The Formational Power of Nature, Part 1

 I could not have been more than five years old. My family was cutting firewood in the LaSalle Mountains for the coming winter. As the adults were working, I wandered off and into a grove of Aspen trees. The leaves of the trees were golden and they sparkled in the sun. I lay down on my back so I could get a better look. The earth was wet, spongy, and sweet smelling. I fixed my gaze on the glittery leaves, and I knew Someone more than myself was with me. I knew I was safe and would never be alone.

This is a pivotal moment in my life. This one childhood moment has often been an anchor for my faith.  I am not alone in this, when I teach conferences on spiritual formation, I invite adults to use their non-dominant hand to draw their first memory of God. More times than not, they draw a picture that includes some aspect of nature. How does God use nature in the lives of children to invite them into a life with him? 

The Trinity is both intimately within creation and extraordinarily beyond it. The Scripture is loaded with examples. Paul makes the case for the Cosmic Christ who is above all and in all (Col. 1:15-20). In Ezekiel 37:9-14, John 20:22, and Acts 2:2 the Holy Spirit is understood as wind. The Psalmist references the power of nature to form and inform humanity in the ways and grandeur of God throughout one hundred and fifty chapters. God is present in nature, and nature is present with God.

In Isaiah 55 the trees and mountains dance and clap their hands in praise. Nature is the place where the kingdom of God is most available to the senses. Cognitively speaking the Eastern Orthodox Church has given a vocabulary to Christians to understand immanence and transcendence beginning with the Cappadocian Father, Saint Basil the Great. He helped articulate the immanent God who would make himself available through creation and yet paradoxically be exponentially beyond and other.

Transcendence can be a bridge that brings together the concrete nature of experience with the abstract quality of religious training. Nature experiences have a quality of transcendence, meaning that nature experiences go beyond religious tradition or doctrine. These experiences transcend religious language. They often transcend language in any capacity, especially in children who have a limited command of language. Often when children share about their experiences, adults judge them as undefined and vague, however, they wield tremendous power.

Authentic transcendent nature experiences include the body and all its sense-gathering capacity. Authentic experiences produce concrete knowledge. Developmental theory is a linear formational system as opposed to nature experience which is a living system based on interconnected elements. Those interconnected elements include all the parts of the person, including those parts which researchers do not have direct access to, namely the spirit.

Children have not yet learned to hide inside their bodies and as a result they have a natural propensity for awareness. They are able to engage with nature with their whole selves. Children are fully present to their current surroundings. Maturing human beings must learn to shift their awareness to past and future, but this is a learned skill. This may be why children report more spiritual experiences than adults. Nature invites the whole self of the child into an experience with the immanent and transcendent God. The characteristics of these experiences are wonder, union and mystery.


Tomorrow we will explore wonder, union and mystery and how they draw children to God.

How has nature drawn you to God? Do you have a childhood experience in nature?


In addition, here are a few resources that helped form my thinking.

David Hay and Rebecca Nye, Spirit of the Child (London: Fount, 2006).

Fritjiof Capra, “How Nature Sustains the Web of Life”, in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005).

 Fritjiof Capra, “Speaking Nature’s Language Principles for Sustainability,” in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005).

Hay and Nye, Spirit of the Child.

 Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L Butler, and A.J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2014).


We’d Love to Hear from Your Child

I can’t tell you how many times I have asked children, “Are your listening ears on?”  (As if they had a second set that weren’t exactly for listening… oh the stupid things adults say to children– I digress.)

This year at Good Dirt we are introducing a series of blog posts called “In Their Own Words… or Pictures.” We have our listening ears on and we want to hear what children have to say about God.

We’d love to see their picture, sculptures, poems, and narratives. Whatever they want to use to carry their voice, we’d love to see.

These can be emailed to

Our listening ears are on!

A Safe Space to Speak

Yesterday I introduced our new blog series for the next year; where we are encouraging children to speak in their own words about God. As we begin this time of listening, we (adults) have to remember that children are having a relationship with God even if they can’t articulate it. The Holy Spirit is hot on their heels from their beginnings, inviting them into a relationship with the already relational Trinity. The Spirit is both a fire that warms and convicts, and an ever present wind inviting them to play.

Due to developmental levels, children often can’t communicate exactly what they are thinking and feeling, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing going on. The concrete nature of drawing can provide a space for children to express themselves. Inviting a child to draw and color their response will open a window for us to see and learn from them.

