Andrew Peterson: Present in Creation—Part 2

andrew peterson

“The presence of God is real. All of creation proclaims his handiwork. But we must fight to pay attention.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Andrew Peterson discusses being influenced by Rich Mullins’ music, how caring for his land informs his interior life, and the thrilling promise of the new creation. 

You describe The God of the Garden as an attempt to “wake up” the reader. How does life change when you wake up to the realities that you’ve just described?

You’re more aware of the presence of God, and of our own telos—our own purpose—what it is that we’re here for. One of my favorite little anecdotes about lockdowns is that one of the top Google searches early in the pandemic was “Why are the birds so loud?” I just loved that. It makes me laugh so much because it’s like people who live in cities especially, when the traffic stopped and the airplanes were grounded, suddenly noticed the birdsong. Obviously, the birds hadn’t gotten any louder. It’s just that there was less noise to distract people.

That’s a lot like what I’m getting at. The presence of God is real. All of creation proclaims his handiwork. But we must fight to pay attention to the birds—the elements of real life so often obscured by what feels so urgent or important. Because there’s a lot that’s going to crowd that out.

“The first thing is to recognize that God’s present, and this rich life with him in the real world is what we were made for.”

It’s not like God is more present when I’m in the woods than when I’m on a tour bus and I hear the diesel engine generator rumbling. But it’s a little easier to hear the birds. In our modern American West, it’s become easy to spend a lot of our time looking at screens and indoors. But if we do we end up missing out on one of the clearest voices of God’s presence and his truth: his creation. How that changes you is up to the Holy Spirit, but the first thing is to recognize that God’s there and present, and this rich life with him in the real world is what we were made for.

Trees are a very important element in your book, tracing the importance of that image in the Bible. Tell us why trees are so important to, well, ground the book. (Pardon the pun.)

When I first started kicking around this idea and was writing chapters without really knowing what the point was, I began gravitating toward this tree idea. That was when I happened upon a podcast series that Tim [Mackie] and Jon [Collins] of BibleProject did about trees in Scripture. Man, it was riveting. I never take notes, but I made myself sit in my office and just scribble while they were talking. I thought, This is going to be cool. I can make the book a combo memoir and an exploration of the theology of trees. 

Once I started really getting into the book, I realized that I was not a theologian. I’m no Bible scholar. I’m a songwriter and a storyteller. But I loved the idea that you could trace the entire story of the Bible—from Eden to Calvary to the New Jerusalem—through the lens of “trees.”

Eventually, I pulled back from trying to do that in order to trace my own personal redemptive history through trees in my own life. But I was able to superimpose the same idea in my story and look at the different moments where there were significant encounters with the Lord in my own story or changes or happenings or sometimes simply wounds. I realized how often trees were silent witnesses, standing in the background of most of those memories. I was really intrigued by that.

“The presence of God is real. All of creation proclaims his handiwork. But we must fight to pay attention.”

Sure enough, by the time I finished the book, I remembered more and more moments from my life—the climax of which was from a visit to the garden of Gethsemane outside of Jerusalem. It was one of the most profound encounters with the truth that I’ve ever had. I didn’t think of it as being framed by trees until I started working on this book, and it struck me that at that pivotal spiritual experience I had been surrounded by 1,500-year-old olive trees.

It was fun to shake down a bunch of those memories and try to understand God’s abiding presence. In the book, I found myself wrestling with times I felt convinced he was not present, that he had abandoned me. In hindsight, as I connected more deeply with what was going on around me in creation, I could see that that wasn’t true. Not at all. 

How might that impact how we do ministry or life together in church community?

The first thing that pops into my head is that I hope this book gives pastors and people in ministry permission to acknowledge their own suffering and their own brokenness. I didn’t really mean for this book to go dark into those, but I kind of felt led there, led to the stories that I tell about my own seasons of desolation. Those are far enough removed from me now that I can see the story arc, the work that God was doing in it all. I don’t think it’s a good idea to share some stuff when you’re in the thick of it. You’ve got to be patient, to wait for some kind of closure. You must wait until you can recognize God as the hero of your story, not yourself.

My pastor in Nashville, Thomas MacKenzie, died this summer in a car accident. One of the things that meant so much to me in our friendship was how frank he was about his own need for counseling. He had a Christian therapist, and he talked from the pulpit about the fact that he needed help. He was open about his own sin. That speaks volumes to me because he was never the hero of his own story. That’s a principle—that honesty, that simplicity—that I would hope church leaders cling to.

“There’s a lot of death to self that ends up adding to the organic matter out of which the fruit of the Spirit grows.”

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Frederick Buechner has been a big shaping force in my thinking about that in his book Telling Secrets, which every pastor ought to read. That authenticity was not something I encountered until later in life. All I know is that I am hungry for leaders who are frank, like what first attracted me to the writing of Rich Mullins. When I see that somebody really knows what it’s like to be stuck in a cave and to wrestle with their own sin, even their own disbelief, and then when they come out on the other side with stories about having survived, and how Jesus was present and kindly shepherded them through it—I am all ears. I want to hear all of that.

I don’t know if that’s a great answer to your question, but that’s what I would hope to see. Honesty. A few people who read the book have expressed gratitude for the parts of the story that I was most embarrassed to tell. 

It strikes me how the honesty of that spirit mimics what happens in any natural system. There’s absolute beauty, and there’s absolute decomposition. Becoming more rooted does seem like a way of learning to tell the truth.

