My first semester of graduate school is under my belt, and I have to say, it feels great! It’s been 20 years since I was last a student, and I’m grateful to the Lord for helping me jump back in.
The day my class ended, we celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas at church with a potluck dinner and a few carols. I’ve long known that the tradition of Santa Clause is based on the life of St. Nicholas, but I didn’t know that Nicholas was a bishop in Myra, a seaside city in what’s now the country of Turkey, and that he was part of the council of Nicea, defending the doctrine of the trinity against heretics. The Nicean Creed, which our church recites each week as part of the liturgy, emerged from that council in AD 325.
That little bit of history has added greatly to my experience of Advent this year, along with some continued reflections on nature, which I’ll share below.
Here we go!
All Is Calm
On an evening walk this past week, I found myself coaxing our 3-year-old chocolate Lab Harper along, the sidewalk even though she’s usually she’s the one pulling me. During this one stretch of the path, she seemed particularly interested in sniffing and smelling.
It was supposed to be a quick walk—I’d just gotten home from the library and Steve was finishing up a last minute project for work. Then we’d head out for some dinner. Plus it was getting dark. As midwinter approaches, with the shortening of days and dimming of light, I grow more fearful of being outside. As the minutes ticked by I felt my anxiety rising.
Finally, when Harper stopped for the eighth time, I stopped too. And noticed. Harper was pulling me toward the marshy area of the park, where tall reeds and grasses grow. In the summer, I often see red-winged blackbirds perching on cattails in that space. Even now, when all around the trees are empty and the grass is folding over, this little patch of nature, nestled among the paved parking lot, concrete sidewalks, and painted pickleball courts, feels whole, thriving. When I took it all in, I found myself breathing a little more deeply at the end of a hectic day.
When life feels difficult and chaotic, I often turn to nature to settle my soul. When I was quarantined at home during cancer treatment nearly 15 years ago, I dreamed of planting a garden. When I moved my mom into a nursing home a few years ago, I pulled open the curtains to look at the courtyard and saw a cardinal in the tree, and the sadness became a little more diluted. During the first Christmas of the COVID pandemic, I picked up pinecones and seed pods to decorate our Christmas tree, because the normal sparkling baubles just didn’t feel right. And last year, after Mom passed away, I spent hours walking through woods, working through grief in the only way I knew how.
Research confirms that time in nature, especially among trees, “promotes lower pulse rate, blood pressure and concentrations of cortisol–and greater parasympathetic, and lower sympathetic, nerve activity–than do city environments.” It also lowers “mood scores for ‘tension-anxiety,’ ‘anger-hostility,’ ‘fatigue-inertia,’ and ‘depression-dejection.’” But beyond the measurable levels of body function and the reported feelings of wellbeing or calm, science can’t really tell us why nature is so good for us.
I have an idea, though.
When we find ourselves among the oak trees and the chipmunks, the cattails and the red-winged blackbirds, we remember that we, too, are creatures, created as the masterpiece of our loving Creator God. But more than that, while the world around us seems to fall apart—and more each day—nature provides us with glimpses of transcendence, unexplainable beauty, reminders that all God’s creation will one day be set to rights, when Jesus comes again.
I love the words of the Prophet Isaiah, connecting creation with redemption, the work of our Creator God with the promise of the coming Messiah:
God’s Message: The God who created the cosmos, stretched out the skies, laid out the earth and all that grows from it, Who breathes life into earth’s people, makes them alive with his own life:
“I am God. I have called you to live right and well.
I have taken responsibility for you, kept you safe.
I have set you among my people to bind them to me,
and provided you as a lighthouse to the nations,
To make a start at bringing people into the open, into light:
opening blind eyes,
releasing prisoners from dungeons,
emptying the dark prisons.
I am God. That’s my name.
I don’t franchise my glory,
don’t endorse the no-god idols.
Take note: The earlier predictions of judgment have been fulfilled.
I’m announcing the new salvation work.
Before it bursts on the scene,
I’m telling you all about it.”
— Isaiah 42:5-9, The Message
Then Isaiah tells us how all of creation will respond when Jesus’ final advent is complete:
“So you’ll go out in joy,
you’ll be led into a whole and complete life.
The mountains and hills will lead the parade,
bursting with song.
All the trees of the forest will join the procession,
exuberant with applause.
No more thistles, but giant sequoias,
no more thornbushes, but stately pines—
Monuments to me, to God,
living and lasting evidence of God.
— Isaiah 55:12-13, The Message
I wonder … what do you experience when you encounter nature? How do these passages from Isaiah help you think about the role nature plays in the final coming of Jesus, for which we also wait during this season?
For Further Reflection
I love the hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is from the poem by the same name by Christina Rossi. You can find the lyrics here, and a particularly beautiful rendition by Keith and Krysten Gerry.
I always appreciate the humor and insight of Margaret Renkl’s New York Times columns, and this one about collecting acorns felt especially appropriate this week. (I wonder … what role do you think we have, both collectively and as individuals, in caring for God’s creation?)
I’m not sure exactly how this essay from Kate Bowler fits in this week’s issue, except to say that I believe it does. In The Roof Always Caves In Why there is nothing wrong with being doomed, Bowler pieces together how the inevitable difficulties of life draw us toward God and others, which feels exactly like a message for Advent.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report, albeit one that showed up on a Tuesday instead of a Friday. Thanks again for joining me! It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. I can’t always respond quickly, but I always respond.
Until next time,
I love your newsletters, Charity.
Thanks for this, Charity. Oh, His NATURE!