June 18 | Reflections on Nature

There is no video for this service.

Reflection | Cindy Fath

Like many of us, I grew up being outdoors. On our farm, we had a woodlot to explore, vast fields of crops, a large track of lawn and garden, pastures with animals and endless trees to climb. And if that wasn’t enough, we were also free to roam my grandparents’ farms, one who lived just a few minutes away.  Since I can remember, I have preferred the outdoors over the indoors.  My specialty was hiding in a tall tree, leaning my back against the trunk amidst the leaves and reading until my mom figured out where I was.

During my childhood summers, my next door grandpa, Grandpa Sommers, who didn’t do a lot of farm work anymore, appointed himself to stalk thistles and other undesirable weeds on our properties.  With his trusty hoe, well-sharpened on a grindstone that made sparks fly, he’d “hoe and conquer.”  I don’t know how old I was when I began accompanying him on his rounds. He liked the company and I liked skipping out on house cleaning and other such hard labor. We’d traipse the farm and fence rows, observing birds or eating nature’s gifts while attempting to reduce the thistle population before they could go to seed.

As we rambled, he taught me how to recognize the sassafras tree and the taste of its twigs.  He taught me that hickory nuts and beech nuts were edible. He talked about the history of the land and what it was like when he had moved in. He taught me the names of the flowers, trees, birds and insects that he knew.

During my teen years, I sometimes took my favorite poem book and read poetry on a large sunny outcropping of rock. “This is my rock and here I run to steal the secret of the sun.  This is my rock and  here come I before the night has swept the sky; this is my rock, this is the place, I meet the evening face to face.”    (credit to David McCord)

During college, I became intrigued by botany and ornithology.  Along came marriage and children and it didn’t take long for my family to notice how often I chose to hike the parks of Cincinnati.  Our children began to explain it as “mom’s soul needs to breathe.”   It was true; an accurate description of what I had never recognized.  I needed regular doses of oxygen and natural beauty.  Being outdoors was and is good therapy for me.

At some point, I stumbled across a book entitled “God is Closer Than You Think” by John Ortberg. The author writes about seven pathways that bring closeness and connection with God and he explained that each person naturally favors one or several. I don’t know if this is well-researched, but there was the ring of truth for me. These seven are: relational, intellectual, serving, musical worship, activist, contemplative and creation. People can be a combination of several of these. I immediately recognized myself as one whose pathway was found in creation. It made perfect sense.

I suspect that many of you share my yearning to be in nature. Scripture is full of the imagery of nature.  Fishing boats, fires on beaches, mountaintops and riversides….. I like to think creation spoke to Jesus, too.  “The foxes have dens and birds have nests, but I have no place to lay my head.”    “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  Jesus even spent his last hours in a garden.

I want to encourage you today: whatever pathway is yours, pursue it.  What makes you feel close to the Divine? Which of these pathways resonate with you?

Are you relational and enjoy group study?

An intellectual who asks deep questions?

Someone who is energized by serving others, or energized by activism?

Are you drawn to worship God through music?

Are you a contemplative who lives for long stretches of aloneness?

Or does God’s good creation speak to you of God’s glory?

We are spiritual beings, made in the image of God, the Imago Dei.  Our souls seek for connection and reconnection.

I hope that in this beautiful setting, whether your primary pathway to God’s Spirit is creation, or not, that you take time and allow your soul to breathe, too.


Reflection | Sarah Martin

I guess it’s become something of a tradition to ask a few people to do reflections about nature-y topics at the outdoor service, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when Mark emailed me to ask if I would do that today. However my first thought upon reading that email was something like, “Wow, I’m literally the worst possible person to ask to write about this topic.”

Actually that was my second thought. My first thought was, “This is about the worm church thing, isn’t it.” Sometime last year I had shown him this screenshot of a comment I saw online where someone said, “When I was a kid I used to have a game called worm church where I would bring worms to my room and read them the Bible.”  He said I definitely had to work that into my reflection somehow. So there you go.

Anyway my first thought was “I’m the worst person to write about this” because for most of my life I’ve actively thought of myself as not really an outdoorsy type of person. I do remember liking to play outside a lot when I was little. But that tracks, because at that age I was basically a baby flower child and spent a probably disproportionate amount of time making up stories in my head where I lived in other worlds, so the natural world was of interest to me as it provided an endless array of backdrops upon which to do that. For example, growing up there was this huge rock at the back of my yard next to a drainage ditch and I have vivid memories of bringing random stuff out there and pretending I was living somewhere next to a river in the wilderness or whatever. I’m not really sure what was so magical about it, but I guess when you’re 7 even a few hundred feet away from the house can feel like a significant distance from civilization.

