Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Ecological Spirituality
distributed 4/24/09, 5/8/15 - ©2015

The 4/24/09 distribution of this Eco-Justice Notes was underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

"I feel closer to God when I'm out in nature than when I'm in church."

I imagine that every pastor has heard those words on more than one occasion. Sometimes they are voiced by a loyal member explaining why she skipped a Sunday morning. Other times, they are a defiant assertion from somebody who never, ever comes to sit in a pew.

For lots and lots of people, there is a distinctive sense of spiritual connectedness that happens away from church, away from cities, and away from mass media. There is a rich and vivid ecological spirituality that can come through most clearly when people are intentionally focused on, and present in, the other-than-human parts of nature.

How do those experiences of nature help people feel close to God? Let me stimulate your thinking with a far-from-exhaustive list of spiritual experiences.

  • There is the emotional and spiritual reaction of awe, of encountering something vast and powerful, which sets our personal and societal selves into a humbling context. Seeing the stars spread out overhead when away from the haze of city lights, the ocean stretching off into infinite distance, and mountains shaped by eons of geologic forces -- these put our lives and accomplishments into perspective.

  • Taking the time to "get out into nature" provides an extraordinarily rare taste of real Sabbath. "Getting away" without an agenda offers a deep quality of rest and relaxation. We can only "be still, and know God" when we escape from the calendar and computer, the babble of TV and telephone, text messages and Ipod tunes.

  • I have heard from many people about the spiritual delight of encountering life in an "other" -- a deer grazing, a whale spouting, an eagle soaring, a flock of songbirds, a colony of ants. Those creatures are free and alive, engaged in their own ways of being which have little or nothing to do with us. Observing those animals on their own terms offers a realization of their inherent beauty and worth. We experience "the integrity of creation" where the natural world is disconnected from human use.

  • Our spirituality is nurtured as we become aware of ecological relationships. Things do not exist in isolation. Creatures exist within habitats. They are woven into predator and prey relationships, and symbiotic interactions of support within herds and across species. Ecology makes us aware of our connectedness and interdependence.

  • Time in nature makes us aware of seasons and the cycles of life. Birth, growth and death are embedded in the fabric of the world. Patterns of rainfall and sunlight are discerned as gifts instead of commodities.

  • Time alone in the natural world can provide a more intense sense of self, unfiltered and unprotected by the stuff of culture. A clarity about our real needs comes to the backpacker who must carry all the supplies for a trip. A few days in nature can trim away concerns about style and status, and get us back to the necessities.

These are just a few of the ways that time in nature might strengthen people in a faithful spirituality. These are just a hint of the many ways that time focused on the creation can draw us into awareness and relationship with God.

Being outdoors and being part of a worshipping community are two very different kinds of experiences. Each has unique blessings for those who enter richly into it. We should not expect folk to have the same emotional and spiritual reactions in the church sanctuary that they have watching a sunset at the Grand Canyon. It is good and wonderful if members of our congregations can be informed and nurtured in many spiritual settings.

But I wonder if there often is a disconnect between the God that people experience in the natural world, and the God that we worship in church on Sunday morning. It is fine if those two kinds of experiences are affirmed as different and complimentary. There is a problem, though, if they come across as contradictory. Many church members have profound spiritual experiences in the outdoors. Do we reject or trivialize those in church?

Would a call to worship that names humans as specially chosen seem offensive and arrogant if recited on the seashore? Does the prayer of dedication after the offering go against the grain of the relationships that we observe while bird watching? Do the weekly pastoral prayers for healing and security have a very different intention than what we celebrate within the cycles of nature?

And, coming at it from the other side, are the spiritual insights and sacred experiences that people have in the natural world acknowledged at all when we gather in the church building? How often do we mention wildlife in church, and do those references begin to touch on the respect for "otherness" that we feel in the wild? We may not be able to look at the stars, but do we ever talk about the billions of years of evolutionary time that put humanity's presence in perspective?

There are elements of an ecological spirituality that are profoundly important to many people. In your church, is there a lively interplay between those creation-grounded spiritual insights and the Sunday morning liturgy? Is the truth of both affirmed? Or are the vivid experiences of God in nature invisible and denied in church?

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My musings on this topic were stimulated by a debate within a local church that has close ties to Eco-Justice Ministries. Members of their "green team" took a proposal to the church board for strong environmental commitments in the church life, ranging across energy efficiency, educational programs, political advocacy, and worship.

The church board voted to affirm most of those goals, but declined to support the language about incorporating "elements of ecological spirituality in worship on a regular basis." It was, I gather, not an easy or simple decision. A number of concerns were raised about the protocols for planning and structuring worship. Clearly, though, there was some confusion about the nature and appropriateness of "ecological spirituality."

Since "ecological spirituality" is not a precisely defined concept, it could be difficult for church leaders to know if they should bring it into their regular worship. This week, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences. What does the term mean for you? How does your congregation bring that sort of spirituality into the life of the church -- or where have you felt that it is missing?

I believe that our churches will be stronger and more faithful when we affirm the ecological components of our spirituality, theology and ethics. What do you think?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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