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Worship in the Garden
Services for Outdoor Worship
By J. Wayne Pratt
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 J. Wayne Pratt
All rights reserved.
The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)
In virtually every major religious tradition, one can dig a bit and discover that the image of the garden has played a key role in expressing and illustrating the spiritual truths inherent in its own unique core teachings. Not only does the garden function as the locus of a sacred creation account but it also serves in many faith traditions as the final gathering vessel or resting place at the end of one's life as we understand it. As such, our beginnings and our endings seem to take place in a garden setting. Therefore, creating sacred outdoor prayer and worship space acknowledges the truth that religious buildings are not the only vessels where viable spiritual communication may be accomplished.
While numerous references to gardens are found throughout the scriptures, the following presents a limited selection focusing on those passages dealing with worship in one context or another. The images and metaphors discovered in these passages serve to illustrate and often clarify many of the basic teachings of our Christian faith. Most scripture references and citations are taken from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene Peterson as the author freely employs the image of the garden in his groundbreaking paraphrase of sacred scripture.
Genesis 2 speaks of the garden that God plants in Eden. In this location, God provides trees of all sorts—for beauty and from which humans may eat. God simply asks that the garden be well kept by his human creations. Other than refraining from eating the fruit from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil, few restrictions had been placed upon the garden's residents.
Hence, it all began in what must have been a beautiful garden: a garden setting created by God. Here, in this earthly paradise, God created man, and later woman, with the desire that they blossom and flower, while keeping the garden in order. The garden paradise was succulent with foods to eat. In this pristine setting of home and sanctuary, man and woman could live abundantly and eternally, needing only to obey God's commands and so worship their divine Creator.
With the genesis of life taking place in a garden, God's human creation continued to explore the image of the garden—or any outdoor holy space—as a place of holy and divine worship. Moses, on Mount Sinai, meets God and receives the Ten Commandments. Mount Sinai is enveloped in smoke, and God's voice warns Moses to respect the holy mountain. Here, in this dramatic and powerful setting, God reveals himself and delivers his laws for all to observe.
Much of the story of Noah takes place in the out-of-doors. In concluding the landing narrative (Genesis 8:20-21), the reader discovers that Noah, after reaching dry land, builds an altar for the worship of God. Certainly, Noah, in his offering of sacrifices upon the altar, rejoices that the sweet-smelling fragrances are pleasing to God.
In Genesis 21:31-33, we find that Abraham dug a well and named the place Beersheba or "Oath-Well." Following this act, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree and worships God at this place of thanksgiving.
Altars of sacrifice, altars of sharing, sacred altars of thanksgiving are integral components of the worship of God from the earliest of times.
Exodus 3:1-12 recounts the dramatic story of Moses and the burning bush. It was on the mountain of God (Horeb) that an angel of the Lord came to Moses appearing in flames of fire blazing from a bush. In his bewilderment, Moses questioned what was happening, and it was at that point that Moses hears God's voice instructing him to remove his sandals for he is standing on holy ground.
After God notifies Moses that he is to shepherd his people out of the land of Egypt and guide them to a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of refuge and sanctuary for God's people, Moses is put on notice that he will return to that very same spot and worship God. Here, then, is a holy and sacred spot on a mountainside reserved for and dedicated to the worship of God.
The garden as vessel of our human endings is reinforced in 2 Kings 21:25 where Amon is buried in "the Garden of Uzza." Likewise, when Manasseh died, his remains were interred in the palace garden (2 Chronicles 33:20). Our "endings" often find rest in a garden setting that serves as a sacred memorial place of remembrance. In fact, a revealing New Testament passage (1 Corinthians 15:35) vibrantly compares the "resurrection body" to the planting of a dead seed that becomes a flourishing plant. Much like the seed that emerges into a plant, the resurrection body that comes from it will also be dramatically different.
Much of the imagery depicted in the Song of Solomon illustrates the importance of the garden as a place of worship; this garden being both sacred and adored, a place of refreshment and renewal. In several instances, one discovers in this poetic discourse that the senses are dramatically heightened when experiencing the pleasures of the garden. Yes, the garden becomes a place of praise and worship.
Joel 3:18 describes beautiful rivers flowing everywhere in Judah, along with "a fountain pouring out of God's Sanctuary, watering all the parks and gardens!" Gardens, in this passage, become sacred and holy because the divine waters flowing from heaven nourishes them, giving them the gift of life and beauty.
Throughout the writings of the Old Testament, God is often portrayed as the "Master Gardener," the One who creates and nurtures the garden for human beings. The metaphor of God as "Master Gardener" is truly a very rich and comforting image—God as the Creator and Sustainer of life in its many and diverse forms.
The celebration of Baptism begins in an outdoor setting (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11). Jesus approaches John at the Jordan River and seeks water baptism. Although John at first objects, he finally consents to Jesus' request, making this river a sacred and holy vessel for the worship of God. Could there be a more fitting setting for the conduct of baptism as a means of welcome into the kingdom of God?
