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Indoors and Outdoors: Praying with the Earth (Dr. Lisa Dahill)

Indoors and Outdoors: Praying with the Earth (Dr. Lisa Dahill)

We are honored to have this great work shared by Dr. Lisa Dahill -- 

Indoors, Outdoors: Praying with the Earth(Dr. Lisa Dahill) In Shauna Hannan and Karla Bohmbach, eds., Eco-Lutheranism: Lutheran Perspectives on Ecology, 113-24Proceedings of the Association of Teaching Theologians, 2012. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2013.

What happens when Christian liturgy moves outdoors, into engagement with the more-than-human natural world? Outdoor ministry sites of all kinds testify to the transforming power of encounters with God in and with creation not mediated by church walls. Yet for most North American Christians, worship is an exclusively indoor phenomenon. Among those who study Christian liturgy, too, the assumption of a built sanctuary within which this liturgy takes place is more or less universal. Even liturgical theologies that point to the "inside out" nature of Christian worship (i.e., the walls of the sanctuary in effect dissolving so that we find ourselves sent into a world and creation already met and redeemed in love) orient this perspective from experiences of divine encounter that take place indoors.(1)

Such liturgical theologies provide essential foundations for an ecologically oriented understanding of Christian worship; my own reflection emerges only on the basis of these and other poets' opening of the "new creation" at the center of our liturgical tradition. But just such liturgical cosmologies, alongside my own powerful experiences of worship in outdoor ministry contexts (e.g., Holden Village), have recently pushed me to ask further what difference it makes when not only liturgical reflection moves "inside out," but when the entire liturgy itself does.

I responded to this question liturgically through the design of a eucharistic rite.(2) My colleague Hank Langknecht (preacher for the rite) and I designed it to unfold both indoors and out. Its first half took place in Trinity Seminary's Gloria Dei worship space with organ and brass for the hymns, liturgy, and chanted creed. During the sharing of the peace, worshipers processed to a nearby shaded residential lot for the remainder of the service. Alongside woods and the adjacent Alum Creek, we began the second half with the offertory hymn.

In planning the service, we decided on scripture readings from the Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) propers for Stewardship of Creation (Job 38 and Psalm 104). We chose a new epistle lesson and Gospel to reflect both a broader eco-cosmic vision (Colossians 1) and, given that the service took place on August 15, the feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord (Luke 1). The prayer of the day, along with proper preface, eucharistic prayer, benediction, and dismissal were oriented toward an outdoor framing of Christian liturgy. I created ritual actions to take place at the offertory and after communion and also wrote text for sending out worshipers to share the peace with other creatures during the procession.

Liturgical Implications for Worship Outdoors
Five aspects of this worship service raise liturgical implications for worship outdoors. Like the rite itself, these reflections are meant as works in progress, inviting others to continue the conversation. 

Indoors and Outdoors as Literal and Metaphoric
As embodied creatures, we human beings depend on our senses for orienting us to reality, not least divine reality received through word, sacrament, and Christian symbols of all kinds, including the encompassing symbol of the worship space itself.(3) And as essential as indoor experience may be, with all the protection, nurture, shelter, and story held within the primal metaphor of "sanctuary"--from the wombs in which our lives first gestate, to the political refuge given to those fleeing oppression, to the literal shelter our mortal bodies and those who are homeless desperately need--it is not the only primary location-metaphor of our faith. We need "outdoor" experience too: of what is wild, of earth itself, of the world in its strangeness, of the other, the stranger, of the G*D who breaks all image and language, meeting us endlessly in what is not-us, taking us out of security, outside the city walls, into the wilderness.(4) Literally taking liturgy outdoors both proclaims the necessity of and makes possible the assembly's opening beyond itself to this non-human strangeness on its own terms, in actual, present, sensory experience.(5) Our decision to craft a rite located not only outdoors but both indoors and out reflects the conviction that the fullest revelation of God is found when these primary locations are not divided one from the other but held together within the one rite of word and sacrament.

Musical choices helped frame the rite's movement from indoors out, metaphorically as well as literally. The opening hymn, "What Is This Place" (ELW 524), beautifully articulates the "indoor" dimension of the faith: "What is this place where we are meeting? Only a house, the earth its floor. Walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door. . . "; yet its poetic language simultaneously makes clear the permeability of these sheltering walls to the rest of the creation. The offertory hymn (setting a poem by Margaret Atwood) and closing hymn ("Let All Things Now Living," ELW 881) then give voice to reality experienced in their fullness when entirely outdoors.

Sharing the Peace with Other Creatures
Several chapters in this volume, notably that by George "Tink" Tinker, address the urgency of Western Christian culture learning again what Indigenous traditions have never forgotten: to relate directly to other creatures of all kinds and species and to the forces of creation itself as part of the broader world of "Thou's" in which God meets us. To broaden the sharing of the peace in this rite beyond the human circle of those gathered in assembly, to "offer peace to the creation and to particular creatures you may encounter outside [in procession to the outdoor site], and . . . to be invited to listen to God-in-them," invite action many Christians might experience as puzzling at best. Yet it takes seriously the insight that God does speak to us through other creatures and creation itself, and it invites us ritually into the deep attentiveness, humility, and mutuality with creation demanded by the present ecological emergency that we face.(6) This ritual act allows the sharing of the peace to become an experiential window into a new listening to the actual voices of other species: we move out of our human-centered bubble, as a culture, and into the dis-orienting, un-centering, child-open stance of radical listening our world desperately needs.(7)

Bodily Edibility
Lutherans cherish the physicality of the sacraments, the edibility of divine life as Jesus' body and blood permeate and incorporate ours. This physical theology experienced in one's own body in every eucharistic celebration provides a crucial link to the physicality of all food, of all life, and to questions of poverty and abundance, hunger and delight, as these take flesh in billions of human bodies and the living land and water all over our earth that feed us. Much Christian thinking over the centuries has pressed the ethical implications of our eucharistic sharing in the "one  bread" of the poor and hungry, in the one Body of Christ. We do not as often ponder further how our bodies' edibility by other creatures (from wolves to mosquitos) provides a similarly eucharistic ethic of our species' participation in the rest of creation.(8) As privileged North Americans we may speak of "stewardship" of creation (albeit from a position of dominance and inviolability), but too often we shun uncomfortable questions of how Jesus' kenosis models for us a similarly radical availability of our human flesh and life for the thriving of other species or ecosystems, and of marginalized human beings on Earth. Might movement outdoors---with the potential discomfort or even physical risk this entails, admittedly minor, via Columbus's summer heat, humidity, ticks, and mosquitos---open us to the sacramental implications of our permeability to the rest of  creation? The offertory hymn text by Margaret Atwood invites such reflection on the kenotic/eucharistic resonance of that mortal vulnerability all creatures share with our Lord: "Sooner or later all transform/ Their blood to wine, their flesh to meat."(9)



Ritual Actions: Offertory and Post-Communion
Two actions within the larger eucharistic rite invite worshipers explicitly into this bodily/physical vulnerability to creation itself. Immediately after the Atwood hymn come these words, "As our offertory prayer, I invite you, if you wish, to take off your shoes and socks, and stand on the earth unshod in God's presence: for this is holy ground." Here the assembly's sensory presence to the Earth increases as bare feet encounter grass, twigs, dirt, and breeze---inviting worshipers' hearts as well toward the One we meet in the body: the sacramental body, the ecclesial body, our physical bodies, and all these in, with, and under Earth's body. Following communion, again, instead of a spoken prayer the actions of scattering the remaining bread and pouring the chalices' contents into the Earth invite worshipers' own continued sacramental immersion in the life of all things.

