My parents gave my brothers, sister and I an amazing gift. They moved us into the country side when we were young, then encouraged us to explore and roam the fields and forests. Our nearest neighbors lived a mile away, so we had plenty of adventures just journeying to visit friends. Along the way, something very important happened to me. I ran into God.
It began by learning the art of stillness and attentiveness. I don’t know whether my Dad had some spiritual intention as a pastor or if it was simply a way to keep four active, noisy kids from scaring away all the wildlife. Whatever the reason, it caught on and over time we began to master the ability to relax and become part of a place. Minutes became an hour and soon we blended in. The forest came alive as the creatures grew comfortable in our calmness.
I saw and experienced things that would have completely escaped me otherwise. I remember many close encounters, including two playful squirrels one crisp fall day deep in the woods. They raced after each other so in the moment that they ran across my lap and over my shoulder more than once. They seemed oblivious as I sat motionless on a dead fall with my back wedged in the crook of another tree. On a different day, a doe meandered toward me bobbing her head and snorting in air to catch a scent of me because she sensed I was there but could not locate me. I heard her steps as she neared, but could not look any more for fear of spooking her. Soon I literally heard her breathing as she cautiously eased forward right beside me still searching the horizon for the presence she felt.
On another occasion, I plopped down with my head dangling over a small creek. I started staring into the water looking for minnows. What I saw next blew my young imagination away. A small creature like no other that I had ever seen undulated toward the surface by contracting its abdomen in pulses. Stranger than any alien I had seen in the movies, it mesmerized me. As it broke through the surface tension of the water, it rested momentarily, then before my eyes it completely changed form, sprouted wings and flew away. Unbelievable. Awesome. I had just witnessed one of those daily miracles that are all around us and I was excited and stunned. Later I learned that it was a nymph emerging into an adult mayfly.
These encounters with nature elicited a abiding sense in me of a presence behind all this life. Even as a boy, I felt it. I mentioned it to my parents and that conversation helped me make the connection with God – the Creator with us in the midst of creation. Christian Camp and Retreat experiences, local church Bible studies, and the writings of ancient and modern authors uncovered many affirmations that others recognized this same presence in the wild. The scriptures lift up the importance of creation as a vital avenue God uses to draw close to us, communicate with us, and share Divine wisdom. Here are just a few examples from 7 Foundations of Camp and Retreat Ministries.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; 4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world”. Psalm 19:1
The Psalmist highlights an abiding feature of the natural world if we have the ears to hear it. The creation is constantly telling the glory of God. Part of Camp/Retreat Ministry’s purpose is to encourage persons to get outdoors, to observe, and to “listen” to the voice of nature. The creation speaks of God.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”. John 1:1
Here, the writer of John makes an inseparable link between Christ and all of creation. All things come into being through the Word – the life-giving, creative expression of God. The Word, which was with God and was God, is the same Word that lived among us in Jesus whose continual presence abides in Spirit. All this life is understood to be a sacred light and message from God. In a real way then, it is connected with Christ who points us toward the Creator’s love. The natural world is one dimension of God’s Word to us.
As the 14th Century Christian teacher, Meister Eckhart, said so well,
“Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar – I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” Meister Eckhart (1260-1329).
“God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone else, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, children of Mahol; his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. 32 He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish. 34 People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom”. 1 Kings 4: 29
When Solomon became king, God asked him what he wanted. Solomon only asked for wisdom to lead the people well. The Lord honored his heartfelt request and he became one of the wisest persons who ever lived. A great deal of his wisdom came from lessons gained from observing plants, birds, reptiles, fish and a myriad of other aspects of our wider world. We not only learn scientifically from observing nature, which is a very important step along the way. We, also, learn spiritual truths, since all life has its origins in The Source of Life. Other biblical texts indicate that nature can be an avenue of divine insight, from Job telling his companions to “ask the animals, and they will teach you” (Job 12:7-10) to Jesus who frequently used observations on nature as parables for the Kingdom of God.
Faith-based camps and retreats at their best engage people in the art of stillness and attentiveness to the wonders around them and to the Source of it all. It is especially important for children, youth and adults in our culture who have less and less opportunity to spend time in the natural world and when they do so, it is often focused on activity rather than being present. If they come to love and value the creation, it enhances their love of the Creator. This is the unique power of the settings in which we are privileged to be in ministry.
It is no accident that the Christian Church has placed nearly all camp and retreat centers in the midst of nature. They are not just pretty places. They are sacred places. You are part of a unique spiritual tradition and practice whose roots run deep in the holy ground of our faith. You help people tune into the Word – the voice of God. It is a ministry of embracing the creation and the Creator.
Thank you for all you do for so many!
Question to Ponder
- What aspects of nature have inspired you to a deeper relationship with God?
- What wisdom and gifts from God might we lose as human beings through the unnecessary destruction of ecosystems and wildlife and lack of appreciation for the value of other forms of life?
- How might you help guests and participants spend more time in the natural world as a spiritual practice to connect more deeply with Christ?
Click here for a faith formation activity, “Word of God Outdoor Devotional” (pdf) that you can adapt and use.