Yesterday I ended my run on the bike path in the woods below my house when I saw it out of the corner of my eye: the log.
Years ago my oldest grandson spotted the log beside the path. It had a word carved on its surface that appealed to him. I forget what that captivating word was, maybe “LOVE” or “HELP” or something else, but it made him covet that log.
He asked me to carry it home for him.
Now I, being his grandmother, wanted to satisfy his every desire, of course, but that log was four feet long and two in diameter. There was no way I could lug it up the hill to my house.
In a fit of inspiration, I rolled the log over and showed him the pillbugs living underneath. “Look!” I told him, “We can’t take the pillbugs’ house away.” Luckily, he was satisfied with that, and we moved on to throw sticks into the stream.
The log is now in an advanced state of decomposition, covered with colorful lichen.
I cannot see that particular type of lichen without remembering my mother’s friend Bernie.
Bernie was an artist. Her husband Mort worked as an engineer at Bell Telephone with my father. They reminded me of the Sprats. You know, Jack and his wife. Mort was tall, angular, and nervous, chain-smoking his way through life. Bernie was short, round, and laid-back. She seemed like she had a wonderful secret that made her lips perpetually curve up at the corners.
Bernie worked in watercolors and oils, but her finest work was in textiles. She was a gifted knitter.
Before my oldest son was born, in an outburst of maternal tenderness, I decided to knit a sweater for him.
My knitting up until that point consisted solely of scarves, which, of course, are flat rectangles, therefore easy to knit.
The sweater I knit was appropriately baby blue, but it looked like it was designed by a deranged monkey. The seams were uneven, the hem unraveled, and one sleeve was noticeably longer than the other.
Bernie also knit him a sweater. It was earth tones – golds, tans, browns, and grays – and looked like it was too beautiful for any human, especially one prone to emitting prodigious amounts of bodily fluids, to wear. It should have been displayed in an art gallery.
Bernie dyed her own yarn from items found in nature, including lichens like the ones on the log. I was often dispatched to the woods to gather specific types of lichens for her to concoct her dyes.
My quest was often for the elusive Firedot lichen, a gorgeous orange-colored growth, or Goldspeck lichen, the color of goldenrods.
Lichens are interesting organisms. Actually, they are a combination of two organisms from two different kingdoms – Plants and Fungi.
The fungus in the lichen can’t photosynthesize to make its own food. The algae in the lichen does photosynthesize. The algae provides food in the mutualistic relationship; the sturdy structure of the fungus provides protection for the delicate algae from damaging ultraviolet rays.
This allows both organisms to live in environments where, individually, neither could survive. Both parties benefit from the arrangement.
A mutualistic relationship such as lichen, however, is vastly different from mutualistic relationships where humans are involved.
Algae and fungi are each in the relationship for the benefits they individually receive (there is no altruism in lichen). They have no understanding of the concepts of obligation and reciprocation often attached to human you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours interactions.
We humans even carry this transactional approach to our relationship with God.
We treat God as a dispenser of blessings, if only we can uphold our end of the bargain.
What our end of the bargain is, however, remains somewhat fuzzy.
Does it involve participating not only in church services on Sunday, but Bible study, small group ministry, educational classes, and youth group? Do we need to use especially Jesus-y language? Should we make a show of praying in public? Should we tithe, even if it means having unpaid bills or skipping needed health care measures? Most importantly, should we harshly judge those who don’t live up to our exacting standards?
And conversely, should we be afraid that any setbacks or tragedies that befall us signal punishment from God for not keeping our part of the deal? Are our misfortunes God’s payback?
Of course, our relationship with God is not a transactional one. At least it shouldn’t be.
We do not need to earn God’s blessing. We receive it through grace alone.
Likewise, hardships are not God’s retribution.
When Jesus was walking with his disciples and saw a blind man, the disciples asked, “Did this man sin, or was it his parents?” Jesus tells us it is not sin that causes bad things to happen.
We live in time. The immensity of time churns out lots of occurrences – some good and some bad. How vain, believing we have control (even through God) of circumstances. And how human.
God is not transactional, he is transcendent, independent of the material realm and beyond physical laws.
He is transcendent and he is immanent, with us in space and time and always accessible to each one of us.
God is much bigger, more wild and free, magnificent, and omnipresent than anything my small mind can imagine. Every time I think I have God pinned down and figured out, he escapes, and that’s a good thing.
Over time, the narrative of God I have knit together has changed as my faith has matured. I hope yours has too.
One day, my dream is that my faith will be as beautifully made as Bernie’s long-ago sweater, stunning in golds, tans, oranges, and browns, dyed with lichen gathered from the woods.
I know just the log where I can find the lichen.
You can find the places I link up here.