I am not a real runner, but I love to run in my woods.
Two or three times a week I hop in the car and drive over to the trailhead for a little park on the edge of town. I lace up my trail runners and stretch a bit and head into the filtered darkness of the woods. I usually run the same route, depending on how I am feeling and how muddy the trail is. And when I do, I find myself once again.
Now, I know I am not a real runner. Because when I talk to real runners about what I do, they look at me funny. I have always had runners in my life. My dad has always run. My brother runs marathons. Many of my friends and colleagues run. And occasionally one of the runners in my life will ask me a question I should know the answer to. How long is my route? How many miles did I do this morning? How fast is my pace? Am I getting negative splits? And I tell them the same thing every time, usually to their horror. I have absolutely no idea. I just run. Red loop. White loop. Yellow loop to the top of the ridge, where I usually hike down. “Walk? You walk?” they ask incredulously. I am not a real runner. But I love to run in my woods.
So, I don’t keep track of things that other runners might keep track of, but that doesn’t meant I am not counting anything! Ask me how many birds I saw last week. How many woodpeckers I heard. Whether I saw turkeys or a vulture or the big barn owl by the creek bed. Ask me how many deer tracks I counted. If I caught a glimpse of a whitetail bounding away. If I stopped to count the rays of morning sun filtering through the misty forest. Ask me how many spider webs I broke, since I was the first one on the trail in the morning. I keep track of things…just different things than real runners keep track of.
Ask me whether or not I saw Maltbie. Maltbie is my name for the coyote I have seen a couple of times in my woods. In fact, I sometimes call them Maltbie’s Woods, even though he is not really a regular resident. I do it mostly because the park has some dreadfully boring name like “Lawrence Nature Park” or something. So, Maltbie the coyote gets his own Woods, whenever he wants to come back. I see Maltbie’s tracks every once and a while, but I know I will be lucky if I see him often at all.
Maltbie the coyote, in turn, is named after Maltbie Babcock (one of my favorite names ever). Maltbie Babcock was a student at Syracuse in the 1800’s. Now, he was a runner. A tremendous athlete. Captain of the baseball team. Outstanding swimmer. But he was also a gifted musician. He was a composer, could play several instruments, and directed the school’s orchestra. He could have succeeded in one of many different arenas of life. He chose the ministry. Maltbie was a pastor at a handful of Presbyterian Churches in New York and Maryland. He was an amazing writer, speaker, and college minister.
But wherever he lived, he found a way to sneak off into the wilderness – the woods or the hills or the creeks around where he lived. He would hike or run or just lose himself in God’s creation. One of his pastorates was near Lockport, New York, in a beautiful area close to Niagra Falls. While he was there, he was notorious for sneaking away to enjoy the beauty of the area. He would tell his secretary, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world.”
It was his love of nature, his love of God, and his incredible artistic ability that led him to pen the words of the hymn “This is My Father’s World.”
Maltbie Babcock loved to share in the wonder of God’s creation. He is one of my personal heroes, as I can imagine him skipping out on sermon preparation to count woodpeckers or laying out on a rock in the middle of the roaring river. Or perhaps, his best sermons were written there on the side of that river. In fact, much of today’s sermon was written in Maltbie’s Woods!
His story is like my story. I know…it is almost cliché the way I talk about the importance of nature to my faith. But as we conclude our sermon series today, I want to name that dynamic once more – singing our praise of God as Creator. I don’t think I overestimate the importance of singing songs of gratitude for God’s creation. How many of these songs about God’s creation are important to the way that we understand our faith?
For the Fruit of All Creation
All Creatures of Our God and King
All Things Bright and Beautiful
Creator God, Creating Still
For the Beauty of the Earth
How Great Thou Art
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
Let all Things Now Living
Morning Has Broken
And Maltie Babcock’s hymn: This is My Father’s World
We sing our praise. We sing our gratitude to God as Creator. We sing our thanksgiving for God’s creation.
Pastor Meredith and I have found ourselves over and again wishing that we could preach on each word, each phrase of these masterful hymns. Once again, I am forced to pick a handful of phrases that stand out to me from this beautiful hymn.
The first phrase that speaks to me is this: “In rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.” This hymn is an invitation to listen. To pay attention. It’s hard to pay attention these days. There are more and more distractions. Our brains are literally changing because of the technology around us. We have busier schedules and higher expectations. Meanwhile, Maltbie makes a statement of faith when he says that God speaks to us everywhere. That means that we have to listen. We have to pay attention.
