Murmurations

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

If you happen to be near a marshland or waterway in the British Isles or northern Europe in an evening during fall or winter, you may witness a remarkable sight. Early on you may see small flocks of dark-colored birds, starlings to be exact, flying about in the late afternoon sun. But then the smaller flocks come together and join into larger and larger gatherings, until they swell into a single cloud and begin to flow as one, roiling in the sky in astounding, unpredictable, yet beautiful patterns. It can hardly be described—like a living, shape-shifting creature, flowing, dancing to an unheard symphony. As the cloud of birds moves near, a murmuring rush tickles the ear as thousands of feathered wings brush the air. This is truly a wonder to experience, even if only through a video. (Here’s another fun one that recently went viral on the Web.)

Scientists have struggled to understand this phenomenon. We know that starlings gather in larger groups in the cold months, probably to benefit from the warmth of numbers. Sometimes flocks can swell to over a million birds. They truly are a communal creature, following systematic feeding patterns that ensure everyone gets a turn to forage for insects in fresh ground. Perhaps their evening flights help to generate the additional warmth they need to make it through the colder nights. The large winter gatherings of starlings certainly make the spectacular aerial displays possible, since a large flock is needed to really catch the eye. But none of this explains how all the individuals in a flock fly in such a precise synchronized flow, without any predictable or learned pattern. It is as if they fly and think as a single entity.

To watch a flock of starlings in the flow of a murmuration makes one wonder if they aren’t actually governed by a singular mind or perhaps a directive voice. Make a search of starling murmuration videos on the Web, and you will discover that the videographers couldn’t resist mixing music into their videos. Everyone seems to sense that the birds are flying to a divine symphony just out of human earshot. As you watch, it’s hard to avoid that thought.

So how does it happen? Mathematical analysis of flock dynamics in videos has shown that each starling’s movement is somehow influenced by the movement of all the others. It’s as if they are all tuned in to the same frequency. They adjust almost instantaneously to the movements of the others with regard to both speed and direction. The shift of one bird results in the immediate shift of the entire group. The more closely scientists have studied this, the more intrigued they have become.

Physicists see profound similarities between the starlings’ movements and what is seen in other critical systems like crystal formation, avalanches, and ferromagnetism. They are systems poised on the brink of near-instantaneous transformation, but it is hard to know what pushes them over the brink. In a starling murmuration the moments of change happen in an almost continuous flow, making it especially interesting. In part, it could have to do with a group survival instinct, enabling them to evade predators like falcons. But again, this doesn’t explain how they do it. The ability of the individuals to instantaneously correlate their movements to all the others just isn’t known.

It gives a hint that birds and other creatures are sometimes gifted with perceptions and other abilities that we humans just don’t have. And when their particular communal gift is on display, it shines a light on the Creator who gave the gift and inspired its use. Awe-inspiring events in the world of nature often point to something bigger behind them. The study of astronomy has long inspired such awe and points to something greater. David, the ancient psalmist of Israel, put it in a memorable way:

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.” (Psalm 119:1-4, NLT)

The heavens point to their Creator. So do other remarkable events in nature, and special gifts and events in and among people. The experience of some communal worship events can at times carry this sort of weight. I recall once a musical gathering I attended where the final song was a prayer of praise. As the song concluded, a Spirit-inspired whispering arose among the audience—softly-spoken prayers that took on a sound not unlike that of a starling murmuration. It rose to a climax, and then slowly quietened into a joyous and peaceful silence. No one wanted to leave, or even move, for that matter.

As I watch the starlings in their communal aerial dance, and hear the whisper of their wings, it inspires in me a prayer of praise. It points me to the Earth-maker, whom I sense created many things with a grand smile, and with the intent that we enjoy them together. It also gives me a good shot of humility, as I watch the greatest of human minds trying to explain it all, but without much success. Some things will likely remain always happily “beyond us.” An amazing event that may initially bring a furrow to my brow, in the end invariably brings a shrug to my shoulders, a shake to my head, and a smile to my face. And it keeps me always listening for the divine symphony swelling up in the silence behind it all.

Gardening Tip: Most gardeners view a flock of starlings as an unwanted challenge, since their large numbers can lead to a fair amount of destruction and disruption. (Thankfully, they tend to prefer wooded marsh lands when they are in large gatherings, and don’t usually pose too much of a problem. They also do most of their gathering during the cold months when the garden is asleep anyway.)

Many other bird species, however, can be a wonderful addition to any garden, especially song birds. Here are a few hospitable things you might do to welcome them into your space:

  • Add some sort of water feature like a bird bath, a trickling fountain, or even a pond (if you’re adventurous). Birds need a water source, and if they can be sure to find it in your garden, they will come.
  • Plant native plants that provide birds with food, including native grasses and flowers with seed heads, and fruiting shrubs and berry brambles.
  • Plant sheltering shrubs and trees to keep protect the smaller birds from predators and to give them good nesting places.
  • Add a few nesting boxes for birds common to your area. Specifications for these can quickly be found in books at your local library or by a Web search. (Various bird species are drawn to boxes of different sorts.)
  • Put out some bird feeders in locations where you can easily watch them. It can be quite entertaining—and sometimes enlightening!
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Soaring

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

As spring comes to central North America and the migratory birds begin to return, some bright days are punctuated with loud cries in the heavens. If you look around for the source, it can be hard to pinpoint. Just keep looking up, then yet again, higher. Above where you’d expect it, you will likely see small specks in the sky, flying in formation. Sometimes groups join and begin to swirl together, before breaking off again and heading north, all along calling their plaintive cries. This is the migration of Sandhill Cranes.