And we are learning. They have much to teach us about life with God. They are more open to the present moment and mystery than most of their adult counterparts. In a sense, we lost what they still have. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to these little ones and if we want in on this glorious life with God, we’re going to need a few pointers from children.

So how do we open the window a bit?

1. Create a safe space. Safe spaces are spaces where we can say anything. Anything. What they believe about God, just is. Notice what they are saying/drawing without judging. Phrases like “This is interesting, can you tell me more?” can be helpful. Resist the urge to use words like “good” or “bad.”

2. Break the boxes. As adult Christians we like our theology in neat and tidy packages. Children don’t care one flip about tidy. They don’t care about it when they wipe a booger on your sleeve and they don’t care about it when they talk about God. THIS is not the time to teach them. THIS is not your time to speak. It’s theirs. Let them. Listen.

3. Listen for the fingerprints of God. Before we have a “tidy” theology (that God will eventually break apart and rebuild around the second half of our lives) we are more aware of his fingerprints. His fingerprints look like beauty. Children notice the beautiful and they call it God. The fingerprints also look like goodness, this, they also call God. And truth… while they will lie all day about who broke the lamp, they are especially tuned into the truth as it pertains to justice, they also call this God.  You won’t want to miss these!

4. Give them a variety of choices of mediums with which to communicate. How about writing a poem? A narrative? Draw a picture? Gotta dance? Send us the video. How about a sculpture with silly putty, or clay, or mashed potatoes? Go for paint! There is something about watercolors and children. I don’t know if it’s because they are so forgiving or if the mess is just right, but put a little music on– ask a question and see what they communicate with color.

5. Questions to get you started… Keep in mind that this is an invitation. Invitations can be turned down. If children don’t want to share. Don’t make them. (Frankly, you can’t make them. They may give you “something,” but it won’t be what’s in their soul.) When they are ready to share, they will. Here are a few invitational questions to try.

Would you draw/ write a poem about you and God?

When did you see or hear God today?

Would you tell about a time when God was with you?

When did you see something that was good, or beautiful, or true today?

Read any passage in one of the four Gospels where Jesus is interacting with a person. His healings and interactions with children can be particularly moving. Invite your child to draw “the best” part of the passage. Or invite them to write a letter to Jesus about it. What would they say to him?


One last thing, ask your child’s permission before passing on anything they have shared. These conversations are sacred and must be treated with honor.

Ok. Two last things. We are only getting a glimpse. There is a depth of relationship between a child and God that you can never see and never understand. Get used to it. Be uproariously grateful for the bit they let you in on.

Picture Book Reading as a Formational Discipline

There are few things I love more than books. Pecan pie is close. Old books, new books, children’s books, books with illuminations… I love books.

Children’s books have special powers, though. If you don’t believe me, invite a child to snuggle up next to you and read The Nativity by Julie Vivas.

Reading a picture book is formational. Trust me on this one. When I invite a child into my arms and we share an experience, full of art and word, both of us are changed.

All the parts of the person are in engaged in picture book reading. Loving touch is transformative. Children feel safe and wanted when they are sitting on the lap of an adult they trust. Shared space holds a mystery all it’s own. Our mind is engaged through words and pictures. Both halves of the brain are engaged. Together we share sight and sound, even smell. Today if I read The Bugliest Bug by Carol Diggory Shields and illustrated by Scott Nash, my mind returns to the smell of Cherrios mixed with baby shampoo.

If we will allow ourselves, children can lead us to engage with our emotions. Children’s picture books are often written to engage emotions. Long ago most of us adults have learned to stuff our emotions, to keep them hidden. A healthy life includes emotion and children can help us move toward wholeness.

On that note here are a few suggestions, book suggestions. You’ll have to get your own kid.

Close as Breath by Callie Grant (This is a board book, for preschoolers and it’s terrific. She’s got more board books on her site and they are also very good.)

December by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz

Butterflies Under Our Hats by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Joani Keller Rothenberg

Psalm Twenty-Three illustrated by Tim Ladwig

The Lord’s Prayer illustrated by Tim Ladwig

To Every Thing There is a Season by Leo and Diane Dillon

Will’s Mammoth by Rafe Martin and Stephen Gammell

Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson

Chrysamthemum by Kevin Henkes

The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood

King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub by Audrey and Don Wood

The Blessing of the Beasts by Ethel Pochocki and engravings by Barry Moser

Grandad’s Prayers of the Earth by Douglas Wood illustrated by P.J. Lynch

The Three Questions: based on a story by Leo Tolstoy by Jon J. Muth

Making Heart-Bread by Matthew Linn, Shelia Fabricant Linn, and Dennis Linn illustrated by Francisco Miranda

The Dandelion Seed by Joseph Anthony and illustrated by Cris Arbo

The Circle of Days by Reeve Lindberg and illustrated by Cathie Felstead

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoenherr


I think this is a good starting place.

