One Christmas Eve afternoon I escaped to walk through a favorite part in the woods on the outskirts of Manassas, Virginia. The quiet, motionless world was a welcomed change from the butting and clawing of the department stores and malls. The stillness created a sense of expectancy of the birth of Christ, which was far removed from the hurry and worry of the artificial hoopla of the increasingly secularized Christmas holiday.
The woods broke into a clearing and I pulled my coat tighter as the cold wind licked at my neck. The gusts blew around me, picking up momentum, and then suddenly burst forth into snow. I turned my back to the biting wind, pulled my hood up to cover my neck, and watched the wind carry the snow along the ground, making it travel some distance before it could rest. My heart nearly stopped as I was overcome by the sheer beauty. The snow lasted only minutes. My wife, just a few miles away at our home, didn’t see any snow at all. Those few, priceless moments did more to draw me into a remembrance of the Christ child than did weeks in shopping malls, post offices, and gaudily decorated rooms.
This experience helped me to begin looking at creation as God’s cathedral. I continue to have the vast majority of my daily devotions indoors, but many are tied to the remembrance (and anticipation) of worshiping God outside, in his cathedral. These memories can be powerful, remaining with us long after their first light has faded away. Francis of Assisi composed his famous poem “The Canticle to Brother Sun”—perhaps the Christian classic on the beauty and glory of creation—when an eye infection had rendered him almost totally blind.1
As I read the histories of other Christians, I found that I am not alone in my desire to worship and learn of God out of doors. As a young man, the great eighteenth-century revivalist, Jonathan Edwards, wrote a monograph on the flying spiders of the North American forests. A number of years later, in one of the most famous sermons ever preached on American soil, Edwards used the analogy of a spider hanging by a thin web to depict an unrepentant sinner’s dilemma in the hands of an angry God. Edwards is just one of many Christians who learned to use God’s creation to understand God the Creator and his ways with men and women.
Where we worship can have a profound impact on the quality of our worship.
Where we worship can have a profound impact on the quality of our worship. The naturalist seeks to leave the formal architecture and the padded pews to enter an entirely new “cathedral,” a place that God himself has built: the out-of-doors.
Any place that has some trees or a stream or, at minimum, open skies, can be God’s cathedral. Naturalists have found that getting outside can literally flood parched hearts and soften the hardest soul. While it may be impractical for most congregations to regularly meet outside, individual worshipers or small groups can find great benefit in slipping away to a quiet spot to meet with God out of doors.
Naturalists in the Bible
When God created a paradise for the first man and woman, was it a resort house? A fancy motel? An elaborate palace? No. God chose to walk with Adam and Eve in a garden.
It should be obvious, though modern conveniences hid the truth from me for so long, that the Bible is meant to be read outside. Many Old Testament and Gospel illustrations and allusions are based on nature, and it is only in the context of nature that they regain their meaning and force. The phrase “river of life” seems quaint when the words are projected up on a wall; but its power is nearly overwhelming when you stand by a swiftly flowing river. “Green pastures” can sound almost postcardish until you enter an unspoiled meadow, far away from the sound of a highway, radio, or ball game.
I’ll give up the artificial glare of an overhead projector for the sun’s light peeking over a rise any day. I’d much rather hear the howl of a strong wind racing over the earth than the clank of the heater kicking on in the middle of a sermon. When we lock ourselves inside, we leave part of God’s creation, and therefore part of our understanding, outside. Artificial comfort comes to us at a cost.
Many of the Old Testament “theophanies,” or appearances of God, happened in the wilderness.2 God met Hagar in the desert, Abraham on a mountain, Jacob at a river crossing, and Moses at a burning bush. It was far less common for God to visit someone in an urban center.
Jesus himself seems to have sought out the beauty of creation. Early in his ministry, he moved from Nazareth to live in Capernaum, which is by the sea.3 When he called some of his disciples to follow him, he was walking by the Sea of Galilee.4
Thomas, Gary. 2009. Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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