Finding spiritual green space

Excursions into nature reveal the need for spiritual space in our lives, says Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen.

By Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

In the 1950s, renowned French planner Jacques Gréber proposed a “greenbelt” for Ottawa, Ontario, as part of a master plan for Canada’s capital region. More than half a century later, the greenbelt is a natural haven in the midst of an urban area. The greenbelt, about 50,300 acres of open lands and forests, encircles Ottawa on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River.

The concept of planning green space in the landscape was groundbreaking in Gréber’s time, but today it has become commonplace. For city dwellers facing daily smog alerts, the need for green space has never been more urgent.

Now a group of pastors from New England is making the case for planning “green space” in our spiritual lives, too. “As cities carve out green spaces to break urban congestion, we need to help each other find green spaces in our busy lives,” said Bruce Dykstra, a pastor originally from Pictou, Novia Scotia, who now serves The River Christian Reformed Church in Sutton, Mass.

Where is the Green Space in Our Lives?

Last year at a regional gathering, Dykstra and five colleagues talked about the role of nature in maintaining healthy physical and spiritual lives. “We discovered that we had little of it and needed to find a place to pursue it,”Dykstra said.

The pastors decided to form a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence peer learning group called “New England Green Space” to study and experience how green space is connected to spiritual health. Each pastor was already interested in outdoor pursuits, Dykstra said. “We desired to experience this aspect of our lives together, and exploring new spiritual disciplines fit naturally with the disciplined pursuit of outdoor activities.”

Bryan Wiegers, treasurer of the peer group, serves a young church in Franklin, Mass. Making the connection between nature and the spiritual disciplines is not a new concept, he said, especially for Reformed Christians.

“The Belgic Confession states that we know God is real through his word and through creation,” Wiegers said. “Exploring the spiritual disciplines with five pastors in the wilderness has brought God’s word to the forefront in my life.”

The oldest of the Christian Reformed Church’s doctrinal standards, the Belgic Confession, also called The Confession of Faith, states in Article 2:

“We know him … first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul said in Romans 1:20.”

Excursions into Nature

The peer group — which brings together pastors from Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire — meets monthly by phone to talk, pray, share and discuss books they are reading. Every third month they plan a nature excursion. So far they have hiked in the mountains, retreated ocean-side at Martha’s Vineyard (thanks to the donation of a cottage) and experienced the solitude of the wilderness in a Vermont cabin

In addition to reading, studying and hiking together, the pastors practice spiritual disciplines such as Bible memorization and reading, fasting, meditation, prayer, silence and solitude. Between meetings, they practice these disciplines individually.

Their shared experiences in green space have enriched their spiritual growth. “Our friendships are richer,” Dykstra said. “We have common experiences that we can lean on and grow out of. From climbing a mountain to walking the beach, we share something that makes going deeper, easier. Our conversations now go beyond the surface.”

Wiegers agreed that being in nature has enhanced his peer group learning. “There is a mystery and awe in both God’s word and his creation,” he said. “Being in the wilderness, working on relationships and exploring the spiritual disciplines has been adventurous and exciting.”

He added that their wilderness experiences have been a keen reminder of the need to rely on God. “It is easy to think we have control,” Wiegers said. “Being in the wilderness reminds us that we are not in control.”

The group is also planning a camping trip in Maine and a ropes program offered by Gordon College, a Christian liberal arts institution in Massachusetts. During his years as youth pastor, Dykstra took student leaders through similar programs with excellent results. Learning the ropes together, Dykstra and his peers now hope to draw even closer to each other — and to God.

Just as Ottawa’s greenbelt provides a haven for stressed-out city dwellers, these pastors have discovered that green space can surround them with peace. “We are finding ways to pray and connect,” said Dykstra. “We are finding that we are not alone.”

Green Space Reading List

Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton

Celebration of the Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster

The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life by Tony Jones

Spiritual Formation Study Guides by Richard Peace

Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives by Dallas Willard

Websites:

Gordon College Outdoor Recreation Project

The Transforming Center — Caring for the Souls of Pastors and the Congregations They Service