The Paradox of Words, Part I

“I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is…It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.”

– Wendell Berry Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (p. 103)


There is no way to tell you about not using words, except with words.

Here is a simple story about Jesus from this Sunday’s readings:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

I am entranced by this and other verses that portray Jesus as going “out to a deserted place,” or up the mountain, or into the wilderness, to pray. There are many such passages and they are the primary evidence we have of Jesus’ prayer life. He prayed alone, often at night or very early morning, away from the people.

That the gospel writers bother to tell us this suggests that it was important and distinctive. Not once does the Bible say, “Jesus joined the crowd for the temple ritual.” Or even, “He went to the temple to pray.”

To pray – to be in communication with the divine presence – he goes to the wild places, alone.

What he did there is not a matter of record. But I have a guess. I’d bet that he walked “up the mountain” with thoughts, questions, ideas, and concerns roiling around in his mind and heart. At some point, I’ll bet, he became quiet in both body and mind. He entered into a deep stillness in which his communication with God – “Abba” – passed beyond words. Where he listened. Where his prayer transcended speech.

I find myself increasingly leery of church services in which we (the people – clergy and congregation) talk all the time. That is, in which we aren’t quiet and don’t listen.

Which is why our services at Church of the Woods include a lot of silence and solitude. And why the Kairos Earth education programs (coming soon – stay tuned!) will teach ways of being still and quiet, alone with nature.

When we teach, of course, we will use words, as I am doing now. Words – language – are among the great gifts of being human. They can open our minds, show us new ways, teach us things. Words allow us to record insights, accumulate knowledge, and pass along wisdom.

But words can also trap us in our own minds, as has happened with much religious belief and practice. I love and rely on the Book of Common Prayer that shapes the Anglican and Episcopal tradition, but too often, I think, our own words become the focus of our prayer. Which is a grave mistake.

I invite you to pray like Jesus prayed – to just listen, outdoors if you can. Leave words and other human constructs behind. Just be in God’s presence.

This is important. I think I’ll write about it.

 — Rev. Steve Blackmer


A Chainsaw Eucharist

Below, Rev. Steve Blackmer explores the idea of a “Chainsaw Eucharist.” Expect a weekly “Words from Church” post from Steve every Monday! 


I’ve been in the woods a lot lately, clearing trails at Church of the Woods. Last week, I pulled my sled – filled with chainsaw, ax, oil and gas, and various other gear – a goodly ways into the woods. I was going to clear out a thick area of blow-downs, saplings, and larger trees along the route of one of our planned walking meditation (and cross-country ski) trails. It was a clear day: bright sun and brilliant blue sky, pretty cold – about 12 degrees – with a few inches of white snow on the ground.

I arrived at the work site, started the chainsaw, and began to cut up a big poplar that had fallen across the trail-to-be. When that was done, I moved up the hillside to tackle the decayed beech that had dropped its large branches criss-cross where the trail would go. A few black birch trees were standing in the way, so I felled them first. Then I cut up the beech branches, pried as many as I could from the frozen ground, and moved on to the next bit of work – felling a dozen other beeches and maples up the slope. I cut two or three of the littler ones, and then – as I touched the biting edge of the saw to the living wood of the largest tree, I paused, disturbed by something not right. I realized I was about to take a life – indeed, had already taken several lives – and I had been utterly oblivious of the enormity of that act.

Chainsaw & tools

I can’t say I was overcome with remorse and weeping, because I wasn’t. But I did feel regret for not paying more attention, for not recognizing the lives I was ending, for not honoring the trees. I continued with my work, dropping trees right and left, but from that point I tried at least to be aware and to offer silent thanks to each tree as I cut its life short.

By the end of a couple of hours, I had cleared a swath about 10 feet wide and 200 yards long – a nice bit of progress. I had felled – killed – maybe 20 trees. I was content with my work. But I felt a lingering discomfort that I had fallen short, failed, lost the way. In more traditional language, I had sinned. Not for cutting the trees, I think, but for being unaware of what I was doing. For not remembering that a tree (and everything else) is inherently worthy of reverence. For not giving thanks for the trees that had given themselves so I could make this contemplative path. And for not celebrating and thanking the Source of these and all trees.

