Aug 24 2020

God’s Other Sanctuary

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on all of us.  For many people of faith it has affected their ability to gather for worship.  Early on our government authorities were urging us not to congregate.  Those requests have largely passed and many churches are now meeting again.  But it’s not the same.  We’re encouraged to continue to practice social distancing and wear masks while in the sanctuary.  We have been asked not to sing.  We worship but it doesn’t feel quite right.  Even with places of worship resuming services a lot of people have elected to stay home and experience church on television or Facebook Live services.  I think all of us long for the day things will return to some sense of normalcy.  In the meantime, Covid-19 will continue to hinder our corporate gatherings of worship.

The pandemic need not, however, hinder our private expressions of worship.  We may worship God anytime and anyplace we choose.  We may or may not be able to go to church but there is another “church” that is always accessible—nature.  I was reminded of this recently when I read a selection from one of William Barclay’s books.  In it he writes: “To Jesus the whole world was full of signs, the corn in the field, the leaven in the loaf, the scarlet anemones on the hillside all spoke to him of God.  He did not think that God had to break in from outside the world; he knew that God was already in the world for anyone who had eyes to see.  The sign of truly religion persons is not that they come to Church to find God but that they find God everywhere; not that they make a great deal of sacred places but that they sanctify common places.”

John Muir once told his readers that “No wilderness in the world is so desolate as to be without divine ministers.  God’s love covers all the earth as the sky covers it, and also fills it in every pore.  And this love has voices heard by all who have ears to hear.”  These words remind us that by stepping outside, or perhaps just looking out the window, we can find ourselves at church.

The Bible makes it clear that God is revealed through Creation.  In nature we find a vast sanctuary where we can commune with God and offer our Creator our heartfelt worship.  I walk outdoors every day and use this time to pray and worship God.  I don’t have to worry about social distancing or wearing a mask.  I can even sing out loud if I want.  Each day when I return from my walk I feel like I’ve been to church and there is a sense in which I have.

I hope you’ll take advantage of God’s other sanctuary and use it to bring you closer to the Holy One.  The restrictions that have come with the current pandemic cannot prevent us from sanctifying common places.  Not now.  Not ever.


Feb 12 2014

God in the Common Things

_CES4959Last night in the class I am teaching on the Gospel of John we examined a passage in chapter 7 where Jesus is rejected by a crowd in Jerusalem because they knew where he was from.  The people knew Jesus was from the Galilee region and they also knew who his family was.  In their mind there was no way he could be the long-awaited Messiah.  Apparently there was a common belief that when the Messiah came he would burst upon the scene suddenly and mysteriously.  Jesus’ arrival coincided with none of their preconceived ideas.  This was so problematic to the crowd that they refused to believe he was indeed the Christ.

Breaks-Winter-vIn his commentary on the Gospel of John, William Barclay says the position taken by the crowd that day was “characteristic of a certain attitude of mind which prevailed among the Jews and is by no means dead—that which seeks God in the abnormal.  They could never be persuaded to see God in ordinary things.  They had to be extraordinary before God could be in them.”  Barclay goes on to say that the teaching of Christianity is right the opposite: “If God is to enter the world only in the unusual, he will seldom be in it; whereas if we find God in the common things, it means that he is always present.   Christianity does not look on this world as one which God very occasionally invades; it looks on it as a world from which he is never absent.”

I like very much what Barclay writes here.  I fear, however, that he is far too generous in his assessment of Christianity.  Unfortunately, a lot of Christians today also seek God primarily in the abnormal.  It’s almost as though they think the ground must shake, or there must be peals of thunder and  strokes of lightning, before God speaks or reveals Himself.  It’s practically understood that God would not bother to reveal Himself through anything commonplace or ordinary.  If God is going to make Himself known then it must be in some special way, something quite extraordinary.

