My mother’s statement stayed with me and became the foundation for my journeys into organized religion. I have tried to live a good Christian life. (I like to think you could substitute Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or your religion of choice). Honesty, hard work, character, self-direction, and life-long learning are the kind of values I have tried to build my life around.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal. I’m as flawed as the next person, just ask those closest to me. I just don’t feel I need church to pursue these values. For me the outdoors is my place of worship and where I get spiritual fulfillment.
I met a Catholic priest a few years ago who was studying for a master’s degree in outdoor recreation. He told me, “The trouble with religion is that it frequently gets in the way of spirituality.”
What is it about the outdoors that meets my spiritual needs? It's the tranquility, the beauty, the solitude. It’s being one with the weather. It’s a place where I meet new friends (mostly plants and animals, though occasionally people). It's a place that requires authenticity and allows simplicity. The research is clear that experiencing nature can improve our minds, rejuvenate our bodies, and restore our spirits. I see the outdoors as a place to pursue my spirituality, resulting in increased serenity, hope, and compassion. These observations have come to me gradually over the years.
I was always in a bit of a quandary when asked to assist my colleagues who ran Christian-based outdoor programs. They were great people running great programs, but I felt that going outdoors to find your spirituality is like jumping in the lake to get wet. You don’t have to plan it, it just happens.
What drives me crazy are people who get in trouble in the wilderness due to their own negligence and then say, “It’s God's will,” or “God will provide.” To which I say, “Did God tell you to leave your flashlight at home? Is God going to bring you the extra warm layer you left in the car?”
It all came to a head for me when I was asked by my good friend Rich Obenschain of Gordon College (a Christian school) to do training for staff at their Adirondack LaVida Camp. Rich, who passed away way too soon, was a longtime Wilderness Education Association (WEA) instructor. He had attended a WEA Professional Course I co-instructed as well as a number of workshops I’d presented over the years. After one at Gordon College in Wenham, MA he asked me to present to his La Vida camp leaders.
The camp was traditional looking with unpainted open stud walls, a small library of outdoor books and the exterior painted a schoolhouse red. For five years I provided interactive workshops on leadership and decision making, with a strong emphasis on collaboration. As the group members worked together in small groups to address the challenges I gave them, their religious commitment was obvious.
All my workshops focus on how to provide safe, enjoyable, environmentally-friendly wilderness outings, and I use my book The Backcountry Classroom as the foundation. There were numerous copies at the camp, although not nearly as many as the bibles the campers toted around.
By the fifth year I’d gotten to know the staff pretty well. I was use to the students carrying their bibles around, but I got the sense some of them were putting more importance in their faith than in making sure they were prepared for their wilderness forays.
I’m not sure what got into me, but after a long discussion about safety and emergency preparedness, it all culminated as I wrapped up my last presentation and blurted out, “You know, in an emergency in the wilderness you’d be better off with my book, The Backcountry Classroom than The Bible.
As I nervously prepared to leave, the camp director came up to me. What would he think? Had I overstepped my bounds? Was I guilty of blasphemy?
He thanked me. “It was great that you reminded them that rather than depending on God in an emergency they need to count on their own resources.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“After all,” he said, “God helps those who help themselves.”