You’ve seen them, the posters and t-shirts that say, “Advice from a…bear, a rock, a mountain, a lake. If you go to the nature store at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, you’ll see “Advice from a Tree.” The t-shirt or coffee mug will say: “Stand tall and proud; Go out on a limb; Remember your roots; Drink plenty of water; Be content with your natural beauty; Enjoy the view!” And that’s good advice as far as it goes, but if you want to go a little deeper, you might want to dig into the Bible. You can’t put it all on a throw pillow or a mouse pad, but you can learn a lot more from trees, and we have a forest of them in the Bible, beginning in the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis.
In light of how suspicious the prophets were about sacred trees, it’s surprising to learn how important they are in the Bible. In the Book of Genesis, God puts the Tree of Life at the center of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Lord appears to Abram at the Oak of Moreh in Shechem. [12:6] And Abram builds an altar to God by the oaks of Mamre, near Hebron. [13:18] Later, under those same sacred trees the angels of the Lord come to tell Abram, now Abraham, that he will be the father of a great nation. [18:1] And a few chapters later, in Beersheba, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree to mark the place where he calls upon the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. [21:33] And on it goes. God keeps making history with trees, right up to the day that the Son of God saves the world on a tree at a place called Calvary. You have to wonder: is this just a coincidence? Why are there so many stories about God and trees?
So Wesley wasn't just responding emotionally to the Bible study. It wasn't that he was caught up in the "heat of the moment" as we would say. What Wesley was caught up in was the saving grace of God. And that encounter didn't just change his feelings. Whether he knew it at the time or not, it changed his whole being. When Wesley's heart was strangely warmed, his whole life was being transformed.
When it comes to the internet, we are left wondering, why does chaos spread so effortlessly and quickly, but love does not? The answer to that question points back to the incarnation. I would say that chaos spreads so much faster in cyberspace because it doesn't need a body, and love does. You can telecast the hate on Twitter pretty easily. But sharing the love is far more complicated. There are many variables. At the least, it requires our heads and our hearts and our hands.
So the story of Joseph teaches us to put our hope onto a much bigger canvas than the one upon which we paint our little dreams and plans. Like most of us, Joseph was scheming for himself and didn't realize that he was part of a much bigger plan that no one but God could see or comprehend.
If you want to understand something about the intersection of race and religion in the world today, just read Genesis. It's a book that is chock full of ancient ethnography: stories that don't just tell us about individual heroes and heroines, but are intended to tell us about the relationships between different tribes and races of people. The story of Hagar is known by the three Abrahamic faiths, but it is told from very different perspectives by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all of whom have different motives in telling it. The question is not "whose version is the right one?" The question is whether the differences in these stories can still point to the same God and testify to the same hope. Is there Truth here that is not just tribal, but also universal?
Many, many cultures have legends about the origin of rainbows. Jews and Christians have their own version in Genesis Chapter Nine. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are called the prehistory or primeval history, which means they are not and were never meant to be regarded as historical. They were meant to be regarded as true, which is not the same thing. The early chapters of Genesis are mythical. As my Bible puts it: "The primary purpose of the book…is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God's dealings with the world…" [Oxford NRSV] We have in the tale of Noah a story that is every bit as dramatic as the legends of the Native Americans. And, for those who hold the Bible to be sacred, the story couldn't be more true.
Oh, if we could only be the image of God and live into the likeness of God! If we could only learn how to use our power to create and to care rather than to control; to bless rather than to boss, to realize our interdependence rather than exercise dominion. We might just rediscover our proper place in God's good Creation.
It is the earliest writing in the New Testament, written about 51 C.E., still in the first generation after the resurrection of Christ and that first Pentecost. But already, Paul is warning them: "Do not quench the Spirit." [I Thessalonians 5:19] Oh, how often have we done just that! And it's time to stop it! You were created in the image of God and the Holy Spirit is here, ready and waiting, to recreate your life, to make of you a great work of art. The problem is that we keep giving away our crayons or letting others take them away. But when we do that, we stifle the Spirit inside of us. We murder something that God made for us.