Sunday, July 16, 2023

God and His Great Green Thumb

It was a warm June morning in Kenya, and I was in my Father's world. Outside the guesthouse where I and my fellow student missionaries were staying, past the palm trees and the ferns, there was a cluster – small, when I think back on it – of banana trees. I claimed them as my personal garden of prayer in the early morning. Strolling through the grove alone, I felt like the first man in Eden. It was under one particular banana plant that I'd pray, its leaves dwarfing my arm, its green fruit jutting outward in up-curving bunches from the pseudostem from which dangled the vivid purple banana-heart, looking to me like nothing so much as a piece of alien botany transplanted to our earth. Yet it was God's very earthly creation, stranger than I'd ever imagined. And through the wide leaves curling overhead, the morning light blazed down on me with gusto. There, beneath the banana tree, I could feel the presence of the Maker of the bananas, who'd crafted this plant as one of his countless thisworldly wonders. Seldom in my life have I prayed like I prayed beneath the bananas, shaking in the Spirit and praising God with all my soul. It felt like a natural-grown shrine, the perfect place to meet with the God who's always fruitful.

Over these past weeks, we've been leafing through Genesis to meet this ever-fruitful God as he creates a world from nothing – the whole universe, sprung into being at his word. Revealing himself to his creation in light, he forms the earth itself into having three domains, three broad regions of habitat: the sky overhead, the watery seas, and the dry land. But at this point, the sky and sea and soil aren't quite yet ready to host living creatures. They've got defined shape, but before they're hospitable environs, they need to be furnished and ornamented. So God's got to enrich them with the first kinds of life, and to paint new colors onto the canvas of his creation.

So what does God say next? “Let the earth vegetate vegetation... on the earth!” Let it sprout sprouts, let it green with all the greenery it can muster! And God gives instructions for two basic kinds that the Hebrews recognized. First is “the herb that seeds seed.” These non-woody plants sow their own seed directly. And then there is “the tree that makes fruit, fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself” (Genesis 1:11). For the sake of its seed, these woody plants produce a matching kind of fruit that contain the seeds from which more of it will grow. That was God's command, and the earth took to it beautifully. “The earth put forth vegetation: the herb that seeds seed according to its kind, and the tree that makes fruit whose seed is in itself according to its kind” (Genesis 1:12). And as the earth did, “God saw that it was good,” just like when the three realms were finished. So “there was evening, and there was morning,” marking the end to “a third day” (Genesis 1:13).

God's Word declared “a law of nature... with the intent to prescribe... a continuous succession of plants.”1 And as Jews and Christians read Genesis, they pictured Earth here as something like God's Bride, and his Word intimately fills her again and again with life. One early Christian poet preached that “the voice of the command was [Earth's] Husband, and it began to produce new growth from within its womb according to the command of the Lord, its Master. … Her womb was sufficient, and her Husband filled it with every good thing... She received it from him, and her children multiplied along every coast, and every day she produces from the gift that was so abundant in her.”2 And so, even still, “what provides us with the harvest of fruits is not the effort of the farmers... but, before all these, it is the word of God, the same as was directed to it in the beginning.”3

All these different kinds of things, God produced from the earth, calling them forth into the world as a covering of beauty and vitality. And to them, by his instruction, he gave them vegetative life and power, a form that lets them be nourished and grow and reproduce after their own kinds in accordance with his word.4 Early Christians were already in awe at how God had made such a “diversified beauty of seeds and plants and fruits.”5 If only they could have taken a look through a microscope, how much more they could have seen to thank God for!

Because to look at the tiniest cell of a plant, even the simplest and most basic plant, is to see inside it something you don't have in yours. It's a cellular organ called a chloroplast, a little microscopic body that scientists think might've once been it's own creature – a cyanobacterium – that got gobbled up and domesticated. Chloroplasts are filled with a pigment called chlorophyll – that's what gives them a green color. And they use chlorophyll to trap energy from light and use it to power a process called photosynthesis. It splits a water molecule to steal an electron and combines the remnants with carbon dioxide to – (and I'm simplifying) – make a carbohydrate, a sugar or starch storing chemical energy in a form the rest of the plant cell can metabolize. And what's left over is a byproduct called oxygen. The plant's got no use for that, but you sure do! Before plants, you wouldn't have been able to breathe the air of this planet God made. But God gave plants oxygenic photosynthesis so you can!6

Like Genesis says, most of the plants you'd recognize live on the land, starting with brytophytes like hornworts, liverworts, and mosses. A moss is a tiny plant with simple leaf-like structures just one little cell thick. There they get all their water and nutrients. Moss has no roots, but they anchor themselves with little threads called rhizoids. They spread by spores instead of seeds, the same as clubmosses and ferns do. But God made clubmosses and ferns to be vascular plants, which means they've also got specialized tissues like phloem and xylem arranged in a tube system to carry nutrients, waters, and sugars up and down throughout the plant's body – in other words, God gave them stems, a feature he didn't give to moss in its simplicity.

And on their leaves, if you look closely enough, you'll see these little pores called stomata. Some plants have them on one side of the leaf, others on both sides. But cells on each side will press the pores closed or pull them open based on what the plant detects about the environment. These pores are how they take in carbon dioxide, but whenever they're open, water vapor leaks out as wet inner cells are exposed to the drier air. So there's this constant dance of opening and closing pores to balance carbon intake with water loss.7 But because of this, even plants as simple as mosses help fill the sky with water vapor that will come back to them again as rain.8

To other kinds of vascular plants, God gave another gift: instead of rhizoids that had just one purpose, he gave them roots. And not only do roots hold the plant in place, but they can draw nutrients right from the soil. After all, a plant needs more than carbon and water and light. It needs iron for light absorption, phosphorus for DNA and membranes, nitrogen to make chlorophyll.9 And so most plants with roots make a deal with fungus that lives underground: the mycorrhizal fungi will scavenge nutrients like nitrogen out of the soil and fix it into forms the plants can use, and in return the plants will photosynthesize some extra sugars and fats to feed to the fungi at their roots.10 Isn't that symbiosis a truly ingenious strategy? Our wonderful God came up with that idea for them!

Other vascular plants include reeds, sedges, and grasses. You might have seen reeds growing by the water. You might even know about some sedges, like water chestnuts and papyrus. But it's grasses we know a lot better. They're a great big family of flowering vascular plants that put down roots and spread by seeds. Of course, there are the kinds of grass you might find out past our church pavilion, or in your home lawn – plants like bluegrasses, ryegrasses, bentgrasses, and fescues. Then there are the bamboos, over fifteen hundred species. But make way for the cereal grasses, like all the different kinds of wheat, barley, oat, rye, rice, even corn.

Most grasses and ferns are herbaceous, which just means they aren't woody, so the xylem tissue in their stems stays soft, and most of them only grow above ground seasonally. Banana trees, though they're called trees, are actually herbaceous. So are sunflowers, which can turn toward the sun in anticipation even before the sunrise each day.11 And lilies and orchids are perennial herbs whose reproductive structures visibly flower, too – and God must love them, because he made four times as many species of orchid as he did of mammals!12 But woody plants can show forth flowers, too – e.g., a rosebush. One saint of old, Ambrose, pondered: “How can I describe the violets with their shades of purple, the lilies of brilliant white, and the roses with their shades of red? How describe the landscape painted with flowers...? Our eyes revel in this pleasant spectacle as that fragrance which fills us with its sweetness is spread far and wide.”13 After all, didn't Jesus say the commonest wildflowers were given their colors by God, so much so even King Solomon can't compete (Matthew 6:29)?

And then God made the legume family, which includes not just alfafa and clover but also peas, chickpeas, beans – even peanuts and licorice. God made the nightshade family, which includes eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, and chili peppers. God made the amaryllis family, which includes not just daffodils but onions and garlic. He made the cabbage family, which has over four thousand species, just one of which is the species we know as cabbage and cauliflower and broccoli and Brussels sprouts and kale – we bred it like we bred dogs. God made the celery family, which includes a bunch of plants we use as leaves or as seeds like cumin and dill, but also carrots where we eat the taproot. And then there are trees, those taller perennial woody plants. Some, such as conifers like the pines or spruces or firs you might like to see at Christmas, just drop their seeds naked into the world. But others turn the whole reproductive organ into something they drop off, and then it's called a fruit. That's what an acorn is, what an apple is, what an orange is, but also what a strawberry and eggplant and tomato are. (They say knowledge is knowing a tomato's a fruit, and wisdom is still not putting it in your fruit salad.)

