No one has ever mistaken me for an outdoorsy person. All the way back to my toddler days, I’ve largely had an aversion to being (or at least feeling) dirty, and the adventure of camping has pretty much no traction with me.
I hold this in tension with the fact that I still really appreciate the beauty of God’s creation. I had the extreme privilege of growing up with a bedroom window that looked out in the distance to the Pacific Ocean. Every day, whether consciously or not, my soul was reminded of the expanse and depth of God’s love and faithfulness as I glimpsed that farther-than-the-eye-can-see blanket of blue. But that experience set my precedent for enjoying such beauty—from a comfortable seat, gazing out at the distant vista.
This summer my family traveled to Glacier National Park in Montana for vacation. The trip was a bucket list item for my husband. Who was I to deny him that? He didn’t even request that we camp, so no problem there. As the time for the trip grew close, though, I began to realize that there isn’t much else to do in Glacier other than hike.
Hmm. A hiking vacation? I began to consider the possibility that I had been tricked into something I never intended to do. My internal grumbling was quickly eased by the awareness that my seven- and ten-year old sons can’t hike that far yet without their own serious grumbling. I was pretty sure I could still outlast them.
All that said, I’ll admit to some intrigue and expectancy around this outdoorsy trip. This past year, as I was doing some reading on the spiritual discipline of study, I came across this surprising statement in Nathan Foster’s The Making of an Ordinary Saint: “For the Christian, our study focuses primarily upon two great ‘books’: Scripture and ‘the book of nature.’
That stopped me short. The book of nature? The phrase seemed to call me to a different posture than the general appreciation of natural beauty I had grown up with. Nature as something to be read. What does that mean?
Foster went on to explain: “With regard to nature…our ‘reading’ comes by way of observing and listening. Then: We reflect. We absorb. We allow nature to read us. We apply the lessons of nature to our living.”
So, with such thoughts tucked away in the back of my mind, off we went to Montana. And, wow. Glacier National Park is stunningly beautiful. It’s beautiful along almost every inch of the “Going to the Sun Highway” that has been cut through it, allowing you to enjoy the views from the comfort of your own car. Even more impressive to me, however, were the treats of beauty revealed when we trekked on foot off the road and deeper into the park. On each of the four moderate hikes we completed as a family was a prize to behold: a roaring waterfall, a peaceful mountain lake, a closer peek at the glaciers.
It was an excellent reminder that sometimes you have to put in a little work to see the greater beauty, be it in nature or in people or in life circumstances. God is regularly gracious to reveal goodness right before our eyes, but there is often so much more to be discovered with a little effort of pursuit.
The deeper impact that the experience had on my soul is harder to capture in a ready principle. As I stood and tried to extend myself to “reading nature” and letting it read me, it struck me that perhaps God made stunning mountain peaks and sparkling, crystal-clear streams, and even somewhat oddly beautiful creatures (Have you ever seen a marmot? Strange little thing!) not just for display. A good bit of what God made in the created world is hidden away or on a scale that is not readily visible to people. Could it be that he just loves to gaze on it? Or that it brings him joy simply to create? Maybe the beauty of the earth isn’t only for my benefit. I find that thought surprisingly comforting. God is so grand. So much more than I yet know.
Our family returned home with slightly more toned bodies, more connection to one another through shared adventures, more awe of God for his artistic displays—and with appetites whet for more. There were conversations about how many national parks there are in the U.S. and how many we might be able to visit as a family.
To be honest, I’m still not feeling ready to give in to camping. But perhaps I’ve read enough nature to want to keep reading. A good book usually leaves you wanting more.
Michelle Manley likes the space of quiet reflection, reading, and prayer. She enjoys sitting and talking with others, listening for the creative work of God in daily life. Her seven- and nine-year-old sons help to keep her in the physical world. You can also periodically find her on the trampoline with them. She is married to Mark and has worked as a pastor at The River Church Community in the areas of Small Group Community and Adult Spiritual Formation for nearly sixteen years.