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Your happy place and sacred space

Empire sand dunes on Lake Michigan

Retired pastor Jack Harnish has felt what research has proven, that spending time outdoors is good for the body and soul.

Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics asked people where they were the happiest, the first choice was a place of worship. Almost tied with that, in second place, was outdoors.

Since I have invested most of my life in the life of the church, I was pleased to see places of worship ranked high, even as worship attendance declines. There really is a need in our souls and a place in our lives for sanctuaries, sacred spaces, liturgies, and traditions that offer solace and comfort in a troubled world.

As a pastor, I was blessed to serve in some beautiful churches.

I loved Sunday morning when the pews were full, the choir was in good voice, and the organ echoed throughout the room in glorious praise. But I also cherished the quiet moments when I would slip into the sanctuary alone, allowing the prism of light shining through the stained-glass windows to envelop me and the silence of the empty space to calm my anxious workaholism. From Mt. Zion, my first little country church on a Pennsylvania hilltop, to the grandeur of churches in Flint, Ann Arbor, and Birmingham, these spaces became sacred for me. I felt like I was standing on holy ground.

Just as important is the second finding—the out-of-doors.

A study in Finland found that visiting nature three to four times a week was associated with lower blood pressure, less need for mental health medications, and lower asthma infections. The College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University reported the same results. They said going for a walk in a park, along a lake, or through a tree-lined space reduced anxiety, asthma, depression, high blood pressure, and insomnia. So, it seems that walking in nature restores our souls and contributes to our overall health and wholeness.

I’m blessed to live in a beautiful corner of the world, even during the dreary, gray days of February. Recently on one of our few sunny days, my wife, Judy, and I walked to where the Platte River joins the waters of Lake Michigan. The late afternoon sun turned the Empire dunes to gold, with the Manitou Islands in the distance. Under the brilliant sky, the water was shimmering blue with whitecaps splashing at the shore. It was a moment of beauty breaking through the heavy overcast of recent days.

We need our sacred places.

We need our sanctuaries, holy spaces where we are renewed by shared worship and sacred symbols. We also need the holy moments we find in the majesty of the world around us, where once again, we sense our place in the creation as we stand in awe and wonder. That’s what the psalmist must have felt when he wrote, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! . . . When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:1, 3-4, NRSVUE). Or in Psalm 23, when he says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” (vv. 1-3a).

Scientific research confirms what ancient scripture tells us and what we know in our hearts to be true—walking in the wonder of creation restores our souls, bringing health, wholeness, and perhaps even holiness into our lives.

So, go. Take a walk and find your happy place, your sacred space, your holy ground.

Last Updated on November 1, 2023

The Michigan Conference