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The wood-wide web
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Today is the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost.
The text from Matthew 22 is one of the most important stories in the entire gospel: “When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”
I love that passage. Oddly enough, however, my heart is once again drawn to the psalm. This week, the lectionary psalm is Psalm 1, six short verses that set the stage for the myriad of beautiful hymns and poems that follow in the Hebrew Bible’s book of praise.
Ultimately, the great command of Matthew 22 — love God and love your neighbor — and Psalm 1 tell the same sacred story: Everything is connected, we are rooted together.
I can’t think of a message more urgently needed than that.
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Book of Common Prayer version.
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.
Robert Alter translation
Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,
and His teaching he murmurs day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither—
and in all that he does he prospers.
Not so the wicked,
but like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefor the wicked will not stand up in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.
for the LORD embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.
When I was a teenager, I decided to read the entire Bible. It was a clumsy attempt of fits-and-starts. Genesis was a brilliant beginning, but I got lost soon thereafter as the story disappeared in a haze of strange names and places — and even stranger events. A more biblically literate friend took pity on me. “Maybe just start with Psalms,” he suggested. “They are short, like poems. Each one is a small chapter to itself.”
And so I began. I opened to the book in the center of Bible — Psalm 1.
The words reached from the page to my eager, youthful heart: Don’t hang out with bad people. Instead, delight in God’s teaching, meditate on the word. Those who do so, the psalmist assured,
are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
I had no idea what the “law” was or how to meditate. I knew, however, about trees. I missed them. We moved to Arizona two years earlier from Maryland, that eastern place where my ancestors had arrived some three hundred years ago and where familial generations had stayed put. Maryland is a land of trees and water, streams and creeks still wind through its remaining forests, including one of the last stands of old-growth hardwoods on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Trees and water are in my bones.
But Arizona? I would come to love the desert. But my homesick soul ached for the ancestral viridity. I longed for trees.
And so Psalm 1 became a favorite text, one that I would return to over and over again.
Eventually, I noticed that the Psalm has two metaphors — trees (of course) and “the way.” And that’s a little odd. One metaphor is of rootedness and stability, the other is of journey and gestures. The first stanza sounds a bit like a spiritual aerobics class: walk, stand, sit. As Alter’s translation reveals, even prayer is not silent. The blessed “murmur” God’s law, and even their meditation involves the motion of their tongues! The righteous way is marked by an embodied kind of movement that differentiates God’s people from frenzied activity of scoffers and sinners. There are two ways in this psalm — the way of the blessed; the way of wicked.
But then the holy way is compared to a tree? What does a journey have to do with becoming like a well-watered wood? I can actually imagine my high school English teacher scrawling “mixed metaphor” across the top of the page in red ink. More than mixed, perhaps. There seems to be an outright contradiction in the two images. One fluid, one static.
It is poetry after all. Maybe it isn’t supposed to be completely logical.
I still love trees. And one of the most interesting things contemporary science is learning about trees is that they are anything but static. A 2018 article in Smithsonian featured Peter Wohlleben, author of the then-recent book, The Hidden Life of Trees. “A revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of trees,” announced the writer, “Trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated — and even intelligent — than we thought.” We once thought of them as sturdy survivors, hardy individuals. In universities and forests across the world, however, researchers are discovering something very different:
It shows instead that trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species. Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony. These soaring columns of living wood draw the eye upward to their outspreading crowns, but the real action is taking place underground, just a few inches below our feet.
“Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web,’” says Wohlleben in German-accented English.
They care for one another and feed each other, protecting and providing for the arboreal whole.
The science of trees revolutionizes my understanding of Psalm 1. Of course, its author didn’t have this research or spend years collecting data. The Bible doesn’t teach science. Surely, however, the psalmist wandered among trees, along the edge of streams, and heard the wise whispers of the wood. Perhaps our ancient ancestors knew something of trees that we moderns forgot. That trees, especially healthy and fruitful ones, aren’t single individuals but are part of a community. There are mother trees and elder trees, groves of kinship trees. Trees need one another to make an orchard or a forest — to grow, survive, and thrive. Together, they embody a way of life, the way of trees, where fluidity and community depend on their shared roots and canopy.
