Watching grass grow isn't usually a description of inspiring activity; but that's exactly what I've been doing for the past six months. I've been watching a pale-green film of new grass spread over burned-out hillsides that, last summer, looked like scorched herds of downed elephants. I've been watching a promise being kept.
Last August, black smoke billowed from wildfires near my home, and high-leaping flames raced up hillsides baked by the worst drought in 50 years. Firefighters and newscasters uttered the words, "Out of control." I reached out to God in prayer, asking what could I hold on to to fight my fear. The line from the 23rd Psalm came to mind: "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." I was puzzled. What did green pastures have to do with protection from the fire? The answer came, Green pastures don't burn.
Even as a child, I loved thinking about the safe leading of lambs by a loving shepherd. As I realized that green pastures provide safe habitations for the flock, I became calmer. I felt assured that God's care was near. My prayers for protection included those who were fighting the fire.
Within a few days the fires were out. The cause was determined to be accidental, not an act of arson as had been feared. The fire had been fought intelligently and efficiently, so that no homes were lost and no one, including firefighters, was hurt.
I was grateful, certainly, but when I looked at the smoking hills and the seared California live oaks that had stood on those hills for hundreds of years, I got a lump in my throat.
A few weeks later, I walked in one of the burn areas with a biologist while I was taking a natural history course. Words such as "devastation," "destruction," and "waste places" were going through my mind with such intensity that I almost missed hearing the naturalist's words, "vitality," "viability," and "renewal." Where I saw a scene of total destruction - not one blade of grass was left - he saw the beginning of a cycle of growth.
He pointed to the crowns of the blackened oak trees, drawing our attention to new leaves already beginning to unfold. He explained how the bark of the oaks was naturally fire-resistant. Later that morning, in another part of the desert canyon, he walked up to a thriving tree that had been through a similar fire 50 years before, and, brushing his hand across the bark, showed us the soot that still remained, although the tree was unharmed. He spoke like a joyful poet reciting, as he predicted the great variety of native grasses and wildflowers that would be able to grow in the spring, thanks to the clearing-out properties of fire.
On this spring day, as I walk in the same burn area, I'm thinking about the word "expatiate." Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, used this word that means "to wander freely" when she wrote, "The divine law gives to man health and life everlasting - gives a soul to Soul, a present harmony wherein the good man's heart takes hold on heaven, and whose feet can never be moved. These are His green pastures beside still waters, where faith mounts upward, expatiates, strengthens, and exults" ("The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany," pg. 129).
I see lessons in the drifts of wildflowers that fling themselves up the hillsides, unencumbered by shadows or encroachment. I see parables in the plants, hinting at the vitality of the nowness of God's love for His creation. The new grasses are not hampered by rains that didn't come until two months ago.
I see the naturalist's vision - a promise kept.
I think of other times I've been brought low by pictures of destruction: collapsed towers, illegal accounting practices of large corporations, the threat of war, natural disasters, and the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. But today I see hope in the restoration of this hillside. I understand a little better that the Psalmist's green pastures are never destroyed. They are the presence of divine law that unfolds unquenchable life and harmony, no matter how bleak the evidence of destruction and deprivation seems.
With the same faith that the naturalist had when he saw wildflowers in the place of ashes, I see God, the tender Shepherd, leading all to the possibility of green pastures.
It's a promise God keeps.