The sun cast crystal rays off the water on a late summer day in Birch Bay, just below the Canadian border and about one hundred miles north of Seattle, Washington. The water that day was calm and gently lapped at the sides of my kayak. A small baby couldn’t have been more comfortable at her mother’s breast than I was as I paddled in my kayak on that bay.
Steve, a college friend who was now a pastor, pulled his kayak close to mine. We stopped paddling and let ourselves be rocked by the small, graceful waves. Then we talked of how life had changed for us over the past dozen years. We talked about what God was doing in our lives — how we felt challenged and how we felt encouraged. We talked about mutual friends, laughed, thanked God, and just appreciated each other’s company and the world that God had given us to enjoy.
As we paddled back toward the shore, I marveled at what I had missed growing up. My boyhood home was farther south of the bay, under the shadow of Mount rainier. The Pacific Northwest’s evergreen forests are one of the strongest memories of my childhood.
I was in the forests a lot, but most of the time I was running. My heart hadn’t grown to the point where I could enter a forest and think of it as God’s cathedral, a sacred place of prayer. In our modern age, where we’re born in the antiseptic environment of a hospital, taken home to a nursery that consists of Sheetrock coated with paint, and driven through the countryside in a metal contraption called a car, our ability to appreciate and meet God in creation is stunted, to say the least.
We need to be spiritually reawakened to fully appreciate the outdoors.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning understood this when she wrote these now famous words, “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 it and pluck blackberries.”1
How can we be reawakened to this? I have some ideas since I’ve traveled from being a Cub Scout who used to romp through the woods with nary a prayer on his lips to a more mature Christian who has seen those bushes afire with God. I’ve learned that we must first create a space of time, quiet, and isolation before we can truly see God. Three elements are necessary for this. We need to first believe, then learn to perceive, and finally receive.
To avoid a sentimental or idolatrous view of nature we need to first be fully converted to life in Christ. Martin Luther tells us, “Now if I believe in God’s Son and bear in mind that He became man, all creatures will appear a hundred times more beautiful to me than before. Then I will properly appreciate the sun, the moon, the stars, trees, apples, pears, as I reflect that He is Lord over and the center of all things.”2 If we don’t appreciate the outdoors, then maybe we don’t appreciate the Creator.
Luther tells us that it is only with the “eye of faith” that we can see miracles all through nature, miracles that he believed were even greater than the miracles of the sacraments. If we truly understood the growth of a grain of wheat, he says, we would die of wonder.3
So the first way to become awakened is to seek the Creator behind the creation. Luther called creation the “mask of God.” a mask partially conceals, but it also tells us that something is behind the mask.
The second step to becoming awakened to God is to resurrect deadened elements of perception. Saint Bonaventure, an early Franciscan friar, suggested a grid through which we may “school” ourselves to seek God outdoors.
- First, consider the greatness of creation — mountains, sky, and oceans — which clearly portrays the immensity of the power, wisdom, and goodness of the triune God.
- Next, look at the multitude of creation — a forest has more plant and animal life than you could examine in a lifetime and shows us how God is capable of doing many things at once. Those who wonder how God can hear so many prayers uttered simultaneously have been out of the forest too long.
- Finally, examine the beauty of creation — see the beauty of rocks and their shapes, the beauty of colors and shades, the beauty of individual elements (such as trees), and the beauty of overall composition (such as forests). God’s beauty cannot be revealed through one form but is so vast and infinite it can fill an entire world with wonder.4
The outdoors also speaks of God’s abundance. We’ve talked much about the forest, but stand barefoot in a desert or on a beach and try to guess how many grains of sand are under your feet or within your sight or on all the beaches and deserts of the world. We serve a God of plenty, whose mercy and love are inexhaustible.
When our son, Graham, was two years old, we’d trek through the Manassas, Virginia, battlefield in silence. I’d occasionally point out a tree or a plant, and Graham would nod and move on. These were delightful walks for me since we were able to be together and still be reverent. When he became a preadolescent, it was virtually impossible for Graham and his friends to resist gathering pine cones and sticks to set up an “ambush” for the rest of the family as we walked by. He wasn’t in the woods to perceive; he was in there to play — and there’s a place for that.
For the true Christian naturalist, creation is nothing less than a sanctuary, a holy place that invites you to prayer. See how you can awaken your soul with creation. As you commute to work or the grocery store, consider driving a few extra blocks or even miles if it means you can pass through a country road. Take an extra moment to look around you and appreciate what God has made. Decide that traveling will be more important to you than reaching the next place. Make it an event.
Psychologists tell us that a child’s fear of animals is frequently the result of transferring his or her own aggressions onto the beast. When we enter the woods, we can do the same; we transfer our own anxieties onto the scenery. Walks that are truly helpful are walks in which I lay down my agenda at the first sign of grass and let God lead my mind wherever He chooses.
I was headed down a wooded trail once, trying to solve a job-related problem. My mind was preoccupied, but as I made my way farther down the trail, I sensed God correcting me. In a matter of yards, my mind was clear and my heart was listening to God, loving Him, being with Him.
The trail bent and began descending slightly. It was the beginning of spring, and a creek bed off Bull run, which I had run across all winter, was now blocked by a freely flowing stream. I was stunned. That same small path of earth I had easily crossed for several months was now under water. I had seen it like this before, but the suddenness of the change overwhelmed me, and God’s voice broke in to remind me that opportunities change. If I don’t cross when I can, I may not be able to cross at a later date.
Thoughts, analogies, and ideas then flooded through my mind as I hiked around the creek bed to the small wooden footbridge that crossed it. There God planted new directions in my heart, and I lingered at that bridge, enjoying a rich time of worship. I reveled in the sight of the water running underneath me, the tree limbs catching leaves and small sticks, the sound of the water trickling, the smell of the clean air. I didn’t want to leave. Yet I had almost missed this blessing because my mind was so full when I entered the woods. God in His mercy broke in, and I left the woods deeply in love with a God who shares His heart and purposes with me.
We cannot receive unless we set aside time for God to speak — and then let Him set the agenda for our discussion. I’ve found that my agenda is frequently different from God’s. He must be the initiator in my spiritual walk. He knows what I need to hear. When I’m consumed with my temporal problems, I miss the blessing of being outdoors.
When you come to the woods, come to receive. Leave your worries at home.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “aurora Leigh” (book seven), in Masterpieces of Religious Verse, ed. James Dalton Morrison (Grand rapids: Baker, 1977), 16.
- Quoted in H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 131.
- Ibid., 130.
- See Santmire, Travail of Nature, 99.
Excerpted with permission from Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas, copyright Gary L. Thomas.
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Are you a nature lover? Do you spend weekends and vacations climbing mountains, or enjoying lakes, the ocean, or woods? Is nature a place of worship for you? Let it be! Next time you venture out into the peace and quiet of the wilderness, listen, believe, perceive, and receive! Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily