Glimpses of Healing and Hope

Trees of many sizes and varieties in all seasons

July 24, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Yesterday Nancy took her turn to share during Kern Road’s Worshiping God through Creation formation hour.  Speaking about “Learning to love the urban forest” since moving with her husband from their wooded lot in rural Michigan to South Bend, she drew for us a portrait of her growing up years on a farm with parents who cared about trees.   

The farm, she said, was not a wooded property, but her parents planted trees.  She and each of her brothers all had their own special tree; hers was a weeping willow with a place to hide inside—her own sanctuary.

In her ‘Sister Tree’ blog post from January 12, 2012, Nancy says this about her first encounter with a specific tree after noticing a grove of trees ‘calling’ to her on the five-acre Michigan property: “In  particular, there was a circle of trees that stood next to the path on the downslope farthest from the house. One of the trees was dead, several were maples, and two others were common American hackberrys. One day as I was walking the path this circle seemed to invite me in, and so I stepped into it. As soon as I did that, one of the hackberrys showed itself to be the ‘leader’ of the circle. I stepped over to it, placed my hands on it, and felt a strong surge of peace and happiness that went directly to my gut.” 

Nancy continued her practice of visiting the tree: “When I was feeling down, distracted, distressed, I would visit Sister Tree and feel better,” she said on Sunday, describing the tree in a blog post “as a prayer companion, a meditation preparer, an energy field that somehow connects with me.”

Upon visiting Sister Tree for the first time after starting the practice of centering prayer (see her description of this spiritual discipline here), Nancy noticed something different on her first visit to the tree in several months.  Writing in a December 3, 2012, post called ‘Centering Prayer Meets Tree,’ she explained that “what happened that afternoon at the tree was too powerful to ignore. The sense of peace was so strong that it vibrated in my core. The interval between distracting thoughts was so long it was as if the thought-manufacturing part of my mind did not exist. My earlier irritation not only dropped away; it receded so far that it seemed as if I would never feel that way again. After 20 minutes I walked back to the house elated and refreshed.”

Explaining that much research has been done on how spending time in forests, particularly old forests, enhances well being, Nancy referenced Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, as one parents and grandparents should read to their grandchildren.

Publishers’ Weekly nonfiction review promises that “this fascinating book will intrigue readers who love a walk through the woods. Wohlleben, who worked for the German forestry commission for 20 years and now manages a beech forest in Germany, has gathered research from scientists around the world examining how trees communicate and interact with one another. They do so using a variety of methods, including the secretion of scents and sound vibrations to warn neighboring plants of potential attacks by insects and hungry herbivores, drought, and other dangers.” 

According to this HuffPost blog, “The message at the core of the book is that each tree is not an individual, standing alone against the ravages of nature. In fact, the forest functions better as a community. Older trees look after young ones, groups of trees will try to rejuvenate stumps, and predators are repelled by the release of toxins and electrical signals to other trees through the forest network of fungi that they are near.” 

Quartz article published in the fall of 2016 says that “the tonic of the wilderness was Henry David Thoreau’s classic prescription for civilization and its discontents, offered in the 1854 essay Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. Now there’s scientific evidence supporting eco-therapy. The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.” 

This excerpt from LiveMint offers more information from this intriguing book, and you’ll find a Public Radio International interview with the author here.

When I think back on my own life with trees, I remember sitting frequently on the grass in the back yard as a child close to a medium-sized, young oak, feeling connected to the Earth with the sun beating down on my then-black hair. 

Now, many years later, our retirement home came six years ago with a circle of four ancient backyard oaks, perhaps up to 150-200 years old, according to a landscaper friend’s estimate.  I imagine the trees may have once served as sacred space to Native Americans, a sacredness that still permeates the place with a sense of peace and tranquility.   

“The more we know about these other aspects of nature, the more we experience our own place in nature” as part of creation, Nancy reminded us.  Take the opportunity this week to connect with trees and other aspects of the Divine’s handiwork.  If you are interested to learn more about Nancy's adventures in her new urban forest, check out this link to her post entitled 'Tending the Urban Forest.' 

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Creation's color pallet in its full glory

July 17, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Don shared during Sunday’s formation hour about nature’s impact on his growing up years, most of which were spent on a farm.  At three, he began hanging his tiny glasses on nearby spyrea bushes and once pulled out the family radishes, thinking he was eradicating weeds! 

As a career landscape architect, he said he experienced client delight on spending time in refurbished outdoor living areas and coming to appreciate new plantings. Even today Don and Marceil (and family and friends with whom they share the space generously) enjoy their cabin at Grandpa’s Woods where they spend time close to nature surrounded by birds, flowers, and their garden.

His involvement in creating Mishawaka’s 1.3-acre Japanese strolling garden, Shiojiri Niwa, (see parks district brochure here…be sure to scroll down to second page) also has given him an appreciation for how other cultures represent nature. “The Japanese have taken their love of growing things and their realization of humanity’s union with nature and refined them in the beauty of their gardens. The purpose of a Japanese garden is to present natural forms and to create a tranquil beauty that leads the visitor from everyday life to a calm, serene, reflective communion with nature,” according to the City of Mishawaka’s website.

Don invited class participants to share how they have experienced the Divine in nature, eliciting stories from Mark about hand-sewing wild flower seed on his property, from another Don who watches the seasons unfold on regular walks in a nearby woods, from Elaine whose backyard patio inspires with a rotation of beautiful blooming flowers, from Lane about lessons learned from nature upon extracting weeds and unwanted mulberry trees.

Nature’s extravagant beauty proclaims itself not only in our gardens, but also in our kitchens and ultimately on our tables.  Particularly at this time of year, we are wowed again and again at our South Bend Farmers’ Market, by our local Community Supported Agriculture groups, and by our own gardens. If you do a Google search, you will find many sources that promise plants in the workplace and the home promote good cheer and raise spirits.  This article from the Florist Chronicles suggests that cut flowers banish a bad mood, feed compassion, chase anxiety, boost energy. 

We can immerse ourselves in lavish natural beauty portrayed by artists like Vincent Van Gogh in museums and books. Walking mazes and labyrinths, like the one at Saint Mary’s College, provides a brush with the beauty of nature, as does visiting area gardens like Wellfield Botanic Garden in Elkhart or Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles, MI.

My own colorful journey with nature has led to videos like this one about the St. Joe River and this one on meditating with the seasons. Taking photos featuring the beauty of creation has become a nearly daily spiritual discipline for me; I learn more about the Creator as I immerse myself in the Divine’s creation. 

The photo collage above highlights zucchini and green tomatoes still in the garden and dishes made with garden vegetables; sweet peas, dahlias, tulips, and lilac from home gardens; the spectacular bridges at Shiojiri Niwa; a friend's sprouting green onions used as a centerpiece; Douglas, MI, and Mackinac Island waterfronts, and at the center, anchoring the photo, another friend's beautiful porch sanctuary surrounded by gorgeous summer foliage and flowers. 

Henry David Thoreau reportedly once said, “My profession is always to be alert, to find God in nature, to know God’s lurking places, to attend to all the oratorios and the operas in nature,” according to the Spirituality & Practice website which offers a Practicing Spirituality in Nature on-line retreat here.

Cathy Cummings Chisholm wrote this prayer for inclusion in her book Landscapes of the Heart:

Thank you for pauses placed unexpectedly in my path,

            for moments of rest

            for times of stillness

            for plots of growth

            for ever-welcoming arms and

            the companionship of silence.

You set before me an empty chair of respite.

You invite me to your garden.

Help me to accept the invitation to be at peace.

Teach me that I need not wait so long or resist so stiffly

            the yearning to sit and rest

            in a chair under a tree by a garden.

In what ways have you experienced nature’s ability to companion, comfort, de-stress, encourage, motivate, refresh, renew? If nature has awed you, delighted you, inspired you, reinvigorated you, you have seen the Divine! 

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July 10, 2017
By:  Jane Bishop Halteman

Six Kern Road high school youth, their sponsors Lane and Cathy, and three congregational delegates, Dave, Jim, and Vicki, plus Mark and Judy, attended Mennonite Church USA convention July 4-8 in Orlando.

