Worship in the Woods

As children, we know this to be true:  Nature inspires, fascinates and heals.   As adults, we can forget.  But the ‘child within us’, brings us back to this timeless truth.

I remember being with my daughter at age two and seeing her fascination, as she saw a  ‘wooly bear’ caterpillar for the first time.  She got down on all fours, close to the earth and watched amazed, as this fuzzy, black and orange striped caterpillar, inched ever so slowly, across our path.

Do you remember the last time you were as fully present, to what was right in front of you?  Do you remember the last time you allowed yourself to experience awe, wonder and such absolute delight?

This past Sunday, a group from the church I serve, travelled to Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH.  This little church, offers a profound and compelling witness to the wider community. https://kairosearth.org/church-of-the-woods

Rooted in the Christian tradition, this congregation has no building.  Their Sanctuary, is an 112 acre forest, clear-cut several times over, and slowly being restored to a healthy forest.

Their pastor, is Steve Blackmer, a professional forester, who in mid-life became an Episcopal priest.  The vision for Church of the Woods, arose from Steve and kindred spirits, who believe that we connect more deeply to the Creator, as we immerse ourselves in the beauty and wisdom of creation.

The altar around which we gatherd, is a stump of an old growth tree, cut down years before.  Upon the altar is placed a chalice and plate, to hold the Eucharist, reminding us of the body and life-force of God’s own child, Jesus.

 

 

 

Now gathered at your table, remembering that we are one with our Creator and with all creation, we offer to you from your own Earth these gifts of the land, this bread and wine, and our own bodies – our own living sacrifice.

Fill us with your Breath, O God, opening our eyes and renewing us in your love.  Send our Spirit over this land and over the whole earth, making everything a new creation.

 

After the liturgy, we are invited to quietly walk the paths of the forest.  With open eyes and hearts we seek to awaken to what nature has to say.  Martin Luther, centuries ago, said: “The call of a bird, the sound of a brook, the wind against one’s face, is but a ‘little word’ to us, from the Creator.”

 

Reverent play at Church of the Woods, as the children lead us.

For an hour or so, on a late afternoon, we walk,   ages 5 – 75.   We walk, look and listen, closely, carefully.  We are mindful of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Listen, and your soul will live’.

 

As the sun begins to set, we conclude the liturgy with these words:

 

 

 

‘God of abundance, you have fed us with the bread of life and the cup of love.  You have reunited us with Christ, with the Earth and with one another.  Now, send us forth in the power of the Spirit that we may proclaim your love and continue forever in the risen life of Christ’.

May it be so.

 

The First People

I live in Massachusetts and was raised in Rhode Island.   All around me is history.   In my neighborhood are houses built-in the 1600’s. These are not museum pieces but houses that have provided homes for generations of families.  My own house is a newcomer, built-in 1806.

Down the street is Independence Park, where the Declaration of Independence was read to citizens.  Around the bend, in Beverly Harbor,  is the  location of George Washington’s navy, during the Revolutionary War.   All this history is told through the lens of the Europeans who settled here.

Preceding this were the indigenous people who call this region home:  the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Nipmuc, among others.   For most non Native American’s like me, I am disconnected from the stories  and wisdom of those who preceded ‘my people’.

This past Thanksgiving I met Larry Spotted Crow Mann, a Nipmuc elder.  The Nipmuc (which means ‘Fresh Water’ people), is an indigenous community whose ancestral land once comprised over 1000 square miles from northern Rhode Island, Connecticut, central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

Today the Nipmuc land consists of a small allotment of acres in Central Massachusetts.  But as Larry Spotted Crow Mann says: “We never left.  Most non-Native people think we were wiped out hundreds of years ago by war and disease brought by Europeans.  But we are still here.  This is still our land, our home.”

Nipmuc elder, Larry Spotted Crow Mann

Larry Spotted Crow Mann, is a mixture of warmth, humor, intelligence and mental toughness.  His profession includes counseling indigenous youth, who feel disconnected from their heritage and judged by the majority culture.

For Larry Spotted Crow Mann, the path to healing is found in reconnecting to one’s tribal tradition and spirituality.  For this Nipmuc elder, the past is not the past, it is circular, where the past informs the present and future.

A few weeks ago, I again met Larry Spotted Crow Mann.  This time he was leading a drumming workshop.  He spoke of the drum beat as a reflection of the ‘heartbeat’ of the earth, of the Creator.  He spoke of the intricacy of the rhythm of nature, how in indigenous culture, there is no separation between the natural world and a person’s place within it.

“Everything is a circle, a hoop, within which we each have a place.  Our place in the circle has no greater or lesser importance than anything else…birds, bugs, water, air, soil…everything is interconnected.”

For most of us, in the majority culture, the Nipmuc and other tribal communities are invisible.  At best we are indifferent, at worst judgmental.

Yet, the truth is, the Nipmuc have never left.  They are still here. Their language continues to be spoken.  Their tradition passed from generation to generation.

