“we’re all a little afraid that if God’s presence is there, it cannot be here” (Rachel Held Evans, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, p36)
We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. The Western Cape of South Africa has some areas of natural beauty that are simply staggering (you can see photographic evidence here). Ocean, bush, mountain, wine-lands, forests – all these and more within easy reach, all of them possessed of a type of beauty that is very much their own. Then there’s the animals – wild and nearly wild in game parks. We’ve lived here for three years and in that time I’ve seen sharks, lions, rhinos, penguins, all manner of whales, giraffes, rock dassies, been on a boat surrounded by a school of dolphin, walked with elephants and much more. These places and experiences have enhanced my life and I will treasure them. Some of them have left me breathless, astonished and awestruck. I’ve learned a lot too – about animals and the environment, about the God who set it all in motion and His breathtaking creativity. Elsewhere I’ve taken driving holidays in the north of Scotland, spent many days in Kew Gardens in London, enjoyed the beaches of Cornwall, the Alps of Europe, the California coast and Yosemite.
Astonishing as these experiences have been and as much as I wouldn’t trade them for anything, none of them have bought me closer to God. They may have taught me about God, but that is something different. Very rarely has God spoken to me through them. They are not the places I usually go to in order to learn more about myself or to quiet my spirit.
I find this interesting because there’s a stream within Christian spirituality (and other traditions, I’m sure) which says that you go to the wild places to meet with God, hear His voice and grow in Him. It’s certainly Biblical – Moses and the burning bush, Adam and Eve in the Garden, Elijah resting and be re-created, and many more. On it goes into the desert fathers and beyond, through to the retreat houses of today in beautiful, usually rural surroundings. I’ve heard speakers and read authors saying the wild places are the ones we’re made for; been told that my depression will be healed by ‘getting some sea air in your lungs’; been on (some very good) walking retreats and nearly silent retreats and been invited to a variety of (usually very early in the morning) services in stunning places. I’ve sung hymns like How Great Thou Art or songs like Indescribable. On some level they move me.
They don’t lead me to encounter God, though. The wild places are not where I go to find God, hear Him speak and have Him shape me. Maybe it’s something to do with my brand of introversion, maybe it’s just because I’m not especially visually stimulated, maybe it’s for any number of reasons; but I meet with God in reading and listening – and usually by doing so in crowds. I find I’m aware of God seeking me out when I’m surrounded by others, in the mess and noise and stimulation of urban places. I find I can cram deeper into a still space when it’s paradoxically busy around me in a coffee shop or art gallery or cinema. I do my best theology in front of the Bible and the movie screen.
I can’t be the only one. People like Tim Keller have done a good job of talking about the call of Christians to the city, of the reminder that the Biblical vision of life ends in one. I love the way Jonah’s book ends with God posing an unanswered question to the title character about His divine right to love ‘that great city’. Jesus’ journey is inexorably to the city; He speaks of His love for one with maternal passion.
I’m not alone, but it can feel like it. I wonder if there’s a danger of elevating the ‘natural’ world as implicitly less fallen when in reality there’s as much troubling suffering in it as there in cities. I wonder if for a few (or maybe more) of us a love for space and things ‘natural’ may be a way of running to Tarshish, away from the dangerous but thrilling call of God to Nineveh. ‘Nature’ may point us to God, but people bear His image – and as I’ve heard Tim Keller point out there’s more image of God per square foot in cities than in the country. There’s also more sin, too; clearly I’m not suggesting God loves cities more than the country. God’s work is about redeeming and remaking all creation; I love ecology and environmental action. It’s just that I don’t see a passion to save the planet as in contradiction to a love for teeming, bustling, vibrant, diverse, smelly, dangerous urban mess.
So, a question. Or more correctly, a request for a favour. If you encounter God in the wild, quiet places, that’s great; but remember please, what I quoted Rachel Held Evans saying of a very different issue at the start of this post; we may say with our lips that God is omnipresent, but do we live as if it’s true? If you write worship songs, prepare or lead worship services, then in doing so remember to use imagery and language of the city as much as the country. If you lead retreats, try leading them in the noise rather than away from it. You never know how the people you lead actually best meet with God. You also never know where God may be lurking.