In a recent column, I made reference to having recently been in a hospital waiting room. As you might recall, I was waiting to have blood drawn. I hate to wait, but my patience was aided by what played out before me. It was almost enough to make my blood boil.
Sitting in front of me were no less than eight individuals waiting to be seen by someone. In spite of the fact that there was an incredibly beautiful view beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, each was glued to their smartphone.
“How dumb can you be?” I thought to myself. “Beyond you is a vista of mountains and trees illuminated by the morning sunshine. And here you are checking your email. Why not slake your thirst for beauty by turning around and drinking it all in?”
Because the irony was too much to ignore, I pulled out my smartphone and took a photo of the view beyond the window and those who were oblivious to it.
What I witnessed reminded me of that wonderful verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Browning is alluding to the Old Testament account of Moses encountering the Lord as recorded in the Book of Exodus. What “the prince of Egypt” observes stops him dead in his tracks. And when Israel’s future leader realized who was speaking to him from the burning bush, he recognized he was standing on holy ground.
In direct response to the mystery that captured his imagination, he took off his shoes. What else does one do when gazing into a blazing shrub that does not burn out? What else does one do when acknowledging the source of the mystery in our lives?
And so the poet challenges her readers to be alert to the evidence of the creator’s paintbrush on the canvas of creation. She cautions us from being oblivious to the obvious and simply taking the art of living for granted. Reading between Browning’s poetic lines, I can hear her speak. Can’t you? “Don’t be blind to the beauty of the bush. Don’t ignore the breadcrumbs that lead to the object of our worship. Don’t leave your shoes on. Don’t just eat blackberries.”
Dusting for divine fingerprints isn’t all that difficult. For after all, according to the poem, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every bush afire with God…” There is wonder to behold all around us. There is mystery to ponder every day. The creator’s calling card has been handed to us with hopes we will take note, take time and take off our shoes.
Obviously “taking off our shoes” is a euphemism. It means responding appropriately to the beauty and cosmic signposts in front of us. It means stopping in order to stare. It means pausing in order to ponder. It means worshiping in order to ascribe worth to the one who is worthy of our praise.
And yet I think I know what you’re thinking. Does “taking off our shoes” disqualify us from eating the berries from the bush? Does acknowledging God’s glory prevent us from enjoying the fruit of His creation? And the answer is a resounding no!
Wild blackberries grow like topsy where I live on Mercer Island. They are everywhere. And now is the time of the year when those ubiquitous bushes are literally afire with color. They are loaded with plump purple fruit begging to be picked. And I am the designated picker. My wife Wendy is the pie maker. We are a team.
But our annual berry picking regimen begins with the recognition that what we behold and what we harvest is God’s gift to us. Both the growing and the picking are things of beauty to be acknowledged and enjoyed.
And lest you think I’m down on smartphones. I used mine to capture the beauty of where I stopped to pick (having removed my shoes).
Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is a former chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.