I have never heard the cry of a North American elk with my own ears, but the celebrated “acoustic ecologist” Gordon Hempton insists that an elk call reverberates like a magic flute in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park, because it has the same acoustics as a cathedral. This forest, he says, is his “favorite church.” Perhaps I will never hear the voice of a bull elk transformed by the forest canopy, but I have heard small human voices shaped into magnificence by the great dome of St. Paul’s in London. Recalling an Evensong service there, I wonder whether a forest is like a cathedral or a cathedral is like a forest.
I imagine those who first built the great churches and worshipped in them would answer that question differently than we would. I often describe the soaring proportions of the Pennsylvania forests local to me as “cathedral-like.” I have even said that the old maple trees planted the length of our long driveway meet overhead like the arch of a great cathedral vault. But architects and historians would no doubt remind me that the proportions of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals were modeled on the continent’s vanishing forests. Flying buttresses, stone pillars, and the pointed arches of the nave carved space in ways that, till then, only forests had done.
The voice of God in Scripture speaks in layers of meaning much like the growth rings of an ancient tree. I grasp the nearest, neatest ring of meaning when I remember Jesus spoke to a mostly Jewish audience. When He told them the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth, His listeners would have heard an echo from their prayers: “But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (Psalm 37:11). Words like earth and land may sound abstract to our ears, but the same Greek word is used for both in the earliest texts, suggesting Jesus meant to invoke the particular olive trees, streams, and hillsides of the Promised Land. The inheritance Jesus spoke about was the ground beneath their feet and the trees shading their heads.
To a dispossessed people hoping a savior would free them from Roman rule, Jesus’ words must have both comforted and disappointed. He recognized and honored their love for a particular portion of land, reiterating God’s good promise about that place, but He also made it clear the promise would not be fulfilled through the power of a conquering sword. Jesus was inviting them to pursue that goal another way: not by war or strength but by humility and service—a way that would lead Jesus and every one of His followers through death. Jesus goes on making this invitation even today, and yet He promises something very good to those of us who follow.
He promises us the earth.
In the beginning, God made something good, and He invited us to participate as caretakers in that goodness. We were not given this role because we are somehow better than the created world around us. We were given this role because, as those made in God’s image, we are capable of recognizing the value of creation. Like God, we can look around with pleasure and gratitude. Like God, we can see and name all that is good. But unlike God, our participation in the wonders of creation has the potential to go badly awry.
The name of my home state—Pennsylvania, or Penn’s Sylvania—is simply a Latinized rendering of the name Penn’s Woods. And while William Penn humbly intended the name of his colony to honor his father, today the name reminds most of us only of Penn himself, a man of faith who dreamed of a peaceful community planted amongst the trees. By the end of his life, Penn admitted that his hopes for a New World utopia had been largely disappointed. He sowed idealistic dreams but reaped broken peace treaties with the native forest dwellers as well as corruption in the colonial government. Like the visionary Penn, we long to inherit the earth, but we seem to spoil so much that we touch.
In the classic American novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator imagines the vanished New World forests that first greeted the eyes of Dutch sailors. Now, he laments, we no longer have anything “commensurate to [our] capacity for wonder.” In Gatsby’s world, the awe-inspiring trees of a vast continent have been traded for a world that seems glittery and golden but is, upon closer inspection, hollow and dull. We were made for wonder and for worship, but we settle for so much less. We chase, in the words of Proverbs, an inheritance of “wind” (Prov. 11:29) rather than the solid inheritance of God’s first good gift to us: the earth.
I feel such awe in the presence of our state’s historic “Penn Oak” trees, the enormous white oaks that were already growing when Penn last visited his fledgling colony. I have long dreamed of an oak tree of my own, and for two autumns in a row, my young son and I have buried acorns in our yard, confident and greedy as squirrels. Two springs in succession, we have watched as only grass and weeds emerged. And yet, so many of the weeds I pull from my flowerbeds are actually baby trees. There are seedling tulip trees with leaves far too big for their tiny stems. There are baby maples scattered by whirling, leafy helicopters. There are baby oak trees with only two leaves and a deeply buried tap root. I have tried transplanting them but those strong tap roots do not appreciate being yanked up and moved.
