Jon Terry and Liuan Huska on Liturgies of Restoration
Au Sable Institute developed its Liturgies of Restoration workbook to help university students in summer field science courses connect Christian worship and creation care. Now small groups and churches are using the workbook to cultivate habits of worship, community, earthkeeping, purposeful stewardship, and hope.
Jon Terry is executive director of Au Sable Institute (ASI), which offers Christ-centered, place-based environmental education for all ages. Liuan Huska is a writer, researcher, and speaker whose specialties include ecology and spirituality. She wrote the Liturgies of Restoration workbook as part of ASI's Vital Worship Grant project. The workbook and grant helped summer students develop practices that honor the Creator and share in the biblical vision of God's kingdom come to earth. In this edited conversation, Jon Terry and Liuan Huska describe how daily habits—liturgies—can help us reorient relationships to God, each other, and the beautiful world God made.
What was the workbook's place in your Vital Worship Grant project?
JT: Though based in Mancelona, Michigan, Au Sable Institute offers summer field courses for university students on five campuses. The goal of our Vital Worship Grant project was to help college students be more intentional about spiritual development while with us during the summer. Worship and spiritual development can’t be limited to one hour on Sunday morning. They must be embedded into the habits—liturgies—of everyday life. We wanted students to have a tool and framework to realize that their natural inclination to care for God’s earth is a great gift. We wanted them to recognize that things like walking through the woods and enjoying bird songs can be practices that remind us of God’s reality.
LH: The workbook gave students and staff a starting point for conversation and more intentional practice. Some used it as personal devotional reading, and at least one professor brought up topics from the readings during class. A staff member listed the weekly liturgy and suggested practices on dry-erase boards in the dining area. Some staff and students incorporated workbook elements into weekly ASI vespers services. The workbook themes provided a framework for shared community experience whether students were in a three-week or five-week summer science program. Individuals were free to engage as much or as little as they chose.
Why did you name your workbook Liturgies of Restoration?
JT: Our team read several books before applying for our Vital Worship Grant, including Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (volume one of Cultural Liturgies), by James K. A. Smith, and Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, by Tish Harrison Warren. The latter book dismantled the idea that there is any part of our lives that is disconnected from the work of worship. Liturgy of the Ordinary shows that each hour of every day can become an occasion for worship and restoration.
LH: What we regularly do adds up to become who we are. Our habits can shape us into people who serve, protect, and restore God’s earth—or, when pulled by our culture's distractions and addictions, our habits can become liturgies that deform us and harm the earth. We divided our workbook into five sections of liturgy and counter-liturgy to explore how what we do (habits, liturgies, practices) spiritually forms who we are, including our character, our vision of "the good life," and the stories we tell ourselves.
Can you say more about the importance of the stories we tell ourselves?
LH: If we think of God as one who stands apart, unmoved from the world he created, then we take our role as humans made in God’s image to be distant and set apart from creation. When we understand that God seeks relationship and wants to be with and even feel with the world he created, then we understand that we are meant to live in and among creation, just as Christ came to be human and live among us.
God seeks communion, which requires a sense of mutual give and take. God’s rule is one of servant leadership, as Jesus embodies by washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper. God giving Adam and Eve dominion over the earth in Genesis 1 should not be taken to mean “do whatever you want, clear-cut what you want, extract what you want, pollute however you want,” but “rule as I rule.” Christ’s kinghood is sacrificial, desiring for those under his authority to thrive. God’s kingdom is justice and peace. When all of creation is brought under Christ's reign, including our ecosystems, then all will be well. We have to understand our relationship with creation in light of what we know about God’s character and kingdom.
Do Au Sable students, staff, and alumni experience disconnect between the stories their churches tell and ecological concern?
JT: Yes. Unfortunately there is a disconnect between American Christianity and ecological concern. Many of our students and others in our community have been treated with suspicion or hostility by the broader church. Our students express that they feel like misfits in their family or church community. That is tragic because the truth is that God loves it when people desire to care for his created world, and Jesus loves it when people are willing to join in his restoration of all things. At Au Sable, we believe that Christians should be leading the fight to serve, protect, and restore God’s earth. Read the first page of your Bible, and I bet you will come to a similar conclusion.
LH: I know of a church that is rebranding toward integrating creation care as a vital part of their mission and vision. Unfortunately many folks still think that creation care is peripheral to the mission of the church. The church that is rebranding has experienced growing pains and some folks have left it. On the other hand, as Jon mentioned, Christians who care about earthkeeping often don’t feel support or even permission in their faith communities to act on their love for creation in distinctly Christian ways, so they find their way to secular environmental groups to put their love into action. Au Sable and other Christian ecological groups are places of integration and restoration where people can find freedom and support to join their faith with caring for the earth.
