I once sat on a cement step leading to a sidewalk and watched an ant carry a tiny straw on its back. It came to a crevice between the cement slabs and had no means of getting across with the straw on its back. Faced with this dilemma, the tiny ant engaged in some practical engineering by placing the straw across the crevice and using it as a bridge to get to the other side. Once on the other side, it picked up the piece of straw and continued on its journey. The ant had turned its burden into a bridge.
Taking our burdens, which seem to be overwhelming at times, and turning them into bridges is but one of the many lessons that the world of nature can give us in understanding life. The German poet and playwright, Goethe, referred to nature as “the living visible garment of God.” By observing the ways of Creation, there is much we can learn about our Creator, about our fellow humans, and about ourselves.
Nature has its own way of touching the spiritual dimension in all of us. Stand at a lookout point in a mountain range and you are touched by the majestic splendor of the scene, or stand at an Oceanside and you are overwhelmed by the powerful roar of the waves. The African-American scientist George Washington Carver described a walk in the woods before sunrise: “At no other time have I so sharp an understanding of what God wants to do with me as in those hours of dawn.” Nature introduces us to a presence beyond ourselves. A biology professor once told me, “When I first looked into a microscope and watched the process of cell division, I knew I was in the presence of God.”
What are some of the lessons nature teaches us? One is the lesson of humility and, with it, a recognition that we are dependent on a Power beyond ourselves. Author James Buckingham tells the story of the Eddystone Lighthouse in Plymouth, England. When first constructed, it bore the inscription:
Blow O Winds, Rise O Ocean
Break Forth Ye Elements , and Try My Work
A few years later it was destroyed in a storm. Then an architect named John Smeaton rebuilt it and placed an inscription at its base from the Book of Proverbs:
Except the Lord Build the House
They Labor in Vain
That was more than a century ago. The lighthouse is still standing.
Besides humility, we also learn the value of struggle from the ways of the natural world. Take, for example, the butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. One person tried to assist in the struggle by breaking the cocoon, thus making the birthing process easier. But the butterfly came out with swollen legs. It’s the struggle that creates strength, whether it’s a butterfly or a person. Or consider the story of the oyster. Some oysters suffer sever irritations causing them to produce a substance called nacre. The nacre hardens and becomes a precious pearl. Our human sufferings also have their way of bringing out the best in us.
We can also learn the sometimes difficult lesson of gratitude by considering lessons from birds. The naturalist William Beebe observed how nature compensates. The Peacock has a squeaky voice but incomparable plumage; the nightingale has dull feathers, but a soul-stirring song. Then Beebe asked, “What if the peacock thought only of its poor voice or the nightingale thought only of its feathers and refused to sing?” Can we learn to be thankful for the gifts we have and not worry about the ones we lack?
And what about the need we have for each other? Sit around a campfire and watch the glowing embers as they provide both light and warmth. Remove one ember from the fire and it soon becomes dark and cold. Its life depends on the support of the rest of the fire and it, in turn, contributes to that life. The simple campfire teaches us the need for dependence on our fellow humans and likewise the need to make our own unique contribution to the lives of others. The 17th century writer John Donne reminded us, “No man is an island.” The campfire, like Donne, teaches us the lesson of interdependence.
Living in an interdependent world should also create a sense of teamwork. The family, the school, and the church or synagogue are all examples of groups which survive by teamwork. The activity of geese display just such a God-given common sense approach to life. The geese have learned that by flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock has a greater flying range than if each bird flew alone. When we share a common direction and sense of community we are destined to accomplish more. That’s because we learn to travel on the strength of each other. As one of my coaches once said, “Remember- there’s no ‘I’ in the word ‘TEAM’.”
I once walked into a physics laboratory where the professor had a magnet hanging from a desk. Attached to the magnet were numerous metal bars. When I questioned him if he shouldn’t remove the metal bars for fear of wearing out the magnet, the professor explained that just the opposite is true. Only by using the magnet will it maintain its strength. Our faith is not unlike the story of the magnet. Unless we share it, faith, like the magnet, becomes weak.
My first introduction to the relationship between the natural and spiritual worlds came in elementary school when I read Joyce Kilmer’s immortal lines in his poem, Trees:
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree…
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray…
The power of that poem lies in its simplicity and the manner in which it connects the world around us to the world within us.
Of course, the Bible is full of references that connect the natural to the spiritual. The Hebrew Psalmist states, “The Heavens are telling the glory of God. They are a marvelous display of his craftsmanship” (Psalm 19). And in the New Testament when Jesus wanted to explain our need for God he used the symbols of the vine and the branches (John 15).
Albert Einstein once remarked, “The most beautiful thing we experience is a sense of the mysterious; it is the source of all art and science and also the traveling companion of all faith.” In the wondrous mysteries of nature we learn the lessons of the spirit.
From ants to magnets and from campfires to butterflies, nature continues to be “the living visible garment of God.” It is also the classroom in which we learn to understand ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our God.
Dr. Charles Dickson is a college chemistry professor, ordained minister, and freelance writer who lives in Hickory, North Carolina.