Listen! Do you hear it! It’s the spectacular sound of life evolving all around you; the trickle of water in the fountain, the faint rustle of papers, the creaks and groans of the human body, distant traffic noise. Life is well and truly happening, and with your five senses you participate in life. As spiritual people on a human journey, you bring a quality to your senses that might best be described as awareness. The more aware you are of the moment, the less distinction there is between you and that which you are experiencing. You are the hearer of life’s sounds, and the seer of life’s sights and from this perspective, you are completely necessary and significant. And yet at the same time, life moves on independent of any of us, whether you are aware or not. It’s a profound mystery and also important to a balanced view of life; absolute humility because in the infinite scope of life you are a blip, and also absolute responsibility because at this moment you are the one who has the privilege and honor of dancing with life.
There is a famous question, posed a century ago, that points to this balance – “If a tree falls in a deserted forest, does it make a sound?” It’s a question you can approach from several different perspectives. On the one hand, sound is sound whether anyone is there to hear it or not. On the other hand, sound is only an experience that someone can share with a vibration. So if a tree falls in a deserted forest and no one is there to hear it, then the tree just falls. There is no sound without a hearer.
There are some variations on this story. My favorite is this- If a man is talking in a forest and there are no women there to hear him, is he still wrong?
If you tell a joke in a church and no one laughs, is it still a joke?
There is one other variation of the tree in the forest riddle that is a bit of fun. If a cat with buttered toast strapped to its back falls from a tree in the forest and no one is present, does it land feet first or butter down? If the cat lands on a stray dog, would you say the dog had been barking up the wrong tree. And if no one is there to hear the dog barking-is it really barking, and so on!!!
Your Place in Life
There is a story that comes out of the Hasidic Jewish tradition that takes a more serious approach to the tree in the forest parable.
A group of students asked their teacher, Reb Yerachmiel, “What is the point of human life? Why are we here?” The Rebbe replied, “If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?” The students debated this for a while but couldn’t understand what he was getting at. So the Rebbe told them, “Here is my understanding. Without an ear to register the vibrations of the falling tree, no sound is produced. Sound is not a thing but a transaction between things. For there to be sound, there must be a falling tree and an ear to hear. Why are we here? We are the other half of the transaction. We are here to hear.” “But other beings hear!” a student said. “And dogs can hear sounds humans can’t hear. Are dogs more important than us?” “True,” Reb Yerachmiel said, “dogs can hear what we cannot. But we can hear what even dogs cannot. We can hear the cry of a broken heart. We can hear the outrage of injustice. We can hear the whisper of empathy. We can hear the silence of death. You are here to listen not only to what everyone else can hear, but also to that which only you can hear.”
Why are you here? You are here to take your unique place in the relationship that is life, to be part of transforming the world with justice and compassion.
You are here to be self-aware, and with your awareness to extend compassion to all that surrounds you, both people and earth. When you are truly aware, you can never be separate from anyone or anything. Any sense that your actions don’t affect the whole is a delusion. Any sense that what happens to the earth doesn’t affect you is also a delusion.
Current Ecological Realities
Consider some current ecological realities-
If an Ivory Billed Woodpecker goes extinct in a deserted forest, and you don’t notice because you never knew it existed anyway, does it matter?
If one too many trees are felled in a rainforest in South America, and its demise falls on deaf ears, does it really matter?
If the temperature on the planet is 10 degrees warmer by the middle of next century, and you’re not here to feel it, does it matter?
If sea levels rise 1.5 meters in the next decades, and you live inland, does it really matter?
If thousands of people die in the coming years from pesticide poisoning, but most of those deaths are in the developing world, does it matter to those of us in the developed world?
If pollution is rampant in the Great Lakes, but money seems better spent on poverty and other social issues, should we care?
Some searching questions. I will return to them.
How might the Christian notion of kingdom inform your answers?
What is the Kingdom? Where is it? Who gets to be in it?
A group of religious students, called Pharisees, asked Jesus about the kingdom of God. Where is it, they asked? When will it come? Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God comes, but not with observation. Neither shall they say, look here or, look there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. ” Luke 17:20-21
The Pharisees were looking for a black and white understanding of kingdom. Most of us do at some point. 80% of Americans believe in heaven, and 70% think it’s an actual, physical place. I can understand that people seem to need there to be a place called heaven. Maybe it’s an unquestioned belief from childhood, or maybe there are deeper desires at work. When you stop and think about it, the suggestion that heaven is a place is quite absurd, and unscientific. As Carl Sagan pointed out, if Jesus ascended to a place called heave somewhere in the sky, and if he traveled at the speed of light, then two thousand years later he hasn’t even left our galaxy.