Trees seed themselves with abandon, and yet I go on failing to grow my own. I planted four baby apple trees, one for each of my children, but lost one two winters later when an unseen mouse nibbled all the way around the small trunk. The peach tree I helped my father plant has only limped along ever since the summer a hungry groundhog tore half of it down scrabbling for fruit, and the evergreen Norway spruce trees I planted as a windbreak grew beautifully and well for years until they were finally large enough to serve as scratching posts for bucks with itchy antlers. I found some success with a red oak tree purchased from a nursery, but then I read that oak trees are meant to grow in forests rather than isolated in a patch of lawn. There is so much I do not know, and how a tiny acorn ever becomes a mighty oak is a mystery beyond my fathoming.
We were invited as caretakers because, as those made in God’s image, we are capable of recognizing the value of creation.
Scientists have only recently begun to understand just how misguided our relationship to trees has been. We have looked at trees and seen individuals, but a single-species forest is more like a unified organism connected by its own roots and by secretive webs of fungi. Trees live for one another, committed to the preservation of the shared canopy that is their shelter from wind and storm. In a book called The Hidden Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben shares his astonishment at discovering that stumps of beech trees that had fallen hundreds of years before were still being fed and sustained by the roots of the healthy trees around them. Today, some well-meaning land owner is thinning her trees in order to give certain specimens more light and air. She does not understand that an injury done to one is an injury to all, and her help may be no help at all.
What is the point of trying to steward creation when we understand so little and do harm so easily? In the beginning, God blessed us with a charge to “fill the earth” and “subdue it.” We were to “rule over” the life of the earth—some versions translate this as having “dominion” over it (Gen. 1:26 KJV). The language is kingly. It seems to have little to do with meekness, until I remember King Jesus. Jesus gained victory over death not through strength and might but through submission and obedience. Now, as His children, we are once again inheritors of Eden. Eden itself has passed away, but in the words Jesus taught us to pray—“Thy kingdom come”—we glimpse the new Eden that we’re invited to cultivate on earth today.
Eden was a garden temple where God walked with man. Though we live in the after days of Adam’s curse, Jesus broke this curse forever when He gave His own body to be broken for us. By His wounds, we and all creation are being healed. Is it any wonder Mary Magdalene first mistook her resurrected Lord for a gardener? Creation groans, eager to share in our freedom as children of God (Rom. 8:16). We testify to the coming glory when we garden this earth wisely and well.
We are image-bearers, children of a servant king, and if we take on our king’s own meekness, we may yet reap a portion of heaven on earth. Some translations of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount say, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” Gentleness isn’t the way of a world that values bluster and might but, rather, a fitting response to the wonders of earthly creation. It is the way of a gardener with a handful of delicate seeds. It is the way of a child with a pocketful of acorns. And though our acorns never grew in that spot my son and I had chosen for them, every autumn my children gather and scatter acorns with playful joy. Who can say where wind and squirrels have carried them?
To be meek is to be teachable, and the earth fashioned by our Father’s voice has much to teach us. After all, we are not separate from it but have been formed out of the very stuff we tend. We, too, are wonderfully, marvelously made. We, too, carry within ourselves all the life-giving potential of a seed. To practice meekness, to remember ourselves as earth-dust, we must cultivate gratitude, awe, and humility. We must remember that even if we have been called to some particular work, we must remain entirely dependent on God’s strength and wisdom to do it well. That is true whether we are tending a forest or a home or a Sunday school.
It may be that a posture of awe was easier in a less technological age. Perhaps skyscrapers have numbed our sensitivity to the vast beauty of the forest. But humans have been making Towers of Babel almost since the beginning of time. We have always been tempted to build our own bridge to heaven rather than notice and receive the heavenly glory God Himself pours out in our midst. If we live out the gentleness of our Good Shepherd, we will inherit nothing less than a right relationship with God’s first good gift to us: the earth and all that lives on and within it. We will hear, perhaps for the first time since childhood, the voices of stars and the clapping of trees.
Those of us who regularly enter church buildings dedicated to Christian worship might bristle to hear someone describe a forest as a church. But if we pour forth music in our churches on Sunday mornings yet neglect to listen to the songs of the stars—and even the North American elk—we are like ungrateful children turning our backs on the loving gifts of our good Father. Sun, moon, and stars, all the wonders of the sky, speak of the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). The trees of the forests clap their hands. Are we listening?
All photography: ISTOCK