Monday, October 5, 2009


O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Psalm 8.1)

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it. (Psalm 24.1)

God’s Great Gift to Us

The call letters for our Chicago PBS affiliate are WTTW, an acronym for “windows to the world,” and last week’s airing of Ken Burns’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea more than lived up to the station’s billing. I can’t recall a more thoroughly transcendent viewing experience. Burns’s documentary astounds the viewer with its unabashed reverence for God’s great gift to us. With the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” as its musical motif, it shucks any pretense of “balancing” faith and science. In this awesome context, belief and knowledge are the same, tactfully setting aside theories about the origins of natural wonders to tacitly attribute their creation to a power far greater and nobler than any we can explain.

Divine majesty is the film’s central thread, starting with John Muir—the 19th-century catalyst of the park movement, whose prose depicted Yosemite’s forests and mountains as “cathedrals”—and ending with George Hartzog, a former National Parks director who states with tremulous conviction:

When you stand in that silentness [sic] in the presence of the great sequoias, you can’t help but recognize you’re a part of something that is way beyond whatever you envision the world might be. You can’t stand there all alone without understanding there’s a power in the world that is far greater than anything you might experience, and that you’re connected to that power, just as that sequoia is connected to that power. It permeates all of us and when you understand that, it improves your relationship with your fellow man, because you understand he has the same capacity, he has the same access. He is your brother.

There’s no denying nature is God’s indisputable testimony to His creative brilliance and authority. It dwarfs our highest achievements by permeating everything in and around us, connecting us to Him and one another.

Continuity of Care

Although Israel’s hardscrabble terrain lacks the scale of America’s landscape, David’s descriptions of God’s wonderworks resound with the same awe conveyed in Burns’s film. “How majestic is your name in all the earth!” he writes in Psalm 8.1. After assessing creation’s scope, verse 4 ponders a sobering mystery: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” The two questions are related but not synonymous. The first comes from a heart humbled by thanksgiving: gratitude for God’s thoughtfulness in revealing His majesty to us. The second springs from utter perplexity: why does a God of unlimited creative capacity still attend to us? God's continuity of care—not His stooping to see about “little old us” (as many assume)—is what dumbfounds David.

There really is no rational explanation for God’s constant concern for the daughters and sons of men. He might as well have put His finishing touches on the world and hung it in the universe, leaving it and us behind to make new beautiful, daring artworks elsewhere. (As it is, His fashioning other worlds and inhabitants is not outside possibility’s realm.) Yet since the dawn of time, not one second has passed without His active participation in the planet and humanity’s ongoing evolution. He remains steadfastly involved with the tiniest detail affecting every life form, orchestrating the interplay of innumerable species, natural phenomena, and human invention (or, with alarming regularity, our interference). All of it comprises a work in progress. And while this approach mystifies David, its purpose doesn’t altogether elude him. He answers Psalm 8.4's question in Psalm 24.1: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” God’s creative impulses supersede artistry to include ownership. Everything we know and see in this world—including all that we are, can be, and will be—belongs to Him. The spectacle of nature is God’s blatant reminder of Who He is and Whose we are. As Psalm 100.3 says, “Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his.”

Leave God Alone

The Burns documentary also strikes a secondary note throughout, a bracing corollary to its sacred regard for our Father’s world. The primary objective for establishing US national parks focused on protecting majestic expanses of natural splendor so future generations will marvel at God’s handiwork. It’s our job to leave God alone and let His work evolve as He wills without greedily assuming this planet belongs to us. He is the Artist. We are the curators. He assigned the planet’s preservation to us. Genesis 2.15 reads, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

Conservation and correcting damage done to God’s world is a theological mandate. If God’s concern spans generations, our concern should likewise continue. Bluntly put, the Christian who actively or passively approves the desecration of God’s creation is guilty of sin. Carelessness with God’s great gift is neither pleasing nor acceptable to Him. And it goes without saying the same principle applies to brothers and sisters bound to us by the thread of God’s creative majesty. Many of them are equally threatened with extinction. They too are victims of ignorance and avarice run amok. They too flounder on polluted shores and languish in toxic environments. The world and everyone and everything in it belong to God. It's our duty to care for His planet. It's our privilege to care His people.

God’s majesty reminds us of His continuity of care for us—and our responsibility to care for His world and His people. (Cathedral Rocks and Spires, Yosemite National Park.)

(Tomorrow: The Bowl)

Postscript: A Seat At The Table

If you follow the comments here, Claire Bangasser is already familiar to you for the insight, spirit, and sensitivity she brings to our discussions. As happens in the blogging firmament, Claire and I crossed paths on numerous times in various places. Yet in my busy-ness, I neglected to seek her out. How grateful I am she found her way here! In the months we’ve spent getting acquainted and sharing the Word, my admiration and respect for her has grown richer by the day. So it’s with enormous pleasure and honor that I urge you to add her blog, A Seat at the Table, to your reading list.

The banner on her blog reads: “I re-imagine a church engaged in dialogue with people at the margins, inviting everyone at the table, with a thirst for social justice and gender equality.” Without fail, her posts invite us to imagine this with her. She infuses Scriptural depth with erudite observations about the world at large, as well as her personal faith, gently guiding us toward acceptance of our Christian duty to reconcile others, our communities, and ourselves to Christ’s teaching and example. Among so many things I treasure about Claire—who describes herself as a “faithful dissident” in her Facebook profile—is her intense connection with her Maker, a nurturing, embracing, and incontrovertibly feminine Godde, Whom she reflects in every way. In a world overflowing with confusion and conflict, the clarity of wisdom and kindness coursing through A Seat at the Table offers us a very rare thing indeed—refreshment for our souls.


Gary Lewis said...

This may seem completely insignificant following such a thoughtful post, but here goes...

My family lives about an hour from Detroit proper that is known for the freshwater lakes. We are "The Lakes Area" by name. As such, we pull up our own water for drinking through around 9 freshwater wellheads. In the last few years, our local government has been doing their best to know that we need to treat our drains and storm sewers as a big part of that natural cycle.

Granted, nobody is going to take the family to visit a wellhead in the middle of a suburb, but as with this great PBS project, I think a lot more of my neighbors think about what they pour down the drains, or wash off their driveways after an oil change.

I just hope that in the end, we all think in that Native American way where you look seven generations down the line when you do anything convenient or potentially harmful to the world we have to live in.

Tim said...

Gary, the activities you mention--and the sensibilities behind them--are far from insignificant. I think too many of us equate environmentalism with volunteering to clean up oil spills, while we ignore the opportunities that greet us every day to care for the planet. If more of us saw to the little things, down to picking up of litter that blows around our ankles, God's world would be that much closer to returning to health.

Since the industrial revolution, each generation has left the world in worse condition than when it arrived. By adopting, and advocating, the Native American mindset you describe we very well could become the first generation in 150 years to leave the world a cleaner, holier place.

Thanks for this. As always, your comments add new dimension and insights that we all can profit from.