Updated: Aug 14
Do you think a tree of the field is some sort of warrior to be attacked by you in battle? —Deuteronomy 20:19b
I know that trees are good. I know that they have the ability to provide something essential for all living things on this planet to live: oxygen. I know that trees do this necessary task for all life on Earth by removing harmful gases like carbon dioxide to make the air we breathe healthier. In fact, according to the Arbor Day Foundation, in just one year a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange. I’m aware of this assurance every time I take a deep breath or go for a run, especially when some of those vitally helpful trees are in view. I know this about trees, and I appreciate them, but do I love them?
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Norman Wirzba, Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School, for the spring 2022 edition of AllCreation.org. In our conversation about dominionism (see Genesis 1:26), Dr. Wirzba talked about understanding dominion not as dominating creation, but coming alongside it in a way that reflects how God comes alongside us with nurturing care and steadfast love. “Scripture assumes a God who loves the world,” he said, “And the question for me is, ‘How can we say we worship a God who loves the world but not give our love to the world at the same time?’”
To make this lesson sink in, Wirzba tells his students to go outside, find a tree, and take 15 minutes, better yet 30, to sit down and just look at it. Often his students will tell him that they find it difficult to even sit still for that amount of time looking at a tree. That’s saying something. If Psalm 46:10 instructs us to “be still and know that I am God” and we cannot even be still for 15 minutes, how can we appreciate what we know for a fact about that tree: that it gives us the ability to breathe, to live, to be, as in “be still”?
Another spiritual component to this is that if God is the giver of all life, and that tree I’m asked to look at for a mere 15 minutes provides me with air to breathe, then in “being still and knowing,” maybe I’ll come to know that the tree I’m looking at is meant to be seen as a reflection of God, as a gift from God, or even as an essential piece of God Themself: “Be still and just look at that tree, breath deeply, and know that I am God.”
As I continue looking at that tree, something else might come to light: Maybe I’ll see the tree as my neighbor, a neighbor firmly planted alongside me, loving me by providing the very air I breathe, nurturing me by simply carrying out its God-given purposes. This brings deeper, more urgent meaning to Jesus’ instruction, that I love my neighbor as I love myself. The lyrics of Hezekiah Walker’s gospel song come to mind: “I need you, you need me. We’re all part of God’s body…It is His will that every need be supplied. You are important to me, I need you to survive.”
It occurs to me that without taking the time to see the trees for what they essentially are, we might never see them as our neighbor and, worse yet, look at them as objects to be commodified or even as enemies to be dominated. This is not how we are called to live, nor is it how we are made to be in this creation we share with the tree that sustains all life. As we approach the final stretch of our Lenten journey of reflection, repentance, and transformation then, maybe we should take 15 minutes or even 30 to step outside, look at a tree, and see what happens. Maybe our discipleship with Christ will broaden to invite more of God’s beloved neighbors into our neighborhood, bringing us alongside the whole of creation. Maybe salvation itself will bear deeper meaning for us in our life of faith. Maybe we will be moved to do more than appreciate what God calls good and love it, all of it, as we love ourselves.