Somewhere in my blood there’s likely pagan ancestry mixed there with the puritan. Far back there might have been grandfathers or grandmothers that danced around trees in the moonlight. I thought of this once, during a time when I was tired. If I were a pagan I could look around at the world and find objects that give me a feeling of wonder, like the ocean or trees, mountains or moon, and I could make them my gods. My gods would think the way I do so their judgments would make sense to me. I would dance to make them do the things I want, like bring the rain or give me babies or heal my loved ones. Yes, I thought, maybe I could be a pagan.
The trees would be the first gods I’d bring to life. For all my love of the ocean, I am a shore dweller. Roots appeal to me and so does the idea of being firmly grounded. When I had my babies, the midwives encouraged me to try water births. But always there came a point when I needed to be out of it; frantically I needed to have my feet on something solid. When in labor with my third son, the nurses let us leave my room and walk in the woods behind the hospital. It was a warm day in May, and my husband and I paused beneath a hardwood tree with a wide trunk and fresh, new leaves. Leaned against it, breathing deeply, I felt the pain stop as the labor continued. Finally I felt myself grounded, with the roots of this giant tree stretching deep into the earth beneath me. Drawing from the strength of that immovable tree, I felt new life moving through me unhindered. When we went back inside to the hospital room, I tried to bring the strength and rest I felt under the old tree with me. Before long my baby boy was in our arms. My husband calls him now ‘the boy who notices things.’ Yesterday I walked with him in the woods, just he and I, and again I understood why my husband says this. This boy loves the winter snow because of the tracks. He pointed out ones made by squirrels and rabbits. He showed me how to tell the coyote tracks apart from those of the big-pawed black dog romping around us. He took me off the path to see where the squirrels have a hole in the ground to store their food, and the log they sit on to eat in the sunshine, with the debris scattered around like crumbs left on the floor by children. We followed deer tracks and saw where they’ve been biting off the delicate buds of beech trees. He remarked to me, “I am so glad we don’t live in the city.” I smiled with him, and pointed out the trees stretching out as far as we could see up the hill and against the blue-grey winter sky.
During these winter months, when I sit in front of our warm woodstove, I sometimes think of a book I read once called, ‘The Trees in My Forest’, by Bernd Heinrich.
He said, “I’m sure the BTU equivalent of energy captured by a growing tree has been calculated to the third decimal point, but to me that figure provides less meaning than the heat I feel when I burn a stick of wood in my cast-iron stove. Two or three dried split pieces of rock maple can make it glow red-hot, warming the stove and the house. Heat is a form of energy. The source of energy, captured by the trees’ leaves, is the sun. Multiplying the potential energy of those two to three pieces of split wood by the untold thousands of logs accumulating in the trees all around me, I am awed by the sheer magnitude of energy that drives life, passing from one form to the next. The energy captured by trees and other plants will eventually be tapped by bacteria and fungi, by insects and other herbivores, and then passed on to birds and other predators, like us.
Given the constant extravagant input of energy into the forest and into life, it is a small wonder that the evolution of the most extraordinary complex creatures, as well as human civilizations, has been possible. After looking at trees, and heating coffee on my woodstove, it is not difficult to comprehend how life can proceed toward incredible complexity, such as a hummingbird or moth, in a seemingly “uphill” direction from chemical chaos.”
I read those words once, before a walk in the woods. One thing I’ve always had trouble with, in thinking about scientists that don’t believe in a Creator, is how they manage to reconcile the wonder all around them in the natural world with lack of design and intention. But here, I thought, maybe this is it. Maybe they have a way to wonder enough at the world, that the world itself becomes god enough to be its own creator.
On my walk, after reading Heinrich’s words, I tried to share in his wonder; to be an atheist and to still experience awe. Just for a moment, I stood in the snowy woods with that quiet that only winter can produce all around me. I looked around me at the trees. I let myself think deep about the energy in their roots and in their trunks and branches and multiplied across trees as far as I could see in every direction. I tried to let go of every religious presupposition and just feel energy swirling around me. And there, in that attempt to empty myself of faith, something swelled in me that affirmed again that it wouldn’t work. From the core of me rose words that make atheism impossible. At the height of experiencing wonder and beauty and awe, the words, “Thank you,” swelled up beyond my control. I couldn’t stop them. There they rose; reaching beyond myself and these woods toward One my soul has started to know.
Long ago a woman stood underneath a tree, gazing up at its branches laden with fruit, and listened to the lying words of the devil. He planted doubts about the goodness of God in her mind, and she became the mother of all doubters.