So, being a priest (and still learning what that entails), I performed a ceremony to restore right relationship – a relationship of love, reverence, and thanksgiving – among me, the trees, and the Source. As it happened, that morning I had – for the first time ever, God only knows why – put a little prayer kit into the sled alongside the saw. Taking the kit out, I placed the Church of the Woods Eucharistic prayer, a prayer book with the Biblical readings for the day, a few crackers, and a small bottle of communion wine on one of the fresh stumps. Kneeling on the sawdust-covered snow, I opened the prayer book to the day’s first reading, from the great Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, and read:

I have swept away your rebellions like a cloud, and your sins like fog. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. Sing, O heavens, for God has done it. Shout, O depths of the earth! Break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it. (Isaiah 44: 22-23)

How appropriate! I continued with a prayer of restoration (otherwise known as the confession of sin) and, in company with the trees, offered a service of Thanksgiving (in Greek, Eucharist). I offered a morsel of the consecrated cracker and wine to the trees, both cut and uncut, as beloved members of the community of God. By the close, as our Eucharistic prayer says, we were “reunited with God, with the Earth, and with one another,” and sent forth transformed and renewed.

Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Orthodox Church has written:

Consciously and with deliberate purpose, man (sic) can do two things that the animals can do only unconsciously and instinctively. First, man is able to bless and praise God for the world (italics original). Man is best defined not as a “logical” but as a “eucharistic” animal. He does not merely live in the world, think about it, and use it, but he is capable of seeing the world as God’s gift, as a sacrament of God’s presence and a means of communion with him. So he is able to offer the world back to God in thanksgiving… Secondly, besides blessing and praising God for the world, man is also able to reshape and alter the world, and so to endue it with fresh meaning. [And], man is not just a logical and eucharistic animal, but he is also a creative animal…This creative role he fulfills, not by brute force, but through the clarity of his spiritual vision; his vocation is not to dominate and exploit nature, but to transfigure and hallow it. (The Orthodox Way, pp. 53-54)

At the outset of my day’s work, I had, alas, been merely “living in the world and using it.” I cut trees swiftly and efficiently, reshaping and altering the woods to suit my will. Notwithstanding that I was doing so with a semblance of spiritual vision – to create a contemplative pathway through thick woods – I was not “hallowing nature.”

But through the ritual action of becoming aware, of acknowledging, blessing, and thanking the trees, and through the act of communion, something changed.

A chainsaw Eucharist changed me and, therefore, changed my relationship with the trees, the Earth, and God. Through this, the brute felling of trees was transformed into a creative and eucharistic transfiguration of the woods. Through the mystery of the ritual, right relationship had been restored.

Now, truly, I could say, Break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! At the close of the Eucharist, I was charged with a deeper awareness, and a greater respect, reverence, and love.

I know that even with this experience, I will continue to fall short. But I will keep trying.

After this, I wonder what we and the world would be like if we always recognized all of Nature (including people) as filled with sacred identity and inherently worthy of reverence. How would our relationship with the Earth and with each other be different if we were always as mindful as I was in that brief ritual moment? If all our actions were “not to dominate and exploit nature, but to transfigure and hallow?” If everything was done with awareness and reverence and a vision of the world as holy?

What would the world be like, then? Can a chainsaw Eucharist help show the way?


Church of the Woods featured in Living Church Magazine!

You can find the full article here: http://www.livingchurch.org/green-faith-new-hampshire

The text is pasted below:


Green Faith in New Hampshire

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

At the end of bumpy drive in the least religious corner of America, a new church without a building has begun offering the Eucharist among the hardwoods and the chipmunks of rural New Hampshire. The dream is as big as the forest: to evangelize the many locals who love the outdoors and seek spirituality in nature, not church.

But those who visit Church of the Woods, which holds its first public worship service on September 28, will not hear calls to repentance or conversion — at least not as they are traditionally understood. They will instead be led, ever so gently, to experience how faith enriches the lives of environmentalists by imbuing them with much-needed hope.

It’s the ministry of an Episcopal priest who’s also a zealous convert. The Rev. Stephen Blackmer, 58, used to tell friends his church was not a faith community but was in the woods, on a river or atop a mountain. Now he aims to reach kindred spirits. His backers say he’s not trying to convert anyone — just aiming to enrich their experience for the good of an ecologically imperiled world.

“So much of what I see faith communities doing about environmental issues is taking political action,” said Blackmer, chaplain to Church of the Woods, which meets on his land: 106 acres of forest and wetlands in Canterbury, New Hampshire. “That’s essential, but it doesn’t begin to be enough.”

What’s lacking in political action, he said, is liturgical experience, personal transformation, and guided refocusing on what exactly is sacred about caring for the planet. It’s time, in his view, for environmentalists to get religion.

