Two weeks ago I made a trip up to Loch Leven, and even though my visit was brief, I did take a moment to hear, and listen to, the sound of the stream.
There weren’t many people in camp that day; no children running around, laughing, screaming. So all I could hear was that distant whisper of Mountain Home Creek, full of snowmelt coming down from the highest mountains in southern California.
What a gorgeous, beautiful sound!
I have spent nights sleeping on the ground next to streams, some of them much larger; rivers with names like Merced and Tuolumne, sounding more like a roar than a whisper.
It’s incredible how peaceful a roar can be.
On those same trips, I have walked through forests and heard the cool, almost eerie sound of the wind whistling through pine trees.
On those same trips I have heard the sounds of woodpeckers and blue jays and hawks, as well as black bears and marmots and pikas and frogs and rattlesnakes and mosquitoes - a whole chorus of animal sounds.
And, also on those same trips, I have heard the sound of sheer silence, standing atop a barren mountain pass. Just complete, utter silence. A silence so complete that you wonder if your ears have stopped working.
It’s the sound of nothing - an amazing “nothing.”
It’s the sound the disciples heard when Jesus calmed the waves - there was wind and waves and all kinds of noise, so much noise that the disciples were terrified, but when Jesus calmed the wind and waves, there was what the scripture calls “a great calm.”
It’s the sound Elijah heard on Mount Horeb, the sound of sheer silence. Elijah wanted to encounter God, and there on the mountain there was a windstorm and an earthquake and fire,... but God was found in the silence.
That kind of silence is deafening...
And what a blessing it is to be able to hear a sound like that! It freezes you. You don’t want to move. For a moment, you fear that the sound of your footstep, or the sound of your breathing, or the sound of your heartbeat will ruin the moment… but then you remember that the sounds of your footstep, your breathing, your heartbeat, are also holy, miraculous sounds.
When I decided to preach an Earth Day sermon, I didn’t want it to be another sermon on how we are destroying the planet. I wanted it to be a sermon that simply takes delight in God’s creation - with pictures I took in nature.
After all, doesn’t scripture do that?
From Isaiah 55:
“The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
From Job 12:
“Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”
From Psalm 98:
“Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy.”
From Proverbs 30:
“Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.”
I love that verse. It doesn’t try to make sense of all these miraculous things; it simply dwells in them, in wonder and delight.
When I was 16, I started teaching nature and environmental science merit badges to boy scouts at summer camp. I did this for four summers in a row.
The requirements for these badges include times of observation. In other words, just sitting there, watching nature.
This may or may not surprise you, but these are among the hardest requirements for scouts to complete; so much so, that over the years, as the requirements have been updated, the required amount of time spent observing has been decreased.
It’s just so hard to sit still and observe.
Yet these times can be incredibly powerful. Not just for the knowledge gained about science and nature through observation, but also for the calm spirit that comes over a person when communing with nature.
It’s not just noise that clutters our minds; it’s thoughts. It’s information. It’s all the stupid memes and clickbait articles we see on social media.
Our minds are in a state of constant bombardment, and are never allowed a moment’s rest.
But nature helps.
When I counsel camps at Loch Leven, I lead an activity with children in which I teach them to stack rocks. It sounds weird, but it looks cool. The towers seem to defy gravity.
But here’s a secret: it’s not really about stacking rocks.
Here’s how the activity goes: First, I have the children find a small rock that they can hold in their hand.
Next, we sit in a circle, and I ask them to examine their rock.
Then, I collect all their rocks, and I begin passing them around the circle, one rock at a time, and each child is to hold on to “their” rock when it comes by, but pass the others along.
Can they remember which rock is theirs?
Then we do it again, but this time I have the children close their eyes. Can they tell which rock is theirs just by feeling it?
I explain to them that in order to balance rocks, they need to really get to know each rock, and this is how we practice doing that.
Then, we start stacking rocks.
Here’s the thing about stacking rocks: it requires singleness of thought. It requires focus. It requires the fullness of one’s attention.
And some of the children really get into it. Some of them continue working to stack rocks into towers during their freetime.
And while they are doing it, their mind is cleared of all distracting thoughts. Like I said: it’s not really about stacking rocks. They’re in nature, they’re hearing the sounds of nature, they are working with nature…and they’re not even thinking about checking their phones! They’re finding focus. Even kids with attention deficit can spend great lengths of time focusing their minds on this task.
One of my favorite movies is The Last Samurai. In the movie, Nathan Algren is captured by the Samurai and taken to their remote village. I guess it’s probably not a coincidence that the village is in the mountains, where nature is so much more accessible… and while he is there, he learns the way of the Samurai.
