Romans 1:20-23, 25
Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made. So people are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor the Creator as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
There is great confusion in some circles about Christianity and our relationship with creation that camp and retreat ministry leaders and congregational leaders must help clarify. The implications of not doing so are too great to ignore. Western Christian theology until relatively recent times has given overwhelming emphasis to the destiny of the human soul and the afterlife in a fall-redemption paradigm almost devoid of concern for the rest of creation. Some have taken this so far that nature itself becomes suspect as somehow alien to faith in God – at best nature is viewed as a resource for human consumption and a mere backdrop for the human story and at worst an evil distraction from what is truly spiritual, lasting and holy. This thinking leaves out a large portion of Biblical teaching that provides wholeness and balance critical to a full understanding of Christian faith and God’s love for all life not just humanity alone.
As a Camp and Retreat Center director, it never ceases to surprise me when I receive a letter or am confronted in person by another Christian brother or sister urging me not to take children, youth and adults into nature as part of faith formation. In many cases, they lift up the Romans 1:20-25 passage above with the warning that we are teaching children to worship nature or that we are abandoning Christianity for what they label to be “New Age” religion. This could not be further from the truth. Thankfully, these challenges are dissipating as clergy, Christian educators and theologians reclaim and speak to aspects of scripture and cherished teaching relevant to the reversal of the ecological destruction that devaluing creation is causing.
Part of our role in outdoor ministries is to help people study the full spectrum of scripture to understand it better. For instance, the Apostle Paul writes something quite contrary to the assumption that nature draws us away from God and away from honoring God. He says, “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” The problem is not nature or creatures or the natural world, which shines a light on our Creator. The issue is whether or not human beings grasp this and in turn embrace God.
We are now in the midst of re-examination of scripture and spiritual teachings related to care of the earth and how the creation speaks of God. These are not new traditions within Christianity, but ancient ones that have been largely overlooked. The motivation to search scripture again and to reacquaint ourselves with some religious mentors, such as St. Francis, is sparked in part by the obvious, serious degradation of the earth itself. We have come to understand that a preoccupation with ourselves as human beings has damaged our relationship with the rest of the creation and our relationship with God. People within the wider society are looking to see if the church will be relevant in the face of one of the biggest world issues of our time.
It is interesting to observe how new sensitivity for the natural environment has coincided with renewed interest in spirituality and in God, even for those not currently involved in local faith communities. Some churches have feared and attacked this fresh hunger for meaning and search for the Divine, because the church has not necessarily led the way and certainly does not control it. It does open the door to a whole new generation of seekers, however, who can find spiritual growth, meaning and companionship in our company as we move from the sidelines into leadership.
Those who speak of the oneness of all things, who find a deep connection with God through nature, and who emphasize the sacredness of all of creation are sometimes accused of being anti-God. We must not be dissuaded from the mission and ministry that the Church has given us based on the critique and misunderstandings of others. We are not pantheists who believe that creatures including human beings are gods themselves. We affirm, however, that God’s life-giving presence abides with and within every creature, which is quite different.
In the words of John Wesley from his reflections on the Sermon on the Mount:
“The great lesson that our blessed Lord inculcates here…is that God is in all things, and that we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature; that we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God…but with a true magnificence of thought survey heaven and earth and all that is therein as contained by God in the hollow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and activates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the soul of the universe.” Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount III (1748).
Christianity could provide an exciting faith community for seekers where they could find affirmation for their compassionate concern for the earth and all of God’s creation in a life of following Christ. The problem is that many persons who are spiritually hungry do not realize the church might be beneficial to their spiritual journey. We can make this link and build this bridge, as we gain greater clarity about the teachings of our own tradition.
Camp/retreat ministry is uniquely poised to serve as a bridge between seekers and the Church – a bridge, also, between humanity and the whole community of creation. Seekers sometimes feel more comfortable in the less formal camp/retreat settings where they can meet Christians who understand their yearning, speak their language. They might, then, more readily accept intentional invitations into faith formation and discipleship within a local church community. We can introduce biblical themes and teachings to local churches that they may not have considered for many years. This partnership would assist local churches and spiritual leaders of those congregations to greater awareness and therefore more poignancy among many within their fellowship and those beyond. Could God be calling those of us who serve in camp/retreat ministry for “such a time as this?”
One and Only God,
Thank you for all creatures that teach of you and for the seekers that are listening to hear your voice. Help us in camp/retreat ministry to serve as a bridge between those who are yearning for God and the communities of faith where they might join others who will support them in their search for the Divine and a life of discipleship. Help us be interpreters within the church and the wider world to reclaim lost heritage and spiritual wisdom. We thank you for Christ who binds all things together. Amen.