Monday, May 5, 2014

Listening to Creation

It is unlikely that the term “mountain man” will appear in my obituary. John Muir’s beard would survive longer in the wilderness than I would. Once during a blustery storm in the Sierras, Muir shimmied to the top of a tall Douglas fir to experience what it feels like to be a tree in gale-force winds. To rival that, the last time I went camping I probed so deep into the forest that there were only two bars of reception left on my cell phone. In my defense, I grew up in the Northwest, and I was warned not to go far into the woods because Bigfoot would eat me.

When I get together with my college friends, they like to tell the toothbrush story. A few years back my friends and our wives went camping in the Angeles National Forest in the mountains above Los Angeles. I think it was the second camping trip of my life. Most of them had retired to their tents after dinner, when my friend Darcy, from within her tent, called out with some alarm, “What is that sound??” My other tented friends chimed in: “Is that an engine? Is there a car here? What is going on?” Still standing outside in the dark, I looked around, and shrugged, “No, there’s no one here. What are you hearing?” “It’s some kind of whirring noise that sounds like a motor,” explained Sean, my college roommate. “Oh,” I mumbled, “that’s my toothbrush.” I never got the memo stipulating that standard camping gear does not include an electric toothbrush.

When I write about creation, I am not doing so as a naturalist or as a modern-day Saint Francis. There are no squirrels or birds perched on my shoulders as I write this. I am closer to Homer Simpson, who in imagining himself following in the footsteps of Thoreau to move into the woods and keep a record of his thoughts, writes his first journal entry: “I wish I’d brought a TV. Oh God how I miss TV.”

My entry into this topic did not happen while swooning over a 360 degree vista on a mountain peak or while tracing my finger along a somber autumn leaf. I finally became open to the power and wonder of a world out there while reading a book indoors. An ancient book which says things like:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4) 

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, "Glory!" (Psalm 29:3-9) 

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. (Romans 1:19-20) 

The more I lingered over texts such as these, the more restless I became with pursuing God only in written words, and the more I suspected he had still more to say to me. The scriptures do not finally point to themselves, but instead direct us to a Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer who is present and active in the everyday, and who, to paraphrase Abraham Kuyper, surveys every plot of the universe and rightfully declares “Mine!”

I had met the God who is a master wordsmith; I was less familiar with the God who is the master craftsman of each square foot of heaven and earth. Then I stumbled on the ancient Celtic tradition that presents not one but two sacred texts to study: the Bible and what they called “The Big Book,” the creation. I have shelves and stacks and piles of theology books in my house, yet that moment revealed a creation-sized hole in my library. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux taught that “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from the masters.” Whereas books usually speak in prose, the creation speaks in poetry. If we take the time to listen we may discover that we are surrounded by parables and allegories and lyrics that defy the skill of our most touched poets.