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Gardening the heart. 3 – Outdoor church

The Sermon on the Mount, a perfect example of outdoor church, is a transformative example of how Jesus modelled interconnectedness with creation and mediates God’s truth and love through teaching, discipleship and healing, more often than not, outdoors.

He freely moved between indoor and outdoor congregational gatherings and group meetings in communities, fields, up mountains, on lakes , offering teaching, discipling and healing.

He constantly communicated far-reaching Kingdom truths through object lessons in creation, planting seeds of his word in the ground of people’s hearts. For example, in the agrarian parables such as the sower, the cultivation process explains our covenant relationship with God and life in his kingdom, an invaluable framework upon which to make sense of spiritual journey in Christ (Matthew 13).

Jesus, the go to role model for ‘outdoor church’ urges us, as he did his disciples, to humble ourselves, to look carefully and to listen deeply with all our senses for God’s wisdom embodied in creation. He shows us how to get up close outdoors and study and engage directly with creation, to consider the behaviour of the flowers of the fields and birds of the air and what they teach us of God and his Kingdom as well as how they model a state of contentment as opposed to anxiety (Matthew 6. 25-30). Blessed as we are by a wealth of gifted church leaders to mediate God’s written and spoken word, we are increasingly less literate than Jesus’ disciples and early Christians about the immediacy of Christ, the living word communicating his kingdom truths through creation, its seasons and cycles, to our own creative and spiritual impoverishment (Proverbs 28:19).

We might not have access to a vineyard, or even a garden, but in terms of accessing a framework and tools to help us attend to our own and others spiritual formation in growing the kingdom of God, the processes of cultivation or gardening, and the metaphors they embody, are essentials in our spiritual toolkit. God ordained the natural order of things to communicate spiritual lessons about his Kingdom, to help us understand and work out our salvation, with fear and trembling, to relate to Christ intimately and to one another in creation. Tony Horsfall, a popular author on spiritual formation, suggests that ‘…creation can speak to us personally and individually, for God has filled the created order with his word. …if we are alive to it, we can hear God speak to us even as we encounter his creation. This is why Jesus trained his disciples to open their eyes and consider the detail of what was happening in Creation around them.

One of the positive consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, evidenced, here in Britain at least, is people’s reconnecting with nature and with gardening, with their inherent beauty and seasonal cycles of growth and renewal. This isn’t just about people getting outdoors and gardening more because it is deemed medically good for well-being but its perhaps more about collective expression of a recalibration, rethinking and returning to what is life giving, cultivating of hope, an aid to healing. It is of course also about survival for many, including for businesses of many kinds. British society is likely to be encouraged to ‘do life’ outdoors as much as possible in the coming months to continue to socially distance, whilst the complex process of release from lockdown is implemented step be step.

This combination of people’s desire to be outdoors in nature, coupled with the increasing numbers of people seeking spiritual nourishment, albeit online is something to prayerfully consider as our churches, fellowships and initiatives work out how they transition from lockdown and online worship to churches being open again, albeit not business as usual. Meeting safely, congregationally in indoor space, until we are deemed free from Covid 19, will have many restrictions and unknowns. Meeting outdoors congregationally over the summer months at least, offers potential for safe gatherings as well as opportunity for some outdoor teaching on the kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount is a gift to this end. Though there might be a lack of confidence and distinct challenges for many in setting about outdoor prayer, worship and teaching.

What agrarian knowledge are people, including our congregation members, deprived of that could help us to grasp the meaning of these key parables and unlock the treasures of God’s kingdom more fully, particularly in this current season?

There are rich historical precedents for outdoor ministry in church history, for example within our own early Christian monastic traditions, not least the early Christian leaders of communities in Britain and Ireland, such as St Cuthbert and Bede, offer us documentation of the diverse ways Creation inspired teaching, worship and prayer, as well as provided the context for much of their ministry across Northern England and Scotland. The surviving high stone crosses, associated with the early Celtic church’ bear witness with their carved Biblical scenes, to potentially being outdoor places of congregation or preaching stations. Other examples include Teresa of Avila, the 16th Century Spanish mystic, influenced by Augustine’s confessions and his own heart conversion in a garden. In her autobiography she describes the soul’s progress in terms of cultivation of a garden, with Christ clearly identified as the gardener. The Carmelite convents she oversaw had shared gardens to aid the disciplines of solitude, silence, repentance, chastity, humility, purity of heart and zealous love.

Many of you may will have been involved in tented church gatherings and outdoor holiday bible clubs over the years- which might count as examples of outdoor church. There are some new practical approaches and helpful resources that have been developed and shared by those who have ventured outdoors with congregational worship in recent years. I would recommend Rev Sally Welch’s Outdoor Church publication and also Creative Ideas for Wild Church: Taking all-age worship and learning outdoors by Juno Hollyhock and Wild Worship by Rachel Summers.

Gardening the Heart (formerly Parable Garden) encourages and resources people of all ages in engaging with Creation, seasons, gardening and creativity as tools for discipleship, spirituality and wellbeing, at home, in schools, local churches, hospitals, Care Homes in rural and urban contexts.

Our most recent resource ‘Seasonal Treasure Reflections – Spring’, though late in the season, is accessible to download here. The reflections include images, short videos, words from the Christian Bible, quotes, poetry, prayers, suggestions for creativity and reflective questions to help you enjoy moments of solitude, or together with others, nurturing your spirituality and wellbeing. Themes are inspired by the seasonal beauty of nature and cultivation in gardens, vegetable plots, fields and woodlands.

Suggestions for creativity are included to encourage you to use materials, whatever you have to hand – perhaps pen, paper, coloured pencils, felt tip pens, paints or musical instruments, to express your response to what you are observing, thinking and feeling. Creative process of all kinds nurtures wellbeing and can facilitate deeper spiritual connections.

These reflections are being circulated as a pilot in rural parishes, Care Homes and Hospitals via NHS chaplaincy. We would welcome your feedback if you are inspired to use them – the easy feedback process is integrated into the seasonal treasure reflections webpage.. Summer Reflections in the same format are in process, as well as seasonal treasure for families and children and also schools.

There is an urgent need to recover experiential knowledge, confidence and literacy in drawing upon natural cycles and seasons, practical cultivation and its spiritual parallels as a dynamic resource for ministering kingdom truth to all ages, and for God, through Christ, to be known more deeply.

In the wilderness, in fields, woodlands or gardens, up mountains, in valleys we can, whatever our age or context, expect to meet heart to heart with God, through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the ground of own hearts and lives.

To ponder…

When did you last handle soil or expend energy digging over soil, prepare the ground for planting, sow seeds, prick out seedlings, water dry ground, compost or harvest, or perhaps help to plant a tree, or just observe?
What experience do you have of exploring gardens or outdoor spaces, as places of nurture that awaken the senses to observe and listen externally, and also inwardly to God and to your own heart?

How can we return to using the practical, creative ways that Christ ministered the kingdom of God outdoors through agrarian parable and resources from nature?

How could outdoor spaces around churches and people’s gardens be used more deliberately in this regard especially now when we need to be drawing creatively on resources to minister to people beyond the church building?

How could we develop or use gardens or use outdoor spaces as places of prayer and spiritual reflection? Hosting acts of worship and ministering Holy Communion outdoors need not be limited to Easter morning!

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