Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blowin' in the Wind: Children and Nature

(Blowin’ in the Wind is a regular feature on my blog consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things – pieces I may not have written but that inspire me. I trust they will do the same for you.)

Several weeks ago I referenced in a blogpost something called nature deficit disorder, a condition described in a book by Richard Louv entitled Last Child in the Woods: Protecting our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Since then, several people have engaged me on the ‘children and nature’ subject, so I thought I might pick that idea up again at some point. Lo and behold, what should I receive recently from a friend who works at a Covenant Bible camp but an article in the camp’s newsletter on that very subject. It was written by a Debra MacMannis, and concentrates specifically on the benefits that can result when kids spend more time outside.

We can transmit a love
for nature to kids simply
by including them in our
outdoor adventures!

 Many of my blog’s readers are parents (or grandparents!) of young children. We can transmit a love for nature to kids simply by including them in our outdoor adventures. But in the process, we can provide them much more than appreciation for God’s created world, precious as that is; we may also help introduce a potential, lifelong spiritual pathway for them. Additionally, we can contribute to improvements in their health, their socialization, their learning skills, and their commitment to Christian stewardship of the earth.

Here is what MacMannis writes in her article about nature’s benefits to children:

1. Kids get along better. Research has found that children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. There is something about being in a natural environment together that stimulates social interaction. Another study showed how play in a diverse natural environment can reduce or eliminate bullying. In several studies, researchers have found that some of the kids
who benefit most are those with attention and learning challenges.    

2. Imaginative processes are enhanced. Early experiences with the natural world has been positively linked with a sense of wonder. Children are more likely to use their imaginations outdoors.

3. Cognitive development is improved. Curiosity and wonder are strong motivators that make children more eager to learn. When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse. Creative play, in turn, nurtures language and collaborative skills. Spending time in natural environments helps improve their
awareness and reasoning proficiencies.                                              

4. Physical health is augmented. Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. They get sick less often. Just getting their hands in the dirt can bring exposure to good “bugs” that stimulate the immune system.

5. Kids are less stressed out. Nature buffers the impact of life stress on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits. Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity, and instills a sense of peace and connection to the planet.
6. Kids are more psychologically mature. A boost in maturity comes from the increased independence and autonomy that free play in nature encourages. Children with more contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The more green, the better the scores. In a study of kids with ADHD, it was found that those who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms then kids who played in grassy outdoor spaces. School classrooms with outdoor views even help.

7. Kids are more likely to love and protect the environment. When people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in places like Yosemite Valley, they realized that these wild places were “America’s treasures,” needing our stewardship and protection. In order to teach children how to treasure nature, kids must be allowed to explore it in their own way, and be given the time and opportunity to “dig in” and immerse themselves in its mysteries.

So there you have it, all the more reason to gather up your bambinos and grand-bambinos and “Get outside, no box required!”
~~RGM, March 28, 2014 

Friday, March 14, 2014

QOTM...*: Nouwen on Nature

(*Quote of the Month)

Henri Nouwen
It is impressive to see how prayer opens one’s eyes to nature. Prayer makes a person contemplative and attentive. In place of manipulating, the one who prays stands receptive before the world. He no longer grabs but caresses, he no longer bites but kisses, he no longer examines but admires. To this person, nature can show itself completely renewed. Instead of an obstacle, it becomes a way; instead of an invulnerable shield, it becomes a veil which gives a preview of unknown horizons.
~~ Henri Nouwen                 

It surprised me when I realized I had not yet used a quote of Henri Nouwen for my QOTM. One of my life-long favorite authors, I guess I also realize that I have not very often run across anything by him on the subject, at least not since I began collecting these kinds of quotes. Don’t get me started on my favorite Nouwen books, though, as I probably own more by him than any other single author, even heard him speak a couple times years ago, one of the most intensely focused speakers I have ever heard.

Case in point: at a Covenant pastors’ Midwinter Conference years ago, with probably 7-800 in attendance at that time, he actually asked if the back doors could be locked while he spoke, as the constant late-comings and bathroom-goings typical with a crowd that size were causing him to struggle with focus. I’d never heard THAT from a speaker before, but wow, did he deliver it! Sure made people get there on time the next night!

It is impressive to see
how prayer opens one’s
eyes to nature…

That is an indication of the laser focus the man had, the single-minded attention he gave to things. Attentive is the word he uses in the quote. The contemplative or prayerful Christian is attentive. In fact, active or contemplative, serious Christians are attentive. And those of us who find nature an important spiritual pathway just happen to be attentive to certain natural things that most people are not, especially in our frenetic, western, non-agrarian culture; for us, nature becomes a way, a veil previewing paradise.

Thomas Merton
Interestingly, the quote is actually from a book Nouwen wrote on the work of another famous monk, Thomas Merton, the title of which is Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic, one I have not read. But Merton was another of those whose natural, spiritual focus was sharp.

