All posts by Dan Story

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BLOG SERIES ON “ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS” IS ON HOLD.

NOTE:

As I pointed out in the introduction to this present blog series (July 10), all the articles are adapted from a new book in progress. My blog on October 25th catches up with what I have written so far. Before I can continue the series, I will have to finish the book—which means a break in posting for a few months. If you would like to be notified when I resume this blog series, go to my home page, click on “contact,” send me a request, and I’ll add you to my blog email list. I do not share email addresses.

ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

015 (640x480)Part Sixteen: How Nature Points Back to Eden—and Forward to the New Heaven and Earth

The Bible reveals what many people instinctively already recognize. God has placed within the human heart knowledge of eternity and a desire to live forever (Eccl. 3:11, 14). To put it more explicitly, the human race, created in God’s image, intuitively longs for Heaven—a place free of evil, suffering, sorrow, natural disasters, and all the other tragic events that presently plague the human race. A place of peace, tranquility, safety, and eternal happiness: where God will dwell with His people (Rev. 21:1-4).

Another way to see this yearning for Paradise is that it’s reflected in the human family’s latent memory of Eden—the home God originally intended for His people—and our curious urge to return. Oxford Scholar Allister McGrath comments on this:

For writers such as Augustine and Lewis, the memory of Eden lingers, haunting humanity with its longing to regain entrance to this forbidden realm. Nature itself becomes a parable, charged with a divinely imbued potential to recreate the memory of Eden, and make us long to return to its now-deserted meadows. (A Brief History of Heaven)

Despite the fact that predators, poisonous snakes, and stinging insects dwell in the wilderness, the beauty and ecological harmony of nature still show a remnant of the peace and serenity of Eden—and a foretaste of our heavenly home. According to Isaiah (51:3; 65:17), Paul (Rom. 8:19-25), John (Rev. 21:1; 22: 3), and other biblical authors, God will one day redeem and restore all Earth’s wounded habitats to their original, Edenic-like, pristine state—but even better

Nature, then, provides a glimpse of both paradise lost and paradise promised (albeit imperfectly). On the one hand, although we can never return to Eden (Gen. 3: 22-24), nature points back to the home rejected by the first couple and awakens a desire to return. At the same time, nature looks forward to the eternal, incorruptible home God promises those who surrender their lives to the Savior of the world. In other words, in the here and now, the natural world gives us a preview—like the trailer of a move—of the promised future “Peaceable Kingdom” where all God’s people will live forever. (I develop and provide extensive biblical evidence for this in my book, Will Dogs Chase Cats in Heaven? People, Pets, and Wild Animals in the Afterlife.)  Elsewhere McGrath writes:

We journey in hope, knowing that the beauty of this world is a pointer to the glory of the next. . . . Nature is a sign—that it points to something even greater and that at least something of this greater wonder may be known through the natural world. . . . We must see nature as a continual reminded and symbol of a future renewed creation, a world that we do not yet know but believe to lie over the horizons of our human existence. . . . We must learn to see the present beauty of nature as a sign and promise of the coming glory of God, its creator. (The Reenchantment of Nature)

People who recognize God’s revealed presence in nature—and venture forth to learn about and choose to follow Jesus Christ—will be on a path that leads to an eternal home far more wonderful than anything we can possibly imagine or experience in this world. ©

 

ENCOUNTERING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

DSCN4393 (640x480) (640x480)Part Fifteen: How Is Nature’s Healing a Picture of God Healing the Human Heart and Spirit?

I live in an unincorporated community in the foothills of Southern California. My street ends a third of a mile from home, but a dirt road continues on, passing into national forest land as it winds its way for ten miles through rugged foothills and steep canyons. The native flora in this area is a complex, pungent smelling, densely growing, evergreen shrub community called collectively “chaparral.” It is the habitat of mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, fox, deer, raccoons, opossums, weasels, rattlesnakes, wild turkeys, hawks, and dozens of other varieties of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

Ten years ago to this very day (October 23, 2007) an out-of-control wildfire raged through my local wilderness. (This is not the same fire mentioned in part thirteen). Fueled by seventy-plus mph gusts of Santa Ana winds, the inferno burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of structures, including fifty of my neighbors’ homes. It burned to within twenty feet of my own house.

A few weeks after the fire was extinguished, I rode my mountain bike for several miles along the dirt road. Not a single piece of greenery survived; no wildlife was visible. Only charcoal skeletons of chaparral and, in the canyon bottoms, scorched live oaks and sycamores were all that remained of the pristine “elfin forest.”

Despite of the devastation, however, within weeks signs of healing were apparent. Sucker roots sent forth green shoots at the base of blackened chaparral, and grasses emerged to cover much of the scorched earth. By the following spring, wildflowers and saplings flourished, providing food for returning populations of wildlife. Today, ten years later, one would have to look closely over much of the land to see the scares of the great conflagration. God brought healing to the scorched and wounded earth.

This is a picture of the healing and restoration God offers those who call upon His name in faith. Perhaps not the physical healing we observe in nature—although sometimes He chooses to do even that—but most assuredly emotional and spiritual healing.

Just as a destructive forest fire, hurricane, or earthquake can ravage nature, so do unexpected storms of grief, hurt, and despair ravage human lives, leaving in their wake profound emotional and spiritual pain, suffering, and loss. Yet just as God, in His profound goodness, heals the tragic effects of seemingly ruined nature, so too He can lovingly heal the wounds of human suffering. And just as some of the wildflowers that emerged following the firestorm could only germinate after the fire’s destructive power provided more fertile ground, so too the heart wrenching emotional and spiritual pain that human sometimes suffer can be a catalysis for spiritual transformation and healing.

The Psalmist assures us that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (147:3). And Jesus offers longed for comfort when He promises: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11: 28-29). My prayer and hope is that readers experiencing severe grief and loss—as all of us do at times—will seek the healing comfort God offers:  the only living God who is “not far from each one of us” (Acts. 17: 27). ©

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.