Do you have a special spot in nature you like to go when you want to relax, or think things over, or just soak up the peace? When I was a little girl, we lived in a townhouse on the east side of Indianapolis. One day, out exploring, I discovered a creek way back behind the complex that separated the neighborhood from the undeveloped land to the east. There was a bend in the creek and right there, up on the bank a bit, a single tree. The steep banks were tricky to climb, and in the water—which ran clear—I found crawdads and occasionally minnows. In this mostly concrete neighborhood, it felt like I’d found my own little piece of heaven.
Day after day in the summer, I would go back to this special spot—I called it my secret cove—and I’d lovingly clean up my section of the creek, removing any candy wrappers or cans that had floated down stream, rearranging rocks and twigs that seemed to impede the flow of the water. I felt connected to everything there—the tree, the grass, the wild violets on the banks, the crawdads and minnows, even the moving water and colorful pebbles. It was a place where I fit in, where I felt completely at ease, where I had things to love and care for. I’d found a life-filled world that had nothing to do with homework or chores or “have-tos.” This was a beautiful place of “want to” and I felt completely happy and at peace there.
Researchers now know that nature is more than just a lovely backdrop for our adventures. Scientists have discovered that spending time in nature can lower our blood pressure, help us breathe better, and give our immune systems a boost. Spending time in nature can help us find mental and emotional clarity, reduce our stress, and gain new perspectives on difficult problems.
Jesus knew this very well. Nature was an ongoing force and an ever-present companion in his living, teaching, and healing. You remember he went out into the wilderness for 40 days to fast and clarify his mind, heart, and soul just after his baptism in the Jordan river. When Jesus was at his weakest, without food or comfort or contact, Satan came and tempted him, trying to turn him from his singular focus on sharing the love and truth of God. When Satan was unsuccessful, angels came and cared for Jesus’ needs in that natural setting.
In becoming the Buddha, the story goes that Siddhartha [sid-DAR-ta GOD-i-ma] Gautama reached enlightenment sitting under a bodhi treat at the center of the world. The demon Mara wanted to keep Siddhartha from becoming enlightened and brought an army of monsters to attack him and frighten him away. It didn’t work. Mara claimed the seat of enlightenment for himself, and as he did so, his army of monsters shouted in unison, “I am his witness!” Mara goaded Siddhartha, “Who will speak for you?” And Siddhartha, not saying a word, reached down gently with his right hand and touched the earth. The earth roared in response, “I bear you witness!” and Mara instantly disappeared. As the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.
For Jesus and Buddha, nature as a whole living energy contributed to their moments of overcoming. Sometimes it is our encounters with individual beings—beloved pets, a well-placed frog, crossing paths with a cougar (which happened to a Quaker Friend of mine just this past week)—that open our eyes and hearts in new ways.
In his book, Kinship with All Life, author J. Allen Boone tells wonderful stories about animals that have graced his life. It all began when he was asked to care for the very first canine Hollywood movie star, Strongheart, a magnificent German Shepherd who made a number of popular movies in the 1920s. Prior to that, Boone knew nothing about dogs at all but instinctively and immediately picked up on the wisdom and majesty of this animal. He was something special. In the introduction to Boone’s 1954 book, he writes,
“Men and women everywhere are being made acutely aware of the fact that something essential to life and well-being is flickering very low in the human species and threatening to go out entirely. This “something” has to do with such values as love…unselfishness…integrity …sincerity…loyalty to one’s best…honesty…enthusiasm…humility…goodness…happiness…fun. Practically every animal still has these assets in abundance and is eager to share them, given opportunity and encouragement.”
He goes on to say that in ancient times people seem to have been better at the art of living than we are today, writing that they were “skilled in the delicate balance of being in right relations with everything, including animals. These people recognized the inseparable unity of Creator and creation. They were able to blend themselves with the universal Presence, Power, and Purpose that is forever moving back of all things, in all things, and through all things.”
We Friends resonate with this idea of “right relationship,” and we seek to act with integrity, mercy, and care toward all life—whether that life is human, animal, plant, or planet. George Fox says that he knew that this kind of balance—this faithful “right order”–was important from the time he was a child. On the second page of his Journal, he writes:
“The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things, and to act faithfully two ways—inwardly to God and outwardly to man, and to keep to ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ in all things…that I might not eat and drink to make myself wanton but for health, using the creatures in their service, as servants in their being in their covenant, and I was brought up into the covenant, as sanctified by the Word which was in the beginning, by which all things are upheld; wherein is unity with the creation.”
Like J. Allen Boone, George Fox—but centuries earlier—pointed us toward the divine unity of which we are a part and thankfully, purposefully, not the center. Creatures, Fox says, have their own beingness, their own service, their own purpose in God’s plan, just as he, young George, also had his own part to play. Fox’s intention to be faithful and respectful, relating to all in right order, arises from the humble idea that we are receivers of God’s great gift of the harmony of life and not the makers and controllers of it. If we put ourselves on a pedestal in the center, if we see all of nature as being ours to use as we see fit, if we consider ourselves the apex of creation, we upset the balance and we violate the precious trust we’ve been given.
Job is getting a comeuppance from God on just this kind of arrogance in the verses we heard today in our Old Testament reading. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” God asks Job, going on to describe with awe-inspiring imagery God’s greatness and Job’s smallness. This whole chapter is like getting a peek behind the curtain of creation. God made light and darkness, we learn, and snow and rain, the heavens and the earth. With great care and masterful design, we are given glimpses of the workings of natural systems—the doors of the sea, the bounds of the ocean, the command of the dawn, the springs of the waters, even the gates of death, the storehouses of snow and hail, and the masterful organization of time and light and wind. All expressions of the divine unity purposefully provided to support life—all life, all living nature, not human life alone.
How can we not feel humbled by that? We know in our heart of hearts that when we blow up mountaintops for financial gain we are desecrating something sacred. When we log old-wood forests, we are killing living history, a well-established and vitally wise ecosystem, living beings that literally—we now know–talk to one another, care for each other when one is sick, that share sunlight and nutrients from the soil. Peter Wollheben, a researcher and the author of The Hidden Life of Trees, says, “There is in fact friendship among trees. They are able to form bonds like an old couple, where one looks after the other. Trees have feelings.”
Researchers have also found that turtles talk to each other, and that’s how they know to come out and sun themselves on logs en masse on beautiful days. And turtles sing to their babies who are emerging from their eggs so they will know how to find their way to the water. And hatchlings can talk to each other while they are still in the egg, which may help them synchronize when they hatch. There’s safety in numbers. So far, scientists have recorded more than a dozen different kinds of turtle vocalizations—it’s a language–and they’ve uncovered a much richer social world than they knew.
How are we just discovering this now? Where were we when the foundation of the world was being laid? How many other species and ecosystems have intricate inner and outer lives—with feelings and bonds and communities—that we are clueless about?
In his book The Teaching of Reverence for Life, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, humanitarian and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, writes:
“In all respects, the universe remains mysterious to man. But even if we must despair of comprehending the phenomenal world, we need not confront the problem of life in utter perplexity. Reverence for life sets up a relationship between our minds and the universe that is independent of intellectual understanding. Reverence for life leads us by inner necessity through the dark value of resignation up to the bright highlands of ethical affirmation of life and the universe.”
Reverence for life means we care about, support, and protect the growth and flourishing of other beings. It means we’re rooting for each other and doing what we can to help one another, life to life. When we have the tenderness of heart to see it, we recognize the reality of the interbeingness of all life, ours included. We are part of a vast, rich, cosmic design that has been established so that all life—in harmonious balance–can flourish.
I think it is this awareness, this reverence, this gratitude that Jesus was talking about in the Beatitudes when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Meekness implies a humility, a teachable nature, the willingness to be part of something rather than the center. When we find our right place in relation to the great gift of life and our fellow beings all around us, we are suddenly aware of the sweeping, breathtaking beauty and the miraculous and infinite level of detail and care that’s been taken to support all life. Creation is an ongoing work of genius, born and blossoming as the expression of divine Love. This awesome intelligence and unfathomable love shines out to us from each leaf and branch, each flower, each heartbeat we encounter. How can we be anything but grateful?
- OT Job 38: 4-7
- NT Matthew 5: 1-5
- Wollhenben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees. Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Life-Trees-Communicate_Discoveries-Secret/dp/1771642483
- Boone, J. Allen. Kinship with All Life. https://www.amazon.com/Kinship-All-Life-Allen-Boone/dp/0060609125
- Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox. http://www.strecorsoc.org/gfox/title.html
- Main, Douglas. “Turtles ‘Talk’ to Each Other.” Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/turtles-talk-each-other-parents-call-out-offspring-265613
- Schweitzer, Dr. Albert. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Schweitzer