How attentive are you as a follower of Christ? And what is your attention focused upon? I am not at all suggesting it has to be the natural world, but where is our focus, and Who is our Focal Point? I think the old 1611 King James English said it this way, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

That is to say, I guess we are what we give our attention to. Thanks for the reminder, Henri. And peace to his memory.

~~RGM, March 14, 2014

Saturday, March 8, 2014

POTM...*: Streams in the Desert

(*Photo of the Month)

I’ve an odd photo for this month’s POTM, one that is not only substandard in terms of the resolution quality we like to see (as once before, it is from an older cellphone), but also one whose composition is pretty random. But it prompts a thought in me, which is, of course, what this blog is all about.

Gail and I had the occasion to be doing ministry in southern New Mexico this past week, putting us in a city that we knew had the Rio Grande flowing through it. Nature nuts that we are, we looked forward to seeing it.

Now, we have not been around the Rio Grande very much in our travels, in fact very little. One of the great, historic rivers of our country, and one of the USA’s top five longest (nearly 2,000 miles), it rises in southwest Colorado on the east facing slopes of the San Juan Mountains (a subrange of the Rockies), near Stony Pass on the Continental Divide west of Creede. It then flows to the east and south through the Rio Grande National Forest, spilling into the San Luis Valley, one of Colorado’s many high country parks. These areas are where we have seen it, in fact, in places where it may be bounded through in several steps, if it is not rushing too quickly. From southern Colorado, it then turns almost due south, running through the entire, arid state of New Mexico, piercing the heart of Albuquerque. Further along, it very briefly forms the border between New Mexico and Texas, then slides around El Paso to become the international border between the United States (Texas) and Mexico for the next 1,254 miles, until finally emptying in the Atlantic’s Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it drains an enormous portion of the North American continent, picking up New Mexico’s/Texas’ Pecos River and Mexico’s Rio Conchos as its more major tributaries.

All schoolchildren know of it, especially because it forms our international border. Gail and I have seen it rushing through steep, southwest Colorado terrain, and also meandering like a drunken sailor through the flatness of the San Luis Valley. Beyond that, I had only seen photos, especially those taken from places like Big Bend National Park (a place on my bucket list) where the river seemed broad and its environs green, even as it traveled through the Chihuahuan Desert. And this is how I have always pictured it, all the way to the ocean. Don’t you imagine our international border as a wide, free-flowing river? Almost makes you want to sing America the Beautiful, doesn’t it?

…You mean 
the Rio Sand?

As I mentioned above, we had thought since the river was nearby that we’d like to see it while there. But upon mentioning it to someone, the chuckling comment was, “You mean the Rio Sand?” Say what? “Yeah, there’s not a drop of water flowing.” You’re kidding… “No, in recent years, the runoff from the north has been so minimal, and the irrigation demands along the way so high, that water doesn’t even make it this far.” I’m familiar with that, as I know the same is true for the mighty Colorado as it snakes its way beyond the Grand Canyon and down toward Mexico’s Baja before ‘flowing’ into the Pacific, if there’s anything left by then.

So here we were, having a meeting last Sunday night that would require us to cross the Rio Grande to get there. We left early so we could stop at a small park along the way and see it. And there it was: the Rio Grande riverbed. We couldn’t help but amble down the short bank and take the sandy walk, dry as dust, all the way across to the other side, snapping the photo above.

There’s something cosmically weird to me about a river that is no longer a river. Or with my apology to Robert Frost, "Something there is that doesn't love a dry river, that wants it flowing." I sure get the need for the use of it. Officially, it’s referred to as ‘overappropriated,’ i.e., there are more users for the water than there is water in the river. (Yes, there’s a sermon there.) And of course, all throughout the central and southwest states, water is being diverted from rivers and pumped from aquifers far faster than it is being replenished, and the piper will have to be paid at some point. But still, a river should be a river. Alive. Rolling. Fluid. God had his need to stem the flow of the Jordan for the Israelites to pass. But then it flowed again. Apparently 2001 was the first time in recorded history that a sandbar blocked the Rio Grande’s mouth, not a drop reaching the Gulf.

A river in a desert is a powerful image; so is a dry one, especially one presumed as mighty as the Rio Grande.

An interesting thing had been going on in the prophet Isaiah’s day (8th Century B.C.). King Hezekiah had led a massive public works effort to divert a spring from outside arid Jerusalem’s walls into the city, in preparation for an expected siege. As people are wont to do, it was a time when they quickly put their trust in things other than their God. So it is no wonder that Isaiah references over a dozen times in the middle portion of his book God’s ability to provide water for the people, even in the desert. “Turn back to him from whom you have deeply revolted,” Isaiah says (31:6). And then he speaks God’s words: “Watch, I am doing a new thing… I will make a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert… For I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen ones, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise (43:19-21).” (See also 32:2, 35:6-7, 41:18, 44:3-4, and others.)

Maybe that is why a missing river that is supposed to be flowing in a desert seems so cosmically wrong to me. God’s grace, provision and mercy is a river that will never be overappropriated.

~~RGM, March 5, 2014