The Wonders around Us
August 25, 2019
Guest Sermonizer: Dave Beemer
Scripture Isaiah 44:2-8 and Psalm 62:5-8
Good morning! As most of you know, Becky and I sold our house, packed up our stuff, and moved to Salt Lake City last summer to spend a year exploring and experiencing life in and around Utah. When I celebrated my 50th birthday several years ago, I opened the lid of my bucket list to visit as many National Parks as possible in my remaining years on God’s beautiful earth. So – this last year took a big scoop out of that bucket. Some of the photographs of where we’ve been were on the screen before the service started, and there will be a few more here, and we’ll run the slide show again after the service.
And – this is a shot of our hiking boots taking a break on a hike in Canyonlands National Park. I think the advent of digital photography is both a blessing and a curse – we have so many photos.
Where in the world is God? I believe God is everywhere, continually touching and shining a light on our lives – from the splendor of a mountain-framed sunset over the Great Salt Lake, to the flashlight you use to read a book under the covers when your parents think you’re asleep.
I’ve seen God in those moments, and my discussion this morning is a blend of those types of experiences.
The outdoors, and more specifically the forest and the mountains, may represent the closest I feel to God – with the possible exceptions of witnessing the birth or death of a loved one. I think it’s funny how we call it “outdoors” “outside” – When I go “out”doors, I feel more like I am stepping “in”to a spiritual “in” doors.
John Muir, a Scottish naturalist, author, and philosopher, who was known as “The Father of the National Parks” said:
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I was a sleepwalker as a kid … which drove my parents crazy. Most of the time, you don’t remember walking in your sleep … Mom and Dad would tell me about it later. However, the first sleepwalking episode I remember was when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. These were the days when you didn’t lock your doors on Bainbridge Island. Most of the time, you’d be hard pressed to find the key. Anyway, when I woke up, I was sitting cross-legged on the ground in the woods, facing through our small apple orchard in the direction of our back porch. I could see the porch light on in the distant, but I was completely in the dark. I felt this overwhelming sense of peace with no fear – which was weird because I was at that age at which the dark was kinda scary to me.
I think it was at that point that I realized the most restful place for my soul was inside the outside. Mom found the key and started locking the backdoor after that.
Ten years ago, Ken Burns released one of his iconic Americana documentaries – “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea.” Along with the amazing scenery, educational historic narrative and beautiful soundtrack, perhaps the most important result of this presentation was a rebirth of this nation’s appreciation for the natural wonders of which we have protected and need to continue to protect as the technology revolution accelerates change in the world today.
Since my first day hikes and backpacks into the Olympic Mountains as a youngster to this past 12 months exploring the natural wonders of the land in and around Utah, I have never ceased to experience a tingling warmth of wonder at the beauty of trees, water and mountains – God’s creations.
From anthropologist, philosopher and natural science writer Loren Eisley:
“It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and love for a time in the wilderness.”
In the Bible, where did all of the big names go when looking for answers, looking for inspiration? The mountains, the wilderness.
Through our journeys visiting State and National Parks, Becky and I always try to schedule in some time to attend a ranger talk or two. It’s almost an inside family joke because we got ALL our kids hooked on Ranger talks. You always learn something new, and Becky and I always walk away wondering why the heck we didn’t become rangers!
At one of these talks, the topic was regarding the age of the earth and the time during that span in which human life has been on the earth. So, the ranger said, imagine the Marianas Trench – the lowest point on the surface of the earth at about 36,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. If that depth represents the age of the earth (which is about 4.5 billion years), humans have existed for about the top inch. In construction terms, you might say we populated the earth quite a few years after “substantial completion.” The industrialized age until now would be represented by the thickness of a credit card on the surface. The entire existence of dinosaurs only used up about a foot … 12 inches … in our example.
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or Cedar Breaks National Monument or the Green-Colorado Rivers confluence in Canyonlands, you are looking back in time through the layers of God’s creation. That may be the most awesome part of our national park’s experiences in the Southwest – seeing the depth of creation, layers of time – cut through by living waters, howling winds and by land movements caused by seismic action below the surface of the earth.
And when you are standing at a viewpoint in one of the national parks – perhaps with a number of other visitors – there is a unified feeling of awe … of smallness … of a common spirit… and, of course, a parental bond of worry for the little-ones getting too close to the edge. It’s fun to see everyone transformed into a glassy eyed child – with audible “wows” whispered all around you. And, we all want to know more, learn more – but we realize, we can never learn it all.
“The journey is difficult, immense. We will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or to learn all that we hunger to know.”
