Formation

Rediscovering the Natural Church

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The digital thermometer in my car said it was -23 degrees Celsius, or -9 degrees Fahrenheit—cold in any unit of weather measurement.

I was parked by the side of the road, wondering if anyone else would show up. A couple of electronic regrets popped up on my phone. I understood. Who wants to pray when it’s this cold? Or more specifically, who wants to pray outside, in the trees, in the snow, when it’s this cold?

Actually, I’m starting to think that it isn’t praying “in the trees,” but praying “with the trees.” Psalm 148 was one of several biblical passages that had altered my thinking on this matter. There the poet doesn’t only invite people to praise God—the “young men and women alike, old and young together”—but also the sun and moon, the heavens and waters, the sea monsters and deep oceans, the mountains and hills, the cattle and wild animals, and, yes, even the cedars and fruit trees. And then there is Romans 8, which suggests that all creation groans for liberation. Why do we think these passages are metaphorical and the ones that refer to humans praising and groaning are not? The trees pray—that’s my conclusion. They praise. They groan. They pray.

The Therapeutic Benefit of Outdoor Worship

There is an interesting movement afoot called “forest church.” Some of these forest liturgies strike me as a bit, well, too sunny. Nevertheless, the basic idea is one whose time has come. The essential proposal is simple: do church outside, worship in nature, and make the most of natural imagery and the spiritual vitality many of us experience in natural landscapes.

I was at a conference some time ago where the discussion centered on this approach to church. A young man from Tanzania seemed unimpressed. He said that this used to be how everyone worshiped back home. He makes a good point: people have worshiped the Creator outside for eons. Some of the radical reformers in the sixteenth century worshiped in forests and in caves. But their motivation wasn’t so much to connect with God through nature as it was to avoid irksome authorities. That isn’t why I’ve invited people to pray outside, but I like the historical precedent anyway.  Built environments, just like liturgy and song, can help us hear from and speak to God, but sometimes there are good reasons to let go of these things. When things are going awry, it’s good to get back to basics.

Built environments, just like liturgy and song, can help us hear from and speak to God, but sometimes there are good reasons to let go of these things. Click To Tweet

I don’t recall any actual outdoor worship or prayer services from my childhood. But I do recall my sense of amazement the first time I flew through mountains in a small plane. I recall the wonderful sting of flying snow while being pulled through the night behind a snowmobile. As a college and seminary student I worked as a wilderness trip leader. We encouraged prayer in those settings. We also recognized the therapeutic value of the simply being outdoors. You can see it in people’s faces after a hike. You can hear it in their voices when they finish a climb they didn’t think was possible. We see it too in our willingness to pay a premium for a room with a view of nature.

I was dressed for the cold on that Saturday morning, so I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I was just about to set off down the trail by myself when a few other vehicles pulled off to the side of the road. It wouldn’t just be the trees and me after all. After a few introductions we walked into the forest together.

Our feet pressed anxious thoughts through the snow into the earth, God’s grace underfoot. Our thoughts traced the course of a small stream folded beneath whitened banks. With mind’s eye we followed it into the ocean. We pictured ourselves in that precise part of God’s good earth. We took time to notice the beauty of the urban forest, a living reflection of God’s grace intertwined with human culture. We shared our observations. Standing with the trees, we praised God. With the trees we prayed for those we loved. And then we lost feeling in our toes. We headed back to our cars, smiles on our numb faces.

We took time to notice the beauty of the urban forest, a living reflection of God’s grace intertwined with human culture. We shared our observations. Standing with the trees we praised God. Click To Tweet

The importance of a love for place

As I drove home, I reflected on my growing conviction that it is important to love the place, the watershed, the bioregion where we live. I think this is one way that we can share in God’s delight with creation. It’s also one approach that might compel us to search for lifestyles that more closely fit the goodness of the earth’s many relationships. Those are important reasons for joining the trees in prayer. Another, I think, is simply that our bodies and minds are meant for a more strenuous, more outdoor, type of existence. It is refreshing to be outside because God didn’t intend to just fashion us for sitting in chairs and staring at screens for most of our week—even when it’s -9 degrees outside.

Praying with trees is not anything new or revolutionary. It comes quite naturally to many of us. It might be something many of us already do without much thought. It might be a spiritual discipline we already practice, just waiting to be named.

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