Editor’s note: Carol Soderholm, a retired ELCA pastor, and her husband, Paul, own restored prairie land in Northern Illinois. This is their home and a place of living worship that they call the “Earth Church.” Along with volunteer “stewards,” they are committed to returning this prairie land to the way it was when the original inhabitants lived there. It is a quiet place where people can pray and commune with God, the Creator. The spring 2023 “Earth Day Earth Church” worship experience will be held April 22. As we near Earth Day, Soderholm reflects on the beginning of Earth Church.
When my son died, a strong sense of being an exile from life set in. He died in February, and when that month was over, I wondered: “How can I welcome March, his birthday month, or April or May without him?”
My cherished son had passed into eternity before me? Without me? I had always been around when he was. There was no day that he was and I wasn’t. I found no comfort in the church or in prayer. Heaven was closed.
Death and dying mean nothing to creation. The Earth can take us or leave us. The Earth will do what it has done for millennium without regard for us. The days come and go in an endless march forward with or without us.
Creation does not care—but it does comfort.
I began to endlessly walk my grief: on the prairie, pass the oak savanna, through the pine forest, by the stream and, yes, even by the railroad tracks. The sound of a train screaming past, blazing its warning whistle, was a comfort. The noise—invading my mind and heart—left no room for grief.
I walked past the sacred oak whose arms reached out to hold me. I leaned my head on her trunk, allowing the embrace. I walked through the pine forest and felt the needle path soft and comforting under my feet. I smelled the fragrant pine trees as they created an arch over my head. I walked to the stream and watched its constant push, flowing over rocks and even boulders. The stream seemed to say, “Move on, keep going, go forward. You are alive like me.”
Yes, there boulders, eddies and fallen trees blocking the path. Just keep going, they seemed to say.
Walking back to the house, the choir appeared—a flock of turkeys gobbling (singing) in the distance as they got closer and closer.
Aha! I was struck by the awareness that I was in church—God’s church, God’s earth church.
I had been blessed and comforted by creation—the song of the birds, the sound of the wind in the trees, the bubbling stream, the fragrance of the pine, the majesty of a mighty oak, the song of the turkeys. All spoke to my heart to tell me that all was well. As T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem “Little Gidding”: “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
I realized life and death are sisters—both speak to us in different ways, as does creation.
In 2016, I started Earth Church, with people gathering outdoors at every seasonal change. Winter Earth Church. Spring Earth Church. Summer Earth Church. Fall Earth Church.
True to All Creation Sings, the new worship supplement to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, we gather to listen for the song of creation. We listen to the word of God as spoken to us through our earth home. The guiding principle is the question: “How can we better honor and care for our God-given home, God’s sanctuary, our precious earth home?”