Yet he has reconciled you in his fleshly body through death, in order to present you before him holy and blameless and beyond reproach… -St. Paul to the Colossians 1:22
A few minutes from where I live there is a flat trail that leads for miles through a thick forest. I like to take my dog Winston there for walks, often over my lunch break, the sprightly excursion a nice respite from the office, meetings and other tasks that usually make up my day.
Dogs may not speak our language, but they sure have a habit of reading our bodies and inferring much from what would likely seem to us insignificant actions. I don't know how he knows, but Winston can tell the difference between when I am opening the garage door because I'm about to run some errands or hitting that same button because we are about to go on a walk together. But HE KNOWS! The lesson is, never play poker with a dog.
Within seconds of pushing that button all hell breaks loose, and Winston is barking in high pitched staccatos of bliss, that in human expression, would only be appropriate when your team wins the big game or a curry is introduced to the standard Lutheran potluck (a miracle, no doubt, on par with water to wine). The barks are short and euphoric, only interrupted by the intense hyperventilating, jumping and corybantic shaking that accompanies his realization that soon he will be walking and all things on planet earth will be right. Tis the gifts to be simple…
When we arrive at the trail the initial few minutes are intense, Winston pulling me with all his might as though the forest were about to run away and he would never get into it, him dragging me so hard he is choking himself in the struggle. I am reminded of his hidden strength at these moments as I struggle to contain him and am being walked instead of being the walker. But after the initial excitement fades, things fall into place, and we both begin to relax and enjoy the surroundings.
Forests are magical places. The path we travel is a converted rail line, and it cuts its way through the hills like a crease in the center of an open book. The trees loom large: maple, poplar, ash, and oak with various bushes, brambles, vines, and saplings, giving way to fern, skunk cabbage, wildflower and Jack-in-the-Pulpit. The underbrush is thick and crowded, teeming with life and drawing the eyes upward towards the leafy canopy overhead. The best part of the walk is the way the forest invites you in, the initial excitement and stress of the day giving way to the winsome shepherding of the trees as they feather above you like outstretched arms ready for embrace. As you enter in, the noise of suburban life begins to fade and transforms into the gentle sounds of the wood. Cars give way to leaves swishing in the wind overhead; their susurrus sounds making you wonder if you are the topic of woodland gossip as you intrude into their sanctuary. Sanctuary might be the right word because, like cathedrals in the great cities of Europe, shadows leak and light dances all around you, their interplay animating the hues of green and brown below so that everything sparkles and winks. The shouts and voices of neighbors give way to various songs of birds and the occasional whizzing of gnat, mosquito or moth, as you move through this space rich with the spirit of life.
There comes a point when the path runs through a small section of bog, a surround of black mud and inky water that rarely moves except for the bullfrog that jumped when he heard you coming. The bog has a stale crust of foam and slime on its surface as tiny islands of tall grasses shoot up around dead branches, twigs, and muck, the bleak sadness of the bog slightly gladdened by the melancholic mosses that enjoy feeding on such decay.
It hits you at that point that this forest exists only because of the decay. You look around and everywhere you see past life: rotted half-trunks of old trees, hallowed-out with woodpecker holes and insect tracks, broken branches shrew about, and carpeting of endless brown leaves. Now and then the leaves surrender an open space of ground with earth so black you’d think it gave birth to night. There is a laziness about the woods that makes you drowsy; the whispers of the trees mingled with the damp air thick with notes of peat, loam, chlorophyll and sunbaked bark. You’re now aware of the forest’s charms; you’ve been enchanted.
We've been walking awhile now, and I decide to turn around because however far we've walked, we have to walk that much to get back again. I’ve now entered into an almost mindless state of meditation, the cadence of my footsteps on the gravel have naturally aligned with the gentle panting of Winston’s breath, creating a sort of rhythmic trance where thoughts come and go but don’t really stick, and my mind sort of just becomes present in the moment.
It’s then that I realize that the forest is trying to tell me something, or, at least, I am aware that the creation speaks of the glory of God. And the glory on this day met me between a panting dog and a fetid bog. You see, the forest reminds us of redemption. The death of every plant is necessary for the replenishment of the soil as decay produces the nitrogen essential for life. That is, life comes from death. This is not as intuitive as it sounds because God did not create us to die. Our life comes from God, not from death. Death is the enemy which God must overcome. But in Christ, God defeats this enemy by planting a new Seed in the ground, Jesus Christ.
The Bible makes use of this imagery that is surprisingly not well known. In Genesis 3:15 we are told by God, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed, He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise him on the heal." This word, given to Eve shortly after the Fall into sin, is the first overt reference to Gospel in the Bible. Jesus is referred to as the seed that will come out of a woman and will defeat the work of Satan. In Galatians 3:16 Paul says, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “and to your seed,” that is, Christ.”
The Bible represents Jesus as the seed because it wants to show his connection to humanity. Jesus as seed is "planted" in Mary so that Jesus is flesh of our flesh, and so that, because he is God-in-flesh, can die. Jesus' death, as Paul notes in Colossians 1:22, has reconciled us to God. But the analogy can be extended as well. At his death, Jesus is placed in the tomb, under death's jurisdiction. But death cannot keep Jesus down, because Jesus is the seed of God planted for our salvation. Under death's darkness, the Seed sprouts, He sucks all of death's rage into himself, depleting its power. Out of death springs a new Vine, Jesus Christ, the firstborn, first fruit of God’s new creation. And we are grafted into that vine by faith and share in its life. Because Jesus has been sown into death, he has defeated death of its power, just as a plant feeds off the decay of the soil so that it can grow into new life. Soil that is not replenished cannot sustain life; its nutrients sapped, it is no longer good for growing. Similarly, God in Christ has depleted death's soil of its power. It has drawn from death all of its force and agency. In Christ, death becomes worthless soil, its threat and sting no longer able to swallow us up. The forest helps us see this truth: that death comes from life because Christ, sown into death, rises to new life. The forest testifies to the Divine reality that the God who would redeem the world from sin can bring life from death.
As I make my way closer to the car, the sounds of suburbia begin to invade the tranquility of the wood. I look at my dog who is slowly leading the way, his leash hanging gently as his old body trots its way down the path. As we cross the little bridge over the brook and spot the car, he knows where to go. I notice his left ear slightly flops down a bit like the fold you make on the page of a book you want to return to later. It's a revelation of his playful and friendly personality and is my favorite feature of my old friend. It is time to leave the forest now and return to work. But I return as one renewed. The God who makes the forest and the floppy-eared dog, the God who is the Path and the Vine, has met me in the wood. As the trees give way to homes, thoughts and worries begin to rush back. But they don't stress me as much. How could they? If God can bring life from death, if He can redeem that which has no hope, if the gossiping trees and sordid bogs can attest to his glory….then I think, I will too. That God is my God, and He will see me through all things, even death. And after that, new life. In the meantime, even amidst the noise, a bird sings.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.