Martin Luther is said to have observed, “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.”
Tertullian is quoted by Galileo (link HERE) as saying, “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”
In other words, one can think of nature as God’s “other book.”
Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend several veggie, herb and flower beds. On warm sunny days, I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Sometimes I grab my camera and visit a neighborhood park.
Whether I’m feeding the critters, admiring the flowers in our backyard, snapping photos of flora and fauna at the park or strolling along the bike path, experiencing God’s creation with all my senses ranks as one of my favorite activities. Not to mention one of my most effective forms of relaxation and stress relief. (It sure beats arguing with complete strangers about politics on Facebook.)
Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator. As I’ve said before, I find it almost impossible to deny God’s existence when I’m outdoors with the evidence all around me. So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible and engage in what has become my most potent form of prayer: Nature prayer.
According to the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor-at-large of America magazine (link HERE), nature prayer is simply being “attentive to the presence of God in nature.”
For me, this form of prayer doesn’t even necessarily need words. Just looking at the vibrant colors of spring blossoms and fall leaves. Listening to birds singing and cicadas humming. Drinking in the scent of lilacs. Feeling a gentle breeze against my face. Tasting the sweetness of a vine-ripened strawberry.
I’m aware some Christians eye nature prayer with suspicion. Isn’t it too “New Agey?” Too “pagan?” Aren’t we worshipping creation instead of the Creator? Resistance to nature prayer has always baffled me, frankly, because the Bible itself is chock full of passages that extole nature and invite us to immerse ourselves in it, appreciate it and learn from it.
Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
Luke 12:27 says, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
Being in nature not only brings us close to God, but can restore us physically and spiritually. The opening verses of the 23rd Psalm affirm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
Psalm 104:24 exclaims, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” In fact, Psalm 104 in its entirety presents one long ode to the natural world – mountains that smoke, melodious birds, wine that gladdens the heart, trees and streams that protect and feed wildlife of all kinds.
Even Jesus found nature conducive to prayer and meditation. After a long day of healing, teaching and preaching to crowds, “he withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed,” says Luke 5:16.
For those interested in pursuing nature prayer from a Christian perspective, the Web site Busted Halo (link HERE) offers suggestions for an “outdoor retreat.” Designed to “deepen our relationship with God and nature,” this retreat has three parts, each involving prayer and reflection – seeing God, listening to God, and breathing in God. To access the retreat guide, click HERE.
As I engage in nature prayer, I sense God speaking to me every bit as directly as God speaks to me while I’m in church or reading the Bible.
When I watch a brilliant sunset dance along the tops of rioting fall leaves, I sense that God loves beauty.
When I watch a hummingbird flit from blossom to blossom sipping nectar while its tiny wings flap 70 times per second, I sense that God wants to inspire awe.
When I observe the more than three dozen varieties of flowers just in my own backyard, I sense that God prefers diversity.
When jonquils poke up through snow, I sense that God encourages us to feel hope. No matter how cold, dark and bleak life may seem, spring will come eventually.
Most importantly, when I’m immersing myself in nature, I understand at the deepest level that we are meant to appreciate and care for God’s creation. Because nature is part of God’s creation and a gift to us, we have an obligation to protect and preserve it.
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. – Job 12:7-10
God has blessed me with a fine parade of pets over my lifetime, and these precious companions have taught me valuable spiritual lessons.
Throughout my childhood, I often related to pets better than I could to people. From this photo, it’s clear that Dad and our first dog taught me to respect animals from an early age.
Mewlinda, a friendly gray farm cat who lived to be about 25 years old, exhibited saintly patience with small children – which is fortunate, since I liked to dress cats in doll clothes. I wish I had a photo, but she looked a lot like this cute girl we met at a state park last fall.
My pets prompted me to learn healthy assertiveness. When I first lived on my own, any “no pets” rule was a deal-breaker, no matter how nice the apartment I wanted to rent. I offered to pay an extra deposit if necessary, but potential landlords had to understand that my furry roommates and I were a package deal.
The critters in my life continue to impart lessons. Here, Oley gently coaxes me to keep my priorities straight …
… while Champaign – basking in a small patch of morning light on our sun porch – teaches me the importance of mindfulness and living in the present moment.
