This blog is Part 1 in a four-part series.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and
give strength to body and soul.”
John Muir, 1912
God made this for me. I was in the woods, on a hike with my family, when this dawned on me. Our God is this big and this beautiful! He sang His world into existence for my joy and His glory. It was like I saw Him there, and basked in the warmth of His delight, never more confident of His presence and love. On a hike.
I can only call it transcendent.
We’ve lost transcendence, haven’t we? Our culture has tried desperately to run from it, yet we can’t quite seem to shake our longing for it. We search for it everywhere, yet somehow settle for puny things. Our devices. Mediocre distractions. Not unlike the people in Ancient Babel with their great tower, we are obsessed with what we have made. Things we can control, that make us feel big and god-like. We stay indoors where we think it’s safe, contained, manageable. We’ve lost touch with creation. And the Creator.
But we’re tired of it. We want more, and we cannot help but glimpse the hints of glory shining through. We are at the beginning of a slow and steady revolt against this infatuation with what we have made, and perhaps a return to what God has made. People are returning to the outdoors. They’re setting their devices aside (even if momentarily). National Park visits are up, and more is being published about humankind’s genuine need for nature. We’re leaning in to the transcendent.
As a follower of Jesus and a pastor, I believe this renewed desire should be embraced, celebrated, and even encouraged by God’s people. Because nature is a spiritual discipline.
“Nature” Is a Spiritual Discipline?
Is nature really a spiritual discipline? It sounds like a contradiction. For nature is by definition material, physical, concrete, and scientific. And the “spiritual”—isn’t that all the other stuff? The immaterial, the metaphysical, and the mysterious?
Perhaps. But nature is absolutely part of my own daily sanctification and growth in Christlikeness. I am a better husband and father, a better friend and pastor, a better follower of Jesus and a better human through my love for and engagement with the natural world.
Spiritual disciplines are the habits that form us into Christlikeness. Traditionally, this includes things like prayer, Scripture reading, solitude, fasting, serving, spending time in community, and more. I am a big believer in the traditional disciplines, and I give them primacy in my life.
Yet, I want to add a few more: hiking, watching the sunrise, camping, smelling a tree or flower, getting my hands dirty in the yard, sitting on a lake or a day at the beach, watching the stars, learning a bit more science, watching wildlife, visiting the zoo or park, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, going on a picnic, or staring into an epic landscape.
These are things that enrich my soul and show me God like little else. I believe God is using nature to save my soul. Now before you assume I’m a heretic, let me explain why I feel this way. Why is nature so good for our souls?
I’m a nerd.
It’s only fair I let you in on a little secret. I am a nerd. For those of you who know me, or at least hear me preach on a regular basis, that’s no secret at all. You’ve known for years. For the rest of you, it’s only fair to tell you so you understand my bias.
A perfect day for me would be spent outside. I often have to stop to look at (and preferably touch, and occasionally smell) a tree. I’ve been known to even stop the car. My kids are used to me saying, hey, look at that tree! We recently visited the Redwoods, and it was life-changing. We literally had to stop the car every few yards and eventually got out and walked.
I just finished reading a book on The Hidden Life of Trees—how they “think” and “behave” and “communicate” and “raise their kids.” Seriously. If you ever can’t sleep, just call me and ask why I love trees so much. And don’t even get me started on mountains.
I also love the National Parks. The National Park Service is one of the best things our nation has ever done. I have stacks of books on them, I’ve watched documentaries, and I obsessively plan every family vacation around them. So far our family has visited 32 (of the 61). I could tell you which ones we’re going to visit in the next five years, and I could help you plan a trip to ones I’ve never even been to. My dream “retirement” would be working as a volunteer in any one of these magnificent places.
I spend my free time hiking year-round, alone or with my family (yes, there are great places to hike in Kansas and Missouri), playing or sitting outside. Winter does not stop us, and when it does happen to slow us down, I either plan the next trip, read books about adventurers or science, or watch nature shows with the kids (have you seen Planet Earth 2???).
I can’t get enough of this stuff and I feel like you should know this about me if you’re going to keep reading. I recognize my bias, yet, no matter who you are—whether you’re a Christian or a skeptic, whether you love nature or have always been passive to it or afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy—I am convinced that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.
Good for our souls
Why is nature so good for our souls? Well, today I’ve got ten reasons for you. Tomorrow it could be 40, but let’s start with ten. These reasons are all based first on Scripture and theology. I am still a pastor, after all, albeit a weird one. But I’ll also make my case using current scientific thinking, sociological research, and if all else fails, I’ll share a bit of personal experience.
As I mentioned, I could talk about this stuff for ages, which means I have way too much material to include it all here right now, so we’ve decided to release this post in sections. Congratulations, you’re almost done with Part 1!
Part 2 will center upon the first four reasons nature is so good for our souls, which are fairly broad, theological, and specifically about God’s interaction and love for His created world. Here’s a sneak peak:
- God made it good.
- God made us for a Garden.
- God is the original tree-hugger.
- God lived here.
In Part 3 we’ll go into the remaining six reasons, which specifically pertain to what nature does to us and for us. Again, a little teaser for what’s ahead:
- Creation puts me in my place.
- Creation gives me dignity.
- Creation reminds me who God is.
- Creation is a good teacher.
- Creation groans for good news.
- New Creation is our home.
Finally, in Part 4, I’ll conclude with some super practical tips to help you get started in getting more nature into your life today. This will include some local favorites, as well as some helpful (and/or fun) resources.
Until Part 2, what are you waiting for? Go outside!