I spent a night at the beach a few weeks ago and lay out on a rooftop deck watching the stars breathe out and in. They twinkle with a sort of a heartbeat, a pulse. I tried to spot constellations, but stars are dizzying. As I focused on one star at a time, I wondered if they moved or if I just imagined such dancing. Shivering a little under my blanket, I felt lonely in the quietness, vastness, and other-ness of the sky. I wonder how many stars there are that we just cannot see. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). His hand is over the still and steady sparkle of the stars.
He has created so much good, like wild beach heather, whispering dune grass, warm cappuccino waves, swirled blue skies, and sun that “comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (Psalm 19:5). But waves crash unpredictably, and I can't see the end of the sea. Its “waters roar and foam” and “the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Psalm 46:3). I've been thinking a lot lately of how the natural world fits into our continual seeing of God. Nature is a precious tool, and God uses it throughout Scripture to point us to Himself. At the same time, there is so much that general revelation can't say. Even being out in nature, we can feel excluded, and general revelation makes no promises and gives no assurances. Creation is big and beautiful, but it does not welcome us into the dance (Lewis 40).
We can't know that God is on our side from bare creation. In A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard poignantly paints the unpredictability of nature and our separation from its Creator. Throughout the whole book, she tries to make sense of the death and seemingly senseless pain in the natural world, even in relation to small things, like insects, and she tries to reconcile this pain with the life and seemingly senseless beauty found in these same things. She questions the reader and puts God in the dock, wondering if He is duping us. “Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all? […] Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, that the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?” (255). She watches Tinker Creek, “waters of beauty and mystery,” which are also “waters of separation: they purify, acrid and laving, and they cut me off” (256). She writes of the Biblical waters of separation, the cleansing rites of the priests, purifying the people so that they might draw near to God. “This special water purifies. A man – any man – dips a sprig of hyssop into the vessel and sprinkles – merely sprinkles! - the water upon the unclean, 'upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead.' So. But I never signed up for this role. The bone touched me” (256). Here Dillard reveals what all men know. We cannot draw near to God on our own; we must be purified. At the same time, she questions God for the brokenness and accursedness of this world, because she refuses to admit her sin. Creation is cursed and its Creator is against us because we have sinned. Just so, we have all touched the bone.
In the face of a Creator God who is outside of us, who is glorious and just, Dillard must lie to herself for comfort. (“If I am a maple key falling, at least I can twirl” (257).) She is absolutely right that the “universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest,” yet there is no assurance for us in creation or in our sinful selves that this earnestly beautiful God is for us (259). “Shadow Creek” cannot comfort sinners (260).
More than shadows, we have Jesus Christ and the Word of God. His incarnation, death, and resurrection speak of nearness to our Creator, peace for His enemies. General revelation can show us a glorious God exists, but it cannot bring us near to Him; such knowledge only condemns us. Though creation can speak of a glorious Creator, it alone excludes sinners from Him, because He is far more glorious and perfect than we are. So I am so glad that He has given us His gospel, a clear message of the cleansing blood of Christ that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24). Contrary to Dillard's waters, this blood of sprinkling does not separate us from God, but through it Christ secures our “eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:12-14). “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:19-22).
Following in the footsteps of Dillard, Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, writes of many spiritual experiences she received through nature and the world around her, like traveling to Paris to “make love to God” (Voskamp 201).* From the excerpts I have read of her book and the pieces I have read on her blog, I've found a lack of Christ and clear cut gospel (particularly discussion of sin, not imperfection or weakness or piles of dirty dishes or overdue library books, but downright sin and the forgiveness of it). While I don't mean to review Voskamp's work, I find this type of thinking dangerous and infected with lies. God's blessings cannot provide the comfort and joy for us that Christ, our Savior, does. As the enemy works to blind us to the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4), I think it is sad that we seek communion with Him more in shadows instead of the substance of His Word and gospel. It is not that shadows are bad, but it is that shadows are not where we see Him best. With only shadows, we are outcasts. It is at the cross that we find peace with Him, and it is there that we see His glory shining the brightest. Living in a cursed world with so much sin around us and dealing day by day with indwelling sin, we need these starry sights of Him in the gospel.
Because of Christ and His cross, I can enjoy glimpses of a Creator who is both transcendent and immanent. The stars dizzy me, but they twinkle like the heartbeat my loving Father put within my chest. I think God wants Christians to see His lavish, almost wasteful, beauty in His creation and be reminded not just that He is beautiful, but that He is for us. I think He wants us to see all things in connection with the grace He has lavished upon us as He has revealed the truth of His gospel to us (Ephesians 1:7-10). “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2). Beauty smiles, and it is to welcome us. He has marked us and engraved our names in the palms of His hands (Lewis 40, Isaiah 49:16). Our greatest communion with God is not through creation or His gifts to us but through the Word, sacraments, and prayer as He reminds us of the gospel. We are loved by and love God at the foot of the cross as He freely blesses us with faith in His Son. We see Him best on this side of heaven not in shadows, but in seeing our sin forgiven and His arms open wide to welcome us because of not our work, but Christ's.
Dillard, Annie. Three by Annie Dillard. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.
Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Voskamp, Ann. One Thousand Gifts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. *I accessed this quote through a detailed review by Bob DeWaay on this site - http://www.cicministry.org/commentary/issue120.htm. I haven't read the book personally, but from this review and others, along with reading some of her material myself on her blog, I think my explanation of her ideas is accurate. For a helpful review, see http://www.fightingforthefaith.com/2014/01/mystical-estrogen.html