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Nature speaks about God: familiar and unfamiliar landscapes

Thursday April 12 2018

Nature speaks about God: familiar and unfamiliar landscapes

God speaks to me through places in nature that are familiar and places that are new and different.

I was so amazed when we moved to Shiraz, Iran, at the way the forms of the mountains were so visible. That area of Iran had been deforested many centuries earlier. For someone who had come to Iran from the heavily forested, green Seattle area, those bare spines of rock and precisely delineated hillsides tugged at my heart in a totally unexpected way.

The lush tropical vegetation of Puerto Rico and Hawaii that I experienced on vacation also spoke to me. Those amazing bright colored birds and flowers could only have been created by a God who loves beauty and surprises.

As a part of my seminary degree, I had to spend four ten-day periods in Pasadena at the home campus of Fuller Theological Seminary. The apartment I stayed in all four times had a lot of plants growing in a courtyard, most of them jade plants, which I had grown indoor as house plants. My houseplants were a few inches tall, and these outdoor plants were 3-4 feet tall. One time in Pasadena, the jade plants were blooming. They were so beautiful, I had to stop and stare at them every time I came and went from the apartment.

I loved to walk through the neighborhoods around the Fuller campus, and it seemed like every plant I’d ever grown indoors as a houseplant was there in someone’s yard. A split-leaf Philodendron, one and a half stories tall! I could hardly budge when I saw that plant.

When we moved to New Zealand, I immediately noticed that the shapes of the hills were different than anything I’d ever seen. I kept expecting to see a Hobbit coming around the corner. I’d seen those land forms in the Lord of the Rings movies, and I had unconsciously associated the shape of the hills with Hobbits.

During our time in New Zealand, we visited Tasmania. We’d been told that Tasmania, of all the parts of Australia, most resembled New Zealand, and it did. Sort of. The shapes of the land were the same, but the vegetation was a different color. Most of the trees in Tasmania are eucalyptus, which have a grayish green tint. The native trees of New Zealand are mostly dark green. I was bemused by the now-familiar shape of the hills, colored with a different palette.

We need to listen to the voice of familiar landscapes, speaking to us of the comfort and stability that God gives. We also need to listen to the voice of unfamiliar landscapes, challenging us to see God in new ways and rejoice in God’s vast creativity.

Come to me and rest, Jesus says (Matthew 11:28 and 29). Come to me and be challenged, Jesus also says. Leave the familiar (Mark 10:28-30). Take risks. “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). The whole creation needs redeeming.

Despite the brokenness of creation, it speaks to us, and never stops speaking. It speaks about its Maker. Are we listening?

(Next week: trees. Illustration: Otago Harbour, Dunedin, New Zealand, watercolor by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe.")

I was thrilled this week to find out that my book Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest went into it's 12th printing. It is such an honor to have written a book that so many people find helpful.

Nature speaks about God: the feeling of God’s absence

Friday April 6 2018

Nature speaks about God: the feeling of God’s absence

Dave’s sister and her husband do not enjoy travelling, and they particularly don’t like to fly. Twenty years ago they honored us with a visit to Seattle. We knew that the flight from Ohio would be very challenging for them, and we knew that they would probably only visit Seattle once in their lives, so we wanted to maximize the visit. We suggested they come in August, when the Seattle weather is most reliably sunny.

We wanted them to see the beauty we love so much here: Puget Sound, the many lakes, the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, and of course, Mount Rainier.

They saw lots of beauty, but they never saw Mount Rainier. They were here 10 days, and the mountain was shrouded in clouds for their entire visit. We kept telling them it was beautiful, and we kept saying it would probably appear the next day, but it never did.

Here in the Seattle-Tacoma area, the term “the mountain” means only one thing, Mount Rainier. My husband and I often ask, “Is the mountain out?” after one of us goes on a bike ride to Seward Park, near our house.

For our typical bike ride, we go a couple of blocks downhill toward Lake Washington, then turn right onto Lake Washington Boulevard. We ride along the lake and turn into Seward Park. About 25 yards after the turn there’s a perfect view of Mount Rainier, which you can see in the photo at the top of this post.

Sometimes the mountain is there in its full glory, rising above Lake Washington like it is in the photo, gorgeous and heart-lifting. Sometimes part of the mountain is visible, maybe the top third or the bottom half. Sometimes we can see only clouds.

As I go through my daily life, sometimes I can sense God’s presence. Sometimes God feels near. Other times I slog along through my day. Activities feel meaningless and relationships seem frustrating. God feels far away. More than anything else, Mount Rainier has taught me so much about those moments when God feels absent.

Mount Rainier is always there, whether or not we can see it, and whether or not we can show it to visitors to Seattle. Dave’s sister and her husband must have thought we were a bit crazy when we insisted that the mountain is one of the most beautiful sights in Seattle, but too bad, sorry, it’s not visible right now.