Some of the 13 KRMC attendees will share their responses to MennoCon17 next week during Sunday worship.  In the meantime, a summary of what took place at the event follows, based on daily convention newsletters and reports from denominational news outlets.

A what-to-expect-first-day-of-convention briefing advised attendees that Mennonite Women USA and Mennonite Men would host a prayer walk to kick off Orlando 2017 Tuesday evening, July 4. “Take this opportunity to start convention with a relaxing time of walking and praying. Join us as we bless convention, the city of Orlando, and Mennonite Church USA.”

Convention music, prayer, ritual, conversation, and speakers explored the theme Love Is a Verb. The convention newsletter, Orlando Squeeze, posted Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday recaps of events here, including Servant Project highlights, a story celebrating 100 years of Mennonite Women USA, and an article about an inclusive worship service honoring victims of the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, among many other reports. The official 96-page program book, offering youth and adult seminar topics, at-a-glance daily calendars, featured speakers, and special events, appears here

Speaking in the Thursday morning adult worship service, best-selling New York Times author and popular blogger Rachel Held Evans suggested that “responding in love isn’t about being nice or respectable, but is instead a matter of turning over tables: creating homes for refugees, bringing casseroles, marching with Black Lives Matter, and planting gardens in ‘urban deserts,’” according to a Mennonite World Review (MWR) article.

MWR also reported that “Mennonite Church USA delegates on July 6 overwhelmingly passed a resolution on Israel-Palestine, confessing ‘our own complicity in this web of violence, injustice and suffering’ and vowing ‘concrete steps to address these wrongs.’”

Noting that “at the first business session of the denominational convention, the statement received 98 percent support, with 10 dissenting votes in a delegate body of about 550,” MWR said “the resolution opposes the Israeli military occupation while taking a stand against anti-Semitism and affirming the need to build stronger relationships with Jewish communities.”

Cathy shared this in her #MennoCon17 Snapshots with a Youth Pastor blog post:  “My thought, my hope, my prayer in the middle of the night is to find the most challenging, radical workshops available, workshops that will push us and encourage us to be what we’re trying to be.”

KRMCer Kait, who attended the youth convention and, like Cathy, was invited to submit a convention blog post, referenced convention as “a place where people of all different ages, races, and walks of life come together to celebrate the one thing they all have in common. Orlando 2017 is my first convention and it has changed me in more ways than one. Before coming, my youth group leader explained how special convention was. He taught us how to appreciate the massive amount of people who would be coming together to worship and discuss important issues. It was the church coming together as one. It was decision-making and the making of history. It was family. Our family.”

AMBS student Julia blogged here about her convention experience attending Ted & Co.’s play, Discovery: A Comic Lament, written by fellow seminarian Alison Brookins. “I was excited to go because of a class I had taken in June about the Trail of Death, the 1838 removal of the Potawatomie Indians from Northern Indiana to Kansas. My class spent a week traveling this route, mostly in vehicles, and learning about how the land was stolen in order that white settlers could move in. Mennonite settlers were some of the first ones to move in to take the land.”

Julia added that she sees significance in the fact that the play took place on “the first day of convention. The Doctrine of Discovery gives a glimpse of a history, including a Mennonite history, that is not pretty as it tells the story of a theology that gave privilege to whites at the expense, the genocide, of Native Americans. By beginning convention with this acknowledgement, the Mennonite church is making a statement. They are making a statement that church is more than worship; it is about doing life together, which means being in relationship with all of creation around us. It is about acknowledging past and present harm in order that reconciliation can occur and God’s shalom may prevail. 

A gathering to imagine an Anabaptist future for Mennonite Church USA called Future Church Summit also took place during the Orlando convention.  According to materials on the MCUSA website, “the Future Church Summit was designed to be a generative, open space for denomination-wide conversation—to dream together, reset priorities, and engage one another in answering the question: How will we follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?

MWR’s report of the summit states that “participants (all 550 delegates, plus more than 100 others) shared a list of laments, which included painful patterns of splits and divisions, racism and failure to embrace racial diversity, lack of acceptance of LGBTQ people, and a declining emphasis on the Holy Spirit and spiritual growth.”

The MWR story further notes that 1,254 affirmations were filed “for being a Jesus-centered community, offering a witness for peace in times of turmoil, striving to be a racially and culturally diverse church, nonconformity and simple living, speaking truth.”

