Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Church of Arden?

photo by Joe del Tufo
We joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster in January 1994, the same month we learned I was pregnant and we would be parents for the first time. This was not a fluke. We sought out a religious community precisely because we were thinking of starting a family. I want to clarify that I don’t see church as a place to locate the Divine. I don’t think God has an address (or even a sufficient name, for that matter.) For me, church was always about finding a community of people who gather to grow and seek together. And in Lancaster County, our church also meant sanctuary from the pervasive conservatism we faced. For over 18 years, we attended services at UUCL, took adult classes, taught Sunday morning religious education. I  also helped facilitate earth-based activities, classes, and rituals. The last Sunday service we attended UUCL was when our oldest child graduated from youth group. After the service, we all went outside and watched as he and those in his class released butterflies. It was the perfect end piece and full circle moment to our experience as members of the church. A month later, we resigned our membership because we were about to move to Delaware.

We knew we would take time to get our footing before looking for a church in Wilmington. And when we were ready, we also knew that there was more than one liberal faith community within minutes of us. (Unlike in Lancaster County, where there was only one option, a half hour’s drive from where we lived.) But here is the thing: we have found everything we needed in a religious community right here in Arden. Time and time again, I quiz myself to see if I am getting it all. 

Let’s start with Sunday morning. We faithfully meet our friends at the Gild Hall parking lot at an early hour. From there, we hike. Sometimes it is in the city, but about 75% of the time, we hike in nature. Mark and I have a better attendance record hiking than we ever did with church. If we miss the hike, it is either that we have a really pressing engagement we can’t get out of, we are on vacation, or we are sick. Even temperatures in the teens do not deter us. I am not the only person in the group who calls this activity church. We walk in nature, really take it all in, and along the way we talk and are in community. It is a mediation. It is communion. It is celebration. 

In Arden, I have attended meditation groups, met with women in the woods on solstice and equinox dates, led outdoor winter solstice sunrise services, supped in community, attended lectures, fed neighbors in need, been fed when I was in need, and helped to clean up the Memorial Gardens where those in the Ardens lay their dead to rest. Memorial services take place in Gild Hall, and weddings happen in our outdoor theaters, though I’ve never attended any of these, yet. I have sat in Arden village meetings when we bow our heads in a moment of silence to remember those who passed. In those same meetings, we recognize new neighbors who have joined our numbers and babies who are recently born. In addition, I am a member of a weekly women’s group that started as a book group and which now defines its purpose with the words: inspiration, growth, presence, and connection. We are doing some deep self-work—together. (An interesting note—the Ardens are peppered with people who identify as UU’s. In daily life, I have more interaction with UU’s here than I did when I was a church member living 1/2 hour away from our church.)

Here is the question: Do I need church? Recently I read an article by Rev. Galen Guengerich, Ph.D, former Lancaster County native, now Senior minister at All Soul’s Unitarian Church in New York City, entitled 10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Unitarian Universalism. His 9th tenet is this: the discipline of gratitude calls us to worship together. But what is worship?

“The experience of worship is what distinguishes religious communities from other kinds of communities,” Guengrich writes. “It’s a time when we gather to remind ourselves and each other of what we should never forget: our utter dependence on the people and world around us for everything.”

There are times when I ask if the missing piece in my Arden experience is the worship experience. But according to Guengrich’s definition, I believe I do experience worship. Certainly, I experience the piece that reminds me of a world that is larger than myself and that I am connected to others, the natural world, and the larger world of idea/culture. In the comment section of Guengrich’s article, Susan Christie adds, “If we think of "worship" as paying attention to that which we love, it works for me!” I like that definition, and I am living it.

The only other slice of church life I wonder if I am missing is the call to service. We are working on that. Our hiking group has talked about cooking meals for the homeless. Mark and I help with forest clean-up, which is service to our environment. I am on the Arden Community Recreation Committee which plans activities for all ages throughout the year and provides a free children’s summer program in the Ardens. During that program I have volunteered my time to do journal writing with the kids. Service is always an area in which I can expand, but I am doing my part to actively offer my gifts up to the greater good. In some ways I am more active in my service here because I can do it without having to drive an hour.

For the time being, Mark and I have called off the search for a new church. Not in favor of secularism, but in finding the spiritual, finding the connection, finding purpose in everyday life--and finding it with the people we encounter and in the places we find ourselves. Amen.

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