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The Body of Christ

There is no literal meaning for the Body of Christ, not in the normal sense of "literal." It has actual existence, but not literal. Let me illustrate what I mean. In the spring of 1995, during her senior year of high school, I drove my younger daughter, Amanda, to a women's college back east for a "get-to-know-us" visit. As we were driving through the mountains of Virginia, I was looking out of the side window of our rental car at the forests blanketing the slopes off to our left. They stretched for miles in that wonderful, soft kind of way that distinguishes the Appalachians from the Rocky Mountain and Sierra Nevada ranges out West. There are very few places in these older, more weathered mountains that rise above timberline, the elevation above which trees do not grow. So the forests of the eastern United States are more like that velvety covering on a young male deer's antlers. They hide the hardness of the land, making the trees stand out instead of the geology, more of a botanical majesty than the frozen violence of tectonic force.

As I was taking all of this in, the forest that had been softening the world to my eyes suddenly spoke to me without words. It said, "Look how I move over the land!" And it was. In geologic time, it was moving across the landscape the way a cloud moves across the sky. In my time-lapse vision, the trees in their relentless rising and falling, their growing and decaying, washed over the mountains in a continuous cascade of roots, branches, and leaves. And though the forest comprised a multitude of arboreal entities, these individual trees were but cells of a larger organism - the forest.

I do not know what varieties of trees were commingling there, but each of the species was a forest unto itself. They were passing through each other like pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk, affected but unchanged in their unique identity. Each oak tree was a cell in the vast, sprawling organism called Oak. It had its own direction and its own pace, but was seemingly unaware of the pine trees whose orientation and timetable were so different. And the others - all of them were grazing over the rounded tops of these ancient mountains, the way a starfish crawls over the mounds of sand on the ocean floor, extracting minerals, depositing humus, and breathing oceans of oxygen and water into the air, all the while scrubbing it clean of carbon dioxide with its ciliated, alveolar leaves and dendritic needles.

What kind of body can spread itself so thin, whose individual cells seem independent from the whole? What mind governs its movements, tells it how to grow, how to die, and how, through the spraying of its seeds, to comport itself across rugged terrain and the periodicity of time? Surely, there must be some ligament of intelligence, a connecting will as invisible as the air itself, a common pulse measured in decades, a single eye fixed in a faraway stare, its brooding vision blanketing time the way forests blanket the mountains.

Each tree is like a glowing ember in the fire of this unitary vision. It grows bright and dull with alternating breath, counted, not by the short attention span of humans, but by the change of seasons. Whatever life moves through it moves through all of it, even those members carried far off by the wind or on the shanks of animals. Regardless of how far, the one pulse and the one breath fan the embers in unison, drawing all together into one body, each flame resonant with every other.

Sometimes, complete absorption can look like indifference. This is how it is with trees. They are utterly filled with forest-consciousness. Their physical location, the relative state of their health, their size, shape, and every other noticeable characteristic, are inconsequential. They can live or die, thrive or suffer, and it does not matter. Because their breath is the one breath, the flame of life in them is the one flame. That which makes them what they are cannot be harmed. It may seem to disappear for a time, the duration of which would exceed human comprehension, but it will always return. If not here, then someplace else. This is how it is with trees.

Do you see how hard it is to speak of the Body of Christ? What can possibly be said? What do trees talk about amongst themselves? Do they discuss the ins and outs of Forest-ness? And if they could speak, and if they could speak to us, how would they match their tempo to ours? Each word would last a lifetime for the average human, much more their silence. And this is how it is with the members of the Body of Christ. That which really matters, that which makes us one in Christ, cannot be spoken. It cannot be analyzed. It cannot even be experienced, not in the way the world serves up its stimulations. And yet it is always there, closer than our breath - a background event - a background that looms large, that overshadows, hopefully to shrink everything in the foreground, reaching over us all, going before us like the crest of a wave precedes the wave itself.

This is how it is with the Body of Christ. How much more complex than a forest, how much wider in its expanse, how much larger its lifespan? Where forests cover mountains of Earth, what is the geography of spirit, what map could describe it? What timberline could contain it? Or is it that this forest only grows above the timberline? And yet it longs to push past it, until all of Earth is made habitable for the sons and daughters of God.

This is how it is with the Body of Christ.