Future Church Summit Outcomes report is available online.

We look forward to hearing personal reflections next week from KRMÇers who attended the Orlando convention. 

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July 3, 2017
By:  Jane Bishop Halteman

When national leaders continue to disappoint and the world around us looks to be in steady decline, what makes your heart sing despite less than desirable circumstances?

I resonate this week with Parker Palmer’s assessment of the July 4 national holiday we will observe tomorrow.  “On one hand, I celebrate all that is good about the U.S. and its people. On the other hand, I grieve the fundamental, perhaps even fatal flaws in our democracy that have been revealed by the diseased presidency and politics from which we now suffer,” Palmer says in his July 2 Facebook post.

Before I read Palmer’s musings, however, last week’s tweet torrent threatened to drown me in despair, and I began practicing the spiritual discipline of noticing what brings joy even when the national/world situation seems grim. 

My first response was to compose a photo collage of what has energized me these last few weeks…in addition to the documentation of warm memories, I take great delight in making photos the best they can be. This week’s individual photos reveal that nature and family activate my happy places, so the South Bend Farmers’ Market, our own garden, and Matt and Jen’s new CSA, offered lots of fresh produce last week to create tasty summer dishes, which I love to photograph as well as eat.  My once- or twice-daily visits to monitor blossoms on our property provide Instagram and Facebook connections via photos to other nature lovers. Bodies of water, like Lake Michigan and our own Saint Joe River, always lift my spirits.

Weekly visits with family fuel my obsession to document and chronicle the growing-up years of the grandkids.  Spending quality time with them at the library or Menno-Hof or the Saint Joe, MI, splash pad or Curious Kids' Museum or roasting marshmallows around our backyard brazier make lasting memories for all of us.

Learning with fellow KRMCers about soil during our intergenerational nature-related formation hour last Sunday presented another happy moment and photo opportunity as we gathered evidence to substantiate sharings from this blog post about Kingdom teachings from soil.    

Connections, even to folks I do not know in person, make my heart sing.  A Facebook friend whom I have not met except by phone walked me through upgrading security settings when she noticed my profile had been cloned last week.  An Instagrammer I follow who claims color as her “superpower” brings me joy every day with her vivid posts, profiling her love of life in London.  I treasure these interactions, especially when it feels like the world is collapsing in on itself and other countries’ trust in US leadership is falling to new lows, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Whenever I can, I attend South Bend’s Fridays by the Fountain in front of the Morris Performing Arts Center.  This past week’s band did not disappoint, particularly after I noticed an aging gentleman (way beyond my years anyway) dancing by himself to Proud Mary.  He wandered off when that number ended, but couldn’t resist hanging around a while longer for These Boots Are Made for Walking.

Sitting on a ledge in the shade, sheltered from the hot sun, I watched happy human interactions unfold before me as a child and two older women took seats on the steps nearby.  The child’s apple rolled away, and I imagined it might get tossed.  Happily, one of the grandmas poured her own carbonated beverage over the apple and returned it to the child.  The other grandma dipped her scarf in the nearby fountain to clean the child’s face after sandwich bites.

Folks nearby enjoyed the two-year-old’s rollicking movement to Some Kind of Wonderful and Sweet Home Alabama (which the band changed to Chicago for the occasion) and her happy leaping down the stairs, jumping proudly from the last step to the ground.  She warmed to her audience’s cheers and put on a magnificent show for us; the woman on the ledge next to me commented out loud that it was such a relief to be away from the political fray for a moment.

Watching the many ethnicities and age groups (from infants in wraps and slings to octogenarians on walkers and canes) enjoying one another on their lunch breaks at Fridays by the Fountain functioned as an antidote to overdosing on the goings-on in Washington, DC. Kids blowing bubbles and families frolicking in the fountain mist, the kind word of a stranger, even the appearance of the Martin’s food truck added to the ambiance that raised my sinking spirits that day.

Where have you glimpsed the Divine in simple human interaction?   