Try and rid your mind of pre-scientific notions of heaven because they may be preventing you from experiencing the fullness of life in the here and now. Heaven is so much more than a place. After all, Jesus said the kingdom is as small as a mustard seed. Heaven is a state of mind. It’s a presence you catch glimpses of when you know the bliss of no separation. You realize heaven, when you know that your life and actions fall within a unified evolutionary context. You know heaven when you know that what affects the earth affects you. Heaven is a state of interconnectedness. Kingdom is a consciousness that includes as many perspectives, past and future, thoughts and actions as possible.
Who is included in heaven?
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “What religion are you?”
The man says, “Buddhist.”
St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”
Another person arrives at the gates of heaven. “What religion?”
“Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”
A third person arrives at the gates. “What religion?”
“Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”
The woman says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?”
St. Peter tells her, “The Christians are in room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Does that sound familiar? So many of Christianity has this exclusive ethos, which is a crying shame when you think about the way “kingdom” is presented by Jesus as a party to which all should be invited.
Who is included in the kingdom of God? The answer is, who and what are not included in the kingdom of God?
It used to be radical to suggest that the kingdom is more than just the assembly of your preferred denomination. Then it was radical to suggest that all faiths have a valid way to liberation. Then it was radical to suggest that the kingdom is a state of consciousness where all religions are celebrated. Now, we need a new and even more radical theology. Nothing less than the inclusion of all creation, human and non human, comprises the kingdom of God.
What is the Nature of this All Inclusive Kingdom?
Dominic Crossan suggests that the use of the word “Kingdom” in the New Testament was a deliberate dig at the Roman Empire. It was an intentionally subversive metaphor. Kingdom was a reversal, or the antidote to the empire. If empire was about dominance, kingdom is about service. If empire was about profit and power, kingdom is about people, planet and profit in harmony. If empire was about human subjugation of the earth, kingdom is about interrelatedness with the earth.
Consider the “kin” of kingdom. Who are your kin? Allow your consciousness to expand to include the earth amongst your kin. From now on, I will use the word “kindom” rather than “kingdom”.
The choice is yours. Live according to empire, or live according to kindom. If you see your life in the broadest possible sweep of evolution, you will naturally choose kindom.
Maybe kindom is the Christian equivalent of the notion of karma; what goes around, comes around. Maybe the tree falling in a deserted forest is a metaphor for karma, because everything matters and all things lead to all other things.
Come back to our ecological questions.
Thanks to the chisel like peckers of the Ivory Billed Woodpeckers, homes are created in trees for other animals like squirrels and honeybees. Next time you spread honey on your toast for breakfast, consider the chain of reaction if the Ivory Billed Woodpecker goes extinct. All actions are related in the kindom of God.
About 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from global deforestation, which often takes place in the most biodiverse regions of the world, such as Brazil and Indonesia. It is said that if India continues deforesting at the current rate, there will be virtually no forests left in the country by the end of this century. About half of all tropical rainforests in Asia, Africa and South America are already gone. We chop down one too many trees in Africa, and the climate of the globe is affected. Food prices are affected by the floods and droughts caused by global warming. The world is impacted by climate refugees. All actions are related in the kindom of God.
The Great Lakes
Together, the five lakes account for 90% of the United States’ and 20% of the world’s surface freshwater, and affect the lives of the roughly 35 million people who live in the cities, states, and Canadian provinces surrounding them. A new study has suggested that if we begin cleaning up the Lakes now, before the problem gets worse and more expensive, the affect could bring up to 7 billion dollars of economic benefits to Detroit alone. In other words, one of the solutions to poverty in Detroit is to thoroughly clean up the Great Lakes. All actions are related in the kindom of God.
Who is Watching?
There is a Hasidic story that captures the interrelatedness of the kindom beautifully. A man was hitchhiking along a road when a wagon driver pulled up. The driver offered him a ride if he were willing to pay. The man paid and mounted the wagon. Along the road, they came across a wheat field. The driver stopped and said, “I am going over to that field, to pick some wheat and sell it in the next town. You stay here and keep guard to see if anybody is watching.” Not long after the driver got down and was heading toward the field, the hitchhiker started shouting, “Somebody’s watching! Somebody’s watching!” Well, the driver immediately jumped back on the wagon, whipped the horses, and headed down the road as quickly as possible. A short while later he stopped, looked around and saw no one. “You said someone was watching! Who was watching?” he angrily shouted. “I was watching. The horses were watching. The field was watching. God was watching.”
When you forget that your every deed and every word affects the whole, you live mindlessly and without conscience. When you remember that all things are related you realize the kindom of God.
I end with an optimistic story. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker was thought to be extinct, but there was a sighting recently in Arkansas. One of this country’s leading omithologists (bird watching scientist), rushed to Arkansas and wept for joy when he saw the Woodpecker. His tears merged with the soil, as his awareness had already merged with the plight of the bird.
Listen! Do you hear it? The Ivory Billed Woodpecker, the tree falling in the forest, the waves of the Great Lakes, and you. You are related to all things. You have realized the kindom.