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God's Simplicity and Wonder
And He said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
GOD TELLS US WHO HE IS IN COUNTLESS WAYS. SOMETIMES He chooses to do this through small, simple wonders in the natural world, objects we may have seen hundreds of times before but overlooked. Other times, He grabs our attention in bigger ways, and we may wonder how we haven't noticed Him there all along. I believe God has always revealed His love for us in the beauty and seeming simplicity of nature and that these things communicate significant truths about His character.
I also believe God delights in revealing Himself for us. It's like offering us encouragement and glimpses of His glory through nature. These signs of Him help us to persevere, to think about who we are in the big scheme of things, and to realize there's something bigger and better at play. And He does this for all of us. Any one of us can see, observe, and enjoy the traces and glimpses of Him in nature.
As a little girl, I listened to my grandmother tell me stories about God's creation, stories that pointed directly to Him and particularly to Christ and the significance of the Cross. These stories opened my eyes, and I began to look at the natural world differently, seeing Him everywhere. To this day, I continue to be amazed that God created the natural order in a way that provokes such a sense of wonder and awe.
When we look at nature, I think it's important to see it as if from a child's perspective. Marvel in it. Take joy in it. Revel in its amazing simplicity and the powerful message it sends about who God is. We tend to become bogged down as adults, to overthink, to become distracted. In this chapter, I'll share with you some of the observations my grandmother made and a few of the wonders we can receive when we view nature through a simpler, more childlike lens.
My hope is that you'll see Him not only in the details I describe in this chapter but also in the nature He's chosen to place around you.
The Simplicity and Wonder of Trees
Occasionally, you may notice something particular about a tree — its size, the curve of a branch, the color of its leaves, the texture of its bark. But while we appreciate trees, it's also easy to gloss over them much of the time. How often do you walk past a tree, knowing that it's there but not truly seeing it or thinking much about it? If we were to stop for a moment to regard the tree differently, to appreciate it and to contemplate its value, we might gain some interesting insights.
Human civilization is dependent upon trees, not only because trees offer us important resources but also because they provide us with ecological benefits. We know they produce oxygen and clean the air, for example. They also regulate precipitation, offer a natural defense against flooding, provide habitats for animals, cool the earth, and prevent soil erosion.
Trees, when you really think about it, are wondrous.
Have you ever stood next to a California coastal redwood tree? Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. They can grow to around 350 feet high, and in some cases, if you were to stand at the bottom of one of these trees, you wouldn't be able to see its top. They've also been known to live up to around two thousand years old, which means it was possible for them to have existed when Jesus Himself walked the earth. Standing next to one of these glorious, ancient, and slightly intimidating trees, you might feel insignificant in size and humbled to realize the span of your life on earth in relation to them.
This tree also provides some of the strongest, most durable wood in the world. People often select furniture or construction materials made of redwood because they know it will last and not decay like other woods. It's resistant to warping, rotting, and even termites. And it's known for its beauty and color.
The redwood tree is a magnificent symbol of God's own glory and magnificence. It is not only larger, grander, stronger, and more enduring than we are, but also completely breathtaking to behold. I believe God uses the redwood to point us to Him.
Though I could go into the details and particulars of other tree species, I want to address another aspect of appreciating God's natural wonder. Every tree is a miracle in and of itself. Even smaller trees display God's glory. But you don't necessarily have to understand the science or be an expert on trees in order to know that what you're seeing is wondrous. (You can witness a bolt of lightning, for example, and be amazed by it, but at the same time be unable to comprehend how and why it happened.) Simply accepting nature at face value will also allow you to receive it. This would be similar to the way a child might notice, be curious about, and marvel at something in nature. It doesn't have to be complicated.
A few years ago, I received an email sometime before Easter — one of those emails that people forward to each other. In this email, I noticed a photo that featured what appeared to be hundreds of pine trees, each of them sprouting with new growth. The tops of the pine trees in the photo appeared as hundreds of crosses, and I remember the absolute astonishment I felt when I realized that pine trees really do that. It was as if the pine trees themselves were giving glory to Christ and pointing to the Cross. I know I had my mind on Easter, but I also believe that observations like this are not coincidences; they are often God speaking to our hearts. When we look at nature (even in a photo sent through an email), we can see His presence, and it might be a breathtaking, moving, and emotional experience because we sense it is God demonstrating His love for us. He reaches out to us and lifts us up to Him, even in simple, unassuming ways. But the simplicity doesn't negate the profundity of the experience.
