By Rev. Jonathan Heifner
This week we are sharing a guest post from Rev. Jonathan Heifner. A member of our writing team remembered Jonathan preaching about how we abide with creation. You’ll be blessed by his good words at just the time when nature itself is inviting us out of our closed-in spaces with warmth, new growth, and green shoots.
[God to Job]:
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings,
so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
—Job 38.33-35 NRSV
One of the realities of pandemic life, I suspect for most of us, has been a lot more time in front of a screen or device. While there are certainly benefits to safely hosting our meetings on Zoom or livestreaming worship services, we also need to consider what it is doing to us.
Staged & Posed
Who among us hasn't cleared just enough of the chaos of a messy room to create the illusion in the camera’s view that our homes, as well as our lives, are peacefully ordered?
And, for the worship leaders among us, who has not spent inordinate hours tinkering with light rings and other gadgets so we can be seen in just the right light on the livestream?
And, it has long been known that social media invites us to present and receive false impressions of the self, as we post the eleventh picture because that is the one that hides the flaws and quirks.
Consider the kind of control we have as we choose the image of ourselves that we present for the watching world to see.
Yet, in this staged and posed new world, control is an illusion. Performance shapes the actor. Peggy Orenstein names a unique facet of modern identity formation, and mind you, she offers this in fewer than 25 characters: “I tweet; therefore, I am” (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01wwln-lede-t.html?_r=1).
I know it is unoriginal to mention the precarious nature of digital life, but in a time when so much of our life is shaped by it, we need to be attentive to its forces.
More importantly, we need to be intentional to foster different ways of being and interacting with self, others, the world, and a God who is present in it all.
The Nature of Nature
Nature can help.
But first, it needs to be freed from our proclivities to stage and pose it. There may be many days when the most we see of creation is what is on the desktop background or what appears in a social media feed. And, while these are usually the most beautiful, they are not the most helpful, images for us. There is no doubt, nature is full of beauty and grandeur, the kind that should permeate our lives and be shared with others, but the digitization of it denies the kind of interaction with nature that can help these modern selves.
Instead, if we pay attention in outdoor places, it is rarely as tidy or picturesque as the perfectly timed shot of the sun peeking through the clouds. Alongside the beauty of unfiltered nature is death and decay, ferocity and harshness, rhythms that include a fair amount of death, unpredictability, and risk. To be present in nature is to recognize different rhythms and an unstaged reality.
A reality that poses risk to us. Much of our energy, money, and time are put toward securing our protection from nature’s harm to us. Prior to a home being a status or class symbol, the roof over head is a kind of technology that protects us from the harshness of weather. And, anyone who tried to go outside in the bitter cold spell of February was grateful for all the technology that goes into making winter attire that protects something so sensitive as our skin.
Being in places like that, with full attention, seems to have the ability to reorient us.
To Be (Re)Created
While we (probably) don't need to move to Walden or follow Wim Hof’s ideas, we can all benefit from opportunities to find another rhythm beyond our digitally-performed lives if we spend time being present and noticing the natural world.
As we use the senses to take it all in, we open ourselves to be shaped by different rhythms, different priorities, different logics than what governs our pixilated selves.
If we go, we will still find beauty and comfort. As Wendell Berry teaches us, the right medicine for a despairing soul is to be in the presence of the "peace of wild things."
However, if we keep paying attention, we will probably find ourselves in Job's world: one that is beyond our control.
In Job chapters 38-41, God belabors the point that God is beyond Job's power to grasp. Along with this hard realization is a more subtle one: creation is also beyond Job's ability to govern or create.
"Can you control the lightning or floods, Job?"
We would all do well to stand under fierce storm clouds and ask the same question.
Find a preserved or untouched corner of the world.
see what is there,
stop and listen,
notice signs of life and signs of death.
Pay close attention to decay.
Leave the phone or camera at home,
and resist the urge to stage or pose what you notice.
In these warmer months,
take off your shoes,
feel the cool earth beneath your feet.
Walk around until you step on something sharp:
Then notice the sensation as soft skin lands on a twig or jagged rock.
Feel the pain and consider this may be a chance for formation: re-creation.
Even better, do all that,
but take someone with you,
and together notice the deep and natural connections
shared between each undomesticated Other.
Connect us to the places we abide.
Teach us the rugged beauty of the natural world,
and remind us of the gift of being created.
About the author: Jonathan Heifner is an Elder in the Iowa Annual Conference, and he has served as the Associate Pastor at St. Paul’s UMC in Cedar Rapids for nearly six years. Jonathan enjoys spending time with Stephanie, five-year-old Charles, and Penny, the dog. Through the pandemic, Jonathan has sought durable and grounding rituals; the one that stuck is dancing to Rebecca Black’s Friday with Charles as a way of welcoming each weekend. You will not find any videos of this on social media.