|Natural bridge over which we drove our ATVs|
There is a popular way of expressing this: Some people like to say that they get out in a deer stand, or on a hike, or volunteer at the park, and that is their worship. They see or encounter God in natural settings, and so they prioritize spending their Sabbath time in natural places.
Although as a pastor I don't agree theologically with notions that equate Christian worship with spending time outdoors in the woods, I do sympathize with the general tendency. Ideally, Christian worship would be so evocative of the surplus of beauty and meaning in God's creation that worship would feel like nature... and concomitantly, I would hope as a Christian leader I can help equip those out on hikes with deepened sensibilities of how to experience (and think about the experience) of being in nature specifically as a Christian.
Last week our family spent a few days on vacation in The Natural State. We got in the car early Sunday morning and crossed the Boston Mountains towards Fort Smith. I had a few podcasts queued up for the drive, so I spent a portion of the drive listening to Krista Tippett interview Roseanne Cash for her show On Being. Roseanne Cash experiences God in music to such a degree that if she were to write like Spinoza, she would probably give God this name: "God, or music." It's a powerful interview, and I confess I totally teared up when John Leventhal kicked in with guitar backup before she sang "God Is in the Roses" live for the show:
|children's message at St. Luke's|
We had left Fayetteville early Sunday morning so we could attend worship at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Forth Smith. Call me old school, but when I'm on vacation, I still want to go to church, and part of our travels always includes research into where we might attend. St. Luke's is our closest ELCA congregation to the south, and is kind of on the "frontier" for our kind of Lutherans in Arkansas. Head south from Fort Smith as a pastor, and you're like an old-time circuit rider, you have to go quite a ways into Texas before you find the next ELCA congregation.
We had a very warm welcome at St. Luke's 10:30 a.m. service. They provided busy bags for the kids, free brownies for us when we left, and the guest preacher offered a fun children's message for the kids. Some of the guys tried to conscript me for the church choir. It was a good way to start the trip.
From Fort Smith, after a brief drive down the affluent Free Ferry Street and some play at a local park, we continued our drive to Mount Magazine. There are a lot of fascinating sights along the way, including a family chapel in honor of a deceased mother, that included an extensive collection of bells. The chapel was beautifully appointed with pews, a small organ, and everything anyone would need for a small worship gathering in the mountains.
|Family shrine with bells|
Our reason for the drive, however, was Mount Magazine State Park itself. We had heard great things about the lodge and hiking there. The mountain itself includes the highest point in any of the central southern and midwest states, higher than any point in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, etc. Like many of the state park Arkansas lodges, it's a rustic destination with high quality facilities.
Over the course of our four days there, we did a three hour ATV tour, hiked four different trails on Mt. Magazine itself (all short trails, we hike with an eight, six, and three year old), and did two ranger led tours, one overlooking the valley and describing the state park itself, and the amphitheater they are rebuilding, the other focused on hummingbirds.
|Under a cliff|
Mount Magazine itself has some unique topography. Some plants grow only on this mountain, and then further east in the Appalachians. I'm personally quite fascinated with these mid-United States mountains, flattened and ancient as they are.
The whole time we were out in this "nature," I was continuing to ponder the relationship between God and nature. What can we learn about worship in church buildings with other Christians by being out in nature? What do we learn about nature by gathering for Christian worship? Are the two mutually exclusive? How are they related?
It's especially hard to think through these questions in the modern period because so much of what we do is still technologized. Even the photos I'm providing in this blog post (not to mention the blog itself) are digital mediations of the "nature" we went to Mount Magazine to see. So if you are reading this blog post, is the post disconnecting you to nature, or connecting you to it? Is what we experience in nature real enough on its own, or does it become more real, or only real, when we share it virtually?
If I am out in "the nature" always anticipating how I might take a photograph of it or otherwise mediate it for others (like in a tweet or blog), is my experience of nature always "framed" by the ways I anticipate mediating it virtually?
Similarly, although we sometimes think taking children to worship is different than taking them on a hike, actually the two share a lot in common. Our children tire as quickly on a hike as they do in a worship service. An hour starts to be a long time. They want snacks and distractions. In this sense, both the trail or the pew provide unique challenges and opportunities, and a screen or electronic device seems a plausible solution in either situation. I can't say I encounter God more or less in either place, it quite depends on the specifics--I do know I find both contexts challenging as a parent, and technology an ever present temptation.
|Mt. Magazine Lodge|
|Faith Lutheran Church, Boonville, AR|
Is it perhaps the case that in a modern, denatured world, both worship in a church, or a hike on a trail, are precisely some of the places God comes to meet us, not because God is nature, but rather because the surplus of meaning available through worship is clarified by places passing through and beyond, that inexorably draw us up not into transcendence, but re-embed us in immanence? All of which leaves me completely perplexed as to whether our experience of the digitally mediated world is transcendent, or immanent, or something else entirely.