Wisdom of the Woods
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Installation Sermon for Rev. Aileen Fitzke
6-6-21, 4:00 pm
Two years back I attended and participated in Aileen’s Ordination Ceremony in Ithaca, NY. I recall well the sermon our colleague Rev. Darcey Laine had offered. It was a sermon filled with lessons about faith and community through the topic of mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms. Knowing I cannot measure up to that, I offer a message focused on really big trees. This afternoon I offer what I hope might be a descant to that elegant sermon from two years back. I offer some wisdom of the woods. I begin with a parable – well, it’s not really a parable because it is entirely true and historically accurate. I offer it as a metaphor and a teaching story for it reveals the wisdom of the woods. And the story I share is from the life of John Muir.
John Muir, some of you may know, was the great naturalist from the late 1800’s. He is the “Father of our National Parks” and founder of the Sierra Club. He was also a bit of a thrill seeker. He loved to really get out into nature and experience it as fully as possible. He would climb trees, scramble up rocky inclines, and he got out in all manner of weather to experience nature. I offer remarks from his own journal to reveal the teaching story I present this afternoon.
“One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra,” Muir wrote in A Wind-Storm in the Forests, “occurred in December, 1874, when I happened to be exploring one of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River.”
He was on his way to visit a friend that day, but when he noticed a fine wind-storm brewing he decided to instead push out into the woods to enjoy it. I don’t know about you, but when I see a wind storm coming, I like to have some shelter. John Muir was led by a different impulse. “For on such occasions (he wrote) Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.” After spending a good while walking around the woods in the midst of this great windstorm it occurred to him “that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook.”
So he hunted for a good choice. He found a stand of tall Douglas Spruces growing close together. He knew that the wind was strong enough to uproot a single tree standing alone, but a dozen or more trees together served to protect all the trees in the copse.
“Though comparatively young, (he writes in his journal) they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion.”
He clung to the high slender tree as it bent and swirled in the storm. The tree bent from 20 to 30 degrees in arc but he trusted the companion stand around him to keep his tree rooted and upright throughout the experience. He describes it as exciting and beautiful. He felt the wind in his pulse. He described light and wind sweeping across the valley spread before his eyes as if he were watching waves on the open sea; the trees undulating and swaying in concentric circles, lines of wind chasing each other in a water-like flow from one end of valley to the other. “I kept my lofty perch for hours, (he writes) frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.”
This experience was a seminal moment for Muir’s sense of connectedness with all nature. “We all travel the milky way together,” he wrote, “trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings–many of them not so much.”
I wonder if you can relate? Perhaps not to the thrill-seeking element in John Muir’s character. But perhaps to the experience of being tossed about in a storm? Perhaps you can relate to the experience of seeing trouble brewing and making your way to a safe spot. John Muir’s idea of a safe spot may be different from yours.
Religion, through the ages, has offered its adherents shelter in the metaphorical storms of life. Religion offers assurances and safe harbor. People speak of clinging to their rock, holding fast to their sure anchor. But what if this is not the best analogy? What if this religious metaphor is off? What if we could embrace the experience and still be safe, or at least safe enough? What if we were to seek out not a firm and immobile stone but a fine copse of trustworthy trees in which to weather our storms?
I suggest Muir’s experience in the wind-storm could be a parable for what our congregational life could be. In our hymnal there is a reading #591 if you like to take notes (“I Call That Church Free”) in which Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams says, “I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence, that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands.” This reading clarifies the theological and covenantal nature of our gathered religious communities. Adams says “I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship.” And he goes on to describe it as “a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit.” And then he closes quoting scripture saying, “It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit ‘that bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8) … and maketh all things new. (Rev 21:1)’”
My story about John Muir in the wind, my parable is not about you as an individual clinging to your own safe place. My story is about the free church. It is about how we create communities that can serve as trustworthy places in which we can weather our storms. Tis grace that brought me safe thus far … James Luther Adams described the Free Church as a body of seekers freely joined in a covenant of loyalty to the spirit of love.
John Muir clung to the top of a tall pine to feel the wind blowth where it listeth. It is not an insignificant piece of the story that the tree was a good and safe choice because it was a copse of trees – a community of trees supporting each other. Or to read it metaphorically, “a gathering of individuals in a caring and trusting fellowship!” For our theology of the Spirit to be made real in this world it is best enacted in community.
Yes, trees do fall down, by age, by ax, by storm. But the forest continues. The community of faith still thrives in the face of plague and illness, through the winds of political turmoil and insurrection, despite the scourge of racism and bigotry – our faith communities are strong because we are not alone; I am not left to rely on only my own strength to persevere. We are like a trustworthy copse of trees. Our roots are strong and deep. Our shelter does not stop the wind and the trouble, but it does keep us secure all the same. You and I bend in the wind and the community bends too. Let the cares of the world blow across the face of your deep souls and know that you thrive because you are connected in a trustworthy copse of fellow travelers.
Let the wind blow – the winds of trouble and the breath of Spirit both. Listen to the wisdom of the woods. Let trouble come and go. Let the Spirit move among us. Stay present and stay relevant, for the world needs strong communities of truth and trust, of hope and healing, of compassion and action. Our world needs communities such as this one. But it is not just the world who needs this, you and I need such communities as well. And you and I participate in the creation of such communities.
Let the wind come. We will persevere and and even be renewed. Together we will build the beloved forest of faith that will always be our home. We create this together and in partnership with the Spirit ‘that bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8) … and maketh all things new. (Rev 21:1)’”
In a world without end, may it be so.