A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 20, 2014
Deuteronomy 8:1-3 NLT; Selection from John Muir
Maybe you can recall a time when you were at a big family reunion, or maybe it was one of those all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, when there was so much good food at hand and so much variety that you stuffed yourself beyond full so that you could not have taken in another bite. Anybody care to admit that you have had such an experience? You were filled up to the brim; to paraphrase the psalmist, your stomach almost runneth over.
Week before last, I had a similar kind of experience. But it was not food that filled me up, and it was not my stomach that was full. It was my soul that was filled with the natural beauty we took in at Glacier National Park in Montana. Now, I have to admit that one of the primary reasons we chose to visit Glacier National Park was to see some of the remaining glaciers before they are all gone. Of the 150 glaciers that used to be in Glacier National Park, only 25 remain today, and they are shrinking rapidly; and some of them are inaccessible and, unless things change, they are predicted to be gone completely in just a few short years. But let me warn you: If you plan to go to Glacier National Park just to see the glaciers, I would caution you against going. Because getting a glimpse of three or four of the remaining glaciers is just a fraction of what one experiences in Glacier National Park.
The greatest benefit of going to Glacier is the vast, abundant, and diverse beauty to be found there. Practically everywhere you turn in the Park some form of breath-taking beauty meets the eye: stone mountains (no two of them alike) capped with snow against an azure-blue sky; blue-green waters cascading over burgundy-colored rocks; breath-taking waterfalls falling from giant mountain slopes; more species and colors of wildflowers than can be counted; crystal-clear lakes bordered by majestic mountain peaks. I shot over 725 pictures myself on my camera and iPhone, and my wife shot 400-500 more on her camera and iPhone.
As we were hiking the Swiftcurrent Trail in the Many Glaciers area of the Park on the last day of our visit, I thought to myself on the return hike back out, My soul is full; I don’t think I can take in any more beauty. I was saturated. After awhile, you can feel overwhelmed with the abundance and variety of beauty around you.
But the truth is, our souls need natural beauty just as our stomachs need bread. For the first reading this morning, I chose the ancient Hebrew text that says, “people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of [God].” Both Matthew and Luke quote Jesus as saying these words during his time of temptation in the wilderness. For the ancient Jews, “the word of God” was interpreted to be the Law, the Torah. For most traditional Christians today, “the word of God” is interpreted to be the Bible.
But let’s think outside the box a bit. By thinking outside the box, the “word of God” might be interpreted more broadly than written words on a page, more broadly than we might initially think. There is a sense in which creation—the natural world—can be considered the “word of God,” what is sometimes referred to as “Natural Revelation.” Natural Revelation holds that the word, the nature, the awesomeness, the majesty of the Creator is revealed and may be acquired within the marvels of creation itself. To open ourselves to creation is to feed upon—soulfully speaking—the living word, the nature, the awesomeness, the majesty of the Creator, in whatever fashion you might interpret that. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting —a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.”
And in his writings, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, spoke of “sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals. . .” and “the glorious page of Nature’s Bible.” Muir also wrote of the “natural beauty hunger” that is the common lot of humanity and that has been addressed in a myriad of ways. As put by Muir in our second reading, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”
Yes, to feed on beauty—especially the beauty of the natural world—is something our souls desperately need. To feast on the beauty of the natural world is restoration for the soul. I cannot help but also draw on the psalmist, who said,
“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3). The beauties of the natural world are like spiritual food for the soul.
Natural beauty also has the power to alter human behavior. Studies have shown that in cities where people live near parks and natural green spaces, the rates of violent crime are lower than in similar cities and neighborhoods where no natural green spaces exist. In one study, “public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence.”1 Time spent in nature helps people to relax and renew themselves, reducing mental fatigue, irritability, aggression, and violence. Such data illustrate why parks as small as A.K. Bissell Park here in Oak Ridge, or large parks like Central Park in New York City, are so important. Visiting a park or other natural green space during the lunch hour or on the weekend or as a week-long vacation can result in being rejuvenated for the afternoon or week or year of work ahead.
We are so fortunate in this country that a few of our presidents realized the importance of setting aside those beautiful spaces which became our national parks, not only as means of preserving perpetually the beauties of our natural world, but also as places of respite for the human soul.
The beauty of the natural world—God’s creation, if you will—that we soak in through our senses becomes a permanent part of us. As I noted earlier, we took several hundred photographs in Glacier National Park that we will cherish forever. Soon after we returned, I made two of my favorite photographs the home page and locked screen wallpaper, or background, on my cell phone. So now, every time I pick up my phone, I will fondly remember Running Eagle Waterfall and Avalanche Lake.
But in a greater and much more important sense, the beauty that we experienced in the wildflowers, waterfalls, mountain vistas, tranquil lakes, and so on will be a permanent and positive part of our memory and psyche.
But the good news is, one doesn’t have to travel to Montana to soak in the beauty of God’s creation, or the natural world. There is much natural beauty to be had right here in East Tennessee. The lesson for us is to have our eyes open. To be observant. When life makes us weary, then we should head to the hills, as it were, or to the woods or greenway, or to a wildflower garden to feed our weary, hungry souls. Or to say it poetically,
Come, come away, my friends,
The beauty of the world beckons.
Look up to a mountain,
Wade in a stream,
Take notice of a wildflower, until now you’ve never seen.
When you start to feel weary and restless,
When there’s an unexplained hunger in your soul,
Let the beauties of the world delight you,
The restorative power of Nature revive you,
Nourish you and make you whole.
We are part and parcel with Nature,
A piece of an interconnected whole
One with the flowers, rivers, and trees.
So, come, come away to Nature,
And experience the beauty-filled soul.
1Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571.