The Nipmuc offer timeless wisdom to the majority culture too.  Lessons for how to live and how to be.  For those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

 

Ash Wednesday: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Today the Baptist church I serve, gathered with our sisters and brothers of Saint Peter Episcopal Church for Ash Wednesday.  The beginning of the Season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is not normally part of the Baptist tradition and it is beautiful to see distinct branches of the Christian tree come together for a common purpose. For this ‘liturgically challenged’ Baptist, my spiritual imagination has been enriched and expanded by the addition of Ash Wednesday.

In my previous setting in Oregon, we shared this ritual with a Roman Catholic congregation.  For the Latino/Latina members of that congregation, it was the largest service of the year.  It was beautiful to worship in Spanish and English.

Here in New England, we gather with an Episcopal Church.  The crowd and diversity may not be the same, but the meaning we find in the company of one another is a constant.

For this ritual, ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  The ashes are presented with these words, “Repent and believe in the Good News”.  It is a truly intimate act to look someone in the eyes, offering ancient words of repentance, as you smudge their forehead with ashes.  You can’t avert your eyes, you can’t deny your vulnerability.

In our highly individualistic culture, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter cultural.  This ritual reminds us that we come from dust and to dust we will return.  The placing of the ashes on the forehead is an ‘in  your face’ reminder that the illusion of our immortality, and hyper individualism,  is just that, an illusion.

There is something strangely reassuring, in acknowledging one’s mortality.  Rather than being a morbid ritual, Ash Wednesday is a reminder to savor the gift of life, to take care of each other.  A reminder that one day, each of us returns to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

In Praise of Wild and Lonely Places

There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet.  A primitive, even visceral desire, to strip away the distractions and focus on that which matters.

For many of us, getting outdoors, is a way of focusing on that which matters.  We do so by working in our garden, hiking, snowshoeing through the woods or walking on the beach.

We are drawn to that which allows our hearts, minds and imaginations to expand. To be reminded that we belong to the cosmos, not just to our daily routines.

Stephen Hiltner taps into this desire in a provocative article in the New York Times entitled: ‘In Britain, Enraptured by the Wild, Lonely and Remote’. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/travel/in-search-of-britains-bothies.html?partner=rss&emc=rss He writes of a journey through the wild lands of the United Kingdom, finding refuge and inspiration in isolated huts called ‘bothies’.

A vast majority of bothies are repurposed structures — crofters’ homes, shepherds’ huts, mining outbuildings — that have been salvaged from various states of disrepair by the Mountain Bothies Association, a charitable organization founded in 1965 whose aim is “to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.” Some, like Warnscale Head in England’s Lake District, date to the 1700s. Collectively, since they came into recreational use in the 1930s as weekend getaways (sometimes used clandestinely) for working-class laborers, bothies have given rise to a unique culture that values communal respect for fellow visitors, for the bothies themselves and for the land on which they’re situated.

Such wild and lonely places remind me of a week spent on the Longtrail, in Vermont.  With my cousin, Tom, we spent that week moving from rustic hut to hut, soaking in the vistas and silence.

On the Longtrail, there is a tradition of receiving a ‘trail name’ that evokes who you are, or, what you hope to be.  My name was ‘Slow and Easy’.  The name reflects a tendency when on the trail, to linger and savor what the trail has to offer.  While some seek to conquer the trail by bagging a maximum of miles per day, my goal was to experience what was right in front of me.

Travelling ‘slow and easy’ was somewhat counterculture on the trail and certainly is countercultural in our plugged in, highly scheduled lives.

Back to the line I opened with: ‘There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet’.

John Muir lived this truth. He was a mystic and founder of the Sierra Club in the 1930’s.  His formative years were nourished by the wild and lonely places in Scotland.  Later, as a youth, his family emigrated to the United States in the 1870’s and it was there that he fell in love with the wild and lonely places of America.

The moors of Scotland and the mountains of Yosemite, evoke a sense of awe, wonder and belonging to that which is greater than oneself.  Muir wrote:

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Muir’s words reflects that which drew monks and mystics for millenniums to the out-of-the-way places.  Yet, we know too, that such wild and exotic places are simply pointers to that place we can enter each day.  A reminder to slow down, reflect and reconnect, to that Source which is eternal, which is good, lasting and true.

The portal to such a place, begins by simply slowing down and becoming quiet.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

May it be so.  Wherever your path may lead.

 

 

Remembering Mary Oliver and the Gift of Red Bird

Yesterday, the great American poet, Mary Oliver died, at age 83.  Her poetry grew out of a love for nature, that served as a refuge from a turbulent childhood.  In the woods and ponds around her rural Ohio home, she found beauty, healing and hope. Throughout her adult life, she found wisdom and renewal on daily walks along the beaches and forests of Provincetown, Cape Cod.  Nature fed and expanded her soul.

Her poem Red Bird, invites the reader to look for the gift of color that breaks into the often grey and cold days of a New England winter.

Red Bird reminds us that beauty however fleeting, comes into even the darkest of times.

May Red Bird speak to you.

 

Red Bird

Red bird came all winter
Firing up the landscape
As nothing else could.

Of course I love the sparrows,
Those dun-colored darlings,
So hungry and so many.

I am a God-fearing feeder of birds,
I know he has many children,
Not all of them bold in spirit.