We can also view trees as symbols. My grandmother used to talk to me about the dogwood tree, which, in the South where I grew up, blooms around Easter. Though I knew the story she told me about this tree was a legend, I felt that it still said something about what Jesus went through for us when He was punished and crucified. According to the legend, the dogwood tree was, a long time ago in Israel, prized as one of the finest, noblest, and most impressive of trees. It grew straight and tall, and its wood was good and strong. Legend has it that the dogwood was selected as the tree that would be used as the wood for Jesus's cross, and it felt great sadness for the role it played in His crucifixion. The story goes on to say that Jesus sensed this and, in His compassion, altered the nature of the tree so that rather than being tall and stately, future dogwoods would be small and thin; then, in this way, it would never need be used for a crucifixion again. The dogwood today is a small- sized tree with beautiful blossoms and distinctive branching. Though I know the story my grandmother told me was just a story, I love the way the dogwood blooms every Easter as a meaningful reminder of Christ's love for us. The tree seems to be blooming in celebration of Jesus's resurrection.
The Simplicity and Wonder of Flowers
The dogwood tree is also fascinating to me because of its blooms. People love to admire this gorgeous tree in the springtime, and regardless of their religious background, they observe the same physical characteristics that I do in the flowers of the dogwood. My grandmother showed me how the dogwood blossom has four large petals that are, interestingly enough, shaped like a cross. Its petals are often white, which she said signifies Christ's white robes of purity. (Sometimes the petals are pink, which, in keeping with the legend, symbolizes that the tree is blushing in shame for the role it played in Jesus's crucifixion.) The edge of each petal is notched at its tip, representing Christ's wounds, and each of these notches has a red tinge, representing Christ's blood. In the center of the blossom is a crown-like cluster, which represents Christ's crown of thorns. And as the flower ages, it appears speckled, some say with blood-like spatters.
Though people may assert that these connections are unrelated, there is something interesting and uncanny about them. We will, of course, always see things from our own worldview; but I believe there's something to be said for even loose associations between things. They require us to be open minded, to consider possibilities, and to think objectively about the relationships between ideas. If we look with the eyes of a child, we might see something surprising and new.
When I find myself in nature, I also can't help but to connect what I see on an emotional level to bigger themes in life and, in particular, to God. Have you ever been hiking and all of a sudden stumbled upon a field of beautiful wildflowers? There they are, in the middle of nowhere, not having been planted by man, but God. It's as if they are quietly and patiently waiting to be discovered, though even if you had not found them, they would still be there, present in all their beauty and glory. I'm always struck by the fact that they are like a gift to us, if only we can find them. And then I'm reminded about how in the Bible Jesus says He's waiting patiently at the door to be discovered by us.
In Revelation 3:20, He tells us, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." Like the field of wildflowers that's waiting for us to find it, Jesus is there, waiting for us to find Him. Like the field of wildflowers is full of beauty and offers us a sense of joy and awe, Jesus is full of beauty and offers us His joy, love, peace, and help. Like the field of wildflowers is a gift that God gives to us, Jesus is the ultimate gift that God wants to share with us.
Let's also look at what a rose might say about God. In North American culture, we often give roses to our sweethearts and those we love because roses symbolize love. They are beautiful flowers with a lot of meaning attached. When we offer roses to someone, they typically no longer have the thorns that are present when they're first picked. These thorns can hurt, like love can hurt when someone takes a risk or makes themselves vulnerable. But unless we're willing to open ourselves up to love, we'll never be able to fully appreciate and experience the beautiful gift it is and the richness it brings to our life. Jesus willingly made Himself vulnerable for us, opening Himself up to rejection, condemnation, pain, and suffering in order to bring us the real, enduring love He knows we need. He accepted that to bring us great love, He would need to open Himself up to pain and to sacrifice Himself for us. Jesus is not unlike a magnificent rose when He is described in historical accounts as wearing a crown of thorns on His head. The beauty of the rose and the beauty of Jesus are not all they seem to be. I believe we are able to enjoy and receive them because there's an aspect of pain to them — and this came at a cost. To pluck the beautiful rose, blood may be drawn from the sharp, piercing thorns. For us to have a beautiful, eternal life, the price was the blood of Jesus.