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June 26, 2017
By: Jane Bishop Halteman

Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference annual sessions took place June 15-17 at Amigo Centre in Sturgis, MI.  My long-time good friend Frances offered a meditation at the women’s tea Friday, bringing back fond memories of more than 20 years ago when the two of us attended summer worship courses at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) and subsequently were invited by our suburban Chicago congregation to lead weekly evening worship in a contemplative prayer setting.

The bond of our friendship grew as we fashioned themes, calls to worship, and prayers, crafted visuals, developed handouts, and invited readers and song leaders to join us in bringing the 30-minute services to a small group of faithful worshippers. 

Frances once remarked to the church’s office administrator, who observed our sometimes time-consuming set-ups, that getting ready for Wednesday prayer was for us as engaging as playing house is for young children.  With the enthusiasm of kids working diligently at being grown-ups, we engaged wholeheartedly with each other and our subject matter to create space for quiet reflection and new awareness of the Divine in our midst.   

In preparation for her conference presentation based on Joyce Rupp’s book entitled The Cup of Our Life, Frances collected from a variety of thrift stores 45 unique teacups, some bright, some pastel, some stylized, some delicately floral, some mugs, some closer to actual teacups. As participants filled their plates and found a seat, they also chose a cup to use for personal reflection as Frances shared.

During her after-lunch presentation, she asked us to consider why we selected the cup in front of us. Did we find the color or style appealing? Did the cup remind us of something? What about the cup connected to our lives? My mug, painted with brightly colored, realistically sketched fruits still on the vine with leaves and tendrils apparent, brought to mind the importance of authentic connections and taproot nourishment, so germane to generative living.  Not until I sat with my mug at home, however, did that realization surface.   

Reminding us that “these are very ordinary cups,” Frances asked what about these simple cups might lead us to reflect on the cup of our lives?  Could the cup be a reminder of spiritual thirst?  Our need to fill, drink, empty, wash…?”

Urging her listeners to think of the cup as an image of their own uniqueness, Frances quoted author Rupp as saying, “Too often people want someone else’s spirituality rather than their own. I’ve discovered that the more I am conscious and accepting of God’s love for me, the more I can accept myself and the unique way that my spiritual path unfolds. God created each one of us out of love. We are one-of-a-kind, unique, meant to be a light of love in transforming our world.”

Like the mugs and teacups we chose, our lives are sometimes marred by bumps, scratches, cracks, and chips, Frances pointed out, suggesting that rather than seeing these imperfections as flaws, we might view them as opportunities to nurture “understanding and compassion,” thus enabling change and growth.

Quoting author Rupp once again, Frances suggested that “wholeness implies a process, a gradual coming together into a oneness in which all the parts are integrated, but not necessarily perfect. Wholeness or holiness takes a lifetime of ups and downs. It can never be accomplished apart from divine help and guidance or without the interaction of our lives with others.”

Back in the winter of 2007, I led an adult formation class based on The Cup of Our Life, gathering the chapter-by-chapter overviews below from the Rupp book for the class syllabus; ten years later, I find these snippets helpful to ponder anew and am grateful to Frances for bringing this book to mind once again.

The Cup of Life: What would it be like if we believed we were a love song of the Divine?  How would it change our presence with others?  While healthy spirituality requires a deep belief in our own loveableness, this belief is not always easy to accept.  May we find ways to see ourselves as songs of love, cups full of goodness, bringing life to others.

The Open Cup: As we ponder our openness, what brave steps might we take toward emptying those things that perhaps keep our spiritual cups from being filled?  How might uncluttering and making space for listening help prepare us to receive and trust?

The Chipped Cup: How might we look at personal flaws, not to criticize, but to see what they can tell us about our relationship with the Divine and with others.  How can we befriend parts of our personality we are reluctant to accept?   

The Broken Cup: Brokenness can be an instrument for change.  Pain received rightly has the power to transform.  What would happen if we met our frustrations, pains, and heartaches as we would meet a visitor having something to teach us?  What might we learn from those pieces of our lives that are still wanting and incomplete? 

The Cup of Compassion: Sometimes compassion asks us to simply ‘be’ with someone.  At other times, compassion asks us to ‘do’ something, to give of our time, to speak out for justice, to go the extra mile.  And sometimes compassion asks us to receive graciously from another who has need of our receptivity and our vulnerability.  