They look small from a distance, but when on the ground, they stand as tall as 3 to 4 feet, with a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet. Sandhill Cranes are skilled soaring birds, their long sweeping wings ideal for catching rising air. Utilizing thermals to obtain lift, they can soar for hours with only occasional wing flapping. With their bulk, these large birds would not get far at all if everything depended on the flapping of their wings.

During their migrations, Sandhill Cranes often stop over in wetlands for the night. As the sun rises, they can be seen standing in the morning mists, awaiting the sun’s magic. As the sun rises and shines, the dark soil absorbs its energy and, in turn, warms the nearby air. As the air warms, it grows lighter and begins to rise into the colder, denser air above. The cranes sense the lift and with a few wing flaps rise high enough to catch the rising currents. They begin to circle upward by the hundreds, marking the normally invisible rising air columns with their noisy presence.

Many smaller birds fly primarily on on wing power. If you watch Swallows or Swifts flitting in and out of the shadows in search of mosquitoes, their agile movements are driven by quick movements of their wings and tails. Sparrows and Finches flap around among the shrubs and peck around on the ground for seeds. Hummingbirds demonstrate the ultimate in wing-powered flight, their wings moving so fast that the wings disappear from sight. But there is a downside for these smaller birds. Flight for them takes a great deal of energy. If a hummingbird fails to find nectar on a regular basis, it soon runs out of energy and starves to death.

But there are birds that mostly just ride the wind, catching the thermals that rise as the morning sun heats the air, or riding the currents that ride up cliffs from a warmer valley floor below. Among these are the large migratory birds like storks and cranes, who can often be seen standing in a misty wetland watching for the sun to arrive and stir up rising currents. Hawks and eagles often ride the currents along cliffs, hanging motionless in the air watching for small animals or birds below. As they hang motionless, a small twitch of wings and tail, and they drift away at astounding speeds. Sometimes they close their wings and thunder earthward like a bolt of lightning, then gently rise again with spread wings, clutching dinner in their claws.

The ultimate in soaring are probably the scavengers, like vultures, whose wings sweep backward and upward to take maximum advantage of the wind’s upward lift. Unlike other avian raptors, like hawks and eagles, that often dive to catch their food and have to use more flapping to power their agile movements, the vultures rise high to look around and when they find food, they slowly circle down to gather around and take their turn at a carcass. These are some of the ugliest birds on the planet—that is, until they catch a breeze and glide away with utter and astounding grace.

The prophet Isaiah had watched these soaring birds and used them to describe a person of faith:

“Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31, NLT)

The Hebrew term translated as “eagle” in this passage is thought by many scholars to more likely refer to the Griffon Vulture. The Griffon Vulture (also known as the Great Vulture) is a large scavenging bird, very common in Palestine and much of the Mediterranean world. Most translators shy away from rendering the term “vulture,” probably because it doesn’t create an inspiring picture to the mind’s eye. But the Griffon Vulture, like all vultures, is a wonderful and stately glider.

The strength Isaiah promised wasn’t mostly a strength to enable us to flap harder and longer. Lift comes to a soaring bird, not from wing strength but from wind strength.  They just need to know how to read the winds and how to utilize their wings, a gift they all have from God. The same is true of us. Strength comes to those who trust God for strength when all their own strength is gone. When we are weary of body and spirit, it is a matter of catching the divine and holy wind. There are often times when there is just no strength left in us to give. All we can do is raise our wings and hope.

The apostle Paul begged to be released from an unidentified weakness, but the response he heard from the Lord was this: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NLT) The same answer is there for us.

Wilderness Tip: Look up into the sky. No matter where you live, there are surprises lurking, along with reminders of truth. During seasons of migration, you may see cranes and geese flying in formation, knowing where they need to go to survive, cooperating with each other to make the journey as easy as possible. You may see flocks of small birds gathering to migrate together toward warmer air and live food sources. You may see a large, lonely soaring bird with swept-back wings, probably a turkey vulture or some other scavenger, riding the winds to unspeakable heights, searching for the next mess to clean up. Or perhaps you see the flapping outline of a Raven, looking for just about any source of food. Have you seen any of these things lately? They are there, even in urban areas, on a daily basis. Open your eyes; lift them to the heavens; smile at the wonders God has made.

And remember to study the ways of the holy wind of God’s Spirit; Scripture reveals a good deal about Him. Then learn to lift your spiritual wings so He can carry you to places you probably have not even imagined. He knows where He wants you to be. If you are willing to study the wind currents and take some practice flights, you will soon be riding the winds. You, too, will be soaring.

On Sparrows

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”
Job 12:7

There are times when we feel invisible, when it doesn’t seem to matter whether we exist or not.

This was true for Hagar, the slave-wife of Abraham, who had run away into the wilderness, helpless and pregnant, without hope for the future. Sarah had given Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate to produce an heir, but when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah became jealous and by her harsh treatment drove Hagar away (Genesis 16). But the Lord saw Hagar in the wilderness and gave her the promise of many descendants through the child she was carrying. Hagar responded by giving the Lord a name: “The God Who Sees Me.” Nowhere else in Scripture does a person choose a name for God—only this exiled, lonely slave woman, who was in desperate need of help. And God—the Maker of all things—truly did see her.

