Solitary, Silent Christianity – It’s a Thing

Do you know someone who says, “my Sunday worship service is time on the lake,” or “I spend time with God hiking the Smokies”? Maybe you feel this way yourself?

With church attendance continuing to drop and as more and more Americans classify themselves as “none” or “done” with religion, it’s time to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to practice Christianity than to go to church on Sunday morning.

Those who practice their faith in the privacy of their own homes, out in the garden, up in the mountains, or sitting in a boat in the middle of a quiet lake are just as Christian as those who show up to sit in a pew every Sunday morning. In fact, during the early years of Christianity, those who took their faith the most seriously fled the noise and drama of communities and went out into the most remote places they could find to be alone and silent with God.

We’re told time and time again that Christianity “must” be practiced within a community. But running counter to the story of Christianity in community is the story of a quieter, more meditative Christianity practiced far from the maddening crowds, far from any institutional requirements or expectations, far from any sort of so-called human authority or hierarchy.  This was the story of those who sought God in the lonely solitude of the deserts, the forests, the caves, and in far-flung, off-the-beaten-path places.  This quieter story was lived out by holy men and women we now call “saints,” by monks and nuns, and later by simple pioneers and settlers who without fuss incorporated faith into their daily agricultural chores. Early Christian saints sought out the wild, the untamed, and the deserted as they sought God and deepened their own spiritual lives.

The “Desert Fathers and Mothers” – men and women who moved out to far flung places in the deserts of the Middle East – sought a heightened spirituality, a life lived close to God.  They craved the quiet, the solitude, and the serenity of life in the wilderness, away from the daily dramas of community life.  Perhaps they craved, too, a little danger as well.  The thrill and confidence of surviving an unforgiving environment, wild animals, and a focus on the bare necessities of life likely gave them perspective, heightened awareness of their surroundings, clearer thinking, and time to wrestle down any emotional demons they had carried with them into the desert.

Like any wilderness experience in both ancient and contemporary times, the challenge of surviving in the desert toughened up these men and women, burning away all selfishness, hedonistic desires, greed for material goods, and anger.  One “desert father,” Joseph of Panephysis, was said to have advised a young disciple that the point of this tough-love spirituality was to become “all flame.”  Perhaps that’s what modern people who are “done” with church seek as well – a purer, more authentic spiritual experience than sitting on a pew in a stuffy building.

So the next time you look askance at someone foregoing a church service to spend the day in the garden, on the lake, or off in the mountains, it’s okay. So did a lot of Christians we now call Saints.

Several paragraphs of this blog post are excerpted from Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us by Cynthia Coe, available in e-book and paperback editions on Amazon.com.

Wilderness as the Forgotten Place of Spirituality

The idea of wilderness as a place of deep spirituality is not new at all.  If we delve into Old and New Testament roots of spirituality in the wilderness, we see that many – if not all – of the major figures in the Bible sought quiet time in the wilderness to confront, deepen, or connect with their own spirituality.

What changed?  Spirituality – as part of the religious life – became institutionalized.  As Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, it moved into closed spaces and became subject to rules, presided over by priests and organized into a formal religion.  For Western European and American Christians, spirituality became a boxed-in, regulated practice virtually divorced from its early connection with the wilderness.  Even in the late twentieth century, prayer was generally something you did in the church building or at the dinner table or before you tucked yourself or your children into bed.  For most Christians, the rich tradition of spirituality in the wilderness was forgotten.

But life changed around the turn of the twentieth century.  Cities and villages had always existed, but in the mid-twentieth century, people in Western Europe and the Americas began a long and civilization-changing migration from farm to town.  They began working in office buildings and living in apartment buildings, suburban home developments, and other medium to high density venues.  The farm was left behind, and so was almost all connection to the natural world.  The “outdoors,” for most people, became a city park or a back yard.  If you want to connect with the natural world, you have to make an effort.

The connection between the wilderness and spirituality has never been more needed or well-suited for humans than any time since the ancient world. As church participation and attendance continues to plummet, we might appreciate that time in the wilderness is a time-honored spiritual practice. If a majority of Americans do not darken the doors of churches any longer, it may because they have chosen quiet, soul-nourishing spiritual experiences that are just as much a part of Christianity as a structured liturgy led in a boxed-in building.

This blog post is an excerpt from Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us by Cynthia Coe, available in both e-book and paperback editions at Amazon.com.

Crafting with Kids, Crafting in Nature

As we look toward a more environmentally friendly and sustainable world, one area where teachers, children’s ministry leaders, and youth leaders can both make a difference and set an example for younger generations is their choice of materials for crafts. Whether in the classroom, Sunday School room, or during summer camp, offering children and youth all-natural materials or objects found in nature for crafting activities can both help address “nature deficit disorder” and walk the walk of acting with good stewardship of earth’s resources.

