Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Returning to Where We Already Are*

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Hebrews 11: 13b-16b

Some years ago, I discovered an old faded and yellowed photograph found among others that had come from my grandmother. From previous research done on my father’s family, I recognized the scene.

Outside a farmhouse a group had gathered on the front lawn. In the shadow cast by the house, seven formally dressed venerable looking folk sat in chairs in the front row. The men bearded and bow-tied, the women in long dark dresses.

Behind them stood twenty-five others, the women on one side, the men on the other. A gentleman sat in a horse drawn carriage off to the far right, at the edge of the gathering. And on the horizon, one can just make out the form of a distant mountain.

Further investigation revealed that the photo was taken on July 4th, 1902. The occasion was the Heald family reunion at Sumner Hill, in the foothills of the western mountains. It was a celebration loosely held in conjunction with Old Home Week, the actual date having been set in August by the then Governor of Maine, John Fremont Hill.

Old Home Week was first established in 1899 in New Hampshire, when former residents of the state were invited back to visit their hometowns. Maine adopted the practice a year later. Marked by parades, processions, picnics, bonfires, fireworks and all manner of festivities, it was intended to promote tourism, historic preservation, and economic development.

The later half of 19th century in New England had been witness to a westward emigration on a massive scale and many rural communities were in decline.  In a rapidly changing America, Old Home Week was meant to call home the wayward and solidify a sense of rootedness in place and community.

The Heald family was a case in point. Of the eight surviving offspring of Hiram and Sophronia Heald, six left Maine in search of opportunity elsewhere. Two settled in Massachusetts—among them my great-great grandfather—two went out to Wyoming, one to Kansas, and another set off for California.

On that July 4th, all but one sibling returned to the old homestead. All around them were gathered cousins, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And up the road, on the summit of the hill opening out to views of the White Mountains to the west, was the family cemetery, where two brothers who had died in the Civil War were buried, and other ancestors had been laid to rest.

For those living in New England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the meaning and sense of home had taken on a new social, economic and indeed spiritual urgency.

In the face of an ever increasingly mobile population and the attendant degradation of the environment and natural landscape, the meaning of home is no less important today than it was one hundred and thirteen years ago, perhaps even more so.

In the letter to the Hebrews, the unknown author speaks of our spiritual forebear Abraham departing from his native land to set out in faith for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

And, in accordance with the promise, his descendents became as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains on the seashore. And yet they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, seeking a homeland, desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

They were seeking a homeland.

Unlike most interpretations of Hebrews that point to an other-worldly realm—and in spite of the author’s own intentions—I  don’t believe that this homeland is far away but rather right here, now. It is the air we breathe. It is the earth beneath our feet. It is the ground upon which we stand.

We set out, not to a better land, but to this one, now seen anew with fresh eyes. Old Home Week is every week, when we return to where we already are.

Seven years ago I set out, not knowing where I was going. I resigned from my congregation in Yarmouth and left behind my work of twenty-three years. I refused job opportunities in the Midwest and Northwest. I had no idea what I was doing next, having let go of what I had already done. I ventured forth by intentionally staying put. I set out on a journey of faith to parts unknown.

The twelfth-century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, used the image of the grunde or ground to express the deepest realm of the soul where we dwell with the Divine. He wrote: God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground. Walking in faith, we are awake to this ground of the soul that stands at the center of everything that exists. And for me, this spiritual ground has everything to do with the tangible ground—the earth—on which I stand.[1]

In his book Staying Put, the novelist and essayist Scott Sanders, offers a bioregional reading of this ancient spiritual ideal. He writes: The likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one...If our interior journeys are cut loose entirely from...place, then both we and the neighborhood will suffer.[2]

Sanders couldn’t have offered a better advertisement for Old Home Week.

These days, my spiritual practice is very simple. It’s about staying put. It’s about staying put with eyes wide open, which is to say with eyes of faith, seeing God alive in the local, not far off but close at hand. We’ve lived in the same neighborhood, on the same bit of land, for over twenty years. And I’m just now coming to know it.

Friday morning I awoke in the dark to the sound of thunder.
A sudden downpour. Then the storm passed off to the east, out over the water. A light breeze stirred the leaves. Water dripped from the eaves outside my study window as I sat sipping tea.  And out of predawn gloom, I heard the cardinal’s chip call, then cheer, cheer, cheer! Just that.

And those people we meet everyday and the strangers in our midst. Or old familiar faces emerging from a yellowed and worn photograph. We are all seeking a homeland, solid ground on which to stand. By God’s grace, we rejoice that we’re already here, in this very place and not another.

Concluding his article, a reporter from the Lewiston Sun Times wrote of the Sumner Hill reunion: A fine display of fireworks on the evening of the fourth, to which the public was invited, marked the close of a red-letter day... AMEN

Photo: Heald Homestead, Sumner Hill, Maine

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME; August 11, 2013


[1] Christie, Douglas E. The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology ; Oxford University Press, pg. 26
[2] Ibid.; pg. 27

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