Tending the Vine at Church of the Woods

A Note from EcoTheo

The EcoTheo Review is excited to announce its newest partner: Kairos Earth. The good folks at Kairos Earth will be contributing regularly to the ETR community. Here, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder offers a bit on their innovative means of reconnecting faith communities with creation thorugh ‘Church of the Woods.’ But, more importantly, you get Chelsea’s thoughtful reflection on how her engagement with creation has come with a flood of spiritual richness she had been missing.

We look forward to continuing to feature the great work of Kairos Earth, and you can expect to hear more from this partnership in the near future.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

– John 15:1-5

Tending the Vine in the Woods

<em>Fall Leaves</em>, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, all rights reserved

Fall Leaves, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, all rights reserved

Tucked quietly into a corner of Canterbury, New Hampshire, are 106 acres of recently (and roughly) logged – and now recovering – woods and wetlands. They are, in many ways, what one might expect: an uneven spread of old growth, new growth, cleared spaces, and definitively uncleared spaces. Looking at them from one angle, these woods are a portrait of unkind human use of land for profit. The loggers who felled, dragged, piled, and removed gave disappointingly little thought to the processes they employed to achieve their end objective. Deep damage ensued.

However, if one stands still for a longer moment and chooses to look at this land–not solely in that particular shadow of pained history, but in a different kind of light–one notices the stunning raw and wild beauty of these 106 acres: a varied landscape which is home to pockets of quartz, porcupine nests, shady groves, and rocky outlooks. From this angle, the land becomes precisely what one might not expect –it becomes a church. Specifically, Church of the Woods, a new ministry created and chaplained by Reverend Steve Blackmer, an Episcopal priest in the diocese of New Hampshire and executive director of Kairos Earth, a non-profit which seeks to renew a widespread understanding of the natural world as a bearer of the sacred and to restore this awareness as a foundation of both religious practice and practical action to conserve the Earth.

As stated in Kairos Earth’s vision, Church of the Woods is “a place where the land itself is the church. In this, we are deliberately opening up what it means to be ‘church,’ providing a place for spiritual practice for people who aren’t comfortable in a regular church, who may be seeking alternatives, or who long for a place and community for communing with both ‘God’ and Nature. At the same time, we are encouraging people of traditional faith to experience the uplifting that takes places in a natural context. With a focus on contemplative practice and engaging with the Earth as a sacrament – a tangible, visible manifestation of divine truth – Church of the Woods serves as a concrete example of what we are preaching.”

In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Tending the vine at Church of the Woods is largely a practice of connecting people of traditional religion with Earth. Services on the second and fourth Sundays of the month are held in the Episcopal tradition and feature readings from scripture, singing, 30-45 minutes of silent meditation in the woods, shared reflection, and a simple service of the Eucharist. If one embraces nature as a bearer of the sacred–of God, of Christ, of “the true vine”–this becomes a call to abide in Earth, to humbly acknowledge that without Earth we are nothing; we bear no fruit. How true! In a time of climate crisis, environmental degradation, and ongoing human-inflicted harm to our planet, the call to tend the vine can and must be a call to love and care for Creation, and to embody this love in order to cultivate practices and action to preserve Earth and her creatures.

In a more subtle way, Church of the Woods also tends the vine by activating God’s presence for people who love nature but do not hail from a traditionally religious background. By offering a way of connecting to the sacred, a language for articulating spiritual transformation, and a manner of being in church that welcomes people–like me–for whom “church” and “religion” have not necessarily worked, Church of the Woods offers the opportunity for a seemingly barren vine to bear fruit.

Let me explain.

On Being a Millennial & Religious “None”

On my first foray into Church of the Woods a mere six months ago, I was both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the idea of “woods as church.” Apart from having two degrees in comparative theology, I have never easily embraced religion and faith in any personal sense. Instead, I might more closely be identified with a “millennial” or a “religious None.” 1 Respectively, these terms boil down to two primary cultural phenomena: (a) being helplessly incapable of surviving without smartphones, and (b) not going to church. In other words, we exist in a new technological age which is redefining personal relationships and participation in various components of society–including the religious sphere. Further, church membership is rapidly declining, particularly among those of a younger generation who don’t feel drawn to traditional religion and prefer to pursue a more individualized path to spirituality, if we pursue any path at all.

I’m a good example. 2

I was born on January 2, 1987, and thus turned the impressionable age of 13 a mere 24 hours after the computers survived the impending doom of Y2K. That has millennial written all over it. As for my “None-ness,” I grew up in a decidedly secular home where the closest thing to religion was my dad’s environmental asceticism. The next closest thing was the cultural milieu of conservative Christianity in central Oklahoma, where the bible belt is often a few notches tighter than in the other states of that region. Despite the Southern Baptist norm of our community, church and religion were things my family neither did nor discussed. This left me in the paradoxical position of being both completely surrounded by religion and wholly apart from it. Ultimately, this juxtaposition fueled a great curiosity about theology, leading me to major in Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

At school I began to acquire a fuller and more complex understanding of religion: its vast influence in history, its power as a created and creative force, its potential for both greatness and great harm. Despite my increasing interest, religion and I kept our distance–it was something I studied and observed, never something I practiced or believed. I graduated determined to save the world via the powers of interfaith dialogue, did an internship with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and worked for a small community-engagement non-profit before deciding that the work I wanted to do required further study. In the fall of 2011, I enrolled in the Master of Theological Studies program at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) where I spent the next two years studying comparative theology and visiting a variety of religious communities around Boston with a student organization I co-founded–The HDS BAR 3 Hoppers.