Does the psalm draw from this ancient wisdom? That those who delight in God’s word care for and feed each other? That righteousness depends on the “wood-wide web” of our interconnected, interdependent roots just under the ground? That we live in symbiotic relationship with the law and with others?
Psalm 1 doesn’t have two metaphors — it has a single metaphor with two images.
Don’t sit with sinners and scoffers. Their counsel cuts you off from that which nourishes the soul. But the rootedness of trees? Look to them. The people of God are like that. The living word creates a living wood. The law draws us into a sacred ecosystem, “the way of the righteous,” where abundance and justice flourish.
And, as the end of the psalm proclaims, “the LORD embraces the way of the righteous.” That word — embrace — is the word “to know” in Hebrew meaning “intimate knowledge,” as in sexual union, or oneness. God is entwined here with us, roots and branch, word and water. The journey is the place, and the place is as fluid as the stream.
No mixed metaphor here. It is a complex metaphor communicating a sacred mystery — and maybe a little science as well.
When Mother Trees — the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience — die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape. It’s what all parents do.
― Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree
Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance. When thick silver-gray beeches behave like this, they remind me of a herd of elephants. Like the herd, they, too, look after their own, and they help their sick and weak back up onto their feet. They are even reluctant to abandon their dead.
— Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees
A tree is a perfect presence. It is somehow able to engage and integrate its own dissolution. The tree is wise in knowing how to foster its own loss. It does not become haunted by the loss nor addicted to it. The tree shelters and minds the loss. Out of this comes the quiet dignity and poise of a tree's presence. Trees stand beautifully on the clay. They stand with dignity. A life that wishes to honour its own possibility has to learn too how to integrate the suffering of dark and bleak times into a dignity of presence. Letting go of old forms of life, a tree practises hospitality towards new forms of life. It balances the perennial energies of winter and spring within its own living bark. The tree is wise in the art of belonging. The tree teaches us how to journey. Too frequently our inner journeys have no depth. We move forward feverishly into new situations and experiences which neither nourish nor challenge us, because we have left our deeper selves behind. It is no wonder that the addiction to superficial novelty leaves us invariably empty and weary. Much of our experience is literally superficial; it slips deftly from surface to surface. It lacks rootage. The tree can reach towards the light, endure wind, rain, and storm, precisely because it is rooted. Each of its branches is ultimately anchored in a reliable depth of clay. The wisdom of the tree balances the path inwards with the pathway outwards.
— John O’Donohue, “Eternal Echoes”
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
— Mary Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees”
SOUTHERN LIGHTS IS BACK
January 12 -14, 2024
And our theme is Reimagining Faith Beyond Patriarchy and Hierarchy
Last January, almost 700 people gathered at St. Simon’s Island in Georgia for a packed weekend of poetry, theology, and music.
WE’RE GATHERING AGAIN!
YOU ARE INVITED to join me and Brian McLaren as we reimagine our faith beyond patriarchy and hierarchy in our interior lives, in our communities of faith, and in the Scriptures. We’ve asked three remarkable speakers to take us through this journey: Cole Arthur Riley, Simran Jeet Singh, and Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer. Our special guest chaplain for the weekend will be the Rev. Winnie Varghese (St. Luke’s Episcopal, Atlanta).
Please come and be with us in Georgia. SEATS ARE INCREASINGLY LIMITED and hotels are filling up!
Or, if you’d rather be with us online, you can choose that option as well.
REMEMBER TO VISIT THE COTTAGE ONLINE EDITION (it looks really nice on a laptop or desktop computer). On the homepage (which looks like a magazine), you can see recent posts and top posts on a single page. You can also use the menu bar to explore Notes (Substack’s twitter-like feature), my upcoming speaking events, find links to my books, see the other newsletters I recommend, use the friend referral feature, or cruise the COTTAGE ARCHIVE (paid subscribers have FULL access to everything in the archive; partial access is available to the rest of the Cottage community and visitors). You can search the archive, too, and look for subjects you might like to share in a sermon, with your book group, or with your friends. That archive is a treasure trove of inspiration.
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