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~ Down to Earth ~
A few days ago I sat in a food court of a large mall, sipping from a cup of coffee, waiting to meet a friend. Even there, I watch to recognize the face of Christ, always looking and thus never bored. After twenty minutes, perhaps a couple hundred adults had walked by. I saw no joy in any of them, not one. Thoreau’s observation came to mind: “Most people live lives of quiet desperation.”
Many of the adults had children in tow. Many of them were crying or complaining, the children that is. Most of them seemed cranky, demanding things from their tired parents. A few children were smiling. They were looking over an item or two that their parents just bought them. Sad that the joy of many is determined by the acquisition of things. Sad that many parents were happy to have literally bought a few minutes of peace from whining children. Shopping malls are interesting, sense-bombarding places, but not joyful ones in which to linger long.
As my coffee cup emptied, my thoughts revisited some of my journeys through environments of poverty. Some sadness could be felt there, too. A different sort of sadness, though, as not all sadness wells up from the same source or cause. In the mall, the sadness is existential, the shadows of meaninglessness in which there is very little light. In such dark shadows, people stumble around as in a stupor. So little light is seen in their eyes. This is poverty of the soul and is most evident in environments of material wealth. In environments of poverty, light still shines in the eyes of many people, the light of hope, of connectivity more with people than with new things to acquire.
In one such area, a young couple waved at me from the banks of a
river, calling to me in a language I didn't understand. I yelled back,
“Hello to you and God bless!” Although I know they didn’t understand my
English, their laughter told me they understood my salutation. They waved
their arms toward the forest behind them so I beached my canoe and followed
them down a well-worn trail. “Dirt poor” is a literal description of what
I encountered as their home. They were poor on the dirt upon which they
depended for their wealth. Welcomed by others there, I understood nothing
except the laughter of people who never visited a shopping mall. They offered
me food from the little they had for themselves. To share one’s food is
to share one’s very life. I took note how the light and face of Christ
shown forth from these people who didn’t know His name. Or maybe they did.
I don’t know, but I do know I was in His joyful presence. “He is the image
of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15,
The defining attribute of Christ, the third Person of the Trinity, is incarnational. As He taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven...” He pointed to Himself as being God on earth, in our flesh. The horizontal timber of the cross intersects with the vertical one...the divine horizontally spanning the earth joined with the human vertically grounded in the earth. The Son is the Father’s incarnation, the Theos joined to His creation. Only God could turn a device of brutal torture and death into a mysterious and mystical symbol of supreme love.
The word “humility” has its origins in the word “humus,” or earth. These simple and humble people were “down to earth” and expressed interest in the cross that hung around my neck. They seemed hungry to know the name behind the cross. I pointed to my cross and repeated, “Jesus.” A few of them mimicked me, punctuating their “Jesus!” with laughter. The people in the mall seemed hungry only to go home and watch television. One of them uttered “Jesus Christ!” at his two children, but it wasn’t in awe or reverence, or in a divine knowing.
From my cultural studies, I knew these forest friends honored the sun, moon, thunder, trees and the river nearby. I knew they gave thanks to the earth every single time they cut a branch from a tree or plucked a fruit from a vine. Some missionaries accused these humble people of idol worship, of worshipping the sun and earth as gods. I know some missionaries tried to teach these people that creation is inanimate, that rocks are rocks and trees don’t hear our prayers. Yet, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20, NIV).
The psalmist knows creation can hear and pray with us: “Praise him all his angels...Praise him sun and moon...all you shining stars...you great sea creatures...lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds...” (Psalm 148). This is not poetic metaphor. I love praying this psalm aloud in the forests nearby my home. I know creation hears these inspired words of the Spirit.
“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth. The Lord reigns, let he earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Psalms 96 and 97). The trees, and all the creatures above, below and in them do sing praises to our Creator! They hear and see. “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:15-16, NIV). I am never alone or lonely in our God’s creation! Shopping malls though, filled with people, can be very lonely places. Even the trees imprisoned in them seem to have a hard time praising our Creator. I suspect they talk to God more easily during the night, when the mall is closed and quietly desperate humans have gone home. “All you have made will praise you, O Lord” (Psalm 145:10).
“The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones...In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him” (Psalm 89:5, 7, NIV). Where is this assembly, this council of the holy ones? Aren't you hungry to know? Are you not longing to join them? They are not in the shopping malls. And, at the risk of criticism and condemnation, I suggest they are not in many of our church services either.
Our Northern Hemisphere brothers and sisters are now witnessing the autumn season. I internally rejoice at the wondrous scene of colored leaves falling like snow from the breeze caressed trees, blanketing the earth in snow-like drifts. One leaf caught my attention as it floated to the earth. I marked it last Spring, watching it unfold and uncurl, stretching toward the sun. The leaf worked hard and diligently as a photosynthesis laboratory, a perfect solar cell. All summer it did its wondrous magic of transforming carbon dioxide and water vapor into sugars so its source of life, the tree, could grow some more. The leaf was strong and tenacious, enduring dry heat and hurricane speed winds without complaint. Its mother, the tree, is being called to rest for the winter...suspended animation. The leaf’s job is done, and it rests also. As the green chlorophyll dries in its body, pigments of previously masked colors now declare its farewell glory. The leaf dries, losing strength, and let’s go of its mother, falling to the earth, to the humus, to become humus, humbly sacrificing itself to all creation. But the leaf will live on, some of its cells becoming new earth to feed new plants, some becoming the new plants and old trees. It dies to be reborn.
Indeed, all creation speaks of the wisdom of the Creator, and tells of the Gospel of death and resurrection, of transformation and transcendence. Goodbye, my leaf friend. I know I will see you somewhere in the springtime resurrection, because I will be looking for you. When we look for the face of Christ, He is so delighted to appear. Just remember we must look in the most humble of places, in the most humble of people. Yes, they just might be in our prisons. Or trying to keep warm in cardboard box tents in our cities of wealth. Let us never disrespect the unemployed, the homeless, the prisoners, the vagrants, the social outcasts. After all, these were precisely the kinds of people our Christ chose as neighbors during His incarnational walk on this earth. He prayed, “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:26, NIV).
Christ is in them, the outcasts and humble. Let us treat them and
each other accordingly. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I
am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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