Sing, Camp, Pray

The Reverend Frieda Gillespie

September 20, 2009

The title of this sermon you might recognize as a parody of the book titled Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It was a bestseller delighting and inspiring many with its true story of the author’s journey after a horrible divorce. She decided to travel for a year staying in three different countries for four months. Italy was the first one, and there she focused on food, enjoying rich and delicious Italian meals that helped her recover her health. The second country, India, introduced her to meditation, which became a spiritual practice she devoted herself to; and the last, Bali, was where she found balance and love again.

All journeys have some component of self-discovery. Whenever we find ourselves outside our usual surroundings and habits of life, we are gifted with a view of who we are beyond all that. There was a book called Wherever You Go, There You Are. We also bring all of our habits of thinking and ways of being with us of course, but in new surroundings, we are thrown off base just enough that something new might enter our awareness. At least that was my hope as I planned my summer time away. In any case I realized very quickly that staying home alone was not going to be the best thing for me — I am too gregarious of a person to enjoy that for long periods.

I’m considered to be the adventurer of the family, according to my oldest brother, who has lived in the same place for at least 45 years. I’m the only one to move so far away and to have changed my life so dramatically several times. It is “belonging” that I enjoy now, the chance to put down deep roots in one place with my family and many of the same friends and parishioners. I love having that foundation to explore from. Some people find that early in life. For me it’s been a much longer journey.

You’d think, having a history of movement and change that attending a couple of workshops and camping with my family would be a piece of cake for me. No so. Paradoxically, I also have a lot of residual fear around new adventures; perhaps we all have some of this. We naturally gravitate toward what we know is safe and comfortable. After all, who needs more stress in their lives? But playing it safe has its drawbacks as well. I once asked my other brother, Stan, who lives in Los Angeles, if he planned any traveling for vacation. “No,” he said. “I have everything I need here; why would I go anywhere else?” That’s my brother in a nutshell.

Without giving myself too much time to dwell on my fears, I signed up for two workshops at each end of the summer. The first was the yearly Choral Festival at Ferry Beach. This promised a fun, relaxed time of singing with a large group of people. It was held at the same time as Gayla, a famous gay men’s conference that has been held at Ferry Beach every year since 1982. They were the only conference that week for many years. However, their attendance has dwindled; no doubt for positive reasons now that gay men can form groups close to home without as much fear of harm. After two years, the men had gotten used to having the Choral Festival folks around and many of them liked to sing, so we had a good time together, especially at the Talent/No Talent show, which is a tradition there on Thursday nights.

It’s probably good that none of you were there to see a group of women including your minister, dressed as male sailors singing the Broadway tune “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” to this audience of gay men. I had a brief solo part. I heard from one of the others that I did it perfectly in tune and with just the right flair. I was too nervous to know that at the time.

What is it about singing that is so wonderfully healing, nourishing and joyful? There is something about being a musical instrument and blending one’s voice with others that is powerful and somehow fundamentally symbolic of relationship with self and others. The self that sings has no room for self-consciousness. It is impossible to release a voice into its full potential without complete relaxation and trust. It’s not so much a ‘doing’ as it is an ‘allowing.’ I think that more than any other aspect, and there are many aspects to singing, that makes it a transcendent experience. When we sing together, for example, singing hymns here, there is a strong sense of commonality and connection. It doesn’t matter how good it sounds, although it’s really nice when it does, but each unique voice raised as one is a metaphor for the life we hope to create with everyone. Every voice counts, every difference between voices creates a new sound and stimulates new thought.

I came away from this experience uplifted and proud of myself for overcoming my fears enough to have this intensive encounter with others through music.

I decided to camp at Ferry Beach rather than be in the dorms to save money and so that I would have a private room, also known as a tent, and easy access to restrooms and showers. And of course no accommodations beat waking up in the middle of the night to see the sky full of stars. We did have pouring rain that week for a couple of days, and my tent turned out to be cozy and waterproof. Having such success with it, I continued to camp throughout my away experiences.

The next trip was a camping trip with Jennifer and her three kids, and our two large dogs, to Pillsbury State Park in New Hampshire. This is a beautiful campground, fairly primitive with no showers and a hike to get water.

We chose a site right on the pond that was about a half-mile hike in or a 20-minute canoe trip. All of our heavy gear we transported by canoe and the rest we carried in. That was fun for the first day and a half, but after a few trips by boat to get water to drink and wash dishes, and wood for the fire, especially later in the week, in the rain, we got a little testy about it all. We were lucky that it only rained hard one night during the five days we were there. But every night and early morning we were serenaded by a pair of loons living somewhere on the pond. There was a tiny island near our shore that Julia discovered was packed with blueberry bushes ripe and ready for picking. The blueberry pancakes we made were to die for. Of course everything is delicious when you’re camping. Food takes on an almost mystical ability to please in the open air.