The Blessing Cup: Each of us can be a blessing.  When we bless, it is the deep and vast goodness of the Divine in us that blesses another.  When we bless, we touch another with something of the Divine.  How have you been blessed by the smiles, loving looks, stories and affirmations, concern and care of others?   

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June 19, 2017
By:  Jane Bishop Halteman

New manager Kelly surrounded by Ten Thousand Villages merchandise…a brochure in upper left announces the store's opening as Global Gifts 25 years ago

Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade shop located at 214 W. Cleveland Rd., Granger, is in the midst of observing its 25th year in Michiana.  Back on April 10, the store welcomed new manager, Kelly Tooker, another reason to celebrate during this milestone anniversary year.

Kern Road Mennonite Church launched the store in 1992 as Global Gifts at a Mishawaka location, buying its inventory from Mennonite Central Committee’s SELFHELP Crafts, a fair trade enterprise which changed its name to Ten Thousand Villages in 1996.  According to the mission statement of Villages’ headquarters, “We create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term, fair trading relationships.”

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Kelly arrived in Indiana in the fall of 2011 when her husband Bob’s career brought the family here.  She is no stranger to Ten Thousand Villages and its merchandise, having been a customer of the Portland, OR, store in the early 90s.  Some of her Haitian cut metal wall art from back then has traveled across the country with her and is now on display in their fourth house and third state, according to Kelly.     

Kelly and her husband also celebrated their 25th anniversary this year. Kelly is a master gardener, has completed organics certification, and observes permaculture practices in her home garden.  Before her move to Indiana, she worked in environmental services and taught natural resources and conservation at the high school level.

She has more than 15 years of experience in retail management, most recently as the garden center manager at Lowe’s, and non-profit experience, most recently with Wellfield Botanic Gardens. She also has small business ownership experience, and managerial experience that includes work with volunteers. 

Kelly finds the store’s location a good one, with its proximity to University Park Mall and good foot traffic at Centennial Place, the shopping center where Villages is located.  Nearby medical facilities regularly bring in patients from a distance, who stop in at the store before or after their appointments to further augment traffic, she said. 

She looks at the potential of local college students as both shoppers and volunteers, and hopes to establish campus ambassadors at Saint Mary’s, Indiana University South Bend, Bethel, Notre Dame, and Holy Cross. Current interest in yoga and meditation also brings customers to Ten Thousand Villages. 

Kelly emphasized that “Villages stores complete the fair trade cycle by providing a marketplace." She asks that you 'like' our Ten Thousand Villages Mishawaka Facebook page to help expand organic growth and exposure, and invites you to help with the fair trade vision by making grassroots referrals to family and friends about the store, its merchandise, and its mission, by volunteering in the store, by assisting with marketing, education, and community outreach, and by helping with off-site sales in the tradition of Edna Ruth Byler, the woman behind the Ten Thousand Villages fair trade concept, who began selling Puerto Rican and West Bank needlework from the trunk of her car in 1946.

Starting today, the Mishawaka store’s Monday Facebook post will feature some aspect of its past history, drawn from photos, clippings, and other memorabilia saved in scrapbooks over the years by KRMCer Luella.

“I truly believe that we are in this together. We must be the change we wish to see in the world and in our local communities,” Kelly said in one of her early e-mail communications with board members and volunteers.  Speaking as the store’s behind-the-scenes Facebook presence, I find Kelly an accessible, inspiring manager/encourager who takes great delight in equipping volunteers to do their jobs.

If you would like to volunteer with the Mishawaka Villages team, contact Kelly by phone (574.277.4900) or e-mail (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). 

To learn more about how fair trade improves lives and strengthens communities, see Villages’ description of its impact here. And this delightful Mrs. Green’s World podcast offers good listening about the “guilt-free shopping” available at Ten Thousand Villages stores, including more about Edna Ruth Byler.  

