It is a great relief to find you in today’s world and to know someone else feels as I do about many things. You have helped me to see that real Christianity need not die to accommodate the reality in which the human race finds itself living today. Since I was born, some 80 years ago, I have been attending the First Baptist Church in my home town, first as a child and now as a mature (hopefully not yet senile) adult. I have seen pastors come and go, sung the hymns and spoken the words of the first century many times and wondered if I were the only person who was grasping to emulate Christ in my life amid a confusing and contradictory belief system. It came to a head when I was asked to dedicate a private cemetery on a Texas ranch for dear friends. How do you speak with integrity of belief when your audience is seemingly traditional and literal? This is what I said:
“We are gathered here to consecrate this ground; this special place; a place for meditation, inspiration and for remembrance. Years ago, I was walking in the place here they called the orchard because that was what it was, an apple orchard tended by my friend’s grandfather. The apples he grew, he peddled far and wide to support his family during hard times. My wife was with me that day and she bent and picked up a piece of flint that her ever watchful eyes had observed. It was proof of the presence of human activity at this place hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before.
“More recently, the name of that mountain south of us, Mitre Peak, marked this as a special place. It suggested the passage of Spanish explorers for whom it was both a symbol of a bishop’s hat and of the church which served as a guide for the journey. Another reason that this is a special place is that behind us is a spring that produces hundreds of gallons of water in this Chihuahuan Desert. Water is life. There is no life without it. So for these thousands of years the spring has been there and, because it was, life was here also and still is.
“Today, however, we are reminded that there is also death here. Death is everywhere. We think of death because it is part of life and those of us gathered here are alive. Mountains, however, also die. Mitre Peak, which looks so strong and eternal, is in the midst of its life cycle just as we are. Millennia from now it will be dissolved by the inexorable forces of erosion, wind, rain, changes of temperature and other processes will carry its bulk to the sea where it will be reconstituted as the sea bed. Perhaps someday it will once again become a mountain. That is the eternal cycle of existence of which we are but a miniscule yet important part.
“It is fitting that we think upon these things as we visit this place where our friends and relatives, have passed this life and have begun another phase in this cycle of existence. They still exist, but in ways our limited intelligence cannot imagine. Even as their bodies are re-constituted into their original minerals and elements and then again into plants and animals they are still with us when we come here.
“We meditate on their lives and on the lives of those we did not know who came before us. It is in hallowed ground like this that history is recorded and endures. We feel the unbroken chain that ties our earliest ancestors to us for all time. We relive the joys of our association with them in life and we honor those lives with our remembrance. We can learn from their successes and be warned by their failures and just as those ancient travelers, who established their location from sighting Mitre Peak, we can recast our own directions by reflecting on the lives of those who are buried here.
“God, we know you as the great architect of this universe. Your energy is transformed in your laboratory of stars into the elements that make visible the world we see and know. Understand that, we know you are with us in every nook and cranny of existence, in the cells of our body, in the dirt beneath our feet, in the birds and animals and in everything that is. In a very real way, we are made from your energy – therefore in your image.
“Let us leave today with that knowledge and with the assurance that we, just as those who are honored here, are eternal. As we visit this place let us be reminded of that and let it give us peace and direction for our lives.”
Thank you for sending me your words at the dedication of a cemetery. You have rightly discerned the fact of human connectedness, not only with those we love, but with those who have formed the chain of life that has bridged the years of human history.
You have also plumbed the depths of human meaning and discovered anew that life is much more than simply the passage of time.
My study of human origins informs me that the universe is somewhere between 13.7 and 13.8 billion years old. It tells me that everything is made of star dust. It tells me that out of matter life has flowed and out of life consciousness has emerged. The miracle of humanity is discovered when we recognize that out of consciousness, self-consciousness has appeared.
Everything that I know about evolution tells me that it is an ongoing, never ending process. For out of self-consciousness, a universal consciousness is being born today and human divisions are being transcended. For Paul that was the very nature of the Christ experience. “In Christ,” he noted, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free.” Human oneness continues as we realize that in Christ there is also neither black nor white, Catholic nor Protestant, gay nor straight, Jew nor Muslim, capitalist nor communist. To see barriers fade is scary to some people because barriers protect us from fear. As the universal consciousness enfolds us, however, the barriers will inevitably disappear and oneness – both human oneness and the oneness of the human with the natural world will become clear.
Ultimately, this will also cause us to redefine God. God will no longer be understood as a supernatural being, who invades the world miraculously from somewhere outside it. God will rather be perceived as the Source of Life calling us to live fully, the Source of Love freeing us to love wastefully and as the Ground of Being empowering us to be all that each of us can be. That is the God presence that I find in Jesus and that is why he calls me to step beyond even the boundaries of religion. Increasingly, God is for me a verb to be lived and not a noun to be defined.
You seem to be on a similar journey. I feel privileged to have you as a fellow pilgrim. Walk in faith!
John Shelby Spong