Similarly, we're not able to have love in our hearts unless someone gives it to us. At the end of my high school career, the quote I chose to feature underneath my graduation picture in the yearbook was, "Love was not put in your heart to stay. Love is not love until you give it away." It was a simple but profound concept to ponder at the time and continues to ring true for me today. It's made even more significant as I contemplate God on my faith journey and consider how He speaks to us so powerfully and so beautifully through the objects in His creation. I find that it serves to set my focus for how to live life as well. When I see a rose, I can remember that it is in the giving of love that love comes to be. Only then can it do what it needs to do in our hearts and lives. Jesus is love in action, and His name is not only synonymous with love, but He is love itself.
Nature, with all of its metaphors, is so full of God's love for us. When we become aware of and see all the symbols surrounding us, we can connect the dots and find that they lead to one place: They point to Jesus and the Father.
The Simplicity and Wonder of Seasons
It's a miracle that seasons exist. God created them to serve a purpose on earth, and without them, scientists say we would be in a sorry state. We recognize seasons as a revolving cycle of life and death, predictable to us and often familiar in their characteristics. Yet seasons have wondrous and profound implications, which say important things about God.
Deciduous trees, for example, lose their leaves in the fall. The leaves simply fall off because they have died and no longer need to be attached to their source of life. The same trees in the wintertime are devoid of foliage — as if dead themselves. But in the spring, with warmth and rain, a miracle happens. The trees bud with new life and the fresh, pale green of growth from seemingly nothing. Death begets new life, a new beginning, and before long, the tree looks vibrant and alive, with new leaves budding off the same limbs that the dead leaves had been attached to. Does this not mirror our own life's journey, both in a physical and spiritual sense?
In the physical sense, springtime represents our birth as a fresh, new bud. We grow into maturity, as a tree does in the summer. We begin to fade in the autumn. We die (or appear as dead) in the winter.
In the spiritual sense, we are born into the world. We grow, learn, and explore life, its meaning, and its purpose. We come to recognize that Christ is our savior, knowing that something big in us must change in order to live out what we now know is true. Christians refer to this as a "dying" of the old self. Though no one is technically dying, it's a spiritual dying that signifies the changing of a life and a natural shift in the way we might think about things. A fall leaf, as it dies (to its old self), can be perceived as producing a colorful display of beauty, not unlike the display of beauty that might happen with our change of heart with belief. Then the leaf dies and is released from its old life, not unlike the death of our old self. But springtime comes, and our identity in Christ is like new, and we are born again as little budding Christians that must grow into a more mature state as we take up our spiritual pilgrimage.
So what's in a falling leaf or in the budding of a new one? I think God uses these to show us that even though we die to our old way of being, in Jesus can be a new life that will come. He loves all of us, old and new, but uses leaves — and, indeed, the seasons — to remind us of His hope and love. The seasons are part of His great plan to save us.
I find it fascinating that Easter is in the springtime. When I think of spring, I picture the dormant seed sprouting with new life, trees blossoming and bearing leaves and fruit, flowers pushing up through the ground, baby animals newly born, birds making their nests and laying eggs, hatching new lives of baby birds. To me, countless signs in nature in the springtime show rebirth and new beginnings. I'm someone who doesn't believe in coincidences, so I can't help but be reminded of the resurrection of Christ in the spring. It seems more than fitting to me that Easter is in the spring. I believe all we need to do is look with childlike openness in order to see a world that speaks God's name and displays His glorious wonder.
In 2011 my oldest son died suddenly in an accident. The funeral program was especially important to me, as it was an opportunity to bear witness to my son's and my faith. For the memorial service, I wrote about the magic of a seed, using it as a metaphor for my son's growth and passage to Heaven. The seed, in the darkness of the ground, begins to germinate from within, growing from the spring rains that nurture it. At the chosen moment, it breaks forth from its shell and, as it outgrows its dark world, the little flower bursts from the soil to find its new world of bright sunlight. The seed is discarded, giving forth to a new life. In the same way, the little flower, my beautiful son, outgrew his earthly body and left the darkness to be in the light — to be in the presence of the Lord, to be in Heaven.
* * *
The seasons in a year aren't the only ideas that signify death and resurrection. Jonathan Edwards, the famous eighteenth-century American revivalist preacher, philosopher, and theologian, recognized that God also built this symbolism into the hours in a day. He noted that every night, death is represented in the act of going to sleep, and in the morning, resurrection is represented in our process of waking up. Each day, we are born again, fresh and new, with all the possibilities for a day before us and the opportunity to start again. In God, we have the hope of fresh beginnings, and the morning is always to come. I love that God has created the natural order in our world in these profoundly simple ways if we look fir the, we can find them. And when we see them, we see Him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Signature of GOD"
Copyright © 2019 Rhonda Milner.
Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
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