The transfiguration of Jesus takes place on a mountainside (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36). Peter, James, and John are with Jesus as his glory is revealed in a most dramatic and empowering way. Here, in this outdoor setting, in a vision of holiness, Moses and Elijah are seen with Jesus and the voice of God reveals Jesus to be his beloved Son. Interrupting the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Peter suggests that this is indeed a great moment and three altars or memorials be constructed in their honor. Even though Jesus dismisses this notion, it is clear to see that the setting has divine qualities: qualities conducive to praise and worship.
Jesus frequently spends time in a garden for much-needed periods of solitude or spiritual renewal. It is in the garden that Jesus often finds rest and refreshment for body, mind, and soul. Matthew writes in his gospel narrative (26:36): "Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, 'Stay here while I go over there and pray.'" The garden, for many, has become that sacred place where one's mind is cleared from the distractions of life and prayer, meditation, and contemplation are certainly facilitated.
Before Jesus is taken prisoner, he retreats, along with his disciples, crossing over the brook Kidron to a garden. Judas, knowing that Jesus often sought refuge in this particular garden, leads the Roman soldiers to this place of sanctuary where the soldiers and high priests come and arrest Jesus.
Jesus' body is removed to a garden near the site where he was crucified (John 19:39). Scripture tells us that a previously unused tomb was located in this garden and Jesus' body was placed here for anointing and burial following the day of Sabbath preparation. Cemeteries are often regarded as memorial gardens and typically function as a sacred and revered place of remembrance.
In the third post-resurrection appearance of Jesus (John 21:1-14), we find Jesus sharing a breakfast of bread and grilled fish with seven of his disciples. Perhaps more a passage focusing on fellowship, it does, however, lend itself to the garden worship setting. Here, around a campfire, the disciples finally realize it is Jesus inviting them to share a meal. There is no doubt that the disciples are in awe of what is happening to them at this moment, and their hearts are surely filled with praise and thanksgiving.
A meaningful New Testament passage, which also employs the garden as a metaphor, is uniquely evidenced in the Letter of James. In this brief passage, James is offering instruction for living a faithful Christian life and suggests: "So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life" (James 1:20-21 THE MESSAGE). Because of the implied sacredness of gardens in the writings of the Christian faith, as one disposes of that which is evil and spoiled, life becomes a garden landscaped by God's goodness. Worship, then, becomes much more meaningful and pleasing to God the Creator.
Worship, in its many diverse forms and functions, may certainly take place in a garden or most anywhere in the out-of-doors. In today's world, gathering with others in a garden environment provides not only a calming and refreshing setting but also a deeply memorable worship experience.CHAPTER 2
The liturgies developed in this text are meant to provide a basic means of inspiration for the planning and conduct of vibrant and meaningful worship experiences in an outdoor environment, especially in a garden setting. Experience has shown that a sense of peace and contentment is easily attained in an intimate, comfortable garden setting, thereby allowing participants to focus on the liturgy and, therefore, be more receptive to the Spirit of God moving in surprising ways.
Christian fellowship will surely be heightened dramatically as people share in the visible drama of God's creation around them. Such alternative settings present worship in new and life-giving ways. In fact, liturgical experiences in the garden may also foster a deeper sense of community while, at the same time, facilitating the creation of a bridge between many different faith traditions. In a garden, the focus is principally on God as the One we worship, devoid of the many trappings of denominationalism and sectarianism, elements which may, at times, detract from true worship.
In essence, the materials presented are the primary or keystone elements of the worship service. The liturgies herein are meant to give meaning to the overall service while highlighting the outdoor experience for those who journey in faith and share in the rituals of faith. While in certain instances the materials set forth constitute a complete worship service, others may need to be woven into a more complete worship liturgy.
There exists in the life of the church numerous opportunities to experience and participate in worship in an outdoor setting. From small-group gatherings designed for a particular purpose to the participation of an entire congregation, outdoor worship uniquely adds to the fellowship and intimacy of the faith experience. Some of the most memorable faith experiences occur outside the traditional church structure, a reminder that Christ is present at all times and in all places. In the garden setting, we are immersed in the knowledge that all creation is the work of God and, as such, all creation is to be regarded as sacred.CHAPTER 3
CELEBRATING GOD'S CREATION
An outdoor setting—especially within the confines of a garden—is a most appropriate venue to worship God and experience the fellowship shared by companions on the journey of faith. The garden setting is especially conducive to those worship services that function to proclaim the creative powers of God.
God is both proclaimed and honored as Creator.
Good morning! Welcome to our service of worship and celebration this morning. We gather this day to honor and proclaim God as Creator. In the fellowship of Christ Jesus and one another, surrounded by the beauty of this garden, we seek God's blessing for all of creation. In the dynamic act of creation, God makes, separates, gathers, blesses, sees, and rests. As we have done in times past, let us now worship God, our Creator.
