Climate Change | April 21, 2021

Spiritual lessons of the wilderness

Photo by David Weisenbeck

The Sermon on the Mount has long been a source of spiritual formation for Brethren. And while we often struggle with Jesus’ challenge to turn the other cheek and love our enemies, the invitation to prayer in Matthew 6:26-28 doesn’t seem all that difficult: Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field.

Set in the context of a larger discussion about allowing our trust in God to replace our habit of worry, Jesus invites us to a new perspective of life and faith that is achieved through the careful examination of nature. It is part of the sermon’s larger call to trust that the life Jesus describes is the best way to live.

These are crucial matters. In the face of very real challenge and risk, Jesus invites us to slow down and take a long look at creation: the birds of the air and lilies of the field have much to teach us about God.

But what if the birds of the air and lilies of the field were no longer there?

Jesus’ guidance describes the critical relationship that exists between humans and creation. Having been instructed in Genesis to subdue, have dominion over, till, and keep the earth, we should ask whether birds and lilies—and the pasturelands and forests they call home—have value on their own, or if they are only scenery that ultimately serves more utilitarian purposes.

Camp Bethel. Photo by Emily Bender.

Take a careful look at the picture from Camp Bethel. As beautiful as this view is, there are many overlooks and hidden waterfalls throughout the Roanoke and Shenandoah valleys that we call home that offer more stunning views than this. But beautiful views like this one are both more accessible for enjoyment and within the easy grasp of economic development. How do we measure the importance of undeveloped spaces like these against the economic potential of a subdivision, fast food restaurant, or shopping center?

We can imagine and even predict what might be gained through economic development, but is there a column in the accountant’s ledger for the impact a place like this has on our soul? Beyond the grass, trees, and contour of the earth, how might our souls be strengthened through careful observation of the birds, lilies, and other forms of life that exist here?

Exercising dominion over the earth comes in many forms. Two options are blasting and bulldozing open wild spaces to make room for a new shopping center or preserving tracts of rural land through permanent land easements. When we choose to protect rural and wilderness places, we are protecting much more than scenic vistas; we are recognizing that creation has a value beyond scenic beauty with important lessons—even spiritual lessons—to teach us.

A recent project of Valley Conservation Council revealed the significance of preservation in an unexpected way. A landowner in Highland County, Virginia, chose to protect his family farm with the hopes that it will become an educational center for future generations. This choice has already borne fruit: in the summer of 2019, a researcher from James Madison University discovered a new species of salamander in one of the creeks on this property. Throughout human history, this salamander had gone unnoticed until someone chose to preserve their land, allowing someone else to take a closer look. What other wonders of creation exist that are as yet unknown, and what lessons do they have to teach us?

Jesus’ call to look at the birds of the air and consider the lilies of the field is an invitation to understand a connection between nature and our spiritual development. As creation’s groaning is expressed through climate change, humans are being forced to recognize a dependency on creation that previous generations could overlook. The impacts of the loss of rural and wilderness places may not feel immediate for us: what does the loss of one farm that we have never seen have to do with me?

But to the small salamanders who call a bog in Highland County home, such a loss would be everything. When a farm becomes a housing development and a small stream dries up, everything the salamander knew is gone. The habitat and food supply dry up with the stream, and the salamander can no longer exist.

Jesus’ words tell us that, when things like salamanders are lost, an opportunity for spiritual growth is lost with it. We lose an opportunity to learn that we do not have to hoard the resources necessary for living; God will provide. These are critical lessons in a time when we are losing our connections to creation. Writer Terry Tempest Williams says we are becoming a people for whom “an apple is not just a fruit but a computer. A mouse is not simply a rodent but a controlling mechanism for a cursor . . .nature is no longer a force but a source of images for our screensavers” (Erosion: Essays of Undoing, 39).

Having close physical connections to creation provides opportunities to move beyond both the immediate and the individualistic forces that characterize our culture, opportunities that are largely unavailable through virtual connections.

Jesus knows us well. These words from the Sermon on the Mount are significant because our desire to secure things to “eat, drink, or wear” (Matthew 6:31) will always tempt us to seize the resources we need to live at the expense of others. Whether we measure this in terms of rural acreage lost to economic development or in the cost of resource wars over oil and water, the immediate needs of the individual will always compete against the call to “strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:32).

Both creation and our souls are at stake. If we lose the ability to look at the lilies of the field and see how they are cared for by their Creator, we lose the ability to see a reflection of our Creator’s care for us. But a careful plan for creation also makes possible a plan for our own spiritual growth. We have the possibility of saving open spaces for our future enjoyment and caring for birds, lilies, and salamanders. These actions can’t happen without us; without our consistent effort, we will see the landscape around us start to change, and we will start to feel that loss in our very souls.

Wild spaces around us

In land conservation, it is often said that connection drives the work that we do. For me, this connection was driven by 14 summers at Camp Bethel. For the landowners I work with, the connection to place is the land that they work every day or the place that serves as a retreat. Whatever this connection may be, it drives our desire to see the landscape remain.

As our initial COVID-19 quarantine began, I read that state and national parks were having to close hiking trails because they were being flooded with people. When we were forced to go inside and our original plans for the year were set aside, we turned to nature for relief. At that time, we knew exactly what it meant to feel connection to a place and appreciate that space for what it meant, not just what it was. Outdoor spaces started to represent more than trees and dirt and mountains. They were places of respite, a distraction from the chaos of our lives. We built connection to these places.

As we find new routines in this changed world, it is my hope that we continue to seek out connection to the wild spaces around us, that we take time to discover what lies within the mountains that we see from the interstates, and take time to cherish the details. —Emily Harvey Bender

Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Virginia. Emily Harvey Bender, his daughter, is director of Land Protection at Valley Conservation Council. She lives in Staunton, Virginia, and is a member at Mill Creek Church of the Brethren in Port Republic.