Faith Works 8-27-16
Interpretation of Resources, Natural & Spiritual
Last Thursday, Aug. 25th was the centennial of the National Park Service.
They have a history, in fact, the precedes their founding; Pres. Wilson signed the Organic Act of 1916 on Aug. 25 after Congress passed the legislation, which itself was rooted in the Antiquities Act of 1906 (signed by Teddy Roosevelt, which is the president most people associate with the NPS), and the first national park was established on its own in 1872, Yellowstone National Park.
The idea is one that's essentially unique to this country, to set aside public lands "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people" (as the Organic Act says and is inscribed on the Roosevelt Arch entering Yellowstone itself). We have begun this concept and it has spread around the world, but the US national parks are still the envy of much of the world and our own treasure held in trust for coming generations.
As a pastor, I've often thought about the similarities between my job, my vocation as a congregational pastor, and the work of a park ranger. Yes, the uniform is quite different, but the tasks and even the professions themselves have much in common.
Full disclosure: my wife got advanced degrees in what's called "natural resource interpretation," and the task of introducing and guiding and preserving while presenting both cultural and natural sites, like the Grand Canyon or Mammoth Cave or Independence Hall or Gettysburg battlefield – it's called "interpretation." A Park Ranger is often what's known as an interpreter, and that sort of non-formal education is an academic discipline, a field of research, and a profession within the NPS and many state park ranks.
So I have my own reasons to compare ministry to interpretation, but I think the parallels hold up in many ways – not all of them good, but I believe even the difficult points of comparison are worth consideration.
Right off the top: our goals, parsons and park rangers, is to get people to engage with and more deeply understand the very reason why we're where we are . . . and that can be harder than you might think. For NPS rangers, their ongoing frustration is that in survey after survey, over 90% of all visitors to national parks never get more than 50 yards from their cars or a park building.
That does mean that even in the most crowded and "popular" parks, you can find peace and solitude if you're just willing to pick a direction and go: NPS visitor centers like to make sure to prepare you for that, and they have guidelines, but they're always happy to help you with a backcountry permit, and if you are displaying that sort of interest, you'll find yourself with all the help and support you can stand. They're happy you love the park and the natural resource it is as much as they do.
Pastors want to get people out of the building and out into where the Holy Spirit blows and where Jesus is already at work; I don't have the same sort of surveys that the NPS has, but if someone said over 90% of worshipers don't get their faith very far out of the sanctuary on Sunday morning, I wouldn't be likely to argue.
So we . . . encourage, motivate, even "trick" people into staying for campfire talks and going on guided hikes and generally work with all our skills to help more people go deeper, into the wild, and find their own direct encounter with the "resource" of the Holy Spirit blowing through this world we've been given as a trust.
And on the more prosaic side, if you're a uniformed, trained, professional, full-time park ranger, you will still spend serious time replacing toilet paper, changing letters in signage, pulling weeds from walkways, and helping people find how to get where they're going when they're lost. Neither is a job well suited to just sitting in an office in a nice outfit. There are dress occasions, but much of your work is going to be in latrines and handling logistics and telling people where to turn . . . and listening politely to lots of stories about what used to be here, or how they used to do it in the 50s.
My wife did get to spend a summer as an NPS interpretive ranger, and most of what I just said I swiped from her observations. And where did she work?
She served as a ranger in Zion. And isn't that where I'm trying to direct people to, as well?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he'd like to be a ranger in Zion someday, one way or another. Tell him about parks you've been marching to over the years at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.