God taught those trees how to do that! And he taught most of them, too, to respond to the approach of winter by turning down chlorophyll production and living off their chemical energy reserves until it makes sense to start photosynthesizing again in the spring. The loss of chlorophyll is what lets other pigments shine through – and so the leaves change color. And often the leaves are then just let go.14 That's why we call autumn 'the fall.'

God created all these things with such inventive intricacy! He didn't have to make 380,000 species of plant, but he did. He didn't have to make the flowers so beautiful, but in many cases he did. He didn't have to make each cell so complex, but he did. He did it because he's inventive, and he's a great artist, and his joy bursts forth in superabundance.15 And so God gave plants proteins that can tell what wavelengths of light they get, and adjust the rate of stem growth accordingly. And so God gave plants ways to detect whether they're near related plants, so they behave less competitively. God even taught some plants to release chemicals to attract predators of the pests that prey on their leaves.16 I think St. Basil said it best, when he preached on this passage, that “I want the marvel of creation to gain such complete acceptance from you that, wherever you may be found and whatever kind of plants you may chance upon, you may receive a clear reminder of the Creator. … Even one blade of grass is sufficient to occupy all your intelligence completely in the consideration of the art which produced it.”17

Think about that! How often do you go outside? When you do, how often do you walk on a lawn or in the field? Underneath your feet, how many hundreds or thousands of blades of grass do you press down with each step? And yet just one of those blades of grass, if you got down and really began to look at it, would amaze you and satisfy your mind, if only you would look at it and really see it as God's carefully crafted creation. And if that's true of everyday grass, isn't it true of every flower, every tree, every fruit and vegetable and nut, every patch of algae or moss? All I want is for you to get that sense of the marvel of creation, for you to realize that you can and should be reminded by every plant that there is a God who is great and good and generous, a God of wisdom and art and beauty and delight, a God who summons life and celebrates life and showers gifts on what lives. Oh, if only we were to grow in the grace of that God!

God cares for all these plants he wonderfully made. “He prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills” (Psalm 147:8). “You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it..., softening it with showers and blessing its growth” (Psalm 65:9-10). And he calls it beautiful and good when plants flourish. He made them in part for the benefit of the living creatures he planned to make next, including us. “To every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food,” he said (Genesis 1:30). And not only food, not only materials, but herbs for spices and medicines.18 Early Christians had the conviction that “there is not one plant without worth, not one without use,”19 and that “plants and trees were created for our enjoyment.”20 But even more than all that, first and foremost plants exist to glorify God: “Let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD (Psalm 96:12-13), simply by flourishing as what they are. (And just imagine how different the view from our church would be if there were no plants from door to the horizon.)

And in doing so, they hold up a mirror to ourselves. Like the plant world, humanity is a diversified beauty, gifted and cared for by God beyond all apparent reason, whom he wants to flourish for the sake of his goodness and his glory. But we're also like them in being fragile: “As for man, his days are like grass: he flourishes like a flower of the field, for a wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field,” yet “the grass withers, the flower fades” (Isaiah 40:6-7). And in these days of our fragile existence, we have the potential – though not the guarantee – of being fruitful in one way or another. Yet not a one of us is without worth.

When God called a nation, he led them “into a plentiful land, to enjoy its fruits and its good things” (Jeremiah 2:7). In fact, to this day, the promised land is famed for “its remarkable abundance of plant diversity” and is “one of the nutritional centers of the whole earth.”21 So it was fitting that God cast Israel as “a choice vine, wholly of pure seed” (Jeremiah 2:21). He “brought a vine out of Egypt... and planted it” in the promised land, where it “took deep root and filled the land” until even mighty cedars were shaded by its branches (Psalm 80:8-10). The teaching of priests and prophets was given “like showers upon the herb” (Deuteronomy 32:2), while the rule of faithful kings would “make grass sprout from the earth” (2 Samuel 23:4). Through kings and priests and prophets, God would “be like the dew to Israel,” allowing them to “flourish like the grain..., blossom like the vine” (Hosea 14:5-7). And with these gifts, Israel could photosynthesize from the Lord's light, be nourished by his word, grow in grace, live up to her mission, and fructify – that is, bear fruit – for the life of the world.

