A Stellar Performance
A swarm of 20 Stellar Jays once attacked a large owl who ventured too close to a nest in a canyon one time. The scene caused so much attention and was so disconcerting to the birds that it was the event of the day in that small gorge in the middle of nowhere.
What was the insight to be gained from this? That there are other worlds teeming with wisdom to those who will get outside the realm of the artificial. Nobody else saw that scene with the Stellar Jays, and it would have happened whether I observed it or not. The activities of the owl were important to those birds even though not important to anybody else. Not everything is about me, the result of me, the cause of me, or influenced by my presence. It was freeing to realize that maybe I’m not as important as I thought myself to be. I can’t get every sale, win over every crowd, be the life of every party. I’m am absolutely unnecessary and irrevelant to some people. Things will be fine if I’m not everything to everybody.
Nature is a great humiliator and a place to get perspective. Mountains, for example, put back us in our place, reminders that we’re not as big as we think we are. Nature is a place to gather bits of wisdom that we can apply in a complex civilized world. Keen observers will uncover endless principles for living. Many city people would think you are weird for not only observing a scene with Stellar Jays and an owl, but also telling about it. Yet it’s important to preserve places of untouched natural beauty so that we can ask, “Why are things that way?” “Where is my place?” “What is God trying to tell me?” The apparent randomness of a sage bush growing next to a knot weed plant in a semi arid grass plain may have more wisdom than at first glance. Nature is so incomprehensible it has lead weaker minds to conclude it is random.
Office cubicles, computers, traffic, meetings, L-trains, and deadlines have an adventure all their own as these are the structures and mediums for success in a modern world. And the city can feel like God, the constant activity and movement creating the sense that there is something bigger around us that we’re a part of. But the city can be a substitute for God, the rate race an addicting treadmill of activity that creates the illusion of progress and keeping people on a spin cycle of spiritual mediocrity. It has a centrifugal force all its own making it hard to pull away from, deceiving people that they’re getting ahead when maybe they’re souls are mal-developed and grooving blind spots more deeply. It’s why people never leave cluster housing, barrios, and inner city projects because it’s the only identity they have ever known. The ghetto may cultivate street smarts, but it’s not a well rounded education. There is a toughness and a wisdom that can only be found by living in close proximity with the world as God created it. Ironically, the more synthetic we get the greater our need for nature. Getting in the real outdoors gets us outside of ourselves.
The popularity of Outward Bound courses, the Discovery channel, hunting programs, and shows like Survivor and Man vs. Wild, reveal there are stirrings in the heart for something more than the artificial recreations of the suburb and subdivision. Nature is fascinating to us because it’s foreign to us. It’s like discovering a new frontier all over again that is deeply agreeable. Simply being in touch with nature would do much to heal the wounds of an impulsive world. Some theologians even see evidence in the Scriptures that the city is a source of great evil. Emerson observed as far back as the 1800’s that there is an “advantage which the country life possesses for a powerful mind, over the artificial and curtailed life of cities” Litigation, barrios, smog, bureaucracy and a disintegration of core values aren‘t cutting it for many of us and we would, if for a time, trade the concrete jungle for the real one. Ironically, even sophisticated city living doesn’t mitigate independence and the feeling of loneliness. Feeling the encroachment of civilization in 1856, William Jackson said when he went West: “All I want is that all encompassing ceaseless occupation of mind and body”. Interesting how the city, with all it’s business, didn’t provide that.
We work out at the gym during the lunch hour to capture that “all encompassing occupation of mind and body.” But it doesn‘t seem enough. We churn for a life where the physical and mental challenges to survive are built in to the process. Movies depicting adventure of other times and places are popular because the tasks were simple and clear cut, men had to be men and use all of their physical and mental prowess for the hunt to supply food for the family. There was no gender blending between the sexes, and people were resourceful to survive, the harsh elements forcing a unity and security with others. Independence didn’t have a lot of common sense. As achievement only has meaning in the context of relationship, the clan gave identity to accomplishment. Whether it was sharing in the exploits of the hunt or war, the clan is an idea that is lost by a technologically advanced world that is leaving independence and isolation in it’s wake. If getting outside with a shovel in hand and working the land is closer to how we’re made, then seeking God in raw untouched landscape has no comparison. Those who appreciate the wisdom in nature may not come full circle in submitting to the Creator, but they are closer to the order and rhythm of the universe.