Years later when Sarah had her own son (Isaac), Hagar and Ishmael were sent away into the wilderness (Genesis 21:8-22), this time never to return. Again, the Lord saw the outcasts and provided water and a promise of hope for their future. He reached out to Hagar there when she was invisible and had lost all hope. And to Hagar, the Lord was again, “The God Who Sees Me.”

Centuries later, the Jews who heard Jesus speak would have known the story of Hagar. But perhaps there were those among Jesus’ followers who needed a reminder that God was still the One who sees. Jesus used His observations of the common sparrow to illustrate the truth on this matter. As it happens, sparrows have a bad reputation and are often regarded of little worth, perhaps because they are so common, or perhaps because they have little claim to beauty—either in plumage or song. They can be found almost everywhere in the world and are numerous even in places where they aren’t native.

The hardiness of this bird is due mainly to its adaptability, both with regard to climate and diet. Sparrows are mainly seed-eaters, but they will actually eat just about anything—including insects, berries, fruit, or vegetables. They can survive in very cold climates, since their preferred food source is seeds, which (unlike insects and fruits) are unaffected by winter temperatures. Since sparrows reproduce quickly and are so numerous, they generally make a nuisance of themselves. Farmers, even today, often look for ways to slow their reproduction.

These negative feelings about sparrows make what Jesus says in relation to them even more striking:

“What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31, NLT).

Even in Jesus’ day, sparrows were considered of little worth. They could be bought in the market at two for a penny or five for two pennies. They were used by the poor then (and still today) as a food source, boiled with vegetables for at least a little meat in the soup.

If even the common sparrow is valued and seen by God, how much more must we be. He counts even the hairs on our heads. We can know that our Father in heaven sees us and loves us, and that we are valued. For those unable to think well of themselves, understanding this is at least a step in the right direction. Speak to your Father in heaven using a name that means something to you: “O Lord of heaven and earth—the God who sees me! Help me to rest in your care.”

Garden Tip: Set up a bird feeder in a place where it is easy to watch, and feed the birds. Watching these amazing creatures, winter or summer, can be a source of much delight. And no matter where you are in the world, you will almost certainly find a motley little bird with nondescript markings of brown, black, and white—the common sparrow. Take the words of Jesus to heart. You can be sure that your heavenly Father sees this little bird. And if He sees the sparrow, you can be certain that He sees you, too.

Peace on Earth

“Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you.”

(Job 12:8)

From ancient times, the sea has been looked upon as a symbol of unruly power and chaos. Anyone who has experienced, in even a small way, the raw power of a stormy ocean will understand the association. Its raw force lies so beyond our capicity to control it that the only valid human response is of fear and awe. Nothing made by man can stand long against its destructive forces.

In ancient Near Eastern literature, the sea was believed to be governed by the god Yam (which is the semitic word for “sea”), the deity who embodied and ruled over the sea’s raging power. Yam’s kingdom was Tehom—the deep—the place of primordial chaos. Yam was closely associated with Lotan, the great seven-headed serpent or dragon that dwelt in the deep and embodied the forces of evil. All the ancient pagan cultures had gods of the sea, and all were thought to embody similar attributes. The ancient Greeks called this god Poseidon; the Romans embraced him as Neptune; the Vikings called him Aegir. This was the god of chaos, storms, shipwrecks, earthquakes, and tidal waves. He was unpredictable, unruly, and untamed, just the same as his kingdom.

The ancient Hebrews, who lived in this ancient semitic world, were called into the service of Yahweh, the God of all things. This was the Creator, who formed our world from the chaos of the deep. The Hebrew Scriptures begin the account of creation in this context:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2, NLT).

From the chaos, God created a world that was good and beautiful, and He populated it with all His creatures, including humankind. The people He made were given charge over the other creatures, which would relate to people much as people should relate to God. But as the story progresses, the people reject the rule of God and begin to stir the waves of chaos in the world once again. They become as unruly and destructive as the primordial deep. In the time of Noah, God destroyed most of the human race for their destructive wickedness (ironically by using the chaotic forces of a great flood). But as Noah’s descendants spread on the earth, they turned once again to their own way, until even the unruly waves of the sea were better at following God’s instructions than they were. Even of God’s chosen people, the prophet Jeremiah said:

“Listen, you foolish and senseless people, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Have you no respect for me? Why don’t you tremble in my presence? I, the LORD, define the ocean’s sandy shoreline as an everlasting boundary that the waters cannot cross. The waves may toss and roar, but they can never pass the boundaries I set. But my people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. They have turned away and abandoned me.” (Jeremiah 5:21-23, NLT)

The human race, having embraced the path of selfish disobedience, have become the agents of chaos in the world, rather than God’s agents of peace and beauty. And since the beginning, God has been on a mission to restore the order of His creation by reaching out to the people He made, even at great personal cost. It was for this reason that the Christ was born, to live a life of goodness and ultimately sacrifice—so that the rift between God and His ruling creatures could be healed and His people could be transformed into His servants—His agents of peace.

With all this in mind, remember this account of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee:

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger.

The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?”

