When my wife and I moved to Costa Rica, we began visiting the lush trails of tropical forests on our Sabbath days to listen and worship. In similar ways, the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing people all over the world out of buildings and toward other ways of worshiping on Sunday, giving us a chance to reframe how we experience Sabbath rest and experience God’s enriching nourishment in his magnificent creation.
How has “church” changed for you over the past few months? What do your Sunday mornings look like during the pandemic?
In past years I’ve been involved in “church” in its most traditional evangelical form – weekly Sunday morning worship gatherings – and also in a number of its related activities: missions travel, social outreach, homework clubs, church boards, youth ministry, summer camps, Bible studies, Christian education, the sound/graphics/tech team—the list goes on. There is really an endless amount of social activities that can connect us to our body of fellow Christians.
The pandemic has severely disrupted this weekly rhythm and thrown our Christian social activities for a loop. Many of us are terrified and already missing our Sunday worship services and all those cascading social activities linked to the building and those Sunday-morning relationships. For my wife and I, we had already left those familiar Sunday-morning gatherings behind us nine months before the pandemic when we moved away from our bilingual church family in Nampa, Idaho to a rural, remote biological field station in the cloud forest of Costa Rica.
This separated us from our traditional “church family.” But what it gave us was the opportunity to be more intentional about taking Sabbath rest by trekking into the woods and enjoying the lush, green, dripping-with-life tropical lands surrounding us. We would tote along some portable chairs, hike into a spot overlooking a green wall of gallery forest, and then simply sit and watch, or read a devotional or scripture portion, or sing a few hymns, our voices blending with the chattering birds and gurgling brook. Our favorite spot gave us a good view of a Quetzal family in a cavity nest. The Quetzal bird has inspired contemplation of the divine for hundreds of years before European invasion of the Neotropics which is home to amazing creatures like it that attest to the incredible ingenuity of our Creator-God.
READ: Lessons from the Fog (And This Pandemic)
Of course, making time to enjoy nature isn’t something we are unique in practicing, only accessible to us in a tropical montane cloud forest. The pandemic and summer weather have pushed people out of buildings on Sundays, and in some cases into the wild. We watched friends and family in the U.S. and other parts of the world break their weekly church-in-a-building routine and instead opt for weekend hikes, multi-day backpacking treks, campfire conversations, cross-country jogs along rows of corn and alfalfa, drawing at the lake, motorcycle rides through curving pine forest roadway, taking a telescope out to watch stars and comets, raising chickens, foraging for mushrooms, visiting archeological sites, camping at national parks—all incredible, life-enriching ways of experiencing God’s majestic creation and learning from clues which God has placed in the world that point toward to the divine.
The Bible is full of references to God’s “two books” through which God speaks truth and instruction. There is Awe, and then there’s the Law (Psalm 19). There is God’s holy mountain and God’s house of prayer (Isaiah 56). There’s the temple and the tabernacle; the city of God and God’s presence in the wilderness. In both, God speaks love and truth; in both God is present.
And so why do we depreciate one and favor the other? Why are we so devastated when we are exiled from the house of prayer to the heights of God’s holy mountain? Our reactions and feelings of loss toward having our weekly temple worship stripped away might reveal something of an idolatry within us. Have we become too dependent, too anchored, too confined to the temple walls and to the warm fuzzies we get from the familiarity with our siblings in the church?
It’s not that those connections aren’t important and that the meeting and greeting of physical bodies in sacred places isn’t central to the body of Christ. But I think we can benefit at this time by reframing our narrow perspective on when and where God speaks loving truth to us. While the wildness of our awesome God awaits, we prefer mourning in the confines of our human constructions and constrictions.
So what I am proposing is to embrace the holy mountain (or whatever outdoor space you can access). To seek out wilderness. To spend a night in the forest, sit in your lawn, watch out your window. And listen. See that as holy communion with God – because it is.