There is a quote attributed to Martin Luther that

God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.

In the Celtic tradition it is said that God gave us two great books of revelation, the first being nature and the other rugby the scriptures. Wendy Farley, a seminary professor at SFTS talks about how ancient Judeo-Christian spirituality experienced Creation as Divine Revelation from God long before the word was captured in written form in the Bible. Divine beauty appears in scripture and theology, in hymnody and in our lived experience. Job 38 tells us that the beauty and grandeur of creation caused the morning stars to sing together, with the children of God shouting for joy. Scripture celebrates divine creativity, that makes “springs rush forth from valleys”. Trees are watered and birds build their nests. The resilience and beauty of the natural world is a sign of hope, even when things are difficult, especially now in the midst of this pandemic. From the book of Job again:

For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its roots grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant”. We see throughout scripture that it is filled with holy encounters on top of mountains, in caves, and by lakes, rivers, and seas.”

This morning we are starting a virtual worship series on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We will be connecting with God’s creation using a newly released book by Christine Valters Paintner – Earth, Our Original Monastery: Cultivating Wonder and Gratitude through Intimacy with Nature.

Christine writes: We live in an age of forgetting. We have forgotten who we are in relation to everything else – creatures, plants, mountains, forests, oceans, one another and ourselves.

She offers an invitation of remembering that we are not separate from nature and creation. 

If I asked you to remember when you first became aware of God’s creation where would your memories take you? Where the landscape began to form you?

Christine writes: We are shaped by the landscape we have lived in, with some speaking to our hearts more clearly than others. For some, it may be the forest that calls to us the great cathedral of creation. For others, mountaintops are the pinnacle –  offering an experience of spiritual transcendence. Or perhaps it is the sea that calls to your heart, offering her rhythm of pouring forth or drawing back, creating a temple out of its depths and hallowed ground at the rich space where sea meets earth. 

As you ponder the question, feel free to type any reflections on FB or YouTube as I take you on a journey with me into my childhood. I grew up in Aberdeen on off a country road 1/2 mile from the Wishkah River that flooded multiple times a year, when we had to wade through the waters to get to the bus stop. There was a creek spur off the Wishkah on our property that had a rickety little wooden bridge that separated the tall grassy meadow where cows used to graze, from the mossy wood where my dad would chop up wood for the stove – the only source of heat in our home. My childhood was spent outdoors from morning till dusk, especially in the summer, as we ran barefoot through the woods climbing trees. We made houses in grass that grew sometimes 3-4 high and would tie the ends together to create an entryway. We played at the stream, finding gel like sacs of frog eggs, that would soon hatch into pollywogs or tadpoles. We made wooden boats out of sticks that we would launch upstream, then run down to the rickety bridge to see which boat would pass under the bridge first. We picked cattails and pussywillows, brushing the softness up against our cheeks. I just came across lyrics from Gordon Lightfoot who wrote a song in 1968. It’s a song that could capture my childhood. 

Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses. Rainbows in the woodland, water to my knees. Shivering, quivering, the warm breath of spring. Treasuring, remembering, the promise of spring.

I don’t know if I made a connection in my childhood to a story I learned in Sunday school then. The one about Moses being told to take off his shoes when he approached the burning bush because where he stood was holy ground. But I have definitely made the connection since – the places our feet have traveled is all holy ground. The simple act of walking, especially going barefoot blesses the ground, and in turn we are blessed by it. When was the last time you went barefoot outside?

Art Therapist Peter London says that the landscapes in our lives hold spiritual significance. They represent the inner counters of the landscape of our souls. He calls these geo-biographies. Earth has multiple terrains as does the soul. If you thought about the landscape of your childhood and the landscapes that you have walked upon as you grew older that hold deep spiritual significance, what landscapes would be reflected in your geo-biography? When asked to reflect on a place that is sanctuary for them, most people describe a place in nature. This is an invitation to make a connection to those places where you felt most alive and connected and grateful for life – these places where God’s divine spirit danced within you, perhaps where you began to forget about yourself and realized just how small you were in in the created order of things, of God’s creation, in the universe. 

