Since 2000 a random group of 30 or 40 has come together for a sunrise service on Easter. I put a sign up a week before Easter, tell friends who might be interested and welcome whoever shows up.
We gather around a wood fire on Sandy Point on Cousins Island, just to the north of where the bridge from the mainland boards the island. No one asks about religious affiliation. No one asks about beliefs or creeds. It is a Christian service with a nonsectarian spirit to it. We don’t take an offering. We offer ourselves in gratitude to the new day and the mystery, power and grace that lift the sun up from Casco Bay once again and continue to create life out of all things and events, even, perhaps particularly, through death.
Two readings have been scripture each year, a Gospel account of Christ’s resurrection and e.e. Cummings’ poem “i thank thee god.” It has become tradition for the Rev. Judith Blanchard, a chaplain at Maine Medical Center in Portland, to recite Cummings: “i thank thee god for most this amazing day: for the leafy greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes …”
We read other poetry, sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” participate in a simple ritual of rededication to hope and share quiet and reflection in the spectacle of the daily cosmic occurrence made special that day by the central Christian mystery of resurrection.
I suppose this is an invitation to join us if you’d like, but my reasons for telling you of it is to comment on an intersection of spirit that delights and fascinates me these days. It is where seekers in the churches meet with seekers who resist, even reject, anything that smacks of institution.
When I retired from the pastoral ministry with its often counterproductive tasks of servicing an institution and being of service to the wounds of the world, I wondered if anyone outside the church would be interested in matters of the spirit, which are my passion. To my delight I discovered that, if anything, peopl——e outside the churches were as, if not more, interested in these things as people in the church. We live in a time of deep spiritual hunger.
Our churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, witness Pope Francis, are just now getting over their edifice complexes and back to the work of spirit and justice in the name and way of Jesus. At the same time amazing people outside the day-to-day lives of our congregations are looking, albeit seldom in our churches, to find just what we in the churches are seeking and to various degrees finding there: meaning, community, compassion, justice and a deep and abiding relationship with “everything that is natural which is infinite which is yes.”
The church in which I will gather with beloved fellow members for Easter worship at 10 a.m., after the sunrise service at 6:24 a.m., now defines itself as “open and affirming” to all people of all ages, persuasions and sexual orientations. I firmly believe that we are headed in the way of Jesus, by this declaration.
In my opinion, saying we are “open and affirming” is all well and good, a first step, but what do we do then? We open our doors and wait, ready and willing to offer genuine welcome. The problem with this is that we wait inside the buildings that are the symbols of the abuse of authority and violation of trust that keep so many people away.
If we in the churches genuinely want to be a part of the life of the spirit in our day, we need to find and learn from those who are seeking and finding “God” in other than traditional ways and places. I don’t think these conversations can be held in church buildings, at least not at first. Living rooms, coffee shops, outdoor settings, libraries come to mind as appropriate. In an open collaborative conversation, we will honor the celebration and practice of our faith and faithfulness in the ways of service and friendship we have learned in the places and belief systems that have nurtured us to this day. And we will learn how we can change to more openly and affirmatively share common cause with seekers in other churches and seekers outside our churches.
Joy will expand in communities of faith unafraid to engage with other seekers in spiritual dialogue, practice, celebration and the work and ways of justice. Some we meet there will join our churches. But faithfulness isn’t about congregational size. It is about spiritual adventure and social justice. It is about listening for the spirit of God heard in what Cummings calls “that gay great happening, illimitably earth.”
How about this dream of a new day? With an openness and a genuine welcome that can become embrace, seekers both in and outside churches, prodded by acknowledged spiritual longing and shared stories of spiritual experience, will enthusiastically (a word grown from the Greek “entheos,” which means “God within”) gather to share stories and sing. We will help one another to deeper understanding and joy using words of poetry and doctrine that lift the human spirit. And of what will we sing? Among the many wonderful things we will sing of the resurrection of love over fear, of life over death, of Christ alive understood in deeper and imaginative new dimensions. To some degree that dream is realized at sunrise on Easter mornings at Sandy Point, Cousins Island, when we sing, as an opening to the Cousins Island sunrise service, “The Spirit of God is moving. Let the wind rush in.”
Contact Bill Gregory, an author and retired minister, at: