The Spirit Tree in my yard has almost finished shedding its skin.
...a midsummer night in Pine Ridge, Arkansas, when as an nine-year-old I stayed a week with my grandparents. My mother’s father, my granddad, was a farmer... and the village blacksmith. He shoed horses and repaired farm equipment and tended his crops. He plowed his fields with his two mules, which he also used for transportation. He didn’t have horses of his own. The mules pulled his wagon when he had to haul something or when he and my Grandmother went to church a couple of miles up an unpaved road from their house.
It was that Baptist church I was remembering this morning as I sat listening to the San Diego United Methodist Church choir sing a lyrical, jazzy arrangement of an American folk hymn, “Bound for the Promised Land,” arranged by Mack Wilberg. It’s a hymn Methodists don’t sing much any more. I’m guessing it’s still sung regularly in Baptist Churches. When I stayed that week with Granddad and Granny Inlow, we went every night to a revival meeting at their church. Granddad drove us there with his mules and wagon. Granny sat in the wooden buckboard seat with Granddad. I sat on the back floor of the wagon. I don’t remember much about the early evening trip to the church... the summer sun hadn’t set yet, but I’ve never forgotten the journey home after services. Grannie has spread a couple of blankets in the wagon so I could stretch out back there for the ride home. Millions of stars spangled the black dome of sky... such a glorious mystery.
On at least a couple of evenings when the song leader at the revival meeting invited people to call out their favorite hymns, “Bound for the Promised Land” was requested. Lying on my back in that wagon creaking along the dirt road on the way back home and gazing up into the starry night, wanting to believe it must surely be there, I wondered where the Promised Land might be in that great expanse of inky sky. That was a time when people had encyclopedias in their homes. I knew a thing or two, but not much, about the universe... about our solar system and its planets and about our galaxy. I knew how far the moon was from earth. I could locate Venus quickly. I knew the planets didn’t “blink” and that stars twinkled.
Now an old man listening to the words of “Bound for the Promised Land” this morning, I wondered what members of the congregation were visualizing. I wondered what the pastor waiting in the pulpit to preach a few minutes after the choir sang would say about “the Promised Land” if I asked him if he believes it is an actual place.
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye, to Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. There generous fruits that never fail on trees immortal grow; there rocks and hills and brooks and vales with milk and honey flow. I am bound for the promised land, O who will come and go with me? O the transporting rapturous scene that rises to my sight, sweet fields arrayed in living green and rivers of delight. When shall I reach that happy place and be forever blessed? When shall I see my Father’s face and in His bosom rest?
I don’t remember when it first occurred to me it was highly unlikely that there is out there somewhere an actual celestial Kingdom of God...and then at some point... the realization that it was a preposterous idea... but it happened, and I have been for many years left to try to figure out what to do with all the other mythologies of the religion which has been part of my identity for all of my life.
Perhaps the best I can do is try to relate meaningfully to the words of the liturgist in church this morning.
We rejoice in every sign of God’s kingdom: in the upholding of human dignity and community; in every expression of love, justice, and reconciliation; in each act of self-giving on behalf of others; in the abundance of God’s gifts entrusted to us that all may have enough; in all responsible use of the earth’s resources.