All of Scripture was written against the backdrop of an agrarian society, life in close contact with the parameters of nature. So it’s authors certainly had an advantage in wisdom. Many of Jesus’ parables and analogies came from observing nature. The early patriarchs of the faith were called out from the sedentary lifestyle of the city to a nomadic life, staying in motion, living off the land and depending on God. Jesus choose a nomadic lifestyle for his ministry as an act of dependence when he observed, “foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head” (Matt.8:20). Though Esau gets thumped by commentators for losing his birthright, he actually did well for himself as an adept hunter acquainted with living off the land and founding a nation. John the Baptist grew strong in the desert by avoiding the distractions of city living. Amos was a grower of sycamore figs, a mountain man and an outsider that gave him perspective in confronting the culture war in Jerusalem.
David cut his teeth as a warrior by camping outside as a shepherd and enduring many perilous nights. He drew upon this intense training in the conflict with the Goliath when he said, “He who saved me from the paw of the bear and the paw of the lion will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (I Sam. 17:37). His outdoorsmanship allowed him to survive as a fugitive for several years through the canyons and badlands of En Gedi. The outdoors cultivates a character and confidence not possible anywhere else. There is even a theory put forth by psychologists that children who are raised on the land such as farms or ranches, in frequent contact with nature, have better self concepts than those who aren‘t. There is something about nature that matures in ways otherwise not possible.
The Old and New Testaments have to be interpreted through the context of people in close contact with the natural world. Even Christ himself, at key points in the business of his ministry, got away from people and escaped into the hills of Judea. There are several recorded times he went to the natural world for reflection. On one of those excursions to a mountain he took several others and a great miracle took place (Luke 9:27). On another occasion, Jesus used an analogy from farming to highlight the intense competition the world presents for winning the souls of men. In the parable of the soils, Jesus knew agronomics and identified four types of soils farmers plant seed into. As soil science is not immune to the laws of competition, Jesus pointed out that the competition in the harvest for the hearts of men will have invasive and noxious competitors.
Wisdom Waiting To Be Witnessed
Here are just a few lessons I picked up by being in nature. First, after observing all kinds of mammals, slow movement is the universal sign of friendliness in the animal world. Being patient and expecting a process allows for a greater chance of success in getting a visual of most species. This lesson can be translated to relationships, business dealings, contracts, as well as winning souls for the kingdom of God. Slow movement is a sign of trust that we don’t have an aggressive and selfish agenda. Getting to know people, listening, and just hanging around will give us greater accuracy in understanding and that our words will be precise to people’s needs. We have to step softly and frequent the habitats of our specimens to get close enough for shot at winning them. Without being a people pleaser and living to everyone’s expectations, Paul said “I become like all men so that I may win a few” (I Cor. 9:19).
Another lesson is that western forests which are characterized by big Ponderosa pines is ripe terrain for big game. But one can spend hours hiking and not see an elk, deer, bear, mountain lion, hawk or even a squirrel. It can seem so lifeless it’s easy to wonder, “what’s the deal? Where are they? If I was an animal, this is where I’d be.” But don’t be deceived. They’re there; they have probably seen you on many occasions and you don’t know it. The lesson is that things are rarely as they appear, and that includes people, God and circumstances. It’s easy to believe people aren’t noticing our positive contributions, but they are. They just don’t show it. It’s easy to curl up in a ball of self pity and think God doesn’t care when we’ve struck out so many times. With God things are happening even when it appears nothing is happening. Just mechanically knowing this can help us from doing something rash. “Eye has not seen nor has ear heard what God has planned for those who love Him” (I Cor. 2:9 ).