The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!” (Luke 8:22-25, NLT)

After seeing this astounding miracle, the disciples were overwhelmed and asked, “Who is this man?” They knew the power of the sea. They had heard stories about sea gods. They also knew that the God of all things, Yahweh, could draw the boundaries for the sea. They knew He could silence its rage in an instant. They knew the story of  the prophet Jonah, who had set sail for a distant land in disobedience of God’s call. God sent a raging storm to swamp Jonah’s boat, but when Jonah was thrown into the water, the sea immediately went still at God’s command.

Who is this Jesus? It is a question we all must ask. Perhaps you doubt the stories written about Him. But have you ever taken the time to look closely? If we come to see Him clearly, as the Creator of all things, the One who stirs up storms and quiets them with a word, the only honest response to Him is jaw-dropping awe. This is the One we celebrate at Christmas.

The Baby is born in Bethlehem.

Universe-Spinner spun.

Galaxy-Weaver woven.

Earth-Maker formed.

Storm-Stiller come.

Creation-Healer now with us.

Emmanuel.

The Child is born in Bethlehem.

Hallelujah!

Garden Tip: Though this may not pertain to your personal garden, it does relate to God’s garden—the world in which we live. Open your eyes to the power of a storm. Walk in it; stand it it; raise your fist to it if you must. The storm is in God’s hands, and so are you. The storm must always do God’s bidding. But He has granted you freedom—freedom to participate in His work of bringing peace and beauty to the world, or to rage against His order as an agent of chaos. It is your choice to make. He is on a mission to recreate what has been broken. He is calling you to join with Him in the work of His garden. What will you do with this call? Do you dare to become an agent of God’s peace on earth?

The Friendly Beasts

“Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

(Job 12:7)

I have often wondered what the animals and birds see when a forest—once lively with activity and birdsong—suddenly falls silent. Or when a happy dog suddenly cowers and whines, or suddenly explodes with barking, but for no obvious reason. Perhaps the birds in the forest are silenced by a swooping owl or hawk—or something else that I’m blind to. Or perhaps the dog smells or hears a snake in the grass or a rabbit in a nearby shrub. But sometimes I haven’t been able to discern the cause, even after looking closely. And I wonder.

I wonder if they see things—not just things hard to for us to see—but perhaps things truly invisible. I remember the story of Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22:21-36). The false prophet was riding his donkey to take payment for cursing God’s people. An angel stood in his path—an angel Balaam couldn’t see. But Balaam’s donkey saw the angel and stopped. Balaam got off and started to beat the animal. But still the donkey refused to move, and the Lord caused the donkey to speak in protest. I wonder—does this still happen? What am I blind to? What of the spiritual realm are we all blind to?

I remember the animals who gathered to board Noah’s ark, called by God to come in twos for their survival (Genesis 7:1-24). I remember the ravens called upon to feed Elijah as he hid deep in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:1-7). And what about the great fish that swallowed Jonah to rescue him from drowning? All these creatures did God’s bidding, and often while the people around them failed to do so. And what about the frequent call in the Scriptures for us to join the rest of creation as it sings God’s praises? Do we hear their voices singing? Do we join them?

As Job was struggling to make sense of his terrible suffering, he said to his accusing friends, “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you. Let the fish in the sea speak to you. For they all know that my disaster has come from the hand of the LORD. For the life of every living thing is in his hand, and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10, NLT).

Job’s friends assumed it was sin that had brought this trouble on Job, but Job knew that it was more complicated than that. He knew his own heart, and he couldn’t understand why such trouble had come upon him. He somehow sensed that at least the animals would understand his plight, even if his friends couldn’t. He knew that trouble could fall upon even the best of people and still be a part of God’s plan, that there were mysteries beyond the wisdom, the ideals, and the control of people. Do not the animals recognize this by following their instincts, accepting their given place as members in the creation?

And listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who saw more wisdom displayed in the ox and donkey than in his own people: “Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the LORD says: `The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them.’ ” (Isaiah 1:2-3, NLT)

The beasts live in proper relation to their masters and their Creator. But we, who were given the work of  caring for the creatures and their environment, have forgotten our own Master—our Maker, our Protector, our Healer. And so we also fail in our work as masters. “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

With this in mind, let us approach the Advent season with an old Medieval carol in our hearts. This carol first surfaced to documentary history in connection with 12th-Century France, and from there it spread to Britain where it is still often sung. This song is often written off as fanciful, the product of an unscientific age, no doubt because the animals in it are said to speak and to offer gifts to the Christ child. But is it so fanciful? I wonder. And even if it is, I hope that as this Christmas approaches, each of us will offer the Christ—our Maker and Master—the small gifts we have with as much willingness and joy as the creatures in the stable.

The Friendly Beasts

Jesus, our Brother strong and good / was humbly born in a manger rude, / and the friendly beasts around Him stood. / Jesus, our Brother strong and good.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown. / “I carried His mother up hill and down. / I carried her gently to Bethlehem town.” / “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow, all white and red. /”I gave Him my manger for His bed. / I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.” / “I,” said the cow, all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn. / “I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm. / He wore my coat on Christmas morn!” / “I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn.

“I,” said the dove, in the rafters high. / “I sang Him to sleep, so He would not cry. / We sang Him to sleep, my mate and I.” / “I,” said the dove, in the rafters high.

And every beast, by some good spell, / in the stable dark was glad to tell / of the gift he gave Emmanuel, / the gift he gave Emmanuel.

