In times of crisis, our normal ways of doing things do NOT apply! We find that nothing is the way it used to be. The entire fabric of our culture seems to be unravelling. How can we live in a way that makes sense in THESE times? Sometimes another time of crisis gives us ideas - and we can take strength from their solutions. The Ezekiel text comes from a time of crisis in the land of Judah. The leadership was corrupt – seeking their own benefit rather than the people’s. The nation was threatened by other countries with powerful militaries. And their religious beliefs had focused for so long on their privileged status as God’s people and God’s promises to them that they wouldn’t listen to the prophet talking about God holding them accountable. Not until Jerusalem was in rubble and many of their leaders were carried off into exile would the people listen. May we listen, that we might learn from their crisis.
Beauty reveals something about the Divine – and about God’s purposes. Beauty can distract us from our own thoughts. It can take us outside ourselves to entice us into a different way of seeing things. We may even see things more like God sees them.
‘The ancient world thought of beauty as the thing that distracts us from our ego preoccupation. It entices us outside ourselves – our mind, our suffering, our anxieties” – and gets our attention. Beauty can BEGUILE us into self-forgetfulness because something else is REAL to us. It can offer us a threshold into seeing things, the world around us, more like how God sees it. We fade into the background a bit.
The Cedar of Lebanon tree in Ezekiel 31 is more than just a pretty tree. It’s a TYPE of a tree. Not meaning classification…but that tree is an archetype of what trees are intended to be. It’s tall, strong, with spreading branches and deep roots. It models what trees are supposed to be, and is therefore beautiful. It may have also been pretty – but we don’t really know. It is strong and it fulfills its functions as a tree – which makes it beautiful. The language here is strong: towering high, top in the clouds; boughs increasing, branches growing and spreading; a source of shelter to birds and small animals, and providing shade for the nations. It is beautiful in its greatness and its reach. This is more than just a pretty tree.
In his book, A Faithing Oak, Robert A Raines writes about an oak tree ravaged by gypsy moths in June. They ate all of the leaves, leaving the tree with bare branches – dried up, barren, bereft. The tree became an emblem for visitors struggling with a sense of “ebbing energies and draining hope.” It was a symbol for those who feared for the nation and foresaw world calamity, for those who were grieving, who felt cut off from their roots – for those who might speak of their own lives, their selves, as being “a dried up tree.”
But on the last week of June, a visitor demanded that everyone come outside to look closely at the dried up oak. On its leafless branches there were “strange little nubbins…buds…urging forth towards a second leafing. New life was stirring. The oak was not as dried up of lifeless as it had appeared. Later in the summer it was fully leafed again – what he calls “a faithing oak.” Beautiful – not merely pretty. Beautiful because it was true to God’s purpose for it. A Faithing Oak.
Deep Roots Required.
Ezekiel reminds the people that nations, like this tree, find strength through deep roots that nourish the tree with life-giving water. At the start of the passage, he reminds them that Assyria was strong like this tree – and they know Assyria fell. Now Egypt and its Pharoah, are strong like this tree. But enduring strength comes from life-giving water that nourishes the tree at its roots. Only with a strong connection to water and deep roots can it grow to provide branches for the birds, shelter for small animals, and shade for the nations.
We give out of what we’ve got, in other words. We need the deep nourishing of the divine in order to have anything to give. Otherwise we run out of energy, or life-force, really fast. Beauty has to do with depth and strength. We perceive beauty with our spirits. But we fail to perceive it if our spirits are dull – if we have been without a good supply of life-giving water. But provided with that water, we are renewed in our vision of the truth of things, and restored with energy to grow.
The 2010 documentary, Waste Land, tells the story of artist Vik Muniz, who left his home in Brooklyn to travel to Brazil to the Jardin Gramacho outside Rio de Janero – the largest garbage dump in the world. He photographs a group of the “catadores,” the garbage pickers – and with them recreates his photographs out of garbage. In the process, beauty is revealed, even to themselves. In both despair and possibility, they begin to reimagine their lives. Their art reveals the beauty previously hidden, but there all along. That which is beautiful and sacred in us cannot be destroyed or eliminated by circumstances, even if it is marred, faded or hidden. And the nourishing process, being again fed by the deep waters of a life-giving God, can renew and restore our sacred worth and beauty.