Jen’s middle son, Tim, brought his guitar, and he and Ben played and sang for us. It was great to hear Tim, who professes to hate all folk music, singing John Denver songs and really enjoying them. Tim taught us a bunch of new card games, some of which had us laughing to the point of tears. In these close quarters, without electronics, and in spite of the usual bickering between siblings, I felt new and stronger bonds forming with the children. Joining an already existing family that has their own culture and momentum can be really hard. Being away from civilization intensified our awareness of each other and made it possible to interact much more. That seems like a basic requirement for love to grow. I felt some of my usual wariness shifting toward openness and trust.

The day after we returned from this camping trip I went to Omega Institute in the Hudson River Valley of New York State. This is an organization that hosts workshops oriented toward health and spirituality on a beautiful campus. They serve organic vegetarian food from their garden or local growers and have just opened a water reclamation center for the campus that may earn the top rating for environmental soundness.

Once again I camped to save some money and to have a private place to sleep. They assigned camping spots, and mine was at the highest point on the property, up a long, steep hill. Still tired from our previous camping ordeal, I was not a happy camper. My tent remained waterproof and cozy, but this was the hottest, most humid week of the summer, at the end of August. Physically I was exhausted, and I had a cough I couldn’t seem to shake.

The workshop I attended was quite remarkable and worth all of the difficulty I encountered. It was with the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers whose statement I read to you. These women are elders of their tribes, the ones who have had the traditions of healing and the wisdom of their ancestors passed along to them. They were brought together by an Anglo-American woman who had visited a number of women like these and had a vision of a council of grandmothers. Her organization invited 20 women to participate and these 13 answered, yes. They first got together in 2004. The grandmother from the Arctic, Rita Blumenstein (she was married for 45 years to a Jewish man), arrived with a story. She told the others that when she was a little girl, her great-grandmother gave her thirteen stones and thirteen eagle feathers and told her that one day she would be a part of a council of thirteen grandmothers. She brought the stones and the feathers to their first gathering and gave them to each of the women.

Each of the six days of the conference there were three prayer circles around a campfire. Each grandmother led the prayer ceremony in their own distinctive tradition. At times it was a familiar Native American ceremony with sage, tobacco, and eagle feathers. One time it was wild chanting and drumming along with the channeling of animal spirits. Another time it was the repetition of rosary prayers along with incense and other offerings blending Catholic and native practices. It was all beautiful and heartfelt and it felt like an honor to be allowed to share in their sacred prayers. One of the Lakota women shared some of her most painful worries about drug and alcohol abuse in her family. Each of them shared themselves with openness and trust. They are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met; content in their belief in the sacredness of all life and the need to stay connected to nature rather than build a world that tries to separate us from it. They hope as a unified force for healing that they can influence a shift away from the destruction of the planet to reconciliation and new life.

There is a lot to say about their wisdom — the value of prayer, of vision, of education, of acting in solidarity for the good of the whole, of speaking truth to power. I hope to speak about many of these things another day in more depth.

I found that I was deeply moved by the experience of these women, their love for the Earth, for their ancestors and for their children and the generations to come. It affected me on a very personal level as I reflected on how different my upbringing was, especially in regard to becoming a mother myself. For some of us, being able to let go of the beliefs about ourselves and life that we were given as children is the way to become really connected with life and to have a positive future. I felt some of the restrictions I grew up with crumbling away and new possibilities of relationship opening up for me.

I was also deeply moved by the relationship these women have to their Creator. Mother Earth and Father Sky, the sense of being held and cared for in the universe in such a simple and direct way. The way they spoke the name Creator implied a deeply relational respect for all of creation and thankfulness for all we have been given to sustain us. It was also an apology for all that humans (and they include themselves in this) have done out of arrogance and ignorance to destroy each other and the web of life that lives on this planet. Native Americans have a saying they use like we use, “Amen.” It is “All my relations.” That is the heart of their religion, the relatedness of all things.

There was one last trip this summer, over Labor Day weekend, to a childhood vacation place of Jennifer’s, Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. There Jen, the kids, and I hiked, ate wonderful fish dinners, and enjoyed the beauty and hospitality of the Island. It was a great place to rest and have more time with the kids.

Coming home again and starting this church year, I feel definitely changed and revitalized, wanting to give more, do more this year of what will really be life-giving. I wrote this sermon mostly so I could start to understand why this is so. I am so blessed to have this work that allows me freedom and yet entails so much responsibility to stay connected to you, to my own spiritual path, to think deeply, and to be a better person than I surely would tend to be otherwise. I look forward to our adventures this year together.

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