Praying with the Forest

The digital thermometer in my car said it was -23°C. I was parked by the side of the road, wondering if anyone would show up. A couple of electronic regrets popped up on my phone. It was easy to understand, 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. I’ve become convinced that it isn’t praying “in the trees”; it’s praying “with the trees.” There are two biblical passages that point me in this direction. One is Psalm 148, which speaks about creation praising God. The other is Romans 8, which suggests that creation groans for its liberation. Why do we think these passages are metaphorical and the ones the ones that refer to humans praising and groaning are not? The trees pray—that’s my conclusion. They praise and they groan.

There is an interesting movement afoot called “forest church.” Books and articles have been written on the subject. The basic idea is to do church outside, to worship in nature, to make the most of natural imagery and the spiritual aliveness many of us experience in natural landscapes. I was at a conference some time ago where this was being discussed. A young man from Tanzania seemed unimpressed. He said that this used to be how everyone worshiped back home. It’s true. People have worshiped the Creator outside for eons. We might recall that some of the early Anabaptists worshiped in forests and in caves. Their motivation wasn’t so much to connect with God through nature, as it was to avoid the annoying authorities. Even so, it’s worth noting that they thought outdoor worship was possible. Built environments, just like liturgy and song, can help us hear from and speak to God, but there are good reasons to let go of these things sometimes.

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 outdoors. You can see it in someone’s face after a hike. You can hear it in their voice when they finish a climb they didn’t think was possible for them. I think you can even see it 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 others arrived. It wouldn’t just be me praying with the trees. 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. With mind’s eye we followed it into the ocean of God’s grace. We pictured ourselves in that precise part of God’s good earth. We took time to notice the beauty of the urban forest, God’s grace intertwined with human tilling and keeping. We shared our observations. Standing with the trees we praised God. With the trees we prayed for those we loved who also needed God’s liberation. And then we lost feeling in our toes. We headed back to our cars, with smiles on our numb faces.

I’m becoming increasingly aware of the importance of loving the place, the watershed, and the bioregion, where we live. I think it’s one way that we can share in God’s delight with creation. It’s also one of the things that might compel us to search for lifestyles that come closer to matching the sustaining capacity of the earth. Those are important reasons for joining the trees in outdoor prayer. Another reason is simply that our bodies and minds are meant for a more strenuous, more outdoor, type of existence. Being outside makes us feel good because God didn’t intend human evolution to fashion us for sitting in chairs and staring at screens for 70 hours a week. Even when it’s -23°C. So I don’t think praying with trees is anything new or revolutionary. I think it comes quite naturally to many of us. It might even be something we already do without thinking about it.

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