If Church of the Woods succeeds, it will spread the Christian faith among the eco-conscious in New Hampshire, which the Gallup Poll identifies as the second-least-religious of all U.S. states (behind neighboring Vermont). It will also help reinvigorate the Diocese of New Hampshire, in which average Sunday attendance fell by 20 percent from 2000 to 2010 and two-thirds of the parishes cannot afford to pay even one full-time priest.

Yet the project’s significance could also ripple more widely as an experiment — not only in outreach but also in what it means to share the gospel.

“Nationwide, Episcopalians are rethinking evangelism,” said Day Smith Pritchartt, executive director of the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church, which awarded Blackmer two grants during seminary to develop the ideas that gave rise to Church of the Woods.

Evangelism is no longer about fixing a spiritual deficiency, she said. It is instead about adding to what’s already good inside a person, who comes to embrace a new dimension of life.

“It used to be this proclamation of deficiency,” Pritchartt said, but those who are led to faith now hear a different message. “Now it’s recognizing oneself as a child of God with a mission to bring the coming of God’s kingdom to earth.”

Church of the Woods draws people twice a month on Sunday afternoons to a cleared field where Blackmer has a cabin construction project in the works. Participants spend a portion of the two hours strolling among the trees, either on their own or with a guide. They pay close attention to what they see, hear, and smell.

When they gather for a Eucharist, Blackmer does not preach. He instead directs a group conversation that draws on Scripture readings and probes what they experienced on their meditative walks. Pilgrims are invited to the table but assured that receiving the sacrament is optional.

The structure is as experimental as the ministry itself. The church is a project of Blackmer’s nonprofit organization, Kairos Earth, which leases the land from him and invites other religious groups to use it. This arrangement means the Diocese of New Hampshire bears no financial obligations if Church of the Woods fizzles out.

The diocese has nonetheless provided a $30,000 grant for 2014. That funding helps pay Blackmer’s salary while he launches the church, pursues additional funding streams, and builds a cabin for worship services through the winter. It’s an investment in a quintessentially New Hampshire form of the “emerging church,” according to the Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop of New Hampshire.

“The images we have of the emerging church are people meeting in garages, warehouses, coffeehouses, and bars,” Bishop Hirschfeld said. “This is just the same thing, except out in the woods, where people seem to like to be.”

For Blackmer, Church of the Woods is the latest manifestation of a most unusual calling that took root in his early 50s. He had never been a churchgoer, nor had he come from a family of churchgoers. He was an agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious man who spent his career doing conservation work as a forest ecologist, lobbyist, and public advocate.

His work led him to worry about daunting problems, such as climate change and extinction, which eliminates dozens of species every day, according to the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. To make sense of it all, he found he needed more than mountaintop experiences alone could offer.

“As an environmental activist for many years, I was coming to grips with fear, grief, loss, anxiety, and asking, Where does one find hope in a world where so much is going wrong? Faith became for me a way of expressing hope in the midst of despair,” he said.

Blackmer now feels kinship with the Apostle Paul, a zealous Jew who encountered the risen Christ on the Damascus Road and returned to synagogues to share the gospel with his people. He believes faith has much to offer secular environmentalists, who sometimes despair amid huge challenges, and to their cause as well.

“The Christian faith, as expressed in our Episcopal tradition, can add to their experiences of nature and open them up to fuller, richer, perhaps challenging experiences and understandings,” he said. “I hope it will provide a way for people in the environmental movement to reconnect with religious language and religious experience as parts of conserving the earth.”

For all the challenges inherent in trying to reach the unchurched in New Hampshire, Church of the Woods has some natural advantages. For instance, it’s targeting a group that already shares values and common experiences, from exhilarating hikes to public-policy laments. These are ripe for interpretation through a theological lens, observers say, and the new perspective might help feed unmet yearnings in their community.

“There is something deficient, and we know exactly what that is,” Bishop Hirschfeld said. “There’s a tremendous amount of grieving, guilt, understanding of humanity’s fallenness and need for forgiveness, with amendment of life, when it comes to our relationship to God’s creation. … The Church of the Woods is a real, immediate opportunity and venue for dealing with these very immediate theological issues.”

Early interest is coming, in part, from environmentalists who do not feel at home in church. Chelsea Scudder, 27, grew up in a secular household in Norman, Oklahoma, with a Jewish mother and environmentalist father. She never felt spiritually moved in traditional religious settings, she told TLC by email. Yet she signed on as communications assistant for Church of the Woods because she hopes it can build a movement to recast how human beings value the earth.

