Monday, December 23, 2013

"Speak to the Earth, and It Will Teach You"

Today is the first day in our 50th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

-Job 12-14; Rev 13; Ps 100
-Job 15-17; Rev 14
-Job 18-20; Rev 15; Ps 141
-Job 21-23; Rev 16; Ps 101
-Job 24-27; Rev 17

But 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...
 In [God's] hand is the life of every creature

    and the breath of all mankind.

(Job 12.7-8 NIV)

When's the last time you spoke with an animal?  Or had a conversation with a bird?  Or let the earth teach you?  Or received truth from a fish?  Does the very question sound strange to you?

Christians are taught to hear God's voice in the advice of friends.  We learn to read the Bible and discern God's willl.  We allow believing teachers to influence our lives, and make the study of devotional and theological books our practice.  But what about nonverbal "books" like those we find in nature?

In the celebrated book on spirituality, Celebration of Discipline*, Quaker author Richard Foster encourages us to learn from nature, in the study of what he calls "nonverbal books."  

The easiest place to begin is with nature.  It is not difficult to see that the created order has many things to teach us.
Isaiah tells us that "...the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isa. 55:12).  The handiwork of the creator can speak to us and teach us if we will listen. Martin Buber tells the story of the rabbi who went to a pond every day at dawn to learn "the song with which the frogs praise God."* 
We bebgin the study of nature by paying attention.  We see flowers or birds.  We observe them carefully and prayerfully.  Andre Gide describes the time when he observed a moth being reborn from its chrysalis during a classroom lecture.  He was filled with wonder, awe, joy at this metamorphosis, this resurrection.  Enthusiastically, he showed it to his professor who replied with a note of disapproval, "What!  Didn't you know that a chrysalis is the envelope of a butterfly?  Every butterfly you see has come out of a chrysalis.  It's perfectly natural."  Disillusioned, Gide wrote, "Yes, indeed, I knew my natural history as well, perhaps better than he...But because it was natural, could he not see that it was marvelous?  Poor creature!  From that day, I took a dislike to him and a loathing to his lessons."**  Who wouldn't!  Gide's professor had only amassed information; he had not studied.  And so the first step in the study of nature is reverent observation.  A leaf can speak of order and variety, complexity and symmetry. Evelyn Underhill writes, "Gather yourself up, as the exercises of recollection have taught you to do. Then...stretch out by a distinct act of loving will towards one of the myriad manifestations of life that surround you...As to the object of contemplation, it matters little. From Alp to insect, anything will do, provided that your attitude be right."****
The next step is to make friends with the flowers and the trees and the little creatures that creep upon the earth. Like the fabled Dr. Doolittle, talk with the animals.  Of course, you can't really talk to each other...or can you?  There is certainly a communication that goes beyond words, and often animals seem to respond to our friendship and compassion.  I know this because I have experimented with it and so have some first-rate scientists, and we have found it to be true.  Perhaps the stories of St. Francis taming the wolf of Gubbio and preaching to the birds are not so farfetched.  Of this much we canbe sure: if we love the creation, we will learn from it.;  In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevski counsels, "Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it.  Love every leaf, every ray of God's light.  Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.  If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.  Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. 

Now, I'm not suggesting that you go out and start hugging every tree.  But the Bible is clear that we can learn about God through the voice of nature.  Jesus said that if people cease to praise Him, the rocks would cry out (Luke 19.40).  Was this hyperbole?  How would they do this?  Psalm 19.1-4 (NIV) says:

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 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.

So, even without the capacity for speech, nature is imbued with the ability to teach us about God.  Romans 1.20 (NIV) says:

...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...

Let me give you a personal example of what it means to learn of God from nature.  Back in March of 2009, I was hiking in the woods.  I saw something in nature--nothing supernatural, but a natural phenomenon that spoke to my heart.  Here's my journal entry from that day:

Public domain, stock photo
Overlooking a little stream that feeds into the Rivanna River, God showed me this simple and amazing sight.  The snows of recent days are melting away.  I sit in my shirt sleeves in the noon sun's warmth.  Most of the ice has melted away, and yet there is a residue still clinging to the bank.  Just a remnant of ice that still holds onto the shady spots.  God is giving me a picture of my heart.  He is melting the ice of sin and hard-heartedness away, yet those shady spots want to cling.  When will I let these melt away and break free?  Only then can the waterfall be undammed, and the Living Water flow freely.

Today's reading in the book of Job, along with many other passages of scripture, implore us to pay attention to the witness of nature around us.  If you listen, you may hear the rustling of leaves calling out God's name.  If you pay attention, you might read the message of the heavens in the winter sky...because the heavens declare the glory of God.

* Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth.  20th Anniversary Edition.  (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998.), p. 73.
**Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim:  Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), p. 111.
*** Andre Gide, If It Dies, trans. Dorothy Bussey (New York: Random House, 1935), p. 83.
****Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (New York: World, Meridian Books, 1955), pp. 93-94.

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