Peaches and Miracles

Big questions arise and find answers in little things—things like peaches.

As August arrived, we picked our backyard peach tree clean and enjoyed sweet, juicy perfection for the several weeks following. Just a small tree with green leaves, fueled by sunlight, soil, and rain. And somehow sweet fruits form, swell, and ripen—fruits that all creatures, whether human, animal, bird, or insect, can delight in. Scientists can explain a few things about  how it works. They can talk about root systems, flowers and pollination, the tree vascular system, photosynthesis, even the plant’s genetic code, but none of it really explains where the fruits come from and why. How does the tree know how to do it? We certainly can’t duplicate the process in a factory. How really does the tree know the recipe for gathering resources from air, light, earth, and water to yield such heavenly gifts?

I also wonder how such a tree can make something that so many enjoy. Some might argue that it exists exactly because it is so pleasing to people. That’s why it survives. People cultivate and reproduce it. This is doubtless to some degree true. But in the larger sense of things I wonder if that isn’t putting the egg before the chicken. How did the peach tree get there in the first place so that people could value it enough to select and protect it? And how did we come to have taste buds and metabolic systems that arouse delight in us as we eat the fruits?

Then I wonder about the environment required for the life of such a tree. It needs a temperate climate with plenty of water and sunshine and reasonably good soil. But what sustains these things? What if we didn’t have a moon to help create weather and rain patterns? What if the moon was just a bit bigger, or its orbit was farther from the earth? What if the sun was a bit bigger or smaller? Or what if the sun was a bit farther away from the earth? What if it was closer? What if the earth spun much slower on its axis and our days and nights were much longer? If any of these or thousands of other factors that sustain our climate were to change or be different, the tree would not be able to live here, and neither would we or any of the other myriad life forms that share our life community here on planet earth. The more I reflect on these factors, the more I learn of them, the more I wonder at it all. The complex interdependency of all the factors sustaining life are overwhelming. Could this complex tapestry have possibly been woven by chance?

In reflecting on miracles, Wendell Berry once wrote, “The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine—which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

Life as we experience it is an astounding array of ongoing and interwoven miracles—even when things are going badly. We are surrounded by them at every turn, and we are completely blind to most of them. Life as we know it is sustained by a divine hand guided by creativity and intelligence beyond our conception. He is the Christ—the Earth Maker and History Weaver, the Keeper of all things, the One who spins the forces for our daily survival.

In a world filled with doubt and doubters, it is easy to discount miracles. But our awareness of the mundane miracles all around should plant the seeds of faith we need for the bigger, more surprising miracles. As I reflect on all this beneath my peach tree, I bite deeply into a ripe peach, raise my hands in the air, and give thanks. And then I smile and wipe the sticky juice from my chin.

Garden Tip: Plant a peach tree or any other fruit tree in your yard or garden. Choose varieties appropriate for your climate and make sure you plant appropriate pollinating varieties if required. Most peach trees are self-pollinating, making it easy to plant one tree in a small space. Other fruits (apricots, for example) often need pollinating pairs to produce fruit. If you have a small garden, dwarf fruit tree varieties are also a good idea. That way the trees won’t take over completely.

After planting, watch as the miracles begin to unfold and do what you must to help them along.

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Thin Places

In the Christian Celtic tradition there has always been a deep awareness of spiritual reality, and the recognition that that reality is always close at hand. And the Celts also spoke of special places—“thin places”—where that spiritual reality was especially close. As the old Celtic saying goes: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart; but in the thin places, that distance is even shorter.” A thin place is a location where the veil separating spiritual and physical realities is especially thin, where God’s presence seems especially close and His divine whisper is loud. I think it likely that all of us have some special places, where our spiritual senses seem to be especially alert. Such are the thin places.

In the Bible there is mention of this sort of thing. For the people of ancient Israel, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem, were locations where God was especially present—where the separation between Creator and created was especially thin. It seems God recognized the need in the people of Israel for such a place. Perhaps that is why he provides such places for us all—places where we can go and sense His divine presence and power, where we can more easily hear His still, small whisper in our ears, where we can receive his gifts of grace. In the New Testament, the church was given the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, a tradition practiced regularly by millions of believers of many languages and cultures. Why? Perhaps because it provides for us a thin place, a concrete manifestation of divine grace, a place (and time) where we experience God’s real touch of forgiveness and transforming love.

