor’s cat, who I still remember—half a century later!–was a beautiful tortoise-shell with white socks. Her name was, appropriately, Bootsie.
Today, around the river birch tree in my back garden is a growing community of Lily-of-the-Valley, descendants of the plants that flourished in the shady area alongside my grandmother’s garage on Conner Street all those years ago. I gave my son Christopher and his wife Ashley some of them a couple of summers ago when they bought their first house, and now those same plants that made grandma so happy are being enjoyed by a third generation of our family.
Whether our time outside is active—as in gardening or hiking or riding a bike—or passive, as we simply look and appreciate the landscape and the sky, our connection with nature calms and heals us and helps us rest. Breathing in, we draw fresh oxygen to all the cells in our bodies. Breathing out, we release carbon dioxide, which becomes food for the trees, which clean the air for us. It’s a lovely and cooperative relationship, designed to sustain our interdependent—different, but connected–systems of life. Genius, really.
In his book, Some Fruits of Solitude, Quaker William Penn wrote, “It were happy if we studied Nature more in natural things; and acted according to Nature; whose rules are few, plain and most reasonable.” The wisdom, the patterns, the interdependence of living systems in nature offer us examples of how all life could coexist and flourish peacefully together, without one species dominating another. But humans like to be the center of things, firmly rooted in our own perspective as we look out on the earth. Taking Penn’s suggestion, it might be an interesting exercise to consider how the earth experiences us. As we mow, pull, plant and prune, is the earth enjoying our efforts? Does it feel our care and appreciation? I think of a quote from Mark Twain, “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” And also a saying from the poet Kahlil Gibran:
“… forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”
But there is another side to the happy, green, growing truth of nature; and that is that the force of life is bigger and stronger, more persistent, and endlessly more energetic than we are, and without our efforts to manage things—cutting the grass each week, for example; or weeding the flower beds, pulling the climbing vines off the bricks—nature might quickly overtake our properties, our homes, maybe our lives, we think. We are continually trying to tame the wild life around us, to keep the forest in its place, the stream in its banks, the mosquito population down, and the invasive species less invasive.
Two summers ago, I had one such battle on my hands. Apparently word had gone out to the local mole population that there were some tasty grubs in my front and back yards, and soon my lawn was riddled with tunnels going every which way, just under the surface of the grass. They tunneled through my gardens and across the lawn and around trees. I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t want to harm them or trap them or scare them (my neighbor tried annoying them with some contraption that beeped every 30 seconds or so but ultimately it only served to annoy his neighbors). One day when I was in the backyard, as I watched the ground right in front of my feet being tunneled through, I asked the mole to leave. I simply said, out loud (as far as I know no neighbors were watching), “I know you’re just doing what’s natural to you and not meaning any harm, but I wish you and your friends would find someplace else to do it. Would you please go somewhere else?”
I know, it’s laughable. But what did I have to lose? Admittedly, I didn’t notice an immediate difference but within a few weeks the grass did seem to be growing back where the worst tunnels had been. And I wasn’t noticing a lot of new tunnels. And this year—amazingly—I have no moles and no tunnels, and the ground feels solid again. So who’s to say asking them nicely doesn’t work?
Our Old Testament reading today gets at the idea that God has placed us in a rich, physical world that is overflowing with miracle and mystery, far beyond our ability to limit, control, or even truly understand it. Try as we might to tame it, to use it, to shape it to our will, God is the One who deeply understands and loves and blesses the nature of Life that animates all of creation.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation,” God asks Job. “Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
The commentary in the Life with God Bible says here, “The language reveals God’s grandeur as well as Job’s ignorance. God knows light and darkness, snow and rain, the heavens and the earth. God’s answer to Job is not direct; a mystery remains. God’s tour of the natural realm…shows that we human beings do not have the knowledge or perspective to even imagine the answers to the riddles we pose. God alone knows how the world works.” God sounds annoyed, doesn’t he, at Job’s arrogance. There is so much more to this than you know, God seems to be reminding him. Let’s see you try to make a single flower bloom on your own, Job.
A big part of our impulse to tame the wildness in life comes from our desire to have safe, orderly lives in which we have some semblance of control and unexpected things don’t happen. Award-winning architect and builder Christopher Alexander, who just passed away in March of this year, has some interesting ideas about this. He is known for his intuitive and almost mystical way of designing and building structures that serve all sorts of purposes, from a school campus in Japan to a homeless shelter in San Jose. Alexander has written a series of fascinating books about his approach to design, which is deeply cooperative and involves listening to and respecting the land, incorporating the inspiration of the people who will be using that space, and creating a building that in some way mirrors life’s flow and purpose. In his book, The Timeless Way of Building, he writes,
“The power to make buildings beautiful lies in each of us already. It is a core so simple, and so deep, that we are born with it. This is no metaphor. I meant it literally. Imagine the greatest possible beauty and harmony in the world—the most beautiful place that you have ever seen or dreamt of. You have the power to create it, at this very moment, just as you are.”
