On a sunny March morning near Canada’s capital city I sauntered along a deserted railway line enjoying the journey immensely. I watched tree sparrows picking weed seeds, melt water trickling towards the river, cumulous clouds scudding across the sky. “The going is the goal,” I thought.
Suddenly the sun disappeared and a cold north wind began to blow. Shivering, I began to hurry. My focus shifted from present to future. And as I thought of home, guitar, loved ones, and crackling fireplace, the image of the warm goal made my chilly journey endurable if not enjoyable.
After the anniversary service, “The Christian Life: The Going and the Goal,” my host expressed concern about the dullness of his sermons: “I’ve never been able to see extraordinary illustrations like that one in such ordinary, everyday things.”
In our national parks I often see the sign “Carry out what you carry in.” As a preacher, when I get to the woods with my eyes wide open, without breaking the environmental code I carry out much more than I carry in. Although my sermons are not masterpieces, they are interesting. By using fresh and apt illustrations — the “show” to complement the “tell” — from the thesaurus of nature, I beckon rather than bore the people in the pews.
When I read my work Bible I use a green pen to highlight nature passages. Take away all the green passages and the Biblical message is lost in abstractions. Delete Noah’s rainbow, the earth for Jacob’s ladder to rest upon, the Red Sea for the Hebrews to cross, and the Old Testament loses its credibility. Take away the star from the magi, the sheep from the shepherds, the Garden of Gethsemane from Jesus, and the New Testament is pretty ethereal stuff.
Since Jesus spent much of his time outdoors, it’s not surprising that he found sermon sightings in foxes and flowers, rocks and rain, long before Shakespeare found sermons in stones. I don’t pretend to know how Jesus spotted profundity in the ordinary. But by practicing my three basic ways of seeing — creativity, empathy, and serendipity — you can find in nature, a store of sermon illustrations to brighten up your staid but solid sermons.
The way of creativity requires that we look at the familiar from an unfamiliar angle. Sitting in the balcony of my high-rise, I am watching a grey squirrel climbing the wall of the building. Instead of the familiar ground-level view of a friendly bushy tail going up and away from me, I am looking down on the black-whiskered jowls of a not so friendly critter coming up towards me. Up in my eyrie, peering down on a flapping bluejay I think I know where Thoreau was when he saw a bluebird carrying the sky on its back. The view from my eyrie triggers a sermon on how “The View From On High” changes our low level perception of the way things are.
Most preachers get sermon illustrations from golf courses in summer. Here’s a quote from “Golf Course in Winter,” a topical sermon of mine inspired by looking at the links from a different angle. “At night the stars — tees for the gods — shine brightly over the winter course. Dogs bark as they sense the stealthy resident fox patrolling the rough, planted with a thousand frozen golf balls waiting for ‘Spring’s thaw and Easter’s Resurrection.'”
New viewpoints open up new vistas. Surrounded by evergreens, I could see no path forward. But getting down on my knees, I found I could scamper like a cottontail under the skirts of the trees until a patch of blue announced that by taking “The Path of Humility” I’d managed to get through.
Walking along a thawing wilderness river I watched four-foot pulp logs making their way downstream to the mill. Some logs stayed in mid-steam and made direct jouneys. Others twisted in eddies, or loitered in backwaters. A single log tossed high and dry by the rapid current, lay all alone above the river bank. A simple image. But it soon found a central place in “A Stick of Pulp: A Meditation on Providence.”
A second way of improving our ability to see what’s there in nature is the way of empathy. The hunter gets his living from shooting woodcocks while most preachers never see one. An angler extracts a three pound trout from a tiny brook, where most of us wouldn’t see a minnow. “Though you roam through the woods all your days,” writes Thoreau, “you will never see by chance what he who sees goes on purpose to see.”
In any congregation there are as many ways of seeing as there are people in the pews. Take a walk in the woods with the empathetic eye of a banker, a baker, a businessperson, and you’ll see strange sights. Try wearing the shoes of a weaver, a sculptor, a miner, a farmer, and you’ll see what you’d never see with only a preacher’s eye. David Lunde says it well: “When the biologist opens a chicken he sees anatomy. When the cook opens a chicken he sees innards. When the shaman opens a chicken, he sees the future.”
Steeped in headquarter’s literature on hunger in developing countries, while walking along Lake Erie’s shore I spotted a dead ring-billed gull on the beach. Stooping down I saw about three inches of a fishtail hanging out of the gull’s bill. Apparently, the gull had tried to swallow a fish too big for its gullet, and had died in agony.
We can acquire a search image by leafing through field guides on mushrooms, trees, birds and flowers. With the images in our minds we are more likely to see interesting images as we travel. An elder who saw me scaling his hillside frequently, asked me “Do you ever find asparagus up there?” When I shook my head, he went on, “Look for the long dry shoots from last year towering over the spring growth. The spears will be nearby.” Owls are hard to find but the pellets under their roosting trees give them away. In the forest, since almost everything that meets the eye is vertical, when I’m looking for wildlife I search of horizontals. I’ve never been able to find a mountain sheep though I’ve scanned the Rockies with binoculars. Recently I read of a British Columbian guide who has compared rocks and rams so often that he can tell the difference. He’d have a lot to teach preachers about empathy as a way of seeing.
A third way of seeing what’s present in nature is the way of serendipity. Heading for a round of golf with two students, as we drove along the Rideau River the fog thickened. I was all for going home, but the boys convinced me to stay on. We teed off in the fog and had trouble finding greens, let alone balls. Somehow we kept going, and by the time we reached the third tee we could make out the flag ahead. As we putted out the sun broke through. The game we began in the fog we completed in the sunshine. Not a bad illustration — perhaps better than par.
Sloshing through Cataraqui Marsh a frantic flutter directed my eye to tiny bird on a burr. Bending over the whirring blur I saw a featherweight magnolia warbler caught by the back on a single, almost weightless, burr. By carefully wiggling the prides I finally got the bird unstuck. Opening my hand, I watched it shake itself, flash its white tail patches, spring into the air, and disappear into the shrubbery. It takes more than a tiny burr to catch us up…but not much more.
D. N. Perkins (The Mind’s Best Work) stopped chiding his son for slicing an apple “the wrong way” when, looking carefully at the split apple he discovered a new star. In Devon, England, I bumped into my 12-year-old son in the bathroom, lights out, in the middle of the night. After an intial scare, I joined him at the window where we were treated by serendipity to a skyful of stars.
As preachers the sermon we have in mind will influence what we notice in nature, and what we notice in nature will help us select sermon themes. I was ready to see “bird on a burr” as an illustration for a sermon on “How God’s Grace Unsticks Us From Sin,” “golf in the fog” as an illustration for the planned sermon “Enough Light to See,” and “gull choked by a fish,” as the key image for my World Development Sunday sermon, “The Greedy and the Needy in God’s World.”
To see, and remember what I’ve seen, it helps if I consider myself responsible for telling someone what I saw on my walk. Accountability enlarges what we see and retain. Other helps include taking pictures, making notes, and using all the senses. Using illustrations from nature in our sermons will increase the congregation’s interest, retention, comprehension, and recall. More strokes from appreciative hearers will not only give a preacher a stronger sense of worth-whileness about the preaching function of our calling, but will help the preacher find sermon illustrations in people, books, art and events, as well as in nature.
An interdenominational group of men decided to wind up the weekend by climbing a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Thinking that flying a kite might be a fitting ending for our fellowship, I unwound my purple, green and yellow kite. Advertised as “easy to fly in a wide range of winds,” we just couldn’t get it up in the maddening calm that Sunday morning. We rewound the string and tucked the kite away. Because I planned to preach soon on the text “But the Lord was not in the wind” (I Kings 19:11), I was ready to see the kite episode as a helpful illustration for those in the doldrums: “Days When the Kite Won’t Fly.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of readers what applies to preachers seeking sermon illustrations in nature. There are four kinds of observers: sponges who absorb all and indiscriminately retain all; hour glasses who retain nothing; filters who retain only the dregs; and diamonds who profit from what they see and enable others to profit also.
With minds tuned to theology, and hearts to the presence of God, preachers can be diamonds picking up the light of creation and reflecting it through sermon illustrations so that people may truly see.

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