The decision to privilege actions over words of prayer at these points derived partly from sensitivity to the acoustics of the outdoor setting (because it can be harder outdoors for those with hearing problems to follow what is said, the use of action allows them to participate fully too) and partly from the desire to engage the biological/sensory/physical dimensions of the sacramental action and the Christian life more fully than is often possible indoors. The movement from shod to unshod provides a further invitation "outdoors" for worshipers: out of even more layers of protection shielding us from direct physical contact with Earth, and into personal encounter via these sensitive surfaces of our bodies (e.g., the soles of our feet). That G*D commands this of Moses in the theophany at the burning bush (Exodus 3) draws the assembly into a long arc of perceiving the Holy in such naked vulnerability to physical revelation. Being outdoors also makes it possible to bring within the rite the actions of dispersing the remaining eucharistic elements, with reverence for Jesus' presence along with his/their (and our) communion with the Earth to which we all belong. The use of libation echoes African and African- American practices of pouring out wine or other symbolic liquid into the earth, connecting this practice with the eucharistic pouring out of our lives, with our Lord's, for and in the life of all creation.

Scattering and libation would, in theory, be possible in many seasons and climates in which outdoor eucharist was being celebrated. Asking worshipers to remove their shoes, however, is an action that requires relatively warm temperatures and physically safe ground underfoot, not readily possible in January in that same Ohio yard, nor perhaps in places where toxins, broken glass, other trash, or lack of traction would make being barefoot manifestly unsafe. These actions thus more broadly raise questions of ecological/ritual contextualization, as local conditions, climate, and community shape leaders' discernment of how a given rite might effectively invite worshipers into that experienced physical vulnerability to the actual life of the created world that eucharistic theology and practice proclaim.

Sending, Dwelling, and Liminality
In the usual eucharistic rite, sending and dismissal happen simultaneously with the exit from the sanctuary---being "sent out" from this expansive enclosure to the broader world, transformed. The sanctuary threshold (Latin: limen) first functions as the liminal boundary into this holy interior space: by crossing this threshold into the sanctuary, where social masks fall away and psychic barriers soften into the dis-orienting and re-orienting presence of God, worshipers enter holy ground. And then in exiting the sanctuary across that same threshold they go forth to live the identity and vocation received in this liminal place, experiencing now all the world as holy ground.

In this indoor/outdoor rite, however, worshipers cross the sanctuary threshold the second time not at the end but in the middle of the service (still within the liminal space of the overarching ritual itself) as they are sent out to share the peace with the creation and then to gather again at an outdoor location for eucharist. We cross the threshold without leaving the liminal/ritual space, crossing as it were out into a much bigger “indoors” in which all creation itself is held, with its chattering voices and unpredictable forces, its vastness and fragility and particular local creatures, as a primary locus of Jesus’ eucharistic presence and encounter with us.

In a sense, this movement is no different in kind from the “inside out” experience noted above, where the liminal space of worship itself opens from the inside to encompass all creation, and so all the world is recognized as holy ground. Yet our bodies and being experience this larger reality differently when we are invited outdoors within the rite itself. The fact that the outdoors can be experienced as fully liminal, as existing within the fullness of the Christian worship experience proper, needs ritual attention in our era of overwhelmingly indoor experience; for the lives of many worshipers are played out now largely in homes and vehicles and schools and offices, made increasingly all the more imprisoning through the layers of screens and “virtual” experience embedded throughout their daily routines. To be in the unmediated outdoors, unplugged, intentionally and attentively open to the actual bodies and noises and movements of the broader creation, is an increasingly rare experience for many North Americans; to be so at the very heart of Christian worship is almost unheard of except at camp. The shape of this rite itself thus attempts to manifest this broader eucharistic reality and presence through the threshold-crossing out into this powerfully real, unvarnished creation as itself liminal space.

In order to make clear that, in this “inside” that is the whole eucharistic cosmos held in Christ, there is ultimately no further “out” to which to go. The imperatives at the dismissal are not those of sending, per se, but of habitation, indwelling: “Abide in peace, inhabit the Lord.” What began indoors with music and word, and moved outdoors with peace and prayers and meal, finds itself finally within an endlessly expansive home: the Triune God in, with, and under the fullness of the whole wild creation itself.

