Life. We’re here for a time and then we’re not; and while our physical matter remains, the soul within us, we hope, goes somewhere else to be transformed into a perfect and everlasting whole.
Among the world’s seven billion people, with its great flashing kaleidoscope of beliefs and religions, there’s plenty of hope—and no small disagreement—about what the everlasting will be. But as for what happens to our bodies, the proof is certain enough. We are made from the earth, which will reclaim and reuse our biological materials to create new life as God sees fit.
That’s not a message you’ll often hear in our culture, which tends to conceal death’s natural processes behind cosmetics and dress clothes for the deceased. While these well-meaning palliatives soften the hard edges of our corruptibility, they can also obscure a more hopeful reality. And that’s that death doesn’t have the last word in our mortal journey any more than it does in our spiritual journey. What happens to our still-sacred body upon our passing can be more dynamic and life-giving than we realize.
Aldo Leopold, in his essay “Odyssey” from A Sand County Almanac, describes this as only a scientist and writer of his caliber can. Leopold was the father of ecology, and as such, looked at the totality of things. He does so here with a well-traveled atom called X:
X had marked time in the limestone ledge since the Paleozoic seas covered the land. Time, to an atom locked in a rock, does not pass.
The break came when a bur-oak root nosed down a crack and began prying and sucking. In the flush of a century the rock decayed, and X was pulled out and up into the world of living things. He helped build a flower, which became an acorn, which fattened a deer, which fed an Indian, all in a single year.
From his berth in the Indian’s bones, X joined again in chase and flight, feast and famine, hope and fear. He felt these things as changes in the little chemical pushes and pulls that tug timelessly at every atom. When the Indian took his leave of the prairie, X moldered briefly underground, only to embark on a second trip through the bloodstream of the land . . . .
From here, Leopold follows X as it becomes a blade of grass that lines a mouse’s nest. X then returns to the soil, where it feeds a buffalo, rabbit, owl, cottonweed tree, and beaver before it washes into a river. This natural cycle, however, runs into snare. X gets trapped in the oily sludge behind a manmade dam, “inert and confused” by a human obstacle that impedes nature’s regenerative force.
In “Odyssey,” as in much of his writing, Leopold calls us to consider the overall impact before we narrowly impose our will on some subset of creation. That’s ecology in a nutshell. When we damage or remove any part of an ecosystem, we can block the circular flow of life-giving energy that makes the whole thing hang together.
As for myself, I’d rather that my atoms (once I’m done with them, thank you) return to serve the good earth as they have served me. No shiny casket or concrete vault necessary. Just a simple pine box, such as those used by Trappist monks that will melt into the soil like wet snow in the March sunshine. This isn’t a matter of being morbid. Rather, it’s to accelerate an assent to new life.
In this essay collection, we have looked at the totality of words that can keep creation near and new. Delight, fear, wonder, care, work and dominion, these words are all facets, as on a diamond that illuminate the larger jewel we call life.
The seven words point to a fullness, a sense of how we can attain the endless life we desire. The next world holds for us “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard” (1 corinthians 2:9). But we’ve seen this one, shot through with seeds of glory and splendor, even some that may not sprout until the next. The world, no less than we, groans as it awaits full redemption (romans 8:22–23).
If that sounds too theologically complex (and if anyone could get too complex it was Paul and his mile-long sentences) then let John the evangelist break it down for you.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (john 1:1–3).
Not one thing came to be without him. Not the whales and crickets, the thunder and hoar frost, the lily pads, nor even the garter snakes that my God-fearing, 80-year-old mother-in-law, true to her Appalachian roots, goes after with a garden hoe
From the high firmament of his Hebrew psalms, to the dust he shook from his feet, Jesus knew intimately the natural riches of his Judean home. As a carpenter, he used the plane, saw, auger, and chisel to hew from native wood the sturdy tools and furniture that earned his keep as a village craftsman. He knew the perfume of Lebanon cedar and how sawdust glittered in the air when a shaft of sun pierced his workshop window.
Jesus spoke with authority of fig trees, lilies of the fields, feathers on a sparrow, and sunrises and sunsets as harbingers of tidings to come. He walked on water (!) and stilled a great storm on the Sea of Galilee. He picked and ate raw grain from a field on the Sabbath (what we now call a paleo diet). From the grist of creation, he fashioned parables that became the great teaching lessons of the Gospels.
He heard, too, the spiritual call of the wilderness. Before each major episode of his earthly mission, Jesus retreated to a desert or mountain top to pray and discern his Father’s will.
After his resurrection, Jesus takes on a physical form that’s hard for us to fathom. But even then, the risen Jesus portrays a man whose love and knowledge of creation remains central to his now eternal life. It’s all in the 21st chapter of John. He’s not a disembodied spirit, but a man reborn in full.
We read that the disciples, still at loose ends after Jesus’s death and resurrection, decided to join Peter for a fishing trip on the Sea of Galilee. They’d been out all night with no luck, and were headed in when Jesus appeared on the shore. Although at first, the disciples didn’t recognize that it was him.
He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.” (john 21:5–9)
I love to imagine Jesus waiting there, recently the world’s first victor over death, but now more alive than ever. Do you suppose he took flint, a scruff of oily wool, and some dry willow twigs to kindle a fire? Did he gather bleached driftwood from the shore to stoke the flames? I want to think that he did. He was, after all, a working man, not some lazy deity who would snap flame from his fingers like a butane lighter. It would’ve been all pleasure, just another act of love, to lay those Galilean sardines on the coals with barley loaves on the side. And after all his suffering, to sit in the sand and soak in the joy of a beautiful morning.
Then finally, as the canniest fishing guide this side of the Mediterranean, tell the boys where to cast their net, and snag the biggest catch of a lifetime: 153 fish! It’s a moment when Jesus must’ve really loved being God.
Of course the shore breakfast had a purpose. Peter, who denied Christ three times before the resurrection, shall we say needed to be brought back to life as well.
But as with all that Jesus did and taught, didn’t it also foreshadow what will be? In the Word shared, the bread blessed and broken, the forgiveness and mercy given and received. In the agape fellowship, and master-as-servant ministry. And yes, in the crazy-generous miraculous draught of fishes, a fish story to retell through ages and eternities to come. In the heaven of nature, may we too see the fingerprints of God.
To read more about God’s Creation visit https://discoveryseries.org/courses/get-outside/