Researchers are taking notice of a disturbing trend: children are spending less and less time outdoors. A recent survey of two thousand parents and children in the United Kingdom found that “the average child between 6 and 16 years old spends only an hour a day outside.” The summary of the study says, “Believe it or not, some adolescents even preferred doing homework (10 percent) and doing chores (three percent) over enjoying the wilderness.” Authors such as Richard Louv and Anthony Esolen have raised the warning flag about children’s spending too much indoors.
I want to raise the warning flag about another group of people who aren’t spending enough time outdoors. Known for our love of learning and study, pastors—particularly Reformed pastors—can easily spend successive days in sermon preparation, meetings, and pastoral counseling with our skin never feeling the sun and our eyes rarely beholding the spectacle of God’s creation. What free time we do have, we often spend watching TV shows and sports or engaging blogs and social media—all of which can be well and good but which at the same time keep us indoors. Yet as with children, so with pastors: it’s essential to our well-being to delight ourselves in God’s creation. The best among us have told us so.
John Calvin (1509–64) described creation as “the theatre of God’s glory.” Accordingly, Calvin writes, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world, that is not intended to make us rejoice.” While Calvin made few references to the beauties of Lake Geneva and its surrounding mountains in his writings, he enticed his friend, Pierre Viret, to visit him with the prospect that “we’ll take a visit to Monsier de Falais; then, crossing the lake, we’ll enjoy the pleasures of the country together at the home of our friends Pommier and Delisle, and we shan’t return until Thursday.” Preaching on Job 39:22–25, Calvin said, “If a small portion of God’s works [in nature] ought to ravish us and amaze us, what ought all his works to do when we come to the full numbering of them?”
The purpose of nature is not only to “ravish and amaze us,” but also to refresh our minds and bodies. Lambert Daneau, a second-generation French Reformer who served as a pastor and professor in Geneva for a time, advocated for the legitimacy, even the necessity, of entertainment and refreshment. He wrote:
When we entertain ourselves lawfully in order to take care of and conserve our health and strength, to recover our physical powers and refresh our spirits, so that we might the better carry out more cheerfully and efficiently the work to which it has pleased God to call us, this activity also redounds to the glory of God. In this way, we can serve Him more faithfully and serve the good of our neighbor, whom we can more easily help according to our means, being ourselves refreshed and well-disposed in mind.
In essence, Daneau understood that “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Charles Spurgeon (1834–92) knew firsthand the toll that pastoral ministry can take on a man, especially the ease with which a weary pastor can slip into depression. Spurgeon addressed this in a lecture to his students called “A Minister’s Fainting Fits.” What would Spurgeon counsel the depressed minister to do? In essence, he should lift his head from his books—Spurgeon says the study can become like a prison and books the wardens of the jail—and see that “nature lies outside his window calling him to health and beckoning him to joy.” Spurgeon warns that the minister who spends too much of his life in study and indoors “needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy.” For that reason, Spurgeon instructs his ministerial students to make it a practice to get outdoors: “A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous [spotted with shadows] calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive.” The reader envisions Spurgeon himself trekking through the English countryside in the encouragement that follows: “The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, and primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops—these are . . . the best refreshments for the weary. For lack of opportunity, or inclination, these great remedies are neglected.”
It would be hard to claim that the prodigious labors of Calvin and Spurgeon are second to those of any man, unless that man is Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). As a pastor, theologian, churchman, university founder, prime minister, and indefatigable opponent of modernism, did he ever rest from his titanic efforts? Just how did he do it all? One clue is found in a practice recorded by one of his biographers, Jan de Bruijn, who reports that Kuyper “saw to it that he took a two-hour walk every day, a habit he maintained until he was quite old.” We need hardly wonder whether this part of his day supported all the other parts.
We come to the twentieth century with the great American theologian, J. Gresham Machen. Like Kuyper, Machen’s life was an unceasing theological and ecclesiastical battle, for which Machen never seemed to lack the requisite strength. But Machen, the author of Christianity and Liberalism (1923), penned two pieces in which he disclosed a prized source of refreshment: “Mountains and Why We Love Them” and “The Benefits of Walking.”