“When you are disturbed, do not sin……put your trust in the Lord.”- Psalm 4:4…5
Some years ago, I worked in plant community ecology, an area of study that looks at the various factors—soil type, slope, elevation, water table, climate, etc.—that influence the flourishing of particular groupings of plants and trees. One of the factors considered is disturbance, meaning anything that alters the balance of the system. For a plant community, it could be a natural, regularly occurring disturbance such as a stream temporarily overflowing its banks in response to a rainfall. It could be a quick, hot fire caused by a lightning strike.
When a stream overflows, the floating fruits of the walnut trees that have dropped into the stream are lifted over the banks and deposited on the moist, fertile soil they need to germinate. The stream cleanses itself, as silt that has eroded into the stream and clouded the waters is also lifted over the banks and deposited on the floodplain. The seeds of a longleaf pine will germinate only on bare soil that has been cleared of accumulated duff and debris after a lightning fire.
Just as disturbance occurs naturally and regularly in plant communities, it occurs naturally and regularly in human communities. For example, births and deaths are disturbances that temporarily alter the balance of a human community. Conflicts and disagreements are another kind of disturbance in a human community. In healthy communities, plant or human, disturbances are usually temporary and may carry some benefit for the community, with the system quickly returning to a balanced state or beginning a new cycle of life.
The disturbances in the natural communities don’t seem to bother us much. We accept them as part of the cycle of nature. On the other hand, disturbances in our human communities seem to generate a lot of fear and anxiety. We respond quickly to intervene in the conflict or to suppress the disagreement as a way to reduce our fear and anxiety.
Intervening in a natural system can turn a relatively minor disturbance into something catastrophic. If a stream has been deepened or straightened to keep it from overflowing on adjacent land, it will flow more forcefully and cause erosion and flooding on land downstream. If natural lightning fires are regularly put out to protect adjacent property, duff and debris will build up on the forest floor until the extra fuel causes the next fire to rage out of control.
Likewise, certain ways of intervening in response to disturbances in human communities can have catastrophic results. Gary Moon, author of numerous books on spiritual formation says, “The essence of sin is the fear that God does not have our best interest at heart. The result of sin is to take matters into our own hands, to be in control, to obey ourselves, and to move away from an apprenticeship of conversation, communion, and connection to the Master.” Sometimes a disturbance in the human community results in this kind of fear and the misguided impulse that we need to take things into our own hands. There is nothing more catastrophic for a human community than moving away from our connection to the Triune God and failing to trust that God is present and active in the midst of any disturbance, large or small.
Friends, we can look all around us, near and far, and see a range of disturbances and fear-motivated interventions in our human communities. We may even find ourselves involved in some interventions. As followers of Jesus, I wonder if we can respond by moving closer to him. I wonder if we can take a deep breath and cycle through the disturbances, intervening only with the compassion and creativity that flows from trust in God rather than with fear and control.
Pastor Jane Almon, Mt. Hermon UMC (Graham, NC)