Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: God Talk (optional)

The Language of the Space Between . . .

Over the twenty plus years of my life as a clergy person, I have learned to talk often and easily about sacrament and ritual, about liturgy, forgetting that these words which might be second nature in a church context, are not otherwise commonplace. I forget, too, that even as I entered seminary, I had no language with which to engage my books, my classes, my professors, or my fellow students. Everyone but me seemed to have language. I rarely dared speak for fear of being exposed as the imposter I was.

I wrote about it in Confessions of a Fake Priest.

I bought The Story Bible, Pearl S. Buck’s two-volume series on the Old and New Testaments. I asked my friend Dick, “What does liturgy mean?” And when he began to expound philosophically and historically, I interrupted him, “No. What does the word liturgy mean?”

In September, the new students met as a group, and we introduced ourselves. Everyone knew what they were doing. Everyone knew why they were there. Everyone was called. Everyone but me. I approached a woman who exuded a confidence born of a sure and certain authority.

“Hi. My name’s Caroline.” I stuck out my hand and she had to take it.

Too flustered to make intelligent conversation and too flustered to go, I asked her the question that was searing its way into my brain. “So, why do you want to be ordained?”

The woman was shorter than I to begin with, but by the time she had puffed herself up, I had become altogether insignificant, both in stature and in meaning. She looked at me for what seemed like hours before she answered, and it was on the tip of my tongue to apologize when she said, “It’s all sacramental, of course.”

Oh. Of course. How silly of me.

I fled.

Later I called my friend Dick. “What’s a sacrament?”

The question I am holding is this: what will be the sacramental and ritual language for the space between . . . ? What is the sacred language of the earth, the waters, the wind, and fire? Where do we begin?

Not long ago I was interviewed on a talk radio program called The Green Divas. This is how they describe themselves: Host Green Diva Meg and a variety of Green Diva Correspondents throughout the US offer information on green or sustainable living from a guilt-free, low-stress perspective making information accessible to a broad audience using credible information, humor and technology.

Not a word about sacrament and ritual. I panicked. What if I were asked to define sacrament. By this time I was screaming at my husband Jim. How would I define it in an uncomplicated way? Where is my friend Dick when I most need him? Dictionaries refer to the bread and wine of holy communion; they refer to the sacrament of baptism. Churches define it as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”


This is an audience that recycles, that replaces Deet-laden mosquito repellant with something non-toxic, an audience that wears clothing of cotton, linen, and bamboo, an audience that would never dream of dousing pesky nettles with Round-up. Never mind talking about things of the spirit.

Finally I remembered to breathe.

During the twenty or so minutes of the interview I was reminded of what I already know. There are untold numbers of people – myself included – who want truly to talk about and celebrate things of the spirit. Just not in churches. People who understand the spirit nature of the earth herself, who have not been encouraged to discover alternative avenues of expression.

So, what is the language of the Space Between . . .? How do we shape a holy language that is not rendered inaccessible by the theological and doctrinal language of religions? How do we speak of the mysteries, the patterns, the rituals of the earth community? How do we celebrate them? How do we offer thanks?

My greatest hope for this website is that it serve as a resource for sacred ritual designed especially for the space between . . . The invitation is to you, to share earth celebrations, water rituals, etc. As I close this  post, I want to lift up the definition Harvey Cox gives to ritual. It’s the best I’ve heard, and speaks to the heart of the space between . . . “rituals are enactments – in song, story, visual representation, and gesture – of the narratives that inform a people’s identity.”

How wide open is that! How filled with possibility! What are the earth-centered narratives that have shaped our lives – some universal, some regional. What songs shall we use, what poetry, what visuals shall we use?

In my next blog post, I plan to offer an excerpt from The Space Between Church & Not-Church ~ A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of our Planet. It describes the putting together of sacred ritual to celebrate a neighborhood’s successful efforts in the restoration of a local pond.

In the meantime, back to the Green Divas. The morning of the show, my husband and I had the opportunity to hike along Adams Creek, in Dingmans’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, through one of the last stands of virgin timber in the state. As we dangled our feet in the still frigid water, I wrote a simple blessing for the Divas and their audience, which I offered at the end of the show.

May we be planted by the waters,
a planting so deep that our roots sink down into the rich moist earth
until we stand on solid rock.

May our minds and hearts know the intimate touch of the wind,
our faces the heat and healing power of the sun.
Until we know ourselves as one with all life.

Getting started need not be any more complicated than this.

The Sacred Elements: An Alternative Perspective

In her keynote speech, “Elements of Renewal: Fourfold Wisdom,” (as yet unpublished) given at the 2010 Epiphany West Conference, Dr. Marion Grau, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, cracked open the classic institutional forms of understanding of sacrament. “The sacrament is a deep life force around which a community gathers,” she said, “depending on it with a deep need and hunger that nothing else can satisfy.” Another way to think of it is this: something has sacramental value when you understand it as carrying a piece of you, even as you are carrying a piece of it; when you understand that each needs and depends on the other. The relationship is always mutual. As we move our anthropocentric worldview to a biocentric perspective, we can anticipate the opportunity to reframe our understanding of sacrament, and, ultimately, our sense of ritual.

