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Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Confession time…I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music. Maybe that’s because I get tired of hearing the same tunes every year. Maybe it’s just because “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “dreaming of a white Christmas” don’t evoke the same nostalgia for me as they do for others. These songs don’t resonate with my experience growing up in Africa. Or maybe it’s because the quaint sentimentality of many Christmas songs feel out of touch with my life and the concerns of a broken world. Call me a ‘Scrooge’ but I don’t plan on voluntarily listening to much Christmas music this year.

That being said, when I get past my personal music tastes and really pay attention to the lyrics of many traditional Christmas carols, I find them to have a deeply rich theology. One such song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This carol was written by Edmund Sears in 1849 during the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and popularized during the Civil War. The lyrics draw out the disconnect between the announcement of peace from heaven at Christ’s birth and continuing war and suffering on earth.

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

This opening stanza references the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). The carol doesn’t treat this pronouncement as something only given one time in the distant past, but envisions how this message is continually proclaimed. This happens despite the discord and division among humans, referenced by an allusion to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). 

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The next stanza is often omitted in contemporary hymnals, but it is my favorite. Unlike many sentimental Christmas songs, this carol is not unaware of the suffering and brokenness still experienced in this world. Even two thousand years after Christ’s coming, sin and death still reign in our world. Even still, the lyrics call us to hush the messages that lead us to strife and focus on the message of the Promised King.

 But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

The beauty of Christmas is not found in sanitized and picturesque images of an ideal nativity scene, but rather in God’s entrance into the broken messiness of human life as a real baby to save us. He is the one “who redeems your life from the pit” (Psalm 103:4). This song names those messy experiences of pain and suffering we have, and it invites us to look to Christ in the midst of it.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This carol captures the profound tension of the Advent season. We are caught in the already-not-yet, looking back to Jesus’ first coming with joy, and also looking forward in faith to his second coming, when he will make all things right. Unlike out of touch Christmas tunes, this carol connects with that enduring and timeless struggle.

For lo! the days are hastening on
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Listen to the recording of this beautiful carol performed by our campus worship pastors. As the music washes over you, may you experience God in the midst of pain, disappointment, and brokenness. He doesn’t ignore the pain you are in, but instead sees you there and enters into the mess to redeem it. 

Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Tomorrow marks the first Sunday of Advent, the season in which we anticipate the coming of Jesus, our promised king. In Luke 1:32-33, the angelic messenger tells Mary that the son she will bear “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

The Promised King

The hope for the coming of this promised king goes back to the Old Testament, where it is foretold, among other places, in the Psalms. We’re calling our Advent sermon series The Promised King, and we’ll explore how the Psalms point to King Jesus. 

Additionally, we’ve designed theFormed.life to function as an Advent devotional, in which you will meditate on a particular psalm during the week before the sermon on Sunday morning. As part of this Advent devotional, we’re also encouraging you to meditate on the lyrics of a Christmas hymn each Saturday. 

 

Joy to the World

Today’s Christmas hymn is Joy to the World written in 1719 by the prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts. Some have said that Joy to the World isn’t actually a Christmas hymn because Watts wrote it with Christ’s second coming in mind, not his first. The lyrics Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her king refers to Jesus’ return when he ultimately and finally ushers in his coming kingdom.

When Jesus returns, the curse of Genesis 3 will be no more, which is acknowledged in the third stanza of Joy to the World

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found. 

While the curse in Genesis 3 brought “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18), Watts points out that Jesus’ coming has an altogether different effect on creation: 

And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing
Fields and floods
Rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy

 

Creation Sings!

The idea of creation crying out to God in praise is deeply biblical. It comes from places like Isaiah 55:12  the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands; Luke 19:40. I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out; and Psalm 148, which is an entire song dedicated to the idea of creation voicing praise to its creator. No longer held back by the curse of Genesis 3, all creation bursts into glorious praise. 

But if Joy to the World is about Christ’s second coming, why sing it at Christmas? We sing it because Christmas is as much about Christ’s second coming as it is about his first coming. During the Christmas season, we look back at what God has done through Christ’s first coming, and at the same time look forward in anticipation to his second coming. We remember that what he accomplished at his first coming serves as a guarantee of what is yet to come when he returns.

 

Advent is about Anticipation

The anticipation of Advent isn’t about Christmas parties, delicious Christmas dinners, and piles of Christmas presents. It is the anticipation of the second arrival of our Promised King who, when he comes again, will complete the work that he started two millennia ago as a baby in the little town of Bethlehem. In the meantime, we proclaim now a song that all of creation will sing then:

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders of His love.

The Heavens Declare

The Heavens Declare

My son ripped open the present with all the glee that a child can muster early on Christmas morning. His Apaw (Grandpa) sent him something special: a telescope from National Geographic.

My son is a big science kid, and is especially interested in the stars and planets. That night, we set the telescope up on the back deck. The waning moon beamed down on the yard, so bright we saw shadows. Wrapped in jackets over pajamas, and boots over wool socks, he peered into a lens that peered into a lens that peered into a lens that magnified what no human eye could see. His breath caught as he stood stock-still. “Dad, I can see craters!” When he finally let me have a turn, I saw them, too. The sun’s light on the moon’s surface illuminated countless craters, scoops from rock and dirt thousands of miles away. Each one was thousands of years old and exactly as it appeared when it was young, a living photograph. There was a tug on my sleeve. “Dad?” As I pulled away from the telescope, my eyes came back to earth. “Can we do a star next?”

When the ancients considered the heavens, they were often afraid. It’s hard to blame them. The size and scope of it all, the blackness of the night sky, and the endless blue of the day, were no doubt hard to fathom without our modern instrumentation. It must have felt like standing at the edge of an endless cliff, right in front of you, without explanation, seemingly without beginning or end.

Humanity now stands on another such edge. We have launched the Webb telescope, factors of thousands more powerful than its predecessors, and by its mirrored eyes we see things hidden from the foundations of the world with razor sharp clarity. Beautiful, yes, but vast, seemingly infinite, and on its surface, empty and void of life.

The Scriptures admonish us that when we consider the heavens and the works of God’s hands, our response should not be fear. The heavens declare his glory, says Psalm 19, and we should worship God for his wonderful design. But I saw something in my son that day that made me wonder if we are missing something; something hidden between the whirring galaxies overhead.

It’s something G.K. Chesteron once quipped about Jesus., who pointed not only to the heavens, but to the lilies, the sparrows, and the details of our lives, reminding us that they said something profound about his Father. And yet, there was something Jesus could not tell us, something we were not ready for. Chesterton put it this way:

“There was something that [Jesus] hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his [joy].”

The heavens declare his glory, no doubt, but I have also begun to wonder if they shout his joy, too. The universe, as it always has, will continue to befuddle us. Every new mystery unlocked leads to hundreds more. The more we see of it, the less we understand. The Scriptures, for their part, never tell us precisely what the heavens are, but they do tell us something of what they mean.

And I think they mean, in part, to give us a hint at God’s capacity for joy. Through this lens, we might begin to understand that the mind-bending size and scope of a galaxy so large it would take hundreds of millions of years for any human to traverse, simply means the galaxy was made for Someone else’s delight.

It may mean that the trillions of stars, nebulae, quasars, and black holes together represent a power, a design, and a joy that we simply are not yet ready for. It may even mean that when the apostle reminds us that there is a weight of glory to be revealed in each one of God’s children, that if we were to see it now, we would not believe he meant it. How could we believe it, when we can barely understand the stars themselves?

There are times, unlike my son, when I look in that telescope and recoil at what I see. The universe, we know, does not go on forever, but it might as well. The earth, this small rock in a small galaxy in a tiny corner of it all, seems pretty insignificant in comparison. It can make you feel lonely, isolated, and meaningless.

Life can do this, too. We may feel small compared to the news, our problems, our fears, and anxieties. Perhaps you find yourself discouraged today. Afraid. Out of control. Unseen or unknown. Remember with me that the heavens declare the glory of God, the joy and delight of God, which he promises one day to fully share. This life is preparing you for it. So keep waiting. Keep watching. Keep looking up.

 
Your Body Is a Gift

Your Body Is a Gift

I am a fair weather runner. Runner might be too strong of a word, but between April and November three to four times a week I lace up my shoes and run three to four miles. Starting up again in April is always hard. I am slow and my lungs burn and my legs ache. But I know it will be worth it, so I begin again. There is something that happens when I am out there, something I can’t quite explain, but my soul is somehow free-er. In the quiet and in my solitude I have my deepest times of prayer, of praise, of communion with God. There is this connection between the movement of my body and my spirit, a vivid reminder of how I was created. 

I am an embodied creature. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about embodiment and what it means. I have no startling insights or theological breakthroughs, and some days I struggle to see this particular body that God has given me as a good gift. It’s a little squishier than I would like and as the years go by it aches more and more and it tires more easily. But I do know that the bodies that God gives us are good gifts born out of His love. How do I receive this gift well? How do I best steward this body that was given to me? 

And how does it all work, this union between body and soul? When I am tired or hungry or sore from pushing my body too hard, I snap at my kids and my husband. My prayers are shorter, my Bible reading is perfunctory. Clearly, the condition of my body affects my spirit. When I am anxious, my body reacts with a frenzy of activity. I clean all the things and organize and accomplish all the things on my to-do list that have been sitting there for far too long. When I am sad, I feel physically tired, my eyes are primed for tears. Clearly, the condition of my spirit affects my body. 

Whenever God chooses to call me to himself, this body that I inhabit now with it’s limitations, it’s sicknesses and pains will not go with me, at least as it is now. Scripture tells me that I will get a new body (Philippians 3:21, 2 Corinthians 5), so embodiment is not temporary, it is part of God’s good creation plan. Adam and Eve had bodies before the Fall. My new body will be “like his glorious body,” the body of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. That I cannot conceive of, it is too great and marvelous for me. So if embodiment is eternal, perhaps I should give it more consideration in this life. 

As a follower of Jesus, I tend to think that I only need to nourish my soul (even at the expense of my body), but seeing the connection between the two more clearly over the past year has shown me that caring for my body can be just as important as caring for my soul.

Sometimes it’s the same thing. So I have become more gentle with my body, giving it more rest days and have found my soul renewed. I have, imperfectly, leaned into a weekly sabbath and found it to be life-giving. 

I linger over hugs with my children and my husband. Hugs are not things to be rushed. The physical act of touching another human being that I love in that prolonged way fills our souls. 

Whenever I can, I gather with friends. The eyes God has given me drinking in their expressions, feeling the God-given joy of togetherness, savoring the laughter, (the strange shaking of our bodies and ringing sounds in our ears), these physical expressions of delight. Finding wonder in the seamless connection between the physical and the spiritual. 

Of course in a culture such as ours, the temptation is always near to think of this body more highly than I ought, to put my hope in health and wellness or in looking a certain way. Finding my value in staying at a certain weight or being able to do x number of pushups or letting each new wrinkle tempt me to despair. Putting pressure on this frame that it was never meant to bear, by seeing this gift as ultimate instead of viewing it as a good gift given by a loving Creator. 

But I will continue on this life-long journey to steward this gift well, trying not to think of my body as something to be worshipped and molded into an ever-changing standard of beauty or something that has little worth, somehow inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. I will work to use my whole self, physical and spiritual in service to our great God, using what He has given me to glorify Him. I will get it wrong, I will stumble and fall, but through the grace of God I will keep going. And I hope to learn from those of you who are farther ahead on this path and those of you who want to consider with me what it means to honor God with our bodies. 

What Is a Person Worth?

What Is a Person Worth?

I love garage sales. Not just because of the great finds you can come across but because I love to haggle. I think it is my spiritual gift! Garage sales are designed for haggling precisely because of the challenge of accurately and objectively ascribing monetary worth to previously owned items. 

Admittedly it is hard to assign worth to things. It just seems so arbitrary at times. For example, do you know what the most expensive item sold at the famous Sotheby’s auction is? It’s this:

 

A teal ashtray. Not really, but close. It’s a 900 year old dish from the Song Dynasty in China. And it sold for $37.68 Million!

Now it’s one thing to assign worth to antiques and heirlooms, but what about people? How do we determine the worth of a human being? In a day and age where it is common to believe that we are nothing more than a bundle of atoms guided by the firing of synapses in our brain, this creates an interesting challenge.

While many affirm this anthropological position intellectually, I don’t think we functionally live as though it’s true. Deep within all of us we deny the claim that we are nothing more than material beings. Deep within us we know that human worth is not merely an assumed de facto reality we arbitrarily assign to ourselves. Or to frame it more theologically, deep within us we believe in the doctrine of the image of God. 

As mid 20th century German Philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand said, “All of Western civilization stands and falls with the words of Genesis, ‘God made man in his image.’ ”

I believe that the same functional basis that causes some people to speak out on behalf of the unborn is the same functional basis that causes others to exclaim that black lives matter. It is the acceptance that the image of God is in all people.

Genesis 1:26
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion….”

The word image is the Hebrew word Tselem. This was a very important word in the ancient Near East because it was used in multiple ways. 

For starters, it was widely believed that the spirit of a god inhabited any and all statues or images of that god. As a result, that statue or image would then function as the earthly representation of that god in the world. 

It was also common for kings and leaders in the ancient Near East to be seen as representatives of the gods among the people. Because of this, it was customary for kings to refer to themselves as the image of God.  

Now in the Hebrew scriptures, the word Tselem is often translated as idol or icon. So when we read in places like Leviticus 19:4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal…. this is the same word used in Genesis 1 and it is the same word to describe kings in the ancient Near East. 

The reason we are not to make graven images of God is because God has already made an image of himself in the world through humanity. Being made in the image of God is in part about being endowed with a royal value by God. There is a reason why C.S. Lewis had the four Pevensie children in the Chronicles of Narnia rule as kings and queens. As humans they were of unique royalty in contrast to the other creatures in the land. 

We all know deep down that there is worth in every human. And yet, this compelling doctrine has been abused by many throughout the centuries to justify perspectives and practices that are horridly antithetical to the image of God. 

For centuries many Christians believed that God’s image was a dynamic reality subject to change based on human capability, capacity, and competence. The more one possessed these qualities, the more one possessed the image of God. This paved the way for countless injustices.

As theologian John Kilner puts it in his book Dignity and Destiny, “This way of thinking has encouraged such abuses as the mistreatment of impoverished and disabled people, the Nazi holocaust, the exterminations of Native American groups, and the oppression of enslaved Africans.” 

In fact, the entire Transatlantic slave trade was justified by many, including Christians, because Africans were seen as less than human. As one historian put it, “Unlike white slaveholders who were in God’s image, blacks were described as people created by nature in the likeness of beasts.”

In that same vile vein, the theologian Charles Carroll wrote the book The Negro a Beast at the dawn of the 20th century. In it he argued, “If the white was created in the image of God, then the negro was made after some other model.” 

This work and others like it were in great circulation among the church, which paved the way for the so-called “Christian Identity Movement” which developed in significant popularity in the mid 20th century through groups like the KKK and the Aryan Nations.

When human worth is not seen as given only by God, then we can easily find ourselves on the slippery slope of claiming the power and ability to determine the worth of human life. When we do not see all humans as fundamentally marked by the image of God, then we will mark others with some secondary category that makes it easier to justify mindsets and mistreatments that lead to evils of all kinds.

I believe we have seen progress in some areas of civil rights and human dignity in our culture, but with it has come a strange inconsistency. For some, the solution to value human life is found when we unfetter ourselves from the chains of religion, faith, and God. However, when we do so, we essentially saw off the branch we are sitting on. In other words, we want the implications of bearing the image of God without recognizing the God whose image we bear. This produces a myriad of contradictions.

GK Chesterton describes this inconsistent mindset in his book Orthodoxy which was written over 100 years ago.
The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines.

