At New Trails our signature ministry is a wilderness sabbatical. I initially set it up this way, because I love to hike and backpack and I think nothing is more fulfilling than spending a day in God’s creation. Based on my own personal preference, and the fact that God allowed us to purchase a little piece of his creation surrounded by wilderness this is the direction we decided to pursue. However, now science is providing the “reason” why those pursuits have been so fulfilling to me. In her book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams documents the research that supports this natural healing perspective. However, before I get into all that science and research information, let me borrow a line from Williams that supports my decision. Williams’ analysis of modern life is that: “We suffer from an ‘epidemic dislocation from the outdoors,’ … and it’s destructive to our mental and physical health. The therapy is straightforward. ‘The more nature, the better you feel.'” I couldn’t agree more. After a long winter, most often spent indoors (I live in South Dakota) I look forward to Spring when I can go back outside for walks, hikes and exercise.
What is fun for me is to have science finally support what I have known for years, but it is good to see that I had not just imagined that I felt better outdoors than indoors. What has this research uncovered? That in only as little as 15 minutes outdoors, in a wilderness, or even a park area a person’s cortisol (the stress hormone) levels begin to drop off. That means the less cortisol that is found in your system the less stress in your body. If 15 minutes is good, extend that to 45 minutes and the research shows that people do better on tests that measure cognitive performance. (As compared to those who sat in a room and read a book, or watched a video) In other words after less than an hour in an outdoor environment, your stress levels drop and you think more clearly. Now if an hour can help, imagine what 5 to 10 days in a wilderness environment can do for your blood pressure!
Now if you read William’s book you will learn a lot about the science behind all this and maybe more than you ever wanted to know about the benefits of being in the wilderness. Or you can try your own experiment. We have all been to those fine seminars held in motel conference rooms. We have all traveled across the country to find a seminar to help us grow our churches, or make us better preachers, or teach us this or that skill. These all have a place. What if you decided to experiment and try something completely different, a wilderness sabbatical? What if this year instead of spending serious money on a new idea, you decided to go to an old idea? You see the Desert Fathers when they wanted to get closer to God, retreated to the desert to be alone. Why are we any different?
I invite you to try a simple experiment. When you look beyond lower levels of cortisol, (which by the way also lowers your blood pressure) and improved problem solving is this simple fact, God has used the wilderness to shape and speak to his people. When God wanted to shape Moses, where did he send him? To the University of Egypt, where the accumulated knowledge of generations was stored, or to the backside of the wilderness? You know, it was in Midian that God shaped his man to be the one whom he could use to lead his people to freedom. Where did Elijah go before he challenged the prophets of Baal? The wilderness. Where did God speak to his prophet? You see where I am going? When Jesus is beginning his ministry, the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness. So why have we decided that ministry is to take place indoors? When did seminars with influential speakers become the way we believe God is shaping us today? When did we forget that God has often used the wilderness to shape and form his people?
At New Trails you will not find a new technique to grow your church. You will not find a new style for preaching. What you will find is a place where your life slows down enough to listen to the God who leads and guides you. You will find a place with sweeping views of creation and time to notice the small flowers and animals around us that we often miss. You will find the joy of a walk in the woods of simple meals in nature and the good night’s sleep that comes from getting enough exercise. You will find fresh air and refreshing sunsets.
Why a wilderness sabbatical? Take your pick. Maybe you need a stress relief? Maybe God has been nudging you to draw closer to him? Maybe you just need a break from the pace of life for a while. Remember this, God created the Garden of Eden, and placed Adam and Eve there. He did not place them in the shopping mall of Eden for a reason. Maybe it is time we rediscovered what God has planned for us all along. Maybe it is time for you to consider a wilderness Sabbatical.