― Loren Eiseley
In order to attempt to gain some extra knowledge, knowledge of the wonders of the world created by God, it’s important to be willing to step out of our environmental comfort zone. I, being a Western Washington boy, find my security in the deep woods and mountains – with a little bit of salt water sprinkled in there. I remember the first time I saw Eastern Washington. While we had sung the verse of “amber waves of grain” in school, I could never have imagined the immensity of miles and miles of wheat, corn, and all the other crops harvested by the farmers of our heartland. Even years later, making the annual trek across Eastern Washington to family camp on Lake Coeur D’Alene, my anxiety level pushes up a hair as I pray that a car breakdown doesn’t strand us in the middle of this vast wasteland.
A year in Utah gave me a bit of an attitude adjustment when it comes to describing the more arid environs of our country. You might look across an open patch of land in southern Utah and think there may not be a more lifeless place on earth. However, through our continuing education adventures, we have gained more love and respect for and comfort with the land. Much of the “bare” land of Utah is actually covered with a crusty surface known as cryptobiotic soil crust. The term cryptobiotic literally means “living in suspended animation.”
Cryptobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, is an interconnected web of fibers which stores water for plant life and provides a vital adhesion that holds the soil together and helps prevent erosion. This is probably the best example we have of how soil composition of the earth’s crust originated.
So, the wilderness hiker’s adage of “stick to the trail” is very important in this part of the world. It can take the cryptobacteria anywhere from 20 to 250 years to recover from a single human footprint.
That said … we can’t be afraid to get out there, explore. When Ken Burns put together his National Parks project, I think it may have been one of his key goals to get people to spend some more time, even just a little more time, in awe of what our creator has provided.
So – talking about awe; over the year, when we met new folks on the road and discussed our one-year adventures – there would always be a question asking which park was our favorite. While it’s easy to say “All of them” – I have to say that Death Valley is right up there – probably because it was such a pleasant surprise. Of course, we went there in March, so the temperature was moderate. But the amazing evidence of life and palpable texture of creation at its deepest level in what I imagined as entering the surface of the moon … or the sun … was pretty stunning.
More words from Eiseley:
“Man is always marveling at what he has blown apart, never at what the universe has put together, and this is his limitation.”
And, perhaps, a more positive spin on the same topic from biologist Rachel Carson:
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
A key message we need to translate from the climate change discussion: We are changing God’s Earth; you really can’t deny that. As Governor Jay Inslee said, and what is happening now in the Amazon – we’re on fire right now. But as we look at the age of the Earth and the amount of time we have been here. Not to be too dark, but if climate change eventually proves our demise, the Earth will go on. So, our interest in solving or at least slowing the manmade climate change acceleration is an interest in the very existence of humankind. It shouldn’t be a political issue – this is life or death.
So, we need to get that, and to cherish and protect what we have.
I always like to say God provides us with little surprises when we take a chance and venture into the backcountry. You might round a bend in the trail to find a sparkling waterfall, an amazing view of a snow-capped peak … or a bear … even on Bainbridge Island, as it turns out.
We didn’t see any bears over the year … so you can just imagine this tree in Bryce National Park is a big black bear.
I was doing some revegetation work with the park service in Olympic National Park one fall about 25 years ago. We were working in the Seven Lakes Basin, and I was sent to hike back to the ranger station three miles away to help with a missing person’s identification. Hiking alone, and in pretty good shape, I was trucking along a trail bordered by large swathes of mountain blueberries. Stepping around a corner, I came face to snout with a medium-sized black bear.
He or She (I didn’t ask) was about 15 feet away and we both made a simultaneous sound of surprise (mine was probably significantly higher pitched).
I stepped off the trail, kept my eyes low and just sauntered parallel to the trail until I had passed my new friend. Needless to say, when I was coming back through the area in a couple hours, I was singing loud enough to adequately warn any potential “bear”y pickers.
These surprises – welcomed and not-so welcomed – are the indirect result of my willingness, our willingness to step out and experience the earth at a touch-tank distance. While I do not, in any way, discount the spiritual awe experienced by astronauts orbiting the earth in space, I am more of a get-down-and-smell-the-earth type of guy.
At one level or another, we are all curious wanderers. I mean, look at all the songs about wandering, traveling … On the Road Again, The Wanderer, Rambling Man, Leavin’ on a Jet Plane, Born to be Wild, Johnny Cash “I’ve been everywhere.” I think it’s important to hang onto that sense of wanderlust as long as physically possible.
There’s so much of God’s world to explore. Imagine on the seventh day, God wiped off his hands and welcomed us with this sign stuck into the earth.
Slow down, smell the air, feel the rain, watch the wind bending the trees. Get “into” the Outdoors.
I want to wrap up here using a verse from the song “Wherever I Go” by a group named, appropriately for our adventures “The National Parks”:
There was something in the air
The night that I left town
The stars were bright and the world was spinning round
It was something in the distance
That kept leading me on
To a brand new world, to a great beyond
As the river flows and the city glows
I’ll be following the open road
‘Cause wherever I go I know
I’m going home
Wherever I go I know I’m going home
Oh, I will never be alone
‘Cause wherever I go I’m home