Friday, May 31, 2013

Weddings in a Barn

Tomorrow I  will be attending the wedding of a nephew in Pennsylvania. He will be married in a church but the reception will take place in a barn. Because the temperatures will be in the high 80s to low 90s (Fahrenheit), some of my relatives are bemoaning the lack of air-conditioned comfort. What do you wear as you move from the cool of the church ceremony to the heat of the reception?

Having the reception in a barn apparently a growing trend for weddings. This will be the fourth one for me in the past few years, my own daughter’s included. I have three friends in various parts of the U.S. who have renovated barns to make them usable for wedding receptions. I consulted a website,, and discovered that there are barns available across the country for events such as wedding receptions. “I think a barn symbolizes a sense of peace and oneness with the land that harmonizes well with the idea of a wedding,” states the website. “I want a barn because the space is large and unusual and it will well reflect our love of nature and being true to the land.”

Outdoor weddings are also an increasing trend. Although tomorrow’s ceremony will take place in a church, at all the other “barn” weddings I’ve attended, the ceremony took place outdoors. In the past four years, I have attended twelve weddings. Of those twelve, half  held their wedding ceremony in a church. But only two of those six continued their festivities indoors. In summary, two out of twelve weddings had everything indoors, and one of those two took place in the winter. Ten of the twelve had one or the other part of the ceremony outdoors.

I draw two observations from these trends. First, this generation of young adults are becoming more and more attuned to nature. I think it is because of increased awareness of ecological problems that are plaguing our world and wanting to do something about it. Young adults are interested in gardening and preserving their produce the old fashioned way. The quote about using a barn for their wedding I think reflects well these trends, “[using a barn] will well reflect our love of nature and being true to the land.” Young adults want to be closer to nature, and I think this is a good thing.

Secondly, I think the traditional church is becoming less and less important for young adults, reflected in the fact that only half of the weddings I attended were held in a church. Although I find this trend to be unsettling, I think it behooves the organized church to look closely in the mirror as to why this is so. The reasons for this trend are the topic of another blog post, but I think it has to do with ambiguity, inclusiveness and the lack of being real on the part of many church attenders. I’ll leave my comments at that for now.

So I’m off to another barn wedding. Since it will take place in the vicinity of my childhood, I’m sure I will be able to bear the heat. Congratulations Justin and Alicia!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Forgiveness and a Tractor

I recently received an unexpected, modest inheritance from my parents’ estate. I felt a certain satisfaction using part of it to buy a lawn tractor, something I never thought I would own, not only because I couldn’t afford one, but also because of the environmental implications. Nevertheless, since I have developed arthritic knees and can’t push my electric mower, I use it to mow our yard. The reason for my satisfaction stems from a story from my childhood.

My family moved off the farm when I was three years old. Dad had to settle some business with the Ford tractor agency where he had done business over the years, and dragged three of us children along in the car. While he went in, he explicitly warned us not to get out of the car; that he would only be there for a few minutes.

While waiting for him, I spied a toy tractor in the showroom window. I sneaked out of the car, into the agency, crawled over a barrier into the place where the toy tractor was being displayed and happily played with it. I don’t remember how I got back to the car before Dad, but my other two siblings couldn’t wait to squeal on me and my disobedience.

The trip home was in silence. I was expecting a scolding at best, and a whipping at worst. I suffered deeply waiting for my fate. Nothing happened. Several days later, my Dad surprised me with a gift of a toy tractor exactly like the one in the showroom window of the tractor dealership. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Instead of punishment, I received a reward. I received unmerited favor, the definition of mercy, of grace, of forgiveness. Perhaps it was because I was only three years old. Perhaps he was hoping to help me to adjust to the recent move. Whatever his motive, I did not deserve what I received.

Over the years I’ve carried this story around with me as a symbol of God’s offering of forgiveness to me; to everyone. Several years ago when presenting my spiritual biography for a seminary class, I found a toy tractor much like the one I had received from my Dad those many years ago (pictured below). I display it in a prominent place to remind me not only of God’s mercy to me and my Dad’s love, but also to remind me to treat others with the same kind of forgiveness and unmerited favor.

Now, once again with thanks to my Dad, I have a REAL tractor to remind me of God’s love and mercy as I mow the lawn. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sabbath Rest Not Just for Sunday

I receive Father Ronald Rolheiser’s abridged newsletter twice a week. This week he included a list of things that can be used for Sabbath rest other than Sunday. This list has some wonderful ideas that we should pay attention to. Lord knows we need rest in our over active “human doing” society. Below is the list with some commentary.