Ten Thousand Villages' image created by headquarters in conjunction with the organization's observance of 70 years in 2016

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June 12, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Soil is the source of life

Wendell Berry, in his book The Unsettling of America:  Culture and Agriculture, says that “the soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

Last week I came across this statement in the Mennonite World Review from Isaac Villegas who said the announcement that the US would be pulling out of its commitment to the Paris climate accord drove him to seek guidance from the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective:  “‘As stewards of God’s earth,’ the Confession states in Article 21, ‘we are called to care for the earth and to bring rest and renewal to the land and everything that lives on it.’ Our vocation is to care for the Earth, to renew the soil, to allow for rhythms of restfulness for flora and fauna. We look after the well-being of God’s creation, the work of God’s hands.”

Yesterday at Kern Road, in the first of a four-part Season of Creation worship series, Danile brought samples of forest, woodland, and farmed field soils and talked about how soil is the source of life and not unlike the Spirit in its vitality. The parable of the growing seed, from Mark 4:26-29, recounts the story of which she spoke in this way (The Message):  “Then Jesus said, ‘God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!’”

Indeed, a precious commodity, our earth and its soil, according to Danile, who suggested that the parable speaks of abundance as its farmer sows seed and waits, then trusts to a mysterious process, that process stimulated by rain and sun and good soil, soil made rich by earth worm castings and microbes trading nutrients for carbon created by plant roots.

Collaboration and mutual nourishment, she reminded us, are hallmarks of how soil is formed and how the Divine works among us.  Janice suggested in her follow-up musings that the parable prods us to think of soil as partner, co-creator with God.  “The soil is an agent with God…paying attention to the soil is paying attention to God’s work” in the world.

In Dirt, the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, William Bryant Logan speaks of the beauty of dirt.  “It is the nature of soil to build aggregates: plates or blocks or chunks, full of air and water channels. Gardeners in fact know their soils first and foremost by the size of the particles and the kinds of aggregates they build. Where organic decay and inorganic erosion meet, the conditions exist for a fertile soil, because the two in combination make a tortuous, knotty structure that offers roots the optimum mixture of mineral nutrients, organic nutrients, air, and water.”

Several years ago author Fred Bahnson wrote of his experiences with Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Jewish faith communities as he explored “the connection between feeding the spirit and feeding the body.” His book, entitled Soil and Sacrament:  A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, suggests that “the garden is our oldest metaphor. In Genesis God creates the first Adam from the adamah, and tells him to ‘till and keep’ it, the fertile soil on which all life depends. Human from humus. That’s our first etymological clue as to the inextricable bond we share with the soil. Our ecological problems are a result of having forgotten who we are—soil people, inspired by the breath of God.”

According to Bahnson, “Each of these communities produced some of their own food, making them less dependent than most of us on a centralized, oil-addicted food system that is already showing signs of collapse. That simple act of growing food gave them something most of us don’t possess: agency. They had regained a measure of freedom from anxiety. But there was also something more mysterious at work in these places. A merciful Presence brooding over the bent world. The answer to our hunger for more than just bread.” 

Bahnson goes on to say that “many of those I’ve come to meet view soil as a sacrament: a physical manifestation of God’s presence, a channel of Divine grace. They know soil is a portal that joins us to the world to come even while rooting us more deeply in this one.”  (See more from Bahnson here in this fascinating excerpt from the prologue of his book.)  

I heard Danile and Janice sharing that sentiment in their Sunday sermon as well. Have you experienced soil as portal that not only joins us to the world to come but simultaneously roots us more deeply in this one? 

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June 5, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Area group exercises Pentecost living

Marty led us a mile and a half into and out of the woods Saturday on a western area group bird hike at Rum Village Park.  We were not a huge group…eight of us, including Marty’s parents and a friend.  Maybe not such a successful turn-out if numbers are your measuring stick.

But participant numbers did not count on this trip, which fell on the morning of the Sunburst Races (billed as “one of the premier regional running events in the Midwest”), near the end of the Best. Week. Ever. in South Bend (meaning folks may have been tuckered out by the unceasing activity in our town), and just a few hours before a Catholic Worker/Near Northwest Neighborhood wedding to which a number of our area group families were invited as guests.