He goes on to say that when we begin to trust and follow the creative sense within us, we will naturally create things that fit harmoniously with others—with the space, with nature, with other people—because the whole effort becomes part of single living process, “a process which builds order out of nothing.” But human nature being what it is, our worries and need to control can get in the way of our creativity, and fears and hesitations keep us clinging to structures and methods that give us a known path to follow. We stop listening to what’s possible and pull the blinds on the creative spirit. He writes,
“…we have so far beset ourselves with rules, and concepts, and ideas of what must be done…that we have become afraid of what will happen naturally and convinced that we must work within a ‘system’ and with ‘methods’ since without them our surroundings will come tumbling down in chaos.”
That chaos, Alexander says, even though it seems risky, is actually the stuff of aliveness—“a rich, rolling, swelling…lilting, singing, laughing, shouting, crying, sleeping order” as he describes it. There is a deep freedom intrinsic to the creative process—nature is always making something new and growing into fresh spaces. That force is in us too, in our lives, inspiring us to create, to try, to open our hearts and see what happens.
But we know from experience in this world—and in particular, the horrifying tragedy in Uvalde this week—that chaos can also be dark, dangerous, and deadly. In the dark of chaos someone—who knows why—may choose to shatter our reasonably ordered world and do unthinkable harm. We grieve with all the families who are devastated and broken right now and we hold them—and the town, and all caring hearts—in God’s healing Light. In the face of such things, of course, we feel sorrow and fear and helplessness and vulnerability, and it is natural to want to protect ourselves and those we love from that kind of chaos. But living in fear—and this is part of what Alexander is getting at—walls us in, keeping the darkness out, we hope, but maybe also limiting our ability to be open to what’s possible, to feel and sense and know Spirit at work. Perhaps our aliveness suffers. Maybe we aren’t as receptive, as free, as available to the mystery and magic and potential of life because we are trying so hard to stay safe.
Our New Testament reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and he offers us a way to remain open to the aliveness God offers us while still feeling safe and protected in God’s care:
“For he himself is our peace,” Paul writes about Christ, “who has made the two groups one and destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
The commentary says here, “On the Temple Mount, dividing the inner courts of Israel from the Court of the Gentiles was a three-meter barrier keeping the chosen people of God separate from the Gentiles. Now in Christ Jesus all such barriers are gone. The staggering claim this makes on followers of Jesus is clear. In a world of walls—walls between the East and West (great religious divides) and walls between North and South (great economic divides)” we are invited to live the gospel in such a way that it, “brings walls crashing down.”
Jesus has already done it–he has dissolved the divides, healed the divisions, done away with empty categories that separate hearts and minds and souls, by ideology, by ethnicity, by any way people separate one group from another. When we open to the Light of Christ’s presence—even just a few moments a day—we allow ourselves to be taught by Love itself. And as a result, we find Unity with all living beings, the eternal wisdom to help us understand, infinite love that heals our hearts, and inspired compassion that leads us to reach out with kindness and plant flowers together where walls used to be.
Scottish peace activist and Quaker Helen Steven was well-known throughout the UK for many works of peaceful protest and nonviolent resistance. She was determined, compassionate, honest, and well-respected by all who knew her, no matter which side of the issues they were on. She gave the Swarthmore lecture in 2005 on the subject of activism and prayer. She said,
“Friends speak of holding someone in the light, and I have always found this a particularly helpful way of expressing it. The idea of going beyond words to a different level of being, to enfold another in the Light and Love beyond our physical experience, is a very attractive image.”
She went on to tell the story of how in one particularly harrowing and tension-filled situation, Friends holding someone in the light gave that person the moral courage to make a decision that brought a peaceful outcome for all involved. In this way, we, too, have access to this same extraordinary power we can use on behalf of peace and goodness, healing and wholeness: we can—and do–hold others in the Light of Christ.
Because He himself is our peace. In him, all division is already healed.
So perhaps the best way to tame the wildness around us it to first recognize and appreciate it for what it is—a mystery of God’s giving that is beyond our capacity to fully understand. When we see it clearly, we can listen and learn from it. When our hearts hold a sense of reverence, and we let God direct our steps and actions with gratitude, we may find we don’t need to “tame” things at all. Work with them, yes. Cooperate, sure. But now we’ll see the aliveness. We’ll appreciate the beauty. We’ll feel that we’re a part of it all and allow it to minister to us and refresh our souls as well as our bodies. And maybe, just maybe, when we politely ask the moles to move along, they will.
I’d like to close with this much-loved poem from Kentucky poet Wendell Berry. It is particularly fitting this week. It’s called The Peace of Wild Things.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
- OT Job 38: 4-7
- NT Ephesians 2: 14-18
- Alexander, Christopher. The Timeless Way of Building. https://www.patternlanguage.com/bookstore/timeless-way-of-building.html
- Berry, Wendell. The Peace of Wild Things. https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/peace-wild-things-0/
- Steven, Helen. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Steven