Which books would you add to the collection?

Share about a time when reading with children has formed you.



“Still Good” Saturday: In Search of Celebration

This blog was originally posted at

Celebration: Knowing that every good gift is from God and a reason to party.

Of all the disciplines I’ve practiced over the years Celebration is the one I have struggled with the most. Celebration often begins with gratefulness, which leads to joy and when done right carries over into a jig.  While I start well, I just can’t seem, with much consistency, to pull off the joy and the jig.

I have spent the majority of my life with children and this is not an issue for them. They are perpetually party ready. I have been to countless tea parties and been asked to dance by people under three foot tall at least twice a week for two decades. But I’m always feeding off their celebration, it’s rarely my own.

Lately though I’ve been paying attention to their partying ways, trying to grab a few bread crumbs from the celebration table. I found that they don’t even count their blessings! For shame, they aren’t even overtly thankful!  After spending an evening with six of my favorite young friends, I realized Celebration begins with an all encompassing sense of safety. These children can party because they feel safe.

Here’s the difference…. When I start to count my blessings, I do begin to feel joy and the jig, but before I can say “party streamers”, my joy is hijacked by the need to feel safe. The “what if’s” begin to ring in my ears, and I’m back where I started.

But my young friends live in the land of safety, they are free to party at a moment’s notice.

Listening to Richard Foster has given me many gifts, but maybe one of the greatest is the saying, “The Kingdom of God is not in danger.”  Dallas Willard often said, “The universe is a perfectly safe place to be.”  Anybody with ears or eyes knows this is crazy talk. The world is not safe– but the kingdom of God is. Our God is a redemptive God and there is nothing he can’t turn around for good- and that’s some serious safety.

So the LORD and I are working this out. I count my blessings and he says, “See, I can be trusted. You are safe.”  I’m going to keep gathering crumbs from my young friends, but I’m also practicing the merengue just in case.


What is the root of celebration in your life?

Tell us about a time you have celebrated with children.

“Still Good” Saturday: Study and Its Faithful Companion–Submission

This blog was originally posted at

I knew it was coming and frankly, I couldn’t wait. My children can argue the hind leg off a dog and I was really looking forward to our Ignatian Meditation time with John 2:1-12, the Wedding at Cana. The point of this story is so obvious. I mean it’s so clear, to a mother who after a summer of bickering children hides in the pantry.

When Mary called Jesus’ attention to a chore that needed to be done, he obeyed her. Yes, some might say he gave her a little lip, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” But in the end, he obeyed his mother.

(As as I side note, when I was fantasizing about my children obeying their mother, my fantasy did get away from me and I heard my daughter respond after asking her to clean her room, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me. My hour has not yet come.” I was struck instantly with a migraine and had to lie down.)

I digress. The morning came and we began our usually ritual of reading the scriptures with our senses. And then we asked the Holy Spirit to speak to us. And I told the Spirit, “Here’s your chance to really push that ‘obey your mother’ message.” (Um… yeah, pray for me.) We ended our time together by sharing a word, or a phrase, or an image the Holy Spirit had given us.

Tween daughter, “I love that only the servants and I guess his disciples, and his mom knew.[That he changed water to wine.] He didn’t brag or charge money or tell anyone.”

Newly Nine year old daughter, “I think someone who likes to laugh turns water into wine, not into grape juice.” (Maybe too much TV for this kid.)

Nothing. No one got my message. Instead they got God’s.

A parent must respect the spiritual person of his child, and approach it with reverence, for that too looks the Father in the face and has an audience with Him into which no earthy parent can enter even he dared to desire it.  

-George MacDonald

You see the Tween, she’s been serving at a soup kitchen. And the Newly Nine shares a ritual with her Dad of smelling the corks from wine bottles. They rate them and discuss funny things like, this smells similar to paint thinner, or old socks. These messages from the Holy Spirit are just for them, because he knows their hearts so well.

When we engage in the discipline of study with our children, or even within ourselves, submission must be our ever present companion. It seems so much easier to submit myself to the teaching of the Holy Spirit than it is to submit my children.

In my greatest moments I want them to learn directly from God; I want to be looked through— a transparent parent, pointing the way, not becoming it.