This year, Mother’s Day feels different to me because Kim’s daughter Katrina is due to give birth to our first grandchild next month; and so this year, Kim and I are focused on one mother-to-be above all others. This impending birth also means I am about to experience the minor miracle of becoming a grandfather even though I skipped the stage of being a father!
In a life filled with blessings, this latter one feels particularly wonderful even if it also means Katrina’s baby will have some knots in its family tree. Genealogy would be easier if there were no blended families. But I am fine with complexity, and I look forward to all the awesome complications that will surely follow this birth.
Today we heard Jesus describe himself as a vine and his followers as its branches; and this metaphor fits well, I believe, with a day when we focus on family. Each family can be seen as a branch on a divine vine that sustains us and connects us to the rest of humanity.
The metaphor of the vine and branches also reminds me of the Tree of Life – but not the one mentioned in the books of the Bible. Instead, I am thinking of the one described by Charles Darwin in his 1859 masterpiece “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” In it, Darwin shows how an ancestor species can be represented as a tree trunk out of which innumerable descendant branches arise.
Since the time of Darwin, biologists have shown that the entire biosphere with its wild and breathtaking diversity evolved from an original self-replicating organism 3.5 billion years ago. To grasp life as a diverse family comprised of bacteria, fungi, animals, and plants – a family tree so old, so massive, and so complicated as to elicit awe and humility – might help us better appreciate the First Nations idea of “all my relations.” We are related to all life on this amazing blue and green planet and not just in terms of interdependence. We also form one gracious family.
The Tree of Life has weathered many challenges in the last 3.5 billion years, including at least five mass extinctions in which huge numbers of species were wiped out. Biologists believe these catastrophes were caused by geological events like the eruption of a super volcano or the impact of a meteor. Despite mass extinctions, the Tree of Life has survived and flourished into new eras based on the innovations that flow from natural selection.
Jesus suggests that God cuts branches off the vine that do not bear fruit and prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. Biologists show how such pruning happens naturally over millions of years and in ways that allow life to withstand even the sharpest geological shocks.
But what about today? The rise of humanity as a super species during the last 10,000 years is seen by some scientists as a catastrophe. Since the discovery of agriculture in different parts of the globe 10,000 years ago, humanity has grown from a few million people to almost eight billion.
There has never been a large-bodied species as successful as homo sapiens. Alongside our domesticated animals, we now dwarf the numbers of any other mammal by a huge margin; and humanity’s success has now ushered in a sixth wave of mass extinctions as human economic activity destroys natural habitats and pollutes soil, water, and air.
But is this threat to the Tree of Life an appropriate topic for Mother’s Day? As young couples wait in hope for the birth of a child, are population explosion, habitat destruction, and mass extinction the subjects on which they want to reflect?
Perhaps not. But when I hear a passage about cutting branches off the vine, extinction is what comes to my mind — and it has ever been this way. Last April, I spoke about the first Earth Day in 1970, and how my main concern as a-then 13-year-old was the population explosion. In trying to figure out how to live as a teenager, my focus was on the macro level of global affairs.
Perhaps if I had been in a healthier space when I was 13, my focus might instead have stayed at the level of friends and neighbourhood. But even today as I happily anticipate becoming a grandparent, I place these feelings in the global context in which Katrina’s child and the rest of us will live.
This spring’s study group on the 1992 philosophical novel “Ishmael” has strengthened this trait. “Ishmael” is a reflection on the population explosion, and it discusses the stories about Adam and Eve from Genesis as ones that root the challenges of the human condition in the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago. I am thankful to Carla Janzen for bringing this book to our attention.
When civilizations based on agriculture first appeared 10,000 years ago, there were perhaps 5 million people. By the time of Jesus, the world may have had about 200 million people. When I was born, there were almost 3 billion. When “Ishmael” was published 35 years later, there were 5.5 billion. Today there are 7.8 billion; and the growth of population remains one of the key challenges of this moment.
I stumbled upon another of this moment’s challenges last week. Netflix tracks its clients’ viewing history; and being curious, I requested a download of this history. So, Netflix sent me a huge spreadsheet that listed all the movies and TV shows I have watched on Netflix over the last seven years.
I was surprised by shows about which I had forgotten. One of them was a series called “Babies,” which Netflix released last spring. Kim and I had watched the first two episodes; and even though we had enjoyed these documentaries on scientific research into newborns, infants, and toddlers, we had stopped watching. Seeing it listed on the spreadsheet twigged our memory and has now spurred us to watch the other episodes, partly in preparation for the birth of Katrina and Vinny’s baby.
The spreadsheet also offered a small glimpse into the current state of digital surveillance. Netflix is not the only company tracking its users. Spotify tracks every song we have ever streamed. Facebook tracks every post we have ever liked or shared. Visa tracks our purchases. Google tracks every webpage and every physical location we visit. Internet-based companies like these are creating minutely detailed profiles of everyone on earth; and in some ways, they understand our hearts and minds better than we do.
Given how challenging human society has become, some decide to forego parenthood. I am glad that Katrina and Vinny are not among this group even though I can understand those that are.
Regardless of our stance on parenthood, the question remains of how to sustain healthy families in such a rapidly evolving world. I am not surprised so many of us label our families as dysfunctional given the traumas most of our ancestors endured and the accelerating social changes we live within.
I pray that despite trauma, we will continue to become people who exhibit sacred values; people who will learn how to listen so our children will talk and how to talk so our children will listen; and people who follow the Golden Rule.
As for social problems like surveillance, habitat destruction, and population growth, my suggestion is to embed ourselves deeper into communities of faith. As people who glory in the wonders of the Tree of Life and who grapple with the human condition, we rely on one another. A community of faith like Mill Woods United might not seem like much when stacked up beside an electronically and economically connected society of 7.8 billion people. But even if there are just 100 of us, I find it radically easier to figure things out and effect change together than as an individual.
Communities of faith also help us educate our children in sacred story and the values of love; to reach out to neighbours in need; to celebrate and mourn the joys and trials of life; and to work with other people of goodwill for a world that has resolved the contradictions created by the discovery of agriculture 10,000 years ago. These contradictions may now seem to threaten the biosphere, but they have also created conditions for never-ending growth in knowledge and Spirit.
When Katrina’s baby grows up, I hope I am not labeled as Grampa Grouch. Probably, I will never stop being interested in the unfolding wonders of human society even when these lead to challenging problems. A helpful reminder, I believe, is found in words we heard today from the letter First John in which the author writes that perfect love drives out fear.
I focus on love and hope for the child that Katrina and Vinny are about to bring into this crazy world; and I pray we will continue to gather in community to understand as best we can what is happening and to figure out how we can respond in love.
We do not know what the next year, let alone the next 85 years will bring. But I know of no better place to face this brave new world than in communities of faith like Mill Woods United — ones that encourage healing and spiritual growth in the face both of challenging problems and of endless and gracious possibilities.
May it be so. Amen.