They remind my husband and I that companionship makes just about any activity more fun – or at least more endurable. Here’s Oley, helping Pete grade papers …
Torbjorn helping me assemble a newsletter …
… and Champaign helping me wake up in the morning. (Who knows? If I didn’t have that little cat alternately purring and howling in my ear at 6 a.m., I might sleep all day!)
The creatures who share our space in the backyard have taught me we don’t always need to fear strangers, especially when we learn more about them. My first impulse when I discovered a fox living under our deck was to call animal control. But a bit of quick Google research assured Pete and I that foxes pose no threat to humans as long as we maintain respectful distance, and we grew to love Roxy and her kits.
Several animals demonstrate for us the art of seizing opportunity: Oley likes to sneak a drink of water straight from the bathroom faucet.
Vixen and DW, the horses who live next door to our North Carolina cousins, know they’ll probably get a treat if they greet visitors at the fence.
A goose in our neighborhood park eagerly anticipates a slice of bread.
And the squirrels in our backyard figure, “Why let the birds have all the good stuff?
My friends and relatives have some cuties I adore almost as much as my own. Piccolo shows us how to be way cool without even trying – by simply being himself.
Nala derives pleasure from simple things … like watching the popcorn popper perform its task.
Millie, an adorable beagle we like to think of as our semi-official church dog, shows us how to win friends and influence people as she visits sick congregation members (including me, when I was in the hospital). She’s such a good sport, she allows us to dress her up as a sheep for our annual Christmas pageant.
Animals have thoroughly convinced me that some angels have four legs, fur and whiskers.
During a particularly challenging time in my life – when I was enduring both work and health problems – our sweet Angie Cat sat with me in my recliner every single morning as I poured my feelings of fear, anger, resentment and despair onto my journal pages. I can only aspire to practice such unconditional love. May you rest in peace, my beautiful little friend!
Bear, a magnificent Great Pyrenees, helped his human buddy though some of his darkest hours, staying faithfully by his side as he put his life back together. And then, one day this past winter, this beautiful boy was gone. Everyone in his Nashville, Tennessee neighborhood misses him greatly.
Members of our church had only begun to love Creed – our new pastor’s dog – when God called him home suddenly. Creed left behind a heartbroken congregation.
Finally, some animals teach us to risk loving again, even after a painful loss.
When I’ve lost beloved pets over the years, I’ve often been tempted to say, “Next time I’m not going to get q-u-i-t-e so attached.” Friends have confessed similar thoughts. Invariably the new pet has other ideas – and before we know it, we’re absolutely smitten. Again.
“Grief isn’t just something to endure,” says clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North, Reviving Ophelia and several other books. “It also is a reflection of our capacity to love.” Our new fur babies don’t replace the ones we’ve lost, of course. Instead, they expand our hearts and show us that love is an endlessly abundant and renewable resource.
My friend who lost his beautiful Bear over the winter posted a photo last week and asked, “Should I take him, yay or nay?” Of course the pup went home with him. Who could possibly resist this furry little bundle of pure tail-wagging joy?
Gospel, our congregation’s newest church dog, came home with our pastor a few days ago. How long before our pastor and the rest of the congregation start spoiling him absolutely rotten? Can anyone count to one?? Oh wait … I can see the spoiling has already begun.
Perhaps the most important lesson our animal companions teach us is this: LOVE WINS.
Ever since I embarked on my 12-Step recovery journey 26 years ago, I’ve started my day with morning meditation whenever possible.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meditate as “to engage in contemplation or reflection.” In 12-Step groups, members like to say prayer is talking to God and meditation is God talking to us. For me, meditation is a time set aside for both prayer and reflection. While my personal morning meditation ritual has evolved over the years and may change content from one day to the next, I’ve found that my meditation time easily accommodates several forms of prayer.
Most days I begin with “nature prayer.” I feed my cats, the birds and (yep!) the squirrels. If nice weather beckons, I may stroll around my backyard and admire the flowers. Right now, early spring has arrived in central Illinois and my snowdrops and crocuses are blooming. Soon they will be joined by jonquils, violets, tulips, pear and crabapple blossoms and the ever-ubiquitous dandelions. These flowers make me so happy!