Third, if we’ve ever run out of water in a survival situation, it’s best to look for running water than a stagnant pool or lake. Though not a guarantee, running water has a better chance of being free of giardia and other bacteria. The lesson is that things in life that are moving tend to be healthier than those that aren’t. It’s the law of movement. Just as it’s easier to turn the wheel of a car once it starts moving, so God can turn us when we step out in faith first. When looking for a husband, women want a man who’s going somewhere. A healthy church is one that is not stagnant but dynamic, making adjustments, and in constant need of new insights from the Word. It’s possible to be deceived as some streams are contaminated. In the same way some people have all the appearance of progress but the movement is really meaningless activity on the squirrel cage of life, puppets pulled by the tyranny of the urgent and never able to be pinned down. But in general, movement and enthusiasm are indicators of health.
Fourth, God created everything with an advantage. In the animal world, if it’s not speed it’s often venom. A Black Widow doesn’t move with speed of a Wolf Spider to pursue prey or get out of danger, but it packs a wallop in venom. A Rattlesnake doesn’t have the speed of a Racer to get away from danger but it does have venom. The Bullsnake doesn’t have the advantage of being poisonous but eats Rattlesnake’s because it immune to it’s venom. It’s not only the strong that survive but also the shrewd and deceptive. Moths are easily overpowered by birds but some have two spots on its wings to mimic all seeing eyes. Other moths look like leaves or bark. The Walking Stick would be an easy meal if it didn’t look like a stick. This insight has great application. If someone doesn’t appear to have great outward gifts, they’re probably very helpful to an organization if their inward gifts are tapped into. An athlete may not have all the physical gifts but finds his place on the team as an emotional leader and encourager. Those not particularly blessed with good looks can flow freely alongside an organization with a good attitude, giving spirit, and creative mind without being stuck on themselves. Everybody has an advantage somewhere. Even with glaring weaknesses, everybody has a strength. There is always a benefit and positive for every difficulty.
Lessons are being sent to us from all directions in nature to those that will observe. These are just a few that I’ve learned from being outside. Even if we can’t get away to the woods, there is great wisdom in nature waiting to be observed in the city. Nature will never be completely eliminated because man will always be a natural entity, operating by natural processes. No matter how civilized we get, we will never get away from nature. God sends messages through his created world no matter how much man has rearranged the raw materials. A red tailed hawk once made a nest on the bevel of a high rise apartment building in New York City. Old buildings in downtown Dallas still house fence lizards that can be seen three stories up. A mammoth tooth was found in downtown Houston. The presence of the Gray Squirrel, the Raccoon, and the Mockingbird in highly urbanized areas are testaments of an adaptibility we need.
I was sitting at a stoplight one time and was thinking about how ugly that grey power transformer looked all fenced off with barbed wire right next to the road. Then I looked up to see on the power lines stretched across the street about 25 birds of the same species sitting close to each other in a row. Interestingly, only one of the birds was pointed the other way. It was a small observation but in my mind a great contrast. I thought to myself that bird is either clueless to his non conformity or doesn’t care what the other birds think. I wondered if anybody else saw that. But if they did they wouldn’t admit it because the natural world is “weird” to the modern sophisticate for some reason. I tucked it away as a timely insight: “Don’t be afraid to be who you are, to risk criticism for what you believe, to swim upstream and be different among all the pressure to conform.” Right there downtown a timely insight beamed from God through nature!
The Call Of The Wild
There are four benefits of spending prolonged time in nature:
1.) Think Time Increases. Think time is one of the greatest needs in our society and most don’t know it. The culture feeds the need for speed and distraction just when the dust settles on our emptiness and we’re about to do some good, hard reflection that redirects our lives. Getting away from the television, news, and false concerns is like fasting from the toxic sludge of media that assaults our minds. Wilderness experiences create opportunities to nourish the mind with the pure milk of God’s Word. A literal desert experience, far from diminishing our soul, can actually give clarity, motivation, perspective, and fresh ideas.
2.) Physical Fitness Tends To Go Up. Where the fingerprints of God overshadow the fingerprints of man, things tend to be in their raw and wild state. This means more involvement in the core issues of existence. We walk more, move more, use our hands and arms, and have to figure out the solutions to problems. Without leaning on technology all the time, we realize, “if it’s gonna be it’s up to me.” When I went to Russia and Kazakhstan I noticed the people were thinner and didn’t have obesity issues. The reason is they walked or rode bikes everywhere. They didn’t rely on automation for everything. Interestingly, when physical fitness is more endemic to the process of living and television is minimized, insomnia goes down and quality of sleep goes up.
