I grew up in the Quaker tradition but my church was heavily influenced by the evangelical stream of Protestantism. Because of this, we talked a lot about the Bible. The Bible was central to our faith and practice. We talked a lot about what was in the Bible and why we should read it. However, I don’t recall much discussion of where to read it. I’m guessing that most of us Bible-readers don’t give it much thought.
It’s probably safe to say that most of the time we read the Bible indoors. We read it or hear it in our house of worship when we gather with our spiritual community. We may also read it in our homes, opening it up while sitting in a favorite chair or in the privacy of our bedroom. In my view, there is a lot of wisdom and truth within the Bible and that will come through wherever it is read. But recently I have come to see the value of reading the Bible outdoors. After all, the Bible was written by and for folks who spent a lot of their lives in the outdoors. It would make sense, then, that reading it outside would help us understand what the authors were talking about more easily. And there is something that happens within us when the environment around us is different, especially when it is a natural environment. Wendell Berry says it well:
I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is… It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.
With this wisdom in mind, Ashlyn and I have been leading a gathering called Outdoor Church. In Outdoor Church, we meet at a shelter in Mount Gilead State Park to read the Bible outside and be attentive to the Creator’s Presence within the created order. We do this through prayers, refreshments, stillness, walking, sharing, singing, and prepared reflections from Ashlyn and me. Ten of us gathered the first week and thirteen were present for the second week. Each was experienced as a rich and refreshing time by those who attended. They also demonstrated the wonderful reality of divine hospitality. Though we tended to all the details and carefully planned the schedule and space, being outside inspired an awareness that it wasn’t just Ashlyn and I who were doing the hosting. The Divine Host invited us to rest and relish in the beauty and wisdom of nature. Ashlyn and I were glad to hear that our teaching was useful for folks but it was also clear from the sharing that we were all taught in the school of creation. No wonder Christians throughout the ages have referred to nature as God’s “second book.” We need both books–the Bible and creation–to learn the ways of abundant life.
The first week, Ashlyn and I talked about the wisdom of wilderness and the importance of being in touch with the Earth. We reflected on how Jesus used mud to heal and recalled the ancient creation story of God forming the first human through Earth and Spirit. Unless we are in touch with both Earth and Spirit, we cannot be whole human beings. We also shared about how time in the wilderness (literally and spiritually) has helped us find healing and led us to the perspective we need for next steps. In week two, we reflected on wind/air/breath, the ruach of God. We were reminded that God desires to breath new life into us and it is literally available in the air we breath. Ashlyn provided a short science lesson on how trees and humans have an interdependent relationship in sustaining this Breath of Life. We then took some time to find a tree under which to breathe and listen, to be renewed like Elijah under the broom tree. It was life-giving to breathe in the stories of what people experienced during that time.
If this sounds interesting and you weren’t able to attend the first two, I have good news: we will be having another one in August! In our August gathering, we will be exploring together the wisdom of water and being “Baptized in the Deep.” Join us on August 26, 4:00pm at Mt. Gilead State Park.
Even as I have been a key leader in guiding these gatherings, I have also been taught and renewed by our times together. I’ve been reminded of the divine hospitality, the wisdom of wilderness, the widespread need for renewal, the value of open worship/sharing, and the importance of spending time with both of God’s books. May we read, savor, share and become increasingly literate in both.