My problems with “nature appreciation” began when I grew out of “playing pretend” and realized that for most people who endorse “appreciating nature” as an official hobby of theirs, it’s not enough to wander around in your backyard or local ravine and appreciate whatever cool things you happen to see. Instead, the task seemed to be more along the lines of seeing and learning lots of random facts about as many plants and/or/animals and/or natural landmarks as possible. I know I’m stereotyping here, but it’s what I initially perceived “real nature appreciation” to be about, and besides, it was actually something I tried to emulate for a while–I think I sort of had this idea that valuing sustainability or caring for the environment inherently meant you needed to enjoy cultivating an immense personal collection of facts about it. My family will testify to how hardcore I could be about this since they’re the ones who had to instruct me, just about every single camping trip we went on, “Sarah, you don’t have to read every word on every board in this museum/visitor’s center/whatever for it to count as you having been there.” (Sorry, guys.) But as you can probably guess I eventually became disillusioned with trying to appreciate nature this way, because I found it kind of exhausting. 

I’ve also always been suspicious of people who find nature to be some kind of haven from the woes of the world, like they derive some kind of stress relief or spiritual enlightenment simply from stepping into a forest or walking through a meadow. My reasoning behind this was simple: if you’ve watched any type of nature show ever, it’s obvious the most exciting thing to happen in the lives of animals is usually trying to avoid being eaten, which makes the human world seem pretty good by comparison. At least we’ve developed other ways of getting our adrenaline highs, like roller coasters or pop quizzes or standing in front of people at an outdoor pavilion and saying stuff that you hope won’t annoy them.

It’s not like I went around fuming about this every day. But, to give you an example of the way irritation about this topic lodged itself in my brain, I distinctly remember this one time I saw a heron eating a fish along Lake Eerie and the first thing that came to my mind was just, “That would be really great to show anybody who starts to talk to me about how being in nature is like, a healing balm or whatever.” So I took a picture of it. I’ve never actually shown it to anyone, because it turns out I’m just not that confrontational, but I have thought about it a couple times. And maybe you’re thinking that now I’m going to say that was the day I realized my cynicism about nature appreciation had outgrown it’s usefulness, but unfortunately real life isn’t usually that narratively satisfying so I pretty much continued in the same vein for at least a few more years afterwards.

By this point in my life though I have developed a growing appreciation of nature as something that doesn’t ask anything of me. I’m not exactly sure what sparked that, but I think maybe it had something to do with finishing college and realizing that no matter how much you achieve in human society, there are always more goals to reach. It can feel like there are a never ending list of things you are supposed to accomplish in your life and people who have a vested interest in whether you do. By contrast, nature just lets me exist, and I don’t have to achieve anything before I can appreciate the beautiful things it contains. (Yes, I can find it annoying when people idealize nature in contrast to the human world, but that doesn’t mean I have no appreciation for the cool or pretty or awe-inspiring parts of it.)

It’s like the character in the passage that David just read. When Joel asked us if there were any particular passages we wanted read today I picked that one because I like how the purpose of it’s main character, who’s supposedly the first conscious being ever made, appears mainly to be delighting in everything. In the mythology of this chapter, at least, apparently before there was even anything God felt there needed to be someone to enjoy it. I like what that says about enjoyment and how maybe it’s enough of a purpose for us as humans that we have the capacity to appreciate everything that is good or beautiful in the world. I think this is a good antidote to focusing too much on how much we haven’t yet or will never achieve, or worrying about whether what we are doing with our lives is significant. By analogy, instead of the approach of the “worm church” game, which is sort of a patronizing attitude towards worms actually, kind of like, worm colonialism, or something–instead of that this is the approach of a two year old I babysit who is instantly delighted by worms everytime he finds them. He also just gives them and other bugs to me randomly, which is less fun, but ever since he shoved a beetle into my hand unexpectedly last week and I jumped away and threw it halfway across the yard, he’s taken to asking me which kind of bugs I like just about every day, which is cute, so I guess it’s fine.

