If there has ever been a time to seek God in nature, this is it. The coronavirus pandemic has shut down churches, cancelled small groups and put an indefinite pause on our physically social experience of worship. While group gatherings should not be our sole connection to our faith, the Kingdom of God is an inherently social project and many of us crave conversation and fellowship in our pursuit of Jesus.
As we scramble to learn online meeting platforms and adapt our worship strategies to a digital interface, many of us yearn for something more. The simultaneity of social distancing measures with the annual emergence from our winter retreat (in the northern hemisphere at least) have made ventures into the outdoors a critical respite from our under-roof existence. My suburban Minnesota corner lot needs supplementary signage to direct the stream of walkers and cyclists occupying the road. Can we turn these fresh air-seeking excursions into a spiritual discipline to fill in the gaps on our currently disrupted journey of faith?
If you are apprehensive, it may be derived from the sense of novelty in seeking God anywhere but in Scripture. In my years in youth group, church camps and even in adulthood, I don't recall any church leader encouraging me to look for God in God's creation. When I discuss this subject with my thoroughly-churched university students I get quizzical responses: Are Christians allowed to do that? What about tradition? What about the forefathers? What about sola scriptura?
Well, it depends on which tradition you emphasize. The authors of Scripture tell us that creation reveals the glory, eternal power and divine nature of God. Prior to the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, Christians did regularly commune with God through the natural world. The pre-Reformation English church integrated the natural and sacred through their understanding of the seasons of the year, fruitfulness of the land and natural history of familiar species. As far back as the 13th century we see references to knowing God through the two books of revelation, the book of God’s Word and the book of God’s Works. It wasn't until after the Reformation and the common availability of Bibles that Protestantism dismissed the symbology tied to the natural world. Recognizing this history, we can follow the ancient church into a theology of nature from centuries ago.
And what about Jesus? We can follow His example. To calm our anxious tendencies, Jesus told us to reflect on the birds and the flowers and to seek His kingdom first (Matthew 6:25-34). Jesus' disciples noticed his pattern of stepping away from the crowds to retreat to the wilderness to pray (Luke 5:16). We aren't told if He wanted solitude or time in nature, but I've always assumed it was both.
Perhaps He had a divine notion of what abundant data now support, that time in natural settings is good for our mental and physical health. We have yet to determine the precise mechanisms but the relationships appear to be genuine. As the medical and mental health communities prescribe novel treatments, someone ought to commission a similar study on our spiritual health. As a scientist, I hypothesize that time in the outdoors would leave us with a renewed sense of the divine and reverence for God.
Further support comes from rereading the end of Job, Psalm 104, Psalm 19, Matthew 6, Romans 1, Romans 8 or any number of other passages that reveal God's delight in His creation, the mysteries of God's presence in every aspect of nature or how all of it will be renewed with us when Jesus returns. Better yet, bring your Bible with you and enjoy the weather and fresh air as you read through those verses in the outdoors. Pray and meditate over them as you iterate Lecto divina style and be reminded that Scripture invites us to contemplate the wonders of creation as we consider the ways of God.
While most of us eagerly anticipate the return to “normalcy” and resumption of our social experience of faith, forays into nature can and should develop into more than stretching our legs. This isn’t to diminish scripture as a revelation of God but to diversify our faith journey to experience all of God’s revelation. God is in all things and all life is animated by the same spirit that fills us. If you have ears to hear and eyes to see, turn them to the wooded edge, the crashing waves and the melodies that pour from the tree tops. Until we can return to our favored pews and small group meetings, time in nature can help fill the gaps in our spiritual lives. There are always birds. The trees are reliable. You can commune with them whenever you are ready. You may discover a pathway to God that remains when the social distancing policies no longer dictate your spiritual life.