3.) Getting Insight For More Effective Living. I’m convinced one reason the natural world exists is for human beings to learn from. As mentioned, life lessons are just waiting to be picked by those willing to go out and observe. A swarm of Stellar Jays attacking an owl or an unmovable mountain tells us life goes on with or without us. Though we’re the apple of God’s eye on the one hand, without reflecting on a mountain scene we can overestimate our importance. We may be sophisticated on the outside, but we’re humanm frail and dependent on resources in nature to survive. Ironically, complex Space Shuttle missions are benched because of simple thunderstorms. We’re good but never beyond our basics. Observations like these from nature keep us humble and bring us back to reality.
4.) We Can Pray Out Loud. This may be the most misunderstood benefit of the Christian life. Praying is good in any form, but there’s something about verbalizing it that requires all of us, especially loud, runny and ghooey prayers. The emotions are an important dynamic of the soul that Christianity has neglected and may be why there are so many emotional problems in the body of Christ. We take our deepest emotions to people and think it’s godly to remain stoic before God. If God commands us to love hims with all of our hearts, minds, and souls, we should reserve our deepest emotions for Him. To the extent something bothers us is the extent we should vent it to God. In the wilderness we can spill out our guts before God and not be thought fit for the asylum by our neighbors. Nature is a great place to surrender those last holdouts of our hearts to God, issues that just aren’t purged without a catharsis of the nervous system. Praising God at the top of our lungs in the middle of nowhere is so therapeutic and in line with the order of the universe it’s like 10 visits to the psychiatrists office.
A deeper study of the life of Christ will shatter cliches and shallow notions of the Christian life and one of those insights is found in Hebrews chapter 5. It is so revealing that it reconfigures our understanding of what maturity is. 5:7 says that “In the days of His flesh, he [Jesus] offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Jesus, mister smooth with people’s needs, who truly defines grace under pressure, offered up loud crying and tears? This shatters our constructs of maturity. And he probably did in nature somewhere. Even Jesus had the courage to grieve and battle the stigma that crying is only for little girls. The text says “LOUD crying and tears”. Apparently expressions to the Lord to the point of appearing disturbed is not spiritually immature! This can only happen by getting away from people and going into nature.
Jesus time in nature was never separated from prayer. Luke says at particularly busy times in his ministry, “He would often slip away to the wilderness to pray” (Luke 5:16). So it was in nature Jesus went to pray his deepest emotions. Expressing our deepest, even ugly emotions to God can finally signify surrendering our whole souls. The irony is, when we do this we’re not more insane for the process- we’re wrapped with His love counsel, and wisdom. The fog clears, the guilt lifts and we get our hearts back. In short we feel alive and young again, even endowed with a greater sense of intelligence. In the wilderness we can yell with loud cries, submit, and literally feel heavy loads come off our backs.
One word of warning on this. Submission and repentance is a necessary part of the process. It’s not to just go outside, curse God out at the top of our lungs, feel better and enjoy that twisting of the knife we think we left in the heart of the Creator because we’re angry at Him. This prolonged attitude is very dangerous and slanders the Most High who isn’t diminished one iota. In a documentary, Timothy Treadwell spent many years in Alaska trying to bond with Grizzly Bears. On one occasion he was forced to stay in his tent because of a downpour that lasted days. He became so irate and defiant that he started cursing and mocking Jesus for the inconvenience. A dangerous occupation according to Jude: “In the same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority, and slander celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand…these are the very things that destroy them” (8-10). It wasn’t long after that the authorities found the mauled remains of Timothy and his girlfriend near their torn up tent.
The benefits of nature is not to advocate selling the house and living in the woods like Grizzly Adams or the unibomber. There has to be a balance, and God calls many of us to where people live in urban settings. But when we’ve run thin and phony because of people pleasing tendancies, it’s time to get away and get alone with the savior. If we’re sworn urbanites, we may be mal-developed and missing out on half of life. Won’t you get away for a while?
Copyright 2009 by Scott Chandler. All rights reserved.