“Start a Church” (Rev. Steve Blackmer)
When I was a boy, I was often dragooned into helping my dad clear trails and prune white pine trees on my Grandpa’s farm in Vermont. We reveled in the birch woods, rejoiced in the maple groves tapped for maple sugar, skied and snowshoed up and down the wooded ridges, camped up under trees and stars.
When I was seventeen, I lived in a log cabin for a year with my best friend, Sam. We heated our leaky 12 x 12 foot living space with firewood we cut, split, hauled, and stacked. I still consider it a miracle that we learned to use chainsaw and ax without maiming ourselves.
Part of my prayer life is to say thank you to every piece of wood — and the tree, land, and God from which it came — as I cut, carry, stack, and burn it. I usually forget.
My first spiritual revelation came sitting under a tree. Not the Bodhi tree that the Buddha sat under, but a Cedar of Lebanon growing in the cloister of a monastery in southern France. About 21 years old at the time, I had no language for understanding or describing the sense of transcendent union I felt at that moment, but I have never forgotten. A cone from that tree, gathered 40 years ago, sits with me as I write this.
As if by divine intervention, for I surely didn’t know enough to choose it, after college I stumbled into a job working in the forests of northern Maine. What heaven! From there, a master’s degree in forestry and forest ecology… and I have been working with, conserving, using, and loving, trees and forests all my life.
When, at the age of 53, I started seminary and began reading the Bible for the first time, I was so happy to find my beloved trees in those pages. Tree of Life. Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Trees that clapped their hands for joy! Tree that bears death — and opens the way to rebirth. Trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
I would sit in chapel, my eyes drawn to the thrifty young white pine out the south window and the majestic (sadly, now gone), sugar maple out the north window. “Why,” I wondered,” do we always sit inside when the glory of the world is outside? Why am I here?”
Every few months I would pause, be still, and ask, “What do you want me to do?”
A voice would whisper: “Start a church.”
And I would say, “No. I don’t want to start a church. I want to be outdoors.”
Six months later, “What do you want me to do?” “Start a church.” “No. I don’t want to start a church — I’m a woods-guy.”
Next year, same thing.
For ten years, I had tried to buy a piece of woods, like Leviathan, to sport with. To cut firewood, make trails, ski, walk, pray. To just be in. It never happened. Until, as if by divine intervention, the month after I graduated from seminary the piece of land I had dreamed of and tromped all over for a decade suddenly came on the market. Then the price dropped. A few weeks later, the price dropped again. We didn’t have any money — I’d been in school for three years, not working, our kids were in college. Poor as church mice. But, miraculously, the money showed up. We bought the land.
The first time afterward that I walked on that land — 106 acres that had just been devastated by logging — the voice came back.
“Start a church,” it said.
“Ohhhh, you mean, like a woods-church? I could do that.”