For the past eight summers our church has moved our Sunday services outdoors, first to Arrowhead Provincial Park, and more recently to River Mill Park in downtown Huntsville. It’s a great way to take advantage of our beautiful Muskoka weather, and it’s an opportunity for people who might not feel comfortable in a typical church environment to visit .
But we also move outside because many people feel closer to God when surrounded by natural beauty. This is certainly true for me. Some of the most spiritually significant moments in my life have happened along a hiking trail, in a cabin in the woods, or out on the water in a kayak. Nature opens my heart to God in a unique and powerful way.
Why is this? Why do we often feel more inclined toward spirituality while outdoors? Some would say that a divine life-force pervades all aspects of the universe, and when we are in nature we are more aware of its reality. This viewpoint holds that the universe and the divine are one—that the lake, the trees, the sky, and everything we encounter in nature is somehow God. I find that this perspective, generally known as pantheism, is gaining in popularity today.
Christianity teaches a different outlook on why we feel close to God in nature. Psalm 19:1-2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” In other words, the natural world is trying to tell us something about its Creator. In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul claims that certain aspects of God’s character are “clearly seen” through the world he has made. Yet, while God reveals himself in and through the natural world, he remains inherently separate from it.
In other words, God relates to nature in the same way that an artist relates to a painting. Artwork is a powerful form of communication, a window into the heart and mind of the artist. A painting can help us understand and feel connected to the one who created it. We may say an artist “pours herself into” and “expresses herself through” her art. We might even say there was “a piece of her” in her painting—but we would not mean it literally. The artist always remains a separate entity from the artwork. This is how Christianity understands the spiritual aspect of nature. We naturally feel more connected to God when we are surrounded by his handiwork. It tells us something about him, his character, his magnificence.
If you wanted to study Van Gogh, you could pick up a book about him and read about his life and the stories behind his famous pieces. This would be the path of rational knowledge. Or you could visit an art gallery and spend a few hours gazing at his artwork. This would be experiential knowledge. Both rational and experiential knowledge have their strengths and weaknesses, but combined they can be extremely powerful.
The same is true when getting to know God. Rational knowledge of the Bible and theology are helpful and valuable. But immersing ourselves in the massive work of art that is the natural world helps us feel closer to the One who created it. This is why I (along with so many others) seek out times of silence and solitude in the forest or on the lake; and it’s why our church moves outdoors in the summer.
Nature is always speaking, telling us something about the One who created it. But it can only get through to us if we are willing to pay attention. This means slowing down, taking time to fully immerse ourselves in the world God has given us. It means settling our minds, thinking creatively, and listening with our hearts. The next time you have a few moments to reflect on nature, ask yourself: What was the Artist trying to say? What is He revealing through the trees, lakes, flowers, birds, and other natural elements we run into everyday?
As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said so well:
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.
Join Muskoka Community Church Sundays through July and August at 10:30 a.m. in River Mill Park for our “Church in the Park” services. We have uplifting music, practical teaching, and a craft for the kids.
Jeremy McClung is pastor of Muskoka Community Church in Huntsville.
Since 2008, MCC has been serving the Huntsville community and beyond through their Sunday worship services, community involvement, poverty reduction efforts, and programs for children, youth, and adults.
In his free time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, April, and their three children, as well as music, art, the outdoors, golf, and curling. His passion is helping everyday people develop a relationship with God.