Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Worship and Awe
distributed 2/15/13 - ©2013

Through Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes will be exploring several qualities of worship that is richly ecological and transformational.

God's creation is astonishing and awe-inspiring, an intricate web of relationships through which life flows. When we are aware of the creation around us and within us, we will respond in worship-full ways: praise and thanks, delight and joy, wonder and humility, love and respect.

When we are aware of the creation around us and within us, our faith and worship will be "environmental" at the very deepest levels. That is true of our personal spirituality, and in our collective gathering for congregational worship.

When we are caught up, though, in the urbanized, technological, materialistic culture of our day, then it is remarkably easy to be oblivious to the creation. When our primary way of experiencing the world is as consumers, as users of resources, then creation does not stir our souls, and our worship is diminished. When we are unaware of the ecological web of life that sustains us, and when we never even glimpse the vast scope of creation, then our worship becomes privatized and shallow.

The challenge in our churches is to nurture and evoke the experience and awareness of creation. Talking about creation is a small part of that. Guiding our communities into vivid connections with creation will inspire responses that enrich and transform the way we worship God.

The path to Earth-aware worship begins outside the church sanctuary, at times other than Sunday morning.

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Psalm 8 speaks from the gut about awe and praise. "O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"

The psalm's poetic praise expresses a universal religious experience of people before the invention of the electric light. Until very recently, almost everyone would see the full glory of the night sky. The beauty and splendor of that sight "puts us in our place" as we come to grips with the mind-boggling scope of the universe. Today, though, light pollution hides the stars, and we're so busy and distracted that we rarely look up anyway.

Authentic worship requires the sense of awe. When that is lost and lacking, churches must provide or help us recover that experience. Take a group of church folk away from the worst of the lights, and lie on the grass in a park on a dark night. Or sit for hours on the ocean shore. Or take the time to soak up the deep time expressed in ancient redwoods or layers of rock. An earthquake or a storm might break into our lives with the realization that we're not in control all the time.

It is wonderful when church groups can go to share those experiences, and to explore their feelings together. It is good when churches create occasions to help us remember vividly when we have had such experiences. A spirituality retreat can help us re-collect our memories and feelings -- not only in our heads, but in our hearts and souls.

When we talk together as a community of faith about awe-some times, when that becomes a shared experience of the community, then our congregational worship is changed. The words of a worship service -- in scripture and prayers and sermons, in hymns and anthems -- can then draw out what we know within our bones.

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"Nature deficit disorder" describes a new human condition. Kids don't play in the woods anymore. Manicured lawns don't have bugs to watch, and songbirds rarely grace our neighborhoods.

The world around us is often treated as a setting to do our own thing, not as a place to encounter God and nature. Joggers circle parks with earbuds and music. Climbers set out to conquer Colorado's high mountains and check off another peak on the list of "14ers" without pausing to see the wildlife or smell the flowers.

We don't know where our food comes from -- and agribusiness works hard to make sure that we don't know about the inhumane treatment of animals, the abuse of farm workers, the chemicals and ecological damage that are involved in our food supply. When tomatoes and strawberries are available year-round, we miss out on the delight of seasonable blessings.

We are blind to ecological relationships. Most folk in our congregations and communities don't see the connection between sterile lawns and the absence of bug-eating birds. When we don't see the complexity of the web of life, we will be insensitive to the wondrous and essential ways that coral reefs sustain life through the oceans.

If we seek to have worship in our churches that is attentive to God's creation, then we have to make the creation part of our everyday experience. We have to treat "nature deficit disorder" so that our worship can name and celebrate the blessings and wonder and life that is all around us, and within us. What we name in the church service, then, is an authentic expression of our delight and compassion in the world.

For the sake of authentic worship, our congregations can help people have gardens that provide food and attract bees. We can support farmer's markets. We can encourage church members to slow down, to have enough Sabbath in their lives so that they can listen to the birds and crickets, or walk slowly through the woods and smell the leaves decaying into soil. Churches can invite bird watchers to post a list of the species that are present each season. Fellowship groups can go to the zoo or a wildlife habitat -- not to gawk at the exotic beasts -- but to appreciate how each unique part of God's creation fits into a place and a life community. The church grounds can emphasize native plants.

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Worship is an act of praise and gratitude, of commitment and service. Worship is what we hope happens in the context of liturgy. Our words and rituals are not worship. They are some of the tools that we use to guide us into the emotional, spiritual, cognitive and bodily ways that worship flows in us and though us.

In today's world -- where we don't see the stars or feel the changing seasons, where we buy our food frozen and boxed, where we never venture into the woods or the prairie -- churches must employ new tools to stimulate genuine worship. In order for us to praise God, the creator and sustainer of life, pastors and spiritual leaders must go beyond the Sunday morning sanctuary. "Environmental worship" requires vivid and shared experiences of God's creation that fill us with awe and delight and thanks and humility.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org   *   E-mail: ministry@eco-justice.org