All posts by Dan Story

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ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

DSCN2794 (640x480)Part Fourteen: City-Bound People Can Experience Nature’s Calming Peace—Even Apart from Nature

When the stresses of daily living become burdensome, most of us crave an escape to a place where the pressures, annoyances, distractions, and anxieties of ordinary life are held at bay. More often than not, we crave an escape to wild nature. Unfortunately, for most city dwellers, retreating to nature is not that simple. Then again, we may not have to. I believe God has gifted His people with the ability to experience His calming peace practically anywhere—including the concrete canyons of metropolis or the endless plains of suburbia.

In the nineteenth century, American painter and anthropologists, George Catlin, wrote: “The further we become separated from the pristine wilderness and beauty, the more pleasure does the mind of enlightened man feel in recurring to those scenes when he can have them preserved for his eyes and his mind to dwell upon.”

What Catlin is saying—and what I’m suggesting—is this:  Even when we are unable to escape to wild habitats in order to experience the calming peace God makes available in nature, we can still experience it in our minds. We can mentally retreat to our own private “Quiet Place.”

There was such a retreat for me less than an hour’s drive from my home, and for years this lovely spot was one of my favorite places to sit and enjoy the feel and sounds of wild nature. Although it was destroyed in the tragic forest fire of 2003 (see part thirteen), in my mind’s eye—even after all these years—I can still imagine myself once again sitting adjacent to a bubbling creek, sheltered by the sweeping arms of pine and cedar, and hearing the soft fluttering and calls of neighboring birds in the surrounding foliage.

James tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). Those of us fortunate enough to know the Creator of all life can experience the amazing gift of being able to mentally escape to wild habitats, and there enjoy the calming peace God provides in nature. This same experience is available to anyone who sincerely seeks to know and follow the only true and living God. As the apostle Paul put it, “the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth.” Further, He wishes that all people “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: (Acts 17: 24, 27).

This is one of God’s many “good and perfect gift(s)” offered to the entire human family—but experienced most fully and powerfully by his people. ©

ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

Al's extra photos 007 (640x432)Part Thirteen:  A Heartbreaking Experience: Where God’s Visual Presence in Nature Was Destroyed

Sometimes it’s easier to understand a concept by looking at its polar opposite. In the same way, the clearest way to experience and appreciate God’s beauty symbolically revealed in nature (see part twelve) is to experience nature without God’s beauty visually present. This happened to me.

For most of my life, I’ve lived in Southern Californian. With the majority of the state’s burgeoning population crammed into three coastal counties, there is little remaining native forest to enjoy. But a forty-five minute drive southeast from my home is a relatively small forested area (less than thirty thousand acres) located largely within the boundaries of Rancho Cuyamaca State Park. Its prominent features are three mountain peaks ranging from 5,700 to more than 6,500 feet in elevation. Ponderosa and Coulter pines, incense cedar, and black oak dominated the forest. Myriad varieties of indigenous wildlife made the park their home.

Tragically, in October, 2003, a careless hunter outside park boundaries started a fire that quickly turned into a raging inferno. It burned out of control for days, destroying most of the parks forested habitats.

The first time I visited the park after the fire was extinguished will forever be lodged in my memory. Where once stood ancient pines and oaks, only charcoal stumps remained. Where wild chaparral and wind-swept meadows thrived, nothing but ash carpeted the sterile ground. Populations of deer, squirrels, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, wild turkeys, and other birds and mammals once common throughout the park were decimated. It was a heartbreaking experience, and I could not hold back my tears at the great loss.

Here’s the analogy I want to make from this horrible tragedy. I can’t image anyone—not not even the most staunch, thoroughly committed urbanite—could fail to recognize the incomparable difference between the beauty of a pristine forest and the harsh, barren landscape of scorched earth. This is not something we need to analyze or ponder. It comes naturally, an instinctive awareness. We intuitively respond to the beauty and wonder of the natural world and are appalled by the evil and ugliness of ruined, despoiled nature. A seared and blackened forest points to evil, despair, bleakness, pain, and loss. The beauty of unspoiled forests points to goodness, vitality, peace, serenity, wisdom, renewal—the wonder and awe of God’s creation.

God has blessed the human race by creating nature to be a pointer to Him. Besides nature’s beauty, many other symbolic, visual expressions of God’s divine qualities, character, and promises to the human race are revealed in nature. In next week’s blog will look at the peace and restoration God offers in nature—as Jesus and Israel’s greatest king experienced. ©

ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

014 (640x418) (640x418) (2) (640x418)Part Twelve: What Is God’s Beauty—and How Does Nature Reflect It?

God is Spirit and therefore invisible. So when we speak of God’s beauty, we are not referring to a visible, aesthetic quality; but rather to a combination of qualities that include His love, perfection, goodness, faithfulness—qualities that pleases our intellect, moral attitudes, emotional states, and, especially, our intuitive yearning to know and to be known by God. God’s invisible but clearly identified beauty is seen in His shining glory displayed in creation; in his love and provision for all life on Earth; and in the colors, design, and variety of natural phenomena.

The soul-lifting splendor of nature’s wild beauty is God’s painting. The stirring sights and rhythmic sounds of nature; the exotic smells and limitless textures of plants; the incredibly diverse fauna—all offer the spiritual seeker a felt connectedness with the beauty of God’s presence in creation. As such, nature’s beauty can fill human hearts with peace and serenity—and inspire our mind to seek and experience the Creator of it all. Theologian Alister McGrath captured this when he wrote:

The beauty of the world . . . reflects the beauty of God. Nature is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of God. To study the wonder of nature is to glimpse tantalizing facets of the face of God, and long to see more. . . . Our sense of wonder at the beauty of nature is thus an indirect appreciation of the beauty of God. Rightly perceived, nature points beyond itself.

When I wander through a mountain forest or across a blossoming meadow; when I sit beside a cascading river or below a plunging waterfall; when I peer into the grandest of canyons or feel the energy and power of a summer thunderstorm—it is easy to recognize God’s creative attention to the beauty and harmony of nature. Even the most stark and lifeless looking desert displays remarkable artistic and creative workmanship: wind and rain sculptured dunes and sandstone cliffs; monoliths, batholiths, and desolate, inhospitable, alkali crusted dry lake beds; and the bizarre—even weird looking—plants, crawling insects, and other slithering creatures. All convey the Creator’s signature; His fingerprints are everywhere. As award winning author, Philip Yancey, well said, “nature’s works speak loudly of their Creator.”

The clearest way to recognize and appreciate God’s visual beauty revealed in nature is to experience nature without God’s visual beauty. In next week’s blog, I’ll share a heart-wrenching personal experience to illustrate this. ©

ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

DSCN1971 (640x480)Part Eleven: What Can We Learn about God from the Book of Nature—and How Do We Read It?

God is the creator of all that exists; therefore, ultimately, all truth and goodness come from Him. Since the Book of Nature is designed to be a visual (general) revelation of God, we can rightly expect the things we observe in nature to provide glimpses of fundamental truths about God. Everything God made points to God or, as C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “Everything God has made has some likeness to Himself”—a “symbol” or “picture” of his eternal qualities.”

How do we recognize God’s self-disclosure in the Book of Nature? It requires that we look at nature more as a poet than a scientist, that is, being mindful of—and alert to—the sensory feelings, images, and insights wild nature conjures us. This includes looking afresh at nature through the filter of his creative splendor rooted in the design, ecological harmony, provisions, and beauty of nature.

Although the Book of Nature is an abridged, limited version of God’s more detailed revelation in the Bible, what it does reveal about God is in perfect harmony and consistent with Holy Scriptures. It teaches that God reveals real truth and knowledge in and through what He created. Everywhere we look in wild nature there are symbols and illustrations of God’s divine nature, eternal truths, and character: His presence, creativity, mercy, grace, love, care, glory, provisions, trustworthiness, resurrection, and eternal promises to both human and non-human life. Former religious skeptic turned theologian, Alister McGrath—referring to his own spiritual journey—speaks to this in his book, The Reenchantment of Nature: “I now [know] that nature was charged with the grandeur and majesty of God. To engage with nature was to gain a deeper appreciate of divine wisdom.”

My intent in the remaining blogs in this series on “Encountering God in the Wilderness” is to show that the theological realities symbolized and illustrated by natural phenomenon are clear pointers to the God of creation, who is also the God the Bible. Of course this must be the case, since God is the author of both the Bible and the Book of Nature. By His very nature, God would not—could not—contradict himself.

The most obvious testimony of God’s self-disclosure in nature—and one virtually all people instinctively react to—is nature’s matchless beauty. We’ll begin our investigation of the contents of the Book of Nature here. How is God revealed in the beauty of nature? This will be the topic of next week’s blog article. ©

ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

DSCN3711 (640x480)Part Ten: Is the Book of Nature Only for Christians, or Can Non-Christians “Read” and Understand it?

To any willing observer, the invisible God reveals visible expressions of his existence and certain attributes in and through nature. The Bible explains the reason for this in Ecclesiastes 3:11 and Romans 1:19-20. They tell us that God has place within the human heart an innate awareness of his existence—which, through contact with nature, can surface from the subconscious and move into our consciousness.

Wild nature, then, is a universal call for people of all faiths to seek encounters with God, and it is often in the wilderness that people feel closest to God. Theology professor, William Dyrness, explains: “The universal reaction to [nature’s] pristine beauty is that one feels close to God, or whatever universal power one believes in. Here more than any other place we are sharing in God’s own delight in his handiwork, the delight that moved him to say in the beginning, ‘It is very good.’”

Keep in mind, however, as we saw in part four, only God as described in the Judeo/Christian religion has the necessary qualifications to reveal his presence in and through nature. Only this God could author the Book of Nature. That said, nature can be a compelling introduction for any impartial spiritual seeker who wishes to meet the true God of creation. General Revelation (the Book of Nature) provides a legitimate way for people of any faith to begin to learn truth and knowledge about the only true and living God—with the help of Christian witness—and thereby begin to recognize their mistaken assumptions about other so-called (non-existent) gods.

Since the Christian Scriptures provide the most insight into God’s general revelation in nature, it is not surprising that its authors would record many examples of people encountering and communing with God in wild, lonely habitats—and it was in the wilderness that God often reached out to his faithful followers. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. John the Baptist received his commission to be the forerunner of the Jewish Messiah (Jesus) in the wilderness (Luke 3:2-4), and it was in the wilderness that He preach his “baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4). Jesus confronted and rebuked Satan’s temptations in a desert wilderness prior to beginning his ministry among the Jews (Matt. 4:1-11). He appointed His twelve chosen apostles on a mountainside (Mark 3:13); preached his most famous sermon in a mountain valley (Matt. 5:1); and gave a few of His disciples a glimpse of His heavenly splendor on a “high mountain” (Matt. 17:1-2).

This brings us to a turning point in this series of blog articles on “Encountering God in the Wilderness.” Future blogs will focus on examples of the many symbols and illustrations widespread throughout nature that God uses to disclose fundamental truths and insight into His divine nature, eternal character, and eternal promises to the human race—and all life on Earth. This new direction will begin in next week’s blog. (C)

Part Nine: ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

DSCN3334 - Copy (640x480)Part Nine: Does Science Contribute to or Contradict the Book of Nature?

The previous eight blog in this series have established that the visible world of nature offers glimpses into the unseen, spiritual side of reality. Wild nature introduces spiritual seekers to some of God’s fundamental divine qualities, in particular that God exists, but also insight into his character, creative genius, love for the human race and nonhuman life, and fervent desire for all people seek and find him.

Since knowledge about God is beyond the purview and limits of science, knowledge from God revealed through nature greatly surpasses anything we can learn from science. George Washington Carver (1864-1943) captured this idea when he wrote, “Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.”

This is not to say that the empirical science is unimportant in terms of understanding God’s general revelation in nature. In fact, as we’ll see in later blogs, science corroborates general revelation and enhances our wonder of nature. Indeed, studying nature can increase our faith in God. But I am saying that in order to gain knowledge about God through nature, it requires us to look at nature more as a poet than a scientist. This means we must be mindful of—and alert to—the sensory feelings, images, reflections, and insights wild nature conjures up.

Time spent in nature can awaken sensations and feelings that often lie dormant and unexpressed in the human heart, in particular the desire to think about and worship God. Wild nature’s majesty and grandeur softens inflated self-esteem, humbles tendencies toward self-exaltation, eases stress, and offers peace to troubled souls. Nature can be a place for spiritual and emotional retreat and renewal. Jesus himself, when the pressures of ministry became great, withdrew to lonely places to pray, to be refreshed (Mark 1 35; Luke 6:12) and sometimes just to be by himself (John 6:15). And he taught his disciples to do the same thing (Mark 6:30-31). We’ll see how all these and many other experiences in nature play in later blog articles.

Is God’s self-disclosure in nature just for Christians, or can anyone seeking truth about God encounter the only living God actually revealed in nature? This will be the topic in next week’s blog article. ©

PART EIGHT: ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

DSCN2363 (640x480) (2)

Part Eight: Does the Bible Confirm the Book of Nature? Absolutely! And in Many Places.

The Bible provides numerous examples of general revelation, which confirm that knowledge of God is accessible through the Book of Nature. A few passages are sufficient to demonstrate this:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
(Psalm 19:1-4)

This passage captures the essence of general revelation. Besides the self-evident fact that God exists, it portrays physical creation as revealing His awe-inspiring “glory” and artistic craftsmanship (“the work of his hands”). The heavens “declare,” “proclaim,” “pour forth speech,” and “reveal knowledge” about God. In other words, the entire cosmos and the laws of nature make known to all people God’s spectacular creative acts, his transcendent and sovereign power, and the beauty of creation.

