God Above, Through, and In All

A Sermon by Don Erickson
Delivered at Metcalf Chapel, Warwick, MA

Our favorite place to play in the summer was the acres of land behind John L. Edwards Elementary school in Hudson, New York. We would walk down the grassy hill beside the school and then another hill. Both hills in the winter were perfect for sledding but in the summer were merely steep. We would pass an acre of woods, and in that acre of woods stood a tree with a sturdy, secure, hanging vine which we used to play Tarzan, swinging from the tree into the open sky and back again. The mini-forest also included a cherry tree that provided us free fruit in the summer. 

The two grassy hills led to a large field of flat grass big enough to fit its two baseball fields now no longer there. We boys in the neighborhood used regularly those fields in the summer and into fall. Our favorite of the two fields was the one whose right field ended in a running stream. The stream separated the field from more acres of woods. The rare homerun would see the ball landing in the woods. I am sure there are some still there.

When we weren’t playing ball we were trudging through the woods. There was a legend  of sorts that if we walked through those  woods on the other side of the baseball field and up one of its hills we’d come to a house of a recluse who protected his homestead by yelling and screaming obscenities at trespassers. One day, my friend Brian Myers and I feigned courage and began walking into those woods and up that hill, but we got afraid of images of a screaming recluse in our minds and decided we’d walk back the other way. 

Anyway, we’d spend whole summer days outside, alternating between playing baseball in that field, hiking through woods, just sitting in the grass and joking around And yes, we’d go home to eat lunch somewhere in there.

Thinking about these memories, I wonder how rare our experience is today. We were allowed to spend hours and hours outdoors away from the purview of our parents. It was the norm, in fact. Times have changed, as they say. Such seems to be a remnant of yesteryear now, a thing of generations past. 

Sad but true, parental concern about safety has combined with young people’s love of video games, resulting in a rather significant cultural problem. Children don’t enjoy the outdoors as they once did, instead many remain content to stay inside. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes it in depth and terms it Nature-Deficit Disorder. Just the term to me is tragic.

Imagine John Muir, the father of the environmentalist movement, staying inside and not being able to write the following:

When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life, I've been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. 

Fortunately around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness, though most of the land lay in smooth cultivation.

With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one… the natural inherited wildness in our blood ran true on its glorious course as invincible and unstoppable as stars.

This childhood experience was the foundation of all that John Muir would grow to be and do. These early experiences set him on a tra-jec-tory that would lead him to be the great environmentalist and human being he became. The same is true of people like Rachel Carson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Al Gore. Their early memories along a river or in front of a mountain or at an ocean shore were the first steps into a life of seeking to protect the land.

Without this kind of foundation, there will either be fewer environmentalists or environmentalists void of heart and soul and thus void of lasting effectiveness.

A similar result of our nature deficit applies to spirituality. Without experiencing nature, we miss out on comprehending the spirit of creativity that moves creation. We miss out on comprehending the God above, through, and in land, water, and sky. We miss out on slowing down our pace and our thoughts and simply being present and listening to the still, small voice of God. 

Mother Theresa once said, 

We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls.  

Behind her powerful words is a traditional Christian teaching I’ve always found interesting. It is called the doctrine of general revelation. The idea goes that God is revealed in nature, and even if a person never hears the word or person or history of Jesus Christ, one can look at the colorful landscapes and skies and waters and see that there is something intangible behind it all, some gift of beauty pervading our senses, some mysterious movement wondrous, inspiriting, and inspiring. The internalization of this revelation can save us. The Psalmist puts it like this:

Where could I go to escape your spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
If I climb the heavens, you are there,
there too, if I lie in a the darkest valley,
If I flew to the point of sunrise, or westward across the sea
your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.

As for me, I first experienced the reality of God in nature, looking at the night sky and hearing stillness after a snowstorm, after the making of snow angels had ceased. 

The night’s clouds were whitened by an almost full moon behind it. The white of the snowy earth and the white of the clouds made it seem almost like day. I stared at the sky, hearing the silence of the moon, the clouds, the wind and the insulating snow. It was a stillness that was clear and moving, as if God was speaking to me with visceral silence. I breathed in the childhood scent of the snowy night, noticing my breath and the air moving in unison. Like all else, I was quiet, intent to take in the miracle of quiet, to remain there content. The snow angels I had made seemed silent too. The entire universe rested in the calm of the snow and in the resolution new in my mind. All was okay.