Several excellent resources for crafting with nature have recently become available.  Thanks to their publishers, I’ve been able to read and review advance copies of these new books, and I’m delighted to report that they are all great resources for teachers and camp leaders.

Nature Art Workshop by Katie Brooks, Sarah Lorraine Edwards, Allison Hetzell, Mikko Sumulong. This gorgeous book has sharp photographs to inspire crafts using flowers, wood, shells, feathers, acorns, and other items found in nature. These projects show that natural elements found in a backyard or nearby park can be used to make pictures, candles, and other art projects.  A lovely book to have around the classroom for children and youth to get ideas for their projects. Available on Kindle September 18, also coming soon in print.

Nature Craft by Fiona Hayes. This nicely illustrated and photographed book offers lots of projects for smaller children.  Using natural elements (sticks, pine cones, feathers) along with purchased materials (felt, paper, googly eyes), this book includes instructions for making lots of forest critters and a couple of masks.  Instructions for making sheep and angels are particularly helpful for Sunday School teachers. This book would be good for teachers who want to use a few natural elements but also want to use more traditional crafting materials. Just published in hardcover.

Into Nature by Autumn Totten and Alexandra Frey. This book is an interactive journal for older children and teens to take into nature, serving as a guide, journal, and inspiration to explore nature in a meaningful way.  I loved that the book is not just for the “outdoorsy”types and meets kids where they are in terms of comfort level in wild or semi-wild settings. (There’s even a couple of exercises involving house plants for those squeamish amongst the bugs and dirt.) This journal includes a comprehensive set of exercises appealing to all the senses (e.g. exploring how it feels to put your bare feet in mud), leading young people to truly immerse themselves in nature. This book would be a wonderful companion for young people attending summer camps.  It emphasizes mindfulness and would be fully compatible with church camp curricula. Just published in paperback.

Foraging with Kids by Adele Nozedar. For a more “foody” twist on crafting in nature, this book is for you. This book leads you through the woods to explore what is edible, with simple recipes included. For children and youth who are not into making crafts, foraging for food in nature provides a bit more daring alternative. For youth leaders who regularly take kids on hikes, this book provides a great resource identifying plants and exploring what you can do with them.  This book is written for a primarily British audience, but much of it is applicable to the forests of North America. Available on Kindle and in hardcover September 18, available for pre-order now.

Cynthia Coe is the author of Wild Faith: A Creation Care Curriculum for Youthand Earth Our Garden Home: Creation Care Lessons for Childrenand served as an Environmental Stewardship Fellow of The Episcopal Church.

Good Friday in the Garden

This is an excerpt from my book, “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us,” now available in paperback and Kindle at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU.   

The Garden is where Jesus was buried and resurrected to new life.  This is what happens in a garden.  The dry, seemingly lifeless seeds from the harvest of the past are buried in the earth.  We wait for something mysterious to happen under the earth, out of sight, and fueled by water and air.  Then we rejoice in the new life that springs up in front of us, growing into a beautiful flower or nutritious fruits or vegetables that will give us joy and sustain our very lives.

What happens in the Garden IS the story of the Christianity.  Death becomes new life, despite a seemingly hopeless state of affairs at the beginning of the process.  We proceed in faith that something will happen despite our inability to see anything hopeful happening at all.  How this all happens is mostly a mystery.  But eventually, a tiny sprout of new life pokes through the soil.  This new life is fragile and might wither.  But with careful tending and protection of this new life, the plant will grow tall and strong and give us the life-sustaining nutrition we need so much.

By resurrecting in a Garden, perhaps Jesus shared with us his best teachable moment.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to draw our attention to the garden, once and forever, urging us to look – really look – at what happens in the garden.  In his resurrected form, Jesus was first thought to be the gardener.  Perhaps the role of the gardener – the cultivator of God’s creation, an expert on the process of gardening, someone who pays attention to what is going on in the natural world – is a  role we might explore as we seek to cultivate and grow our own spiritual lives. 

We often feel most at peace in the garden. Perhaps it is this peace that Jesus sought in the Garden of Gethsemane before his death on the Cross.  Perhaps it was the awareness of all life – ending, beginning, and continuing on, through all our human births and deaths – that consoled Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or helped him confront worldly temptations in the wilderness, immediately after his Baptism and in preparation for his public ministry.

This peace in the garden and in the wilderness is something we can have in our own world today.  This peace is often right outside the door, a place of solace and quiet available at all times.  The natural world can also be a place of spiritual growth and development of wisdom, if we only step outdoors and pay attention in quiet and solitude, listening to God with our hearts. 

Easter Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of “Earth our Garden Home: Creation Care Lessons for Children” and “Wild Faith: A Creation Care Curriculum for Youth,” both available in paperback and Kindle editions. Considering Birds & Lilies is now available at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU. All of my books are included in Kindle Unlimited.