Meeting God in Sandstone and Song

In Environment, Religion by David Rutherford3 Comments

I have had countless, profound experiences of the Earth’s environment, from fleeting moments to periods of months-long duration and from my earliest years of life to the present.

One of my earliest life memories, at four years of age in 1959 while on summer vacation, is of looking out of the window of the family car at the golden rolling hills of central California near Paso Robles, with the umbrella-shaped oak trees scattered across the landscape and the dry but heavy heat beating into the car that had no air conditioning while the buffeting sound and feel of the wind came through the open window.

At ten years of age, I remember regularly waking earlier than my brother or sister to join my mother in the kitchen and then stepping outside to just sit on the low wall of the planter box, to listen to the quiet of the pre-dawn, to watch the starry sky, to feel the cool air on my face and skin.

Then I started learning to surf as a young teen, a long and difficult process, with a 40 pound, 9’6” longboard that I could barely get my arm around, hardly able to hang onto it while walking along the beach because of the wind tossing me around. But there were the many moments of exhilarating experience, actually standing up for a few seconds while moving shoreward on the white water, feeling the energy of the ocean, the coolness of the water, the sound of the waves breaking, the sight of an expanse of wet sand at low tide stretching out and merging into the ocean and the darkening post-sunset sky. Then, after gaining several years of proficiency, streaking across the glassy smooth, silver-green face of a 25 foot wave, 10 feet back in the barrel, watching the inside of that thick, falling curtain of water with its terrible flowing power and looking down the line at the circular spinning flow and the shoulder of the wave sloping into the distance outside of the wide, round opening of the barrel.

Then came the two years of living in my van along the Santa Barbara county coast, parking in the state parks where I worked seasonally, sleeping with the doors open to the environment. Attending the University of California, studying physical geography and environmental studies, I gained intellectual knowledge about the physical world I had been experiencing for as long as I could remember—weather, climate, biogeography, ecosystems, landforms, erosion, and much more. And even before the schooling, I had approached the environment, especially the surfing, with more than experience but also from a scientific perspective: the fetch of wind blowing across vast expanses of ocean, transferring energy to the water and generating swell; learning that we only see the one-half of the wave energy that is above the surface and that a mirror image of the energy, except 1.2 times deeper than the wave is high, lies beneath the surface of the water; how it is that the way this submerged energy encounters the ocean bottom causes the wave to break in ways that are as highly varied as the shapes of the coastline, the ocean bottom, the swell direction, and much more.

And all of this occurred while I knew not the Lord. But He knew me and how he “knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139: 13), and how He created me and knew who He made me to be.

But then, praise be to God that He revealed Himself to me.

I was riding my bicycle on Hwy. 101 along the Gaviota Coast of Santa Barbara County, early one Sunday morning, a 30-mile ride from Gaviota State Park to church in Goleta, seeing and experiencing the deep blue ocean; the mountains of the Santa Ynez Range rising steeply from the narrow marine terrace that lies above the white Monterrey Shale cliffs; the deep green color of the chaparral covering the mountains except for where the outcrops of reddish-brown sandstone tilt almost vertically; the crisp autumn air; the near absence of auto traffic on the highway contributing to the quiet. As I looked around that magnificent creation, the words to the simple worship song came to mind:

You are here, and I behold your beauty.

Your glory fills this place.

Calm my heart to hear you.

Cause my eyes to see you.

Your presence here is the answer,

To the longing of my heart.

This is God’s creation and He is here, filling it, and me.

That was 1984. The song was simple—no four-part harmony and hundreds of voices filling a cathedral, no complex timing, no instrumental accompaniment. Just my simple (relatively tuneless!) expression of awe and wonder—realization that while the creation is magnificent, it is but a dim shadow of the revelation of God.

In no way do I want to diminish the awe and wonder many experience when, in church, accompanied by a fine pianist or organist or even an orchestra, they sing the great hymns of the faith, rich both in theological truths and in the power of melody and harmony that express at once the unity and the diversity of the Body of Christ, or when they attend performances by well-trained choirs of great sacred choral works like Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Magnificat or St. Matthew’s Passion, Mozart’s Requiem or Coronation Mass, Brahms’s Requiem, and so many others, with the text in hand, listening to the wholeness, the fullness, the combination of intellect and passion that the choir expresses.

But as truly as many people are impoverished by lack of those experiences, many are equally impoverished by the lack of what I grew up experiencing—the physical environment of God’s creation. To those who lack it, I would advise deep immersion in that creation, both by spending extended time away from built-up human settings, out in the beauty of mountains or plains, of deserts or forests, of seashores or river valleys, and by reading of nature writing, including great Christian thinkers, learning in both of these ways about God’s creation and so coming to understand it more deeply and be awed by how its dynamics reveal the wisdom and power and love and beauty and grace of God.

Featured Image: Looking northwest from Boulder Mountain Hwy., Utah. Photo by David Rutherford

David Rutherford, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi, where he also serves as Executive Director of the Mississippi Geographic Alliance.



    As a deep lover of God’s creation, I could envision your travels as if I were there too. I have been blessed with experiencing the mountains, the seashore, and the lakeshore or riverbank early in the morning while the mist rises from the water. Thank you for sharing.


    Very well said, David. I’ve had similar experiences backpacking the Grand Canyon. God is great, isn’t He?


    Wonderfully stated. What nature writing would you recommend by great Christian thinkers?

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