Gardening Tip: Remember Balaam’s donkey and open your eyes to the world around you. It is shimmering with miracles. And pray for a second sight that reveals the spiritual realities all around and underneath. Any place where you are standing can be for you a thin place. Read the account of the prophet Elisha’s victory over the Aramean army (2 Kings 6:8-23). The prophet could act with confidence even when facing thousands of armed men. Why? because he could see what others could not. What are you blind to?

And as Advent approaches, remember the friendly beasts in the stable; open your heart to God’s gift to us in the person of the Christ. What gifts has He given to you that He now is calling you to offer back to Him? What gifts has He bestowed on you that He could use to change someone’s world this Christmas?

Migrations

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

As I watch the migratory birds flying south overhead as the air turns cold in fall, or north again as it grows warm in spring, I often wonder at how they know where they are going and when it’s time to leave. Some species fly to very particular destinations, both going and coming—but go and come they do. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t likely survive another year.

It is through this travel that they live through the cold months in the opposite hemisphere, when the foods they depend on in one place disappear as the temperatures drop. Many of the migratory birds eat insects, worms, small animals, or fish and need an environment warm enough to allow them to feed. Many seed-eating birds, on the other hand, don’t need to migrate since their food sources remain available during the wintry months. They find ways to adapt to the cold and find their food on dried-up or frozen seed-bearing plants, or perhaps at a friendly bird feeder.

Some birds migrate astounding distances each year. The Arctic Tern is the clear winner, making a round trip of some 22,000 miles. Essentially, it flies from the Arctic to Antarctic and back again. It breeds in the northern hemisphere—in northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia—and it winters as far south as it can go in Africa or South America. Most migratory birds stay in either the eastern or the western hemisphere, following a predictable north-south flight pattern along rivers, through wetland areas, and along coastlines. Few strike out across the open ocean, though there are a few exceptions—notably the Golden Plover. In the western hemisphere, the Golden Plover nests in Alaska but migrates toward the southwest, flying non-stop over the Pacific for over 2,000 miles to winter in the Hawaiian islands; some even continue on to Australia and New Zealand. In the eastern hemisphere, this species nests in Labrador and migrates at a southwest angle across the Atlantic, flying non-stop all the way to Patagonia in South America, a distance of about 2,800 miles.

Most migrating birds in the western hemisphere fly north-south over the narrow isthmus that makes up Central America, heading from North America to their wintering spots in South America, and then back again. Such a flight path, normally defined by a supporting geographic feature (like an isthmus or waterway), is commonly called a flyway. In the eastern hemisphere, most migratory birds fly south from both Europe and Asia to winter in Africa. Some in western Europe fly along the coast of Portugal and Spain and cross into West Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean. A much larger number fly from eastern Europe and Asia over the land area of Palestine along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean; from there, they cross the Sinai Peninsula into Egypt and the Nile Valley, and then continue south into eastern and southern Africa.

The people of Israel who lived in Palestine would have been familiar with the vast bird migrations flying overhead in fall and spring. The prophet Jeremiah used this common sight to illustrate a message from God to them (and to us):

“Even the stork that flies across the sky knows the time of her migration, as do the turtledove, the swallow, and the crane. They all return at the proper time each year. But not my people! They do not know the LORD’s laws.” (Jeremiah 8:7, NLT)

The species listed here—the stork, the turtledove, the swallow, and the crane—can all be seen migrating through Palestine to this day. The stork is especially prominent in this migration. It is estimated that as many as half a million white storks pass through Palestine every spring and fall, wintering in southern Africa and nesting in many parts of northern Europe. In migration, they can often be seen in fields and wetlands in the early morning, waiting for the morning sun to warm the air to create the rising thermals that lift them high into the sky. A very large bird, storks often fly at a level 4,000 feet and can appear very small in the sky.

Aside from the stork, there is some debate about the species listed in translation of the Hebrew, but all these are possible. A comparison of translations often lists the “thrush” instead of the “crane.” Varieties of all these species migrate through Palestine each year. Actually, varieties of these species migrate in both hemispheres and provide a sure sign of spring for anyone observant enough to notice.

The people of Israel had received a special revelation from God, a revelation that provided them with laws that, if followed, would guide them to live unselfish lives in a healthy community. But the people chose to live their own way—a way that they learned from their pagan neighbors rather than from God—a way guided by desires for wealth and power and pleasure. And this path had led them to build a society of injustice and weakness, governed by people with selfish hearts. Jeremiah said of them (and of us all): “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NLT).

The migratory birds knew God’s life-giving laws and followed them by flying back and forth each year. Somehow God had written His law on their “hearts”; the birds knew what to do to survive and live a healthy life—and they did it without fail. They still do. But not the people of Israel. And for their sins, God was about to send them on a forced migration into Babylonian exile. And so it happened during the lifetime of Jeremiah. He watched as Jerusalem with its Temple was destroyed and the people were marched off to Babylon.

But as the people were led away into exile, the prophet spoke promises that give hope that God’s people might yet become more like the birds—with God’s laws written on their hearts:

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: The good figs represent the exiles I sent from Judah to the land of the Babylonians. I will watch over and care for them, and I will bring them back here again. I will build them up and not tear them down. I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” (Jeremiah 24:5-7, NLT)

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the LORD.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34, NLT)

“They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me.” (Jeremiah 32:38-40, NLT)

God did bring a few of His people home from their exile, guiding them on a return migration to the Promised Land. And He still works to write His law of love on all our hearts so that we can live as He wants us to, no matter where we are or what we are faced with. And if we have already made our own migration as far away from Him as possible, He is always ready and waiting for the spring of our return.

