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The Practice of Listening to God in Nature

The church traditionally begins Lent by reflecting on the wilderness temptations of Jesus. He’s just been baptized by John in the River Jordan, out on the edge of civilization. He’s heard the astounding declaration that he is God’s beloved. Immediately, he follows a mysterious yet compelling calling to solitude in the wilderness. He fasts. He struggles with spirits.

Jesus’ desert retreat seems strange to our modern ears, and so it’s been relentlessly spiritualized with church-y, theological interpretations. Today, three Sundays into Lent, we’re looking at this story in a different light. Throughout Lent this year, we’re looking at faith practices that sustain and inspire us in turbulent times. Today we look at the practice of listening to God in nature, a practice that not only feeds our souls but may well help save the planet and those who dwell on it.

Mark, Matthew[i] and Luke[ii] tell us Jesus headed for the wilderness after his baptism. This wouldn’t be mysterious at all to indigenous peoples all over the world, for whom such a journey is a time-honored tradition. There are different names for it[iii] but the Lakota call it a vision quest. The vision quest is a ritual passage into selfhood, somewhere between what Joseph Campbell calls the “initiation ceremony” and the “hero-journey.” With the help of guardian spirits, and out of deep love for and commitment to their communities, individuals travel to the wilderness to seek the healing and wisdom that nature offers. The classic account of a Lakota shaman, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions, opens: “I sat there in the vision pit…all by myself, left on the hill top for four days and nights without food or water… If … the Great Spirit … would give me the vision and the power, I would become a medicine man and perform many ceremonies.”

We know from the stories that follow today’s passage that Jesus believes his people have lost their bearings. Course correction can come only through a kind of re-visioning of the fateful choices that led his people back into bondage after God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Jesus is wrestling with the root causes of this crisis. Indigenous people understand that the wilderness is precisely the place to figure this out, to look at the ways we have internalized the brokenness of empire. In this wilderness mirror, we can more clearly see how we’ve been tempted, how we’ve been lured into perspectives or narratives that constantly compete with the biblical narrative for our allegiance. In the wilderness, we can see how the myths of Pharaoh and Caesar and the Military Industrial Complex, of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, are seductive indeed. They promise prosperity, power, and prestige – but they deliver only captivity and the destruction of God’s creation, which inevitably means our destruction. Jesus knows he can resist these imperial delusions only by staying grounded in the old story, the biblical story that God created us in love and wants us to be free.[iv] When he returns from the wilderness, he has a new way of talking about the direction his people need to head, the direction we all need to head. He calls it the kingdom of God. He invites the people to see it, envision it, and live into it, because it is close at hand.[v]

Jesus sought wisdom, healing and vision in the wilderness, in nature, in God’s creation. It’s kind of amazing to me that we’ve skipped over this aspect of the story for hundreds of years; but then, maybe that’s how we got where we are today, feeling not just separate from nature and creation, but somehow above it.

Christian tradition tells us that we have received two books of divine revelation: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Creation itself is a sacred text through which the presence of God is revealed to us.[vi] God’s creation has something to tell us, to teach us. This is not a new idea. Much of the language Jesus used is earth-based, rooted in metaphors of seed, fruit and harvest, birds and lilies, feasting at the table on the gifts of the earth.[vii] In the 4thcentury, John Chrysostom said, “God put creation in our midst that we might guess at the creator from God’s works.”[viii]

What can nature tell us? One obvious message is that God loves beauty, diversity and variety. Not hard to see, but nevertheless easy to ignore is the message that God created us for interdependence. We are part of a web of life. John Philip Newell writes, “At some level every atom in the universe seeks to remain in relationship with every other atom. Science observes this … without claiming to understand it.”[ix] Brian Swimme, an evolutionary cosmologist, calls it the “urge to merge.”[x] So, for example, the earth has been revolving around the sun for 4.5 billion years. This could be described as a long-term stable relationship,[xi] and we have been born of that love affair. We are not an exception; we are made of the stuff of the universe. Carl Sagan wrote, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made of the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”[xii] And so we express the nature of the cosmos. What is deepest in us – our longing for relationship – reveals a yearning that is within all things. Yes, we may be a unique expression of that longing. But so is everything else.[xiii] As John Muir wrote, “The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”

Okay, so how do we practice listening to this, listening for this? Not all of us are called to make a vision quest. But there are simpler practices accessible to most people that open our hearts and minds to read the sacred text of creation. Like just taking a walk. A slow walk, not a walk to burn calories, but a walk that is a prayer. Last week, John Lyzenga talked about praying with our eyes open when we lament our culture’s brokenness, and that’s a good practice in this context as well. Walk, and notice. Notice that the air we breathe is the same air as our ancestors breathed. That stone you see might be 2.8 billion years old, like a stone I picked up on the Island of Iona. Notice that we share this earth. It isn’t our earth. It is God’searth, and we have a kinship with everything living through the air, water, soil. We need them. Practice reverence for what you see. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “A Native American elder I know says that he begins teaching people reverence by steering them over to the nearest tree. ‘Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?’ he asks them. If they say yes, then he knows they are on their way.[xiv]

