The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. Psalm 19:1-2
In our synthetic, walled-in, air-conditioned existence, where can we find the things of creation? We enter our office complexes, hunker down in cubicles lit by fluorescent lights, buy lunch two floors down in the cafeteria, take our kids to indoor playgrounds. For safety or convenience reasons, we even exercise indoors. When do we lift up our eyes to the hills if all we’re doing is lifting our eyes to websites and stoplights? When can we consider the lilies of the field if all we do is breeze past them on the interstate?
If our only exposure to the outdoors occurs during a brisk walk across the asphalt parking lot of Target, something is missing. Growth in our relationship with our Creator will be stunted, as we miss out on observing, valuing, and attempting to understand what is precious to Him.
What will it take to realize we are entirely dependent upon Him and His natural world to survive?
When will we celebrate God’s creativity and hear what He wants to say through His creation? What will it take to realize we are entirely dependent upon Him and His natural world to survive? “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).
The false sense of security provided by supermarkets and convenience stores sometimes keeps me from fully appreciating that I am sustained by Jesus’ powerful Word, and that in Him all things hold together. Whether or not we realize it, we are just as dependent upon God’s control of the natural world as people in Third World countries who may starve if a flood destroys their one field of crops.
Caroline Falconi, my sister-in-law, works as a program evaluator for organizations such as World Vision. She travels the world to discuss with the poor the challenges and problems they face. Several years ago as we were talking about the people she has met, I asked her about the Christians she’s met among the poor. Caroline told me she had noticed that the people who seemed to have the most intimate relationships with the Lord were those most intimate with the earth. “Each seed represents a possible future, so there’s this look on their faces when they plant and look at the rain.” She paused with a smile, seeming to recall that “look,” then continued. “They’re hopeful. They are utterly dependent upon the Lord for survival. If it doesn’t rain, their crops die. In many ways they have a much deeper faith than most North American Christians I’ve known.”
As one of those “North American Christians,” this stuck with me. Caroline wasn’t challenging me or trying to make me feel bad. She was responding to my questions honestly.
Her comment made me look at my life. Was I so protected from the elements that I lacked something in my faith? Was I anywhere near as intimate with Christ as the poor whom Caroline knew so well? Would getting in tune with the natural world help me know Him better? Did I need to dig in the dirt?
Just because most of us don’t have to till soil, plant wheat, and wait months before reaping the grain to make our bread doesn’t mean we aren’t dependent upon the Lord for it. But because I don’t personally appreciate the precarious weeks of no rain, the tedium of waiting, and the concern that if this crop doesn’t make it there won’t be any bread at all, I wonder if I am as grateful for my daily bread as I should be. Instead, like many, I just pick up a loaf at the 7-Eleven when I pay for my gas.
The Lessons of Nature
How do we live with growing appreciation and gratitude for Christ’s sustenance through the natural world? How do we experience God through intimate knowledge of His creation? We can start simply. Nurture some plants, tune in to the rustle of leaves. Watch the sunset tonight as the sky streaks rose and orange. Gaze at the moon. Listen for the first true night sound.
Tomorrow morning step outside and look to the upper branches of the silver maple tree growing in your backyard and read Sgt. Joyce Kilmer’s poem:
I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day / And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear / A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; / Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.
Long before Sgt. Kilmer, another poet noted the power of observing God’s creation:
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth by glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. (Psalm 96:11-13)
A Primer on God’s Character
Before we can join the rest of creation in singing praises to our God, we’ve got to get out into it! It shouldn’t be that unnatural. The human race was designed to live in a perfect garden with no other shelter than what God provided in the natural world. God allowed Adam and Eve to tend the garden and draw nourishment and enjoyment from it. Something in us today should be able to relate to that. In fact, how would mankind and nature relate today had sin not entered the picture? We get a glimpse of how life might have been in Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ’s kingdom still to come — a kingdom restored to God’s original vision, where the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, and the young lion with the calf, all in harmony (cf. Isaiah 11, NASB).