If we hold to the doctrine of the image of God in all people, then it will have major implications for our lives, our work, our mission, and our church. What does it look like for us to more fully embrace the image of God in all people?

A Greater Sense of Worth
We live in a culture that assigns value by accomplishments, attractiveness, accolades, and acquired wealth. When this is our culture’s understanding of human worth we will at best give preferential treatment to those deemed superior, or at worst, degrade and despise those deemed inferior.

I recently read Martin Luther King Jr and the Image of God that unpacks Dr. King’s theology on this doctrine. Perhaps no other quote of his captures the heart of his thinking more than this portion of his sermon The American Dream.

The image of God is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God.

The image of God serves as the basis upon which we value and protect life at every stage. It compels us to speak out against racism and bigotry, defend the rights of the unborn, and care for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. 

The image of God is to be the primary thing we see in all people with whom we interact. The people you do business with and work alongside. The people you raise and live with. The people you disagree with on social media. The people who wish ill upon you. They all bear the image of God.

A Wider Scope of Wholeness
We must see humanity in bearing the image of God as possessing what Dutch theologian Anthony Hoekema refers to as a psychosomatic unity. This means that God did not create us as purely material or purely immaterial beings, but as a mysteriously beautiful union of the two. And this has serious implications for how we think about what wholeness looks like for ourselves and for others. 

Followers of Jesus should consider the image of God in every person in every part of life. 

Are we seeing people as whole beings the way God sees them? Do we care for the whole person in our work, service, and contribution? Do we view our discipleship and neighborly love through the lens of the image of God in such a way that we are compelled to value the spiritual, emotional, physical, mental, and financial health of all people?

To neglect the body in order to care for the soul, or to neglect the soul in order to care for the body comes from an impoverished understanding of the image of God. 

A Fuller Picture of the Church
The image of God that we all bear points us to the true image of God, Jesus Christ, who is the head of all things including His church. And this church is comprised of people from all tribes, tongues, and nations who are all called to be His people. A people from all the peoples of the earth, unified together by the redeeming and reconciling work on the cross through Christ’s shed blood.

Colossians 1:15–17
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church…. 

When we see Jesus as the true image of God, we as image bearers now have a fuller picture of what the church is and ought to be. We see that the image of God compels us to work toward justice, unity, and reconciliation among all God’s people. 

The pursuit of diversity in the church is not simply a nice quality, but is a central value to the church of Jesus Christ who has come to make the many one and who will one day be one.

In his outstanding book The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby paints the picture of where the church of Jesus Christ is heading.

In that heavenly congregation we will finally see the culmination of God’s gathering. A diverse people unified by faith in Christ. We will surround the throne of the lamb as a redeemed picture of all the ethnic and cultural diversity that God created. Our skin color will no longer be a source of pain or arrogant pride, but will serve as a multi-hued reflection of God’s image. We will no longer be alienated by our earthly economic or social position. We will no longer clamor for power over one another. Our single focus will be worshipping God for eternity in sublime fellowship with each other and our creator.

If this is the culmination of the corporate image of God within humanity redeemed by the blood of Christ in the new heavens and new earth, then we ought to be diligent in our pursuit of a gospel-empowered love and unity among all peoples who are in Christ. We must embrace the truth of Jesus as the true image of God who has come to make us His own by making us one with Him through His atoning death and victorious resurrection.

This is where we find our true worth. 

 

 

Part 4: Ten Reasons Nature Is Good for Your Soul

Part 4: Ten Reasons Nature Is Good for Your Soul

What follows is Part 4 of a four-part blog on why “nature” is a spiritual discipline. Whether you love nature, have always been passive to it, afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy, I am convinced from Scripture and theology, a variety of research disciplines, and personal experience that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.

If you missed Parts 1-3, I highly recommend you start there, by clicking the link above. If you’re all caught up, let’s get practical!
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How do I get more nature in my life?

So what should we do about it? How do I get more nature in my life? I know some of you are wrestling with the same question I have agonized over for so long. I live in Kansas City! Do I just need to move some place more beautiful?