How can we learn together to worship eucharistically in increasing experiential intimacy with the actual living natural world around us? I look forward to continued conversation and to further invitations into prayer together with the Earth, indoors and out.




We'll post part 2 of Dr. Dahill's piece, "Praying with the Earth: Indoor/Outdoor Liturgy for Eucharist", in our April 2017 issue Restore The Earth! 

Please check back.  



  Dr. Lisa Dahill  is a former Carnegie Scholar and Assoc. Prof. of Worship and Christian Spirituality at  Trinity Lutheran Seminary , currently serving as Assoc. Prof. of Religion at  California Lutheran University . 

Dr. Lisa Dahill is a former Carnegie Scholar and Assoc. Prof. of Worship and Christian Spirituality at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, currently serving as Assoc. Prof. of Religion at California Lutheran University


1 See Thomas H. Schattauer, ed., Inside Out: Theology in an Age of Mission (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), and H. Paul Santmire, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). 

2 This rite was used at the 2012 Convocation of Teaching Theologians at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio. 3 See, for instance, Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), and R. Kevin Seasoltz, A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and Art (New York: Continuum, 2005). 

4 Many explorations around themes of “wilderness” have appeared in recent years, from scholars of Hebrew Scripture, naturalists, poets, and philosophers. I find particularly evocative Douglas Burton-Christie’s tracing of connections between immersions in the wild and encounters with a God we can meet in no other way, in “The Wild and the Sacred,” Anglican Theological Review 85/3 (2003): 493-510. Of course this section’s categories, and the use of “indoor” and “outdoor” throughout, are not meant to suggest a naïve division of reality into two separate spheres; rather it is to play a bit with how being physically outdoors (outside a building or all the way into actual wilderness, however defined) expands human beings’ experiential capacity to encounter the fullness of God as well. A related question, touched on in the final section but which I do not have space to explore at length, is how the “membrane” (or threshold) dividing “in” from “out” is variously conceived, defined, defended, opened, transgressed, and/or traversed.

5 A liturgical community engaging this outdoor dimension quite intentionally is St. Giles Episcopal Church in Moraga, CA, which leads monthly “Holy Hikes” that include an outdoor Eucharist and a 2-3 hour hike at places of natural beauty in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. See http://holyhikes.org/. 

6 Note also the inviation to humility in Henry J. Langknecht’s sermon (included in this volume).

7 Paul Santmire’s paper in this volume coins language of the narrowly “theo-anthropocentric” focus of much Christian practice and theology. His term “theo-cosmocentric” names a much bigger frame for worship and theology—shared broadly by the liturgical theorists cited in note 1—into which this sharing of the peace also hopes to open worshipers.

8 See the incisive work of Jewish environmental philosopher James Hatley along these lines: “The Uncanny Goodness of Being Edible to Bears” in Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, ed. Bruce V. Foltz and Robert Frodeman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 13-31; and “Blood Intimacies and Biodicy: Keeping Faith with Ticks,” Australian Humanities Review 50 (May2011): http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-May-2011/hatley.


9 Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood (New York: Nan Talese/Random House, 2009), 426. The choice of Tallis’ Canon as the melody used for this hymn derived not only from its a-capella familiarity but also from the fact that it allowed for singing in canon—reflecting the ongoing nature of this biological regeneration in which our bodies are immersed.



Requested Citation:
Indoors, Outdoors: Praying with the Earth. In Shauna Hannan and Karla Bohmbach, eds., Eco-Lutheranism: Lutheran Perspectives on Ecology, 113-24Proceedings of the Association of Teaching Theologians, 2012. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2013.

Learn more about the book: Eco-Lutheranism.

Worshiping WITH Nature (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

Worshiping WITH Nature (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

Wilderness Spirituality

Wilderness Spirituality