Faith Matters: Our national parks are a gift that God has created for us to treasure

Our national parks have often been referred to as “America’s Best Idea.”

I recently returned from two weeks of trekking my children through 3,200 miles and eight of our national parks. About halfway through the trip it dawned on me that there weren’t many other children around.

That was just as true in Yellowstone as it was in the Rocky Mountains as it was in the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. I stopped one day to chat with a park ranger who shared that fewer families are coming to the parks and that the parks can’t compete with other “parks” — theme parks.

Living in Florida, I get it.

But, our national parks aren’t just America’s Best Idea, they are unique opportunities to witness the magnificence and creativity of God, our creator.

The Artists Paint Pots at Yellowstone team with life and color in a constantly changing landscape that begins deep in the bowels of the earth. It is impossible to watch them for any length of time and not feel fully alive.

At the same time, the intricacy of the purple mountain lupine in the Rockies reminds us of the uniqueness and fragility that is imbued in each one of us by a God who put so much effort into a tiny flower and then thought that the world needed one of each of us as well.

Another gift of the National Park system is the opportunity to reflect on how we are doing as the keepers and stewards of creation. We can experience and learn about the impact that humans are having on everything from bees to bears, lakes to trees, mountains to rivers.

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The Rev. Dr. Hope Lee

Although Christians often speak of Creation Care, it is humbling to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplate what impact your actions will have on these sacred places for generations to come.

When we got to Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico, we were there alone. The park ranger spent a lot of time with me, a kid who grew up in Baltimore, explaining the difference between Fort Union and Fort McHenry and then, upon discovering we were from Bradenton, included Fort DeSoto.

Then he left us to explore the fort by ourselves. This was yet another gift of the parks. There is a history to our country and to our faith that requires some individual reckoning.

Fort Union hit me in an unexpected way. The main difference between Fort Union and Fort McHenry was “who” the forts were built to defend against. Fort McHenry from the Europeans. Fort Union from the Native Americans.

One was to defend against outsiders. One was to defend against those whose land we ultimately confiscated.

I don’t want to over-spiritualize or over-politicize my family vacation. But, for a brief moment in a quiet field in New Mexico, I felt the deep heaviness of sin, the compassionate call of reconciliation, and the boundless love of God for each and every one of us.

No, the National Parks don’t have Harry Potter rides or visits with Mickey Mouse. They don’t have fast passes and often require you to take the slow road. The souvenirs are somewhat limited and sometimes you won’t run into another person for miles.

Those other parks have their place and my family has experienced great joy when we have visited them. But, the national parks — they aren’t just “America’s Best Idea.” They are extraordinary gifts from God to generations of people from all over the world.

I pray that my generation would see their priceless value and make it a priority to make sure that our children know what a phenomenal gift God has created for them to treasure as well.

The Rev. Dr. Hope Lee, lead pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church and The Well, can be reached at 941-794-6229, or Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Bradenton Herald written by local clergy members.

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