One day, this involves fencing. Algren keeps getting beaten. Then he is given this advice, in broken English: “Too many mind.”
Algren, not understanding, says, “Excuse me?”
Then he is told that he “mind the sword, mind the enemy, mind the people watching… too many mind.” But in order to succeed… “No mind.”
Nature helps you focus your mind. We have way too many things going on in our minds. “Too many mind.” All this clutter in our minds keeps us awake at night. It makes us stressed and anxious during the day.
But an activity like rockstacking, or observing nature, or spending time in creation without the noises and distractions of modern life… helps us find our center, our focus, our mind.
This is why, every so often, I just need to get out and hike. For me, it’s not about reaching the top of the mountain. It’s not about reaching any sort of destination. It’s about experiencing the beauty of the earth. It’s about quieting the mind. It’s about making room in the mind for God.
Time in nature helps me quiet my body and my mind, and become aware of the present moment. Not only that - it helps me be grateful for this present moment. It's easy to feel envious of others, and to always focus on one's own worries. But time in nature helps put things in perspective. Time in nature teaches me that the things I worry about aren't as bad as I thought they were, that much of my worrying is pointless.
And didn't Jesus make this exact point… and didn’t he make that point by using an illustration from nature? “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus said. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these...Therefore do not worry… Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries…”
Why do we spend so much time worrying about the future? The future isn't even real. The only thing that's real is the present. The present is a great blessing. Yet our minds are rarely in the present.
What do you have right now, in this moment? Is anything that you worry about present right now, in this moment? Or is your worry about things that haven’t even happened yet, that haven’t even become real yet? The present, right now, is full of blessing. Don’t miss the blessing of the present by worrying too much about the future.
Time in nature helps me do that. Time in nature helps me become aware of the present. In nature, if I’m on a hike, I'm aware of the present. I’m aware of what’s happening right now. I’m aware that I'm hiking. I’m aware of my surroundings. I'm aware that I'm breathing. I'm aware that I'm alive. I'm aware of my body - hiking along the trail, I’m aware of the sweat, the blister that’s forming, the tired muscles - and it's all a blessing.
In daily life, I might be so preoccupied and so worried about the future that I don't even notice my body in the present. I don't notice the tension in my shoulders, and because I don't notice, I don't give that tension the attention it deserves. And since I don't give it any attention, it grows worse.
When I'm hiking, if I start to feel a blister forming, I stop and take care of it. If I get out of breath, I slow down or take a rest. And if I start to feel overheated, I find a way to cool down.
How wonderful it is to find a shady spot and feel the breeze and let the sweat slowly evaporate off your skin, lowering your body temperature! And what a miracle it is, how your body and nature work together, nature’s breeze and your sweat work together to cool you down! What a miracle that is!
It all makes you realize just how amazing all of creation is: the breeze, the sky, the air, the trees - everything! Including you! Your body, your miraculous, holy body - your heart, your lungs, your muscles, your sweat - that too is a part of God's creation.
And it is all good. It is all very good.
And it is all connected. Interconnected. You, and all of creation, are one.
Any effort to care for creation, to care for the earth, must start with this. It must start with wonder. It must start with awe. It must start with awareness.
You need to find a way to discover just how good, how beautiful, how holy all of creation is.
Everything in creation is holy.
Every place, every space is sacred ground.
Once you realize that, then you will finally understand the importance and the necessity of caring for the earth God has created. Caring for the earth is caring for yourself, because you are one with all of creation.
Once you spend time with nature, communing with nature, falling in love with nature, finding God in nature… then caring for the earth becomes a holy calling.
And a single piece of litter lying on the ground is as if someone had come into a magnificent cathedral and covered it with graffiti.
And every effort to strip away environmental protections is as if someone said “go ahead - bulldoze right through the very garden God himself has planted.”
And every lawmaker who wants to allow more pollution from coal mines or who wants to relax rules on auto emissions is someone who wants to destroy the delicate balance between air and wind and trees and body that is such a beautiful, miraculous part of God’s creation.
I am thankful that smog today isn’t as bad as it was when I was growing up. Fuel emission standards and clean air acts and smog checks have helped clean up our air.
However, we still need to do more. We need to do more to reduce pollution. We need to reduce consumption. We need to develop and subsidize clean, sustainable sources of energy, and slow down climate change… and we need to find a way to keep plastic out of our oceans and out of our food chain.
Because we are connected to the earth. What happens to the earth will happen to us. And this web of life that connects us to creation is holy. It is a miracle. It is good. And God calls us to be stewards and caretakers of creation.