Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
By Jessica Miller
Many years ago, on a prairie in Michigan, I became a student of the landscape. Officially, I tracked phenology, or the study of seasonal phenomena. Mostly I would wander the tall grass, seeking changes in the flowers. Who is blooming? Who is senescing? Whose shoots are green and growing? Some days would be punctuated by the commanding, haunting, rolling trumpet-call of sandhill cranes. The sound yanked my head up out of the grass and up to the sky. Where were they coming from? Where were they going? Learning the birds and plants and just a tiny fraction of the invisible strings that tie them to the world (the temperature, the direction of the wind, the rising and setting of the sun) taught me how to listen to the Spirit. Where does she come from? Where is she going? You can never know for sure, and yet you can become familiar with her flight-paths.
I’ve been a student of phenology ever since, in profession and vocation. So, when Jesus speaks of great signs and implores his disciples to heed the changes in fig trees in Mark 13:24-37, I understand the metaphor in my body; I can feel it in my senses. And I don’t think it’s only a metaphor (as if anything can ever be just a metaphor).
We are on this planet at a strange time. That Michigan prairie study was a part of a longer study to assess the effects of changing climate on flowering times of native plants. The fig tree is getting green. The world is changing. The very seasons by which Christ would have us measure the coming of the Kingdom are stretching and constricting, blurring at the edges and carving new realities on the landscape and seascape. All of us feel it, some of us barely, some of us constantly, some of us intensely. Climate change is ubiquitous and huge, and sometimes trying to understand it is like lying on your back and trying to feel the earth turn. It would seem that we’re all standing still—but the sun still rises and sets.
Combined with the lament of Isaiah 64, the aching plead for restoration in Psalm 8, and the reassurance of providence from the Epistle, Jesus’ prophetic words evoke current realities. These days, many among us cry “tear open the heavens!”. Many of us feel as though the very ground we stand upon is transforming, that the moon is failing to shine. And beyond that, there are the very real, physical signs of change in our world.
From the fig tree learn its lesson. I cannot stress enough how this is an actual, real skill for Advent and beyond. Observing nature, observing seasons is both submitting to the rhythms of the structured, familiar and cyclical and also being attuned to the expanding newness of the kingdom coming. The kingdom of God dovetails into this life and yet is wholly, wonderfully new.
The liturgical calendar, turning over new again this Sunday, helps us in part. But Advent-waiting is not passive, not just letting the liturgical calendar roll by us year after year.
Christ says, twice in the passage from the gospel of Mark,
Rachel Carson says “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
So many of my brothers and sisters that are staying alert to the portents tell me of the changes and the signs they see in their native ecosystems. It is heartbreaking work, bearing witness to the changes afoot (for too often you find yourself realizing Carson’s eye-opening questions may be true—these things may never be seen again) but this is what we must do. The author of 1 Corinthians suggests that waiting and watching is also filled with grace and enrichment and wisdom. Although I’m troubled, I am also amazed and hopeful.
Observing seasons is practice to receive the Kingdom. I mean this quite literally. Please, Christians. Regard these as imperatives: Keep awake. From the fig tree learn it’s lesson. Consider the lilies. They are delightful and heartbreaking commandments that require, as Mary Oliver says, “[keeping] my mind on what matters which is my work which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
Christians ought to have a lot of practice living in the sort of tension that climate change presents. The phrase “already, not yet” is often applied to the huge and yet specific, glorious reality of the Kingdom coming. We practice that reality every time we pray the Lord’s prayer—we prepare for it. Thy kingdom come. But of course, that is not the only way we stay awake. We stay awake by letting ourselves be astonished by the real, physical, present world—by learning the lesson of the fig tree—by studying phenology so that we know when things start to change, so that we are well practiced and awake to the signs.
Friends, let the birds teach you.
Let the fig tree show you.
Go lie with your back to the earth, stretch out on a line of latitude, head pointing eastward, and try to feel her spin.
Stand still and learn to be astonished.
How else will we even know what new thing we may be asked to receive? Or what passing thing we may be asked to grieve?
Jessica Miller is a botanist and the Land Stewardship and Program Manager at Bellwether Farm Camp, Retreat, and Education Center. In that role, she is responsible for development and planning of ongoing adult and youth programming, overseeing the care of the land, and enacting a land management plan. She is a disciple of the Doan Brook and Vermillion River Watersheds and a Northeast Ohio native. Jessica lives in community with family and friends along with three chickens, vegetable garden and an accumulation of medicinal and native plants.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.