That one pivotal experience transformed something inside me, informing the rest of my spiritual life and my understanding of my relationship to the natural world.

Not to preach against video games or the internet, but can we experience such things playing a video game? Can we experience such gifts of God while posting on Facebook our thoughts on last night’s party?

There is a book I often read to my five year-old Corey. And here it is. It is a lovely little book. As you can see, it is titled God is Everywhere. It was published in 1968 and was my wife Holly’s book, presented to her by the Bible Memory Association in the mid-1970s. 

The book nicely applies the last verse in our reading in Ephesians, which says that God is not only above all, but through all and in all.  

If you don’t mind, I’d like to read some of it:

As the darkness comes with night, as the sun comes bringing light, there is nowhere I can be that God is not right here with me… when I see the lightning come across the sky, and when I hear the thunder rumbling, tumbling by, God is there, God’s everywhere. .. God is here, God is there, Above, before, behind me. Be it high, or be it low, there’s no place that I could go that God could never find me.

The book simply describes the omnipresence of God. God is not just out there somewhere. God is here, now, through all and in all. In fact, God is and can only be truly experienced right here, right now. Not in the past or in the future, but here, now. What a transformative truth this is! And as the children’s book points out, and as ages of Christian witness points out, there is nothing as powerful in reminding us of the here and the now and of God’s residence therein as nature.

This is the faith that has moved ages and ages of mystics who see in Creation the Creator, who see “the world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower,” who “hold infinity in the palm of their hand, and eternity in an hour.” 

The Eastern Orthodox tradition, especially, has offered a theology of nature for centuries. It is interesting to me that of all the mainline denominations it is only the Eastern Orthodox tradition that is growing, not only because of the influx of immigrants but because of new converts. The holistic vision of the tradition might explain why. Such a vision is seen in this wonderful quote from one of its patriarchs, Bartholomew the First.

Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator. Such is the true nature of things; or, as an Orthodox hymn describes it, “the truth of things,” if only we have the eyes of faith to see it.

Back to the children’s book I introduced. God is Everywhere goes on to poignantly offer a spiritual practice. It is easy to miss in the book as it is in life. But it offers a profound path. The book reads: “And if I’m very still, and sit, and watch and wait a bit, and listen to God’s raindrops drop, I will hear the thunder stop.” Good advice for all of us.

So may we stop and be still and sit and watch and wait and listen. May we realize that as Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” And may we be thankful we live in such a beautiful, wild place in the world. 

This is the practice of active prayer. This practice of active prayer is powerful and can be a transformative tool in our disconnected age. And the rural church, residing in and relying on nature for its way of being, can help us as a society rediscover the wonder of nature and the wonder of God whose creativity marks all wonder. The rural church can help us experience the miracle of walking on the green earth. 

So let us preach the gospel of God breathing through and in nature. Let us preach the gospel of fresh air and clean waters which crucial to our survival. Let us embrace our identity and role of being a religious community amid the glory of God’s creativity and spread its virtues.

In offering these things to the community, we build religious community and an environmentalist spirit at the same time. 

Before we go, meet Wendell Berry. Maybe you know him. Wendell Berry to me is a great help in such a venture. He is a farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, cultural critic, environmentalist, as well as Kentuckian Baptist. And he is one of my heroes. He has written over 50 books across his various genres. His central claim is that the economy that rules the day is a behemoth too often built on the exploitation, the controlling and the confining of Creation. To counteract this, Berry calls for us to sit with and in nature, to work with and in nature, and to deeply notice its way of being, its divinely providence way of giving to us life and sustenance and to see the creativity of God in the trees, the fields, the rivers, the sea. The result of our examination of nature’s way of being will be a natural impetus to honor and protect what gives so freely but at such cost to herself, and we will proceed accordingly.

He believes that there is grace to be found away from the madness and sadness of our society seemingly moving at warp speed. And as we consider Earth Day and as we gather on the Sunday after Arbor Day, may we be mindful of this. I close with Wendell Berry’s rather renowned poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," offering it as a prayer.

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.




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