No, you don’t, for there is beauty everywhere for those who want to see it, and it really doesn’t take that much work to begin enjoying more of the natural world. Let me give four simple tips to help us get started.

1. Pay attention

First, you have to pay attention. This is so hard for me because, sadly, we tend to get bored with the beauty we see every day. We’re in such a hurry all the time, and we just don’t notice it anymore, yet there is something so valuable in the old phrase, “Stop and smell the roses.”

Pay attention! Look for the moon and stars. Notice the flowers. Feel a tree. Listen to the birds. I’ve never been much of a birder, but to help us be more aware, we bought a couple of bird feeders for our backyard. Now we can’t help but pay attention to the birds from time to time.

Miller Backyard, 2019

If I could move to the country, I certainly would, and if I could live in a forest, even better. That seems unlikely, so I’m slowly making a forest of my own. We have a normal-size suburban lot. We’ve lived there nine years, and I’ve planted nine trees. One day, we will live in a forest!

For the indoors, we bought a bunch of nearly indestructible house plants (we haven’t killed too many of them yet) and even organized our furniture to face the windows. As much as possible, we’re bringing the outdoors inside.

My “Pet” Coastal Redwood, 2019

I’ve also got one of those fancy watches, and on the face it tells me the time of sunrise and sunset. I added that feature because, if possible, I don’t want to miss it, even if it’s just a moment’s glance out the window. There are cell phone apps that will do the same.

Cheryl Strayed, in her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir of her own healing on an incredible journey into the wilderness, writes: “‘There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it,’ said my mother. ‘Put yourself in the way of beauty.’”

Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2018

Now my list might not be your list. That’s not the point. These are just examples of easy things to help me daily pay attention. You need to find what works for you and be willing to do a little experimentation.

2. Chase it down

Watch for it, but also chase it down. Go find it.

A few years ago, I knew only a couple decent places to hike in the entire Kansas City area. With only a little work, we’ve now got five incredible places in our rotation within only 15 minutes of our house! Chances are, there are a few near you as well.

Here’s my list of great places to go hiking or play outside. If you live nearby or are willing to drive, I would love to share them with you. As you keep reading, I’ve got a few other favorites in the broader Kansas City area, but this is not at all exhaustive. You have to find them where you live, and the closer they are to home, the more likely you are to create habits around them.

Our current favorite is Lexington Lake right off K-10 in De Soto, KS. This is a new park, and they’re still blazing the trails, which adds to the fun. I highly recommend you get off the paved trail and into the woods for some real quiet and beauty.

Lexington Lake Park, De Soto, KS, 2018

Kill Creek Park, also out west, is huge, and sees way fewer visitors than Shawnee Mission Park. It’s incredible. We do like Shawnee Mission Park, especially if you start off Ogg Road to beat the crowds and hit the woods. Just west of Lake Olathe, Prairie Center (NOT Prairie Center Park) is perhaps where we go most frequently, combining trails in the woods as well as the Kansas prairie. To enjoy it to the fullest, bring waterproof shoes. Closest to home we visit Ernie Miller Park & Nature Center.

When we are willing to drive a little farther, we love Parkville Nature Sanctuary, just north of the river or the Overland Park Arboretum down south, just off Highway 69. Swope Park and Longview Lake also have trails. With a little more free time, any of the Kansas or Missouri State Parks are terrific (Weston Bend is one of our favorites and surprisingly close). With these, you can also go camping, another favorite Miller activity.

For a bigger adventure (and a longer drive), we love Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Emporia. It’s part of the National Park Service and has a great visitor center, old farmstead, and miles of trails. You can hike in the Kansas Flint Hills prairie with hundreds of bison or along the water with beautiful trees. It’s not Yellowstone, but it is well worth the drive.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas, 2017

If you want help finding more trails near you, All Trails is a very helpful website and app. You might also check out the Hiking Project. As you discover new places or have some special ones of your own, would you share them with me as well?