All of these visual manifestations should inspire the human race to acknowledge God’s existence, so that, as the apostle Paul told the Greek philosophers in Athens, “they would seek God” because “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).

Elsewhere, Paul exhorts people living in the ancient Greek city of Lystra to recognize that nature is a “testimony” to the one true, creating God. He does this by pointing out that through nature God provides for all their essential needs:

The living God, who made the heavens and earth and sea and everything in them . . . has not left himself without testimony: He has shown you kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their season; he provides you with plenty of food and fills you hearts with joy (Acts 14;15-17).

The most explicit statement of God’s self-disclosure in nature is in the book of Romans:

. . . what may be known about God is plain to them [the human race], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1: 19-21).

More than any anywhere else in the Bible, this passage confirms that general revelation—the Book of Nature—provides reliable knowledge about God. This passage refers to four of God’s “invisible qualities” that are “clearly seen” through nature (“what has been made”): God is divine, all-powerful, eternal, and, most explicit of all, the Creator.

It is God who placed the stars and planets in the heavens, stretched the ears of jackrabbits, colored the forests green, and causes waves pound upon the seashore. It is God that gave odd shapes to the elephant and giraffe, put scales on fish and reptiles, feathers on birds, and fur on mammals—and created the human race to love him and enjoy him forever.

Can science contribute to—or contradict—any of this? We’ll see the limits and possible contributions of science in next week’s blog article.(C)

NOTE: Since this series of blog articles are adapted from a new book in progress, I’d appreciate any sincere comments or suggestions you may have.

Part Seven: Encountering God in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Journey of Discovery

DSCN4083 (640x480)Part Seven:  How Did C. S. Lewis Say God Is Revealed in Nature?  Are There Contradictions Between God Revealed in the Bible and God Revealed in Nature?

We saw in part four that the Judeo/Christian religion provides the most data about God’s self-discloser in nature, and the religion which develops the concept most thoroughly. For this reason, more than in any other alleged holy book, the Christian Bible gives clarity, insight, and verification of what God has revealed in nature. This means that general revelation is in complete harmony with the Christian scriptures; the two are in perfect agreement because author of the Bible and the author of Book of Nature are one and the same. Moreover, the Bible also serves as a filter that allows us to identify the limits and set boundaries on the extent of what we can expect to discover through general revelation in nature. Renaissance scholar and Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, provides helpful illustrations of these limitations:

Everything God has made has some likeness to Himself. Space is like Him in its hugeness: not that the greatness of space is the same kind of greatness as God’s, but it is a sort of symbol of it, or a translation of it into non-spiritual terms. Matter is like God in having energy: though, again, of course, physical energy is a different kind of thing from the power of God. The vegetable world is like Him because it is alive, and He is the “living God.” But life, in this biological sense, is not the same as life there is in God: it is only a kind of symbol or shadow of it. When we come onto the animals, we find other kinds of resemblances in addition to biological life. The intense activity and fertility of the insects, for example, is a first dim resemblance to the unceasing activity and the creativeness of God. In the higher mammals we get the beginnings of instinctive affection. That is not the same thing as the love that exists in God: but it is like it—rather in the way that a picture drawn on a flat piece of paper can nevertheless be “like” a landscape. (Mere Christianity, 139)

In my book, Will Dogs Chase Cats in Heaven?: People, Pets, and Wild Animals in the Afterlife (see the cover photo on my home page), I give examples and clarification of animal “affection” (love) and many other emotional and cognitive characteristics that sentient animals share with people. ©

In next week’s blog article we’ll examine biblical testimonies that verify the consistency between what the Book of Nature teaches and what God reveals in the Bible.

NOTE: Since this series of blog articles are adapted from a new book in progress, I’d appreciate any sincere comments or suggestions you may have.

Part Six: Encountering God in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Journey of Discovery

DSCN2000 (800x600) - Copy - Copy (640x480)Part Six: Why Do Some People Fail to See Evidence Of God in Nature; and is the Book of Nature and Science Compatible?

One of the great blessings God has granted the family of man, as his most beloved creation, is his self-disclosure in nature—and making it accessible to every human being who ever lived. He did this for a reason. People who respond to God in nature and truly seek to find him can find him. The first century Christian apostle and missionary, Paul of Tarsus, speaking to a group of Greek philosophers in ancient Athens, explained it this way:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all [people] life and breath and everything else. . . . God did this so that [people] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:24-27, emphasis added).