It is the same statement that the Psalmist makes. Psalm 24 begins with the powerful words: “the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.” Everything. Everywhere. But it continues by naming our responsibility – to prepare our hearts and our hands to receive God! To worship God. We have a responsibility to listen the beauty of God’s creation!
I cannot say it more simply. Go outside more. Spend less time in front of a screen. Spend at least a little bit of time every week – every day – with no concrete between you and the earth. Count the hours last week that you didn’t have any concrete, wood, or metal between you and the earth. I’ll bet it wasn’t enough. It is cliché, but smell the roses. Listen for the birds. Breathe some fresh air. Hit the off button and go outside!
Scientists tell us that it makes us smarter and more creative and happier and less fearful. They tell us that our children need more time outside, that we need to take more breaks out of doors, that we need to create space that is intentionally natural. It makes us healthier people!
And theologians tell us that Nature is the way that we understand who God is. John Calvin named two primary sources that we know how God is revealed: Scripture and Creation. Creation is one of the primary ways that we know God. Which means both a) we know God more fully when we do go outside and spend time in God’s creation, and b) the inverse is also true: if we aren’t doing it, we are not knowing God as fully as we could.
God’s creation helps us to pay attention differently. David James Duncan says it this way:
We need God in order to love and steward creation.
We need Creation to true our love for God.
We also need Creation to better love one another.
He speaks to me everywhere. Take the time and energy to listen.
But our entrance into nature cannot simply be yet another obligation. Maltbie paints a more beautiful picture than that! The next phrase that stands out to me is this: “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.” This hymn is an invitation to delight! How many of us can agree that there is just something that is centering when we enter a natural space? The John Muir quote at the beginning of the service references this. Some of my favorite quotes about nature are from this man, who came to be a self-taught naturalist and advocate for the protection of wild spaces. He argued that we need these spaces. As individuals and as a society, we need to preserve our wild spaces, because they preserve us. His words echo Maltbie’s. They are an invitation to delight.
And that is my experience whenever I head into Maltbie’s Woods. I used to need to collect new places. I never wanted to hike the same place twice. See the same mountain more than once, if there was another new one to see. I wanted to see new things and have new experiences. But as I get older, I want to return to the same places more. I recognize the need to have a common place, in the midst of that which changes around me. All nature sings!
That is my experience with God in Maltbie’s Woods. I return to the place that I have seen a hundred times. But every time, it is a little different. And every time, I am different. But as my breath begins to settle into a rhythm, I feel a comfortable rhythm returning to my life. A reordering. A focused simplicity.
John Burroughs says it this way: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.” I know that is my experience. Perhaps it is yours, too. Watching the birds on your back deck. Sitting out on a boat on a calm lake. Marveling at the power of a Spring storm. “All nature sings…”
Nature is singing! Go delight in the song!
Which leads us to the final thought. Finally, the last phrase, from the last verse: “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” I am glad this is the last verse that we sing in our hymnal. After all, there is a danger when we start talking about the beauty of nature. I mean, absolutely, it is a place of serenity and peace and hope, and Maltbie’s woods remind me of this. But nature is also a place of suffering and death and disease and it’s just not only rainbows and kittens. This is also an important dose of realism from nature. After all, Maltbie the coyote would have no problem whatsoever eating that woodpecker if he could reach it. There is death and suffering in the world. It is not always fair or right or safe or just.
But, Maltbie the preacher reminds us that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” God is over all and above all. Hence the first line of the psalm: “the earth and everything in it belongs to God.” The hymn invites us to trust. The psalm teaches us trust. God’s creation teaches us trust. Trust in the power of God. Trust in the wisdom of the Creator. Trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Trust in the teaching of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount: “do not worry…for if God cares for the smallest of birds in the field, God will care for you.”
Which brings me to one last story for the morning. Also last week, I was blessed to be able to hear live one of my favorite bluegrass musicians ever: Bela Fleck. After the death this year of Earl Scruggs, he is easily the premiere banjo player on the planet. I got to see a concert with he and his wife – also an amazing banjo player, as well as an incredible singer – Abigail Washburn.
And after an amazing concert, the two of them returned to stage for an encore. It was a spiritual experience. And there in the intimacy of Liberty Hall, with no microphone, just a banjo and this phenomenal voice, we heard them play and sing these words:
Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart feel lonely? And long for heaven and home? When Jesus is my portion A constant friend is he His eye is on the sparrow And I know he watches me
It was a moment of worship. To know that though the world seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. To know all nature sings. To know God speaks to me everywhere. Maltbie got it right.