_CES0190My experience is more in tune with Barclay’s portrayal.  Without a doubt, I have witnessed God’s manifestation in ways that would qualify as abnormal or extraordinary to most people but these have been few and far between.  In my experience God is much more prone to make Himself known in far more subtle ways.  In the eyes and smiles of children I have witnessed God’s love.  In the budding of a magnolia leaf I have sensed His purity and grace.  In the presence of mountains I have felt humbled by God’s mighty power.  In the flight of an eagle I have glimpsed something of His majesty.  In the touch of the wind upon my face I have felt the Spirit’s movement.  In the midst of a stark desert I have felt His gentle embrace.  Beneath tall trees and beside flowing streams I have sensed a nearness to God that was as real to me as the pounding of my heart.   Haitian girl 2I wish more people realized that God has chosen not to reveal Himself only in the abnormal or supernatural.  In the very normal or ordinary things of life, in regular nature, God beckons us and longs to be acknowledged and embraced.  The crowd in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles long ago had what they were looking for right in front of them and missed it because they were looking for God to appear in other ways.  Is the same thing happening to us today?  I suspect so.


(I took the top three images in Pike County, Kentucky, and the last one in Haiti.)

Feb 2 2014

How Noble Are You?

e_DSC0863In Philippians 4:8 the apostle Paul gives a list of things he encourages us to think about.  He writes, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praise-worthy—think about such things.”  I preached a sermon this morning based on this passage.  When I did research for it I discovered something very interesting.  The word Paul used for “noble” has a long history.  It eventually came to mean what we think it does but in ancient literature it was used to refer to the gods and the temples of the gods.  William Barclays says “when used to describe a man, it described “a person who…moves throughout the world as if it were the temple of God.”

In my estimation someone who can move throughout the world as if it were the temple of God is noble indeed.  It has been noted at this site numerous times that the earth ought to be viewed as the temple of God.  The Psalmist boldly declared that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” (24:1)  For this reason we should understand that the ground beneath our feet is sacred. The whole earth is a holy temple because it belongs to God and due to the fact that God inhabits it.  A new heaven and a new earth may await us down the road but here and now we are standing on holy ground.

e_DSC0897If we recognize that the earth is the temple of God we will be more open to the presence of God in our lives.  It will likely lead us to live with a greater sense of gratitude.  I also have a feeling that if we moved throughout the world as if it were the temple of God that we would be far more prone to treat it with respect and attempt when we can to protect it.  For all of these reasons I think we should all strive to be “noble” men and women.


(I took the two images above this past Friday at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.)

Jun 5 2013

Can I Get a Witness?

burrowing owlI was reading William Barclay’s commentary on the Book of Colossians last night when I came across a couple of passages which really spoke to me.  First there was this: “The distinguishing mark of the true Church is an abounding and overflowing gratitude.  Thanksgiving is the constant and characteristic note of the Christian life.”  I found myself agreeing with Barclay.  A Christian should be the most thankful person alive.  When you stop to think about all that Christ has done for us you simply cannot help but be thankful.  As children of God we should be expressing our gratitude every single day.  And when we gather with other Christians for worship thanksgiving ought to be a vital part of the service.  If gratitude is not a dominant trait of a church then something is wrong with that church.

Julia Pffeifer SP waterfallThe other passage that spoke to me was this: “The one concern of the Christian is to tell in words and to show in life his gratitude for all that God has done for him in nature and in grace.”  For some reason I did not expect to see the reference to nature here.   I grew up in an evangelical environment and heard early on the importance of bearing witness to God’s salvation.  I was taught to be grateful and to share with other people all the good things God had done for me.  The hope was that someone who did not know Christ might then express the desire to be saved.  In my words and in my life I was supposed to be a witness of God’s goodness and love.

Vermillion Cliffs viewWith that background it seemed strange to read in Barclay’s commentary equal attention being given to sharing a witness with both one’s words and life to all that God has done for me “in nature.”   A part of me wondered if he was using the word “nature” in a different way than I typically do.  Perhaps he was.  Still, as I have given it further thought, it seems quite appropriate to me that showing gratitude for God’s Creation and its provisions, along with telling others about their goodness, ought to be one of primary concerns or goals of those who worship and acknowledge Christ as the Creator.

BG 409I’ve written numerous times here about how Creation is God’s “other Book.” Through Creation we learn much about God and His ways.  Each day we ought to give thanks for the way God makes Himself known through that which He has made. I’ve also written often in this blog about the goodness of the Creation, how God has designed the world, in part, to meet our needs.  There is so much in Creation to be thankful for.  Each day we ought to give thanks for things like the sun, the wind, trees, rain, clouds, rivers, mountains and lakes.  Each day we should express our gratitude for water to drink, food to eat, and air to breathe.  All of these are gifts from God, gifts that call for thanksgiving and gratitude.  All of these are, likewise, gifts worth telling others about.  The fact that they are so common and present all the time might lead us to believe that they are not so special or important.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  God has richly blessed us all in both the spiritual and natural realm.  We need to gratefully acknowledge this and at the same time bear witness to these blessings with others.

