Finding God in His Messy, Abundant World
Catherine McNiel sits down with Christy Hemphill and discusses her new book, All Shall Be Well.
Yes, God created this world, but sometimes we forget that he hasn’t left―that his redemptive, creative work happens still today, right here under our feet. So when we seek for God and study his truth, how much are we missing if we don’t awaken to all he has placed in the soil and sky?
The challenge put forward in the new book All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy Abundant World is to study the lessons of redemption in God’s book of nature in order to encounter God and know him better. Author Catherine McNiel guides our attention to the innumerable ways God speaks his truth to us through the natural rhythms of his creation; darkness and light, winter and summer, death and rebirth.
I first got to know Catherine in a summer job with Wheaton College Conference Services, where we enjoyed deep talks over endless piles of bedding. She is still a great source of wise and often poetic insights, and no bed-making is required to get access these days. She is one of my favorite people to mull things over with when I have wonderings about God and the Bible. I’m happy to have the chance to ask her some questions about her book and her experiences reading God’s word alongside God’s world.
Christy: Near the beginning of your book you introduce the idea of “sacramental beholding.” Could you describe what you mean by that and what it has done for your own spiritual life?
Catherine: I recently heard an artist say that good art helps us see the world we live in better than we could before, either by portraying it so clearly, or by portraying it differently. That’s what I’m trying to do with All Shall Be Well, I think: to write about the world God made, which we are part of, so that we can see it more clearly…and then, see the Creator more clearly.
I borrowed (with citation!) the phrase “sacramental beholding” from theologian Michael J. Hines, who embraces a sacramental worldview, seeking for God in all things. This idea breaks down the sacred/secular distinction for me, allowing me to take in the world around me and use it as a vehicle for spiritual nourishment, prayer, or worship. I can’t imagine a more appropriate idea for a Christian who believes that God created the world and never left it. Sacramental beholding allows me to reach out to God right here, right now. No matter how busy or noisy my day might be, I can allow whatever surrounds me to open my eyes to God’s presence.
Christy: In the introduction to All Shall Be Well, you write:
People sometimes describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” but in my circles, we often show symptoms of the opposite ailment: We memorize verses and learn facts, and we’re prepared to defend them; our doctrinal statements are read and signed. Sometimes it seems we’d rather categorize God than be with him. We opt for merely signing off on God’s résumé.
Your book is an invitation to recognize and experience God’s presence in the world he made—his immanence in his creation—and to take the opportunity to be with him there. You share many of your own stories of encountering God in what he has made. As modern people we are often distanced by our lifestyle from the natural world. How do you think this affects us, and what can we do about it? Can connecting with God regularly in nature help us understand God’s revelation of himself in the Bible better?
Catherine: I believe so. We are nature, after all. God created a complex world that is interdependent, and we are one piece of that. When we start seeing the world as simply raw materials for our consumption, and seeing our human lives entirely outside of and separate from nature, I think we get into trouble. We are nature. Even though the food we eat and the water we drink appears to come from plastic bags and boxes, we rely on the sun, the rain, the soil to produce lifegiving nutrients so we can live…and our bodies will break back down, eventually, and do the same for new life to come. When we ignore this—the most basic reality of the earth, and therefore of God’s creation—I don’t know how we can have an accurate view of ourselves or of God (who made and sustains this reality). We need the sustenance God offers us in the world he made.
Christy: The title of your book All Shall Be Well echoes a quote by St. Julian of Norwich and encapsulates the profound hope of Christianity. Because of Christ’s victory, someday God’s shalom—the wholeness he has always intended for his Creation—will be the law of both humanity and the natural world. In the middle of a reflection on the first signs of spring thaw, when the world is still mostly in the grip of winter, you write:
But our world clearly doesn’t overflow with wholeness just now. From our most intimate relationships to the most global affairs—and everything in between—we are at war. Conflict and catastrophe pervade every community, group, and interaction between you and me, us and them, people and nature, children and parents, future and past.
Yet we believe that the days are lengthening. From the garden to the eternal city of light at the end, the Christian account of the world is a story of hope. We are a people of eschatology, citizens of a Kingdom that has been promised and begun, but not yet seen, We journey through darkness, bearing crushing burdens and devastating realities, but we have heard the notes of a beautiful song.
What have been the most powerful reminders you have seen in nature of our hope that God is making all things new, and how do these “old creation” reminders help us live out our hope of the coming “new creation”?
Catherine: I’ve lived most of my life in the northern United States, so winter is a real and profound experience. The months of autumn powerfully communicate: “Death is coming! Dormancy is nearly upon us! Are you ready?” And then winter hits, and it’s hard. Growing up in rural Minnesota, driving unreliable cars through snow storms and ice storms before cell phones…that’s just one example of real danger that even we modern people face in winter. And the toll of the short, dark, cold days on our psyches is real, too. But then, after months of season of darkness, death, and dormancy, the most amazing thing happens: a warm breath of wind, the trickling sound of melting snow, a hint of green peeking up through the drifts.
