Green the Congregation through Worship
Reflections and Ideas by David Rhoads
Worship is the central recurring event in the life of a Christian community. Worship is a ritual. In ritual, we participate by immersion in a communal process that changes us by placing us in right relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. Worship is also an event. The call to worship, the proclamation of the Word, and the offer of Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine are actions of God that generate changes in our lives. They are events by which we as a church are transformed and renewed.
It is in the gathered community at worship that we celebrate our life together and affirm our identity as children of God and followers of Jesus. Worship is the place where we can be transformed anew each week as we seek to return from the struggles and vicissitudes of life in the world to restore our spiritual and moral rooted-ness in the life of God. Worship is also a central place where we articulate our fundamental beliefs and values. Therefore our love of God’s creation and our commitment to care for God’s creation should play an integral role in our worship life.
Worship as Re-Orientation .
One way to look at worship is to say that it is the place where we can express with the larger community the Christian life we have nurtured at home and work throughout the week. Another way to look at worship is to say that it is about reinstating our proper place in relation to God, ourselves, and other people when we have had difficulty maintaining these relationships through the week. It is like being lost in the woods and then stopping to orientate ourselves to the directions by means of a compass and our nearness to the edge of the forest—and then finding our way home. It is like being lost at sea and then stopping to locate ourselves from the stars in the sky so that we know where we really are—and then returning to solid ground. It is like using a global positioning locator to know just where we are in relation to everything else—and then being moved into the right position. Worship is a matter of getting/keeping our bearings and being situated in our rightful place in the universe. In this process, it is important to emphasize that it is not we ourselves who get our bearings. Rather, we put ourselves into a position to allow God to give us our bearings, to restore us to our rightful relationships.
Restoring relationships with God and one another : Through the rituals and events of worship, we find ourselves restored to right relationships. Through worship we are oriented to wholeness and our true purpose in life by being brought back into proper relationship with God, ourselves, and others. For example, by praise of God, we restore God to God’s rightful place in our lives as the one who created and sustains us. By thanksgiving, we recognize our human dependence on God for life and health. By confession and forgiveness, we seek to overcome our self-alienation and the brokenness of our relationships. By hearing the word of grace and challenge, we rediscover a proper sense of direction and our purpose in life. Through the offering, we give ourselves and our resources to this renewed vocation. Through prayer, we express a longing for all people who are lost or broken to be restored to a place of wholeness in relationship. By communing together, we return from alienation to a harmonious connection with others of the human community. With a blessing and a benediction, we go out with a renewed sense of who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We have become orientated. We have found our bearings, and we have reaffirmed who we truly are and whose we truly are—and, in so doing, we have found our home, our place of belonging in the world. Of course, it is our responsibility to seek to remain in these relationship from communal worship to communal worship.
Restoring our Relationship with nature . Unfortunately, our restoration/reorientation to place often leaves out an important and, indeed, crucial relationship. We reorient to God, self, and others, but often without restoring our relationship to nature. Yet nature is the web of life out of which we have come and where we will go. Nature is the inextricable matrix in which we live and move and have our being. We are a part of nature. Along with all other living beings and non-living things, we are nature. And if we are out of sorts with the rest of nature, if we are displaced from harmony with the creation of which we are such an integral part, if we are sinning against the natural world from which we ourselves have emerged, then we cannot fully find our bearings or our place.
If God created the world as a place in relation to which human life is inextricably woven, then we need to make the whole natural world an integral and important part of our worshipping experience. If worship is restoring ourselves to our proper place in the world—to recall who we are, where we have come from, the things upon which we depend, and that for which we are responsible—then worship must be a celebration of all life and an orienting of ourselves to our proper place within it. Nature can and should be such a fundamental dimension of the Christian life that we reflect the triad: Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself, and Care for creation.
Worshiping with Nature . To be fully into right relationship, we are called not only to restore our relationship with nature, but also to experience our solidarity with nature in relationship with God. That is, we humans are to worship and praise God with nature. Remember that the Psalms call for the hills to clap their hands and the trees to shout praises, along with animals and sea creatures, the seas and the soils, the trees and the grain—thus calling: “All creation, praise the Lord.” Hence, we can think about nature as our partners in worship. Nature itself is part of our worshiping community. It is important then that we are both in nature and with nature in our worship.