Birding Tip: Become aware of the migratory birds that live in your part of the world—at least for a part of the year! Are you in a common nesting area? Do you live in a prominent flyway that sees millions of visitors overhead each spring and fall? Or are you in a common wintering area, which for you would be summering! All habitats are important to a migratory species’ survival. Chances are you are near a flyway for some species even if your area is a good nesting area for others. Many migratory birds are water birds, so study the waterways and wetlands nearby and look for information that might tell you when a major migration will be coming through. It can be a fascinating experience to observe it. A good place to start would be to read about Arocha and some related conservation organizations, which work hard to protect habitats around the world that support migrating bird species.

And remember to listen to the birds, who have God’s wisdom stamped on their hearts. May we all find the same to be true of us. And may we all have the faith to follow His calling, wherever it may lead us.

Weeds

With all the uncertainties that accompany any growing season in the garden, one thing can be counted on—a constant battle with weeds. They sprout innocently enough in early spring and if you keep up with them, it is possible to keep them under control. But if you turn your head for a minute, you’ll find yourself fighting an uphill battle. And if you let the weed plants go to seed, you’ll be fighting that battle for years to come.

Weeds will find their way into your garden in many ways. They fly on the wind (dandelions, thistles, willow, maple, elm, to name a few), animals carry them in and bury them (acorns, walnuts, sunflower seeds), birds eat berries and plant the seeds with their droppings (mulberries, buckthorn, elderberries, blackberries, etc.). Sometimes weeds, including grasses, wild morning glories, and thistles, have amazing root systems that spread into the garden from neighboring areas via the underground.

And sometimes I’m the culprit. After weeding, I often throw weeds that have already set seed into my compost pile, and I don’t usually turn the pile often enough to maintain the heat required to kill the seeds. When I spread the compost a year or two later, it often contains an amazing array of weed seeds (and perennial flower seeds, too). It’s as though I’m planting them! All this is to say that weeds are highly skilled at survival, and somehow call on help from many different quarters to reproduce themselves. I suppose it’s this reproductive prowess that makes them weeds.

Jesus once told a parable about God’s Kingdom, using weeds as the primary illustration:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’ ‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed. ‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)

*   *   *

Then, leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.”

Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels. Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” (Matthew 13:36-43)

This problem of weeds infecting wheat and barley fields has been a problem in the Middle East since ancient times. The particular weed Jesus probably had in mind was either darnel grass (Lolium temulentum) or Syrian scabious (Cephalaria syriaca). Both are noxious weeds that mix with grain crops and cause significant damage to the harvest. Darnel grass, being in the grass family, looks a lot like wheat and is tough to identify, even when it’s mature. As a result, it is often harvested and threshed with the wheat. A poisonous fungus lives in the darnel grains, ruining any flour where it is present. Its poison can cause nausea, convulsions, or even death when eaten in sufficient quantities. (Darnel seeds have been found with grain stored in 4000-year-old Egyptian tombs.) The Syrian scabious is not related to wheat, but its seeds often get mixed in during the harvest. When the seeds get mixed, they continue to be sown together year after year, producing a bitter though edible flour. Sometimes this weed overwhelms the wheat and the farmer turns to harvesting the scabious seeds for survival. The seeds look like a black wheat grain.

The weeds in Jesus’ story are a picture of how some people function in relation to God’s Kingdom. They are a force that disrupts the good work of the Farmer, who is seeking to grow and harvest good grain for the Kingdom. Such wicked seeds are planted by the evil one in order to disrupt the good works of God, but in the end the Kingdom will prevail and judgment will be brought against the evil forces in this world. This is a reminder to be careful not to function as a weed, which is nothing less than being an instrument of evil.

Weeds also illustrate how the many small forces for evil in our lives, if allowed to grow and reproduce, can quickly overwhelm the good work God is doing in us. Weeds in a life, just like in a garden, have ways of reproducing themselves and spreading. And, as with weeds, the insidious effects of sin are all around us and will always be with us. They often blow in on the wind from the surrounding environment. Sometimes they come in on the bottom of our feet or in the compost (“good deeds”) we spread. Be careful to keep them under control, or they may come not only to overwhelm your own life, but the lives of others around you as they spread.

Garden Tip: Just as weeds have many means of spreading and surviving, there are many things we can do to slow them down and control them. Here are a few things that might help:

  • Deal with the weeds early in the season, before they take hold, so they don’t disrupt the growth of your garden plants. Your vegetable and flower production will be significantly better if you remove their competition for nutrients, water, and sunlight.
  • Deal with the weeds early (and often) when they are small and much easier to remove. Then by mid-season, your battle will largely be won. This will also keep them from setting seed for the next year, making each successive year’s weeding in your garden easier.
  • When you weed, pull them by the roots! If you just get the green tops, they will just re-sprout and come back stronger. Some weeds are notorious for breaking off as you pull them (purslane, for example) . Use a hoe or other tool that cuts the roots off below the surface. Weeds with a long taproot need to be cut off well beneath the surface.
  • Mulch heavily around larger plants to smother weed seedlings or to make the weeds easier to pull, since they will be growing through a soft medium. It also helps to weed when the soil is moist. Weeds growing in hard, dry soil are tough to pull up by the roots.
  • Avoid putting older weeds (with fruit or seed on them) in your compost pile unless you plan to maintain a hot pile. Otherwise you will find that you are the primary culprit behind the weeds growing in your garden.
  • Harvest the nutritious greens from some of your weeds, like dandelions, purslane, and lambsquarters; this will slow them down a bit! But then pull them before they can spread their seed.
  • If the weed seeds have already overwhelmed your soil and garden, solarize the affected beds by covering them with a clear plastic sheet in early spring; bury the edges of the sheet under the soil. The sun will quickly warm the soil under the plastic, and weed seeds will sprout early, and by the thousands. As the weather warms, the air under the plastic will grow too hot for any plants to survive, and most of the seedlings will die. At planting time, roll up the plastic, cultivate the soil, and plant your garden. There will be far fewer weeds as the season goes on. This practice also helps to kill some fungi and bacteria that hide in your soil and cause plant diseases.