My garden is one of the thin places for me. Why is this so? Perhaps because it is a place of beauty—at least on its better days. Beautiful locations can jar us into a realization that a spiritual reality is at hand—that God is close by. Perhaps it is also because the garden is a place of miracles. Dead seeds go into the ground and are transformed though water, sun, and many unseen processes into amazing gifts. Watch the eyes of children in a garden as they pick the fruit, and you will have little doubt that this is the stuff of miracles. As we grow up, we often become blind to the miracles all around. Perhaps the garden is a thin place, not just because it is a place of life, but also because it is a place of death. The living things feed off the composted decay of plants of an earlier generation. It reminds us that life is a gift—a gift purchased by the living things that died to feed it. It awakens in us the realization that life is short, and that our life costs something.

I think most thin places occur in nature because the evidence of the Creator’s presence is so vivid and clear. An awe-inspiring landscape can take our breath, awakening our appreciation for the One who twisted it from the bones of the earth. It stills our hearts and minds and helps us to catch at least a small glimpse of heaven. Often the works of people hide God’s glory and blind us to spiritual reality, but sometimes human creativity can also create a thin place. Simple things, like warm hospitality around a full table, can be such a place. Or when we step into a great cathedral, time stops and we feel small in God’s great presence. God is there in a special way, and His voice is loud in the silence. Over the centuries monks built monasteries that were “thin” for the many who passed through their walls, augmented by the prayers and worship offered there. Stand on the cliffs of the rustic monastery on Skellig Michael and imagine a great storm blowing in off the North Sea—there you will find a thin place.

Thin places are in some sense sacramental. They are locations and practices that bring God near, where truth is conveyed through the concrete—through people, through creation, through the Word and the word. That is most often how God works. Though the beauties around us aren’t an actual extension of God, they do convey His presence, His grace, and His truth to us. For He is the Creator of all. I close this post with some reflections on thin places that I recorded some time back:

I think I’ve had a summer of visiting thin places—places where heaven is more real than earth, where the brush of an angel’s wing is more real than a breeze, where the wind smells of the breath of God. I felt it amidst the improbable, tortured landscapes of western national parks, places that surprise you into a different sort of consciousness. Everything is so huge, putting you in tiny relief. These are places that set you often on the edge of a precipice, where your stomach finds itself in your throat, where one slip could bring your last breath. These are places where we realize our smallness, our weakness, our fragility, how so very temporary we are. We discover we are like grass in a desert, which soon fades after the spring rains are gone. We discover the truth about ourselves—that it’s a miracle we’re alive and that we’re all just hanging on by a thread. Each day, each breath becomes newly precious, a reason for rejoicing. Our hearts beat faster, colors are more vivid, friends and loved ones are suddenly more precious, God’s presence is vibrant, real.

But as I’ve thought about it, thin places aren’t just physical places of monumental proportions. They are “places” on the border of life and death, on the edge of eternity. We can go there without traveling to a far-off mountain top. We might get there, at least in a small way, by a step out of our comfort zone—a bungee jump, giving a speech, or a karaoke performance. We can go there through a 30-day fast or by receiving a terminal diagnosis at a doctor’s office. We can reach a thin place through a broken heart, by sitting on a friend’s deathbed, or by growing old and frail. It’s a step toward humility, helplessness, a step toward faith, a step toward eternity.

So what have I gained from this foray into thin places? I’ve had fear awakened—but I’ve also been awakened from a waking sleep, a numb stupor. I’ve been almost overwhelmed by sadness—but, though sadness remains, I’m healthier emotionally than I’ve been in a long time. I feel smaller, more helpless than I’ve felt for a long time—but I know that I’m eternally safe. I’ve felt truly lost—but I know I’m not alone and without a guide. I’ve discovered that it’s better to be in God’s hands than in my own, even though I can’t control where I’m going or see around the corner ahead. (Even when I’ve fooled myself into thinking I’m in control, I’m still really blind.) I’ve remembered what I have known for a long time—that the sense of being in control, strong, capable, or worthy is only illusory, and that God’s gracious, merciful presence is essential for my very existence, for each simple breath.

