(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
There is a story about a mom who knocks on her son’s bedroom door on a Sunday morning. “Wake up, dear” she says. “It’s time to get ready for church.”
“I don’t want to go to church,” the son replies.
“Why not?” the mother asks.
“I’ll give you three reasons,” the son says. “One, church is boring. Two, the people don’t like me. Three, I want to stay home.”
“Well……. dear,” the mother says sternly. “I’ll give you three reasons why you ARE going to church this morning. “One, we honor the sabbath in this house. Two, you are a grown man and should not act this way. Three, you are the minister!”
Another story about not wanting to go to church has Bob arriving at a stadium well after the game has started. “Wow. You are late,” Bob’s friend says. “What took you so long?”
“I was deciding between coming to the game or going to church,” Bob replies. “I had to toss a coin to decide.”
“That shouldn’t have taken too long,” the friend replies. “Yeah,” says Bob, “But I had to toss it forty-two times!”
These stories are funny, but they highlight why many people avoid attending church. On a day of supposed rest, by coming to church you have to get up relatively early, get dressed, drive fifteen minutes or more, sing songs that you’d never sing otherwise, listen to a long and boring message, drink weak coffee, exchange pleasantries with people you may see only once a week, and then arrive back home with the day half over. And, after all of that, you’re asked to pay for the experience!
As Emily Dickinson implies in her poem, why bother taking all that effort to attend church when church can be right outside your door? Many people feel most at peace, most reflective, and most connected to great forces in the universe when they are in the midst of nature – in one’s backyard, in a park, or someplace far into the wilderness.
With her seemingly simple poem that we just read, Dickinson relates a gentle skepticism of traditional religion and its declaration that religious buildings are the only places to worship, learn and grow. She implies that what man has made, God has made better. As she writes in the first line of the poem, some keep the Sabbath by going to church. Her implication is of a traditional religious structure, or place, for guided worship. She, however, honors the Sabbath at home – in an orchard in her yard. She capitalizes the words ‘Home’ and ‘Orchard’ to indicate they are just as holy as any cathedral.
Dickinson tells us that in nature’s church, one not crafted by human hands, her worship is led by things much more authentic and holy than those found in religious churches. A bobolink bird provides the music instead of a human choir leader or music director. (By the way, I love hearing songbirds – but for me, I prefer hearing Michael!). That same bird is the one who calls her to worship in nature’s church – instead of a clanging bell.
Some Sabbath keepers wear a surplice – a religious vestment much like a long robe. Dickinson, instead, wears her angel’s wings – once again implying that the items people use to enable worship are less holy than the things people cannot make – like song birds, an orchard, or a good heart worthy of angel’s wings. These are the items, she implies, of a real church, of Nature’s church, of one people cannot make.
Above all, Dickinson is guided by the voice of god in her church. No person is needed to come between Emily and her god. It’s not a human clergy person who tells her of spiritual matters – of kindness, charity, and humility. It’s likely her inner voice – a godly conscience heard in reflections as she sits in her garden. Without any description in the poem, we can nevertheless imagine the short sermon god offers in her in nature’s church – wind whispering through trees, crickets chirping their endless chime, and birds trilling – one to another. Such a sermon need not be any longer or more profound than nature announcing the miracles of life.
Who makes the wind and what causes a bird to sing? Such are reflections to ponder when listening to nature’s sermon – one that if we think about it is perhaps the greatest of all sermons. The ultimate Truth of the universe, whatever we believe that is, speaks and sings and shines and echoes in Nature’s church. That’s a miracle for all to accept.
Dickinson claims in her poem a Transcendentalist and even Unitarian perspective on faith and salvation. We do not claim a rightful place in heaven because we regularly attend church, or follow religious rules. Instead, we claim a place in heaven simply by our existence and by our appreciation for the majesty of creation. We see god in the intricate beauty of life, the interdependence of all things, and the respect that each deserves. Our place in heaven, Dickinson writes, is not something we await for in an afterlife. Heaven is all around us. It’s right here, right now. Much like the French philosopher Voltaire said, our life purpose is to tend our garden – this earthly version of Eden, paradise or heaven. That is our responsibility – to help build a place of peace and goodness for all.
As Emily implies, we may think we build mini-versions of heaven with our church buildings – places in which we think we hear god. When we do that, however, we miss hearing the real god, and we miss experiencing the real heaven. Church, god and heaven are as close as our back door – out in the fields and forests and vast cosmos. Man-made Church structures, Emily Dickinson says in her poem, are essentially irrelevant.
