When I look at the songs I’ve penned over the years, many of them share the theme of nature. I can’t help it apparently. Anytime I’m surrounded by nature, I feel I find myself quickly in the presence of God and I can’t help but praise him for all of his goodness.
I know that for myself, all you have to do is throw me into a forest for a few minutes and I’ll get lost in thought and wonder. These moments strike me even harder these days since I am usually surrounded by the lackluster of the concrete jungle and the off-brand version of nature it offers me. The most intimate time I get with God each week based on my surroundings is the early Sunday morning walk to church, while the birds and squirrels sing and chirp around me and the rest of the city sleeps.
Submersion in nature was natural to our ancestors, but the human being of the 21st century must schedule nature into their calendar, lest they forget what God is like. And so I now find myself taking occasional day trips up north to my family’s cabin. The building itself isn’t all that appealing as it feels unfinished in many ways, but its location in God’s creation is incredible. After you traverse the mile-long driveway through an open field, you’ll arrive at the old cabin and its scenic view off of the river. Other than a clearing for a group to enjoy a campfire, the cabin is surrounded by so much forest that you almost can’t find the building on Google Maps. This sacred space is free of many distractions. Phones lose signal and the cabin typically only has power at night when we turn the generator on. This fills me both with torture and serenity.
I’m caught off guard by the beauty of nature there. One morning I woke up early and took a prayer walk through the property with the extended version of Jonathan David and Melissa Helser’s worship song, Abba, as my soundtrack. I had forgotten that they had recorded a choir of birds and placed it in the track and it accented my walk perfectly. After nearly eleven and a half minutes, the song faded out and I was simply left with a chorus of birds. How long is this going to go on? I thought to myself. I mean, it’s beautiful, but it’s pretty bold for any artist to let birds sing this long.
That’s when I took my headphones off and realized there never were any birds in the song—they had been singing around me in real life the whole time. It was at that moment that I pulled up my voice memos app, hit record, set my phone in the grass, and continued my walk, returning to get my phone a good half hour later. I wanted to capture that moment.
But even that moment wasn’t free of the sound pollution of modern day technology. I used the recording I made that day in the opening story of my audiobook, A Taste of Jesus. As I put an EQ on the track to emphasize the ambience correctly, I started to hear distant cars and what sounded like airplanes. Even out in the middle of a field, a mile from the nearest road, I was not entirely untouched by sound pollution.
In fact, hardly anywhere is free of it. Sound engineer, Gordon Hempton, decided to travel across the United States in search of a quiet place. Over the course of thirty years he’s only found about a dozen sites that can survive noise pollution for fifteen minutes or longer during daylight hours.
But still, the cabin is about as close as I can get to submerging myself in nature. It’s the perfect place to meet up with God and chat and the nature in all of its magnificence naturally turns my gaze towards him.
When our church takes retreats up to the cabin, we tend to take a moment to leave the light of the campfire and walk into an open field to go stargazing. I’m filled with wonder as I stare into the night sky and soak it all in. Its beauty is unknowable in the city which is plagued by streetlights and porch lights and it’s quite upsetting. Once, while trying to stargaze from my back porch, I found myself coming up with several plots in my head as to how I could shut off the streetlight next to me.
According to Fabio Falchi, a researcher from the the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy, “One third of humanity cannot see the Milky Way…. It is the first time in human history that we have lost the direct contact with the night sky.” Furthermore, 80% of Americans can’t see the Milky Way because of light pollution.
But on a completely cloudless night in Jackson you can catch a small glimpse of it all, but that’s only if you first have the audacity to walk outside. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!” (Essays & Lectures, page 9.) While reflecting on this quote, environmentalist Paul Hawken pointed out that,
No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, and made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.Paul Hawken (Commencement Address at University of Portland on May 3rd, 2009)
But during our church retreats we soak the sky in. Together we try to identify constellations, really only ever recognizing the big and little dipper. We laugh as we try to remember if that reddish dot in the sky is actually Mars or not. We exchange theories, facts, and non-facts that we think we remember being taught about the stars and planets. We try to identify planes from satellites and satellites from the International Space Station. We ask questions, wondering if we’re alone in the universe. We marvel like children, being introduced to something for the first time.
There we stand at the intersection of spirituality and science, gazing upon the ghosts of stars that long ago burned out, yet unaware because we’re still basking in the light they emitted many, many years ago. The night sky silently screams for our attention, reminding us that there’s so much more God has made and that he’s bigger and more brilliant than we could have ever possibly imagined. His creation testifies to his power, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).
As we zoom out across the cosmos we see that in the grand scheme of things, we are smaller than molecules themselves—yet though we are insignificantly sized, we are significantly loved by God. He went so far as to become our size and put on human flesh as Jesus and die on our behalf just to make that love clear. Without God we are minuscule pieces of animated matter, but in the salvation of Jesus “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).
Our story began in a garden where God’s presence was so there’s likely a little bit of a nature freak in all of us. The wonder that stargazing and nature submersion brings us is universal and it often draws us towards God whether we recognize it or not. And sometimes that submersion brings us face to face with the Creator himself. I think of astronaut Mike Massimino and his recounting of one of the times he stepped out into space.
And my thought looking down at the earth was, Wow. How much God our Father must love us that he gave us this home. He didn’t put us on Mars or Venus with nothing but rocks and frozen waste. He gave us paradise and said, “Live here.” It’s not easy to wrap your head around the origins and purpose of the universe, but that’s the best way to describe the feelings I had.Mike Massimino (Spaceman: pages 201-202)
We must remember that we were born from dirt, work the dirt as we live, and return to the dirt when we die; so to some extent, it makes sense that we turn to our habitat to remember how to commune with God. And sometime when we do, God can meet us there.