Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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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: 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.

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