The year was 2001. It was very early spring in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area of South Carolina and I was standing on a narrow suspension bridge that stretched over the top of Raven Cliff Falls, the highest in SC. Barely 15’ below my well worn boots the water of Matthews Creek rushed over the rocks to fall another 400’ to the valley floor. On a clear day you could stand on this bridge and take in the gorgeous view of the Appalachian valley, green already with pines, rhododendron, oaks, and holly with the falls thundering down out of sight to the distant creek below. This was not a clear day.
My partner and I had backpacked in the previous night and risen early to scout out this trail with the idea of bringing later groups on a similar trip. During the night a thick, heavy fog had moved in. We awoke to a wet and chilly forest, damp gear, and the prospect of some potentially difficult hiking. As this was a wilderness area, we lit no fire, but had a quick cup of coffee and oatmeal on the pack stove, gathered gear for the day, and set off.
In order to reach our goals we needed to hike out of the valley in which we had spent the night, cross a ridge, and pick up the trail that would take us down to the other side. That trail had a very sharp descent through the forest to Matthews Creek which we would need to cross on cables stretched across water. We would then need to climb the rocky side of the ravine back up to the bridge above the falls. That first hike out of our valley was rough. I still remember it as being rough all these years later. We had woken up wet and chilly, the trail was wet and rose sharply upward, we were hiking in a dense, dripping murk. It was hard. By the time we reached the next trail head we were wet, sweating despite the chill, and wondering when the fog would lift. We had really hoped for a for beautiful hike once the fog burned off.
Several hours later we were standing on that bridge listening to the water rush over the falls with the fog as thick as ever.
I have never had another hike quite like that day again. Once we got our wind and stopped focusing on our sore muscles and our potential disappointment, we experienced a surreal journey through an Appalachian forest that was as still, quiet, and hushed as only dense fog can make it. The rock ledges we climbed were glistening and slippery and rose out of sight immediately. The trees were green/grey shadows, the pine needles silent beneath our feet. The noises of the forest were both strangely hushed and unnaturally loud and clear. The falls themselves were a mysterious roar, vanishing into the unseen distance.
It was a hike we talked about many times afterward, but rarely without a certain amount of reverence. We had experienced God through his creation in a way that would have been utterly impossible if we had stayed home. Our burning muscles, the misty quiet of the forest, the unseen audible power of the waterfall, the slipper descents and challenging climbs all brought us further from ourselves and closer to our creator.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to take many people into wilderness areas and other outdoor excursions. I have always since made it a priority to to point out that God speaks to us in unique ways when we immerse ourselves in his creation. Hard, high risk, or long trips can bring us physically and mentally and even emotionally to the very end of ourselves. We come to the very edge of what we think we are capable of and trust God to take one more step, and then another. Any time outdoors, from backpacking in the Rockies to an afternoon of fishing on the river or an evening of watching the stars, can and does bring us face to face with God through the seemingly infinite immensity and minuteness of his creation. We come face to face with our own relative smallness and also our relative significance in the created order.
As the Bible teaches, and experience bears out, we can see through the creation that God does exist and we come away with some idea of His power (Romans 1). The Psalms use poetic language to speak of this idea over and over again. Psalm 29, for instance, describes the path of a violent storm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and the responding worship from the author and even the angels themselves. Psalm 19 speaks of the heavens, the sky and all the celestial bodies bringing glory to God. In Psalm 8, King David observes the moon and stars and is moved to honor God for His granting of dignity and purpose to mankind in the face of such awe inspiring greatness. In the book of Job, God uses His own creation as evidence of His power and authority.
These are things we can, and should, learn and experience first hand. They cannot be merely read about, they must be experienced. Fully raising our children in the ways of God should include regular time, extended time, in nature, in the creation. This doesn’t have to be a tough and potentially dangerous hike through the fog-shrouded Appalachians, but it should be intentional and as immersive as we can make it. This time spent immersing ourselves in God’s handiwork sets the stage for countless conversations and teaching opportunities. It also allows us, and our children, to grow closer to a true experience of God, ourselves, and even the sinfulness and brokenness of our current state.
Please don’t misunderstand, the creation alone is not enough to bring us, or our children, into the knowledge of salvation from our sin in Jesus Christ alone. The Scriptures were given to us for precisely this purpose. What time spent in nature will do for us, must do for us, is what it did for these Biblical writers. It must point us towards God; reveal to us things about God, ourselves, and reality, it must prompt us to worship Him. So get outside, climb a fog-covered waterfall, experience a storm coming across the fields, watch fireflies in the tall grass, lay down and watch the stars… and take your children with you.
Residential Program Director