As you wrestle with the weeds in your garden and look for creative ways to control them, remember that many of the principles for controlling weeds may offer wisdom for dealing with the sin in your life. Reflect on this as you work, and look for ways to weed sin from your head, heart, and hands—early and often.

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.

Like Grass I

According to the ancient Scriptures, we are supposed to be like trees, though most of us fail to be so. But the Scriptures also tell us that we are unavoidably like something else less striking, less enduring—grass. And as we reach the heat of summer, the grass, so vigorous in spring, turns dry and brown unless watered consistently, a reminder of our short and fragile lives. Look at the words of the psalmist and the prophet Isaiah:

“The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone—as though we had never been here. But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13-17)

“Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the LORD. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

In the Middle East, the original context for these writings, grasses and wildflowers flourish with the winter rains, turning the world green. But by July, just a few months later, the world has turned a golden brown, as everything dries out in the hot sun. So for that part of the world, the short-lived character of grass is especially pronounced, expressing the truth with particular clarity that our lives are short and pass quickly. (In other parts of the world, the character of grass might paint a more enduring picture for us; but that wasn’t true in the Bible world.)

To live fully, we must discover this truth: We are all like grass. We flower forth with lush growth in youth, but then our glory and strength quickly wane. All of us must face death—and soon. And such a perspective, as negative as it may seem, is a great gift. How often have we heard the testimonies of people suffering with a terminal illness, that when faced with imminent and certain death, they finally discover how to really live? And the fact is—we’re all terminal.

When we come to know with a certainty that we all are dying, even the youngest of us—that our days are short—it is then that we come to know what it is to live. For it is only then that we come to value each and every breath, to savor each bite of freshly baked bread, of a crisp apple, of a sweet ripe mango. It is only then that we are truly grateful for each sip of water, of milk, of wine, for each smile or kind word given and received among friends. It is then that we can recognize each sunset, each flower blossom, for the true wonder that it is.

It is here that we discover there are no more moments to wait before offering and receiving forgiveness, even with our enemies; there is no more time to waste before binding up wounds we’ve left long open and festering. There is time only for action, for service, for love.  There is no time left for delay in what’s really important. And what’s really important always involves the people God has placed in our lives. It seldom has to do with the many busy things that fill our calendars and that we use to make ourselves feel important.

Garden Tip: As the grass turns brown in the hot days of summer, allow it to do so. Turn off the sprinkler and turn to the important work you’ve been called to do in life. Let the brown grass remind you that we are all suffering in a terminal state. There is no time left for delay in the really important things.

I do still advise watering your vegetables and flowers. 🙂 But with the grass of your lawn, though it will turn brown during dry times, it will also quickly green up again when it rains. And perhaps this can remind you (along with the words of the psalmist and the prophet) that though our lives are short, God’s Word and loving presence will always remain. There is always the hope of a resurrection.

Like a Tree

Trees are a great gift to all forms of life on our planet. As people, we often see them only as a resource to meet some particular human need, and they certainly do that. They are the great providers. In many parts of the world, they are essential for day-to-day life. Trees offer shade from the sun and shelter from rain; they produce fruit and seeds for food; they provide firewood for cooking, for light, for warmth; they provide timber, leaves, and bark to build shelter, furniture, and tools. And while trees do much to feed and shelter humans, they do even more for birds and other wildlife. And it is because of their utility that trees are so indiscriminately destroyed by people with an industrial mentality.

It is interesting that the ancient Hebrew laws included protection for trees, especially trees that produce food. During war, even societies that value trees often forget themselves as they exact vengeance on their enemies. But the nation set apart as God’s people was expected to treat trees with respect, even during dire times.

“When you are attacking a town and the war drags on, you must not cut down the trees with your axes. You may eat the fruit, but do not cut down the trees. Are the trees your enemies, that you should attack them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

But beyond providing resources to meet immediate needs, trees are also a great hidden resource. They give us so many things we don’t see—until the trees are gone and the benefits disappear. They hold the soil on mountainsides and in valleys, preventing the rain from carrying it away, thus keeping the water in our rivers and streams clean and flowing. They slow the winds in flat lands, preventing wind erosion. They catch the rain as it flows into the earth and recycle it back into the sky as moisture for more rain. They send roots deep into the subsoil, dredging up minerals unreachable by other plants, and ultimately transferring them to the nearby soil through falling, rotting leaves. They capture carbon dioxide and use it with sunlight to produce life and growth and, in turn, produce oxygen. They are not only the great providers; they are also the great sustainers and recyclers.

