For Sabbath, April 2, 2016
Several years ago Brian Pendleton and I were hiking up from Summerland up to Panhandle Gap. We overtook a woman hiking alone, a good-sized pack on her back. She was stopped surveying the scenery, which is breath-taking there.
She was hiking the Wonderland Trail, all ninety miles and 20,000 feet of it. I guess you could say it was a “bucket list” kind of thing. She had always dreamed of hiking it. She had retired and now, at sixty-six, she was living her dream. She had allowed three full weeks for the entire circumnavigation. And at the rate she was going, she was going to need the whole time to complete the trip.
Brian and I headed on up the trail, climbing toward the Gap quickly leaving her way behind. From switchbacks we looked down at her inching up the trail, moving at a turtle pace, carefully placing her trekking poles, deliberately stepping, avoiding loose rocks.
She had told us her girls were going to join her for a short section. Friends were going to hike with her on another section. But for most of it, it was going be just she and the Mountain, and the trail and the woods and the tumbling creeks and the grey jays. Sunshine in the day—hopefully—and stars at night.
As Brian and I watched from our perch high above her we envied her. We were moving fast and light covering miles quickly. We were going to enjoy hot showers and soft beds that night, but we envied her those days on the trail. Day after day of grandeur, magnificence, wonder, awe. Even at the cost of carrying a pack, even at the price of moving slowly, it would be worth it.
One of the bits of hard-won wisdom among experienced backpackers is that it takes three days before you fully enter the experience of the out-of-doors. The first few days, you’re adjusting to your pack. You’re trying to find a comfortable arrangement of the pack on your back. You’re learning to load and unload your pack. It’s only on the third day that you begin falling into rhythm. You forget the pack and your legs and the effort and you find yourself engrossed in the beauty and the quiet, the magic and wonder of being part of the great outdoors.
Built into the very core of our faith as Adventists is a deep appreciation of nature. In the world I grew up in, a nearly universal Sabbath practice was a Sabbath afternoon walk. I grew up in Memphis. Far from mountains and oceans. There were no national forests near by. No national parks. Still almost every Sabbath, if the weather was nice, at some point in the afternoon we would head to a city park and walk trails, taste sunshine, and dream of wildness.
Adventists have long spoken of nature as God’s second book. (The Bible was the first book.) Biologists and astronomers were akin to theologians. They were students of the handwriting of God.
Nature remains prominent in our religion—we argue over geology with the same intensity that theologians in other eras debated the nature of Christ or the meaning of obscure Bible passages. In fact, our denomination has a special agency devoted exclusively to issues related to science and faith, with a particular focus on earth history, i.e. geology. It’s called GRI, the Geoscience Research Institute.
Our deep, theologically-rooted appreciation of nature is a natural bridge between our faith in God and the culture of our city (Seattle). Our neighbors love nature. So do we. Our neighbors have experienced wonder and awe in the same places we have—on the trails and peaks and beaches that are the natural treasure of neighborhood.
What does our theology—our belief in God—add to our appreciation of nature? What can nature teach us about God?
In the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, there is a classic story that begins as a typical argument about suffering. The hero of the book is a man named Job.
Job was a good man, widely respected for his integrity and generosity. On top of that he had been the wealthiest man in the region and received the respect that naturally flows toward those who enjoy the power of wealth. Then he lost everything. He lost his entire fortune—all of it, down to the last penny. Then he lost his children—all killed in a single mind-numbing catastrophe.
Why? He asked. What could he have possible done to deserve this?
Friends come to visit. After sitting with him for seven days, speechless in the face of his terrible losses, Job’s friends finally speak up. Life makes sense, they insist. Bad things come to those who deserve them. You must have done something to earn your bad fortune.
Job protested endlessly. He had not been a jerk. He had been honest, generous, faithful. God punishing him unjustly. At one point Job declares, “I wish God, for just a minute, would come down here. Not as God but as a man. Let’s stand face to face in a court. I would prove him wrong. I would prove that God has been unjust to do all these things to me.”
Eventually, God himself shows up. Curiously, God doesn’t answer a single question Job has asked. God does not explain where Job “messed up.” God does not explain what intentions actuated him. God does not even hint that there is logical explanation. Instead God asks a series of questions about nature.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you know.
Have you ever commanded the morning,
and caused the dawn to know its place?
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this.
Where is the way to the dwelling of light?
And darkness, where is its place,
From whose womb comes the ice?
And the frost of heaven, who gives it birth?
Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades,
Or loose the belt of Orion?
To paraphrase God—which is a risky thing to do –God says, “Job when you are immersed in nature, you don’t think, if I just had another piece or two of information, then I’d understand it all. Instead, you know that every bit of information you acquire merely confronts you with exponentially more questions. Direct experience of nature does not lead to a mere scientific theory, a new entry in a biology textbook or a new diagram in your journal about the movement of glaciers. Job, God says, When you come into raw contact with nature, when you are caught by a thunderstorm and lightning is flashing all across the sky, when you and your camels are caught in a sandstorm that lasts for a day and a night and the air is so thick you can hardly tell the difference between day and night? Does your mind go looking for theories? No. You are engulfed in wonder and awe and sometimes terror.
It’s the same Job, with all of life.
Of course, there is a place for understanding, for tracing mechanisms and causation, for writing theories and creating equations that describe the patterns we observe. But after we have done all that, the deepest, richest response to nature is wonder and awe, a soul-stirring appreciation for beauty, power, and the irrepressible drive of life.
Even the Apostle Paul, who had the equivalent of a Ph. D. in Jewish theology and was fascinated with words and even the letters of the ancient Hebrew texts, found in the majesty and grandeur of nature a solid place for thinking about God.
So to conclude, two things: First, I encourage—no, I urge you—go outside. Experience nature directly. Don’t limit yourself to watching the Discovery Channel or Nature’s Deadliest Catch or beautiful photos on the internet. Go outside. Regularly. Daily. Weekly. Feel some rain on your face. Let the sun touch your skin. If your body is up to it, go out on a trail.
Second: Bask in the glory that is ours. Savor it. Receive it as a gift. The daffodils, the cherry trees, the crab apple trees, the warmth and light, skunk cabbage sprouting, humming birds nesting and birthing. Gifts. Treasures whispering the affection of the heavenly lover.
Let God speak to you. Let God touch you through nature.