I will love thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defense. -- Psalm 18:1
When I was eight or nine, I was playing outside on a hillside near the sea in Rhode Island, where my family spent time during the summer. It was overcast. The air was heavily damp, opaque with mist at a distance of 150 yards. The sound of a foghorn bleated from an offshore buoy like a blind person groping in darkness. I was running around with my brother and friends, barefoot. The stiff blades of crabgrass and the sandy soil were abrasive and cold on my feet. Slivers of moisture hit my cheek as I ran.
Then, my foot ran across a rock whose rough face stuck up above the surface of the ground. And suddenly, inwardly, I felt something very different, coming up through the rock.
An enormous depth opened up from the earth into my body and suffused the air around me. I felt a remarkable presence, eternity packed into a nanosecond, a fullness of time. It was loving and stern, beautiful and awesome, silent and strong, all at once. It stopped me in my tracks. Chronologically, the experience lasted less than an instant. But in a very real sense it has lasted over 40 years, as I remember it clearly today. It was an experience of the presence of God, and I am so grateful.
Because of a rock.
Years later, I am a Christian minister and I run a religious environmental group. Much of our work organizes religious groups to protect the environment. But I've found over the years that most people have powerful spiritual experiences outdoors, experiences which move them deeply and which connect them with the divine as powerfully as anything else. These stories -- of God entering their lives through plants and animals and landscapes and storms and flowers and rocks -- are spiritual touchstones, cornerstones in the foundation of their faith. These are often the most real experiences of God with which they are blessed. When I read in the New Testament about Jesus regularly heading for the hills to pray, I know exactly what he was doing, just as I understand why God called creation "good" day after day after day at the very beginning of Genesis. The earth reveals God to us and connects us to the Spirit.
And yet, people's stories of their outdoor spiritual experiences rarely see the light of day. I've asked hundreds of people. Most of them have never shared their experiences with another person. They're often embarrassed, reluctant or afraid. It's not a compliment today to be called a tree-hugger, and too many Christians still believe that if you get too close to the earth you cease being a follower of Jesus.
This is sad. God offers so much through the earth. Look at what Jesus does at his last supper, taking the fruit of the earth and the vine, and calling them "my body" and "my blood." (Matthew 26:26-29) Read Paul writing about the awe inspired by the fact that the whole universe holds together "in Christ" (Colossians 1:15-20). See how God reminds Job of God's majesty by describing the near-infinite details of the characteristics of wild animals, all owing their complex beauty to their Creator (Job 39-42). Read the psalmist, who writes that "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork," (Ps. 19:1) and who describes all creation -- animals, plants, landscapes, weather, and people -- giving praise to God (Ps. 148). The earth reveals and connects us to God. In the experiences of our lives and in the Bible, it's right there. What are we so afraid of?
There are few sources of the knowledge of God more powerful than the earth. Christians have known this across the centuries. Augustine -- a theological giant from the fourth century -- described in his classic, The City of God, the "two books" that people can read to find God. "Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: 'God made me!'"
Every Sunday, as I start my sermon, I say a prayer aloud: "Lord God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations deep within our hearts be acceptable in your sight, because you are our rock and our redeemer." I don't think that most people realize that when I say "rock," I mean it literally. Thanks to that rock forty years ago, thanks to the earth, I know God. And I am so grateful.
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest, is Executive Director of GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental coalition.