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Nature speaks about God: The miracle of trees

Thursday April 19 2018

Nature speaks about God: The miracle of trees

I have always loved trees. They speak to me of God’s creativity, complexity, beauty and provision.

In high school, we had three young birch trees in our back yard. To me, they looked like young girls dancing, reflecting the joy of living in God’s beautiful world.

As a university student, I took hundreds of photos of the sun shining through trees. I particularly admired the translucence of maple leaves backlit by the sun, speaking to me of the beauty of the Light of the World.

I often remember the trees from places I’ve traveled. The first time I travelled to New Mexico and Colorado in the fall, the round, golden aspen leaves made me gasp with pleasure. The trees looked like they were covered with gold coins, a picture of God’s rich beauty and abundance.

The eucalyptus trees in Australia were a revelation. I had always loved the smell of eucalyptus trees when I visited Northern California, but I thought “eucalyptus” referred to one kind of tree. In Australia, dozens of species of eucalyptus fill the streets and parks, each species with a slightly different color or shape. Of the 700 species of eucalyptus in the world, most are native to Australia. Seeing all those different kinds of eucalyptus trees made me feel like a kid in a candy shop of trees, all of them intricately created by the Maker of all beauty.

Trees are used throughout the Bible as metaphors for various aspects of faith. The tree planted by streams of water in Psalm 1 bears fruit in its season and has green leaves even in a drought. Who is like that tree? A person who loves God, does what is right, and meditates on God’s law day and night.

The vision of God’s abundance described in Isaiah 55:12 talks about joy and peace, which will be so powerful that the mountains will sing and “all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” I read that verse for the first time as a very young Christian, during my photographing-trees-in-the-sun phase, and I posted the verse on my bulletin board because it was so vivid and joyous.

In John’s vision of heaven, recounted in Revelation 21 and 22, the river of life flows through the city, with the tree of life growing beside it, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). The nations so desperately need God’s healing, and I wonder if those healing leaves will perhaps look like golden aspen leaves or like maple leaves with the sun shining through them.

Trees take simple ingredients from the air and soil – carbon dioxide, water, and minerals – and turn them into sturdy branches, shimmering leaves, delicious fruit, and precious oxygen. Because humans and other mammals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, trees give balance, providing the oxygen that is essential for human life. Without trees, the rising carbon dioxide level of the air would make life impossible for two reasons: lack of oxygen for mammals to breathe and ever increasing temperatures caused by carbon dioxide’s greenhouse effect.

Arbor Day focuses on planting trees, these miracles of beauty and oxygen. The first known Arbor Day was celebrated in 1594 in Spain. The United States celebrates Arbor Day on April 27, and many other countries have their own Arbor Day.

Between now and Arbor Day, look out your window or go outside and enjoy the trees that you can see. Plant a tree. Draw a tree. Photograph a tree. And don’t forget to thank God for trees.

For further reflection:

The Arbor Day Foundation provides a wonderful webpage showing the benefits of trees. Take a look here.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How they Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben will blow your mind. Did you ever think that trees communicate with each other? They do it through chemicals they release into the wind and through fungi and other plants in the earth.

(Next week: patterns in the way God speaks to us. Illustration: eucalyptus trees in Field National Park, Tasmania, Australia,  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.)

This is the eighth post in a series on the ways God speaks through nature. Previous posts:

The first time nature to spoke to me about God         
Mountains and clouds on Easter               
Algae and stars       
Tropical fish in the Red Sea         
Jesus in a boat on Greenlake         
The feeling of God’s absence         
Familiar and unfamiliar landscapes        

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: 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: Mountains and clouds on Easter

Friday March 9 2018

Nature speaks about God: Mountains and clouds on Easter

On my first Easter Sunday as a committed Christian, I sat on a balcony overlooking the Rhone River Valley in Switzerland, listening to a sermon about the resurrection. My back was to the church building, with a window right next to me, so I could hear the sermon. In front of me, the hillside dropped away to the valley floor 2000 feet below me. On the other side of the valley, the seven peaks called Les Dents du Midi rose to an altitude of 10,000 feet.

The preacher was Francis Schaeffer, and the church building was the chapel of the community he founded in Huémoz, Switzerland, called L’Abri. I had arrived for the service fairly early, but the chapel was already full, so I took a seat on the balcony on the valley side of the chapel. I’m so glad I did.

While Francis Schaeffer talked about Jesus’ death and resurrection, I watched clouds rising up the side of the hill. First, I would see a cloud below me. Then it would slowly rise past me and continue to move upward. Then another cloud would appear below me, move past me, and continue up. Over and over the clouds moved up the side of the hill.

The clouds illustrated the sermon and spoke to me of the resurrection of Jesus and his release from the tomb. The clouds spoke to me about the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). I didn’t know the verse in Philippians at that time, but I had a sense of God’s call to me to grow upward, to develop in character, to become the honorable and faithful person God had created me to be.

I had been raised in the church. Throughout junior high and high school, I grew further from God. By the time I was 18, when I left my home in Tacoma, Washington for Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, I was calling myself an atheist. At 19, I went to Avignon, France, to study for a year. For the long All Saints weekend in November, some friends and I travelled to Switzerland.

We stopped by L’Abri Fellowship because one of my friends had a friend who was studying there. We intended to stay only a few hours, but we missed the bus down the mountain and had to stay an extra day. That extra time allowed us to attend a seminar where so many of my questions about the Christian faith were answered.

We returned to Avignon and our studies there. For the rest of the fall, I pondered what I had heard at L’Abri. When I left Avignon to travel to Scandinavia over Christmas vacation, I was still not a Christian. When I returned to Avignon two weeks later, I knew I was a Christian. I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, but I knew a giant shift had occurred in me.

I wrote to the people at L’Abri, asking if I could come and study there for the two weeks of my Easter break, and they said yes.

During my time at L’Abri, as I walked from one chalet to the other, going from the place I stayed to the places they assigned me to work, and then to my study carrel, the mountains spoke to me over and over. They spoke to me of God’s grandeur, majesty and sheer beauty.

Easter Day was the icing on the cake, with those clouds moving up the side of the hill, like a vivid metaphor for the very act we were celebrating at Easter.

I wrote last week about the way God spoke to me through Mount Rainier when I was 15, saying there’s more, there’s something holy and beautiful beyond this life. God’s message to me on the side of that steep hill in Switzerland was focused more clearly on God as known in the Bible: Jesus, his resurrection, and the holy, beautiful and majestic God who created mountains, valleys and clouds.

I want to ask the same questions I asked last week: What specific places in nature have spoken to you? What have those places said?

And I’ll ask an additional question: In what ways do you think God’s voice to you through nature is informed by what you know about God from the Bible?

(Next week: Algae. Illustration: Huémoz, Switzerland 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.)

Bible study focus: My Bible study guide, Prayers of the Old Testament, just went into its fifth printing. It presents study/reflection/discussion questions about eight specific prayers in the Old Testament, with the goal of deepening our prayers. To learn more, click here.

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