Late Friday afternoon on the brink of that precipice, with the wind howling, some serious wind chill temperatures, bindings icing up, sun going down, daughter near total exhaustion, hypothermic symptoms beginning to appear, separated from our group … [t]here was definitely some spiritual groaning going on, too deep for words. But the Lord took care of us all and brought us safely home.
Although they look as though they could have been lifted from an early American explorer’s diary, the words above are actually an excerpt from a note written by Elder Doug Fox of the Presbyterian Church of Coventry (PCC) in Connecticut. They reflect his and his daughter’s experience during a winter outing with PCC’s Outdoor Adventure Ministry.
Mark Franson, a PCC member who began and leads the ministry, was motivated by the kinds of outdoor experiences that have helped shape his faith. For years Franson shared his love of the outdoors with his children. Gradually he began extending invitations for others to join in, including friends, church members, and Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) students from the nearby University of Connecticut.
Since 2006, three types of annual trips have formed the cornerstone of this ministry. These include a canoe camping trip along the New York / Vermont border, a winter cross-country ski trip, and the more physically demanding three-day Presidential Traverse — a hike that summits nine peaks within the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Sweaty, Muddy, and Bloody Together
The cross-country ski trek is a six-mile climb uphill to the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Zealand Falls Hut in the White Mountains. An AMC caretaker lights a small wood stove each evening, providing the main cabin’s only heat. Sleeping quarters are unheated, apart from the warmth guests are able to produce in their sleeping bags. Skiers typically place their water bottles inside a refrigerator overnight to prevent them from freezing. The group prepares a meal at the hut and shares in all the related chores.
A primary goal of these outings is to create opportunities for participants to see one another in more “natural” and honest states than, perhaps, they do on Sunday mornings. Franson adopted the tagline “Sweaty, Muddy, and Bloody” to reflect that this ministry intentionally is not about dressing up and putting on a happy face. Instead, participants experience the stripping away of pretense as they expose their real selves to one another in a sometimes uncomfortable environment.
In a recent article in Christianity Today, Courtney Ellis cites research from the Barna Group that highlights the role of play in building spiritually vibrant households. Ellis suggests that, as church families, congregations can benefit similarly from playing together, sharing meals, and enjoying other leisure activities.
Franson sees outdoor adventures as creating opportunities for participants to practice servanthood and leadership. Stronger, more confident skiers coach and encourage novices. After arriving at the hut, volunteers pump and fetch water to fill jugs for cooking and clean up. Simple card games provide an evening of laughter and fun. The absence of electronics prevents opportunities for isolation. Participants practice what it looks like to be an extended family.
These outings create opportunities for friends to see one another in more “natural” states than, perhaps, they do on Sunday mornings.
Franson states that these outdoor experiences provide two key functions within the church body. First, they serve as a microcosm of real life and its challenges. Second, they create opportunities to build and strengthen community.
Building and Strengthening Community
Franson sees abundant opportunities for community building throughout these trips, beginning with unstructured time during car rides. That time together allows for conversation to develop organically. In addition, Franson has seen enthusiastic participation from folks who have felt somewhat marginalized within the church. He believes these outings create unique spaces to forge connection within the body of Christ.
Will Snyder, recently installed as PCC senior pastor, witnessed this dynamic throughout this year’s ski outing. Snyder said he was pleased to see a good mix of people participate in the event — folks from within the congregation, including his eldest daughter, as well as their friends and neighbors.
“[It] served as an excellent environment to grow in relationship with others and simply live as the church outside the church’s normal context,” Snyder said. “This I see as so important — important for believers to live their normal life of faith in the midst of the world.”
Taking Measured Risks in an Unsafe World
As indicated by the opening quote, these trips carry with them inherent risks. Participants have swamped canoes, encountered severe weather, and been chased off the ski trail by an unyielding bull moose. One skier had to be taken down from the AMC hut via sled after sustaining second-degree frostbite on her feet.
These types of experiences, Franson believes, provide a crucial role in an age that tends to idolize safety. Growth is fueled by learning to take measured risks. As participants face their fears — both large and small — while being supported by others, they build confidence and develop the means to face future uncertainties.
“Outdoor adventures lead to the knowledge that God is big and powerful, and we are weak. When facing situations beyond our control, we learn not to despair in our own powerlessness but, rather, to rest in God’s sovereignty and might, trusting Him more and leaving to Him those things that are out of our control,” said Franson.
Despite the risks and challenges built into these experiences, many adventurers sign up to participate year after year. They describe the joy they’ve found in the camaraderie along the trail and in simply sharing a meal around the table. Witnessing a star-filled sky in the cold mountain air, while on the way to the outhouse in the middle of the night, creates an awe-inspiring memory.
Deb Goodale, who has twice participated in the Presidential Traverse — as well as the winter ski trek — describes her experiences this way:
“One step at a time was all I needed to focus on in order to reach each summit. But I found along the way there was more abundant life. So when the rock scrambling seemed relentless, I learned to stop and look up — beholding the beauty and turning to see how far I had come. Yes, it was a reach physically, but God’s grace was there one step at a time!”
Paying Attention to General Revelation
“Studies show that outdoor learning reduces stress, improves moods, boosts concentration, and increases a child’s engagement at school.” Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., “Outdoor Learning and Green Time.”
While there is increasing evidence that outdoor experiences aid physical, emotional, and cognitive development, how should the church regard them in the life of faith?
Reformed theology, rightly, attaches greater significance to God’s special revelation in Scripture than to His general revelation through creation — particularly with regard to what is necessary for salvation. So what did some of the foremost Reformed theologians have to say about the role of general revelation?
In his “Miscellanies,” no. 108, Jonathan Edwards suggested that flowery meadows, gentle breezes, the fragrant rose, and lily reveal Christ’s sweet benevolence, love, and purity. Edwards wrote, “So the green trees and fields, and singing of birds, are emanations of his infinite joy and benignity; the easiness and naturalness of trees and vines [are] shadows of his infinite beauty and loveliness; the crystal rivers and murmuring streams have the footsteps of his sweet grace and bounty.”
In his “Commentary on the Psalms,” John Calvin declared: “The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra, as it were—the most conspicuous part of it; and the nearer the approaches are that God makes to us, the more intimate and condescending the communication of his benefits, the more attentively are we called to consider them.”
Our Lord himself calls us to “Look at the birds of the air” and “Consider the lilies,” (Matthew 6:26, 28) both in the imperative.
Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet once asked an audience to consider that if “The heavens declare the glory of God,” as the psalmist wrote, are we paying attention?
Nancy Franson is a freelance writer living in Mansfield, Connecticut. She and her husband, Mark, are members of the Presbyterian Church of Coventry.
Photography by Chris Bennett.