Last Sunday I woke early (that is, for a Sunday) and pulled on my winter gear. It had snowed a little the day before and I wanted to go out cross-country skiing while I had the chance. Here in Chicago there are few opportunities for outdoor exercise in the winter so it is important to put the snow to use when I have it. The day was cold and gusty but brilliantly sunny. I live only a few blocks from Loyola Beach so I shouldered my skis and trekked out to the lake.
It is not often that I do my workouts in the morning, but I am always glad when I do. As the sun climbed up through the southeastern sky, its light shimmered violently on the lake as it skimmed across the deep blue hues and the bright whites and teals of the ice collecting at the water’s edge. Lake Michigan, God bless it, looks different every single day.
I always feel a bit sad when I turn away from the lake to head home, even if I am cold or wet or hungry. The lake is Chicago’s only real claim to “wilderness.” All of its State preserves—and I repeat, ALL—are surrounded by highways. It is a dreadful, thoughtless epidemic that denies a vast population the chance to reconnect with nature sans mechanical interruption. As my father says, Chicago is a topographical wasteland, apart from the lake.
On this particular occasion, it being Sunday, I had to get myself to church. This pleased me not at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love my church, but it seemed a poor substitute for staying outside, worshipping God alongside of the swaying trees, the lapping waves, and the shushing and creaking ice clusters. Nature builds its own cathedrals, I thought, mentally paraphrasing the great John Muir:
“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.” ― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
I understand that many people do not feel this way. I have met and loved many urban dwellers for whom the sounds of crickets chirping frightens them more than that of sirens flying by in the night. I also totally understand the value of communal worship and a warm, dry space in which to achieve it. But John Muir, bearded eccentric, writer, and wild man that he was, would definitely find in me a kindred spirit. God manifests himself in so many ways, but perhaps one of the most tangible and inspiring is how he displays his majesty in nature’s organic grandeur. What is more, he invites us to join Him there that we might rest.
Rest. Rest is perhaps one of the hardest things for someone in this fast-paced, screen-addicted American culture to achieve. Many in the church have belabored this point, arguing that real rest—breaking from our routine just to BE—is one of the most important spiritual disciplines people can practice for the benefit of not only their physical health, but their spiritual, relational, and emotional health as well. It is also critical if we want to do good, creative work. Someone asked me recently, am I working to rest or am I resting to work? This question infers that we have confused the ends and the means. There is a highly productive element of rest. There is a reason creativity experts tell us to go for a walk when we hit roadblocks in our work. We need a change of scenery, a breath of fresh air, a tree. Nature draws us out; not just out of doors, but out of ourselves. Nature gives us some perspective, helping us not take ourselves too seriously. Have you ever thoroughly examined a stem of Queen Anne’s lace? A bird’s feather? A mountain’s silhouette? I’d bet good money that you weren’t thinking about anything else while you did. I bet that felt great. I bet you came away inspired.
John Muir understood this. Here are a few inspirational quotes from his writings along with some of my nature photography. I hope you enjoy it, but I also hope that it makes you want to GO OUTSIDE!
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
There is that in the glance of a flower which may at times control the greatest of creation’s braggart lords.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
N.B. I highly recommend reading or listening to Dayton Duncan’s book, National Parks: America’s Best Idea, or watching the Ken Burns documentary of the same title, to learn more about John Muir and the ongoing quest to preserve our natural heritage.