Worshipping with Nature (Rev. Carmen Retzlaff)
I am the pastor of an unusual church in Dripping Springs, Texas. We worship outside. We say we worship in nature. And that’s true: we think it is not a new way to worship, but a very ancient one—the way we all worshipped, once. But we are also pushing that paradigm, and challenging ourselves to go further. If we return to our tradition’s creation story, to the Garden of Eden, we remember a time when we lived not just in nature, but as part of it, as one and inseparable with the plants and soil and the other animals, and God—who walked with us in the garden, in the evening breeze.
Genesis 3:8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…
In the Revised Common Lectionary, we recently read the story of Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.
John 3:2 Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
At our church in the Texas Hill Country, outside, we worship in a place that is more connected with nature than most churches. We hear the wind, we feel the cold, we know when the earth is being made new, washed, refreshed and refilled. We know that the rain that falls here is the same rain that has fallen over creation again and again. Born over and over as rain, living as the living water of rivers, stored in oceans and aquifers, to evaporate, rise up and rain again.
We are connected to the patterns and rhythms of nature when we meet outside a building. And, again, we are exploring what it means to not just worship “out in nature,” but “with nature.”
That Sunday morning we noticed the dark after daylight savings time, and we came here to our land, wet after a rain. Sometimes we dip our fingers into the baptismal font and make a cross on our foreheads to remember our baptism. I finished my sermon saying,
“Today we might dip our fingers into the seep that crosses this outdoor church when the waters are refilled, and remember that this is the water of baptism, of creation, of being made new. One big font, new after the rains, ready to make us new in Christ, one more time—and a million more times.”
We are exploring how we worship with the earth, as part of us, singing God’s praises with us, supporting us. We read Isaiah 55:12 sometimes as our blessing at the end of worship, and we feel the mutual blessing of the branches of the big live oaks spread over us.
Isaiah 55:12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
When I am preaching and a bird sings, or a deer walks by, or we are under a tent and the rain beats down, I sometimes stop and we just look and listen, and I talk about how God’s sermons are the best. When the lantana bloom in our worship area, we joke about God being the best altar guild, too. When the wind blows and makes worship difficult and uncomfortable, we remember that the Holy Spirit is uncontrollable, and pushes us into places of discomfort often.
Once a year we celebrate a service called “Blessing and Being Blessed by the Land.” A friend and colleague, Vance Blackfox, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and from a family with a long Lutheran Christian heritage, leads a blended Cherokee Lutheran - European Lutheran service in which we acknowledge that any ceremony for blessing is mutual between us and the land. We are gifted by the sharing of the traditions of Native people who have not forgotten the connections between creation and worship.
This Palm Sunday we will not buy palm branches from far away, but cut branches from the trees alongside the path we’ll walk, shouting “Hosanna in the highest!” The branches were, after all, what was on hand.
Matthew 21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
On Good Friday we will walk the stations of the cross on trails we are building across the 12 acres of our property, at our own pace. The stations are marked with rocks and reclaimed art—including barbed wire and metal found on the former ranch land. At our children’s gardening camp in our new community garden, we hold the dirt close to our hearts in our prayers of blessing.
I get encouragement, support, and ideas from a new group of colleagues: pastors around North America who are starting outdoor churches and ministries (Wild Church Network www.wildchurchnetwork.com). Some of them share stories of intentionally sharing communion with the earth during the eucharist, or different ways of praying with the animals, earth and elements.
I welcome these continued conversations and am filled with hope that we are part of healing a disease of disconnection with nature and the natural world—one that is very spiritual in nature, and therefore, I think, is essential to address in the way we worship, where we worship, and how we worship with the world around us.