Your workbook's first and last liturgies and counter-liturgies show how putting God at the center of our lives frees us to lament yet also hope and act in anticipation of God making all things new. How do smartphones play into all this?
JT: I’m convinced that distraction is our culture's great spiritual curse. You can’t grow spiritually or listen for God’s voice if you are constantly distracted by your phone. The heavens declare the glory of the Lord, but we so often miss how God reveals himself through creation. Instead of quieting ourselves to be present and pay attention, we let ourselves be pulled in by billion-dollar corporations that make money off of our attention and addictions.
LH: I recently got my first smartphone because my cell phone company was dropping support for my "dumb phone." I've since noticed the slow creep of compulsion to check email and messages. When there's a lull or I feel restless, I turn to my screen to feel connected and important.
Digital technologies train our minds away from the slow, reverent pace of beholding toward its opposite: consuming, entertaining, and being entertained. It takes huge discipline and intention to create habits that wean us from digital addictions so we can make space for beholding God's glory in creation, the beauty of the world God made, and the miracle of our living, breathing existence. We need consistent habits of beholding to develop a sense of love and responsibility for creation.
Can you share favorite stories of using Liturgies of Restoration in summer 2021 vespers at Au Sable campuses?
JT: There are many stories of how the workbook has been used, but I am grateful for how it has helped nurture a sense of community among our students. Our culture pushes the lie that we must become independent of others to succeed, which leads to an unhealthy sense of isolation, self-protection, and tribalism. The workbook discussions provided students with a great opportunity to practice courage, intentionality, and forgiveness.
LH: One student told me that she was encouraged by the Liturgies workbook and the general set-apart atmosphere at Au Sable to shut down her phone for a week and put it in her dresser drawer. “There wasn’t the sense of needing to have my phone next to me and having to be able to respond immediately to things. That week was incredible. I had conversations with people I wouldn’t have had. It wasn’t a big change or revelation, but it was more about slowing down and taking time to rest, and slowly start to pick up new habits," she said. This student added that she definitely noticed a difference since returning home from Au Sable.
What have you noticed about using the workbook in monthly Zoom meetings or other settings?
JT: While our project was primarily focused on our summer students, we also offered a monthly online discussion of the workbook to our entire ASI community. By November 2021, nearly fifty individuals and churches had requested copies. We are offering it free to any church or small group.
LH: Personally, it’s been a gift to meet with other like-minded folks through the monthly Zoom meetings and hear others reflect on how workbook themes intersect with their lives. I’ve been surprised at the level of vulnerability we’ve had within this group of mostly strangers meeting together for a short-term small group. One month Jon opened by asking us to each share a way that we are “complex, unfinished, awkward, and wounded” (from p. 20 of the workbook), and so much came out of that sharing. Maybe that’s because we’re all so starved for deep connection, and maybe it's also that the workbook invites us into this space.
Other professors within the larger Au Sable community have used Liturgies of Restoration during their own field-based science courses or summer trips in South Dakota's Black Hills, New York's Adirondacks, and beyond.
Would you like to add anything else?
JT: Research from the Barna Group, a think tank that focuses on church trends, shows that three of the top six reasons young Christians walk away from church and their faith include feeling that the church ignores real world problems, that faith is not relevant to their interests, and that the church comes across as antagonistic to science. Caring for creation is a way for the church to demonstrate commitment to biblical truth and speak to an issue that is important and relevant to younger Christians.
LH: Groups with wildly different spiritual sensibilities are involved in taking care of the earth. For example, creation care and environmental movements in the United States have generally centered white audiences who care about preserving wildlife and parks. Black and brown communities in urban areas have good reason to focus on justice and access. Indigenous communities who have been forcibly separated from their ancestral lands often care for the earth as for a relative, speaking of "Mother Earth" or "Grandmother Earth." Christians can learn a lot from other environmental groups. We can partner with other groups toward the goal of restoring our shared home while still maintaining a distinctive, Christ-centered focus.
Learn more about Au Sable Institute's Vital Worship Grant. Request a digital copy of Au Sable's Liturgies of Restoration workbook. Read "How to Be Racially and Culturally Sensitive in Creation Care" by Liuan Huska and Ben Lowe. Learn from Christians in the sciences at Called to Science and BioLogos.