Listening for God in Unlikely Places

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day-to-day pours forth speech, and night-to-night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Psalm 19:1-4

Larry Jay, a DMin candidate at ABSW, was leading our group of retreatants through a lectio divina practice under the tall and glorious redwoods surrounding Redwood Glen Camp in Loma Mar, California, last week. We were all there for the Rhythms of the Spirit retreat, sponsored by American Baptist Churches, and intended to help nurture a contemplative life through following Benedictine rhythms throughout the day.

Larry brought us outside and had us each read silently through the Psalm 19 passage above, and then invited us to walk slowly and meditatively through the camp until we reached a nearby grove of redwoods. There, we began to reflect together – as the practice of lectio divina calls for – on the words and phrases that had stood out or “shimmered” for us in the scripture reading.

Redwood Glen Retreat
Photo montage by Brad Berglund, 2014.

I marveled at what often causes me to almost swoon – the deep desire in God for us to know God. A desire so deep that it causes the sun and the stars, the redwoods and the wind to sing of God in our souls. “Know me!” God seems to cry out in this neverending song without words.

We dispersed after a bit, as Larry invited us to go wherever we felt led; and we began to pray the scripture through the words we’d let shimmer in our hearts—asking God, “What would you have me do?”

I felt drawn to the base of a massive redwood, towering into the heavens. I sat beneath it and gazed up, seeing the majesty of the branches and leaves waving in the wind, a view that was likely centuries old. I felt small by comparison. A little like nothing. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” echoed in my soul, a scripture I’d heard at another Christian camp thirty years before, just as a shooting star swept across the sky—as if just for me, my fifteen-year-old self believed.

My gaze was drawn downward again, as I continued praying with my eyes open to God’ glory. And something bright, shimmering, and yellow caught my attention. A banana slug, stretched to its full length (no more than six inches), moving steadfastly across the bed of redwood needles on the forest floor. I had just learned the day before that banana slugs are an important part of the redwood forest ecosystem, as they eat and recycle the detritus of the forest floor.

I noticed the banana slug moving slowly, painstakingly across the needles. Next thing I knew, I was stretched out to my full length (about five feet and seven inches), with my face much closer to a slug than it’s ever been before, I promise you.

With the words of the psalm still singing inside me, I marveled at this often unseen part of creation, moving so slowly and inefficiently (back-and-forth and side-to-side as it changed direction, sensing some tiny barrier of a stick or redwood cone in its way), going positively nowhere over the fifteen minutes I’d watched it moving. And I heard the most beautiful invitation from God in that slug’s anonymity, lack of progress, and blessedness.

“What would you have me do?” I was asking God, as I gazed at the banana slug.

“Exactly what you are doing,” God replied through the humble creature. “Stay where you are. Don’t move on too quickly. You are where you need to be.”

I am in a season of reflection and healing right now. It is a painful season, but I also know it is restorative. In all my striving and achieving over these past fifteen years, it’s difficult not to apply that same head-down, “I-got-this!” mentality to the painstaking, detritus-filled path of wholeness. I want to scale redwood heights and soar in God’s glory above me. But God’s gentle invitation for me is in God’s glory revealed in the banana slug.

When I came back inside after lectio divina, Larry had a quote taped up on the wall from St John of the Cross (1542-1591). It felt like one more message for me, one equally as old as the redwoods above us. It struck me as one more gift from God, lest I begin to doubt the ridiculousness of hearing God through a lowly banana slug:

“All the creatures—not the higher creatures alone, but also the lower, according to that which each of them has received in itself from God—each one raises its voice in testimony to that which God is…each one after its manner exalts God, since it has God in itself.”

Thanks be to God, our kind and deeply gracious God.

Jennifer Davidson, PhD is ABSW’s Associate Professor of Worship & Theology and Director of Chapel.