God allowed Adam and Eve to tend the garden and draw nourishment and enjoyment from it. Something in us today should be able to relate to that.
For the time being, there may not be perfect harmony in nature, but there is still beauty, power — and a message. “[W]hat may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20). A person who has never heard of God can’t excuse herself, feigning ignorance, because God reveals His eternal power and divinity through creation.
If God is revealing Himself to us through creation, we should listen! We should spend time with His creation and pay more careful attention. Observe. Make notes. Draw your own conclusions. Write your own psalm of praise based on what you observe as you sit before a stream, marveling at the minnows or laughing at the water bugs skimming across the surface. What connections might be made to the story of Christ walking on water? What of God’s creativity could be appreciated? What does He have to say to you? You will find out only when you step outside and go for a walk. Sit quietly. Watch. Sketch, perhaps. Wonder.
In Psalm 104, the psalmist sees nature as an opportunity to explode in both metaphorical and literal response to all that he imagined or observed. Read all of Psalm 104 and let the psalmist’s expressions inspire your own adaptation. Try processing that passage while on a hike, feeding a squirrel at a park, or simply watching the birds pecking away at your backyard birdfeeder (see verses 27-30). See if being in similar settings intensifies the energy of the poetry.
When my friend Sonya and her husband, John, read that entire psalm at the top of Yosemite Falls, she was struck with the way it made her look at nature as literally obeying God and fitting into His commands. Like Sonya, get out into God’s creation to read that psalm, then look around at the diversity of the natural world. Be amazed. If you feel so inspired, write a psalm of your own, a prayer with praise for who God is and what He is saying to you through His creation.
A Footnote to God’s Word
Another benefit of understanding and appreciating God’s creation is the light it casts on Scripture. After all, the psalmists weren’t scratching away at their manuscripts on the top floor of a seminary library. They were outside listening, smelling, and observing the world around them. Getting out in that world ourselves can illuminate their words in ways nothing else can.
The Bible was recorded in a predominantly agrarian world. There were cities, but people walked. There were businessmen, but they weren’t confined to air-conditioned offices. Thus we constantly read references to nature as metaphors, such as when we will “soar on wings like eagles.” Jesus, especially, built parables around the way His natural world works. He compared faith and His kingdom to a mustard seed and described the necessity of His death by reminding His disciples that a kernel of wheat must fall to the ground and die before it produces many seeds.
To appreciate how intimately the listeners or readers would have grasped these earthy comparisons, we must understand Christ’s parables in their historical context. But we don’t necessarily dismiss them and then come up with techno-inspired parables of our own. Just because the Bible was composed in cultures void of technology as we know it today doesn’t mean we have to update them by inventing current parables featuring smartphones and social media. Trees still grow. We still eat from the fruits of the fields. We are still dependent upon the natural world for our physical sustenance. That hasn’t changed in 2,000-plus years. I think God has a lot He wants to teach us through nature, and we are letting technology distract us from these messages.
As I understand the truth of how the Lord’s world works — planting seeds myself, let’s say, and understanding the “death” that produces growth — I am able to understand His parables without trying so hard. That’s why Jesus told parables. They brought clarity to confusing, deep truths. They should bring clarity to us, too. It will only help us familiarize ourselves more with the natural world.
The Gifts of Nature
Mary Pipher, Ph.D., author of “The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families,” wrote, “As adults, people remember three kinds of family events with great pleasure — meals, vacations and time outdoors.”
Camping involves all three! We have become avid campers, starting when Isabelle, our first daughter, was only 16 months old. We anticipate these events, even if our trip is merely an hour’s drive to a state park. Depending on where we go, we hike, splash in lakes or oceans, collect rocks or shells, and shiver or sweat inside our tent. The children recall these trips in great detail, and they often talk about their love for eating outside. While it doesn’t happen like clockwork, we do try to get outside a little bit every day and go on a “nature hike” once a week — with the exception of frigid winter days and the really gray, dreary, rainy days. We could go out in rain slickers and galoshes, but I guess I’m still a little wimpy.
