The story I heard on public radio was about a person who bought a three-legged fryer at the grocery store. Not that the chicken had been born with three legs (I hope). Rather, it is not uncommon for butchers to toss in an extra chicken leg with a cut-up chicken so that three children at home won’t fight over two drumsticks. The next day the shopper came back to the grocery store to demand either that the store refund the purchase, or replace the missing chicken leg. There should be a fourth one, right?
To me that story, if true, is Exhibit A of our culture’s growing disconnect from nature. It was highlighted even more in an article in yesterday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Kids Just Don’t Get Out(doors) Much Anymore” (February 11, 2008). http://www.startribune.com/local/15496981.html This trend has elsewhere been called “Nature Deficit Disorder,” and is due to our increasingly busy schedules, our increasingly technological lives, and the fact that fishing in the rain or waiting for tomatoes to grow don’t quite have the adrenaline effect that video games like Halo are said to have. As growing numbers of youth leave the outdoors to shrinking numbers of older people in favor of technological lives in artificial climates, that leaves governmental and private conservation agencies wondering how they are going to fund parks, wildlife refuges, pollution control and wildlife management programs if fewer and fewer people are paying for them through license fees and the purchase of shotgun shells and fishing tackle. It also leaves me wondering what will become of the human race if we should forget that we too are animals who depend just as much upon good soil, water and air as are muskrats and Canada geese. I believe that we are created in the image of God and have spiritual lives. But that doesn’t make me a Gnostic dualist who believes that the material world is a wicked mistake and that only invisible and substance-free realities exist and endure. The church’s doctrine of the Incarnation—that an invisible, omnipresent God took on our flesh and blood in a specific time and place—has always been at direct odds with this super-spiritualized and esoteric tendency.
I have also experienced God most intensely on the material, animal level. Really. Internal spiritual experiences have always been fleeting and unreliable for me. Where I experience God more and more over time is in things like sharing food, a hug, a word of love coming through a physical voice box, an action of love carried out by calloused and perhaps wrinkled, age-spotted hands. And something quickened in me the other night, far outside of town, when I saw the brilliance of the stars in the night time sky in a way that I had not for years. I think it was what the Psalms and the Proverbs call “the fear of the Lord,” or what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called, “radical awe.” The computer on which I type this essay inspires in me some gratitude and occasional frustration, but nothing like what I recently experienced in the snow, among the oaks and maples, under the stars of a clear winter sky.
St. Ignatius Loyola always urged us “to seek first the God of all comforts, rather than the comforts of God.” But when the comforts of God have sought me out, it was often in the presence of woods and water and flesh-and-blood people. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And they are all gifts. I didn’t make them. Nor earn them. But God forbid that I should degrade them or deny them to someone else. How can I offer the gospel to someone else if, by my lifestyle, I am denying them clean air, clean water, and a life-sustaining climate?
What do you think?
Mathew Swora, pastor
Emmanuel Mennonite Church, St. Paul, MN