Most of us have had those nights when we toss and turn, we can’t get quite comfortable. You finally find a position where the pillow is just right, but just then your mind starts racing anxiously about all that must be done tomorrow, or with worry about what your kids might face at school the next day, or perhaps bills piling up, grief for the state of our world or our politics, or maybe an uncomfortable work situation, or all of the unknowns about the future, and before you know it your heart is racing and you are pacing next to the bed.
During the busy-ness of the day it is sometimes easier to let those thoughts ride alongside of you, like riding shotgun, so you don’t really have to look them in the eye. We keep our focus on the road ahead and the tasks in front of us. But at night, when we lower the lights, and enter the quiet sanctuaries of our minds and beds, those moments of the dark and calm, can ignite a firestorm of thoughts, fears, and worries.
How do you cope? What do you do to calm your spirit? Do you count sheep? Do you get up and eat something to try to distract your mind?
My fellow Kentuckian farmer and poet, Wendell Berry writes of his practice when he finds himself in this state. He says,
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
I come into the peace of wild things. Everyone is different, but when God speaks most clearly to me, it is always when I am out in nature, experiencing the peace of the wild things. The rhythm of the sun and the moon dancing around the sky, the powerful flight of the red-tail hawk, the vastness of the milky way on a clear night under a New Mexico sky.
I come in the peace of the wild things, and I am free.
The peacefulness that Berry speaks of is not just some quaintness. Nature is a teacher. There is something to be learned from the way the wood drake rests on the water. There are lessons to be learned from the way the great heron feeds. God is speaking. Do we have ears to hear?
The Psalm passage today names this “nature as teacher” very clearly. It begins:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
You don’t need a preacher when you’re standing on the edge of an ocean. The waves will teach you about the essence of God. The sand moving and shifting beneath your toes will proclaim the very nature of God’s being.
And again in Job:
ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of God has done this?
Part of the problem of our human condition is our pride. We think we are better than other parts of creation because, well, we’re human. We’re the top of the food chain.
And the Christian narrative just further embeds this mindset. That we are better than, some how more important that the rest of creation. In Genesis 1 we are the only creature “created in the image of God” and told that we have “dominion over” the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and anything that creeps along the earth.
We in this Christian faith have some repenting to do in owning that the environmental crisis we find ourselves in is largely due to this narrative. Because for hundreds of years, this passage has been used as justification by Christians for using the earth like an endless resource for human gain.
This passage holds great responsibility for our damming up natural waterways, for clear-cutting nearly all of the old growth forests, for removing entire mountain tops.
A surface reading of this passage does more harm than good. “Have dominion over the earth,” it reads in the English. The Hebrew word for “rule”, rad-ah in this passage never gets a full and good translation. The original Hebrew rad-ah denotes something more like when Kings would have so much land that they would divvy out parcels of land to vassals, people who would look after, and rule the land in the King’s sted. But the vassals always knew good and well that it is the King’s land, so you take the best care of it possible.
This is what a surface English reading misses.
We are to take the best possible care of the earth because God entrusted us with this responsibility.
Because if we are created in the image of God and instructed to rule in God’s care, we must ask, How would God rule over the earth? What would God do with the dying honey bees? Would God be pleased with one species obliterating the rest? Or would there be a natural rhythm to the way the world moved?
Human pride gets in the way though. And it may be that we think we are somehow better than the rest of creation, but I think more than that, it’s that we are not humble enough to think that perhaps the birds have something to teach us. It is that we have built these huge economies and global systems that we think there we can’t possibly have anything to learn from a wood drake resting on the water.
But through nature, God speaks. And when I am quick to listen, and slow to observe, the lessons to learn are enormous.
Ask the animals, and they will teach you,
speak to the earth, and it will teach you.
Even Jesus when teaching his disciples to let go of the anxiety and fear, points to the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields. Look to them for instruction. Do they worry about what they will eat or who will clothe them? Neither shall you worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry enough for itself.
It might be a little pantheistic of me, but I really think of God’s presence as being just as much in me as it is in the trees and the wind and the coyotes howling to the moon. The life that makes up this world is the very essence of God. And the more we slow our minds to hear the God who shows us the way of Christ through the flowers dancing in the field, the louder and more clear the voice of God becomes.
God speaks. Are you listening?
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Song, “Panning for Gold,” by Ben Sollee
So on this Earth Day Sunday, we celebrate the beauty of nature and God’s intrinsic way of teaching through nature, but we would be hard pressed to leave it there. Because we know we are in a race against time to save what we know of the earth. Our prideful use and abuse of the earth is catching up with us and we have work to do.
And while the immensity of the task at hand may seem overwhelming, it’s not a pass to give up and do nothing.
I am reminded of a blessing from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
So start somewhere. Do something. It starts with little things y’all. Recycle your bottles and cans and if you don’t know how ask someone. Turn off the water when you’re brushing your teeth and turn off the lights when you leave a room. Learn how to compost and be curious about where your food comes from and how it got there and what quality of life it lived before it ended up on your plate. Listen for those places where your heartstrings are pulled and go with it. I may feel particularly drawn to civic activism whereas you may feel drawn to help replant the lost pines in Bastrop State Park. We all have a part to play in being God’s caretakers for this earth.
So today as part of our symbolic commitment to God’s creation, you’ll have the chance to respond. And there are several ways you can do this. You’re invited during the next few minutes to take time to fill out that postcard in your worship bulletin. You can either send it to Ted Cruz or John Cornyn pledging your support for more renewable energy. And as an offering to God, you can place these in the offering plate as they go by later in the service.
You’re invited to come up and take one of these seedlings home with you, plant it, water it, love it and let it teach you.
If you don’t have the space to plant a tree, come and grab a succulent of ferns and place it in the window of your apartment as a reminder to listen for how God is speaking to you through nature.
Or use this time to pray. To listen. To invite God into this space to speak to you.
God speaks, are you listening?