John Muir thought of himself as “an evangelist” for the wilderness.  I suspect God could use more evangelists like him.  People who would declare the wonders of Creation, give thanks for them, and point others to the Creator.  Next time you are outdoors try to be as still and attentive as you possibly can.  Listen closely.  Perhaps you might just hear God’s own voice saying, “Can I get a witness?”


Nov 10 2010

Natural Reminders

dove 913I read recently where a popular Christian writer likes to eat foods mentioned in the Bible in order that he might better associate with his biblical ancestors or be reminded of what they experienced.  I can see where there might be value in doing this.  A similar practice I would recommend is to look in nature for things that are mentioned in the Scriptures.  There are an endless number of natural references found in the Bible.  Some are general references to things like rocks, hills, clouds, rivers, trees, birds, and animals.  Other references are more specific.  You’ll find references to particular animals (foxes, bears, lions, horses, mountain goats, wild ox, etc.); particular birds (doves, sparrows, ravens, eagles, etc.); and specific trees (cedars, sycamores, oaks, poplars, junipers, etc.)

If we will become familiar with some of the Bible’s references to nature we might find ourselves moved to think of their role in Scripture when we see them in our world today.  At my bird feeder I can readily find two examples—doves and sparrows.

For people in biblical Palestine the dove was a sacred bird.  People were forbidden to hunt or eat a dove.  William Barclay notes that when Genesis 1:2 says “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” at the beginning of Creation,  some thought of the dove for “the Rabbis used to say that the Spirit of God moved and fluttered like a dove over the ancient chaos breathing order and beauty into it.”  Seeing a dove at my feeder may lead me to remember this and prompt me to give thanks for God’s gift of Creation.  Seeing a dove might also remind me of Jesus’ baptism and how the Spirit of God descended upon him in the form of a dove at that pivotal moment in his life.  This might lead me to remember that God’s Spirit has likewise been bestowed on all who follow Him.

sparrow 454Another bird I often see at my feeder is the sparrow.  When I see sparrows I can’t help but remember Jesus’ words, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are numbered.  Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  (Luke 12:6-7)  It is very comforting to me to know that God sees even the little birds that come to my feeder or fly overhead.   As Jesus noted, that also means he see and cares for me too.

I encourage you to become familiar with some of the specific plants, birds, animals or trees mentioned in the Bible.  You may even want to purchase one of the many good books that discuss these.  Knowing these species and their biblical connections can add a new dimension to your spiritual journey.


(The mourning doves and sparrow above were photographed at my home in Pikeville.)

Jun 17 2009

Camp E.D.G.E.

denali-np-nugget-pondGreetings from Camp E.D.G.E.!  Camp E.D.G.E. is the theme for this year’s Vacation Bible School at the church where I serve.  The kids are having a wonderful time and learning some very important lessons.  The “E.D.G.E.” in Camp E.D.G.E. stands for “Experience and Discover God Everywhere.”  One of the truths that the children have learned is that God can be experienced and discovered in His Creation.  I’m thrilled that the kids have been taught this.  I don’t remember being taught this truth in the church where I grew up.  It is not, however, a new idea.  Many of the biblical writers imply this very idea.  Likewise, throughout Christian history various theologians have made reference to the “two books of revelation”—the Bible and Creation.  In the end, however, Jesus may be our best teacher when it comes to seeing God everywhere. 

In his book, We Have Seen the Lord, William Barclay writes: “To Jesus the whole world was full of signs; the corn in the field, the leaven in the loaf, the scarlet anemones on the hillside all spoke to him of God.  He did not think that God had to break in from the outside world; he knew that God was already in the world for anyone who had eyes to see.  The sign of truly religious persons is not that they come to Church to find God but that they find God everywhere; not that they make a great deal of sacred places but that they sanctify common places.”

There have been a lot of places in nature where I have definitely experienced and discovered God.  One such place is Camp Denali in Denali National Park (pictured above).   Beholding such awesome beauty as that found in Alaska, it would be hard to not see God.  The challenge for me is to find Him in the not so obvious places.  At Camp E.D.G.E. it’s not just the kids who have been learning.  So have I.

–Chuck Summers