Big God, think little: a poem and reflection

The “environment” is not something separate from us, but we are intricacy and intimately part of it. What we do matters on a daily basis.

Photo by Joshua Michaels on Unsplash

“Think Little”

A blooming tree is a firework explosion
Frozen, perhaps only for a day;
The colorful display begins to fall,
Blown by the wind, or pulled by gravity
To the earth as every living thing.
It will not always be spring.
Who says we must be busy?
Let us dance and sing in the sun,
Humming like bumblebees among

Sweet fragrances of flowers,
Making vital contact with what is
Rich in meaning, luxury of beauty,
Work to which we are fitted,
And grace we have been given.

My poem “Think Little” is indebted to the same-titled essay by Wendell Berry. The writer-farmer of Kentucky makes a distinction with “Big Thought” in terms of responsibility and commitment:

[T]he discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.

A couple of caveats: Many examples of Berry’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, stress what he terms “the membership” as a community where people belong to one another. It is grossly misread to assert an individualistic, oversimplified, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethic in this essay. As scholar Matt McCullough writes in his article “Wendell Berry and the Beauty of Membership,” “[Berry] reject(s) the notion that you make your own identity rather than receive it.” His distinction with Big Thought can be read today as an overstatement. There are powers and principalities (Ephesians 6:12), such as systematic injustices like racism and sexism, that must be addressed by governments and other institutions, including faith communities.

In the proper context, I find it helpful to remember Berry’s overarching point that a political movement, like curbing human-induced climate change, requires individual engagement. This essay’s prime example is that advocating for the environment must be partnered with cultivating a vegetable garden. The “environment” is not something separate from us, but we are intricacy and intimately part of it. What we do matters on a daily basis.

The same is true for the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

What we say when we say “God” is certainly a big thought — more than we can imagine. I see creation’s beauty as less of a static abstract – like Keats argues, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” — and more of a changing dynamic that is both admirable and relatable. Cultivating this relationship is a faithful act of the imagination. The blooming tree is beautiful; I, too, have seasons in life. I am like a bumblebee, not merely busy, but present, not just buzzing but pollinating right here in this moment. God is eternal and beyond vast; we are co-creators, active and engaged with the gifts around us, which is itself a gift. Aren’t the flowers sweet?

In terms of my poem, I was inspired most by Berry’s conclusion. The essay ends with the words of Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux who had a vision as a child: “I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and father. And I saw that it was holy.”