1.     Sabbath need not be just one day a week. Sabbath to can be an hour, a walk, a meal, a drink, a chat with a friend. Plan at least one Sabbath-moment every day.

Before my arthritic knees prohibited me from walking, I would do a 40-minute walk every day. Sometimes I meditated, sometimes I prayed, sometimes I listened to music, sometimes I did nothing. Not only did it exercise my body, but it cleared my mind and rested my soul. One of the best things to do.

2.     Every day, even if for just a few minutes, go to some place where you can’t be reached. Cell-phones, email, and electronic communications have made us the most efficient and connected people in history, but they are also making the observance of Sabbath all but impossible. Go regularly to a place where you can’t be reached.

I have always hated a cell phone and how it makes me available 24/7. I only bought one for emergency use. However, I cannot stay away from my email. Some people do not check their work email over weekends. I cannot do that. I am afraid I will get so behind I will never catch up. I am somewhat obsessive with email. I certainly could use time away from email on a regular basis.

3.     Honor the wisdom of dormancy, know that when you aren’t doing something that is productive you are giving your soul the time and space it needs to quietly take in the nutrients it requires to remain productive. Buy a rocking chair and sit in it regularly, not thinking, not praying, not talking to a friend, just sitting, your soul a fallow field that is quietly waiting.

Since I cannot walk, I have taken to sit on our back patio every morning for at least a half hour. I watch the birds who scold me, I watch the rabbits frolicking in the lawn, I watch the sun come up and the passing weather systems. I can’t say that I don’t think, because I do, but like those walks that I had taken earlier, this activity is rest for my soul.

4.     Spend some time in quiet and prayer regularly.

Try to do this regularly. Centering prayer especially.

5.     Be attentive to little children, old people, family, food, wine, and the weather. All of these are non-pragmatic and Sabbath-invoking.
Love little children. Have learned to love elderly in our congregation through pastoral care activities.

6.     Live by the axiom: If not now, when? If not here, where? If not with these people, with whom? If not for God, why?

I’m not sure I understand this one.

7.     Stay in touch with and listen to your body. It will tell you when you need Sabbath.

When I feel my body tense up, I use sacred breathing to relax myself.

8.     Drink a glass or two of red wine most days, preferably with others.

An interesting inclusion on this list. Points to the value of relaxing and relationships. I’ve done this too often alone.

9.       Don’t nurse grudges and obsessions, they, more than anything else, will keep you tired and tense.

Truly a spiritual discipline of the highest order. Normally as one matures, holding grudges does not hold as much power over one. Obsessions are not so easy. Even doing this list of “Sabbath rest” can become obsessive. We need to learn to hold everything lightly.

 Do you have any other ideas for daily Sabbath that you can add to Rolheiser’s list?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Amish Spirituality