A true daughter of Eve, I’ve had a tendency to be a great doubter. For years and years my favorite hymn was one that contained the lines, ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…” But somehow, as the days and years go by, I’m forever becoming less of a skeptic. He has loved me with a keeping strength. I feel it working, tilling my heart at times, and the worship that rises from that overturned soil is for Him alone. Long ago, with those first meager glances at the tree of Calvary, He planted a seed in my heart and now even my doubts have become tools to break apart hard ground and let my roots go deeper.
A pastor in Manhattan, Timothy Keller, once said, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”
I’ve learned to notice and to lean into my persistent questions and not to leave them unattended. Some wonderful day I trust that all these doubts will pass away forever, but until then they propel me to use my mind and my heart together to seek and to know. Always, so far, these times of honest questioning have given birth to deeper faith.
Jesus has always been willing to listen to and answer an honest question.
When the hungry crowds pressed in around him they asked, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus’ answer was that they must believe in him.
Another time, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said that it was to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
These things aren’t pretty sayings to stick on the refrigerator and feel inspired to be a better person. They are crushing if we know ourselves and we’re left to ourselves. Those who have tried to love anyone, and to love them completely, know this. The only one I naturally love with all my heart, soul, mind and strength is myself. Life has been a long and sobering revealing of that reality. This inability to believe in God and to love Him is at the core of what the Bible calls sin. From it every other sin sprouts as we work to fill a hungry place in us designed for worship.
If it were not for another tree, one without roots and branches, we would all be left to our own means to try to fill that void. We would make our own gods, each a reflection of our own hearts. We’d stay self-worshipers ever growing more self-holy. We would be designing and furnishing our own Hell.
There are so few today that see the cross as beautiful. But some, untangling and pulling weeds of doubt as they walk ever closer, fix their gaze on the tree where Jesus hung, cursed, not for His but for our own transgressions. Here we find the restoration of our worship.
I drew strength the day my son was born from a massive and glorious tree. There was something sacred and holy about that moment as I leaned against its solid trunk.
But hours later, when I held that baby in my arms, it wasn’t to the tree that I whispered my thanks.
There are times when I can almost hear the mountains, waves, moon and the great trees singing a song that causes worship to rise in my soul. But if I try to sing to them my voice is lost to the wind. They have no ears to hear my voice and no words to answer.
In the Bible the prophet Isaiah describes a man who goes into the forest and chooses a strong tree. He cuts it down and with part of it he kindles a fire, warms himself and bakes bread. Another part of the tree he carves into a god and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-20)
About this man Isaiah said, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (Isaiah 44:20)
Over and over again the Bible shows us God’s people falling down before false gods of their own making. Their deluded hearts lead them astray and they feed on ashes rather than on bread and living water. And this is my heart as well.
God has proven Himself faithful to me in countless ways. He has saved me and made Himself known to me. He has met me in prayer and He has opened up His Word and my eyes to see His story. I’ve shared in all of the blessings He’s poured out on His people, most importantly the treasure of being able to be near Him.
I’ve shared in the shame of His people as well. I’ve held lies in my right hand. Even as His child, I’ve had times of turning my back and wondering if there might be some other way. I’ve complained about His ways and tried to provide for myself because I didn’t think He would give me what I need in the future even though he has never failed me in the past. I’ve clung to the people in this life that give me a sense of security while being too afraid to draw near to the God who loves me better than my dearest friend. I’ve been bitter and full of worry. I know what the ashes of idol worship taste like.
But, amazingly, I’ve also shared in the redemption of His people. I’m a branch that has been grafted into the promises.
The passage in Isaiah goes on to say,
“Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.
Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!” (44:21-24)
The beauty of these words makes my heart ache in worship.
Once I heard someone ask the question, “Would you be happy if you could have Heaven, with all its treasures of life and wellness and beauty, with reunion with loved ones and all that Heaven contains, if only God were not present?” Like the thank you that rises beyond my control when witnessing beauty, this question forever affirms my faith.
No, I wouldn’t be happy if He were not present; this God that I will never be forgotten by but that I must be told to remember. No god of my creating can replace the God who formed me. Would I rather have a god in my control or a Sovereign who has made my sins lift like the mist? All the energy in the world, most literally, cannot fill my soul as He does. Only the One who has etched by hand and thought, and is the source of all, can fill me with true worship. This breaks forth just as it does with the heavens, earth, mountains and forest- yes, even every tree. My worship is restored through His redemption of my soul and with each remembrance of it. Yes, with the rest of creation I will break forth into singing, “…for the Lord has done it!”