“Earth, water, fire and air are deeply imagined ways of exploring and comprehending the world within and around us,” Grau continued, as a preface to her question: “Can we truly get over the self-focus that is forefronted by some of our own religious traditions, that focus almost all rites, texts and practices on God/human or human/human interactions. Can we remember the elements . . . to give them back their rightful place into our own personal and global cosmos?”

I am indebted to Dr. Grau for opening up a line of inquiry I might not otherwise have stumbled across. Earth, waters, wind, and fire – these are what all life forms hold in common, the sacred elements.

What better way to explore the parameters of a non-doctrinal, non credal spiritual life than to tease out (borrow back) from churches the breadth and depth of sacrament, allowing those elements we hold in common to shape what Thomas Berry insists is the spirituality of the earth itself.

Berry writes (The Spirituality of the Earth) “The crassness of our relation to the earth cannot but indicate a radical absence of spirituality in ourselves, not the lack of a spiritual dimension of the earth. The earth process has been generally ignored by the religious-spiritual currents of the West. Our alienation goes so deep that it is beyond our conscious mode of awareness.”

Berry challenges us to distinguish between human tributes to the earth, and a true acknowledgement of the spirituality of the earth itself, including our human place within the earth community.

So engaging Marion Grau, Thomas Berry, and Caroline Fairless in the same conversation (Oh I wish!), how better to acknowledge the spirituality of all life than to celebrate sacramentally with the elements all life forms hold in common: earth, waters; wind; fire.

To be specific, take, for example, a loaf of bread, and a cup of wine. In Christian churches, these are defined for us (whether literal, metaphorical, historical, or symbolic) as the body and blood of Christ. For those who might understand these sacraments differently, there is little or no room in churches, at least not without a fair measure of deception. The truth is, the grain and the grape are shared by not only among all humans, but across the species as well;  it’s time to reclaim them. They are birthed and formed by the sacred elements of earth, waters, wind, and fire. To share in the bread and the wine is to celebrate the richness, the beauty, and the abundance of life.

Another example, the sacrament of Baptism, which, in Christian churches, celebrates initiation into Christ’s body, the church. Pretty simple. But it’s a rite whose core is Jesus, and includes the theology of being cleansed from sin (Original Sin, by the way), dying and being reborn into the life of Christ.

The waters of baptism, however, not only are shared by everyone, but they are a deep reminder that water forms our very identity; it is water which connects humans to all life forms; water, the basis of our very identity. Understood in this way, then, baptism is a rite of remembrance, or, as I have said elsewhere, a rite of the loss of forgetfulness.

For Reflection

What has it cost us, within churches and outside both, to put a doctrinal and credal frame around the sacraments? This is fodder for a group discussion, church or not. I’m hoping to be a part of it, from the space between . . .

To Rediscover The Good News

The news around aging and shrinking mainline churches is neither new nor good.

A 2008 article in the Boston Globe observes, “(yet) Protestant denominations are leaving many of their small churches open, allowing for a sizable number of struggling, even moribund, congregations with minimal programming and part-time clergy.” These (and other) congregations insist that it’s not about the numbers.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. With apology to the Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, the lady here is the mother church, and her consistent disclaimer sounds like this: “we are not talking about the numbers”; “we are not talking about building up churches”. Of course this isn’t true. If it were true, then churches would be sending people out their doors – not, to proclaim The Good News of Jesus and thereby bring people into churches – but to gather where The Good News is already everywhere, as elegant as a monarch emerging from her cocoon, as wobbly as a fawn on newborn legs, or as awkward as a fledgling robin’s first flight pattern.

My friend Tom Wisner once challenged me, “you damn church people. You put a The in front of what you call good news, and you speak of it with a capital G and and a capital N, as though there were just one expression of it. That can’t be right.”

My intent for this book The Space Between Church & Not-Church ~ a sacramental vision for the healing of our planet – is to “borrow back” what the church has laid claim to in terms of good news, in terms of sacrament, liturgy, and ritual; to reflect upon the incalculable cost to the earth community of scriptural warrants such as Chosen; dominion and rule; multiply and fill the earth; subdue all the creatures of the land, and the water, and the air; stewardship. My intent is to name human privilege for what it is – the refusal to acknowledge our true place, within and intrinsic to an intricate web of life. My intent is to invite the church into the exercise of its prophetic voice and moral action around the urgency of justice for all living things – plants, animals, rocks, and rivers, as well as human beings.” (Terry Tempest Williams from The Open Space of Democracy.) My intent for this book is to invite all of us into the space between . . . where the process of engagement is apophatic – requiring that we unbuild, unsay, and unlearn that which has served to separate us from our true home.

For Reflection

What do you think of Tom Wisner’s remark? Is there only The Good News of Jesus and none else that can go under the captital G, capital N heading? Can you see this might be a problem for people outside churches?

Harvey Cox, in The Future of the Faith, defines ritual in this way: rituals are enactments – in song, story, visual representation, and gesture – of the narratives that inform a people’s identity. It’s a wonderfully broad understanding, filled with possibility for diversity.

What might be lost to both people within churches and people without when rituals become institutionalized, when the informative narrative is uniform? Is it possible for people in churches to look at the photograph above (Rex Nelson) and imagine that The Good News can be offered in ways other than requiring Jesus be at the center?

This would be a good conversation to have in a church group. It would be a good conversation to have with the young people of congregations who are clearly being informed by narratives other than the one offered by their churches.