During my first year at HDS, my relationship with religion remained defined by its simultaneous presence and absence. It was everything I read, thought about, talked about, and planned to do. Despite this, I felt utterly removed from any personal spirituality or religious practice. However, a discernible shift toward a new awareness occurred during my second year, largely because of the people of faith with whom I was interacting. In my capacity as a BAR Hopper, I attended Quaker services, Jewish services, Muslim services, Christian services, Sufi services, and more. I found ample beauty and wisdom; I observed, often with envy, people who led deeply spiritual lives; I was constantly amazed at the palpable presence that emanated from the coming together of a community of people who had been called to the same time and place by their faith. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by friends and colleagues who often shared–with great depth of feeling–the power of faith in their lives.

My strictly business relationship with religion started to feel stagnant and insufficient. Whereas before I had been satisfied feeding my intellectual curiosity, a different, unexamined part of myself was now hungering for something more. I began to feel an emptiness, a spiritual void, that I increasingly longed to fill. Despite this new longing, I couldn’t seem to find an entry point. Nothing felt right – nothing spoke a language that I could understand. I had a seemingly endless amount of religious scholarship at my fingertips, and the resources of Harvard at my disposal, and yet, I could not find the answers to my questions.

A Revelation

At some point during my final semester, I was outside on a run, thinking about my career, my future, my next steps, when the following thought flashed into my mind, “Can I incorporate the environment into my interfaith work?” With that thought came a rush of what I can only describe as a bright levity that coursed through my entire body. I had no what it meant or what to do about it–but here was something that had that quality of “right-ness” that I had been seeking.

I previously mentioned my dad’s “environmental asceticism.” As a nine year old, that felt like a never-ending disaster. It now feels like an incredible blessing. I grew up living out the values of conservation and environmentalism long before I knew the meaning or significance of those words. I grew up with a deep love for Earth and nature and a regular practice of being outside as a mode of cultivating clarity, curiosity, and joy. In some ways, those things were so deeply engrained into who I was (and am) that throughout my studies, it somehow never crossed my mind to pull those things out and incorporate them actively into my work–until that day out running. Afterward, I couldn’t shake that thought and the rush of excitement I experienced every time I went back to it.

I began asking questions, doing research, and talking to people who were in some way working at the intersection of religion and environmentalism. While I encountered a lot of incredible work being done, I was still running into the same problem: quantities of intellectual stimulation and very little spiritual stimulation. While I was certain that working for the environment was what I needed to do, I still lacked (and longed for!) a language to express why I felt called to this work on a deeper level. And then through one of those improbable tricks of fate 4 I was connected to Steve Blackmer and learned about Kairos Earth and Church of the Woods. I immediately felt that same flash of “bright levity”–this was something different than anything I had yet encountered in my search.  I still didn’t know what it was or what it meant, but–to be cliché–I followed my gut. I scheduled a time to meet Steve and “go to Church.”

A Religious None Goes to Church (Gulp)

While I have a deep familiarity with the experience of indescribable moments of serenity and awe in nature, these experiences have noticeably taken place outside the context of “church” as I have traditionally thought of it. It had never occurred to me to label these ineffable experiences as “religious.” So when Steve gave me the Church of the Woods “tour,” I was simultaneously in known territory (woods, natural beauty) and deeply unknown territory (church!). I certainly didn’t feel ready to be in church as anything other than an observing, unattached bystander – but there I was, already starting to question whether my regular practice of walking contemplation had secretly been a practice of meditation and prayer all this time, and whether my countless moments of being absolutely stunned by an encounter with nature had also been moments of encounter with something sacred.

Two months later, I participated in the Pilgrimage for Earth–four days of liturgical services based on the framework of Holy Week. As pilgrims, we lamented the losses Earth has suffered at human hands and explored what it means to resurrect a planet that has been “crucified.” That weekend was a spiritual rollercoaster for me. I was uplifted and moved, I was uncomfortable, I was crushed, I was turned completely upside down. For the first time, I participated in religious services where I felt and experienced what I had only ever observed others feeling and experiencing. Here at last was a spiritual entry point I felt I could actually walk through, and a community of people who were ready and willing to support, teach, and nurture me. It was, to understate it, completely beautiful and completely terrifying.

Since that time I have continued to attempt to live into the questions I have been asking and wrestling with. I have continued to seek out community and I have been attending services at Church of the Woods. I have a lot of vine left to tend, but it feels incredible and hopeful to at last be on a path.

Tending the Vine: Cultivating Earth, Cultivating Faith

I can only imagine that there are thousands and thousands of people similar to myself who have found their greatest moments of solace and peace in the outdoors but lack the spiritual resources which would enable those moments to develop into something more sustained and substantial. The great gift I have found at Church of the Woods is the opportunity to discover a language, a framework, and–perhaps most importantly–a community which offer me the support and potential to grow into, dare I say it, a religious person.

From this, critical questions arise:

If Earth is a bearer of the sacred and conserving Earth requires spiritual transformation, what does “tending the vine” look like for my generation?

When most people are either expressly secular or “spiritual but not religious,” are so often plugged into snazzy devices, and are likely lacking the language, tools, and community for sustained spiritual fulfillment, how are we to bear fruit?

How can churches and religious communities facilitate this?

In what new ways and into what new places must the vine extend?

I believe Church of the Woods is one answer to these questions.

If You can find out more about Kairos Earth at kairosearth.org, follow them on twitter at @kairosearth, or find them on Facebook here.

Notes:

  1. “Religious None,” for those unfamiliar, is the Pew Forum’s tagline for the growing number of Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition.
  2. I do have some qualms with identifying as a millennial and religious None. Instead, I prefer to think that I’m a more complex derivation of the cultural forces at work on my self-hood. Nonetheless, there’s truth to both identities.
  3. BAR stands for Boston Area Religions
  4. Which I have dubbed “The Steve Connection”–my uncle Steve, introduced me to his neighbor Steve, who went to forestry school with my now boss Steve
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