Every time I turn my bicycle into Seward Park, or drive on a road where Mount Rainier can be seen, I wonder if I will see it. Maybe. Maybe not. Every day I watch for moments when God’s presence feels real and vivid. But God is there in my life whether or not I have one of those wonderful heart-lifting moments.

The times that part of the mountain is visible are also quite instructive. Our lives are often like that half-visible mountain. We get glimpses of God’s work, even in the midst of really hard times. God may answer a specific prayer about the illness of a loved one, even when that person remains sick. God may give us restoration in a relationship with a family member just when something challenging happens at work.

On the day before Easter, an opinion piece in our local newspaper recommended a saying that makes sense to people in the Seattle-Tacoma area where “the mountain” means Mount Rainier: “Live like the mountain is out.”

Mount Rainier, and the variability in my ability to see it, speaks to me. The mountain says, “Live as if God is real and present and alive and working in your life, even when you can’t see God’s hand. Live as if God’s love is real, even when you don’t feel it. Live as if God has called you to serve, even if you aren’t feeling that call right at this moment. Live like the mountain is out.”

(Next week: God’s voice in unfamiliar landscapes.  If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Some past posts about Easter:

Nature speaks about God: Jesus in a boat on Greenlake

Friday March 30 2018

Nature speaks about God: Jesus in a boat on Greenlake

Greenlake is a little gem of a lake in North Seattle, with a three mile long walking track around it. I lived 16 years of my adult life within a few blocks of Greenlake.

When my kids were young, I tried to walk and pray three times a week at Greenlake. Sometimes my husband, Dave, stayed with the kids and sometimes I hired a teenager babysitter.

I would leave our house and walk the eight blocks to the lake. I entered the lake path right by a patch of cattails where red winged blackbirds liked to hang out, so as I turned to begin walking beside the lake, I would look for birds. After a few steps, the clear water of the lake was on my left, and I imagined Jesus there in a rowboat.

As I walked, I handed things to Jesus in the rowboat: my concerns, my worries, my desires, and the needs of my kids. As I handed Jesus each object, he threw it into the lake. I imagined those thoughts and emotions hitting the water and disappearing, and I felt lighter and freer.

When I reached the south end of the lake, I turned back and continued to imagine Jesus in the boat. Now, as I walked the opposite direction, I pictured him handing me things from his seat in the rowboat on the beautiful lake: peace, joy, and patience.

When I got to the cattails, and Jesus could no longer be there beside me in the boat, I usually felt refreshed and renewed by being in his presence.

In his earthly life, Jesus was outdoors a lot. He spent time on boats on the Sea of Galilee. He walked the hundred miles between Nazareth and Jerusalem many times, crossing the wide plain of the Jezreel Valley and climbing up and down big hills. He went out alone in the mornings to spend time with his Father in prayer.

When Jesus gave me peace, joy, and patience from the boat I imagined on Greenlake, he was speaking to me from a place in nature. Jesus is at home in nature as its creator and as the one who came from heaven to walk our dusty paths.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing posts about how nature speaks to us about God. I want to summarize the patterns I have described. As I’ve written the posts, I have been surprised at the diversity of the messages God has spoken to me through nature:

I invite you to ponder the variety of ways nature has spoken to you. What diverse things does God say to you through nature?

(Next week I’ll write about the ways nature has spoken to me about my experience of the absence of God. Illustration: the walking path at Greenlake right by where I used to turn around. Watercolor by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Nature speaks about God: Tropical fish in the Red Sea

Friday March 23 2018

Nature speaks about God: Tropical fish in the Red Sea

When Dave and I moved to the Middle East as young adults, we had never lived anywhere that wasn’t green. We moved to Shiraz, Iran, for Dave to take up a position teaching in a dental school.

Shiraz sits in a wide bowl at 5,000 feet, in a landscape best described as mountainous desert. The city is surrounded by completely barren mountains. After the green of all the places I’d lived, it took a while to see the beauty of stark mountains, especially vivid at sunrise and sunset.

We left Iran after only six months because of the impending revolution. (Our son wrote an article about our dramatic departure from Iran, complete with old photos of us.) We went to Israel on vacation, where Dave was offered a teaching job at the Tel Aviv University Dental School. We ended up staying in Tel Aviv 18 months.

We saw so many biblical sites and experienced the joy of a weekly Sabbath, which I have written about in many places (see below). I have never before written about a trip we took to Eilat, the Israeli town at the northwestern tip of the Red Sea.

Here the landscape reminded us of Shiraz. From Eilat, you can look southeast into the mountainous desert of Saudi Arabia with those same kind of barren hills we saw in Iran, gorgeous at sunset and sunrise but pretty bleak the rest of the time. The cloudless sky meant that the water of the Red Sea was deep indigo, a beautiful contrast to the dry, dusty landscape.