“I’ve had so many experiences in nature where I’ve felt peace and serenity, have felt that moving of my spirit, have felt at home,” Scudder said. “Until recently, I just never thought that I could call that ‘religion’ or that it ‘counted’ as prayer. … It was so wonderful to encounter Church of the Woods as a place that provided a framework and a language for connecting with nature in that way.”

In reimagining evangelism, Church of the Woods walks a fine line. On one level, it’s embracing traditional Christian concepts of creation, sin, and redemption through Christ as bases for Christian hope. Yet there’s also some intentional distancing from the tradition as meanings of key concepts are revamped. Among the questions is whether coming to faith stills hold the same transformative power, even when one’s values and lifestyle are affirmed and left intact.

Backers say the power of new faith is still at hand. Church of the Woods reflects what’s happening in the emerging church, where some traditional understandings and emphases have given way to new ones, Pritchartt said.

“Repent means to turn around, but more and more, it’s understood as embracing a new way of life as a child of God,” she said.

Gone from this formulation is the need for renouncing past beliefs, behaviors, or dispositions of the heart. At Church of the Woods, she expects talk of salvation without conversion — even when the conversation is led by a priest who’s a convert himself.

“I don’t think it’s conversion; I would stay away from that and focus on evangelism,” Pritchartt said. “I would call it embracing the gospel, being saved from not knowing God, being saved from not knowing that God is behind everything in the universe.”


A Wednesday morning in church

Barred owl, pileated woodpecker, short-tailed ermine.

Bracken fern, sphagnum moss, princess pine.

White pine, black birch, red maple, beech.

Blueberry, winterberry, blackberry.

Dragonfly, ant, mosquito, mayfly.

Vernal pool and trickling stream.

British soldier moss.

Quartz and gneiss.

Mud.

I can see or touch all of these within a few feet of where I am sitting. It’s a Wednesday morning. The sun is shining, the air is cool and dry, the trees are in full leaf, the birds are singing. All in all, it’s a gorgeous day to be…

In church?

Well, actually, yes. In fact, many of my neighbors – some of them mentioned above – are here, too. We are all rejoicing in this day the Lord has made.

I’m not really doing anything in church – just being here. There’s no printed text, no procession, no altar, no prayer book. Just miracles in every direction. And me, the lone human being this morning, as witness and reporter, liturgist and priest.

I am here to pray. Apart from being present and paying attention, there’s nothing to do. These are the same things, of course – prayer, being present, and paying attention.

I find that true prayer is an act more of listening than speaking, of being present to what is rather than clamoring for what I want. And of course, of giving thanks for the blessed fact that everything around me IS – and that I am. Which, of course, is the name of God.

The earliest spirituality must have been something like this. Simply marveling at the existence of the world around us. Just being in the company of the extraordinary, rich, diverse, shifting pattern of nature, of the world, of the stars, of the entire universe. Feeling at one with all that is around and within. Simply resting in God.

With our scientific knowledge, we can know that we are privileged to live – so far as we know – in the only place ever, anywhere, where life exists. How amazing is that?! God from whom all blessings flow, indeed.

On a lovely June morning, my experience of God is as a beneficent provider. Smelling the fertile soil, listening to the birds calling their morning song, watching the saplings reach toward the sun.

If I were here on a January night or during a September hurricane, I might feel differently.

Is our God a tame God or a wild God? Does the world need me, or need people at all? What do we add to this beautiful, sacred Creation? These are the questions that arise in my mind.

I know well what we destroy – we destroy much of this very abundance and beauty. I see signs of this, too, around me. A pile of discarded metal from a logging truck. Empty plastic bottles that held lubricating oil for chainsaws. Piles of dead trees, heaped up and pushed to the margins. Dry bones. I want them to live again.

I am surrounded with the immediacy of life and of death, in every moment and every square centimeter of ground.

Where does a moose go when it dies? I haven’t seen any fresh sign of moose this spring – I wonder if he (I know it was a he because I picked up a discarded antler) succumbed to the warming temperatures and last year’s abundance of ticks. Happily for me, there are many fewer ticks this year. But, so far, no moose. A victim of global warming?

In this thought, I am come face to face with the question of sin. What does it mean that people are the cause – right now, in the world around us – of one of the six great extinctions of species in the history of life? Mea culpa. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

What does forgiveness look and feel like in the face of destroying entire forms of life? What can possibly atone for this sin? I don’t know.

And yet, sitting here this morning, I know that there is nothing that can keep me from the love of God. The sun rises every day and the moon at night.

In return, what do we do?

We celebrate! We give thanks, we rejoice, we bring to full consciousness – or as close as we can get – the gift of simply being.

