A Flourish Interview with Nathan Foster

April 18, 2011


In 1978, Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline, an exploration of the classical spiritual disciplines, which changed the lives of millions of Christians seeking greater spiritual growth. In 2010, Nathan Foster, Richard’s son, wrote Wisdom Chaser, the story of his own life change through a decade of climbing some of Colorado’s highest mountains with his famous father. As someone who had always felt distant from his father, Nathan tells the story of emerging from personal and behavioral demons as his relationship with Richard was restored through their adventures together in the great outdoors.

Formerly a clinical social worker and the director of a counseling practice, today Nathan teaches social work at Spring Arbor University and lives in Michigan with his two children and his wife, Christy, who does her own writing (www.soulcarrot.com) on living and eating healthily. He is still an outdoor enthusiast and is in the process of writing a second book that casts a new light on the twelve spiritual disciplines his father enumerated over 30 years ago.

Flourish interviewed Nathan about the transformative capacity of the outdoors and asked, “Can creation care be a spiritual discipline?”

Flourish Magazine: It’s clear, from the growing conversation in the evangelical community around both the spiritual disciplines and environmental stewardship, that both of those topics are on folks’ radars more and more. But many people are still vague on what it means to practice the spiritual disciplines. Can you give a description or definition of the spiritual disciplines?

Nathan Foster: I’m still learning that myself, but the spiritual disciplines are essentially historic practices of the church that are the ways and means of how we grow spiritually. Certainly many have written very well on the subject. Theologically, Dallas Willard does a very good job in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines. My dad’s work is a bit more practical in terms of looking at 12 different disciplines and how we can practice them. Essentially the disciplines are things that should be freeing: If I focus on fasting or prayer or meditation or service, these become ingrained habits for me so that I’m naturally walking out activities that position me to respond to life more like Jesus would, a tool to form my soul. I don’t think of them in terms of legalism. They’re freeing activities that Jesus practiced, that the church as a whole historically has practiced.

FM: What has been your own experience with the spiritual disciplines? You’re working on a book that updates them. What does that look like?

NF: I wouldn’t say I’m “updating” them, necessarily, but I’m giving them a different treatment. The book is about

The frantic pace we live at is a social construct and not necessarily reflective of what we can learn from nature.

spending about two years interacting with at least the 12 disciplines that my dad wrote about, just documenting, in a narrative form, my experiences with them. They’re a little different. For fasting, certainly I’ve done a number of food fasts, but I also did a technology fast. For simplicity I did a month of not spending money. So there’s a little different treatment to them, but it’s a dialogue of my successes and failures and trying to be real intentional about practicing these 12 spiritual disciplines.

FM: In your first book, Wisdom Chaser, you write a lot about loving the mountains, and you describe your experiences in the wilderness as teaching you so many lessons about the character of God and your relationship with him. How did your love for the outdoors develop and—no pressure!—does your love for the outdoors manifest itself in a lifestyle of environmental stewardship?

NF: I don’t know if I can give a time of when I developed a real appreciation for nature. I think nature speaks to me in a lot of ways, and I think I learn about God through nature. I heard this wonderful term, that nature is the “second great book.” So if we think of the Bible as the first great book for learning about God, nature is the second one, and the Bible points us in this direction in Psalm 19 and Romans 1. Thomas Aquinas thought studying nature was a way to study God, which is the ultimate goal of theology.

I did this piece recently for the Conversations journal that talks about where the “Jesus life” is found; that all creation sings the “Jesus life.” For instance, the leaves on the trees dying, decaying, and giving life to plants. The Jesus narrative is woven into all creation. And then creation obeys the will of the Father. Nature does what it’s supposed to do, and the disciplines help me to function as God intended me to function. Much of my education, my spiritual formation, has been in nature.

Now, there’s a lot to that: Nature echoing the Jesus narrative or God’s glory being echoed in creation, but also the stillness creation brings. I shut up, my phone’s off, and I’m present, and that moves me into worship, meditation, and prayer. That moves me into the spiritual disciplines. It moves me into study; studying what’s around me and the changing of seasons. Also, when I think in terms of creation being the work of God, the thumbprint of God—and certainly I wouldn’t move into animistic areas of worshiping nature, but rather worshiping God through nature—if that’s the case, then creation preservation becomes a form of evangelism. We need to preserve areas so that generations in the future are able to learn about God by being in his creation. So for me, supporting environmental efforts is a form of evangelism. And that’s kind of cool!

FM: That’s great! Do you think that commitment to living lightly and responsibly in creation could be considered a spiritual discipline? Could practicing creation care open opportunities for God to speak and move in one’s life, as the traditional spiritual disciplines do?

NF: Absolutely. I had a great analogy: One of the things people hold on to is dominion, the idea that God has given us dominion over creation, so we can do whatever we want with it, which is certainly true, and I think, theologically, that God does give us that. I see preservation as a really natural response of gratitude. When I’m doing activities that are environmentally good, it becomes a form of worshiping God, of attributing worth to God’s handiwork: stewardship as being responsible with the gift God has given us, the gifts that bear his handiwork. So when I take my recycling in, that becomes a way of honoring the gifts that God gives me, of helping preserve those for future generations. Sustainability becomes a way of loving others and caring for my great-great grandchildren.

FM: I think that’s interesting, because sometimes people can see those actions as pretty far removed from the point of creation care. But sometimes a number of the spiritual disciplines can seem pretty far removed for people from the actual worship that they’re intended to provoke within.

NF: And I’m finding, through this book that I’m working on, that stewardship is integrated into

We need to preserve areas so that generations in the future are able to learn about God by being in his creation. So for me, supporting environmental efforts is a form of evangelism.

everyday life; at least, the opportunities to integrate it into everyday life are right there. And if I tune my awareness to it, something shifts. There’s a change. And then it’s a joy to support organizations or to do my part to buy locally grown crops or ride my bike instead of drive. That becomes a way of worshiping and honoring God.

FM: How do the spiritual disciplines, or the changes and virtues practicing them produces in us, reinforce the practice of environmental stewardship?

NF: I want to say this real carefully because I don’t want to come across as judgmental—because certainly relationship with God moves people in different directions—but I’m finding that the spiritual disciplines move me into deeper intimacy with God. And I find that when I’m operating out of that center, being a responsible citizen is important. And that’s a very natural thing. Part of it is seeing that the spiritual disciplines help with the death of self—I die to my own selfish desires—and move towards God and others. And then I’m moved to take a stance that supports the environment.

When I thumb my nose in the air and say I have a right to trash the earth because God gave it to me, there’s a selfishness to that. I’m not God. I’m not the center of the earth. I’m just a visitor. The freedom and the gift of acting in my responsibilities is a good thing. It gives me joy. I find that to be life-giving, not just a labor.

FM: What particular disciplines reinforce that posture of humility and of knowing that you’re not just a little ruler, or that you’re supposed to be a gracious ruler over creation?

NF: Well I think submission does. I learn to submit to others and to God.

Certainly the discipline of solitude, the discipline of prayer, the discipline of meditation. Fasting from noise. I’m linking a lot of that to spending time in the outdoors. But potentially advocacy becomes part of that too, and preservation is a way to help move others toward a relationship with God: evangelism. I used to take high-risk adolescents backpacking and that was always a way to open their eyes and ears to God. So my stewardship has become a way to preserve that. And that’s a spiritual discipline, I’d say.

FM: In Wisdom Chaser you write a lot about the pace of your hiking and how you had to take it slower than you had anticipated. Partly that was a rate that was dictated by your dad, and you write about how your dad does a lot of things slowly. But you come to appreciate that pace, and you write, at one point, “I was left with a profound sense that God never calls me to a life of hurry. I choose it.” How has that revelation changed your choices and your pace of life since then, and how might slowing down be of value to creation, both human and non-human?

NF: There’s a stillness that nature brings to us. Also, in studying it you see the seasons of things, and things happen very slowly. Growth happens very slowly. And so it really does help to slow me down. That’s a lesson that, like most of my lessons in life, I’m always working out, and I’m being intentional about taking time to be still. The created order leads me in that direction and helps me to do that. The frantic pace we live at is a social construct and not necessarily reflective of what we can learn from nature.

FM: Do you think that pace distracts us?

NF: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I have some real concerns about our advancements in technology in the last five or ten years. As wonderful as they are, they essentially choke out stillness, and we’re constantly distracted. For me, stillness is where God shows up: when I shut up and I’m quiet. That’s a spiritual discipline: being still, meditation, prayer, being conversational. I’m really concerned with that. And that’s again where preservation of nature is so important for us—that people have open spaces and that there are areas that are preserved from development where people can get out and turn off their phones and shut down their computers and listen to God.

FM: A related topic is that of simplicity, which your dad wrote a whole second book on and which you come back to again and again in your book. We see “simple living” in the environmental conversation, but it’s often kind of a fraud or just a marketing ploy: “Live simply by buying all these rustic-looking things.” Can you talk a little bit about what practicing the discipline of true simplicity looks like for Christians?

NF: I’m the worst person to answer that question because I’m materialistic and I love gadgets and I’m horrible with that! But certainly I do notice it when I’m able to. Something feels right about simple living. This experiment with not purchasing anything for a month—I mean, I paid my bills, obviously, and I wasn’t legalistic—but it really helped me realize how I complicate my life with shopping. I’m not a shopper, per se, but I get online and I look at products. My consumption kept me from being simple, but it also kept noise in my head, and anytime we remove noise from our heads we have to face ourselves and some of the hurt and pain that I think we all have. So it forced me to face that, which was wonderful. But the awareness that my small exercise brought was actually very painful. I mean, I had some days that were pretty dark and depressing. I think that may be why we avoid simplicity—because it forces us to be with ourselves.

FM: So the darkness and the pain came more from confronting things you’d been able to push aside than from the frustrated desire to go and buy something you hope will be fulfilling.

NF: Yeah, I realized I was using—I’m embarrassed to say this—consumption to fill the void. There’s a certain addiction there. What you can see about people, and particularly Americans, is that we’re just addicts—we’re just filling up our lives with space and painkillers of some sort to avoid whatever we’re avoiding.

FM: As a counselor and someone who has struggled with some of these issues yourself, what is it about our make-up or our society that we don’t crave quiet or simplicity or even being in the outdoors as much as we crave the noise or the accumulation? Why can’t we get addicted to things that are better for us?

NF: There’s something to habits. And the idea of spiritual discipline is that you cultivate good habits that give life. We have habits that destroy us. I think once we start tasting the fullness of the spiritual life, then it becomes addiction. It becomes, “I want that center, I want to find the life there and get grounded.”

And maybe they don’t give the same hits. It’s a lot of fun for me to focus on consuming, and there’s adrenaline to that. Yet when I taste stillness, it gets in my blood and I crave it. I commute on my bike. There’s a bike trail that I do—it’s wooded, and I get to watch the seasons change there, and I crave doing it. I can’t wait—even in the middle of winter!—I can’t wait to get on the bike and be in that stillness. So I think that there can be a craving for stillness or simplicity.

FM: In your book a lot of your own transformation is attributable to your restored relationship with your dad, but a lot of that relationship is restored within the context of the wilderness. As a counselor and educator, and as someone who’s very honestly written your own account of destructive behavior and thought processes, how can God’s creation be a tool or a venue for transformation? How have you seen that in your own life or the lives of others?

NF: Getting to experience the mountains or landscape and appreciate it. My dad’s so wonderful about pointing things out. He’s so fun to hike with because he’s in awe of everything. He sees a flower and he stops, or he sees some rock coloring and he gets very excited about that. That’s relationship building. It’s like a hobby. But I think what often happens when I’m hiking—and I wouldn’t limit this to people who can physically hike, but just sitting on a bench works too—that we tune ourselves to God. I’m attuned to the workings of God with someone else and it becomes relational. And you would never say this, but you’re worshiping God together when you admire these things, and that’s relationship building.

The other thing, at least for me and my dad, is that nature is a distraction. It’s like having a meaningful conversation with your spouse in the car: You don’t have to look at each other. So we’re hiking in the mountain and we’re there to be climbing mountains and the relational piece becomes secondary, but it can sneak up on you.

FM: Go ahead and talk a little about your vegetarianism, because I think some of our readers might be wrestling with that topic or have friends and family members who are vegetarian, and they want to know why they’ve made that choice.

NF: Certainly I think God is OK with us eating meat, and I think he gives us animals and is ok with us eating them. However, the treatment that most of our meat goes through, there’s a cruelty there. Chickens that never see the light of day or can’t hold their own heads up or pigs who eat their own tails: there’s a violence there that’s being perpetuated against animals. So to not be a part of that, to not to passively participate in that violence, resonates with me as part of being a responsible citizen of God’s kingdom. That’s stewardship to me.

But there are also the social issues—the relationship between the grain we use to feed animals and global starvation or the pollution put out by the meat industry. That becomes very important to me. But all that stuff is a movement toward simplicity. It feels right. There’s something that feels really good to me in a reap-what-you-sow kind of way. Or I feel like I’m in a rhythm with God that moves me deeper spiritually.

Now, all that is to say that I do eat meat occasionally, when I get really deep cravings for meat. But I acknowledge God’s handiwork that went into this and the kind of death that was created for me to have life. There’s the Jesus story again. That’s all connecting to the earth. That’s integrating my life with it. I heard a story about some schoolchildren who were shown a chicken, and they didn’t realize that that was the same thing as a chicken nugget. They’re completely divorced from the whole process. But that’s creation care in a way: integrating the created order into my life.

FM: That ties back into the spiritual disciplines again, because a lot of them are about being present to God or to the things you’re

You’re worshiping God together when you admire these things. 

going through that you need forgiveness or healing for, or parts of your life that God’s given you to rejoice in. Part of that is being present to our world and what we’re actually doing—that we’re actually eating a chicken—and considering what that provokes within us: Gratitude? Remorse?

NF: And certainly we don’t want to move into just shaming ourselves, because people tend to shut down and ignore everything when that’s the case. I put all of this in the context of freedom and joy. I don’t do these things out of guilt. I do them out of gratitude that God enables me to grow and flourish as a human being, and I get to be responsible; I get to respond! And I get to move into God’s love in that way. It becomes a way for me to love God—to love things that he made.

Lack of care for creation is a sort of “intergenerational tyranny: a of taxation without representation.” I’m quoting Bill McDonough, an eco-architect. I don’t want to participate in any form of intergenerational tyranny; yet ultimately my consumption and passive complacence with development will hurt future generations. So I want to find ways not to, and that’s a joy, not a guilt. It’s a good thing to be able to try and preserve something that reflects the glory of God for future generations. I’m responsible to do that. How wonderful.

Photo of Richard and Nathan Foster courtesy Nathan Foster.

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