A number of years ago, my wife Samantha and I traveled with my good friend Justin and his wife Miriam up to northern Wisconsin to stay at his family’s cabin. It was a wonderful weekend of being surrounded by God’s creation as we swam, hiked, and fished.
On one of the last days that we were there Justin decided we should go for a kayaking trip. The only problem was choosing one of the three options, with each varying in difficulty. As usual, Justin thought we should go on the most calm and scenic option. As usual, I thought we should go on the most dangerous and wild option. We finally chose a route that was a step down from certain death to near certain death. It was quite a lovely journey until one of the turns filled with rapids, causing Miriam’s kayak to flip upside down.
For those who haven’t kayaked in rapids, there is a skirt that is wrapped around you, and should you get turned upside down your only options are to shift your weight and flip back over, or release the skirt and swim to the surface.
Miriam wasn’t flipping back over, so we quickly tried to turn back around but couldn’t get to her. Just when Justin was almost close enough to reach her, she tilted back over and righted herself. We all quickly got to the side of the river to catch our breath and give thanks to God.
The power of the river was made evident to all of us that day. And while I give thanks to God for saving Miriam’s life, I have never tried to blame the river for trying to kill us. To my knowledge, neither I nor my friends believe that there is a river god or god of the sea who was angry with us.
The Hebrew people, however, would have been surrounded by the Canaanites, who in their pantheon of gods believed in one called Yamm.
This was no Thanksgiving leftover — this was the god of rivers and seas. Yamm is described in ancient tablets uncovered at Ugarit in the early 1920’s, which say that at the beginning of time Yamm was awarded the divine kingship by El, the chief god.
But then there was also the god Baal, who was considered the universal god of fertility, and seen as Prince or Lord of the Earth. Baal was also called the Lord of Rain and Dew, which makes sense when you think of how needed those elements were to create fertile soil in Canaan. In Ugaritic and Hebrew, Baal was known as the storm god or He Who Rides on the Clouds. In Phoenician he was called Baal Shamen, Lord of the Heavens.
One day, as the story goes, Yamm’s messengers asked that the gods give Baal over to serve Yamm, so that the storm god would serve the sea god. El eventually agreed, but Baal refused to go and instead took on Yamm in an epic battle. After a fight of earth-shattering proportions Yamm was finally slain and the kingship given to Baal.
This was a common creation myth that the Hebrew people would have known and grown up alongside. Ancient peoples saw the power of creation all around them and attributed it to various gods, when they went to the sea they saw a god at work, when the sun would rise they saw a god at work, when the rains would come, or crops would grow they saw a god at work.
Where do we see God at work I wonder? Is our King here? Does our Lord reign in our lives here and now?
So often we look around at God’s creation and after a few minutes get bored and turn to our phones. Instead of God’s creation connecting us to the creator, we can often turn to our hand-held gods to find something more fascinating.
In his book The Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv writes that “Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries. As naturalist Robert Michael Pyle says, “Place is what takes me out of myself, out of the limited scope of human activity, but this is not misanthropic. A sense of place is a way of embracing humanity among all of its neighbors. It is an entry into the larger world.”
These ancient peoples had a window into this wider world and I fear that we are losing that connection with God as we spend less time in nature. Less time looking at rivers, trees, clouds, and stars and saying, “God is here.”
If we are to continue teaching our children about THE creator of the Heavens and the Earth we will need to spend time doing so outside of buildings and screens made by human hands. Naturalist Pyle writes: “Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”
My hope is that we do not become so distracted that we miss the chance to wrestle with infinity and eternity. Let us find ways to be wrapped up in the beauty that God has created and use our technologies to try and capture and share those moments.
We can instead use these handheld devices to proclaim God’s glory and reign.
Among all the messages of hate and anger we can send a different message about what power really looks like and who is really in charge in this world and the next.
We can take what we see in creation, and what we believe about God, and make songs like the Hebrew people chose to do when they boldly sang Psalm 93:
The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved; your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting. The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!