So, as Israel lived off the greenery of the land and worshipped in their cedar-beamed temple toward the acacia-wood box at which God touched earth, a person trusting in God would be “like a tree planted by water” whose “leaves remain green” and who “doesn't cease to bear fruit” all year round (Jeremiah 17:8). In fact, the righteous would “flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar... planted in the House of the LORD and “still bear fruit in old age..., ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright” (Psalm 92:12-15). But they were warned that if they were unfruitful, they'd be like a grass “blighted before it is grown” (Isaiah 37:27), for “such are the paths of all who forget God” (Job 8:13). And God's people forgot their God (Judges 3:7).

And so, when the nation had withered like a figless fig tree (cf. Mark 11:12-14), the very Word of God that told the earth to vegetate vegetation in the beginning came himself to be planted in our soil. He “grew up before the LORD like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2). This “Branch of the LORD from the sawn-down stump of the kingdom was promised to bear the fruit Israel was always meant to. And he called himself “the True Vine” and invites his disciples to be his branches, abiding in him so that, through them, he can fructify for the life of the world (John 15:1-6). But then he was crowned with woven stems of spiny burnet, and pinned to olive wood to die. They guessed in this manner he'd “fade like the grass and wither like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2), not knowing what he meant when he said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, then it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus allowed himself to be buried like a seed, for the sake of the full blossoming of the Body of Christ, of which Jesus grew as the firstfruits on the day of vegetation's birth, the third day (1 Corinthians 15:20). And now that he's blossomed in this fuller way, he meets us in his gifts of wheat and grapevine, which provide the necessary matter for bringing us into his body and his blood, his death and resurrection. It's these plants he chooses to mediate himself to us.

And so “let no one, then, despair of his conversion,” as St. Ambrose encourages us: “Wood is frequently turned to better uses. Cannot the hearts of men be likewise changed?”22 Outside of Christ, “our sinful passions... were at work... to bear fruit for death” (Romans 7:5), an evil fruit. But now we belong to the risen Christ, “that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4)! He sowed us children of the kingdom all over his worldwide field for a purpose (Matthew 13:24, 38). He sowed us to die for the sake of life. He sowed us with the intent that we should put down roots, to be anchored, that we should draw in the water of his word and have a stable dwelling place. He sowed us so that, just as so many plants have symbiosis with fungi at their roots who render nutrients accessible to the plants and who can even help plants communicate signals to one another and share resources with one another through their hidden mycorrhizal networks from root to root, we should be strengthened by God through our symbiosis with his angels, who in ways unseen to us make God's gifts available in forms we can receive, and establish networks between us to protect and encourage us in our need, serving the communion of the saints and assisting its spiritual resource-sharing in ways we daren't dream.

God planted us in this world to discern his light with spiritual sensitivity and turn toward it, unfurling the leaves of our hearts at the merest hint of Jesus. He's planted us in this world to breathe in his Spirit, opening to him the stomata of our souls. He planted us in this world to oxygenate the atmosphere of our culture with his grace and his truth. But we know, as we grow, that we're in competition with the cares and concerns of the world, those thorns that entrap our seedling lives and threaten to burden us before we can see God's sky. For “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matthew 13:22). When plants face such competition, in some cases they practice shade-tolerant behavior – learning to live with less. A lesson we need in material goods, but in the spiritual blessings of God, we can be more inspired by the plants that activate growth-promoting hormones to lengthen their stems and try to outrace their competitors to the sunshine. We, too, when bogged down with worldly concerns and comforting wealth, have to practice a similar “shade-avoidance behavior” – growing beyond them by fighting for joy, fighting for a clear view of our Savior.23

God planted us in this world to show forth the colorful goodness of his diversified beauty in us – with so many shapes, so many hues, so many kinds, yet all reflecting the beauty of the same God, the same Lord, the same Holy One. Consider that the glorious robes of greatest kings aren't so lavishly decorated as the simplest soul in Christ (Matthew 6:28-30)! He planted us, in the words of St. Basil, to “cling to our neighbors with embraces of charity like tendrils of a vine.”24 And he's planted you – yes, really, you“so that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16), the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:2), “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:10).

