I met Jeff this summer in Minnesota. He holds a degree in both liturgy and biology; just walking the campus of St. John’s with him was a gift to me. Jeff pays attention. He just is always paying attention, and he laughs easily and generally makes you feel as though you matter. I am so thrilled to be hosting these beautiful words on my blog today.
The Kingdom of God is like the Prairie
God forsaken. Wasteland. Fly-over country. Not exactly terms of endearment, but that’s the way I suspect most people would react to nearly anything related to the Great Plains. Yet, here I sit on the very edge of an ecosystem that once covered over a third of the continent, content in the knowledge that the prairie is much more than a wasteland and those peering down from 30,000 feet as they jet from coast to coast are the ones who are really missing out.
I’m serious. While the grand prairies of the Great Plains are but a footnote of what they once were, there is a great deal to be learned from some time on these great open spaces.
Each spring as the earth tries to burst free of its winter coat, the warming sun fighting in opposition with the winds that still blow cold Arctic air, I go for a long hike. These are the days that begin with a heavy coat which in time becomes a burden on one’s hips as the sun gradually warms one’s skin and soul. Hikes this time of year are necessarily slow, the ground, soaked from absorbing a winter’s worth of snow is slick and one’s shoes quickly become heavy, caked with the dark, rich muck which typifies prairie soil. It is also slow going because I’m searching; searching for a small clump of green and purple fuzz that is the first full sign that winter and the death-like grip it so often represents has lost yet again. I’ll find them tucked in amongst the dead grasses and flower stalks of the previous year, in just the right spot – often facing south, always exposed to the wind and the sun, small clumps of pasque flowers. Pasque is derived from the French word, pascha, which has its etymological root from paschal or Easter. These small, delicate but hardy flowers were so-named by early French explorers and settlers, an apt moniker since their appearance often coincides with Holy Week. They remind me of what resurrection looks like.
Parables are meant to turn our thinking upside down, inside out. They are meant to disorient and reorient us into a way of thinking and looking at the world around us in an entirely new way. Jesus draws our attention to creation in parables and is constantly using the natural world to illustrate the kingdom of God. The Kingdom he says is like a mustard seed, but a prairie?
The prairie has roots, deep roots. To stand on a hill overlooking a prairie is to see but a portion of it. Nearly two-thirds of the prairie is invisible, an intertwined system of roots that grow deep into the rich soil. Big Blue Stem, a grass that dominated the prairie ecosystem for thousands of years and can grow to be 7 feet high has roots that extend three times that distance into the soil.
The prairie is like the Kingdom of God because the kingdom is deeply rooted in place and community.
The prairie is diverse. Unlike the other 99.99% of the Great Plains which are now largely dominated by row after row of corn and soybean monocultures, the prairie is diverse. An acre of prairie, untouched by plow or cow can contain more than 25 species of grasses and dozens of species of flowing plants. The diversity isn’t limited to plants, vast numbers of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals all call the prairie home. Diversity is healthy, and reflects God’s plan for creation.
The prairie is like the Kingdom of God because the kingdom is diverse. It is a community that thrives because of, not in spite of, that diversity.
The prairie is resilient. Incredible heat, blistering winter winds, fire, drought, and flood have little effect on the prairie. Those deep roots allow it to weather drought and seeds need the bone chilling cold to germinate. And fire? It is as if Nietzsche had seen a prairie after a fire had swept over it; that which doesn’t kill the prairie does indeed make it stronger.
The prairie is like the Kingdom of God because it reflects a community that is resilient, adapting to the ever-changing environment around it.
Hiking to the top of a grass-covered prairie knoll and observing it by touching, listening, and smelling requires us to open ourselves up to the diversity of God’s Creation. When we acknowledge the created order as being diverse we are forced us to consider the lack of diversity that surrounds most of us every single day.
To sit, patiently on that knoll as the day slips away and the darkness allows the universe unfolds above is to learn, or relearn, humility. Seeing the vast landscape and the seemingly endless stars above reminds us of our own limitations and thereby of our interconnectedness and mutuality with each other and with God’s creation.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws our attention to the simplicity of creation and God’s care for it. Jesus asks us to consider the lilies of the field and the sparrows, I ask us to consider the prairie.
Jeff is a research scientist living among and studying Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. He is particularly drawn to the ‘thinness’ and vastness of Minnesota’s prairies. He holds advanced degrees in Fisheries Biology from Auburn University and Liturgy and Scripture from St. John’s University-School of Theology. His view on sustainability and ecology has been greatly influenced by the long-term vision of the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abby have for their small corner of God’s creation. He recently started the blog “Thinking Like a Mountain”, (http://www.thinkinglikeamountain.com/about.html), a work very much in progress, and can be found on Twitter @JeffreyReed.