Where are the places that hold resonance for you… from your childhood … from a trip you’ve taken … some place near your home .. perhaps even your backyard. Is it a garden path, a rocky beach, climbing majestic mountains, wide-open plains, a tranquil lake or a rushing river. Where are you?

I sent out an invitation to the congregation to start sending me reflections in writing, on video, or images of God’s creation that speak to you. It’s not too late to send a reflection. Here is one from Pat Mail:

A 2 1/2 hour drive west through blooming desert, turning north and then west again on a dirt road, until a rocky set of hills looms on your left. Park off the road and hike along a barely discernible trail avoiding prickly pear and cholla (choya) cacti, then scramble up a steep rocky path and come to a rock shelter, not quite a cave, and turn facing east. Here, one can gaze across the open Sonoran Desert, filled with saguaro, mesquite, and other varieties of thorny, stinging, sharp-pointed plant life. Know that in this place for hundreds of years, people came to seek shelter and harvest the saguaro blooms, boiling them to make a syrupy liquid and eating the warm pods in a mash. In this place, life has not changed for thousands of years, yet humankind figured out how to co-exist with the hostile landscape and baking heat and live. One feels insignificant staring across a landscape that has seen people and animals, flora and fauna come and go centuries upon centuries.  Ventana Cave is a sacred space. I’itoi Ki – the native God, allows us to be and to be awed. God is all around us.

Some of you have also emailed photos of creation. Thank you Cathi and Dorothy for responding. Don created a slide show over a piano solo Jeff recorded with these photos as well as ones he and Joe took. The song is called “Sing Out Earth and Skies” by Marty Haugen, a hymn singing of God’s creation.

Sing out, earth and skies!
Sing of the God who loves you.
Raise your joyful cries,
Dance to the life around you. 

The slideshow also includes images of ancient monastery ruins from St. Andrews, Melrose Abbey, and the nunnery on Iona from a trip we took to Scotland, and a few others taken by Joe in Greece. 

Christine writes: The beautiful stone ruins of monasteries and abbeys blanketing landscapes throughout Europe have sometimes been called sky-clad churches because the roofs are mostly gone. They invite us into a unity of sky and earth at the heart of prayer. Instead of thinking of them as ruins, we might consider the invitation rising up from these spaces to remember Earth as our original place of worship and encounter with the divine. Old ruins invite us to hold the traditions of faith while also making connection with Earth, seeing the two as unified. 

John Philip Newell describes the nunnery on the sacred island of Iona in Scotland as holding an invitation to consider the sacredness of the stones while also feeling the connection with sky and earth.

“The desire to pray in the Nunnery is the desire to pray again in relationship with the earth.”

The earth is a holy place, a place that God loves…for God so loved the world, God’s creation.  And it is in these places that we can get in touch with the love God has for us as well.  14th Century Christian Mystic Julian of Norwich understood this when she wrote about the hazelnut.

It is all that is made. It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.

It is good to remember that while we cannot physically gather to worship in the sanctuary at United Church, we are surrounded by the sanctuary of earth, the original monastery.  Our task is to remember this and cultivate a growing awareness of the ways in which forest and hills, rocks and streams can inspire a sense of sanctuary in our hearts.  Amen. 

Our prayer hymn, Sing Out Earth and Skies, is a piano solo by Jeff Andersen. It was written by Marty Haugen, a prolific liturgical composer. It is a song of praise for the God of all creation. Don Thompson has created a slide show of images that he and Joe Becker have taken over the years of creation. There are just a few images from Cathi and Dorothy and me as well.  As the song plays and the images come to you, continue to reflect on the places where God has touched your life through the beauty of nature and creation. And if you haven’t written any prayer requests in the chat box, and would like to, now is the time to do so.