When I began at OC Online almost eight years ago as the program was in its genesis, I remember having two thoughts simultaneously: First: Look at the flexibility, diversity, and personalization this format allows! And also: So do these online kids ever get to go outside?
This question mattered to me not just because of the health implications of staying inside in front of a computer screen all day, but because I believe that in order to have meaningful Christian education, students must be able to grow and shape their theology and experience of God in the context of God’s wildest and most artistic revelation: nature.
As Romans 1:20 tells us, God’s invisible attributes are made visible “in the things that have been made.”
So as we began to form and create curriculum, live sessions, and culture for the Bible and Spiritual Life departments, it was imperative that students weren’t learning just from being in front of screens but from screens that prompted them to go and to be somewhere else. Screens that invited them (among other things) to go outside and meet God in the world God made. Assignments to take walks, have face to face conversations, look out windows, observe trees and animals, and to read scripture outdoors became regular OC Online engagement practices ensuring that students were given virtual and physical space to maintain curiosity, wonder, and discovery both for theological and academic purposes. As Christian educators, we believe this embrace of God’s creation to be not only spiritually nourishing but Christly subversive in a time where Nature Deficit Disorder and sedentary habits threaten Jesus’s vision for the abundant life.
This year we took this value a step further and made our 2018-2019 OC Online theme “Spiritual Life in Nature,” giving us a chance to let all online devotionals, chapels, and prayers center us around exploring and deepening faith through the gift of nature. Journeying through this devotional terrain has opened us all up to how thick God’s presence can become to us when we meet God in creation.
One middle school student powerfully articulated the intersection of scripture, nature, and life. He and his classmates were prompted to (literally) dig into a pile of dirt in order to consider Genesis 2:7-8 where God breathes life into human beings after creating them from dust. This student shared,
I hiked up to the trail behind my house with my dog and found some dirt. When I read the scripture and messed around with the dust, I realized I came from this dirt. It is so amazing that God created people from dust and gave them life….I will look at dirt [and] dust differently now.
For so many of us relating to God can feel vague or abstract but when we are reminded of the very physical, material, and natural elements that permeate the biblical story we are able to remember how very real God is and how very much God’s Spirit yearns to dwell in and through us. We do not just learn about God but find opportunities to get to know God and God’s truth in a personal, relatable way.
Jesus used the sky, the birds, the plants, the sea, the earth, and the trees to help us hear, taste, smell, and see that the Lord is good. And so as educators, we follow him in that rabbinical tradition to glean wisdom from this shared planet we inhabit.
This is the power of Christian education—like the mustard seed, we grow, develop, mature and take on more and more of God’s truth both academically and spiritually. Like the seasons, there’s a rhythm to experiencing education this way. There’s even a kind of liberation we enjoy as nature shows us examples of God’s strength and majesty and ultimately the peace which surpasses understanding—even as we seek as a learning community to understand. Perhaps we can all appreciate the sentiment of this high school student in a discussion for class this semester: “I really like relaxing and spending time with God [in nature] because it gives you a sense of freedom.”
This freedom is something not only our students are encountering but our faculty as well. We as a team have thought through the invitations nature gives us to see new ways of reaching students and being reached ourselves by God. In one case we let Moses’s words teach us: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you…in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart…” (Deuteronomy 8:2). We let the wilderness be our guide for considering the challenges we and our students face in any given school year and what God might be using them to do in us. This invitation to long and slow learning is something we hope inspires us to inspire students to stick with their educational path with God. As one faculty member said relating this scripture to her own marathon training,
The uneven terrain is challenging, but the finish is satisfying.
What a testimony to the alchemy of God’s kingdom work—that wilderness and running and trails and trials and teaching and cyberspace somehow blend together to create this powerful moment for this teacher and ultimately for her students. What a delightful surprise.
I think in nature we are constantly being surprised. Like our relationship with God, there is always something familiar and comforting about time spent outside, but also usually something we weren’t expecting. And so it has been with our dance with nature online here at OC Online—things have bloomed that we couldn’t have anticipated, much like in the parable we read in online chapel last week from Mark 4:26-27:
The kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day he sleeps and wakes, and the seed sprouts and grows—though he does not know how…
OC Online Chaplain & Upper Division Bible Teacher