Unrelated to Dress and Non-Conformity  
          The story is told of an Amish farmer, while preparing his field for planting with his team of horses, came upon a bird nest that had fallen out of a tree and into his field. The nest had several fledglings in it, and a concerned mother bird fussing around it. The Amish farmer guided his team around the scene, being less efficient with his planting, but recognizing the sanctity of life, even the life of “insignificant” birds, and his place within the natural order. There are numerous other stories showing the Amish respect for nature and viewing themselves as part of it; not detached from it.
            One wonders if a modern farmer, sitting in an air-conditioned tractor cab going full speed with his favorite music blaring, even if a nature lover, would have noticed the fallen nest in time to avoid destroying it and the life within it.
            Because their technology is closer to nature and its natural rhythms, and because most of them are farmers who depend on nature for their livelihood, the Amish have a respect and reverence for nature. They do not worship nature, but they respect it and view it as God-created and given for their stewardship and care. This care for nature can be seen in how they manage their farms; for three hundred years they have developed top-notch sustainable agricultural methods. Respect and reverence for nature is part of Amish spirituality.
Another very strong aspect of Amish spirituality is community; interdependence rather than independence. The Amish generally do not buy commercial insurance, relying on the community to bail them out if there are unusual expenses. They are known for their “barn raisings,” social events where the whole community unites to help each other when there is significant property loss through a fire or a storm. But this aspect goes beyond their own community. When disaster strikes around the country, Amish work crews are some of the first to show up to clean up, and some of the last to leave as the rebuilding progresses. Their spirituality not only calls for mutual aid for their own, but also for reaching out to help others in need.
There is another aspect of their communal spirituality that is often criticized by evangelical Christian groups, including some of their cousins; the Mennonites. With a few exceptions, Amish groups do not emphasize individual salvation. It is interesting to me that this notion of individual salvation of souls apart from the community of faith and the community of nature is being discussed by writers of Christian Celtic spirituality such as Philip Newell. In the prelude to his book Christ of the Celts, Newell writes, “In Chapter Eight [I] explore[s] the doctrine of individual salvation as an obstacle in recovering our sense of the oneness of the universe.” What he means is that saving individual souls will not heal the brokenness of our world if we do not also save the relationships we have with each other as people groups and as nation groups. It will also not heal the brokenness and estrangement from God’s created order. All of created matter matters, and we are all part of the whole; not just individual souls.
One can see his point if more than 500 years (since the Reformation) an over emphasis on the saving of individual souls hasn’t brought western society close to the wholeness desired in God’s original plan for creation and salvation. In fact, it has probably created more fragmentation.
Newell continues, “My well-being will come only in relationship to our well-being and the well-being of all things [including our relationship with nature]. We are being invited to seek a new salvation. It will come through and with one another, not in separation from one another.” Their focus on community and oneness with the universal All, is the essence of Amish spirituality.
What is interesting is that one can see evidence of this spirituality throughout the world among aboriginal “tribal” peoples. They see themselves as a part of nature and other created things. I first became aware of this while visiting the Kekchi (Q’eqchi’) Mennonite peoples in Guatemala. They had become Christian but maintained much of their Mayan reverence to the created order, including religious rituals during their planting and harvesting, and surrounding their worship with an unbelievable array of flowers and other natural items. Their salvation often followed communal paths; when the main leader of the group converted, so followed the rest of the village. When criticized by missionaries for their practices (because they were non-western?) they replied. “We do not renounce all of our ancient Mayan beliefs [particularly related to their reverence for nature]. Those practices were our Old Testament that prepared the way for us to know and accept Christ.”
In many ways, Amish spirituality is similar to the tribal spirituality found all round the world, including the Kekchi of Guatemala. It is also very similar to Celtic spirituality which through many writers on spirituality is helping us move toward a more holistic view of our place within the cosmos, both as individuals and as people groups.
 “We are so deeply part of one another, and of all things, that it is meaningless to speak about wholeness in separation,” wrote Newell. “Wholeness comes in relationship, not in fragmentation.” To achieve this wholeness, we would do well to look at the Amish for an example of a spirituality that does not fragment; does not overemphasize individualism, and is mostly at peace with God’s created order.

Friday, May 10, 2013

I Am the Way the Truth and the Life

I recently read J. Philip Newell’s book A New Harmony. I came across some interesting quotes. First from page 119: “An American rabbi was once asked what he thought of the words attributed to Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, ‘I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). The rabbi replied, ‘Oh, I agree with these words.’ To which the surprised questioner asked further, ‘But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ ‘Because,’ answered the rabbi, ‘I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.’”
 The wisdom of these words would go a long way in helping us to negotiate the political and religious climate in our country these days. They would also go a long way to facilitate interfaith dialog.
Let’s start with the political and religious climate. There is no question that the US population is polarized to extremes—both in questions of politics and religion. If there is a middle ground, the voices are silenced by the shrillness of the voices on either extreme. “Either-or” thinking abounds. Either you believe the way I believe, or you are ____________ ! You fill in the blank with how you have labeled people who don’t agree with you. Is this Jesus’ way, truth and life? Or is this YOUR way YOUR truth, MY way and MY truth? Since none of us see God’s truth but “through a glass darkly,” how can we be so adamant that our way is the truth? Both – and thinking is needed. Both YOUR way and MY way are truth. This isn’t wishy-washy, relativistic thinking. This is recognizing that since everyone is made in God’s image, everyone has some of the truth, and that no one has all the truth.
This could also extend to interfaith understanding. Have any of us listened to the faith of a Muslim, a Jew, a Baha’i, or other faith perspective? Have we had the same understanding that the rabbi had toward Jesus? Is there a possibility that God has revealed some truth in each religion as a means to discover Jesus?
But there’s more. Newell writes on p. 119: “Instead of seeing Jesus as embodying the way of love that we are to follow, the truth of love that we are to believe, and the life of love that we are to live, we have turned his teachings into a set of propositional truths about Jesus. We have pretended that the most important thing is to give assent to particular beliefs rather than to follow the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. And part of what we have ended up doing is creating a Jesus who is so insecure that he needs to be thinking about him all the time.”
What difference would it make in our polarized political/religious climate if we would EMBODY Jesus’ ethic of love, his way of love, his truth of love, instead of just saying that we BELIEVE in it and in Jesus? What if we would LIVE Jesus’ command to love everyone, instead of reciting the creeds in order to be sure we have “correct” belief? For as Newell stated, “Jesus teaches us that we will truly find ourselves only by giving ourselves away in love,” p. 116. And on p. 118, “This was Jesus’ wisdom. He showed us that we truly find ourselves by losing our egocentricity.” Losing our egocentricity as well as our ethnocentricity.
Finally, many of us “have been appalled at the way in which Jesus has been hijacked by triumphalist [superior to all other] religion [and culture]. The truly humble one at the heart of our tradition [Jesus] has been used to prop up an often arrogant and irrelevant religious system. The son of compassion has been used to justify intolerance and even violence,” p. 118. Unfortunately, as this quote points out, there has been far more arrogant and violent Christianity—especially in the West, than the Christianity of Jesus portrayed in the Beatitudes.
Is Jesus “The Way, The Truth, and The Life?” If you believe that he is, and I do, then let’s embody that way—the way of love and the way of the cross. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Nothing is Something