Meditation is an ancient means to knowledge, often pushed aside by activism or dismissed as new age. But it is a really a way of connecting with the nourishing knowledge of the divine. Jürgen Moltmann urges us to think about how we acquire knowledge differently, insisting that “It is by no means true that we comprehend the world solely through the ‘little gray cells’ of our brain. We always draw on our senses as well.” He defines meditation and contemplation somewhat differently. “I would define meditation as being the loving, suffering and participating knowledge of something; and contemplation as the reflective awareness of one’s own self in this meditation. The meditating person submerges (himself) in the object of his meditation. (He) is absorbed in the contemplation of it. (He) forgets himself. The object is submerged in (him). In contemplation (he) recollects (himself) once more. (He) becomes conscious of the changes in (himself). (He) comes back to (himself), having gone out of (himself) and forgotten (himself).” “Meditation is a mode of perception which we continually practice in everyday life, without noticing it particularly, and without surrendering ourselves to it.” But we can attend to it, opening our roots to life-giving water. And as we are nourished by God, we see with newly opened eyes the beauty of others. As we do, we take up residence in God’s kingdom – kindom – and see all people more like Jesus did – as beautiful people full of sacred worth. Even – especially – “the least of these,” the folks on the margins.
This kind of growing, of awareness of other beings, is nurtured in us by deep roots and connection with living water.
When a tree is deeply rooted enough to have a source of living water nourishing it, that health and strength shows up in generosity. When we are connected and nourished by God as the source of life – we naturally extend the blessings we have received to others.
This tree, this Cedar of Lebanon, shows us. Deeply rooted, nurtured by living, which means moving, water – its branches extend out, offering places for birds to build their nests. As a strong tree, it offers animals safe places below it to give birth to their young – and offers shade to the nations. AND it causes irrigation canals to spread into other fields. It is not selfish in its strength nor does it create a monopoly on the living water. It is beautiful, strong and fruitful because it is nourished by God’s living waters. AND – the word of warning rings out – it will only be beautiful and strong as long as it is nourished by God’s living waters. It might forget, like Assyria did, and then be destroyed. Not even Judah, the chosen of God, can survive without a vital connection to the living water that is God’s gift.
Meditation, even a contemplative way of life, is not intended to simply help us improve our personal prayer life. Instead, it is intended to foster in us a deeper connection to God – and the world and people that God loves. As we love the world God made more passionately, we take up residence in a new way of living with God. God is the root of all love. As we love God more fully, we love others more fully too – we align ourselves with God’s moral action. We love each other and take up residence in God’s kindom. “The primary sign that one loves God is that one loves other people and the world itself.”
THIS is what it means to be nourished by the God – to love others; to love the creation. The contemplative way of life “is motivated by a devotion to the welfare of others.” In this time, that means concern for those who are vulnerable to the COVID virus. Love goes masked to protect them. It is a special act of love to stay home except when we must go out, and wear masks when we do go out, washing hands frequently, to protect those who are at greatest risk from this insidious virus.
In this time of racial injustice and oppression of our black sisters and brothers, love looks like advocacy and protection. Advocacy means spending our money at Black-owned businesses, speaking up against the systemic violence of our unjust systems, and weeping together at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, and too, too many others. Love shows up. Love speaks up. Love stands up.
We do not dare be silent! For we who are nourished by the waters of life, who are deeply rooted into the Divine – we CANNOT be silent. Love, compassion, and a hunger for social justice are the fruits of loving God. To be silent would forswear our baptism, our calling, our very nature as the people of God. So we must find a way to speak, to march, to stand, to support those who are vulnerable…for this is the way of the people of God. We can’t bear the injustice – we can’t breathe. If our siblings can’t breathe – we can’t breathe. This is the way of love – the way of justice. But we can’t do this work without very deep resources nourishing us. We need the love of God to seek the transformation that is needed – first in us, then in the world. It’s hard. Transformation doesn’t come easily. But this is our work.
We extend the blessings we have received to others. We experience God’s love and long for justice and love for all people. That is how this works.
The prophet says there’s a tree with roots that go deep into living waters. That tree spreads its branches to offer a home for the birds. Nations live in its shade – and it offers irrigation for many fields. Such a deeply rooted tree shall live long and bless many. It’s beautiful in God’s sight because it is united with the heart of God in generosity and benevolence. Beauty, compassion, social justice. May we be like it.
1 Interview with Wendy Farley.
2 Interview with Wendy Farley.
3 Jurgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 58. Translated from the German in 1980 – forgive the masculine language.
4 Jurgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 62.
5 Jurgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 57.
6 Interview with Wendy Farley.
7 Jonathan Edwards’ idea of love of God connecting with moral agency.
8 Wendy Farley, Beguiled by Beauty.