Back inside, I settle in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and Oley Cat in my lap and engage in “writing as prayer.” I may journal about my priorities for the coming day – or what I think they should be, at least. I’ve also used this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by homework assignments my spiritual director gives me.
Some mornings the journaling portion of my meditation largely consists of prayers of petition and intercession. Other times I may make a gratitude list or offer prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes I even get to enjoy music when my husband joins Oley Cat and I to serenade us with sacred songs on his dulcimer.
Lately I have adopted a suggestion from my spiritual director as well: As I pray, spend some time listening. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?
Some Christians express concern that meditation is too “New Age,” or that it’s somehow inappropriate because religions other than Christianity practice it. However, from what I’ve read, meditation is firmly rooted in the Bible. Here are just a few passages that speak about the practice:
Joshua 1:8 – This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.
Psalm 19:14 – Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Psalm 119:15 – I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
Psalm 145:5 – On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Note: Since “think on” is one synonym for “meditate,” this verse would certainly speak to the practice and it’s also one of my favorites.)
Meditation also has a long history in Christian practice, engaged in by everyone from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early church era to Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine and Martin Luther in the Middle Ages to folks participating in the liturgies of many modern church services.
Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, shared a personal experience of being so preoccupied that she once arrived at work with no memory of how she got there. Eaton’s own spiritual director offered the following advice about meditation as one remedy for this type of distracted thinking: “Wait for the Lord. Disengage the autopilot. Notice. Just this. Just now.” (Link to her article HERE.)
In my own case, God seems to tell me I need my morning meditation ritual. While I may skip it occasionally – if I have to leave the house for a doctor’s appointment at 7:30 a.m. sharp, for instance – I’ve found that I start to feel a little less “centered” if I miss too many days in a row.
For me, meditation is a way of staying focused on important priorities. Listening to Oley Cat’s soft purr and the crackle of the fire, or watching the squirrels’ antics as they invade the bird feeders helps quiet my mind – a little, for a few moments anyway – and allows me to open up to God’s presence.
So I continue to commit myself to this wonderful and compelling morning ritual.
Now that I’ve discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence – immerse myself in nature – it’s time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey: Addressing my questions/doubts about a “personal God.”
Matthew 10:29-30 says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” How do I quell my periodic doubts about whether God really cares about me and other people, let alone sparrows? Does God truly have a plan for my life and does God honestly try to communicate directly with me?
With these questions in mind, I’ve dedicated this year’s Lenten season to improving my conscious contact with God. And the logical way to do this is through prayer.
Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year, suggests using Lent as “a time to explore new ways of prayer.”
Among the forms of prayer suggested by Father Martin and my spiritual director, I’d like to focus on the following. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’d like to commit to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. Others, such as the “examen” and “lectio divina,” I’ve never tried before and find intriguing.
Morning meditation. A time set aside for prayer before I start my day.
Prayers of petition and intercession. Prayer on behalf of myself or others.
Prayers of thanksgiving. Expressing gratitude for answered prayers and other blessings.
Nature prayer. Encountering God through creation.
Writing/journaling. Keeping a journal to record the fruits of prayer, or using writing itself as prayer.
Music. Both making and listening to music as a form of prayer and meditation.
Lectio divina. Sacred reading as a prayer method and guide to living.
Examen. Prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern God’s direction for my life.
Mindfulness in church. Paying closer attention during church services, and trying not to get distracted by my own random thoughts.
As I pray, my spiritual director suggested I spend some time listening as well. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?
What’s next, as I embark on the next leg of my spiritual direction journey? How do I maintain and build on my progress?