Even if you struggle to find the right places, or if hiking just isn’t for you, studies have shown that going for a walk in the city will still give you some of the health and happiness benefits if you choose the sidewalk nearest the most trees. Crazy, right?

At the very least, find a local park or green space. Maybe it’s just a picnic, or a place for a hammock, or a place to let the kids run free. Kansas City has many great options. Chase it down. There are more opportunities close to you than you realize.

Miller Backyard, 2018

3. Find your rhythm

Once you know your options, find your rhythm and create new habits. You have to commit to actually doing this, even when you don’t feel like it. Sometimes it’s like eating your vegetables, and I call it a spiritual discipline for a reason. It takes discipline.

Studies have shown that we tend to underestimate the rewards of going outside and overestimate the rewards of staying in. According to Williams, “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel…”

For example, it takes work to go on a hike, and when you’re at home with a free minute, we rarely feel motivated to do it, so perhaps we’ll turn on the TV. But the studies also show that when it comes to happiness and true relaxation, doing the harder work of going outside is so much more likely to deliver what you’re looking for.

What that means is you are almost never going to feel like it. Yet you will almost always be thankful you did. So discipline yourself for greater joy.

But I don’t have time! I love how Richard Louv responds to this. “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own)… By taking nature experience out of the leisure column and placing it in the health column, we are more likely to take our children on that hike—more likely to, well, have fun.” (Last Child in the Woods)

The Nature Fix recommends carving out a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythm. “For warding off depression, let’s go with the Finnish recommendation of five hours a month in nature, minimum. But as the poets, neuroscientists and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilized selves.”

So for me, every day I try to notice the natural beauty around me. At least once a week (rain or shine, hot or cold), I try to get out in the woods, or at least out in the country, often for a hike or bike ride. Monthly we try to go on at least two family hikes and/or enjoy some good time at a park.

Yearly, we try to carve out different pockets of time. Sometimes it’ll be a weekend camping trip with friends or family, a visit to the zoo (have you been to the Omaha zoo!?), or a day-trip to one of the farther parks or preserves.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2018

We also work really hard to make an annual pilgrimage to visit some of our National Parks. I know camping isn’t for everyone, but many of these places have lodges, or at least hotels nearby. We love a good road trip (and saving money) and, because it’s been part of our family rhythm, getting in the car and heading to some of the most beautiful places in America is just something we love doing. That said, many of them aren’t too far from airports.

If this is new to you, it can feel daunting to plan a trip to a National Park. I’ve included some helpful resources below, but I’d be glad to help. Maybe start with the ones nearest to home. Colorado is home to four National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes are two of our favorites, and only maybe 9-12 hours from Kansas City). If you’re willing to go a bit further, Utah has five and Wyoming and Montana have three. This will at least get you started!

If you’ve got young kids, I certainly understand the challenges, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you. Camping is a ton of work with little ones but even just letting them roam outside and play in the dirt has shown such positive effects for child development. Let your kids get dirty!

When it comes to hiking, we’ve found that the younger you start them, the better. Make sure you begin with realistic expectations, let them wander or lead from time to time, bring plenty of snacks, try to distract them with fun conversation or games (we used to pretend we were hiking through Middle Earth), maybe bring a toy (Eden still often hikes with a stuffed dog in a purse), and end with a reward (a special snack or time at a playground often does the trick).

Young and old, find your rhythm. Create new habits that fill you and restore you, and your soul will thank you for it.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, 2017

4. Worship the Creator

Finally, remember to worship the Creator in all of this. Sadly, I am so tempted to worship creation that I have to continually remind myself of the One who made it. In the midst of these experiences, I might say a quick prayer of thanks or make a subtle reminder to our kids (and to myself). We might read a favorite psalm about God’s work through nature or simply acknowledge the presence of God together. God has made a good world, it is good for my soul, and I want to enjoy it with Him.

Psalm 96:1-7:

“Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.”

Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, 2018

Will you join me?

I know I’m a nerd, and I don’t expect anyone to embrace these things like our family has. Yet I am convinced this is more that just a hobby. It’s part of the way we were created to live and enjoy our Creator. These are His gifts to us and in them we find ourselves and glimpse our God.