We had heard that the Red Sea offered world renowned scuba diving and snorkeling, so we rented snorkels and masks in Eilat and drove about an hour south along the west side of the Red Sea. To our left was the vivid blue water, with the barren mountains of Saudi Arabia on the other side of the water. To our right, we could see the equally stark mountains of the Sinai Peninsula.

At that time, the Sinai Peninsula belonged to Israel. Shortly after we were there, the Sinai was returned by Egypt as a part of the peace process. So as we drove south along the Red Sea, we were driving in what is now Egypt.

We found the park along the sea that had been recommended to us, and we snorkeled. Beneath the crystal clear water we found schools of beautiful fish. The visibility in the water was amazing, so we could see gorgeous fish close by and far away. Individual fish. Schools of fish. Blue, yellow, orange, red, silver, and gold fish. Small fish and big fish in abundance, a colorful contrast to the brown hills that surround the Red Sea.

Why, I wondered as I snorkeled, would God create so many beautiful creatures and keep them hidden from the view of most of the people of the world?

Those fish spoke to me about God. They seemed to say, “Yes, we are beautiful. Yes, we thrive in abundance here. Yes, we live our lives mostly hidden from view. God’s grace is just as beautiful, just as abundant, and sometimes hidden from view."

The lesson from the fish has influenced me for many years. Those fish I remember seeing in the Red Sea, and other tropical fish I’ve seen in Hawaii and at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, have continued to talk to me over the years. They seem to say, “You’ve seen us and you’ve seen God’s grace. Remember what you’ve seen. Live in that abundance. Share that abundance with others. You don’t need to concern yourself with why God created us and caused us to thrive in a hidden place. Your job is to thrive in your place, trusting in the abundance of the God who made us all, living in his love and sharing that abundant love with others as much as you can.”

(Next week: Jesus in a boat at Greenlake. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Since Israel taught me most of all about the Sabbath, and since the Sabbath is a practice that teaches us to live in abundance, I’ll give you some resources on the Sabbath here.

Nature speaks about God: Algae and stars

Friday March 16 2018

Nature speaks about God: Algae and stars

The view under the microscope was gorgeous. The slimy mass of green scum I had scooped out of a drainage ditch revealed itself to be long strands with bright green geometric patterns. The color was beautiful. The patterns were beautiful.

I lifted my head from the microscope and stood in that biology lab praising God for creating something so amazing, yet hidden from view most of the time. Who would have thought that algae could speak to me, calling me to praise the God who made it?

I was 20 years old that fall day in the biology lab. I had become a Christian the previous Christmas, and I had studied for a total of four weeks at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland – two weeks at Easter and two weeks in June – diving deep into the book of Romans. I had learned a great deal of Christian theology by listening to recordings of Francis Schaeffer talking, hour upon hour, about Romans. Romans, and Francis Shaeffer’s reflections on it, helped me learn to worship God with my mind. (I wrote about my time at L’Abri last week.)

I returned to Willamette University in Oregon, eager to get involved in the Christian fellowship group there. We met on Sunday nights. Some of the students played guitars, and I learned the praise songs they taught us. We often had speakers at our meetings, usually staff from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The praise music and the speakers called me into God’s presence and gave me a place and words for praising God.

But in that first semester back at Willamette after becoming a Christian, some of my most powerful moments of praising God were stimulated by what I saw in the microbiology lab. The green geometric forms of algae were probably my favorite, but I also loved bacteria. We grew various kinds of bacteria on Petri dishes, then spread them on slides, stained them with dyes, and looked at them under the microscope.

The bright colors caused by the dyes and the repeated shapes of the bacteria spoke to me of the intricacy of God’s creation. Bacteria, like algae, called me to praise the God of tiny things.

That semester I was working part time for an astronomy professor, typing up his handouts and exam questions and serving as a lab assistant. He took the students, and me, on some field trips on moonless nights to look at stars. The dark, cold nights with stars blazing overhead called me to praise the God of immensity, who created a huge and expansive universe.

In the long hall of the science building, the astronomy professor had created a scale model of the solar system. The sun and planets were tiny dots with many feet of hall between them. I loved walking down that hall, pondering the amount of space between the planets and then also between our solar system and other suns.

We stand in the middle, with parts of the created order that are much, much smaller than we are, as well as created objects that are much, much bigger than we are. The scale of smallness and hugeness is astonishing, yet one more thing to praise God for.

Not everyone has the privilege of looking at algae under a microscope or serving as a lab assistant in an astronomy class. But most of us are exposed in some way to the wonders of the created world as revealed through science. I encourage you to ponder something you’ve read about or seen on a science show or in some other science-related setting that calls you to praise God.

(Next week: tropical fish in the Red Sea. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Two years ago on this blog: The last post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. That post was one woman’s story about a trip to a Benedictine monastery, a great place to start the series. At the bottom of the post are links to the other posts in the series. I highly recommend developing an understanding of Benedictine spirituality because of its three vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience – all of them so helpful in our time with so much emphasis on constant movement, self-focus and pride.

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