Spiritual Reflections

I just came back from leading a multigenerational group from St. James Lutheran Church to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. The purpose was to experience God’s creation in the context of a Christian community. Each day we began with devotions and prayer. Then we hiked, toured, photographed and engaged with our surroundings.

As far as our eyes could see, we witnessed the splendor of nature. The vast White River Valley spread out for miles with varying shades of green. Unusually large amounts of rain this year transformed the prairie to a vibrant garden. A wide variety of wildflowers greeted us along each trail that we hiked through this wonderland. Throughout our treks, a chorus of “wow” was lifted by a satisfied group.

Adding to the beauty of the sedimentary rock formations was the presence of wildlife. What a joy it was to see bighorn sheep and dozens of prairie dogs in the Badlands. In Custer State Park, hundreds of bison surrounded the church van. We also saw pronghorn antelope and burros. It was amazing.

From my travels to the Badlands and beyond, I’ve encountered three contradictory aspects of creation. As I’ve already mentioned, creation can be beautiful. I could go on and on attempting extolling creation’s beauty. The hymnist Carl Boberg got it right: “How great thou art!” If my failing language could accurately describe the beauty of creation (which it can’t), I’d only be conveying a portion of the story.

Creation is also brittle. We saw this in the Badlands. The landscape is continuously changing with an erosion rate of an inch a year. In 500,000 years, the entire Badlands will disappear as a result of wind and water.

Throughout the natural world, you encounter a delicate balance. Sometimes just a few degrees of temperature change can have devastating consequences on entire ecosystems. From fauna to flora, life often struggles for survival. Whether we’re hiking along a rapidly eroding trail or visiting a loved one in intensive care, we know all too well that life is fragile. Life needs protection, healing and restoration. The brokenness that pervades creation brings me to a third descriptor: brutal.

Yes, creation is also brutal. Consider the natural disasters and storms that threaten everything in their path. In the animal world, the survival of the fittest is the law. In the human world, many subscribe to the same philosophy; consider the injustice, violence and hard side of life. And then there are the illnesses that claim the lives of so many people, good people whom we love. Although we may not want to admit it, when it comes to the natural world, the thorns can be as large as the flower.

Here lies a dilemma. If God creates everything in creation, then why is so much broken? Is God careless or reckless in making things that break and fall apart before the warranty runs out? Or worse, is there a lack of compassion at the heart of the hidden creator of the universe? Maybe even a harshness or brutality? Is God inherently good, or is that just the side we see when we look at Jesus? Could there be a dark side to God?

Christian theologians over the centuries have pointed to human sin as the cause of all turmoil and tribulation. The creator is not to blame for the brittle and brutal — it is the fault of a wayward creation. Our disregard for life and misuse of the natural world has resulted in death and destruction. We, not God, are responsible for the downside and dark turns that we experience.

This much is true — our pollution of waterways and excessive deforestation have harmed the planet. But what about natural disasters? Even if human consumption didn’t escalate the magnitude of these events, they would still occur. Storms are brutal, regardless of mortal sin.

What about the extinction of species? Again, humans have had an amplifying effect on the disappearance of life forms such as has not been experienced prior. That said, processes of natural selection function based on creatures not being able to survive in a harsh or changing environment. Sin fails as a catch-all explanation for the fragility of life found in each eon. But if sin is only a partial answer, how do we wrap our heads around the brittle and brutal nature of creation?

I must be honest. As often as I’ve tried to make sense of it, I’ve come up empty. I know why some give up the God-search when faced with brittle and brutal reality. It is hard not to fall into the pit of despair and become jaded when talking about the problematic aspects of spirituality and faith. What good is a belief system if it cannot stop bad things from happening?

When faced with such thoughts, as a Christian, I find myself drawn to the wisdom of the cross. Although so much of God remains hidden, I have the story about Jesus’s willingness to enter the brittle and brutal side of life. On the cross, Jesus experiences the very worst that life has to offer. If you want to know where God is during the brittle and brutal moments, the cross says to look into the brokenness and tension. Look for God in the places where life breaks down and things don’t add up. Seek divine presence in the hurt, despair and jaded moments.

Knowing that God remains with us when tragedy hits can be a tremendous comfort. It gives us the strength to carry on. What is more, there is hope. If the creator, who brought the first light into the darkness of primordial chaos, is with us in our shadowed moments, then there is the possibility that light will shine anew.

In the remaining weeks of this summer, we have the opportunity to engage God’s creation right outside our door. We can witness the beautiful, brittle and brutal aspects of nature without traveling far. We can engage in acts of creation-care, caring for the people and places that surround. It is my prayer that our interactions will lift our spirits and grow our faith.

The Rev. Dr. Walt Lichtenberger is the lead pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in Burnsville. He is one of several area pastors who write for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in this newspaper. He also writes devotions on his website, lightfromthishill.com.

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