CALL TO WORSHIP
We gather this day, in this garden, to express gratitude for the dramatic beauty of God's creation.
Through God's blessings all things were created in heaven and on earth.
The whole of creation describes God's glory.
A tapestry of sight and sound that embraces us when we open ourselves to God's presence.
The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad.
Let all of creation resound with truth and beauty to the ends of the ages.
GATHERING PRAYER (UNISON)
Gracious God, creator of the heavens and the earth, we marvel at the beauty of your works. In the beginning, you formed all humanity from the dust of the ground and shared with us the breath of life. You set us in a garden of paradise and called us to be faithful stewards of your creation.
Yet, like Adam and Eve, we have hidden from you, attempting to conceal our faults and failures. Not only have we rebelled against you but we have also failed in our responsibility as stewards, taking advantage of resources and gifts you share with us.
Through this simple act of worship, O Creator, help us each to reaffirm our commitment for the care of your holy creation. Empower us for acts of stewardship and renewal that your glory may be manifest in our acts of service and compassion. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Light, Dark and God's Spirit
Genesis 1:1-5 (THE MESSAGE)
A reading from Genesis, chapter 1, verses 1 through 5. Hear now the creative word of God.
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
God spoke: "Light!"
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.
It was evening, it was morning—
Until God speaks, nothing exists but darkness and chaos. With the voicing of God's Spirit across the abyss of darkness and nothingness, the sweeping cycle of creation begins. The inky blackness that was present is now divided, separated into dark and light, night and day. Until God voices—think sings—creation into being there exists nothing but a formless void, a void that is totally chaotic. Yet, even in such a dark and foreboding state of nothingness, God is completely in control of the events taking place. It is God's restless and creative Spirit that begins to shape and mold a perfect universe. Darkness is now only a part of what exists.
As the divine architect of creation, God has a plan, a design, a pattern for transforming chaos into cosmos in a way that sings of the goodness and glory of God. The creation narrative becomes a hymn or symphony about God our Creator.
Throughout the ages darkness has often been associated with the rather unfamiliar, frightening situations we encounter in life. In a mysterious yet comforting way, God is always present to bring order into our lives, creating wholeness out of chaos. Light and dark now sets the stage for the ordering of the universe, the days we live by, and the ebb and flow of seasons. Just as the Spirit of God was hovering over the abyss of darkness at the onset of creation, the Spirit continues to hover over our lives to bring forth light to illuminate our path. That light is Jesus, the Son of God, our Creator.
God of all creation, the voice of your Spirit sings this cosmos into being. You set the earth spinning, and your presence established night and day. Lord, we are thankful that your Spirit continues to shed light on our lives that we may clearly see the way to journey in faith. Help us, Lord, to always feel the warmth of your presence, knowing that darkness, fear, and foreboding moments will be swept away by your Spirit. For your works of creation, we offer our thanks.
How joyous it is, O God, to be a part of this creation celebration. You bring the world into being and with the voicing of your Spirit creating light and dark, night and day, and declare it to be good. Amen.
Water and Air
Genesis 1:6-8 (THE MESSAGE)
We continue to hear God's creative Word from Genesis, chapter 1, verses 6 through 8.
God spoke: "Sky! In the middle of the waters;
separate water from water!"
God made sky.
He separated the water under sky
from the water above sky.
And there it was:
he named sky the Heavens;
It was evening, it was morning—
From an inky expanse of nothingness, a formless void, God now acts to divide the waters into Heaven and Earth. God's creative Word speaks and the primordial waters are separated into a terrestrial ocean and a celestial ocean. The celestial ocean is much like a thick, dense fog that envelops the earth: a canopy that covers the planet.
By creation of an atmosphere such as this, the lighter parts of the waters that covered the earth's surface were raised up and now appear suspended in the visible heavens above. The atmosphere becomes the medium for light and life. Both darkness and water are now under control; chaos is diminishing, and the stage is set for life to begin. Another day and God deems it good.
When someone appears confused we may say "they are in a fog." Just as God purified the fog that surrounded the earth as a means of creating an atmosphere to sustain life, God's Spirit is able to vanquish the fog that impedes personal clarity and growth. With a renewed sense of clarity, new visions, hopes, and dreams are possible as God is fully capable of creating and re-creating, molding and reshaping, transforming confusion and chaos into a more ordered life.
O God, your creative sweep continues, and a distinction is made between Heaven and Earth. Your voicing of creation continues to bring order out of chaos. How thankful we are that good things can emerge from our chaotic moments. You sweep away confusion and bring blessings of clarity and hope. We gather to bless your creation and offer our chaotic and confused lives to your control. Amen.
Excerpted from Worship in the Garden by J. Wayne Pratt. Copyright © 2013 J. Wayne Pratt. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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