I think so. I suppose I should say, I hope so. But it’s hard. The truth is hard. Honesty is hard. Staying, working, it is all hard. It’s hard to be in community. There’s this romanticized version of it that we read about in Wendell Berry. I grew up in little towns like the one he writes about. I want to be like, Nope, Wendell, not all small-town people are the way they are in your books

I’ve played music with many of the same people for more than two decades. That is a lot of water under the bridge. A lot of forgiveness has happened among us. And there’s a lot of baggage. Every year we sift through some wounds, and there’s a lot of real celebration and joy and the fact that the gospel is the thing that has brought us together, the thing that we keep telling together.

“Ultimately, our fear—which is where many of our temptations come from—is a lack of trust that our Provider is going to provide.”

It’s a profound picture to me of life in Christian community. We are brought together not just because we are buddies, but because we choose to try to tell the story together. It would have been easy to break away from it many times over the years, but there’s something about the longevity of it, the fact that we are as rooted as we are to each other. This way of telling the story that has created this beautiful garden. Mercy has grown between us.

In that sense, yes, I am trying to live a life where I am rooted to a place in a way that removes my ability to up and vanish when things get hard. I fight through and get to the other side and experience flourishing. Like you just described, in all of life, you always see decomposition and death. The healthiest ecosystems look like that. And so I would guess there’s a lot of death to self that ends up adding to the organic matter out of which the fruit of the Spirit grows. 

That message feels so blessedly different from the mediated, screen-oriented, consumptive spirituality that seems to be passing for Christianity and thriving in our culture. How do we cultivate the small, the meaningful and the deeply rooted in the face of these cultural dynamics that sometimes feel overwhelming and can be (because they “work”) so unbelievably tempting?

I think a lot about this. With our work in The Rabbit Room, we live in the tension between growth and rest. Anybody who gardens knows that both are required for a healthy garden. In this nonprofit business where we publish books and have programs and have employees, we’ve got to keep the lights on. That means we must live in that tension between the two, making real choices. We choose smallness for the sake of community, and we believe that rest is a very countercultural thing. We are determined in The Rabbit Room to live in opposition to the mad rush to grow at all costs.

But still, there are times when we get swept up in the machine and find ourselves exhausted, asking how we got into whatever situation has us all tangled up. Why did we say yes to this and that and that? It’s tricky.

“In the end the [things of earth] are simply portals through which my deeper understanding of the nature of God’s love comes.”

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There is no simple answer to that question. I think the only answer to some of these questions is to just keep talking about them. Keep rededicating ourselves to asking. To depending on the Holy Spirit.

One of the great joys of my late 40s is learning the joy of saying no to things. It’s become my new favorite hobby. So much of the franticness that we find ourselves in is because of some combination of fear and ambition. Ultimately, our fear—which is where many of our temptations come from—is a lack of trust that our Provider is going to provide. It’s a daily thing.

One of the best ways to live in a better way is to engage with the given world. To find practices in your life that literally put you in contact with creation. It changes the way you think, the way you live.

“You must decide to be where you are. And push back at the cultural lies that the only way to be happy is to be elsewhere.”

It turns out grapevines don’t grow great in Tennessee. I now know this, but it wasn’t that long ago that I was on our property looking at wild, tangled grapes, knowing that I needed to prune them, standing out there with my clippers in hand, trying to learn how to appropriately prune a grapevine on YouTube. As it turns out, grape pruning is super violent. It basically looks like you’re killing the tree.

And then I read the gospel of John, where Jesus talks about pruning his vine. How he’s going to take away the branch that bears no fruit, so that the other branches can bear good fruit. And that’s not just a metaphor, you know what I mean? There’s more happening than just a Sunday school spiritual application. Jesus made grape vines. He thought them up. And so for him to give us the gift of this created world that is at once a perfect metaphor for the way he’s working on us and shaping us into his likeness. Pruning us, even as we prune the vines.

“We are brought together not just because we are buddies, but because we choose to try to tell the story together.”

There’s this rhyme that happens that is profound. Life in this world is greater than the sum of its parts. I think that by cutting ourselves off from those experiences, from actually growing, actually touching tree bark, and plunging your hands into the dirt to grow something, we’re actually cutting ourselves off from one of the key ways we can understand the mind and the heart of the God who made it all. 

For somebody who lives perhaps in a highly suburban or urban context, and is unsure how they are going to apply all this, what would you say? Where can they start to better engage the creation in this way?

It’s funny, I’m so perpetually discontent. I’m like a classic American—I love where we live, and as soon as I visit a friend who lives in the middle of a cool city, I’m like, “Oh man, I would trade it all to live in the city.” You must decide to be where you are. And push back at the cultural lies that the only way to be happy is to be elsewhere.

“I hope this book gives pastors and people in ministry permission to acknowledge their own suffering and their own brokenness.”

If you are a person who lives in a high-rise or in an urban situation, there are wonderful ways to flourish there. Cities are good and beautiful. I think some of the most beautiful parks that I’ve ever seen are in cities. Central Park is one of the prettiest places I know. I don’t think that you have to live in the countryside to do what I’m talking about. To learn the names of the trees on your street, to pay attention to the birds that come to the feeder—for that matter, to pay attention to the names of your neighbors. To learn—it’s still part of God’s creation. And most of us can at least put a potted plant on a windowsill.

I think it starts small. It’s not so much a change in where we are as a change in the way we see where we are. 

What is it that you most want people to take from this message of yours?

The inescapable conclusion that God loves us. This book led me to believe that he does, in so many ways. That’s what it’s about, more than trees or urban planting, or even the garden where I have learned so much. Those things are all important things, but in the end they are simply portals through which my deeper understanding of the nature of God’s love comes. In the end, the love of God includes it. My hope is that when somebody closes this book, they’re able to take a deep breath, to believe that Jesus is for them and loves them. And then continue to see the world in which we are meeting God.