In the beauty of the blue-green hills of earth and in the white crested rolling oceans, it is easy to see God’s handwriting. In the oxygen we breathe and in the beauty of the clouds and stars and moon, it is easy to sense the shadow of God. Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral said that “beauty is the shadow of God on the universe.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful;
for beauty is God’s handwriting—a wayside sacrament.
Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower,
and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.
Both Emerson and Mistral allude to the sense that God had a hand in the splendor and magnificence of this creation, of this universe. There is the sense that the natural world reflects the hand of God, that perhaps nature is the closest approximation of God that we can know or see. Or even that God is Nature.
What I find most salient for our reflection this morning is a reverence of nature. The relationship we humans have to the natural world falls in the realm of religion and ethics. As Stephen Hawking said, “The odds against a universe like ours coming out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications.” In other words, the very existence of the universe has religious implications.
UUs have a deep love for nature. An appreciation for the natural world is one of our religious sources. In fact, earth-centered spirituality is one of six primary sources for Unitarian Universalists. “Earth-centered spirituality is rooted in ritual and devotional experience,” according to Rev. Kathleen Rolenz. “Earth-centered practices remind us all of how intimately connected we are to the cycles, seasons, and rhythms of nature.” For many UUs that intimate connection and reverence for nature nurtures our spiritual journeys. Nature affords us experiences of the divine.
It does for me. One of the ways I most reliably experience the sacred is through the natural world. This has been true for me since I was a child wandering outside under the stars or running barefoot in the grass on a summer day or planting zinnias in our garden. One of the earliest guides to my exploration is a book entitled Wonders of Nature: A Child’s First Book About Our Wonderful World. I still have this book and periodically read it. The book begins:
To this day, The Wonder Book continues to invite my child’s mind into wonder at God’s handwriting and how incredible and mysterious are nature’s workings.
At this time of year, when there are more hours of light and temperatures that call me out of doors, I find myself absorbed by the greening of the landscape, by the shrub roses abloom in my yard, by the morning song of robins, squirrels busily scampering up and down the magnolia. On walks, the rush and glistening of the Tulpehocken Creek and the egrets at the water’s edge inspire wonder and awe.
After having a great love for nature all my life, I recall vividly a few years ago when I first visited Maine, discovering what I consider to be a combination of sea and sky that is unrivaled anywhere I’ve been thus far. One of the things I discovered was that the sky and clouds, the configuration and coloration, changed subtlety and often dramatically not only from day to day but within the span of a day even in minutes. The ocean too was ever changing--its color and texture and cadence.
I remember my second visit to Maine and attending an art exhibit of Maine skies. There were abstract pieces, watercolors, oil paintings, night skies, day time skies, stormy renderings. Yet there was some quality to these pieces of art that captured the distinct character and beauty of Maine’s skies. It seemed to me the hand of the artist-creator had created this splendor that inspired the human to create their art. English physician and author Sir Thomas Browne said, “Nature is the art of God.”
So if someone were to ask me who made [the trees] green, I might explain the science. I’m sure I would, just as Jess Walter in this morning’s sermon reading, explained to his daughter when she asked him that question. Jess Walter is a novelist and nonfiction writer. If, like him, I were asked who made the trees, I might talk about photosynthesis, chlorophyll, and carbon dioxide. If someone were to ask me what makes the sky blue or the clouds into their stunning configurations, I might offer them a scientific explanation. Surely the science of it all is wondrous and mysterious. And yet, like Jess Walter, talking to his daughter, I might also find myself swept up in the mystical and lovely story of this air we breathe and these plants and trees that give off oxygen that we might live and this sky and ocean that give us sustenance and beauty.
Jess Walter, though an agnostic, recognized that his daughter was asking a theological question, a question about the origins of existence, about creation itself, how we got here, what gave birth to it all. Jess, who describes himself as an agnostic and as someone who says he has an “aching doubt the world has meaning,” nevertheless declared to his daughter that God made the trees green and the sky blue. (Jess Walter, Writers in the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting: At Work in Life’s Garden) Whether we are agnostic or theist, humanist or mystic, creation speaks to us of the sacred. The Psalmist writes
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19: 1–4)
Or as architect and Unitarian Frank Lloyd Wright poignantly and simply declared, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” Some of us might spell it Nature, or maybe Gaia, creation, Big Bang, evolution, creativity, our blue boat home, Creator.
So “Who made [the trees] green?”
Whatever our particular understanding of how this universe came to be, this idea that “beauty is God’s handwriting” suggests that there is something other, something incomprehensible, yet palpable, something that evokes a humbling and uplifting response in us, a religious response. This something other is beyond our full reach, something greater than we are, something that sparks our curiosity, something that moves us profoundly, some mystery, something beyond our knowing and beyond our control.
I remember when I first heard my ministry internship supervisor refer to himself as an agnostic mystic. I thought that was an unlikely theological combination. Agnostics emphasize not knowing. Mystics emphasize the experience of God. Yet, I find myself more and more mystical and more and more agnostic. I find myself more and more concurring with my internship supervisor, and living in a liminal space of not knowing yet experiencing the holy—both questioning the existence of God and having an experience of the holy.
This theological position sounds to me like what Charles Darwin said. He said, “I cannot think that the world as we see it is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of design . . . I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle.”
Agnostic mysticism or mystical agnosticism seems to me to be a much more elegant way of saying “hopeless muddle.” It is a more elegant way of speaking of the mystery we do not know, cannot know, and at the same time acknowledging the astounding experience of wonder and awe, that sensing of the shadow of God encountered in the beauty of the universe.
Walt Whitman, who turned 200 in May, wrote of not understanding God yet encountering the holy in all of existence. Whitman said, “I say to [human]kind, Be not curious about God. For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God—I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.”
Why are trees green? Who made the sky blue? When we answer these questions, let us bring a childlike curiosity. Let us open to stories that can bring us nurture and hope. Let us listen to the earth, feel her beating pulse.
May we listen in wonder, “casting questions into the deep.” May we bring a rational mind and a mystic’s heart. Here with our companions--here together--may we learn to be wise and grateful travelers of the wide universe. May we be captivated by the beauty of God’s handwriting.
Amen. Blessed be.