I also go through various phases of self-education about the natural world, and I’ve witnessed how my personal enthusiasm for stargazing, bird watching, or flower or tree identification is all I’ve needed to sustain the interest of my kids.
Even if I didn’t read up on deciduous trees though, kids love raking their leaves into piles and jumping into them. They love digging for worms. They love watering plants and watching things grow. How much better they (and we) will understand the parable of the sower if they have personally plucked rocks and fieldstones from a freshly tilled garden plot!
My children and I have been transformed by appreciation for God’s creativity as we’ve examined bark, moss, and mold, admired snowy tree crickets, and picked apart hickory nuts. And we’re surely healthier for breathing in all that fresh air and chasing dragonflies.
We don’t need to be an environmentalist or naturalist to increase our appreciation of God’s creation. We don’t need a cabin in the woods or a cottage by the seashore. Even if all we do is periodically step outside and stare at the sky — even a tiny patch of sky — we will begin to appreciate that which God alone created. Try some of these ideas:
- Instead of watching Netflix or scrolling through Facebook tomorrow afternoon, load up the kids in a wagon, pack a snack, and take a walk!
- Keep a nature journal. Try sketching and adding watercolors later. Look up the names of everything you study, and write them out. Adam was given the task of naming the animals. Recognizing and remembering the names given to the things of creation can help us appreciate their intrinsic value.
- Go camping. Easy for me to say? Okay, so I love camping. I’ll admit it. I love torn jeans and hair up in a ponytail, no makeup, hiking, going to sleep surrounded by night sounds with nothing but thin nylon separating me from God’s creation. Who knows? God may use camping in your life also to help you feel more connected and dependent on Him.
- Small children love nature. Learn to love it from them. Dig in the mud. Watch an anthill. Hold a snail in your hand. Lie on a blanket and watch clouds float past. See how children may inspire you to notice more.
- Go for a 20-minute walk every day. Notice seasonal changes. Watch flowers bloom, flourish, fade, and develop seeds. Pay more attention as you go. It’ll do wonders for your figure, your health, and your appreciation of the Creator.
- Read books by nature lovers such as Annie Dillard, James Herriot, and Gerald Durrell. Their personal passion may ignite your interest in animals and living things in ways you never thought possible! And because your ultimate goal is to listen to God through them, you’ll have an added dimension to your own journeys into the natural world.
- Read Job 39, then visit a zoo to appreciate the wide range of animals God created. Wonder at His creativity. What can you learn from the wallaby, emu, or lemur?
- Consider gardening at some level. If you’ve never gardened before, you can read books and talk with friends for ideas, but until you’re digging in the soil yourself, you’ll lack that firsthand knowledge of what God wants to say about Himself and about you.
- Pick a nature hobby. Bird watching, gardening, shell collecting, or rock collecting can encourage you to explore one area in more depth. As you learn more details about your special interest, you may find there is even more insight to gain.
- Plan a vacation that includes a natural wonder you rarely see — geysers, hot springs, caves, mountains, waterfalls, canyons, icebergs, or oceans.
- If possible, install a birdbath or hang a birdfeeder this winter — or any time of year — and keep it filled. Keep a log of the birds that visit.
- Eat outside whenever possible. Pile on a sweater or coat in the fall. Throw a blanket on the ground if you don’t have a picnic table.
- Open the windows in your house when weather permits. Roll down the windows of your car.
- Leave the house a few degrees cooler in winter and a few degrees warmer in summer to get more in tune with what’s happening outside the house. Unnaturally high or low indoor temperatures from heaters and air conditioners can give us a false sense of security, making us forget our very real dependence on God.
- Admire your family, your precious children, in their beauty and complexity. Gaze upon a sleeping baby. Marvel at a young swimmer diving into a pool. God created mankind. And it was very good.
Ann Kroeker is author of “Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families” (David C. Cook) and “On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts” (T.S. Poetry Press, 2014). She can be reached through her website, annkroeker.com.