Worship as Counter-Cultural . Restoration to relationship with God, others, and nature is not the same as accommodation or assimilation into the society and culture around us. In fact, it may be quite the opposite. Reconciled relationships with God will orient us to values, actions, and structures that may go against the grain of the world around us. Reconciled relationships will place us in an alternative community that reflects the vision of God for human life. Reconciled relationships with others may set us at odds with the injustices, oppression, neglect, and discrimination of groups and individuals not sharing the values of the church. Similarly, reorienting ourselves to love of nature and care for creation may lead us to resist and oppose the practices of local and national government, businesses, corporations, and others who may contribute to the flagrant degradation of Earth’s natural systems and life. Worship can be quite radical in its call for discipleship. Worship can be subversive of the culture and an expression of counter-cultural thinking and acting. It can lead us to advocate for public policies and laws that foster love of neighbor and care for creation. At the same time, our re-orientation in worship may lead us to affirm many movements and actions in the culture that further the values and behavior fostered by our Christian way of being in the world.
Care for Creation in Worship.
There are many ways in which we can enhance our experience of nature, our connectedness to it, our solidarity with it, and our advocacy for it. It is helpful to think about the elements of worship and the seasons of the church year as contexts for incorporating care for creation. Following here are some reflections about this process.
Elements of Worship . The rituals of worship can integrate the place of all God’s creation with every part of worship and thus help to restore us fully to our place of health and wholeness.
- Invoking the Presence of God: We can name not just the church but the whole of creation as the sanctuary wherein we worship. “The whole earth is full of God’s glory.”
- Call to Worship: We can call to worship not only the human community but also we can invoke all creation as part of the worshiping community.
- Praise: In worship we can celebrate the wonder of creation and marvel at God’s handiwork. We can praise the God who created the blue jay and the raccoon, the poplar and the gardenias, the mountain spring water and the rich soil of the field. There are many Psalms that celebrate creation. These Psalms also invoke the praise of all creation in worship of God.
- Thanksgiving: We can give thanks for the air we breathe and for the water we drink and for the provision of food—and for the beauty and majesty of it all. We can give thanks for the whole of nature upon which humans depend. We can delight in all plants and all creatures for their own sake. We dare not take the rest of nature for granted.
- Hymns: We can include hymns that express praise for God the creator and our relationship to the rest of nature. There are many traditional hymns as well as new hymns and hymnals that deal with the love of nature.
- Litanies of confession: We can confess the greed and indifference by which we humans have despoiled and exploited the earth and other human members of earth community. We can incorporate into our litanies some specific confessions concerning our pollution of water, our defiling of the air, our arrogant use of creation without respect and limitations.
- Litanies of concern: these can always include expressions of our longing for creation to thrive, as surely as we pray for peace among human creatures.
- Declaration of Forgiveness: We can seek pardon for our violation of the hills through mining or our degradation of the air and water through pollution or our threat to the ozone layer and to the species whose survival is uncertain because of our human actions or for the human contributions to the global warming that may change the cycles of nature upon which we have come to depend. We can acknowledge how our actions have affected vulnerable human communities. Forgiveness can free us to act out of compassion rather than guilt.
- Scripture Reading and Preaching: Through the Word proclaimed, we can announce the love of God for creation, the grace that God offers, and the mandates that God gives as means to address the eco-justice problems of our age. We can see the human harm we do when we exploit the earth, we can be reminded of the common graces of nature, and we can be summoned to the challenge to care for the Earth.
- Prayer and Petition: We can pray for the capacity for all God’s creatures to thrive together on earth. We can intercede for endangered species, threatened eco-systems, and changing global conditions. We can grieve nature’s losses and destruction. And we can pray for the courage and wisdom to act.
- Offering: In the offering, we can offer ourselves to the care and redemption of all that God has made—as agents of God to be guardians of nature, stewards of its resources, lovers of life, earth-keepers, and caretakers of the land.
- Blessing: We can go out from worship with a blessing to till and tend this garden Earth on which we “live and move and have our being.”
- Hence, in order for us to be truly oriented by our worship, we can incorporate love for, celebration of, concern for, prayer for, and a commitment to care for all creation into each dimension of worship. If worship is a transformation restoring us to wholeness by restoring our proper relationships in life, then our relationship with the rest of nature needs to be an integral part of that power of worship to change us.