I need more wonder in my life! In a world in which we strive to control everything, I need to see God’s handiwork. I need these moments of awe-filled transcendence. I need a little wildness. John Muir writes: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” (Our National Parks)

So will you join me? Even if you add just a tiny bit of nature back into your life, I am convinced your soul will thank you. I believe you’ll find a little peace, a little wonder, a little humility. You will learn who you are, see your God in fresh ways, and praise Him for His redemption. Nature is a spiritual discipline.

Denali National Park, Alaska, 2018

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Recommended Resources

If you’d like to explore these subjects in greater detail, or are just looking for a fun read, I recommend the following resources. Please take note, the majority of these authors write from a different worldview than my own, so like any book you read, do so with openness, but also a critical eye. Also, some of these books contain stories or language a bit on the gritty side, so use your own discretion.

Informational Books
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
Interacting with the latest research and neurology, she argues that time in nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
Slightly older, this book argues more anecdotally, directed with much greater focus on parenting and child development.

Families on Foot by Jennifer & Brew Davis
Great tips on how to make this part of your family rhythm, and how to encourage and train your kids to enjoy it as well.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
This book is too weird for most people, for it reads a bit like a love letter to trees (right up my alley). Yet, it’s fascinating learning how trees “think” and “communicate” and “plan” and “raise their young.” Short chapters and a very easy read.

Reforesting Faith by Matthew Sleeth
Perhaps the only book here written explicitly from a Christian perspective, but I’ve not read it yet. Released in April 2019, if this book is anything like his article in Christianity Today, I’m pretty excited.

Fun Reads
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
The tragic story of Chris McCandless (and many others) in their quest for nature. Also made into a movie.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The sad but redemptive memoir of a broken woman seeking to find healing on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Also made into a movie.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
A humorous account of one man’s attempt to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail. Includes lots of funny anecdotes and interesting observations. Also made into a movie.

Ranger Confidential by Andrea Lankford
This one is laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad. A former National Park Ranger, Andrea retells true stories of her own experience and her colleagues in these incredible places.

The Overstory by Richard Powers
This one comes with a strong political agenda, but is actually a novel about a handful of characters and the ways trees have brought them together. You can definitely roll your eyes at me here.

Other fun adventure stories of note:

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2018

National Park and Adventure Planning
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary by Ken Burns
One of the only documentaries I will rewatch. In classic Ken Burns fashion, great history with plenty of tugs at the heartstrings. Currently available on Amazon Prime (free with Prime membership), and it’s only 12 hours long!

Your Guide to the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald
Self-published but such great information, maps, hiking trails, etc. Surprisingly helpful.

National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States by National Geographic
Excellent pictures, historical details, and tips for travel.

The National Parks: An Illustrated History by Kim Heacox
This coffee table book is less helpful for planning details, but great on inspiring you with their incredible photos for where to go next.

Passport To Your National Parks
The ultimate nerd tool. You can get a stamp at every property within the National Park Service. There are 61 parks, but with national monuments, historical sites, shorelines, trails, preserves, battlefields, memorials, etc., that number is over 400. And you can get a stamp at each of them. I know, I already said I’m a nerd. Stop judging. You’re the one still reading! Besides, this tool does come with a handy map of all 400+ locations.

dirtinmyshoes.com
A great blog from a former park ranger who offers incredibly helpful tips for trip planning and adventures.

REI National Parks App
Free app that includes places you don’t want to miss (“gems”), great hikes with descriptions, family-friendly hikes, pictures, maps, and all kinds of details. This is great for planning, but also great on the trails. While I don’t love having my devices with me in a National Park, thankfully there’s almost never any service. With the REI app, the trail maps are downloaded to your phone and the GPS will work anywhere. This can be very helpful when you don’t know where you are!

Alltrails App and Website as well as the Hiking Project
Continually being updated, these are great ways to find tons of trails, see pictures, read reviews and descriptions as you plan your next adventure near or far.

Denali National Park, Alaska, 2018