“You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . in the form of anything that is on the earth.” - Exodus 20:4
Last fall I went for a run. On my street the leaves formed a canopy. Red, brown, some still green, a shield and a prism illuminating the street in a thousand different shades of orange glow.
The beauty nearly undid me.
And then the smell of exhaust was in my nose and a car horn went off angrily. I had run off the side street into one of Chicago’s busiest thoroughfares. I jumped back onto the sidewalk. My transcendent moment collapsed.
But I wanted to preserve it. So at bedtime I told my kids, “Earlier today I saw God in the way the sunlight came breaking through the same leaves that held it back.” They were startled. I was pleased. Maybe they’ll start looking at the trees more carefully, more wonderfully. That’s good parenting! That’s good spirituality! I felt smug.
And then I felt awful. Because, deep down I knew I wasn’t telling the truth. Indeed, I’m afraid I hinted at an arrogant, even dangerous false religion.
First, equating God with an appreciation for nature risks suggesting that those who cannot afford leafy tree-lined streets don’t have equal access to the divine. Less than two miles from my house there are kids running down the street in order to dodge bullets, not peep leaves.
Second, to say that God is found in nature is to conflate the Creator with creation. Nobody says that “Starry Night” is Van Gogh. So why are so we so quick to make a similar claim about God?
It should be more than sufficient to say that I saw something beautiful. Beauty is rare enough. I don’t need to try and make a god out of it.
Oh God, we long for you. Satisfy that longing so that we can stop trying to satisfy it on our own. Amen.
Matt Fitzgerald is the Senior Pastor of St. Pauls United Church of Christ, Chicago, IL.