Canada 150: Where Pines and Maples Grow
Job 12:7-10, Psalm 8, Matthew 6:25-33
grew up in the church and so, from a very early age I was told about God. I heard about what God was like and what he wanted from me. I absorbed stories about God’s priorities and actions and I even learned how to speak to God in prayer. But I do not think that I can say that I actually met God in my early life in the church or in my family.
No, I would have to say that the church taught me about God, but it was Canada that introduced me to God. At least that is how I think of it. For me, and I’m sure that this is true for many Canadians, I feel that the most authentic experiences of God that I have had have happened when I left behind the cities and found myself in Canada’s vast untamed wilderness – mostly, in my case, up in the Muskokas. Consider this:
Have you been there, standing in a grove of trees, massive trunks around you on every side making you feel as if your strongest bones are like bendable twigs? Have you stood underneath the great green canopy, a vault more magnificent over your head than what any architect has achieved in any earthly cathedral or temple?
Have you ever crawled out of your tent just as the sun peeks over the horizon in order to push your canoe out over the stillest and calmest waters in all creation? Have you heard the call of the loon echo across the water as the other birds begin their calls from the surrounding woods? And have you slowly and silently dipped your paddle into the water to make your bow cut through the thin wisps of fog and known them to be far holier than the all the clouds of incense that have ever poured from a golden jewel encrusted censer?
But, most of all, have you ever gone out on cloudless and moonless night when you are far from any artificial source of light? Have you raised your eyes to the heavens and suddenly found yourself in the midst of a universe so vast that you knew you were nothing. And, at the same time, were the stars and the great river of the Milky Way so bright and so close that it seemed as if you would be able to touch them if only you managed to stretch your fingers a little higher? Have you heard the song of the stars just before dawn singing together – singing, it is to be admitted, at a frequency that cannot be detected by any human ear, and yet, all the same it is the most perfect and holy oratorio that ever could be.
Have you done these things? I have. And I have seen the night sky light up with dozens of meteors in a few minutes, I have felt the power of an approaching thunderstorm and relished in the calm that has fallen after it has passed over. And I have seen God in seeing and experiencing all of these things.
I suspect that many of you have had these kinds of experiences, though not in exactly the same ways that I have because such experience is intensely personal. And we are not alone. I believe that the very first place that human beings encountered God and knew themselves to be in the very presence of the divine was when they were confronted with the incredible beauty and majesty of nature.
The Bible makes this point often. In the Book of Job, the main character is on a continual search for God. He desperately wants God to appear before him so that he can confront God with all of the bad things that God has allowed to happen to him. Job wants to judge God and he gets rather frustrated that God doesn’t show up. Nevertheless, Job admits that, if you look in the right places, God is not so hidden as he has been pretending: “ask the animals, and they will teach you;” he declares, “the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” Clearly the natural world has access to certain truths that escape the rest of us. “Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.”
This is the same truth that Jesus was trying to point out when he famously invited his disciples to “look at the birds of the air” and to “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” Now the point in what both Job and Jesus is saying is not that the natural world will teach you theology – it will not explain to you all of the human ideas about who God is supposed to be and how God is supposed to act. What it will teach you is something much more important: that you can trust in God.
I think it is important to note that, according to these passages, reflecting on nature may not give you the answers to all the questions about God that you might have. It will not, for example, answer the question that Job is most desperately asking throughout the book that bears his name: why does God allow bad things to happen to good people. It will not answer the question, “where is God when there is suffering?” (That question was most definitively answered in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.)
But the promise is that, if you reflect on the natural world that God has created and when you see the ways that all parts of it work together to meet the needs of the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the animals and the fish of the sea, you do indeed see that there is a compassion and care built into the creation itself that teaches you profound and true things about the character of God. It teaches you that God is a heavenly Father that you can trust even if you do not completely understand him.
In our Psalm reading this morning, the magnificent display of the stars in the dome of the heavens speaks a somewhat different truth: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Here the lesson is about the smallness of humanity – a way of putting our own small concerns into a bit of a cosmic perspective. And yet, even here there is a message of God’s concern for God’s human creation for those who will hear it: “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.”
I have done my studies in Bible, in theology and church history. I have learned all of the ways that human beings have developed to talk about God, about the trinity and the nature of salvation. I have engaged in endless discussions of theodicy – the same question the Job asks in his book, the question of how we can justify the things that God allows to happen – and have found answers that at least make some logical sense. These have been good discussions that have helped me to grow. But still I would argue, the greatest and most enduring lesson I ever had about God came from the woods, the lakes, the rivers and the vast open skies of Canada.
I know that God is present everywhere and that there is truly no place where God is not fully present, but I will still insist that God is closer when I am in such places because this is not about what makes logical sense. This is about encountering God in your heart, not in your understanding.
If you have ever been out in the woods or on the lakes and rivers or up in the mountains of Canada, I suspect you know exactly what I have been talking about. If you haven’t, then maybe you don’t. But I promise you that there is a truth in what I have been saying.
The question is, if there is truth in it, what do we do with that truth? How can we apply it to our lives today? The first thing I would say is this: if God is uniquely experienced in the wildlands of Canada, then, for God’s sake, let us not cut ourselves off from such places.
I know that can be hard for some of us to do. Modern life seems to conspire to cut us off from the natural environment. It is quite possible for huge numbers of people to go through their days without encountering a truly natural setting – to encounter no growing things that have not been made to grow according to some human plan. But I would suggest to you that if you do not have the time or the means to spend some quality time surrounded by nature, you need to find the time and create the means. Your spiritual life – not to mention your general health – will only improve.
Of course, one of the reasons why many of us have trouble encountering nature is that it is disappearing in too many ways. Yes, there are enormous swaths of it here in Canada – places where you can travel all day without seeing a human-made structure. But our ability to affect and damage even those huge swaths of land has grown until it is out of control. Our energy and mining projects are destroying habitats. Our consumption patterns are affecting the climate and we need to think carefully about what we do in response to that.
I know that both Job and Jesus said that you could look at nature and see in it the proof that God knows how to take care of all his creatures including us. But we have taken the wrong lesson from that. We have thought that it meant that we could just go and take and take and take from nature as if it were an inexhaustible resource that we could never deplete or destroy. That was never the message and thinking that way has taken us to a dangerous place.
What Jesus and Job were talking about was living in relationship with the natural world – entering into a conversation with the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. These things can only teach us that our heavenly Father is looking out for us when we don’t see them as something merely to exploit to enrich ourselves. If the natural world doesn’t teach us some humility, doesn’t teach us to say, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” then we have clearly missed the lesson.
So I do believe that another application of these passages is to rethink our relationship with the natural world – to learn not to see it as something merely to be exploited or as something that will just absorb our waste. This, too, is a way of finding God in the woods, lakes, rivers and mountains.
The second verse of O Canada is rarely sung, but I’m told that it goes like this, “O Canada! Where pines and maples grow. Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow. How dear to us thy broad domain, From East to Western sea. Thou land of hope for all who toil! Thou True North, strong and free!” And it is certainly true that this natural beauty is something we find very dear indeed. But it is more than that too. It is a place where God has made Godself known to us – where God draws near for those who have eyes to see him. For this we give thanks, but for this we also pray, “God keep our land glorious, free and alive with such beauty.”