Trees are also survivors—well, at least when forces aside from humans come against them. Trees put down deep roots so they can find sustenance in even the driest of times, and so they can stand strong even in the wildest storms. Most trees reproduce themselves energetically, spreading seed by various means to make future generations possible. Trees in forests sometimes even share resources, joining roots so the trees closest to the stream can be a conduit of sustenance to their neighbors. Trees often grow best in community, providing strength and shelter for each other. Trees live long and offer continuity and memory to a place and a community; and even when gone, they leave a stump behind to rest on.

In the great collection of psalms in the Hebrew Bible, the godly person is compared to a tree.

“Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.” (Psalm 1:1-3)

With all the gifts that trees offer us and the characteristics they demonstrate, is it possible for us to live up to such comparison? The fact is, trees give far more than they take, and most people do quite the opposite—except the for godly people, who value, meditate on, and live out the laws of God, an activity that is constantly calling them to be givers rather than takers. Jesus summarized God’s law with two simple laws: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. If we live by these laws, we will certainly be like trees—providing for others around us, sustaining our families and communities through self-giving, joining others to protect the ecosystems and community systems that sustain life and health. Such people are like trees, and it is such a life to which we are called.

Garden Tip: Plant a tree, plant several trees, plant a whole forest of trees if you can! And do it today! As the old Chinese proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is today.” All trees take a long time to grow. And the best trees—the most long-lived trees, the most valuable trees—take the longest to grow. They are certainly the hardest to replace. It can take many lifetimes to replace what can be cut down in minutes. So in addition to planting trees, look for ways to preserve forests and trees that cannot be easily replaced.

Dandelions

I write in celebration of the dandelion—that paragon of joyful exuberance, reproductive prowess, and neighborhood contention! It’s the sunny face of spring, a sign of unstoppable fecundity—but, oh, such a wellspring for anger and frustration!

They say that good fences make good neighbors. This is certainly true in many ways, but I haven’t yet seen a fence that can stop the movement of dandelion parachutes dancing on a breeze. I often smile as I drive down a neighborhood street in spring and see the landscapes shift back and forth between lawns of deep green and those of yellow punctuated with tufts of white. And I can sense the seething frustration in the keeper of the green lawn, knowing how as the season extends, dandelions will sprout throughout his sea of green, threatening the life of the solemnly tended grass. And I can sense the response of the cultivator of dandelions, defending the right to preserve the wildness, the nutritious greens, the sunny yellow faces, the dancing parachutes, or perhaps declaring freedom from pesticides or just an inordinate amount of weed pulling.

I understand the conflict; I struggle with it in my own mind and garden. Sometimes I look on dandelions as I did as a child—sunny yellow blossoms, buttons of pure joy, just waiting to be woven into a garland to grace someone’s head; a ball of white parachutes docked neatly in a lacy globe, just waiting to be dispersed on the wind with a gentle blow. And I bolster these thoughts with an adult celebration of wildness, including the knowledge that the blossoms attract beneficials like lady bugs and that the bitter greens make an extremely nutritious addition to my salads.

But then I remember how quickly dandelions multiply to dominate my lawn and garden, how they overshadow the grass until it slowly dies away. I remember that they can easily live up to their name (a corruption from French dent de lion, i.e., “tooth of lion”—referring to the jagged, tooth-like edges on the leaves), overwhelming other living things in their shadow. I remember that they are more fetching sprinkled on a backdrop of green grass than being the primary ingredient of the lawn. And I remember the sweat required to dig enough to keep them under control, or how my stomach turns as I spread an herbicide when the grass and I become overwhelmed.

The work of gardening and cultivation includes cooperating with nature, but that doesn’t mean complete acquiescence to all its forces. Weeds are weeds because they can survive just fine even when everyone is out to kill them. Even the best of weeds need to have some boundaries, especially when living in small spaces. And many of the most beautiful plants that grace our gardens need our protection from their hardier, wild botanical relatives. A few thoughts to take away:

  • Some of the most beautiful gifts in life go unappreciated because of the biases and preconceptions we bring to them. Sometimes we need to check our prejudices to receive the good things right before our eyes.
  • A gift in overabundance is not much of a gift at all. Often a good thing becomes a bad thing because there’s just too much of it.
  • As much as we’d love to control everything in life, we cannot. Sometimes it’s best to lift our eyes toward heaven and smile. Use the gift of dandelions to remind you that the Creator is really in control. The only path to true joy is in recognizing and embracing that fact.
  • In all areas of life, a balance must be struck—a mysterious intertwining of control and relinquishment, of striving and trust, of works and faith. God has called us to be gardeners from the very beginning, a calling that requires us to be, on one hand, directive toward creation, and on the other, subservient and cooperative with it.

Garden Tip: Embrace wildness—at least a little. Allow, even plan for, the presence of some dandelions in your space and learn to rejoice in their presence. Celebrate with a yellow garland or by blowing white parachutes into the wind or by eating a nutritious salad of “lion’s tooth” greens. Plant a dandelion variety with large leaves in your salad garden. If you have a large meadow area, just let them take over along with other wild native plants. But if you live in a close neighborhood of small gardens, remain a gardener. Keep the dandelions at least somewhat under control—for the beauty of the garden and for the love of your neighbors. 🙂 For a good article on additional benefits and control methods for dandelions, take a look here. For some thoughts on weeds more generally, look here.