During my class on contemplative listening this past January, our instructors sent us out to listen to God in what’s called a cross-species conversation. Like most modern people, I found this proposal pretty challenging. I was pretty sure I’d feel ridiculous sitting and talking with a tree or a rock or a lizard. Our instructors told us that most nature-based people, in contrast, would have the sincerest sympathy for anyone who could not do that with ease; they’d feel sorry for anyone who couldn’t communicate with a bear, or hear the songs of the stars.[xv]

And so I figured I’d be a good sport and try it, up at Phoenix Lake. I found it to be a surprisingly, profoundly meaningful experience. The way it works is that you go wandering outside with your journal. You cross over a physical threshold – a stream, a path, a passageway between two trees – to mark your transition from ordinary time and space to the sacred. While on the sacred side, you observe 3 taboos: don’t eat, speak with other humans, or enter a human-made shelter. You wander until you feel called by something that draws your attention. You don’t choose it; you wait until you are called by a bush, a blade of grass, a stone, an anthill, a rainbow, whatever. Then you sit and observe it closely. You introduce yourself. Out loud. Yes, out loud. Tell it why you’ve been wandering and waiting to be called. And no, not just because your crazy pastor suggested it. Tell it your deepest truth. Keep communicating until it interrupts. Then stop and listen. Listen with your ears, eyes, skin, intuition, feeling, imagination. Write what happens in your journal.

So, for example, a man on a vision quest was fascinated with a spectacular old juniper, half dead, its gnarled and twisted limbs spiraling up defiantly right out of solid sandstone, bare white rock with no visible soil. He kept asking the juniper, politely, how on earth it managed to live there. No answer. Finally, on the last day of his fast, exasperated, he looked at the juniper one more time, shook his fist, and roared, “How the hell do you survive here?” Then and only then did the juniper respond. It said, simply and quietly, yet firmly, “Deep roots.” Deep roots. The conversation was over. The man knew immediately that this was an answer for him, as well. That his survival depended on his ability to grow deep roots through the bare rock of his surface life into the fertile soils of soul.[xvi]

Do trees and rocks speak English? Of course not. They don’t speak human languages at all. Is any of this “real”? Is it all in our imagination? It is God, or is it wishful thinking? Could it be all of the above? I don’t know. But I do know it’s a bridge across the separation we’ve constructed between our selves and nature. We’ve imagined that all our technology and culture are “progress,”[xvii] but it’s glaringly apparent that it isn’t progress to treat the planet as our own property, there for human use, abuse and exploitation, rather than as God’s good creation, which includes so much more than human beings.

The teachings of the Celtic Christians are being recovered because they’re a corrective to this separation; a separation that’s been encouraged, unfortunately, by Western Christianity and culture. In the Celtic Christian world there’s great fondness for the writings attributed to the apostle John, some of which didn’t make it into the Bible. One such writing, the Acts of John, contains a beautiful description of the Last Supper and an image of all things moving in relationship. Jesus invites the disciples to conclude the meal with a Hebrew circle dance. At one point in the dance, Jesus stands in the middle and says, “The whole universe takes part in the dancing.”[xviii] John Philip Newell writes, “He is the memory of what we have forgotten – that everything moves in relationship. He comes to lead us not into a detachment from the earth or a separation from other species and peoples of the world, but into a dance that will bring us back into relationship with all things. He is pointing to what is deepest in the body of the earth and to what is deepest within each of us – the desire to move in harmony.”[xix]

Because, as the psalmist attests, the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. All that is in it. In an old Jewish Midrash, after creating the world, God asks the angels what they think of it. They’re in awe, but they add, “There’s one thing missing. Where is the sound of praise? Here in heaven, we praise you continuously. Why doesn’t the world do it as well?” God says, “Ah, that is something you don’t understand, but the human beings I’ve made do. Everything I have made praises me. Listen to the sounds – the birds twittering and making music; the sound of waters, oceans, rain, wind in the trees, all that murmurs, rustles, trills, croaks, roars, whispers, hums, speaks, sighs, laughs, cries, sings – there is nothing that does not praise me. You will learn a deeper and truer way of praise by listening to everything I have made and continue to make. Listen,” said God.[xx]

Listen. When I was a teenager I had a poster quoting Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Jesus knew this. Listen.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.

[iii] “Among Aboriginal people it is what elder Guboo Ted Thomas describes as the ‘renewal of the Dreaming.’ For the California Yuki it is dancing and the sweat lodge. The Pueblo people of New Mexico follow the ancient traditions of the kiva. And the Sioux name it hanblechia—the vision quest.” Ched Myers, “Jesus on a Wilderness Vision Quest,” February 11, 2016,

[iv] Ched Myers, ibid.

[vi] Christine Valters Paintner, Water, Wind, Earth and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2010), 2.

[vii] Paintner, 3.

[viii] Sam Hamilton-Poore, Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2008), 32. See also Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “All things with which we deal preach to us. What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, blight, rain, insects, sun – it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields.” Paintner, ibid.

[ix] John Philip Newell, The Rebirthing of God (Woodstock, VT: Christian Journeys, 2014), 6.

[x] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 71.

[xi] Newell, ibid.

[xii] Megan McKenna, Listen Here! (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2016), 214.

[xiii] Newell, ibid.

[xiv] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 21.

[xv] Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 167-171.

[xvi] Plotkin, ibid.

[xvii] See Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity (Harrisburg, PA: Panenthea Press, 2007), 6-7.

[xviii] J. K. Elliot, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 319.

[xix] Newell, 7.

[xx] McKenna, 233.

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