I wanted to end with a quote from a novel I read a couple years ago, A Psalm For the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, which has become one of my favorites and which I was reminded of while writing this because it made me think about the same themes I’ve been talking about. The main character of the book, Dex, is worrying about their purpose in life and at one point their robot friend tells them,

“Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good! So do I! But if I wanted to crawl into a cave and watch stalagmites with Frostfrog for the remainder of my days, that would also be both fine and good. You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live. That is all most animals do.”


Reflection | Jim Fredal

Anita, my wife, will tell you I’m not really much of a nature buff. My view is that the best way to love nature is to leave it alone. And my idea of a nature walk is cutting across the lawn from the coffee shop to the bookstore. But Mark said that nature includes all of the non-human world, and there’s a lot of stuff in the world.

So I thought it would be strange if out of all the stuff in the world, I couldn’t find something to speak about. The walrus in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland spoke of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings,” but neither he nor the carpenter ever bothered to ask, Where does all this come from, or why are there any things at all?  Today I want to talk about why there are things in the world.

Well, there are things of course because there is matter and space, and there is matter and space because of four fundamental universal forces that hold bits of matter together. Today I only want to talk about three of them and two of them you already know about.

The first is gravity, which is an attractive force between all masses at all distances. Gravity keeps planets revolving around the sun and keeps you on the bench you’re sitting on. The electromagnetic force is second. It also works at distances, but only between charged objects. It is much stronger than gravity and, unlike gravity, it is bipolar: repulsive between like charges and attractive between opposite charges. This is why compasses point north and why you can turn the lights on when it’s dark.

The third force is one you may not know about. It is called the strong force, and this is what I want to talk about today. This force holds protons together in the nucleus of an atom.  For example, the 8 protons jammed together in an atom of oxygen are all positively charged, so they should fly apart due to electromagnetic repulsion. But they don’t because a strong sub-atomic force—the strong force—holds them together. 

Just as the electromagnetic force is much stronger than gravity, the strong force is much stronger than the electromagnetic force. That’s why it’s called the strong force. It is the strong force that keeps particles together in the nuclei of atoms, and it is strongest precisely at the distance that protons are from each other in an atomic nucleus. Because of the strong force, protons and neutrons bind to form atomic nuclei that electrons can buzz around, so that atoms can exist and interact.

Each of the four forces have a particular strength that can be measured and calculated, anywhere in our visible universe. It is because of the particular strength of each force and their combination that sub-atomic particles move, collide and interact, form nuclei, attract electrons to form atoms that build into molecules that coalesce into gases, liquids, and solids that combine to form matter, and planets and stars, and solar systems, and galaxies and our known universe.  Physicists just refer to it as complexity.

Beginning in the 1970’s, some scientists began to discover that the forces that operate our universe may not really be constant. Cosmological inflation theory and string theory have led many scientists to believe that the laws of physics that apply in our universe could be different. A different set of universal forces would change things. If you began with a different set of constants, for example, a strong force that was weaker than what exists in our universe, then particles wouldn’t hold together to form atoms, which wouldn’t then form molecules, or gases or liguids or solids, or matter or life.  Everything would exist as an equally dispersed fog of subatomic particles and waves, a plasma.  No complexity.

If the strong force were stronger, or extended further in distance, then all matter would begin to collapse into an impossibly dense core without variation, without space, and again without complexity.  The strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity have to exist in just the right proportion, for complexity, matter, and life to exist. This is called the anthropic principle: life needs complexity.

So how is it that we just so happen to have in our universe the right configuration of forces at just the right strengths to allow matter and space, complexity and life to exist?  If you are a scientist, a materialist, and an atheist you would have to conclude that this is due to chance. But if there were only one universe, the chances that this particular configuration and strength of forces would come up in the one universe that exists would be astronomically small.  Like rolling 12 million dice and having them all come up a 6. That’s a lot of yahtzees.

So, scientists developed the multiverse idea: there must exist an incalculably large number of universes to make the small number of complex ones probable. In most of these universes there would be no complexity because their forces wouldn’t permit it. Therefore, according this this way of thinking, we must live in a universe that is among a vanishingly small set of universes where the combination of physical forces at just the right magnitudes allow complexity and life to exist. Complexity and life couldn’t just happen on the first try.

When I learned of this, I thought of another reason why the forces that operate in our universe might so improbably foster complexity and life.  It might just be because of a god who delights in complexity and yearns for life.