To Revolutionize the Church, Go Outdoors: An Interview with Stephen Blackmer

The homepage for the Church of the Woods website offers a compelling combination of warm invitation and radical manifesto. On the hand, it is a church that expressly welcomes people of all faiths and backgrounds who are looking to connect with God. On the other hand, this is a church that seeks to provide that connection in a way that intentionally diverges from “regular” church. One immediately learns that this is “a new kind of church,” an outdoor church located on “106 acres of wild woods and wetlands.” The introductory paragraph declares, “In calling our woods a church, we are deliberately trying to crack open what it means to be ‘church.’” Instead of having a building that serves as “the bearer of sacredness,” the earth itself does this.

The founding pastor of this four-year-old church in Canterbury, New Hampshire is the Rev. Stephen Blackmer, an ordained Episcopalian. I interviewed Blackmer as part of a series of interviews with church leaders who are envisioning and bringing to life new ways of being church while having a notable emphasis on creation care and justice.

Q:  A wonderful article about you and your church in Harper’s Magazine talks about how you were an environmental activist for almost three decades but ultimately found that this work had become personally unsustainable. Climate change felt overwhelming, and you wrestled with depression until ultimately you found your calling. Could you see your own life as being a metaphor for the Church today? Could climate change compel a Church wrestling with institutional sustainability to find a new, revitalized sense of call and purpose?

A:  If my life can be useful as a metaphor for the Church today, I think it would be as an example of the classic pattern of spiritual death and re-birth — of how we move deeper and deeper into life with God through letting go and taking on a new form. We see this pattern over and over throughout the Bible. Noah and company climb into a little boat to ride out the flood till the world can be re-created. The Israelites leave the security of Egypt to wander and die in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. Jesus relinquishes the safety of life to climb on the cross — and be resurrected.

I am now in an exciting, joyful place of encountering God through my work at Church of the Woods, and exploring a whole new way to participate in “saving the world.” To get here, though, I had to endure a long period when my old life fell apart. While I was in the middle of the darkness — in the midst of letting go of a way that no longer could sustain me — it was pretty bleak.

I suspect the same is true for the Church — that the church as it has been must “die” in order to be reborn. One of the great beauties and truths of our Christian faith, of course, is that we believe that death is not the end but is the means of transformation into new life — but that does not eliminate the suffering, the loss, and the grief along the way. Nor can we know what life will be like on the other side.

How can we remember this, when we worry about the institutional Church? What kept me going in the times of anxiety and fear as my old life was decaying was my trust that something new was being born. How can we trust that something new is being born in the Church? How can we cooperate with that? Where are we being led? What must we let go of?

And how does this fit with climate change? Ecologically, the Earth is in a heap of trouble. Even if we were able to stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere right now — which we do not seem about to do — the planet will continue to warm for generations to come. Add our cutting down of the world’s forests, depleting fresh water, exterminating other species, eroding fertile soils, and so on and so on… and it is hard to be optimistic. And yet… we preach that death is not the end.

The Church has a role in advocacy and other efforts to slow climate change and reverse ecological disruption. I think our greatest role, though, is to call the people to hope and love in a time when the world seems to be falling apart. As Psalm 23 reminds us,

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Q:  I could imagine persons arriving at your church from different paths: one path is full of activist burnout and the other path is full of activist renewal. Am I right? How might attending Church of the Woods fuel and empower activism?

A:  People do arrive at Church of the Woods from different paths but the common thread seems to be that people come to Church of the Woods to be reminded of the presence of God in nature, and to be re-filled, renewed, and replenished by joining together in God and nature.

Climate change is a fearful thing and working to slow it means trying to prevent loss, harm, and destruction. It is important, critical work but the risk in doing it is that it’s all too easy to become oriented toward fear, anxiety, grief, and anger, and to lose sight of love and hope.

All too many activists — me included — fall prey to a belief that the world is a disaster and that “it’s up to me to fix it. If I only work harder, get smarter, raise more money, etc., I can solve this problem.” And to a point, of course, this helps! But it’s also the path to burnout, anger, and despair when we find that we can’t, actually, do it all ourselves.

Christian faith teaches that love, hope, and faith are ultimately rooted in God — and that these are abundantly manifest in the Earth around us, even in the midst of despair and destruction. This, I think, is what my own story finally has to say  — that we have to return to God, return to being in relationship with the sacred as found in and through the Earth, return to seeing the world as fundamentally good and beautiful — as the ground of our work to protect it.

Coming to Church of the Woods is fundamentally a way of restoring this original goodness in ourselves and seeing it abundantly in the world around us, so that whatever we may do, we do from a place of love, beauty, and hope.

Q:  Let’s say someone—such as myself—absolutely loves your model of church. One loves the idea of worshipping outdoors in God’s cathedral because one is convinced that it offers a more intimate sense of connection to the divine. Yet, that same person—like myself—also loves the very traditional church that they attend every Sunday morning in an old white steeple building. Would you have any thoughts or suggestions for a faith lived somewhere between the White Steeple Church and Church of the Woods?   

A:  I’d say absolutely, do both. As a lifelong nature-lover, outdoorsman, and environmentalist, I know that simply spending time in the natural world restores us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If traditional White Steeple Church remains central to your spiritual life, then by all means do that.  While you’re there, ask others to join you outdoors sometime.

It is easy to combine a walk in a park, by a river, near a garden, or simply looking at the sky and sniffing the breeze — no matter where you are — with readings from the Bible, for example. The psalms, in particular, are full of glorious expressions of the natural world skipping and clapping hands in joy and praise. Start with a round-robin reading of Psalm 104, the first chapter of Genesis, or St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures.

And of course, I would love to welcome you to Church of the Woods sometime — or to help start a companion church wherever you and your readers are!

Categories: Column The Pollinator: UCC Environmental Justice Blog

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