My first goal will be to spend some time each day outdoors – away from the computer screen, away from the political bickering by culture warriors on TV and Facebook, away from endless news reports about people’s inhumanity to other people. Because nature constantly reminds me of God’s existence, going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts. I need to immerse myself in God’s creation. Watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell some flowers. Feel the breeze against my face. Take a walk. Dig around in the dirt and plant flowers or veggies. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. If severe weather keeps me inside, I can nurture the plants in the sunroom or watch the birds and squirrels from the picture window in the living room. Meanwhile, I’d like to start each day with Psalm 118:24, which reminds me, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
While I’m nowhere near my original goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” I’ve made some real headway sorting through physical clutter. I still advise houseguests against venturing into the basement or garage (I’d rather not have to file a missing person report), but the house mostly stays presentable enough so I’m not totally embarrassed when someone drops by without notice. I plan to continue with my spiritual director’s recommendation: Devote one hour per day to tackling clutter. And stop collecting more and more STUFF to fill a home already bursting at the seams with too much material abundance.
My spiritual director and I have also explored various kinds of “spiritual clutter” that crowd attention to God out of my life – and I eliminated a major distractor by walking away from an incredibly abusive volunteer work situation. As much as leaving the organization saddened me, I must say I love the newfound free time. Deadlines have practically disappeared. I feel so much “lighter” – like I’ve put down the 100-pound bag of stress I carried around for five years. Now, as I ponder the question of vocation, I must resist the urge to plunge into something new right away. I need to be selective as I discern where God wants me to go next.
My continuing spiritual journey also involves asking more questions. Lots of them:
The nature of God. I’ve decided there must be some kind of Creator. But who, or what, is this Entity I choose to call God? Is God distant and uninvolved, as some deists claim? Or is God a “close-up” entity who not only cares about each of us personally, but intervenes regularly in human affairs?
Authority. What is my authority for what I believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Clergy? Why, or why not? What about the priesthood of all believers? Where does science fit in? Since not even all Christians agree on the issue of authority, how do I decide who is right? Also, who or what outside of church has influenced my beliefs? How reliable are these sources of authority? Should I rethink some of them?
Church. Why go to church, when by my own admission, I feel the presence of God most while immersed in nature? Is there anything I can get from church that I can’t just as easily get by going outside? If we go to church, how often do we go? What characteristics should I look for when evaluating a church? What characteristics serve as deal-breakers?
Prayer. What is prayer and how should we pray? Can writing, singing and gardening be forms of prayer? Is it okay to ask God for things? What about “crowd-sourced” prayer on Facebook?
Salvation. Some Christians say we’re “saved” through baptism, while others insist we must make a personal decision for Christ. Which is it? What about predestination? Is there a literal heaven or hell? If so, who goes where? What does salvation mean, actually?
The 10 Commandments. How do I relate these Commandments to 21st Century issues? For example, I promise I’ve never even been tempted to worship a golden calf made from melted-down jewelry. But what about the bronze bull on Wall Street? What does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy in a 24/7 culture that worships productivity? What constitutes stealing? Your wallet may be safe with me, but what about the way I invest my money?
Sin. In a world where many “sins” have been reframed as “diseases,” is sin still a legitimate concept? Is sin a specific act or is it the condition of separation from God? How would liberal Christians define sin versus how conservative Christians would define it? Who is correct?
Creeds. Considering that no creed exists anywhere in the Bible and a number of Christian churches don’t have one, do we need a creed? If so, what should be in it?
Politics and the Culture Wars. Part of my motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the extreme level of vitriol permeating our society in recent years. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an Exhausted Majority who feels pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time doesn’t fit neatly into either the liberal or conservative camps. As the partisan positions have gotten more and more extreme, common sense seems to have flown out the window. This has prompted me to ask: What are my own beliefs and what is my role as a Christian in our society’s political battles? Even if we think someone’s values are totally wrong, how do we change hearts and minds if we demonize certain people and won’t have anything to do with them?
Ecumenism. Is there a common core of beliefs shared by most Christians, regardless of sect or denomination? Do all of these denominations offer equally legitimate paths to God? Is there a way to heal the divisions between believers and relate respectfully to people whose viewpoints differ from ours?
That’s just for starters.
When my spiritual director asked me point-blank if I ever doubted the existence of God, her question gave me permission to “go there.” For the next leg of my spiritual journey, I want to keep being honest about the questions I have.
One thing I do know for sure: I’m grateful to be making the journey with this spiritual director. When I shared this list of questions with her, as usual, there were no lectures. She just smiled and asked, “Where do you want to start?”