Care for Creation in the Seasons and Days of the Church Year. Also, each season of the year lends itself to the thematic development of our relationship with all creation:
- Advent Season : all creation groans together as we await redemption and restoration of all of life. Advent is a time to repent in preparation for a new age in which the leaves of the trees will be “a healing for the nations.”
- Epiphany Season : here we celebrate the manifestation and glory of God not only in the arrival of the Christ child but also in the light and glory present in the whole natural order of life.
- Lenten Season : During Lent, we recognize our complicity in sin, not only in relation to one another but also in our individual and corporate actions that have degraded the rest of nature. We grieve the losses to God’s creation and reflect on the sacrifices we can make to stop our sins against creation.
- Easter Season : We celebrate the resurrection of human life and envision the restoration/ regeneration of all of life.
- Pentecost Season : We reflect on the spiritual wisdom we need and the actions we can take—as individuals, as congregations, and as a society—to live a life in which all human and non-human creation can thrive together.
- Season of Creation : We focus on God as creator and the wonders of creation, all designed to help us love creation as God does and commit ourselves to care for it.
- Special Days . here are many special occasions in the year when it is especially appropriate that care for creation becomes the focus of the whole service, such St. Francis Day and Rogation Day. There are also days in the life of the US culture for celebrating creation, such as Thanksgiving Day and Earth Day Sunday. Special services might include a Blessing of the Animals, a tree planting ceremony, the greening of the cross, among others.
In all of these seasons and days, there is the opportunity to include all of God’s creation in our observances and celebrations. Seasonal decorations, banners, and sayings can keep this message before the congregation throughout the year. Furthermore, w e can enhance the experience of worship to bringing nature into the sanctuary: worship outside, place greenery/flowering plants into the church, give people seeds or seedlings to plant, decorate the sanctuary with natural art, and opening the sanctuary to natural light through windows and skylights. In all these ways, we can create an ethos in the congregation that will pervade worship with a care for creation and an experience of nature itself. .
The sacraments are occasions to reflect on human relationships with the rest of creation. Different Christian communities recognize different sacraments. We will reflect here on the two most common sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The presence of an element of nature and the pronouncement of a word in relation to the offer of the element of nature assure us that the reality of Christ/God will be present in, with, and under the elements and the whole event, so that they are sacramental—capable of bearing the holiness and grace of God into our lives so as to transform us.
We often focus on the symbolic meaning of the elements used in sacraments: water, bread, and wine. But in the context of our concern for the environment, we can focus on the elements themselves. Notice how the status of grapes and grain and water as vehicles of the divine can in turn serve to give meaning to and to enhance our experience of these tangible realities of life for their own sake. For example, as a Eucharist or “thanksgiving,” Holy Communion can be an opportunity to express gratitude for all the natural order that sustains life at a material (and a spiritual) level, leading us to delight anew in the creation. To see the natural elements of both sacraments—water, grain, and grapes—as vehicles of grace is to realize that the finite can indeed bear of the infinite to us. This in itself elevates the goodness of nature as worthy and capable of being the means by which we establish a relationship with God and by which God establishes a relationship with us.
Baptism . Traditionally, baptism involves water for cleansing and for judgment or it symbolizes death and resurrection. However, what about also exploring the richness of the symbol of water in new ways in light of our contemporary knowledge and experience of water? We now know that water is the primordial context out of which life emerged and evolved to its present state. Why not connect this with the new creation at baptism? If baptism symbolizes a new beginning to life, then we can reflect on the new beginning to humanity that comes by immersing ourselves in water—so that we can, in a sense, re-emerge from water as a renewed humanity or as renewed life in all its manifestations—and in solidarity with all the life forms that led to human evolution.
Or could we not emphasize how vital water is to life—how our bodies are 90% water and we cannot live long without it? In this way, the water of life in baptism reinforces our gratitude for the water upon which we depend for life and health. Or baptism may remind us of how tragic it is to consider being baptized by water that is polluted rather than the pure living water that God created. Such a connection could lead us to see anew our vocation as baptized people to preserve clean water on the Earth. Or by baptism in water, we may acknowledge how much of the whole earth is comprised of water. In this way, the very fact that we are declared a child of God by immersion into nature itself can serve to get us in touch with our em-beddedness in nature as human beings. In all these ways we may re-connect the water of baptism to the water around us in nature.