Notice this promise has limited application—it is for those who “seek him.” God has provided enough evidence in nature to confirm his existence and insight into his nature and character—but he will not coerce people to seek him who choose not to. And here’s the rub. All people have the opportunity to encounter God through creation, “because God has made it plain to them” (Romans 1:19). People who reject this general revelation actually “suppress” truth about God revealed through creation (v.18). So encountering God in nature is a matter of the will. Those who seriously seek God through what he “made” will find him, said Paul. Those who don’t won’t.

General Revelation

When referring to God’s self-disclosure and activities in nature, most theologians today use the term general revelation rather than Book of Nature. It’s called “general” because it is limited in information about God. For example, it does not reveal God’s redemptive plan for the human race nor the depth of the immeasurable love he offers all of us. But it does reveal that God exists and is the creator of life and the cosmos, and that he is eternal, all-powerful, and sovereign over all life on Earth.

For this reason the visible world of nature can be a window into unseen, spiritual realities inaccessible to science and impossible to fully comprehend independent of divine assistance (the Holy Spirit). In other words, God has created two realities: the invisible, spiritual realm undetected by our five senses, and the physical, visible realm accessible to our senses and science. Nature can be a bridge between the two. On the one hand, it is thoroughly physical; yet, because the natural world is the product of God’s creation, it is filled with pictures and symbols of divine realities. Thus, for sincere and earnest spiritual seekers, nature provides remarkable illustrations of divine truths and insight into God’s wisdom, knowledge, creativity, grandeur, and more. We’ll look at many of these in later blogs.

But first, this raises questions that will be answered in the next two blog articles: Is the God revealed generally in nature and the God revealed explicitly in the Bible one and the same? In particular, how does nature reveal God? (C)

NOTE:  Since this series of blog articles are adapted from a new book in progress, I’d appreciate any sincere comments or suggestions you may have.

Part Five: Encountering God in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Journey of Discovery

wildlife book two 061 (640x418)Part five: The Book of Nature: Who Wrote, Who Has Read it, Why I Read It?

Twelfth-century theologians used the term Book of Nature as a metaphorical description of God’s revelation outside the Bible and through creation (nature). Although wildness is only a partial reflection of the greater beauty and majesty of the Creator who fashioned it, the Book of Nature can enhance anyone’s appreciation, wonder, and delight in God.

I’ve been reading this “book” for much of my adult life (I explain why below), and down through the centuries numerous Christian thinkers and scholars have acknowledged its truth and value as a revelation of God. Here are a few examples:

Thomas Kempis (1380-1471), author of one the best known Christian devotional books, captured the essence of the Book of Nature when he wrote: “If thy heart were right, then every creature would be a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and abject, but it reflects the goodness of God.” Reformation theologian, Martin Luther (1483-1541), expressed this same truth: “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) agreed, but illustrated it quite differently: “The creation is quite like a spacious and splendid house, provided and filled with the most exquisite and the most abundant furnishings. Everything in it tells of God.” The brilliant eighteenth century American philosopher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), put it simply: “There are many truths concerning God, and our duty to him, which are evident by the light of Nature.”

The wilderness has always been a place of high adventure for me, a place of excitement, expectancy, and inspiration. Its beauty lifts my spirit; its sounds and smells invigorate my senses. The very word wilderness conjures up in my mind memories of shadowy forests blanketed with lofty trees and lush vegetation; of thundering rivers and mile high mountains; of bears, moose, wolves, and myriad other free-roaming animals. Other times I reminisce about the desert wildernesses I’ve explored: arid mountains with long views across broad and lonely valleys; amazingly adaptive plants and animals; rock, wind, heat, silence, solitude—a place where one can really be alone.

Behind all these whimsical daydreams and nostalgic reflections lies one unalterable reality. The source and substance of all the wildernesses that have meant so much to me—and played an influential role in my life since childhood—is the Creator. Not an impersonal, aloof, unapproachable creator, but a personal God who desires his creatures to know him, to draw close to him, and to learn from him. He is a God of such extraordinary love for the human race that he has provided, through the grandeur and mystery of nature, an opportunity for everyone to discover his existence and begin to experience his divine presence. ©

But . . . do all people benefit from the Book of Nature? No. Is the Book of Nature a book of science? Yes and no. I’ll explain both these answers in next week’s blog article.

NOTE:  Since this series of blog articles are adapted from a new book in progress, I’d appreciate any sincere comments or suggestions you may have.