“Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10 asks of us all.
With the increasing buzz of cell phones, zoom of cars, drone of televisions and radios, hum of industry, and sprawl of suburbs, it is increasingly difficult to answer God’s call to stillness. Sometimes it takes leaving town for a hike or a camping trip to find true quiet.
Then, we — like Elijah — may hear the still small voice of God in the wild.
Quality time caring for and learning about the natural world is an important element of many narratives in the Bible: Adam and Eve’s call to till and keep the earth, Moses’s call to leadership, the Israelites’ exodus, Elijah’s prophetic vision, John the Baptist’s preparation to herald Christ, Jesus’ testing for ministry — all were shaped by God through wilderness experiences. Jesus and his disciples frequently retreated to wilderness areas to escape the crowds, to pray, and to renew themselves for ministry.
St. Paul wrote that people who claim they don’t know God are without excuse, since God’s invisible qualities and divine nature are revealed in what God has created. And as the psalmist wrote, the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
In February, President Obama designated 1.8 million acres of wild California desert as national monuments: Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains. The California desert is a holy place, filled with spiritual values and important lessons. As Christians, this is a significant event. We know Jesus’ spiritual path included spending time in the desert wilderness to contemplate his purpose. Now, we, like Jesus and so many others, can have the beauty, solitude, dark night skies, and wild nature of the desert from which to draw inspiration, practice our faith, and grow better.
The California desert is a place where these elusive values remain, and they are vital for humankind. We have a spiritual heritage to protect, and with these three monument designations, Christian communities will forever have these living sanctuaries where we can practice our faith.
To show our gratitude, I joined with 20 Christian leaders who are responsible for shepherding more than 1,880 churches in and near California and signed a letter to four government leaders who were instrumental in protecting this land: President Obama, Interior Secretary Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
One of the letter’s signers, the Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D., Bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, explained in an email the paradox of desert spirituality:
“God calls us to care for the whole of Creation, and Christians respond, knowing that all that God has made is good. The forbidding landscape of the desert is a spiritual metaphor for the absence of God, but it is nonetheless a landscape that has encouraged believers — its austerity and apparent emptiness also give room for the human spirit to seek God.
Forbidding they may be, but we Southern Californians know that our deserts are also places filled with an abundance of life — special, highly adapted creatures of all kinds make it their home. Our desert wildernesses are a treasure we all share, and I am grateful to those leaders in State and Nation who help protect it for future generations by wise and careful laws.”
As Erwin notes, wild lands are more than a refuge for people. They also stand as sanctuaries for highly adapted wildlife and plants — many that are just being discovered and identified — that rely on the healthy web God has given them. Wild lands are also reservoirs for God’s gifts of clean air and water, making them one of our best means of faithful stewardship.
As people of faith, we are to provide for the redemption of God’s land (Lev 25:23-24) by restraining our ownership and development of land. The consequences of disobedience to this mandate include the desolation of the land and exile of the people (Lev 26:32-35) — a lesson that many societies, including our own, have learned and continue to learn the hard way.
It is my prayer that these monument designations, the vibrant Christian community advocacy for their establishment, and the response to their designation, demonstrate we are in a springtime season of Christian appreciation for learning about God through God’s creation. The religious leaders’ “thank you” letter includes more than gratitude. It also includes a commitment:
“As religious leaders, we resolve to do our part to foster appreciation for the treasures of our national parks and monuments. We will call on Christian communities to deepen appreciation of the ecological and cultural wonders of the California desert, as well as celebrate God’s beautiful creation, by visiting these newly designated monuments.”