And so I’ll take a step forward each day in faith, believing that God will be there to catch me when I fall, find and guide me when I’m lost, love me when I’m afraid and lonely, encourage me when my courage is gone. It is sometimes good to walk the edge of a precipice, as long as it leads, in the end, to the arms of God.

Garden Tip: Visit one of your thin places, and taste the goodness and greatness of God. Listen to His voice. Reflect on how you are connected to God, to others, and to the world He has put us in. Trace out these connections and give thanks for the life that flows to you through them. Then dream—make plans to build, to plant a thin place. This world will never have enough of them.

Like Grass II

“Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. ” (Isaiah 40:6)

In many parts of the world, grass makes only a short appearance each year. In these places, grass makes an excellent illustration for how short and temporary our lives are. But in the great grasslands of the world, grass paints quite a different picture, and one that also might be instructive for us.

Grasses can be a force to be reckoned with. Just ask any gardener who has lawn interspersed with gardens. The grass is always in the act of invasion, whether through root spread or seed drop. And some grasses find a way to spread their seeds no matter how short your lawn. Crabgrass, for example, sends long lateral arms along the ground to produce seed heads close to the ground. It’s nearly impossible to clip off all the seed heads before they sow seed, one reason it is so invasive.

In the great grasslands, grasses have teamed up with grazing animals to produce deep, rich soils. Larger varieties of grass send expansive roots deep into hard soils, digging passageways for earthworms and other biotic life. The plants utilize energy from the sun and transform it into organic mass, using mineral resources released by rain water in even the poorest soils. All the while, the grass-cover protects the existing soil from erosion by wind or running water.

When grazing animals come into the cooperative picture, the power of grass builds exponentially. In part, this is due to the fertilizer left by the animals as they eat the grass and later drop dung. The animals also stir the surface of the soil with their hooves, and their grazing stimulates the growth of the grasses and other plants, both above and below the soil. (The dung also draws the attention of other players in the drama, including flies. When flies lay their eggs in the dung, maggots soon emerge, drawing in birds who feed on the larvae while also breaking up and spreading the dung.) Over time, the constant growth and dying back of the root mass below the soil, plus the constant layer of compost left by cycles of dying grass and animal dung on the surface, builds a deep, rich soil.

In such an environment, grass is the centerpiece of an incredible, transformative force. Through its growth and self-giving in the context of the larger grassland ecosystem, it enables not just the maintenance of the soil, but a progressive improvement of the soil over time. But the influence grass has on this environment comes mainly because it plays a sacrificial role in the complex biotic web of life. It doesn’t go it alone. And much of its success comes about as it lays down its life for the benefit of the animal species it feeds. As it gives itself up for food, its own growth is stimulated and, in time, it is fed in return.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to think that we should be like grass—self-sacrificial agents of transformation for the people, creatures, and environments around us. Are we such a force for good? I think we often fail in this regard because we hold our lives and possessions too dear, not realizing that if we were to share them more fully in the communities around us, we would benefit as much as the others who join in the venture with us.

Jesus once said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:24-25)

We are all part of a complex web of relationships, with links to God, other people, and nature. But many of these links have been twisted and broken, some by our own personal actions, some by the communities and societies in which we live. We need to look for ways to strengthen these links through reflection, confession, and transformative action. For unless we do, we will find ourselves isolated, and like a tuft of grass alone on a rocky hillside, we will struggle. It is by self-giving in community that we will build the environment and sustaining support that we need to flourish.

Garden Tip: Plant large grass varieties in your gardens. They create a beautiful and hardy backdrop to many of the smaller, more colorful plants. Over time, the roots of such grasses can help break  up hard soils, allowing water, nutrients, and many little creatures to make their way down in.

To find grass species native to your area, take walks in local grassland preserves. Go when the grass seed heads are ripening, and pick a few seed heads to plant strategically in your garden.  These plantings will take a few years to mature, but patience is part of the gardening life. Also, be aware that some native species can be invasive. Be attentive to their growth habits before planting! 🙂  (Garden centers often sell large grasses for gardens, but often they are not species native to your area.)

Oh, and take a look at this site for some really interesting articles about grass.