Finding Spiritual Green Space

Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

(Article first appeared in the June 23, 2008 issue of the Christian Courier)

In the 1950s, renowned French planner Jacques Gréber proposed a “greenbelt” for Ottawa, Ontario, as part of a distinctive master plan for the national capital region. Now more than half a century later, the greenbelt is a thriving natural haven in the midst of a burgeoning urban area. The greenbelt, made up of 20,350 hectares of tranquil open lands and forests, encircles Canada’s capital on the Ontario side of the mighty Ottawa River.

The concept of intentionally planning for green space in our landscapes was groundbreaking in Gréber’s time, but today it has become commonplace. For city dwellers facing daily smog alerts and pressing environmental concerns, 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,” says Bruce Dykstra, a pastor originally from Pictou, N.S., who now serves The River Christian Reformed Church in Sutton, Massachusetts.

Where is the Green Space in Our Lives?

Last year at a regional gathering of pastors, Dykstra and five of his colleagues started talking about the role of green space in maintaining healthy physical and spiritual lives. “We asked each other, ‘where is the green space in our lives?’” says Dykstra. “We discovered that we had little of it and needed to find a place to pursue it.”

The pastors decided to form a peer learning group called “New England Green Space” to study and experience how green space is connected to spiritual health. Each of the pastors already had an interest in outdoor pursuits, Dykstra says. “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, Massachusetts. Making the connection between nature and the spiritual disciplines is not a new concept, he says, especially not for Reformed Christians.

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

“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 says in Romans 1:20.”
-Article 2, The Belgic Confession

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 major excursion into nature. So far they have spent time hiking in the mountains, retreating oceanside at Martha’s Vineyard (thanks to the donation of a cottage), and experiencing the solitude of the wilderness from a friend’s cabin in Vermont.

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. In between meetings, the pastors practice these disciplines individually. “My experiences with the disciplines has pushed me to a deeper relationship with God and I have found an excitement in seeing the others grow,” says Dykstra.

Their shared experiences in green space have enriched that growth. “Our friendships are richer,” Dykstra says. “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 and deal with life-impacting issues.”

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

He adds 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 says. “Being in the wilderness reminds us that we are not in control.”

The group’s upcoming plans include a camping trip in Maine and a ropes program offered by Gordon College, a Christian liberal arts institution in Massachusetts. This outdoor leadership program designs challenging obstacle courses to aid Christians in spiritual formation. During his years as youth pastor, Dykstra took students 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 a new level of peace and connectedness. “We are finding ways to pray and connect,” says Dykstra. “We are finding that we are not alone, and the mutual accountability that pastors can have on each other is motivating.” 

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 www.gordon.edu/gorp
The Transforming Center – Caring for the Souls of Pastors and the Congregations They Service     www.thetransformingcenter.org