Sunday, July 5, 2015

God's Green Grace

 When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life 
    and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, 
    and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
 (The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry)

I wrote last week about storms and stones,about the unsettling weather we've been having, unsettling headlines and conversations.

In the days since, I've been busy advocating for a moral Pennsylvania budget, one that restores deep funding cuts to education and prioritizes people and communities over the largely unregulated shale gas industry. I've forced myself to learn Twitter. Even worse: forced myself to read proposed budget line-items.

It’s easy to get caught up in the burdens of our day, easy to start the day uneasy, to hurry from appointment to task to challenge, and fall into bed at night still carrying that sense of unease, that feeling of modern malaise.

In the last decade, sociological and scientific research has validated a cure as old as the psalms: time in nature, “green time,” time spent in “the peace of wild things.”

Frances Kuo, a strong advocate of “green time”, published a major study documenting the importance of trees, grass, natural beauty, in calming the heart and easing the mind:

An article in Science Daily summarized the findings:
  • Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.
  • Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.
  • Greener environments enhance recovery from surgery, enable and support higher levels of physical activity, improve immune system functioning, help diabetics achieve healthier blood glucose levels, and improve functional health status and independent living skills among older adults.
  • By contrast, environments with less green space are associated with greater rates of childhood obesity; higher rates of 15 out of 24 categories of physician-diagnosed diseases, including cardiovascular diseases; and higher rates of mortality in younger and older adults.
While it is true that richer people tend to have both greater access to nature and better physical health outcomes, the comparisons here show that even among people of the same socioeconomic status, those who have greater access to nature, have better physical health outcomes. Rarely do the scientific findings on any question align so clearly.
I know for myself, in times of stress an hour spent weeding the moss path in my backyard can return me to quiet calm. When I’m angry or troubled, a short bird-watching jaunt around nearby Church Farm pond can shift my focus, realign my priorities, bring unexpected delight.

During my teen years, hovering on the edge of depression, I found myself taking long walks down unknown roads, finding grace and calm in the hills around my home, finding hope in the budding trees, the bright spring flowers, the feel of wind ruffling my hair. In my senior year of high school, during a very dark time, I would sit on the grassy bank of Lake Gleneida, watching the sunlight move across the ripples, finding rest, even joy, in the dance of sparkling water and sudden silky shadow.   

Outdoors I have experienced, more times than I can count, the truth of Psalm 23:

     The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
     He makes me lie down in green pastures,
     he leads me beside quiet waters,
     he restores my soul. 

I worry about kids who have no experience of green space, who can’t imagine spending an hour outside alone. In youth ministry, camp ministry, scout work, I tried hard to get kids outside, playing Ultimate Frisbee barefoot in the grass, reading under a tree, paddling a kayak on a little mountain pond, sitting around a campfire counting shooting stars.

An amazing grace from my childhood was summers spent at a camp in the Catskllls. I still remember with great thanks the view across the valleys, the green grass of the baseball field sloping down the side of the mountain. I remember sitting by the little hidden waterfall, down across Sutton Road, and feeling the cool of the mist, the soothing song of the water, soaking in the grace of God’s beauty. I’d arrive at camp every summer feeling ragged and a little lost; somewhere along the way, swinging in the sun with the world below my feet, hiking up through the pine grove with whippoorwills calling, I’d notice I was strong again. Happy again. Healthy again.

In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder , Richard Louv describes the forces that have kept our kids inside, creating a dangerous disconnect between children and the natural world. Our kids would be healthier if they spent more time outside. Their view would be clearer if they spent less time in simulated worlds and more time in the world of seasons, weather, bird song, soaking up God’s green grace.

But the same is true for us as adults. I have neighbors who only come outside to mow the grass and unload their groceries from the car.

I’m reminded of the Gerard Manley Hopkin poem, written more than a century ago.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
We are “smeared with toil,” hurrying to get what we need, worrying about many things. Yet, for many of us, a place of refuge is just steps away. God’s grace is there, waiting to fill us, as it filled David, out in the wilderness, on the run for his life. As it filled Elijah, weary and despairing. 

I’m puzzled, and saddened, at Christians who seem alarmed at the idea that God can meet us in nature, that He can use his creation to soothe and heal us.

It’s His, right? His gift to us. There’s nothing pantheistic, new age, spiritually dangerous, about finding God’s grace at work in his world.

As David said in Psalm 65:
The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
    where morning dawns, where evening fades,
    you call forth songs of joy.
David repeatedly mentioned awe and joy in his experience of nature. When I think of times I’ve spent exploring creation, digging in the dirt with small children, wandering waterways with kids of all ages, celebrating spring in all its glory, awe and joy are the emotions that come to mind: a good foundation for mental health, and a gracious reminder of God and his goodness.

One evening last week I took  my kayak and a sandwich to nearby Marsh Creek Lake, paddled up a little bay, then floated as I munched my meal and listened to the Red-winged Blackbirds squawck. A strange call prompted me to paddle closer to the marsh grass, and out flew a young Great-horned Owl. Then another. Then another.

I sat a long time, watching them, three large young birds calling for their dinner.

By the time I paddled back to my car, my heart was full, my mind at rest. 

I’m heading outside now – to check what’s blooming, to see what’s happening in the nests around our yard.  

I hope you have time outside as well this weekend, and this summer, enjoying God’s green grace.

[This is a revision of a post from 2011. I'll be reworking some earlier posts this summer, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging.]

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