Following the Sunbeam Back to the Sun

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Why is our relationship with nature so broken, and can it be fixed?

I was about to walk across the street the other day, but before I did, I thought about the weather. And instead of looking up, I looked down and checked my iPhone. Instead of pondering the sky and taking in what my body could clearly tell me about the temperature, the wind, and the humidity, I let my smart phone make me dumber.

The statistics are staggering. One analysis concluded that we check our phones about 58 times a day; this means we spend three hours daily gazing into their screens, or roughly 50 days a year.

Who’s In Charge?

All in all, it seems like science and modern technology are damaging our relationship with nature. But it’s really not our smart phones, it’s how we use them. To paraphrase Jesus, “Technology was made for us, not us for technology.”

In fact, if we use technology effectively—for example, through geocache or stargazing apps—it can actually assist us in appreciating nature.

But let’s be real: most of us don’t use our phones that way. At least I don’t. Instead, I find myself in a thicket of technological devices—entertaining, yes, but also multiplying and therefore threatening to strangle me. Amy Julia Becker recently highlighted the spirituality of trees for us, which made me wonder: What sounds of leaves rustling in the wind have I missed when I take a walk with my iPhone and air pods stuck in my ears? Has my vision for the crow or the owl been diminished by the hours I stare into a computer screen? Underneath the electric lamps (both indoors and out), have I lost what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called “the view of the stars”?

Many of us use our phones to distract and draw us away from savoring the beauty of the natural world. We’re missing out on what writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen observed: “All that is, is sacred because all that is speaks of God’s redeeming love. Seas and winds, mountains and trees, sun, moon, and stars, and all the animals and people have become sacred windows offering us glimpses of God.”

  • One option is to take a tech sabbath, by saying no to technology and yes to God. Doing so reminds us that technology is made for us, not vice versa.
  • Another way to repair our broken relationship with nature is through creation care—check out our resource page for ideas. This video-led study for small groups from leading climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe is a great place to start at your church.

Let Beauty Take Us Back

Reformed Swiss theologian Karl Barth taught me that, in both biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew), glory includes “beauty.” Barth wrote, “If we can and must say that God is beautiful, to say this is to say how [God] enlightens and convinces and persuades…. [God] acts as the One who gives pleasure, creates desire, and rewards with enjoyment.”

It’s ok then to translate Isaiah 6 this way:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of God’s beauty.”

The beauty of the natural world draws us toward the beauty of its Creator. When our relationship with nature is broken, a connection with our God is also fractured.

Take A Walk

Realizing that God is with us and available to us through nature might be as simple as pausing to revel in the beauty that’s around us. As C.S. Lewis once observed about adoration, “One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” Let’s follow the beautiful creation back to the Creator who is the Source of Beauty.

I close then with a spiritual practice: pay attention. Let’s pay attention to the places where God meets us in the beauty of holiness. Let’s pay attention to times when God speaks to us in the wordless message of creation (Psalm 19:3-4). Let’s pay attention and say—as one of my very favorite bands, Future of Forestry phrased it—“I will go where beauty leads me home.”

Doesn’t that sound good?

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