Precise numbers of birds spotted did count for Marty’s report to (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).  His list revealed that, on our hour and a half walk, we saw 2 Mourning Doves, 3 Red-bellied Woodpeckers, 2 Downy Woodpeckers, 1 Eastern Wood-Pewee, 5 Empidonax (a genus, rather than a species, meaning Marty couldn’t quite pinpoint which of 15 species might have flown into view, though I heard him mention the Least Flycatcher on our hike), 2 Red-eyed Vireos, 2 Blue Jays, 2 White-breasted Nuthatches, 1 Wood Thrush, 6 American Robins, 2 Chipping Sparrows, 5 Northern Cardinals, 1 Common Grackle, 4 Brown-headed Cowbirds, and 1 American Goldfinch.

In an interview with philosopher Sam Keen, Spirituality & Practice website founder Frederic Brussat asks Keen about birders as mystics.  Keen responds:  “Birders are instinctively reverential and thankful for all the multicolored angels that appear out of the void—free, no hidden charges. Birders know how to wait, be silent, and adore—essential spiritual disciplines.”

Kevin Kummer’s essay on Birdwatching and Prayer lists four spiritual disciplines he has learned from birding that he says have enriched his life.  Suggesting that both bird watching and prayer have to do with seeing, Kummer notes that “when I do slow down enough to see with my eyes and actually observe the world around me, I am awed by what I see….Unless I consciously choose to alter my pace and pay attention, I miss much of what is all around me in the physical world.”

Kummer also notes that “I find that my ears, when alert, are the best tools I have for locating a bird in the first place. A call, the rustle of leaves, or the whirr of wings gets my attention and turns my eyes in the right direction. Seeing and hearing work together. In contemplative prayer, to hear requires not only slowing down and paying attention, but also stillness.”

Thirdly Kummer relates that guides and guidebooks have mentored his birding acumen even as authors like C. S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and Eugene Peterson have been spiritual mentors to him. “I have lived amidst birds my whole life—as we all have—but  it wasn’t until I got hold of a guide book that I learned to recognize, identify, and get to know particular birds. I had to be mentored in seeing. Learning what to look for and how to look was not automatic and I gained a great deal by learning from those who were more experienced than I but whose wonder and love of birds I shared.”

Kummer’s fourth discipline relating to both prayer and bird-watching is taking notes and making records.  “I have discovered that a notebook and pen are tremendous aides to seeing, hearing, reflecting, writing, and praying….The act of recording, describing, reflecting, and savoring what I see deepens the impression made on me by a bird or the Spirit.”

We are grateful to Marty, who will start high school in the fall, for mentoring us by sharing his enthusiastic love of birding, which began just over a year ago, according to his father, on a family birding excursion.  Marty taught us by example that seeing, listening, and record-keeping are important for would-be birders as well as persons of faith.  He reminded us in advance of our hike that binoculars are key and demonstrated the importance of guidebooks, showing us, too, the pouch he created inside his sweatshirt to carry his guidebook!  His knowledge of bird identification, bird calls, bird behaviors and habitats amazes me.

Our morning together concluded at the Near Northwest Neighborhood’s Local Cup, a pay-it-forward coffee shop, where four more of our area group members joined us, including Homer and Betty, who were celebrating their 61st anniversary that very day; they took time earlier that morning to cheer on son Jim, who ran the half marathon.  Jim arrived eventually (it was good to congratulate both him and his parents), and Turfena popped in to say hello from her home nearby.

We all enjoyed meeting a retired Episcopalian priest who visited the coffee shop.  He shared that he’s about to make a “very public announcement in agreement with the Paris Accord by installing solar panels” on his house. Vic, who spearheaded KRMC’s recent solar installation project, made a quick connection and they will be in touch.

As I listened to Lane’s Pentecost sermon on Sunday and his proclamation that “Pentecost makes the newly birthed church a place of connection from God to people and people to God,” it struck me that our neighborly coffee shop connections, Marty’s mentoring, and the disciplines we began to exercise in birding are most certainly a part of Pentecost living. 

If you are a bird-watcher or are considering getting more involved in birding as hobby or spiritual discipline, you might enjoy this film review of Birders: The Central Park Effect at the Spirituality & Practice website.  The review states that “filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball has done a remarkable job, giving us insights into (birders’) passion and pleasure in what we recognize as spiritual practices: questing, paying attention, seeking beauty, and being truly present...” 

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