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The past couple of months our little church in Spring Mills has been experimenting with an outdoor service on Sunday mornings. And because we set up our chairs and portable keyboard in the grass next to Penns Creek, we advertise the service as Creekside Worship.

I am not a very religious person, but I like the communal aspects of church going. I like the people, and the call to do good things in the community and in the world. I enjoy a thoughtful sermon and the hymns I remember from childhood. When our daughters were growing up, it was good to give them the experience of our religious traditions and the great historical and literary document that is the King James Bible. But I also exposed them to the other great world religions and let them make up their own minds about what they did or didn’t believe.

Growing up in the South, church was our social life, our meat and potatoes and green bean casserole. We went to services three times a week, ate potluck Sunday afternoon “dinner-on-the-ground.” We suffered through week-long revival meetings and learned what hell was like by sitting through heat-soaked hour-long sermons while beads of sweat rolled down our cheeks. So much of my childhood was spent in church that I cannot separate the idea of religion from the sense of family.

These Creekside Worship services added a new element to the usual Sunday experience. I generally get distracted watching the ripples in the stream and the leaves turning their autumnal colors, but being in the natural world for an hour is a good distraction. Then, last Sunday the distractions increased exponentially as we brought our pets to be blessed.

A dozen dogs were there, along with Charlie, our intelligent and attractive mixed breed something or other. The dogs sniffed and barked, or the well-behaved ones sat quietly at the feet of their family. Charlie barked at each of the dogs, and then during the hymns he howled along to the tunes. He was a bit of an embarrassment, but he didn’t seem bothered.

Many folks brought photos of their pets, both living and deceased. The pastor moved among the crowd, offering blessings to the dogs by name and to their families. Those with photos brought them forward to be blessed, and there was even an urn of ashes from some still beloved former family pet that needed blessing. It was hard not to be moved by the memory of pets gone bye – Scout, the abandoned and neurotic mutt we took in and tried to love, or Pookie, long-time cat friend recently buried under a flowering bush on the hill behind the barn.

We will outlive our pets, but we don’t forget them. I have never forgotten my first dog, Beauty, an Irish setter with long, flame-red hair, who wandered up the road one day and came to live with us until old age took her away. When the pastor asked during the silent meditation to call out the name of a beloved former pet, I thought of Beauty, friend of my childhood. We wandered together through the fields of summer, and now she lies at my feet again, if only in memory, on a Sunday morning beside the creek.

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On Saturday morning a week ago, you could have found a dozen of us along the banks of Penns Creek in Spring Mills, tossing our empty lines into the glistening water, practicing fly casting. I was there with my younger daughter in the cool spring morning, learning about mayflies and water bugs from an entomologist from Penn State, and then about the art of fly fishing from a local fishing guide and ecology from a conservationist. It was a part of our church’s project to engage the community in ways that are not necessarily religious.

Except sometimes there is more holiness in the natural world than you find among pews and hymnals. Out on the banks of the stream I could feel the kind of passion I recalled from those revival meetings of my youth, the entomologist’s passion from 40 years of studying the book of nature, the guide’s reverence for the trout rising to the perfectly cast fly, and the passion of a man’s working with others to restored the watershed ecology, a process not unlike building a medieval cathedral that requires generations of selfless labor.
It seems a leap to compare a dozen people casting an empty line into the water to a religious experience, but the new eco-consciousness we see sprouting up all around us in communal urban gardens, local farmers markets, cycling to work, or sustainability movements of various kinds is a sign of the resacralization of nature, of putting the holy back into creation.

I have been reading a new book by historian and journalist Peter Watson called The Age of Atheists that crystalized these thoughts. This wide-ranging work is a compilation and explanation of the attempts to live without God in the decades since Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” and Darwin shook the foundations of faith with the theory of evolution. Although many people, maybe a majority of people, disagree with Nietzsche’s statement, there is, nevertheless, a crack in the wall of faith, and many different pebbles of belief are being used to fill in the empty spaces. Watson says there are over 100,000 known religions, including 21 major world religions and all of those New Age cults and old religions resurfacing. He goes on to include psychoanalysis and the isms of the last century — communism, fascism, and nationalism — even poetry and dance as ways to fill a void left by secularism. Science itself is a belief system, telling us our origin story in the Big Bang, and claiming the primacy of reason. We seem to have an innate need to believe in something.

It is hard to come up with ultimate meaning, but preserving the Earth for future generations has those qualities that are the definition of meaning: being part of something that is larger than our selves; sacrificing for a future goal that is worthy of our sacrifice; invoking a sense of wonder and mystery; providing a sense of wholeness that the mechanistic reductionism of technology and science has broken. And that is only the short list.

I am not one to chain myself to a redwood tree. My own love of nature comes and goes pretty much with the season and the weather, but even I see the day coming when ecology will be second nature, when we will hear, along with the poet, the sabbath ringing slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams. In fact, I think I heard that sound last Saturday on the banks of Penns Creek.

 

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