Without a doubt, walking through this cycle—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—every year of my life has taught me how to hold out for the hope of shalom in a world full of injustice.
Christy: I particularly loved your chapters on faithfulness, surrender, and endurance, and the pictures from nature that you used to talk about them. Both of us grew up “in church” and have spent our adult lives highly involved and invested in Christian communities. Part of the “toil of summer,” the work of faithfulness for me has involved some hard work wrestling with my questions and figuring out which of the things I had been taught were really part of my hope and which things could be renegotiated to some extent. I have watched some friends, family, and people I have admired from afar face similar challenges, and many of them have ended up deconstructing their faith down to nothing and walking away.
In my conversations on the BioLogos Forum with people who are in dark, demanding places, I have noticed that there is often a tendency to look really hard for answers about God and a genuine sense of bewilderment about how you even begin looking for God. But at the end of the day, if you don’t meet God personally, no answers about God are going to be enough. I really appreciate that your book gives some models for how to seek God, not just truth about him. But for those people who haven’t read it yet, what encouragement would you give someone who feels like they don’t have anything left to sustain them when it comes to their faith, those people facing what you describe as the twilight, or the wilderness, or the dead of winter?
Catherine: I do believe we are taught to talk about God, not to God. That’s a much easier thing to control, much less risky. But it cuts us off from God. In the introduction of All Shall Be Well I include a story I read about two doors, one labeled “Heaven” and the other labeled “Lecture about Heaven” and everyone was flocking to the sign labeled “Lecture.”
The encouragement I want to offer the person facing down the dead of winter and long past the end of their rope, is that we’ve been taught that walking with God meant he would solve our problems and make things easy for us—but that’s not true, and it’s not in the Bible. Jesus teaches the exact opposite, that we will have trouble, even death, but that he will be with us. In observing the cycles of the world God made, I find the same truth, repeated again and again: Life is full of pain, suffering, darkness, wilderness, drought. But God is here. Pain is not a sign of his absence, or of his unfaithfulness. He will meet you here. Reach out for help from friends or family or professionals. You don’t have to hide. (It’s hard to summarize several chapters into one paragraph so I also encourage you to read the book.)
Christy: How does the “messiness” of the natural world speak to you of God’s truth, and what would you say to Christians who only see “messiness” as coming from sin? Is there benefit in uncoupling “messiness” from “brokenness?”
Catherine: Oh, this is one of the things I’m most passionate about. Christians do like to say things like “Cleanliness is next to Godliness!” and interpret mess and chaos as signs of sin in the world. On the one hand, I’m very empathetic to this position. I am personally a very reflective person and I love silence and order. But…I live in a house of loud, messy, chaotic people and I hear my clear instructions from God on a daily basis to engage in the crazy and care for the people under my care. And when I look outside my house and family to the natural world, I find that the more life there is, the more mess and chaos. It seems that our Creator is a fan of joyous cacophony, for the entire earth is indeed making a loud and joyful noise.
If there’s one thing I’d love my readers to take away from this book, its that God is present in the dark and dormant seasons as well as in the lovely, life-giving ones. But nestled in there is my second favorite take-away: encouraging readers in a chaotic, messy season to know that everything God created is messy and loud and alive. You can find him, here, too.
Christy: I think many Christians would be quick to agree with the idea that God’s glory and power are on display in the majesty and grandeur of nature, and that is what we often think of when we think of nature inspiring worship of the Creator. But in your book you spend more time tuning in to some of the less impressive things in the natural world. You focus on the more mundane elements found in the cycles of life and seasons, things like a misty drive, a frozen garden, and your walnut tree losing its fall leaves all in one day. How does intentionally attending to the details of the ordinary things in nature shape us spiritually in a different way than, say, standing in awe of the Grand Canyon?
Catherine: I think back to most of human history and realize that people began their day with the sun, with birds and animals calling out morning noises…because they were living outside, or in a shelter made from mud, sticks, or stones. Their days were spent surrounded by each other (for better and for worse!) in the forests or prairies or jungles or oceans or deserts. They survived alongside plants and animals which they relied on, and which relied on them. Most of these ancient folks never saw the Grand Canyon, but they were immersed in the daily bread of Creation.
I love to have my breath stolen by the once-in-a-lifetime moments of wonder and awe, but I firmly believe that God created us to need nourishment physically, emotionally, and spiritually from the daily bread of the world he made as well. My prayer is that in reading All Shall Be Well, our eyes will be awakened to the world he made, and his presence right here in the mess and abundance of it all.
Read an excerpt from All Shall Be Well now!
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