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Worship in the Wilderness

"Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I'd look up into the sky--up--up--up--into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."

- L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

"Here's what I don't understand," a stranger once said to me as we both happened to be riding our bikes in the same direction, with New Mexico's mighty Sandia Mountain range immediately to our west. "I'm not a religious person, but I do believe in God. And the place I feel closest to God is in the mountains. We have all these churches that keep insisting that we move away from where God is so clearly present, so that we can all come together inside a stuffy building. And they call that building 'God's house.' Why can't we meet God anywhere? Why does 'church' have to have walls?"

I knew immediately that in this stranger I had found a kindred spirit. I have lived much of my life in the midst of a tension: as one who has been shaped and molded both by a God who is revealed in Scripture, creeds, hymns and the thundering sounds of a pipe organ, as well as a God who is made present in the whispers of the breeze blowing through the sweet-smelling aspen trees, in the powerful bolts of lightning bursting apart rocks on mountain summits overhead, in the resilience of a prickly pear cactus flourishing in the draught-ridden desert Southwest as well as the vulnerability of a single flower growing proudly amidst the rocky soil.

In truth, the church and the wilderness both provide spaces that I have found to be essential to my spiritual journey. The traditional church provides a container for my faith. It provides a structure, a foundation, a theological and philosophical framework, and perhaps most important to me, a community of people in which to love, serve and grow. The wilderness offers something entirely different. The wilderness brings me face-to-face with myself. Wilderness spaces invite me to confront my greatest fears. They show me intricacies and majesties that cause my heart to delight and sing out for joy. They help me discover an inner strength and resilience previously unrecognized, as well as making me painfully aware of my limitations. The wilderness forces me to practice patience, battle discouragement, make peace with silence, delight in simplicity. In short, a wilderness experience serves as an incubator for life.

What if this tension didn't have to exist? What if there were spaces that could offer the beauty, the challenge, the nuance, and the innate holiness of a wilderness experience in the context of a supportive faith community? What if there was an experience that offered the best of two very different worlds: the groundedness and intentionality of the church as well as the wild magnificence and unpredictability of the outdoors? What if there was indeed such a thing as church without walls?

I had never heard of such a place, but I knew that I was hardly alone in my longing for something that could bring together these two great passions. And out of this deep longing was birthed a faith community. It was informal, unconventional, a bringing together of people from all religious backgrounds and no religious background, yet all drawn together by a common love for hiking and a thirst for spirituality. We were people who, like me, loved hymns and pipe organs as well as people who, like my new cycling friend, preferred only to commune with God in the silent ponderosa forests of the desert Southwest. We were a community of prayer, lifting up to God our pains and triumphs, worries and anxieties, frustrations and delights. We were grounded in scripture, meditating and reflecting upon God's words to us in the Old and New Testaments. But we also looked to the spaces around us, the words of our fellow companions, the sights and sounds and smells of the varied landscapes through which we trekked to serve as God's voice speaking into our day-to-day lives.

God can be found anywhere — that much is clear. And church is also happening everywhere. The church is vibrant and active in the places where passion and community come together, where the work of God is celebrated and lives are changed. I see that happening when a small group of hikers join together to wander along a forest trail and to notice the places where God's hand is evident. I see church happening when an inexperienced young backpacker with physical and emotional struggles is carried by her companions into camp at the end of a long day of hiking. I see church happening when a large group of teenagers stands in complete silence atop a mountain summit, breathlessly taking in the wonders of God's creation.

May we all experience the playfulness, the restfulness, the wonder and the power of our God, who is revealed anew in all the wild spaces of our world.

Rev. Melissa Madara is a pastor in the New Mexico Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and serves as the Backpacking Adventure Coordinator for Sacramento Camp and Conference Center in Sacramento, New Mexico. Melissa's passions include worship, spiritual formation, outdoor adventures, health and fitness, wilderness medicine, and serving as mom to her two vivacious children.

[Published May 4, 2016]

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