Recently I visited my hometown of Port Jervis, NY which is near the Catskill Mountains. After almost two years of being away from family, I felt refreshed and renewed by their presence. While there, I’ve visited some of my favorite places: the cemetery where generations of family members rest in peace; the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania where my parents live; and the winding “Hawk’s Nest” road that borders the Delaware River. The mountains and river define this area geographically. They mark the landscape of my childhood and youth and, in their presence, I feel “at home” and “at ease.”
Throughout the pandemic, many people discovered or perhaps rediscovered the gifts of nature, particularly its capacity to reduce stress. With stores, malls, movie theaters, restaurants, gymnasiums, and music and sporting events all closed to the public, people headed outdoors to exercise, relax, and enjoy themselves. They went on camping trips, visited national parks, and flocked to local playgrounds. For instance, more people visited Yellowstone National park in October 2020 than any month in its history, and sales of outdoor sports equipment skyrocketed.
At Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, we hosted Family Days Away, outdoor concerts, and a stargazing event.
Psychologists studied and wrote about this phenomenon, demonstrating that time spent in nature contributes to mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It reduces worry and increases calm. It reminds us that we belong to a vast cosmos: from the tiniest blade of grass to the farthest flung star in space. We belong. We belong to a created order that has persisted for billions of years, and that will continue, long after each of us is gone.
From a Christian spiritual perspective, time outdoors enjoying the beauty and multiplicity of nature reminds us that God upholds all living things in wisdom and in care.
This blog series has focused on wisdom these past weeks. Psalm 1, we learned, is known as a “wisdom psalm” that inspires us to walk in God’s paths for us. Proverbs is a poetic book filled with wisdom sayings. Wisdom enables us to live faithfully and well in everyday life so that we might contribute to the flourishing of family, friends, neighbors, and other community members. We learn wisdom by LISTENING to God, to nature, and to those through whom wisdom shines forth even unexpectedly.
“Creation psalms” depict God as unfailingly generous, kind, loyal, and creative. They point us to God’s splendor shining forth in the beauty and diversity of living things (from people, plants, and animals to stars, planets, and blackholes in space). One of the longest and most magnificent of these is Psalm 104. It is 37 verses long and well worth your read. Here the Psalmist is filled with wonder, awe, and joy which overflows into adoration for God. This poem-prayer celebrates God’s care for the water, the wind, the clouds, mountains and trees; for birds, donkeys and cattle, goats and lions and rabbits, creeping insects and sea creatures, and yes human beings.
This psalm and others like it remind us that God upholds and sustains all living things, because God loves them. God chooses to exist in and with and for all that lives and grows . . . out of compassion, out of delight, out of happiness. The abundant variety of creation brings God pleasure. And so God provides food, shelter, and pleasure (even wine, good wine, according to Psalm 104) for all that God has created.
God does all this for all living things in wisdom and in care.
“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 104:24).
God has created a fascinating multiplicity of living things for the sake of a multi-dimensional fellowship marked by harmony, peace, and mutual flourishing. This gladdens God’s heart.
God creates living things in wisdom and in careso that God might be in relationship with that which isn’t God, with that which is other than God. God seeks and maintains fellowship with all created things, not only human beings. God does not abandon any living thing. This is good news for the Psalmist and the Sage, and for you and for me.
When it seems as though God is absent, when our prayers go unanswered, our hopes are dashed, or disaster strikes, we look to the trees and the mountains and the lakes and the prairies and the stars and planets, to birds and insects and mammals, in order to remember that we are not alone. We belong to all creation and to the Creator who promises to provide and care for us wisely.
The creation psalms also teach us that nature itself recognizes and responds to God’s creative care. The creatures of the land and sea and sky respond to God’s love with simple praise and adoration. Psalm 96 begins:
“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” And then it goes on: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord.”
Psalm 19:1-4 is similar:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”
How do the trees (and other creatures) sing? And how does the sky witness to God’s glory? By simply being what they are meant to be. By existing. By receiving. By growing.
I suspect that there are as many lessons in this for us as creation itself is varied.
When we are disoriented, burned out, wearied by grief, or paralyzed by trauma, we look to the flowers in our backyards and remember that all we need to do is be. BE who God has created us to be: creatures who are daily upheld by Divine love and grace.
When our faith falters and we doubt the goodness of life, indeed the benevolence of God, the creation Psalms inspire us to look at the Sequoia and the Redwoods who have been standing tall for millennia. Whose every need is met by God.
When our common bonds seem shattered and our civil life lacks civility, we can look to the rhizome systems of plants. The massive horizontal underground root system is a vast network that survives breaks and out of which new plants can shoot upwards.
When some people are excluded and cut-off because of their race, sexuality, gender, age, or politics, maybe we ought to spend some time in the prairie, where we find an amazing array of grasses, wildflowers, insects, birds, and amphibians. Here we are reminded that God’s creation is more varied than we can imagine, and that such variation is part of its beauty.
What might you discover anew in the landscapes of your neighborhood, city, or town this week? How might you slow down and contemplate the beauty of all creation? What elicit awe, wonder, and praise of God? Whatever it might be, remember that you belong. That you are beloved. That you will bear fruit in due season.
This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on June 27. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).