Now, as we hear these words, we know Jesus' teaching, that every weed that merely counterfeits the useful crop, and “every tree that does not bear good fruit, is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). And that warns us: don't be a weed that merely goes through the motions and does an impression of life in Christ; don't be a tree that succumbs to rot and disease, that yields a place in your life to the gnawing of weevils and the infectiousness of blight; don't wave your lofty leaves in the breeze while refusing to invest yourself in more, in the gospel, in the fruitfulness of righteousness and virtue and love. But it's less out of fear and more out of awe and obedience and love that disciples of Christ “strive to produce the fresh fruit of good works.”25

And Jesus promises us that the branch that abides in him, really abides in him, really is attached to him and is open to receiving what he delivers, can't help but bear fruit (John 15:5). For, in the words of Robert Grosseteste, “each of us bears seed and fruit according to our own kind when we do not slide away from the Supreme Goodness in whose image and likeness we were made, but live according to the generation and the renewal of the image of our Creator.”26

We know that we must eventually be sown in death, but “what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel” (1 Corinthians 15:37). Through the plants God made, “the resurrection is signified, for a proof of the future resurrection of all humans.”27 As our Creator and our Savior, Jesus promises that the fruitful wheat – unlike the weeds – will be harvested to the Father's lands (Matthew 13:30, 43). “I will plant them on their land,” says the Lord, “and they shall never again be uprooted” (Amos 9:15). Jesus promises that he'll plant us in a garden that never dies, where we'll never lack for anything, where we'll flourish before the face of the Father forever, if only our fruit is faithful now. So may our Creator's plantings inspire us to beautifully “bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15) and, ever and always, each day of our growth here below, to “gather fruit for eternal life” (John 4:36)! Thanks be to God! Amen.

1  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 3.6 §26, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:86.

2  Jacob of Serugh, Homily 71.1035-1036, 1107, 1113-1114, in Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 47:30, 38.

3  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 5.12, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:72.

4  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.78, a.2, in St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 11:127.

5  Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 1.6, in Theophilus of Antioch: Ad Autolycum (Oxford University Press, 1970), 9.

6  David Beerling, Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet (Oxford University Press, 2019), 17.

7  David Beerling, Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet (Oxford University Press, 2019), 95.

8  David Beerling, Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet (Oxford University Press, 2019), 102.

9  Beronda L. Montgomery, Lessons from Plants (Harvard University Press, 2021), 61-63.

10  David Beerling, Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet (Oxford University Press, 2019), 128.

11  Beronda L. Montgomery, Lessons from Plants (Harvard University Press, 2021), 7.

12  David Beerling, Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet (Oxford University Press, 2019), 30.

13  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 3.8 §36, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:94.

14  Beronda L. Montgomery, Lessons from Plants (Harvard University Press, 2021), 116-118.

15  Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible's Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan Academic, 2022), 71.

16  Beronda L. Montgomery, Lessons from Plants (Harvard University Press, 2021), 40-47.

17  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 5.2-3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:69-71.

18  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 3.13 §57, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:112.

19  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 5.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:72.

20  Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 12.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 61:229.

21  Ellen F. Davis, “Propriety and Trespass: The Drama of Eating,” in Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson, eds., Reading Genesis After Darwin (Oxford University Press, 2009), 207-208.

22  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 3.13 §56, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:112.

23  Beronda L. Montgomery, Lessons from Plants (Harvard University Press, 2021), 39-44.

24  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 5.6, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:76.

25  Peter Damian, Letter 49.9, in Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation 2:277.

26  Robert Grosseteste, Hexaemeron 4.29.5, in C. F. J. Martin, tr., Robert Grosseteste: On the Six Days of Creation (Oxford University Press, 1996), 154.

27  Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2.14, in Robert M. Grant, tr., Theophilus of Antioch: Ad Autolycus (Oxford University Press, 1970), 49.

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