[Song of Solomon 2:8-17] Earlier this summer my family and I spent six days canoe camping. Over the past few years, we’ve been working our way up to spending a whole week in the backcountry. It always takes a few days to adjust to being so exposed to wind, sun and rain. Our six days this year were what I would call “honest.” By that I mean the weather was a mixture of rain and sun (with a few odd thunderstorms); the bugs were not unbearable, but they were present; our food was good, but we had to hang it in a tree at night; our sleeping bags and tent stayed dry, but we had to pack them carefully, carry them over the portage and paddle them across the bay.
It was also an honest week in the sense that, while the lake sparkled with sunlight and the haze of the Milky Way was visible in a sky unspoiled by city lights, we knew we weren’t alone. We often saw others on the lake. We found garbage strewn around the perimeter of our campsite: clumps of toilet paper, bits of glass, shreds of candy wrappers, tangled fishing line. One afternoon I followed a trail of old grocery packaging into the bush. I found an entire bag of someone’s garbage. The labels were yellowed. The plastic was dull and torn. Rodents had picked through everything. The mess looked like it had been there since the spring or maybe even last year. Finding it was one of those experiences we call a jolt of “reality.”
Those of us who go camping, those of us who paddle rivers, those of us who go for walks in wooded parks, we do so for many reasons, but one reason surely is that we are drawn to something we can only describe as ‘beauty’. Even a gnarled pine is luminous when the sun strikes it. Even the weeds of the country-road ditch are torches of tranquility in the right time of year. The natural places we love envelope us in a wholeness, in a web of relationships in which each living thing, the non-living things too, has its place.
The German forester Peter Wohlleben is fond of describing how trees communicate and feel. He also describes how trees and fungi partner together. Fungi form remarkable underground networks of small fibers, the stuff you rip apart when you kick through the forest floor. These networks sometimes span acres. Some fungi can be harmful to trees, but others are quite beneficial. They fend off pests, for instance. Some trees use these fungal networks to carry out rudimentary communication. They can even use them to share nutrients. In turn, the trees provide food for the fungi. (Check out this documentary for a visual version of many of the ideas Wohlleben writes about.)
In the natural world everything seems to have a place. Many of us are drawn to this wholeness, this beautiful relatedness, this placedness. In the natural world we encounter a vast number of relationships more innocent than our own. The loon isn’t self-conscious about the way it catches and eats fish. The woodpecker doesn’t seem to care about what the kingfisher might think of its menu choices. The fungus and the spruce work out their relationship directly. The water grinds the granite into sand without managerial oversight.
The appearance of a grocery sack full of garbage seems to put all this at risk. The same is true for the communities of which we are a part. The garbage reminds us of how fragile so many good things are. It reminds us how little we can do. It reminds us how easily trust is misplaced—whether in other users of parks, in colleagues, friends or even in priests and pastors.
Garbage shows up. Others create it; we create it. It makes us wonder what keeps our communities together. What keep them from flying apart? Why not just guard our little sanctuaries of solitude? Why do we share when someone will take advantage of generosity? Why do we hope when so many seem inconsiderate? Why do we have faith when the garbage piles up? Why do we invest in anything beyond ourselves?
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved,
be like a gazelle
or a young stag on the cleft mountains.
Ancient Hebrew poetry might seem to be a strange place to look for an answer to these questions about why we would look beyond ourselves. Ancient erotic Hebrew poetry, like the Song of Songs seems even stranger.
It can be fun to get into the nitty gritty of this part of scripture, especially if you like to parse innuendo and metaphor, what with all the stags, foxes, lilies and assorted fruits. What catches my attention today, though, is simply the fact that this long poem remains a part of our biblical canon at all. Various theologians have tried to excise the book. Listen to another few lines:
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard on our land.”
The Song of Songs is full of little uncertainties, notice some of the footnotes, yet we can be entirely certain that it is about beauty and desire, about mutual longing, about love.
In what is probably the most famous passage about love in the Bible, Paul says that faith, hope and love abide, but that the greatest of the three is love. In I John we read that “whoever does not love abides in death.” There too we read that “love is from God” and that “whoever does not love does not know God.” To hear these New Testament writers say it, we would imagine that love is something we must muster. We imagine a love that is painful, that takes work and effort. That surely is a type of love, but so is the older Hebrew sort—the love symbolized by figs and vines, by fragrance and the sound of a loved-ones voice. That is a love that draws and attracts. It is an elemental love, a prehistoric thing.
In the early 1970s the Christian rocker Larry Norman put out a song called “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” If you don’t have a memory of Larry Norman, picture a guy with long blond hair, chopped straight across the front. He played a jangly, acoustic guitar and sung in high-pitched vocals. What Larry Norman wanted to do was convince skeptical Christians that rock-n-roll could be put to good use. He mocked parents who believe that the music would make their kids carry switch-blades or do drugs or burn their draft cards or burn college campuses or, even, wear tight pants. He would mock preachers who talked about the terrible things you could hear if you played Led Zeppelin backwards. For Larry Norman, rock-n-roll was an art form that could be used by the devil or by Jesus. To him rock-n-roll was a neutral thing. It was a basketball tossed between opposing forces—claim it for good if you can.
The elemental love of the Song of Songs isn’t like that. It isn’t a cultural product that needs to be claimed somehow for Jesus. It is not up for grabs.
Now it is true that our desires can mislead us. That is the reminder of the opening chapter of James. Someone’s desire for ease results in garbage left at what should be a pristine campsite. A bishop’s desire to save face results in hiding abuse. It is true, our hearts are not always to be trusted.
Even so, our being drawn to beauty is no neutral thing. Love, desire, beauty—they are God’s gifts. They are the glue that holds us together. They energize our common work. These gifts of God that stand against the forces of chaos, waste and exploitation. Faith, hope and love are at the heart of our faith—but the greatest is love. We love people, places, cultures, ideals, memories. We are drawn to these things beyond ourselves and our self-interest. Listen again to the biblical, yes, the biblical poet:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come my away.
0 my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
As we contemplate a summer’s end and a change in the pace of our lives, the ancient Hebrew poets, enamored as they are with their beloved, go before us in celebration of the goodness of God’s creation. They celebrate the fragrance of the world, the voices of those they love. They turn and beckon us to follow them. They encourage us to celebrate the things and the people we love—all part of God’s good creation. They encourage us to celebrate this experience of being drawn to care for things beyond ourselves. These attachments, these lines of love and connection, they are good. They are from God. And toward God they point us.