And we care for others, for all those who need care and help and love. We pray. We make music and art and ritual. We speak the names of all those things that are created – and those that are being destroyed.

We remember our rightful place in the order of things.

In the woods, it is easier to remember that we are not the center of all things – that we are but keepers and servers of a creativity vastly greater than our own. That our great calling is to enhance, to elaborate, to create little riffs on great themes written long before time.

To make more, not less, of what God has given us. To leave the world a better place.

 



April Fools

It was only a month ago that I was walking in Church of the Woods with snow up to our knees, here with friends Mark, KC, Maizy & Banjo on April 1st.

late snow - April 1, 2014April Fools indeed!



New Year Reflections

January 1, 2014

This year more than most, I am embarking on a new life in keeping with the start of the New Year. Notwithstanding all my Christmas Doubts & New Year’s Fears, I feel I have – finally – settled onto my new path. As I embark on this new way, I want to take a moment to reflect on and give thanks for a few of 2013’s milestones.

As of a year ago, Church of the Woods was only a vague notion. Now, it is starting to come to life. God willing (and generous supporters concurring), we will open come June 2014. Thanks to all the people who have made this possible.

This time last year, ordination as a deacon and a priest was still a remote prospect. Our wonderful new bishop, Rob Hirschfeld, was just taking office and I had no expectation of swift action to ordain me. I was wrong! Within six weeks, I had become a deacon at St. Paul’s Church in Concord

Easter Vigil, 2013

Easter Vigil, 2013

and began the steep learning curve of being a clergyperson. I am so grateful to the people of St. Paul’s and to Bishop Rob for bringing me up in the church, supporting me, training me, and loving me.

Seven months later, on September 7, I fulfilled the instruction to be a priest at a wonderful ordination service at the Church of the Woods Annex,DSCF9183 copyhosted by our dear friends Mark and Jenny Hopkins. To Mark and Jenny and the many others who made that marvelous day possible, I am forever in your debt.

Finally, through the fall of 2013, Kairos Earth began to take shape as an organization. As I write, we have a wonderful board of directors, have incorporated as a non-profit organization, are putting the final touches on our application to the IRS for 501 (c) 3 status, and are setting up the many organizational systems from budgets and work plans to bookkeeping, payroll, and communications that an organization requires. I can’t say I love having this be such a large part of my life right now, but I am grateful it is happening and for everyone who has helped.

All in all, 2013 was a year in which nearly a decade-long phase of preparation and training has drawn to a close. Not to say there isn’t more to come, but…

It is time to shift to action. In 2014, I look forward to walking this new path – to actually doing some of things I have been dreaming of for all these years.

A new path - Church of the Woods

A new path – Church of the Woods

Thanks to all who have made it possible.

 

 

 


Christmas Doubts and New Year’s Fears – Part 1

December 31, 2013

I awoke early this morning, around 5:00 AM, this day that wraps up the old year and presages the new. It was still a beautiful winter night – pitch black, zero degrees, crystal clear, snow covering the ground. Both nighttime and morning.

I awoke to thoughts of the Apostle Paul dancing in my head. Paul is a touchstone for me – an obstreperous man of strong convictions, a persecutor of the new Christians, he was one of the watchers at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7: 57-60) – the first Christian to be killed for his faith. As Acts 7:58 says, “The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul” [who becomes Paul]. Acts 8:1 continues, “Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.”

And then everything changes.

In Acts 9, he is “still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples… [But]… During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?’ Saul asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,’ came the reply. ‘Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.’ Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.” (Acts 9: 1-9)

As he gradually adapts to and inhabits his new life – doing “what you must do” – Paul travels throughout Asia Minor and Europe, establishing new communities of Jesus followers among the “Gentiles,” the non-Jewish peoples of Greek culture and religion.

From being a watcher of Stephen’s murder, Paul becomes a planter of tiny seeds of communities and writings from which the transforming word of Christ spread throughout the western world.

Like Paul, I have been caught up – converted into a new person, even – by something vastly bigger and more powerful than I. Like Paul, I have been told what to do – to tell my story and why it matters to conserving the Earth.

Despite an understanding of God that doesn’t conceive of “God” as anything remotely like a person or a being who speaks, nevertheless “God” does speak. There is an unspeakable and irresistible realness to this, regardless of how improbable or even impossible it seems. It may not be possible, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The Bible doesn’t tell us about Paul’s doubts and fears, but I am sure he had them. He did as he had been told anyway. Notwithstanding the doubts and fear, I am trying to do the same.