Still, for whatever reason-
Perhaps because the winter is so long
And the sky so black-blue,

Or perhaps because the heart narrows
As often as it opens-
I am grateful

That red bird comes all winter
Firing up the landscape

As nothing else can do.

Everything’s a Circle

The Sacred Spiral – The spiral represents the universal pattern of growth and evolution. The spiral represents eternity and continuity. The spiral in nature appears frequently. It is a symbol that represents innocence, rebirth, and the eternal. The sacred spiral is also an energetic symbol, it represents energy. In fact, if you look at pure energy under a microscope you will see that energy forms spiral patterns.

Nature loves to make things round: planets, soap bubbles, oranges, eyeballs, the circular swirl of a spinning hurricane. A lot of forces are at play in favoring natural circles and spheres—the equalizing force of air pressure pushing out or gravity pulling in; the rotation of the Earth, creating vortices in air; the evolutionary imperative of efficient packaging.

WESTBROOK, ME – JANUARY 14: This 30-second exposure shows a circular ice floe spinning counter-clockwise in the Presumpscot River below Bridge Street, as viewed from a nearby parking garage. (Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer)

The power of the round is in the news again, with the appearance of a massive, rotating ice disk in the Presumpscot River in Westbrook, Maine. The disk was first noticed on January 14, spinning in a lazy, counterclockwise direction. On social media, the ice circle was an instant sensation, alternately said to resemble a British crop circle or the mottled face of the moon—both fair descriptions. Either way, the Presumpscot ducks loved it, settling down for a slow-motion ride.

Ice circles are rare but hardly unheard of. What makes this one special is its size: 300 ft. in diameter, or 10 times bigger than the common 30-footers.

The circle has always been an important symbol to the Native American. It represents the sun, the moon, the cycles of the seasons, and the cycle of life to death to rebirth.

Represented by the circle is the Medicine Wheel, an ancient and powerful symbol of the never-ending cycle of life, used by Native Americans for various spiritual and ritual purposes.

Our fascination with the ‘Ice Circle in Maine’, speaks to an instinctive longing within humanity.  A longing to be filled with awe and wonder.  This phenomenon serves a spiritual purpose…putting  our lives in perspective.   A reminder that it isn’t all about us.

Rather, we are part of a universe that is awe-inspiring.  We have a place in a cosmology that is far bigger than us, than we can imagine.

Throughout time, such awareness, evoking humility, has spoken to the spiritual journey of countless people.  We’ve taken various paths but are fueled by a shared passion to connect to that which is greater than oneself.

The ancient prophet, Isaiah spoke to this journey:

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? Creator sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. The Holy stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”  (Isaiah 40:21-22)

 

The labyrinth found in Christian cathedrals and forest glades, invites the traveler to walk the way of the circle and to be open to the blessings to be found.

It has been said, that ‘everything is a circle’.  If we allow ourselves to enter upon such a path, we may find ourselves returning to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

When Prayer Meets Politics

In a January 7th New York Times article” ‘A Wall and Two Prayers’ by  Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni    The article reflects on a series of meetings this past weekend, by White House and Congressional leaders.  They are seeking a way past the shut down of our nation’s government, now at day sixteen.  The article begins:

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence insisted on beginning the first meeting with a prayer, so the chief of staff to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, asked God to “to bring us together” when negotiators met Saturday in Mr. Pence’s ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

The next day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff members, who were representing the Democratic side, began with their own prayer, which noted that Jesus and Mary were both refugees.

The two disparate prayers underscored the stalemate that lawmakers find themselves in as the shutdown drags into its third week: The two sides could not even agree on a pro forma invocation.

The article raises the question of what role prayer has, in the world of politics.

We know that prayer can be a means to support one’s own agenda and bias.  A cynic may suggest that Vice President Pence and Speaker Pelosi used prayer in precisely this way.

But I offer a warning.  Anyone who strive to use prayer in a calculating manner is moving into unchartered territory.

Prayer has a way of inserting that intangible we call Spirit, into our most carefully constructed agenda and closely held bias.  Prayer can’t be constrained or contained.  Prayer taps into a Source that is greater than our sense of what is possible. Greater even than our ego or fears.

Prayer creates an opening.  To be filled by that Mystery who goes by many names: Holy/Sacred/Divine/Spirit/Source.   Spirit can expand the smallest of imaginations and soften the hardest of hearts.

Prayer can’t be domesticated.  Not by politicians, priests, pastors or prophets.

When a person enters into prayer…even the most hard-hearted and closed-minded among us….has entered upon a process of being changed.

The Spirit nudges, stirs, compels and propels, to the point that the one who prays begin to change, evolve, transform.

Perhaps the change is dramatic like the Biblical story of Saul being brought to his knees at the Damascus gate.  The result is a new identity (Paul) with a new call to serve those he had been persecuting.

Other times the process is glacial, like the slow expanding of the Grinch’s heart at Christmas (which was oh, so small).

My point is that Mr. Pence and Mrs. Pelosi should be careful when praying.  If they continue, who knows where it will lead?

We can only hope it will lead to greater wisdom, guided by compassion.  Not just for our sake but the sake of all God’s children.

For this, let us pray.