*Editorial Note: Part 1 of Kris’s piece, “God Finds Us In Nature: A Place of Encounter,” was posted last week. Do yourself a favor and savor its wisdom deeply, while carving some time for one of the reflective exercises she suggests to encounter God in nature. Then, return to her conclusion below. Your soul will thank you! ~CK
For years, medical professionals have shown the physical and mental benefits of hikes, green spaces, natural sunlight, and time by bodies of water.1 Research has shown that even a 20-minute outdoor walk in the city can combat lethargy and depression, as well as lower blood pressure. However, it’s undeniable that something powerful happens to us spiritually in beautiful natural spaces. This is why we hold retreats by lakesides and in the mountains, at campsites and in cabins. When we remove the creature comforts and busyness of daily life, we eliminate distractions so that God can speak to our souls. Our self-image as workers, ministers, and leaders peels away and we are reminded that our identity is not one of doing but one of being. We bear the image of God, and that is enough.
I remember once begrudgingly attending a ministry team retreat that was held at a large house in a rural area. I didn’t want to go because my to-do list was long and I wasn’t sure what I would get out of the retreat anyway. But sure enough, as I unpacked my things and sat on a chair on the deck, I became aware of the wounds I had been carrying underneath all the crazy busyness of church ministry. Without those distractions covering them, they were exposed. They needed healing. And this was the place for that. Suddenly I could see why a ministry in my area held a weekend mountain retreat for families with elementary-age kids who had experienced the death of a parent, and why my friends at the veterans recovery organization down the road now have a garden that they tend. The natural world is a restorative place for our souls. In nature, God may not change my circumstances, but may bring about my healing.
This healing that occurs is not solely in our bodies, minds, and hearts. Nature also can aid in healing our image of God. Not only does the natural world tell us of God, as the Psalmist declares – “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1); it also refines, reflects, and redefines who this God really is, compared to the distorted image we may have caught or been taught. John Muir, one of America’s most famous naturalists, struggled with faith in God, especially the violent, disciplinarian image of God his father had taught him. However, during his time exploring the wilds of America, Muir’s image of God changed. He wrote: “God’s love is manifest in the landscape as in a face.”2 In nature, we see intricate details and beautiful wonders that seem meant alone for the eye to enjoy. The Apostle Paul writes in his epistle to the Roman church that “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
My scientist friends sometimes speak of sensing God’s own nature as they explore nature. Those who study the smallest entities and organisms marvel at their complexity and importance in food webs. Others look into the vast oceans and expansive universe and contemplate how the Creator still cares deeply for us on this perfectly conditioned planet. Doctor friends have experienced God in the operating room, where life hangs in balance and sometimes there is no explanation for what happens. The image of a vengeful, abusive, or even distant God peels away. New questions arise for what is possible. The natural world is a restorative place for our souls. In nature, God may not change my circumstances, but may bring about my healing. This healing occurs not solely in our bodies. Nature can aid in healing our image of God. (1/2) Click To Tweet Not only does the natural world tell us of God, as the Psalmist declares – 'The heavens are telling the glory of God' (Ps. 19:1); it also refines who this God really is, compared to the distorted image we may have been taught. (2/2) Click To Tweet
A Reflection of our Faith
Though I was hesitant due to my own lack of ability to keep plants alive (a.k.a. “black thumb”), my church joined others in our community to take on a plot in the town garden. This meant first spending time preparing the soil, pulling weeds, and mulching Bed #20 to get it ready for plants. Then came the seeds (and a trip to Home Depot for some already-sprouted plants), then watering, and now the watching. One church member who visited Bed #20 didn’t appreciate the growth. But those of us who saw what was compared to what is, most definitely see it — A miracle of new life is slowly unfolding.
Our spiritual growth and our story with God is embedded in this soil, this land, this forest and field. Nature offers us wisdom about the way we are tied together, but also how some things are broken or distorted, though beautiful. We experience firsthand how death and resurrection are at the heart of natural systems and how they beckon us to dig our hands in, trust, and respond. Parker Palmer, in his book Let Your Life Speak, puts it well:
Seasons is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss of the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.3
A call to trust, a call to serve, a call to plant, and a call to grow and bear fruit is all part of the call the Christ. Nature mirrors the story of humanity, and both long for restoration (Romans 8:18-25). The call of the wild may, in fact, be a call back to the Garden. Nature offers us wisdom about the way we are tied together. We experience firsthand how death and resurrection are at the heart of natural systems and how they beckon us to dig our hands in, trust, and respond. Click To Tweet
Meeting God Outside Once Again
Maybe it’s time for the Church to be intentional about getting outside. Combining our worship and prayer with God in nature need not be restricted to summer camps, church picnics, and camp-meetings, though they have their storied place in Christian formation.
What if we saw the places outside our church buildings — parks and trails and lakes and campgrounds — as sacred sanctuaries where God encounters us and we encounter God in return?
What if we sent people to prayer-hike with their families and friends and report back what they experienced?
What if we excused tired pastors and lay-leaders from a meeting or two and sent them to the beach or mountains instead, to ask God “Give me a word!”
What if we looked for creative ways to harness the ‘Wild People‘ among us with their Nalgenes and hiking boots, embracing the natural world as a connecting point for spiritually curious people who say “THIS is my church!”?
We must not forget the power of natural places. For if we do, we may miss how God may encounter, speak, heal, or lead us. What if we saw the places outside our church buildings — parks and trails and lakes and campgrounds — as sacred sanctuaries where God encounters us and we encounter God in return? Click To Tweet
Kris is the lead pastor of Table Life Church near Harrisburg, PA and also serves as Mission Strategist with Fresh Expressions North America. She holds an M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and while she hails from the Nazarene tribe, she also has served at churches in the Baptist and Methodist traditions. Prior to being called to ministry, she worked as an environmental researcher at the University of Maryland. Kris is an avid runner, cartoonist, and ice hockey player and enjoys being outside, whether in a kayak, hiking with friends, or with a good book.
1 Twohig-Bennett, Caoimhe and Andy Jones. 2018. “The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes.” Environmental Research. 166: 628–637.
2 John Muir. Journals of John Muir. June – October 1881, Cruise of the Corwin, Part II, Image 10. Accessed via https://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/jmj-all/2012/.
3 Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 1999), 96.