Message 22, Nature’s Church, Part One of Summer Fun Series, June 6, 2010  

download program: Service Program, 6-6-10

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© Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC, All rights reserved

I love summer and all of the ways that we enjoy it.  For me, summer has always meant vitality, warmth and fun.  I remember as a young boy counting the days and weeks until summer came – not just for the release from school but also for what it meant to me and the things I loved best.  During the summers of my youth, I enjoyed tramping through the woods behind our home, following the Reds and their great players like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, going to the pool to swim, summer camp spent sailing on a lake or long journeys in the family car to National Parks out west.  There was work to be done as a teenager when I delivered newspapers or ran the rifle game at King’s Island or served as a lifeguard and swimming instructor.  But summer still remained a time of fun and expectation for me and that still influences how I think about it even today.

And that theme of summer fun will be the focus of our June message series – to find glimpses of meaning and inspiration in our upcoming summer.  I want to explore what we might learn about ourselves and our world in the process and I want to use this theme as a way to further our search for meaning and spiritual truth.  Today, I want to consider how what I call “the great outdoors”, not only frames one of the things we might love best about summer experiences, but also how we can see and worship the Divine in it.  Next week, we’ll look at the summer pastime of baseball and explore through its rules and traditions ways that can explain how we approach life and spirituality.  And finally, two weeks from today, we’ll think about play and how it is a way we can both honor and appreciate fathers and men.

Experiencing nature and the great outdoors is something that we can enjoy at any time of the year but which, I think, we celebrate most during the summer.  It is a time when vacations mostly center around visiting someplace where experience the outdoors, when we spend weekend afternoons in our yards or at a local park or when we play and are active in an outside game or sport.  I love being outdoors.  I love experiencing nature in some form – on a bike, at a beach or on a trail.  Such times invigorate me and allow me to return to times and places where I must be indoors or at work.  Most of us thrill at opportunities to be outdoors in whatever form and I believe it is deep within our human DNA to seek a return to our home, our cradle and the very source of creation – the natural world.  Indeed, I believe that nature and the outdoors constitute not only the largest and greatest of all churches but that in it and amongst it we find the Divine, the Mother or Father God we yearn to understand and feel.  On this day in early June with three months of summer yet before us, I hope we might dedicate ourselves and some of our available time to venture outside, to bask in the sun, to listen to the wind and crickets and bird chirps and then let go of all that binds us to our artificial and human-made world.  We will continue to ponder and explore spiritual truths here each and every Sunday but I challenge us this summer to seek such truths in the mystery, transcendence and holiness of nature.  I challenge us to turn away from human made worlds and return to places that no human hand has built.  In those places, I believe, we can find the Divine One – that infinite power of goodness, peace and renewal which is expressed through all creation.

John Muir, the great nineteenth century naturalist who inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create many of our National Parks, once wrote that “Every particle of rock or water or air has God by its side leading it the way it should go; The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness; In God’s wildness is the hope of the world.” For Muir, experiencing nature was the surest and easiest way to experience the true attributes of the Divine.  To venture into the wilds of nature was to undertake a serious and dedicated effort to worship and celebrate the supernatural realm.  For Muir, the natural world expresses and conducts the Divine to humans.  For him, it was and is living and breathing Scripture in which we can find perfect and unchangeable truth.  Echoing Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous transcendentalist philosopher – whose writings inspired Muir, he said, “The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.  The noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.” Indeed, even the Bible declares in many of its Psalms that the heavens and the earth each proclaim the power and majesty of the Divine.  The beauty of nature, its great complexity, its abundance and its many mysteries each speak of a supernatural power at work.  In nature’s midst, we can marvel at such a truth and thus visually see with our own eyes universal goodness and virtue.

Much like we can often sense God or the mysterious Divine presence around us, returning to nature encourages us to listen, feel and rely on intuition.  As we move away from technology and manmade distractions and enter the great outdoors, we learn to heed the warning calls of birds as storms approach, the shape and color of clouds to forecast weather or the subtle variations of plant life in a particular area that indicates proximity to water or even directional compass points.   Indeed, human science is often no better than nature’s clear and loud voice and it is in that voice when we might hear God if we should only stop and listen.

And, as much as we learn to hear holiness in nature, we can also learn what it means to find true inner peace and a sense of trust .  The power of the natural world is immense and so we must learn trust and acceptance within it.  All of the best minds and billions of dollars cannot stop the flow of oil as it leaks in the Gulf of Mexico.  When we rely too much on our own flawed human capabilities, we are quickly humbled by nature.  I learned this lesson myself just last week when Ed and I travelled for a day to the Florida Everglades and ventured deep into them in a small motor boat.  As we hurried back to the marina in our boat, a speck in the vast and open waterways of the Everglades, we saw dark, grumbling and ominous clouds hurrying towards us.  We’d been warned before we left about being in the open during such storms but on a bright, sunny afternoon we were not concerned.  Very quickly, though, near the end of our adventure, we were engulfed in a hard and driving rain, visibility was difficult and the purple clouds above threatened to strike us with flashes of lightning.  I was concerned and indeed scared.  The open water is not a place to be during a thunder storm.  But, as I reflect on that moment and others like it when I have been in the wilderness, I realize how small, insignificant and powerless I am before the mighty god of nature.  We are humbled in the wilderness as we witness forces that we cannot begin to comprehend – the power to lift up mountains, to sculpt deep canyons, to build thousand mile long ocean reefs teeming with diverse life and,       to quickly and mercilessly alter the prevailing environment through storm, hurricane, flood and earthquake.  Humans are mere ants in the immensity of nature – ceaselessly toiling to mold the environment to our liking only to see nature inevitably and inexorably defeat our efforts.

The Bible talks about being still and humble before the power of God.  With my heart racing as I sped our boat through miles of driving rain and crashing thunder, I too was kneeling before the Divine.  I can look back now and thrill at that moment – drenched and frightened as I was – but alive and in the embrace of a greater power.  A return to nature reminds us of mysteries all around that, despite our arrogance, we cannot control but must simply and quietly accept as a part of this universe into which we are privileged to be a part.  And in that acceptance, we learn that we can trust in the goodness and the purpose of the great outdoors.

In our recognition of this power, we also find that as we submit to it, we do not become spectators or observers or tourists.  We come to understand that we are an intrinsic part of its large fabric and diversity.  We are one species, tiny specks of creation, that are ourselves puzzle pieces in the greatness of the outdoors.  We are nature and nature is us.  We are no different from the wild shrubs growing on some prairie or a slumbering antelope on the plains of Africa.  In that respect, we realize that as we are a part of nature itself we are also part of God.  In us is the Truth of all creation and in the mysterious realm of holiness and supernatural power, we find each of us.  Walt Whitman, the noted American poet, wrote in his famous compilation of poems Leaves of Grass,I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to youI bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.” As one who searched for meaning in his loves and in his existence, Whitman chronicled for us the stirrings of our own hearts – how we too want to know where we came from and what purpose we serve.

As a part of nature, we exist to create and populate but also to live in unison with and not apart from rocks and plants and stars and animals.  The dust of galaxies a million miles away courses through our veins at this very moment and one day – in some far off distant time – the very atoms in us will swim as a whale through deep oceans or will stand high and mighty as towering mountains.  As Whitman understood, we are but leaves of grass – persistent and ever growing, ever dying, ever being reborn and forever a part of the great outdoors.

Nature, according to John Muir, is our true home.  As he wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

If nature is our real home, and all that we build for ourselves in the shape of houses or huts or skyscrapers are artificial and plastic, I believe we must both return to and celebrate the natural world.  So often I hear from various people that they do not attend church even though they may believe in a higher power.  For them, walking through a tree-lined park or even hitting a small white golf ball over acres of manicured grass is church indeed.  And, I agree with them.  What great cathedrals with golden altars, stained glass, vaulted roofs and painted ceilings can match nature’s church with an inky night sky speckled with starry lights and great canopies of forest and jungle underneath populated by striped zebra, bald eagle or shiny beetle?  The pretensions of man assume we can create churches to our liking when, I will submit to you, the universe is a far greater place of worship and our fellowship with creatures and plants – great and small – is a very friendly congregation.  If you wish to surrender yourself to occasional Sunday times in the great outdoors, I celebrate that decision.  My only appeal to you is that no building is a church and, as Jesus himself claimed, he had no home.  Perhaps humans should remember such humility when they construct elaborate churches or when they choose where to worship.  Our church, our home, I believe, is where we meet together and wherever we honor both one another but also those who hurt and are marginalized.  There is value not in any man made place but in our community and when we find the time, as we do when we experience nature, to ponder and meditate on the mysteries of the Divine, that is where god exists and where we will find her or him.

To each of you, my friends whom I truly love, let us think about our summer fun that lies ahead.  In doing so today and over the coming few weeks, let us venture back to the wild and uncontrolled realm of the outdoors.  Let us search for its mysteries and its power.  Let us experience its beauty, its wonderful complexity and its awe inspiring power.  May we humble ourselves before this divine throne, worship its gift of life and submit ourselves to its power.  Our souls hunger for a return to that home of ours.  As Whitman wrote, our souls and our bodies sing with the joy at being one with all creation.  Nature defines us – we are born, raised, loved and die all as a part of its great mystery.  In it, we find peace and order and goodness.  Nature does not kill or steal or harm for nothing.  Its song is us, we are its verses and our lives are a part of its melody.  And so I encourage us to go home this summer – go home to the forests and meadows and oceans of all creation and meet, in those places, the Divine One.