A burgeoning concern of liturgical scholars and worship leaders has been to find ways to emphasize the gift of creation and the joy God’s word expresses about creatures and plants, water and earth itself. Scott Kershner explains here how he helped lead a mountain community to more fully welcome nature into worship. The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 4.
In 2010, I left eight years of parish ministry in Brooklyn, New York, to accept a call as pastor at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state. Surrounded at Holden by the Glacier Peak Wilderness, I went from one of the most densely urban places to one of the most remote sites in the continental United States. The challenge of pastoral ministry in a wilderness threw matters of ecology and liturgy into bold relief. The task of connecting liturgy and local ecology is a pastoral imperative in every setting. Holden Village’s wilderness context allowed me, as a pastor, to appreciate this urgency. . .
Holden Village is located on the site of the company town of an abandoned copper mine, given to the Lutheran Church in the early 1960s. Getting to this mountain valley of stunning beauty requires a three-hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan, a fjord-like fifty-mile-long body of water largely unmarked by human presence, followed by a bumpy bus ride on an eleven-mile dead-end road into a glacier-carved valley. As an intentional community and retreat center, Holden is composed of the resident staff, volunteers, and guests who stay for days or weeks. The institution is dedicated to learning, creativity, sustainability, and the nurturance and renewal of the church. The community gathers every evening for vespers (Evening Prayer) and shares Holy Communion every Sunday.
. . . At Holden, it was not difficult to recognize the walls in which we gathered as both necessary (especially in a place with an average winter snowfall of twenty-five feet!) and a limitation to our liturgical imaginations. Our attempts at breaking down those theological and ecological walls were experiments in religare, the Latin root of religion, to bind together. . .
Here are some examples of how the worship at Holden Village came to attend to both the liturgical calendar and the blessings of nature’s seasons at the same time.
Because the shortening days of the Advent season were palpable to us as valley dwellers, we reflected in vespers on Advent themes of darkness, waiting, and hope. We worshiped outdoors in inky-dark evenings, with “pews” cut from banked snow while singing Psalm 19 by candle and starlight. The Christmas proclamation of the birth of the Light that shines in the darkness was a message of existential promise. When we filed out of Christmas Eve candlelight worship, handheld tapers were planted in snowbanks under a wheeling night sky as we sang, “Silent night, holy night.” Epiphany worship included a great Christmas tree bonfire. . .
Lent sent us into the woods. I spread field guides around the circular hearth at the center of our sanctuary and invited the community to collect cones during Lent from each of the sixteen varieties of our native conifer neighbors. Some grew nearby; others only at harsh elevations. As people hiked, skied, and snow-shoed, cones of each of these species began to populate our worship space, representing the forests our human community invited indoors to join the liturgical celebration. We began to see these trees as co-participants in our common worship and ourselves as faithful members of the land community beyond our doors.
Scott M. Kershner, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serves as University Chaplain at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. He received a Pastor's Study Grant for this research, funded by the Louisville Institute.