Sunday, May 10, 2015

God's Economy: Generational Investment

  Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
  (Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Wendell Berry)

It’s planting season here in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been planting in my yard and in Exton Park, a nearby habitat where I sometimes lead bird walks or help with the Weed Warrior group I helped form. 

In the park, I've been working with friends to plant ferns, wildflowers, native shrubs and trees.

In my own yard, I’ve been moving oak seedling and dogwoods, checking on pawpaw seedlings from several years ago, trying to envision our little grove of trees decades from now, when the new seedlings shoot past the aging stand of locusts.

While I work in the park, I listen to the birds around me: Baltimore orioles whistling to their mates, a vociferous brown thrasher singing from the top of a tree.

At home, house wrens follow me, their bubbling song both complaint and celebration. After starting a nest in every bird house in the yard, the pair have settled in a house hanging from a sagging branch, just above a stick pile left for their enjoyment along the rotting fence.

A pair of northern flickers have been working for days excavating a hole in a half-dead locust tree. There are plenty of holes to choose from, but it seems each year they make a new one. This year I saw their little dance of agreement the day they decided on the perfect spot, and I’ve watched as they’ve taken turns drilling deeper and deeper into their new home. For a day or two all I could see were tail feathers shaking and occasional wood chips flying out. Now the hole is done, and the wild mating calls announce their intent: soon there will be eggs to guard, and then baby birds crying plaintively for food.

This time of year it seems as if all creation is intent on forming the next generation. On Wednesday, carrying my buckets for water for new plantings in Exton Park, I paused to see what a dad and his small children were watching so intently in the little creek flowing from pond to wetland. A large brown snake was coiled among the grasses, and while we watched, another came swimming toward it and the two intertwined, then slithered out of view.

On Thursday, our birding group stopped to see what was causing a ripple in a wetland pond, then watched in fascination as two large snapping turtles came into view and began roiling the water in a strange, muddy water ballet.

In my yard, chipping sparrows carry wisps to a hidden spot in a misshapen spruce, while chickadees and house finch hurry to claim the bird houses abandoned by the wrens.

Generational investment, for most creatures, is innate, instinctive, almost automatic. Procreation is triggered by length of day, change of temperature, availability of certain foods. Parenting is determined by sex and species: turtle moms lay their eggs, then swim away. The babies are on their own. Northern water snakes (those brown snakes I saw in the creek) give birth to live young, 8 to 30 at a time. The babies swim off as soon as they’re born and the mother is done for another year.

For birds it varies by species: baby geese and ducks are ready to follow their parents just hours after they’re born. Baby raptors may stay in the nest for weeks, then need some intensive coaching before they’re able to feed themselves. I’ve watched osprey parents diving for fish while their young circle behind them, crying for food, then seen the parents coaxing the next generation to take the plunge themselves.  I first saw the lesson take place near Sanibel Island, Florida, then again on the Northeast River, in coastal Maryland, and again on Marsh Creek Lake, not far from my home. Same begging young, same coaxing parents, same breathless wait as the first brave fledgling plunges downward for the first self-caught fish.

There are occasional exceptions to the deeply embedded parenting process. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so occasional wrens, warblers or other small birds may find themselves parenting a baby bird that eats more than usual and doesn’t move on at exactly the right pace. Maternal mammals sometimes adopt and care for young from other species.  

But even those exceptions demonstrate the deeply embedded pattern of care each species is hard-wired to give.

Except humans.

As I garden, listen to birds, watch baby bunnies appearing, I find myself thinking about generational investment from a human point of view.

Children? Yes, no, later?

Our options for choice go far past the obvious.

We’re the only species that can decide to plant trees. Or not.

Pave over fields. Or not.

Drain aquifers, strip mountain tops, spray our food with neurotoxins.

We can choose to live in the moment, pocket the profit, forget the future.

We can choose to invest in our own offspring: their immediate happiness, their immediate safety, their immediate future, with no regard for the children of others.

We can choose to invest in a broader way: in the lives of generations that follow us, known and unknown, near and far. In sustainable practices, just policies, accessible education, enduring beauty.

Or not.

Today is Mother’s Day.

It’s the day we share those expensive Hallmark Cards we remembered to buy and celebrate the mothers still with us.

It’s the day we grieve the mothers we’ve lost, or never knew, the children we never see, or never had, or lost too soon.

And it’s the day we give thanks for our children, those who came in the usual way, or in other ways: adoption, marriage, extended family, friendship.

Turtles do fine never meeting their mothers.

Birds enjoy two parents for a month or two, then they’re on their own.

But the truth is that for humans, one parent isn’t enough. Or two. Or three.

Some years ago, Search Institute assembled a list of "building blocks of healthy development—known as Developmental Assets—that help young children grow up healthy, caring, and responsible." I often referred to Asset #3 in our youth ministry training sessions: 
"Other Adult Relationships | Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults." 
What Search Institute's research found was that even a young person with strong support from two loving parents needs input and support from three or more additional adults: caring teachers, youth leaders, relatives, family friends.

Our own kids have talked about how important their extended family has been in shaping their faith, careers, mental health, social skills.

But some kids don’t have strong, caring extended families.

And some kids live in places where the embedded social structures undermine the best efforts of every caring adult.

Scripture talks much about generations: the need to teach our children and their children, but “children” widely interpreted: the next generation. Those who come behind us.   

Read through the letters of the early church and it becomes clear that for Paul and John, those who followed were in many ways their children, sometimes referred to as “beloved children,” even more as “little children.”

Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2: “we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” And in Galations 4: “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” Amazing images from a fast-moving man like Paul. 

I’m thankful for the mothers and fathers in my life. My own parents were a dim absence, gone before I was two. My paternal grandmother took the place of both, teaching me to read, to cook and sew, to climb trees and grow tomatoes.

But there were many others: a strings teacher who invested far more than the job required in helping me love and understand music. A camp director who gave me a first glimpse of grace and generosity and steady hard work toward a distant goal. Uncles who taught me to dance, to drive, to survive conversations with scary adults I didn’t know. Teachers who taught me to write, to think, to weigh ideas carefully and follow them out to their logical conclusions. Compassionate, gracious in-laws who continue to teach me about love and family, about how to continue learning, serving, changing.

At a recent retreat, our speaker Paula Rinehart spoke of her own uneasy relationship with her mother, and the way God gave her many mothers, women whose photos she framed and set on a table by her bed to remind her of how well she’s been parented.

I am thankful today for my own many mothers. And many fathers.

For those I will never know or name whose investments of time and love have kept this part of the world lovely, who made my education possible, who imagined a way of life that has made my own life possible.

A Greek proverb says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Trees grow faster than we think.

So do children.

Our best investments carry no guarantees.

Yet, even as I write this, my youngest daughter appears with a cup of coffee, a small vase full of flowers, a promise of cinnamon buns heading to the oven.

Beyond my window, birdsong fills the air.

This is the fourth in a series on God’s Economy. Ealier posts: 
Other Mother's Day posts: