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All Creation Sings
The Voice of God in Nature
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ALL NATURE SINGS
Scripture Reading: Job 38:1-11
Let me introduce you to Maltbie Babcock. It's rather likely that you've met him, even if his name isn't familiar or if you have no recollection of the meeting. He was a Christian minister—a Presbyterian, to be precise—and he packed a beautiful life and career into a short forty-three years. When he was the pastor at the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, he was so popular with the students at Johns Hopkins University that the university reserved a room where students could confer with him. He then succeeded Henry van Dyke, one of the most notable ministers of the time, as pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. Still rather early in that pastorate, Babcock embarked on a trip to the Holy Land but died en route, in Naples, Italy.
I dare to say that you probably know him—as I do—for words that he may well have written relatively early in his ministerial career, though they weren't published until the year of his death. These words reflected the way he seemed always to feel about life and nature, but they found their encapsulating phrase during the years of his first pastorate in Lockport, New York. A person who found not only beauty but restorative strength in nature, Babcock cherished a spot at the top of a hill outside Lockport where he had an unspoiled view of Lake Ontario. As he would leave for a walk to that spot, Babcock's parting words would be, "I am going out to see my Father's world." Somewhere in the course of the years, Babcock put his feelings about his "Father's world" into a poem of sixteen stanzas. The poem was published in Thoughts for Daily Living in 1901.
Some years later four of those stanzas became a hymn, with these words:
This is my Father's world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world:
he shines in all that's fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me everywhere.
It is on the basis of this hymn—a hymn that has remained beloved for over a century—that I suggested you probably knew Maltbie Babcock even though you've never met him. One can't use another's phrases (and, indeed, be blessed by them) without forming an unconscious friendship with the author.
It is true still today that "all nature sings," but it is increasingly difficult to catch the melody. I haven't visited the spot in Lockport, New York, where Babcock got his hours of refreshment, but that quiet spot probably now has become either a suburban development or a shopping mall. And almost anywhere we go, for that matter, nature's voice is now muted by the sound of traffic and assorted electronic devices. Those who go out to walk or jog are likely to wear a device that keeps them in touch with news or music or speech, so that—intentionally or not—they have shut out nature's sound and dulled its influence. And of course I fear that many in our time who stop to hear nature sing will not come to Dr. Babcock's conclusion that they hear God pass in "the rustling grass," or that they sense God speaking to them everywhere.
Which brings me to the point of this book. I rejoice greatly in the "green" movement that has made new millions conscious of the wonder of our creation and the blessed necessity of caring for it passionately. This is a magnificent step in the right direction, and it puts quality content into what might otherwise be little more than sentimental feelings. But I want us to go further than that. I want us not simply to see—and indeed, to be grateful for—the wonders of nature, and to be responsible for their care. I want us to go beyond nature's exquisite beauty until we learn some of the lessons it would teach us, lessons about both life and God. When nature sings (as it does every moment), its melody draws us to God, if only we listen with our whole being.
This is the way the biblical writers saw the world around them, and the way they wanted all humankind to see it. And in truth most people in Dr. Babcock's day still were inclined to see the world that way, at least in a measure. A famous preacher of the late nineteenth century advised young preachers that, if they saw attention wandering during a sermon, they should take their congregations "out to the country," where the preachers could regain their congregations' interest by causing them to think about nature. I doubt that many public speakers would use such a device today to recapture the attention of a wandering audience. We postmoderns are more likely to find our lessons, figures of speech, and compelling interests in the world of sports, entertainment, business, industry, or politics.
Not so with the biblical writers. They found their greatest lessons in the world of nature. When the Old Testament writer wanted to explain the breathtaking extent of King Solomon's legendary wisdom, he put it this way: "He composed three thousand proverbs; and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish" (1 Kings 4:32-33; emphasis added). This was the biblical writer's ways of demonstrating Solomon's wisdom—not by a recitation of his academic degrees or of his economic or political astuteness, but as someone who understood nature and who found lessons and wisdom in her precincts.
But Solomon wasn't unique in his holy fascination with nature. We think immediately of Jesus and of how often he made his teaching points with nature as his example. A certain man, he said, "went out to sow" (Matthew 13:3). He tells us of a shepherd who had "a hundred sheep and losing one of them" left the ninety-nine in the wilderness to pursue the lost one (Luke 15:3-4). And again, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow" (Matthew 6:28). It isn't surprising that Jesus used such language, because he was not only surrounded by nature, he had grown up hearing and praying the Psalms. His soul must have been saturated with phrases like, "The heavens are telling the glory of God; / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1), and "I lift up my eyes to the hills" (Psalm 121:1). I wonder how often Jesus might have looked at the hills around Nazareth and said, "You crown the year with your bounty; / your wagon tracks overflow with richness. / The pastures of the wilderness overflow, / the hills gird themselves with joy, / the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, / the valleys deck themselves with grain, / they shout and sing together for joy" (Psalm 65:11-13).
Through the centuries, devout and casual believers have seen God's hand in nature. We're told that as Baron von Hugel walked at night on the Wiltshire Downs, he would look up into the vast sky and cry out in awe, "God, God, God!" Geoffrey Chaucer described nature as "the vicaire of the almyghty lorde." Blaise Pascal exercised his usual capacity for summing up great insights in a few words: "Nature has some perfections to show that she is the image of God, and some defects to show that she is only His image." But it was Alfred Lord Tennyson who left us with one of the loveliest pictures in some of the most quoted lines:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Edna St. Vincent Millay saw God so near at hand in the wonders of nature—indeed, in even its most ordinary wonders—that she would write, "God, I can push the grass apart / And lay my finger on Thy heart."
But if nature is so much a gift of God that we can all but touch God in its beauty, and if Tennyson is right in feeling that a single, tiny, obscure flower can open our understanding of both God and humanity, it must nevertheless be said that we humans don't always read nature that well. The Apostle Paul said that the revelation of God in nature is so clear and powerful that we humans are "without excuse" if we fail to know God. Ever since the creation of the world, Paul said, God's eternal power and deity have been clearly shown in the things God has made. Nevertheless, Paul continued, we humans haven't necessarily found God in creation. We have looked at God's wonders, and instead of worshiping God, we have worshiped that which God has made. So it is that much primitive religion—and perhaps more postmodern thinking than we realize—have allowed nature to conceal God. Indeed, perhaps we have chosen to use it in such ways that we see nature as an end in herself, rather than as a voice that "sings" until around us "rings / The music of the spheres." It is altogether likely that we postmoderns are missing the best of God's creation. The music is everywhere, but we have allowed our souls to become tone-deaf.
Part of the problem lies in one of the very creatures of nature, namely ourselves. We must remind ourselves that there is more to nature than wind and trees and sky. Human beings—people like you and me—are also part of nature. The psalmist said, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). Unfortunately, it is only occasionally that we ponder the wonder that is wrapped up by our own skin, this composite of miracles that constitute you and me. Sometimes we stumble on the fact unwillingly when illness takes us to the physician's office, where we discover how intricately all our parts come together and how important is some little, previously unknown part. And then again, at those times when weariness takes us from high optimism to the edge of despair, we realize that even the simplest of us is more delicately put together than the most sophisticated computer.
The especially fascinating and challenging factor in us humans is this, that we are decision-makers; we are creatures who make choices—and therefore creatures with the ability to determine not only our own fate but also to influence the fate and degree of happiness of many others. Indeed, it is in our power to shape the course of our planet; now, in fact, to reach beyond our own planet and to corrupt or bless the wider spheres. This quality makes us different from the rest of nature. The tree, the wind, the sky seem to do as they are told. They're programmed in quite astonishing ways, and they follow this programming faithfully so that they perform as trees and winds and skies should. As some preacher said a long generation ago, it's proper to chide a young man by saying, "Act like a man!" but no one needs to tell a tiger, "Act like a tiger!"
It's this power of choice that distinguishes us from the creation around us. I'm told that a great Bible teacher at the turn of the twentieth century once described the creation as a majestic symphony. As each part of nature was finished— light, darkness, land, water, plants, animals—the symphony was melodic beyond imagination, with harmony as enchanting as eternity. And with each progression in the creation story, the harmony mounted until at last it reached a peak in the shaping of the human creature, the crowning element in the process. But then, suddenly and with no warning, there was a discord in the universe, a frightening,off-key chaos of sound. It was the sound of our human rebellion. We broke the harmony of nature. We disrupted the symphony.
The Apostle Paul insisted that "what can be known about God is plain," because God has shown it through creation. "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made." Nevertheless, we humans—"without excuse"—"did not honor him as God or give thanks to him"; instead, we "became futile" in our thinking, until our "senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise," we "became fools" (Romans 1:19-22).
These are hard words. Some might hasten to argue that Paul is talking specifically about the way primitive cultures have chosen to make graven images of particular animals or birds, or to bow before the sun, the moon, or the stars. But I think it is right and fair to extend Paul's words to the way our generation, in all too many acts and attitudes, has responded to its own growing knowledge of nature. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." We are in danger of doing something like that with nature—of losing the ultimate values and wonders of creation in the statistics, the chemical structures, and the predictability of variations. Perhaps we are like the military advisor who felt that, when he had calculated the size of the enemy army and the distance they would have to march, felt he had already won the battle. Even so, we're likely to think that because we know so much about the content of nature, we have taken it by conquest.
There is so much more to nature, however, than anything we can grasp even with the most effective microscope or telescope. Perhaps Tennyson was overly romantic when he trembled before the "flower in the crannied wall," a thing so fragile that he could pluck it "out of the crannies" and yet so mysterious that he felt that if he could understand it, "root and all, and all in all," he would have invaded the grandest mysteries of God and of his own human nature. I repeat, perhaps he was overly romantic. So, too, with Joyce Kilmer when he declared that—poet though he was—he would never see "a poem lovely as a tree." But if Tennyson and Kilmer were overly romantic, I choose to be with them rather than with someone who feels that nature is simply something to be experienced in a ten-day trip, or someone who feels that in reciting the data of the stars, he or she has gone to the heart of the universe. To stop with such an understanding is, indeed, to be like spectacles without eyes.
Job, the protagonist of the Old Testament book that bears his name, went through a devastating series of losses and trials. As the tragedies mounted and as his well-meaning but quite insensitive friends only made matters worse, Job kept hoping for one thing—that he could make his case before his Creator. He needed to understand and to be understood, and he felt that if only he could get a proper audience with God, all else would be manageable.
God answered Job by first asking him a question: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38:4), after which God took him on a whirlwind tour of creation. At times the tour was marked by magnificence and at times by touches that were quite playful. At one point, God asks Job if he has ever "caused the dawn to know its place" (38:12), and at another time explains to Job the peculiar ways of the ostrich (39:1318). When the trip is completed, Job confesses that he has seen "things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (42:3). And with it all, Job declares, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, / but now my eye sees you," and with this revelation, the great soul repented as he entered a new relationship with God (42:5-6).
Katherine Mansfield, one of the brightest young writers of the first quarter of the twentieth century, insisted again and again that she couldn't believe in a personal God. This sometimes left her with a painful void. On one particularly glorious day, she wrote to her husband, the critic and writer John Middleton Murry, "If only one could make some small grasshoppery sound of praise to someone—thanks to someone. But who?" When all nature sings, an honest heart like Ms. Mansfield's must indeed feel left out of the music, and bereft because of it. When all of creation seems to declare the glory of God, the human creature—the member of creation with the highest sensitivity for the eternal— ought surely to lead the music, even if with only a "small grasshoppery sound." I invite you to join your heart and voice to such a choir.CHAPTER 2
THE STORY OF THE THREE TREES
Scripture Reading: Genesis 2:8-17
I will always be grateful to my fifth- or sixth-grade teacher (I'm sorry I don't know which), who required us to memorize Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees." Its rhythm and rhyme are so simple that we're likely to miss the essential beauty of Kilmer's words and the reverence with which he wrote. Elementary science can tell us that some trees are taller than thirty-story buildings, and all of us know that many trees outlive human beings. I remember a sixty-year-old businessman who was planting a tiny sapling in his front yard. "You know why I'm doing this?" he asked, then answered his own question. "I'm planting it for Caroline [his ten-year-old adopted daughter]. Someday she will sit in its shade." If the tree were a giant sequoia, someone could sit beneath it two thousand years from now.
Excerpted from All Creation Sings by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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