For the record, I wasn’t there. But I do wonder what I would have done if I had been.
It happened like this. I was in seminary and a number of friends were excited about a new guest faculty member who would be giving an advanced course in preaching. He was a well-known preacher, someone many had heard either from the pulpit of his large and influential congregation or as a conference keynote speaker or through his regular radio ministry or one of his many, many books. There was a sense of excitement on the part of the students taking this course from such an influential individual and a sense of jealousy on the part of many others.
On the first day of class the students gathered early to collect their syllabi and to meet this person that many had been looking forward to studying under for some time. The preacher walked into the room a few minutes late and with not much more than that for an introduction said to grab their things as they were going for a drive. Five minutes later they met at the campus gates to sort out rides and drive in a caravan to a spot just a few minutes down the road. Getting out, the students realized they were at a cemetery. The preacher led them around the grounds for a few minutes, stepping around gravestones and other memorials as they went. Finally they came to a stop at a gravestone of no particular significance to anyone there. After a moment or two of silence, the preacher read the name engraved on the stone. And then, to the astonishment of everyone, he pointed to one student and said, “You. Preach to Mr. _______.” As a friend relayed it to me (he happened to be standing right next to the person and felt like he had narrowly dodged a bullet), the person’s eyes bulged, he stammered and made a few croaking sounds until the preacher turned on another student saying, “OK, you do it then.” The second student did a little better – better being they let out a long “ummmm” and “wellll” and “I guess I’ve been thinking about…” before the preacher cut them off too saying shortly, “Fine, I’ll do it.” He then proceeded to give a beautiful 5 minute introduction to the Christian message complete with an invitation to step forward from where they lay as an act of faith and commitment to Christ. I asked my friend what he was thinking at that moment. He said he wasn’t sure but he sure knew what he was feeling. It was a mix of fear and the desire to escape, like they had all been taken hostage by a crazy person and there was no way out. But then, presumably after the benediction, the preacher turned back to everyone and asked what they thought just happened there. I think the best anyone could come up with was something like, “We need to be prepared to preach at any time?” He said, “This is what we do every time we speak. We are like Ezekiel preaching to dry bones and trusting God’s Spirit to do the impossible and bring life to even these.”
I love this story. Don’t get me wrong, I am really glad I wasn’t there as I have no idea what I would have done. But I think it captures something essential not just about what a preaching ministry is but of what the Christian life as a whole is like. Every time we preach or speak or turn to the message of Jesus we are doing the same thing. We are asking God if he might not take these words and, by his Spirit, do what we cannot by bringing life even into all the places where it feels like we have experienced a kind of death. It is like we are Ezekiel preaching to the dry bones and dry places inside and asking God to bring life even here. Because when we do, he does.
FOREST BATHING AND OTHER THINGS
Have you heard this term? For the past number of months it has been popping up all over the media-world in places as familiar as the CBC and ‘The Globe and Mail’ and as diverse as ‘National Geographic’, ‘Business Insider’, and ‘Vogue’. The term is Japanese and means “forest bathing.”It became popular in Japan beginning in the 1980’s to speak of the practice of intentionally unplugging from technology and going outside to a green space for a few hours at a time. Dr. Qing Li is the Chair of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine (yes, this is a real scientific society and evidence of the influence this idea has had in Japanese culture as a whole). In his recent book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, he lays out the findings of their research. He points to the scientific evidence that demonstrates how “forest bathing” decreases stress levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Likewise, he shows how it levels moods by decreasing anger and rates of depression while elevating our senses of joy and calm. Furthermore, “forest bathing” is linked to 30% increases in energy levels, 15% increases in sleep quality, as well as increases in our immune systems and cardiovascular health among other benefits. While they debate about the reasons for this – Is it the increased exposure to sunlight and less polluted air? Is it the natural aromatherapy from exposure to phytoncides found in plants and trees or to the bacteria, minerals, and microorganisms found in soil? – the results seem pretty clear: getting outside and connecting with nature is good for us.
Of course this probably shouldn’t surprise us as Canadians. While we don’t have quite such “boutique” language for this sort of experience, we have do have plenty of words of our own that we use. We use words like “going for a walk” or “getting outdoors” or “gardening” or taking part in what is for many the annual ritual called “camping.” Many of us experience the benefits of this sort of lifestyle so the results shouldn’t surprise us.
Moreover, this probably shouldn’t surprise us as Christians either. As Christians we believe that we were not created apart from the world or that the natural world is some sort of mess that we need to fix, escape, or be protected from. Instead, we believe we were made as part of and for the world. We believe that we are creatures, that is creations who are part of this world. And as creatures, it is really so surprising that we often feel at our best when we are connected to creation? Is it really surprising that it would be written in our DNA?
So with the summer months here, I hope you are able to take advantage of the warm weather and get out and replace some of your screen time with green time. Maybe it will give you the chance to understand in a new way what we are saying when we declare, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” -Joe Welty