Sleeping outside. Love it or hate it, for human beings all over the earth it takes on so many forms. We sleep out…
The list goes on, and with all of that in mind, here is our question: can sleeping out be a practice of faith, or a means of grace? If so, what qualities does it have?
God has always seemed especially present in the wilds of the world. In the desert, in caves, on mountainsides, at sea, even on battlefields and in dungeons. These are settings where God’s people draw near to their Creator, where their faith is tested, where their identity is forged, and where they turn to communion and conversation with him.
Maybe because there are fewer distractions, and a general lack of man-made stuff. Discomfort invites us to adapt. Unfamiliar surroundings stir our sense of adventure. Time is redefined. We can have digital detox. It means, whether in a back yard or Grand Teton, wilderness is a prime setting to meet the Lord’s very present grace. A God-centered sleep-out must feature some element of wilderness.
Scripture is also clear that humans have a talent for turning holy, grace-filled occasions into superficial, self-serving nonsense. Even things like worship and sacrifice (see Isaiah 1:11-15; Hosea 6:6; John 4:24). The goal in any spiritual discipline is to pursue substance and sincerity, so sleeping out should be no different.
If it’s to be more than a camping trip, more than a weekend at Bonnaroo, a sleep-out should be Spirit-led. It should ask something of each of us, and hold us accountable to one another. Maybe that involves planned fellowship, worship, or devotion. Maybe there are behavioral guidelines. Maybe there’s a service or advocacy component. It doesn’t have to be overly-structured, but it seems that a God-centered sleep-out should feature some element of covenant.
The first two ingredients make it sound like sleeping out should be a solo pursuit. After all, the wilderness is a great escape from others, and the one thing that makes covenant difficult is, well, people. But even if we set out to do it alone, no God-centered sleep-out is ever truly solitary. If with no one else, it is still a communion with Almighty God.
Jesus valued his time apart, maybe not so much to get away from anything as much as to draw near to something — Someone — his Father. And not only did he meet with God’s presence one-on-one, but he also had a knack to invite his followers to join him, by the handful or in crowds. He broke bread, heard their stories, and invested in building relationship. In that sense, a God-centered sleep-out can only exist in some kind of community.
In Good Company
Last, we don’t need to feel like we’re inventing something from scratch here. The people of God for thousands of years have been bound up in a story of wilderness/covenant/community with one another and God. More often than not, these were people who slept under the stars. They give us great insight into how God-centered sleeping out can be done right.
Look into the Feast of Booths known as Sukkot, for starters. Also, read more about a couple of sleep-outs that have worked well for us: a version of Sukkot for modern Christians, a similar Spring or Lenten observance called Intensity, and our Annual Conference Sleep-out.