I walked through the tunnel which burrowed through a sand dune and opened onto a deck with a view of the Lake Michigan shoreline, this tunnel and this view a frequent destination for many of us who have grown up in West Michigan.
I stood there briefly, taking in my surroundings. Unfurling to the north and to the south, as far as the eye could see, were ribbons of color: the pewter blue of the water, the honey blond of the sand, and verdant green of the woodland.
It was a balmy summer evening. As the sun was setting, I made my way down the steps leading to the beach against the grain of sunbathers and sandcastle architects who had gathered their beach paraphernalia and were returning home. I walked to the shoreline, hearing the quiet lapping of the water and feeling the heat rise from the sun-baked sand.
I turned south and wandered past a barking dog and a half-digested log until I was alone. The sun sent out ruby and orange streamers into the sky and ignited the clouds hovering above the horizon as it sizzled into the great lake, its fire extinguished.
The wind shifted, and a cool breeze wafted in from the water. I stood still and waited.
As the darkness deepened, the stars began to appear, first the bright planets and then all the rest of them, so many that the expanse above me looked milky. I was surrounded by infinity, infinite grains of sand at my feet and infinite stars above my head. This world was so much larger than the one that I had constructed for myself, the ceiling so much higher, the walls so much wider, the floor so much deeper.
The moon suddenly made its appearance. It laid a silvery path in the water that ended at my feet, a path so defined that I thought someone might soon be coming down it to meet me.
I felt small but strangely calm. The sheer immensity of the universe threatened to obliterate me, but standing in the sand and looking up at the stars, I realized that I was part of it all, that I belonged.
The four elemental forces—gravity, the weak force, electromagnetism, the strong force—are the hands of God. They work together to shape the elegant systems that sustain life on this small planet as well as my small body—the space, time, air, water, and food all gift-wrapped in beauty.
I felt the touch of God.
All my anxieties and petty desires that normally clamor for my attention were now exposed, and they rushed out to any herd of swine they could find. My heart was quieted and suddenly had more room than it had before, more room to host the vulnerable children of God.
All geography is spiritual, as Kathleen Norris in her renowned book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography has suggested. Whether we are talking about the great sweeps of the Dakota plains or the shoreline of Lake Michigan, geography is spiritual in the fundamental sense that it has the power to bless us and infuse us with the gifts of life if we are open-hearted and clear-headed enough to receive them, gifts not only for the body but also gifts for the soul—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Geography is more than general revelation—as we sometimes label it in the Reformed tradition—if by general revelation, we mean information about the character of God to which we assent.
Geography is an anointing, a means of grace that empowers us to become more fully ourselves and to love more deeply. In her book, Kathleen Norris witnesses that the Dakota plains with their oceanic swells and hollows, grasses rippling like waves, and winds thundering in the trees like high surf opened a door to the presence of the Holy One and made her more fully human.
Although we often fail to notice, the Scriptures teach us that the created order has the power to bless us and make us more human. Recall Jesus’ familiar words in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.Matthew 6:25-29.
Jesus depicts here a breach between the human and the natural world, a human world cut off from the blessings of the created order and therefore deeply worried. Jesus wants to heal the breach and bring the two worlds back together. He reminds his disciples that God created the natural world as a resource for hungry and thirsty bodies and a balm for anxious souls. With these words he invites all his disciples to rejoin the created order and to receive the gifts it offers.
I retraced my steps down the shoreline, up the steps, and through the tunnel. As I reentered the world that I had left behind, my anxieties returned.
I do not live in a time in which hearts are full of love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, and self-control. Whether in the church or society at large, I live in a time marked by the opposite of these virtues.There are many causes of our soul-sickness, but I am more and more convinced that one of the main causes, one that we seldom discuss, is our desecration of and estrangement from the created order.
We are in desperate need of religious rituals and economic practices that will reconnect us to the created order, least we squander the blessing and permanently harden our hearts.
Thanks Tom. We’re planning an Advent series based on Gayle Boss’ wonderful book “All Creation Waits”, and providing resources for the congregation to get outside and experience Advent through nature’s story of preparing for winter, of waiting…it’s already brought me outdoors for long walks more than normal (aka hardly ever), and that’s doing a marvelous thing in me, spiritually…a sense of centered-ness and steadiness…that I hadn’t expected. Thanks for your beautiful reminder of the grace God surrounds us with, and the challenge to go out and experience it!
Like so many of us “remote workers”, I sat down at my computer to start my day. I cleared the overnight e-mails and a fresh e-mail arrived at top titled “All Geography is Spiritual”. I read your essay and felt the anxiety of the moment and the season wash away by the time I made it to “the quiet lapping of the water”. “My heart [too] was quieted and suddenly had more room than it had before”. Thank you for sharing your gift of how I will see our world today. It’s a new day!
I love this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As you were describing your walk along Lake Michigan, I felt myself calming and settling. The famous quote came into my mind: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Lovely, Sue. I must recite this several times daily.
And the automobile, and all the time we spend in it, and all that we do to serve it, is one of our chief enemies, indeed spiritual enemies, in this problem. Even when it provides the means to get us to the Lake.
A beautiful and urgent word, Tom. Thank you for this, and for continuing to share your wisdom and insights with us.
Thank you Tom.
Beautiful, I loved it!
Right on, my friend. The vastness of the cosmos; not an enemy, but a friend. Giving us the right perspective.
The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps.19). . . .and: What is known of God can be seen in creation (Rom. 1)
Thanks for helping us reclaim it, and our own humanity as well.
Thank you for articulating so beautifully what I experience when I take my daily walk.
Thank you for the beauty and peace offered in this essay.
Though the lights of the city can be blinding on evening walks, every night, between the streetlights, my eyes are drawn to the beauty of the heavens.
I agree with other comments. Calming occurred as reading this. That’s why we need good writers and artists and musicians. Thank you.
Very much agree, very much appreciated. I grew up on the west side of that wonderful lake, and now live a whole state east of Kathleen Norris’s Lemmon, on the Great Plains. Both inspire endless awe.
Thank you Professor Boogaart.
Your writing feels to have come as a gift, out of the cosmos, for today in particular, as I immediately shared it with a friend, on the east coast, whose 101 year old Mother is gently being helped to leave this earth.
Thank you sincerely,
That tunnel was a part of my life for most of the last 70 plus years. After our move to the east coast a year ago, I am wondering if I will ever walk through that tunnel again. Thank you for a beautiful post even if it left me feeling a bit melancholy!
Wonderful! I would add that a Christian Geography is possible. As we survey the landscape of academic Geography, there are only a couple of Christian universities that offer the engaging subject as a major. Calvin University has offered Geography as a major since 1982. As a global leader our work in Christian Geography seeks to engage all audiences in the interconnections of faith and place, both natural and human. Our students explore these interconnections with us. As you reflect on the ideas in this article, I hope you will consider for your children and grand children a future in Geography at Calvin University.
– Dr. Jason E. VanHorn
Professor of Geography
Well said. I am blessed by your words, Tom.