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist in an recent interview with Krista Tippett on her podcast “On Being,” talked about “dark matter.” For many years, scientists considered dark matter to be nothing but a huge void between particles in the universe; an empty space; nothing. Now they’ve discovered that it weighs something, and weight means that there must be something there. “30 percent of the universe roughly is this dark matter,” stated Krauss. “[It] is made, we’re reasonably convinced, of some new type of elementary particle that doesn’t exist here on earth.” The title of his recent book is: A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. So this nothing has become something.

This caught my interest because of the ancient argument between Augustine and Pelagius about creation. Augustine argued that God created the universe “ex nihilo,” meaning “out of nothing.” Pelagius argued that God created the universe “ex Deo,” meaning “out of God’s own essence.” What caused the discussion was the first two verses of Genesis one: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep . . . .” What exactly was this “formless void?” Was it something or was it nothing? We all know where the argument ended up; creating the world out of nothing is the dominant view of creation in Western theology, while Pelagius was thrown out of the church as a heretic.

It is interesting how those verses in Genesis use phrases similar to what physicist Krauss uses, when he is anything but a believer. The “formless void” and the “darkness” form the “dark matter” or the what was thought to be “nothing.” From this “dark matter,” or “void,” comes Augustine’s idea that God created the universe out of nothing. Pelagius would say that by God speaking the universe into being (“And God said”), creation came out of the very essence of God. One view sees God as transcendent and distant from creation while the other sees God as imminent and personally involved with creation and its creatures. One is a materialistic view of creation that allows for domination and exploitation of the created order while the other is a spiritual view of creation that calls for reverence and respect for the created order.

So if, according to physicists, this “dark matter” or “formless void” is actually something rather than nothing, Augustine’s doctrine of ex nihilo is no longer valid. The question remains, did God create the universe out of “something” or out of God's own essence? Or was that “something” really God’s very essence?

It is also interesting that at the time of these discoveries by physicists, there is a growing interest in Pelagian thought through Celtic spirituality and the writing of Philip Newell. One of the main tenants of Celtic spirituality is reverence and respect for nature, stemming from the view of ex Deo. For them, God is revealed through both the “big (the size of the cosmos) book” of nature and the “little (able to be held in one’s hand) book” of sacred scripture. This interest in Celtic spirituality comes as a result of seeing where Augustine’s materialistic view of nature and creation has taken the planet. Interest in sustainability and creation care is cropping up everywhere, even in some unlikely places. Evangelical Christians have formed an organization called “Evangelical Environmental Network” ( to raise awareness on issues of creation care.

The time is ripe for vindicating this supposed heretic from the fourth century. The time is ripe for treating nature with reverence and respect rather than something to be dominated and exploited. The time is ripe for viewing creation as coming from the essence of God (ex Deo) rather than out of nothing (ex nihilo). After all, nothing is something.