As a minister, as one who Dickinson implies is irrelevant, too preachy and long in his messages, it might seem odd that I agree with her poem. It says in verse much of what I believe. Large and ornate churches offend me. Like her, I love Nature’s church. Pretentious Pastors, Ministers, Bishops, and Popes are equally offensive in my mind. What makes them more holy and more in tune with spirituality than any of you? To wear a cleric’s collar, to solemnly fake-worship in flowing robes, and then to perch oneself on a high pulpit and preach down upon a supposedly sinful congregation, all of that is the height of arrogance in my opinion. I assume, by now, you know that is not the kind of minister I am.
My role here is one among equals. I’m a fellow traveler on our journey of spiritual exploration. I am simply one who enjoys taking the time to explore spiritual subjects in depth – and then raise questions for me and you to consider. I facilitate and I coordinate, but I hope I do not try to tell you what is Truth or what you should believe.
Like Emily Dickinson, I will encourage you to find your church out in nature and to ponder therein the great questions of existence. As a facilitator, I help manage – along with you – this physical place in which we meet. In my opinion, it might as well be called a launching pad, or a center of empowerment. All of us come without any belief that we enter holy ground here. This is not a place to hear the voice of whatever we believe is god – or is not god. This place is, as I said, a launching pad we use to send us forth out there – beyond these windows – to go out to where god DOES dwell. It’s in nature’s realm – as well as in the streets, byways, homes, hospitals, and homeless shelters that we will find god – whatever it is she might be. The place to hear her, to worship her, to learn from her and do her good work, is out in our garden, the earthly realm that is our heaven and ours to continually improve.
For Emily Dickinson’s nineteenth century time and place, our understanding of what defines a church did not exist. Even Unitarians of the time saw churches as sacred places. With greater insight as to what might constitute god, however, we as Unitarian Universalists now define church as something very different then before. Church is not this room of wooden beams, a lectern, piano and chalice. It’s not our Quimby room, classrooms, or offices. As comfortable as this structure is, it is not holy, it is not even super special in the eternity of time. It is definitely not church. Church, instead, is flesh and blood. It’s all of you.
And it’s in that regard that I claim church, as we define it as a congregation of people, IS important, valuable and worthy of our Sunday morning time. Amongst each other – in church – we find the support, human connections, shared insights, common interests, friendships, learning, growth and empowerment that we need in order to tend our garden and thereby hear the voice of whatever is god to us.
These four walls do little for us beyond providing shelter and a meeting place. As I said, this physical place is not church. Church is this congregation in which we feel loved and appreciated. It’s our community in which we are supported in times of need – and to whom we support in their times of need. Church is this community that helps refine our thoughts about the universe and what is god. Church is this community that encourages our better angels – imploring us to be gentle, peaceful, compassionate, just, and humble. Church is this community that lovingly challenges us in ways we fall short – in any of our misguided thinking, or behavior. Church is this community that intentionally focuses on the education and well-being not just of our children – but all children. Church is this community that enables us to serve the outside world – a group that combines resources of money and time so that we can feed, clothe, comfort and advocate for the poor, lost and hurting.
This congregation, what I say is the real church, is nothing like the stale and false church of tradition, or the one some go to that is described in Emily Dickinson’s poem. It’s not one that makes holy the man-made. It’s not one that I suggest you, or I, or anyone else, should avoid on Sunday mornings. By ourselves we cannot support, grow, serve and practice all the things that 120 of us can better do together. It’s also, I humbly claim, not one we should take for granted. This church, this community, needs our regular presence.
That gets to the heart of why this church, this congregation, exists. As individuals, we are not here for ourselves. We are not here to be served and waited upon. We are here to do the exact opposite. We instead serve and wait upon others in countless ways – with our time, resources, and encouraging words. We do these things in order to mutually equip one another to go out into the world and serve it. When any of us are away for long periods of time – from this church of people – we miss out on needed ways to love and serve. And those who are away miss out on ways others can serve and love them
I strongly believe in short breaks from anything we regularly do. All of you generously give me a Sunday a month off. That helps me to re-energize for my ongoing work. Time off is essential for all of our well-being. But time off is limited and a return to work is a necessity. For us as a community, as a church, when some are away we deeply miss them. We hope for their quick return. We need them as much I believe they need us.
Emily Dickinson’s vision of a true church – one found in nature and outside man-made walls, is one many of us embrace. That true church is not this building. It’s not me, or Michael, or our Board. As I’ve said, the true church is all of us being launched from here out into the world. It’s all of us pondering, learning, and working in our respective gardens of influence. It is all of us searching for, and sometimes finding, the reality of god in all of her gritty beauty – in the loveliness of nature as well as in heartaches of poverty and injustice. That’s the realm of heaven – a place we, as Dickinson writes in her poem, we go to all along…
I wish you much peace and joy.