The spiritual discipline of going outside

Hours after dawn, the sun cuts a line of rays just over the back hill and through the dining room window. My 3-year-old daughter has pulled her breakfast chair up to the glass and is sitting in the rays. She sees our cat galloping past on the hunt for baby moles. She watches three birds working their way across the grass, towards the old shed where an enormous old groundhog keeps house. She calls out to her sister to come quick—three deer are standing on the hill. One is a baby.

The cold of February is too much for me. I’m a pansy about cold. But the girls will put up a struggle later today about wearing their coats, and they’ll be out in the chill sunshine. My oldest will bring a bowl and several pairs of safety scissors, and she’ll bring me piles of wild onions that are shooting taller than the sleeping grass. She will expect me to cook with them.

We’ve decided to press all the wildflowers that come through this year between the pages of one big fat book, maybe American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster, or The Works of Jonathan Edwards Volume 1. Last spring we saw a new color coat both sides of the road every week for the entire months of March through June. We brought a different bouquet home every day on our walk—probably a hundred bouquets, easily thirty varieties represented. And we didn’t press a single flower. Worse, we couldn’t name most of them. This year, we’re going to figure out what those flowers are. We’ll press and label them. Then we’ll always know.

Fall used to be my favorite. In the city, where my time outside was spent in public parks or nature reserves with a good hiking trail in them—I liked the relief of the fall best, on the day when the summer humidity suddenly was cut in two and I could go for a jog without falling apart.

But now I like spring best, I think since having children. Winter is the only time we’re really stuck inside—and spring is when everything shakes itself awake and the sun actually warms you and you just can’t stay in. And more new things are made than at any other time of year, because nothing can stop itself from making something when that sun starts warming. Most new animals, most new plants, even most new construction happens in the spring.

And after a sun-starved winter, I can finally go out and fill my belly up with something that only God’s nature can put into me.

 

All Things Bright and Beautiful

I am a great fan of special revelation. I believe in it. I study it. I enjoy it. Christ was called the Word made flesh—meaning that the Christ described in John 1 traces his essence back to the explicit meaning packed into words, not to the implicit meaning packed into flesh. He was WORD first, then flesh, and with a word, God created all things through Him.

But reserving special revelation as the way to know who God is, I still reserve general revelation as a way to know what God tastes like, smells like, and looks like. He is good, he is beautiful, he is precious. He is always comparing himself to things we have tasted, smelled, and seen, to tell us more about how he is good, beautiful, and precious. He is always making more things, more things, millions of more things, to show how excessively he loves things that are good, beautiful, and precious.

 

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

 

I spend time outside, and I do it on purpose. I do it hungrily, and I do it as spiritual discipline. Just as it’s good spiritual habit to read the word every day, it seems like good spiritual habit to go out—as life circumstances permit—and be around something God made every day.

I eat him with a spoon in big, meaty bites when I spend time studying his explicit words to me. But I also get to taste him in creation—maybe with a straw. Sips of refreshing, implicit truth about who God is, sips of pleasure straight from his hand. I can be nourished on this part of God’s revelation as well.

This is also a way to understand why a person who wants to find God in nature alone will always be undernourished. They want to go on a liquids-only diet, and they don’t know why their bellies ache all the time, why they have a sloshy sound in their stomachs. They need the meat of his word, read and preached—they need solid food too.

But a man who eats solid food without enough liquids… what does he get? He gets thirsty, for one. Tired. He gets sort of spiritually—yes I’m going there—constipated. Picture the pastor who sits in his study all day without ever looking at a tree. He gets to know a lot about God, but does he fully experience what it’s like to be one of His creatures?

Build it in

We are creatures, and we were made with creaturely needs.

One need that we have, for instance, is for Vitamin D. A nasty Vitamin D deficiency I had a few years ago had me feeling draggy and faint, and the Doc told me three quarters of Americans are deficient in the “sunshine vitamin.” Apparently, we aren’t going outside enough, and Vitamin D enriched milk isn’t quite cutting it.

We all know about the studies that have shown how spending time outside promotes physical and mental well-being. This is so well accepted by the American public that you can see money being spent accordingly—on public parks, gardens, and nature reserves. We know that we were made to be out there sometimes, even though most of us still spend most of our lives inside the four walls of a house, an office, or a car.

Our physical and emotional need for fresh air makes a certain sense, given what we know about our origins and purpose. We believe, after all, in a God who created this world of beauty and variety and then placed people here with the job of subduing and cultivating it. In one sense, we’ve done our job so well that we’ve been able to stop doing our job. The technology we’ve created with God’s blessing has allowed us to take several steps back—out of the world he created for our enjoyment. We’ve insulated ourselves so well from the inconveniences of nature—heat, cold, bugs, damp—that we don’t end up experiencing the breathless wonders that can only be experienced out under an open sky.

And many of our subduing and cultivating responsibilities now take place indoors. We subdue information, we cultivate business relationships. We subdue laundry, and cultivate ministry opportunities. So in order to do our jobs and to also experience life as a creature, we have to build outside into our days.

And increasingly, this becomes a choice, a spiritual discipline, similar to Sabbath or prayer. It becomes an act of soul cultivation for us and our families, and an act of dependency on our good Father. We choose to be outside for a certain amount of time, instead of answering emails. This means we risk missing something, but we do so in good faith. It is a similar kind of decision to choosing to eat supper as a family instead of taking on another sport, or praying in a private room instead of writing another report. We can make these decisions as an act of obedient creatureliness, admitting that we are just people, not gods, and that we need to be nourished, even in order to obey God well.

It is, of course, a fine line to walk—because some days, you’ll need to forgo that walk in order to obey God and tend to something he’s put in your way to do. You’ll need to understand the difference between God-honoring cultivation of good habits and a kind of fragile “me-time” rhetoric that demands the perfect environment in order to flourish spiritually. You’ll need to show your children the good and beautiful things God made without teaching them that they deserve a steady stream of only good and beautiful things in life in order to be joyful.

But in the end, you are a creature, and your children are creatures, and you can show them it’s okay to be a creature. And anyway, many of the things you can say “no” to in order to practice these habits are not matters of faithful work at all. They’re a show. They’re a scroll through Instagram. They’re a rat-race of activity that is mindlessly accepted instead of carefully chosen.

Feed yourself and your children from his word, and then let them drink from the straw of his creation. Let them grow fat on this food and this drink. Grow fat yourself.

 

Each little flower that opens,

Each little bird that sings,

He made their glowing colours,

He made their tiny wings.

 

The cold wind in the winter,

The pleasant summer sun,

The ripe fruits in the garden,−

He made them every one:

 

He gave us eyes to see them,

And lips that we might tell,

How great is God Almighty,

Who has made all things well.

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