The Lord’s Supper . The sacrament of Holy Communion is another opportunity to realize how integral is our humanity is embedded in nature. In the Eucharist, we are using natural fruits of Earth as a vehicle for God’s presence: wine from grapes and bread from grain. But it is more than that. Grapes grow from the vine that brings it forth, the ingredients of the soil, the water that nourishes the soil, the beetles that aerate the soil, the sun that shines on the plants, the air that surrounds the plant—and the composition and the combination of these elements is unique to the particular area or region where the grapes are being raised. Add to these factors the wood from the trees used to make the barrels in which the wine was stored and the ingredients employed as fermenting agents. We can reflect in a similar way on the bread used for communion. Some congregations use organically-grown, whole grain bread. Some congregations use bread made of multiple grains originating from several continents. In these ways, the elements of the Eucharist get us in touch with all of nature.
In addition, the Eucharist is connected to all of life in another way. It is a reminder of the death of Jesus, a recollection that all of life is a cycle of living and dying and resurrection. This is not to reduce the particularity of Christ’s death or the efficacy of it for salvation to the processes of nature. Rather, it is simply to recognize that the death of Jesus is an analog to the natural order in which death gives birth to life. The deaths of trees and other plants and the death of animals over the life span of the planet have made the earth into a great store of energy and one great compost heap that is the source of life and energy today.
The Sacramental Presence of God/Christ everywhere . Finally, it is important to observe that the elements of the sacraments are “common” elements of life—elements of food upon which we depend for life—assuring us that if God can be present in and through such common elements as bread and wine, then surely God is present to us everywhere in life. What difference does it make to our view of the daily food we eat and the daily drinks we drink knowing that bread and wine are sacramental? What difference does it make to our experience of water and soil and air, knowing that water is sacramental? The Eucharist is meant not only to lead us to experience the particularity of its symbolic meaning in the communion meal. It also leads us to think differently about all common elements of life—in such a way that our common experiences of them also become sacramental. That is, all elements of nature may convey for us the grace of God, that dearest freshness that lies deep down all things. As Martin Luther wrote, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
When we see all of life as sacramental, it changes our relationship to and our responsibility for creation—concern for pure water, our desire not to waste food, the problems with pesticides on grain and grapes, and a host of other ecological problems to which humans have contributed. We re-dedicate ourselves in worship to stop our actions that degrade nature and to find ways to restore God’s creation.
Preaching the Word.
Whether following a lectionary system or doing thematic preaching, here are some subjects that could and probably should be included in preaching: Human responsibility to care for the earth; Our proper human role/place in relation to the rest of creation; Our human degradation of creation; Reasons why we fail in our responsibility to care for creation; Reasons why we ought to care and act on our convictions; The inter-relationship between human justice and environmental problems; The scriptural connection between human sin and the languishing of Earth; Celebration of God as creator; Celebration of all of life for its own sake; The extent of human dependency on life around us; Gratitude for life; Exploration of Christian symbols that are rooted in nature; Connecting the sacraments to the realm of nature; New ways of thinking about God that foster our change of attitude and action; Proclamation of God’s enduring grace in and through creation; The extension of the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection to all life.
Personal Devotions .
It is important for Christians to incorporate their relationship with nature not only into corporate worship but also into their private devotional worship. We cannot depend on worship alone to rescue us each week from the fractured relationships that result from the vicissitudes of life. Rather, we are called to nurture and maintain our love of God, our love for others, and our care for creation on a daily basis. There are many resources available—devotional books, collections of prayers, poetry, selected scripture passages, exercises and experiences, among others—that can give our community members a daily experience of closeness to nature, the nourishments of its common graces, and the sense of responsibility for it that are so important in the world today.
In order for us to be truly reoriented/confirmed by our worship, we should incorporate love for, celebration of, concern for, prayer for, and a commitment to care for all creation into every dimension of our worshipping experience. If worship is a transformation restoring us to wholeness by restoring and securing our proper relationships in life, then our relationship with the rest of nature needs to be an integral part of that power of worship to change us. Just as we cannot imagine worship without praise of God or prayer for those in need, so too we should not be able to imagine worship without expressions of our love for and our commitment to care for God’s creation.
By immersion and by osmosis, the weekly connection with nature through words and symbols and ritual actions and the presence of nature itself in and around the sanctuary will work a salutary effect on the worshipping community. A transformation can occur that leads people to see our profound connection with all God’s creation and that enables people to come to a place of renewed gratitude for nature and a sense of responsibility to care for creation as part of our vocation as humans and as God’s people.