Thursday, June 23, 2016

The spirituality of summer

Summers invite me to inhabit a different type of spirituality in four important ways.

First, summers invite a fuller engagement with nature. I live in a major city by choice, enjoying its urban vibe and pedestrian lifestyle. Spending time in nature, however, has remained an integral aspect of my life and spirituality since my childhood in Maine. I appreciate natural theology, resonating deeply nature's capacity to reveal much about God. My education and reading have identified some of natural theology's limits, but I still find nature an important spiritual and theological resource.

With age, Maine's rugged beauty, cold weather, and snow are less inviting. Consequently, one of the aspects of living in Hawaii that I most enjoy is the year-round summer-like weather. Warm sunshine watered by an occasional light mist encourages me to spend lots of time outdoors and to leave windows open. My apartment has expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, palm lined sandy beaches, volcanic mountains, and, frequently, rainbows. From January to April, I sometimes spot whales breaching from my apartment windows. The views from my apartment evoke Biblical images, e.g., rainbows are vivid reminders of one of God's promises and the Psalmist several times references the mighty creatures of the deeps.

Second, summers invite engagement with social justice issues. Summers in Hawaii have gradually become warmer. People now complain about the summer heat. I have lived in Hawaii twice previously, first in the early 1980s and then in the early 1990s, each time for two and a half years. During those five years, there were only several nights a year when I wished that my dwelling had air conditioning. Now I am grateful for my apartment's air conditioning. Similarly, rising tides and more extreme storms have unjustly diminished the habitability and land mass of numerous Pacific islands. The growing numbers of Oceania emigrants now living in Hawaii visibly declare our need to be better ecological stewards.

Summers also offer fragile signs of social justice progress that encourage further engagement. For example, vacations, which started to appear in the nineteenth century as a byproduct of the affluence that the Industrial Revolution created, are no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich and powerful. Hawaii's robust tourist industry fared reasonably well during the nation's great recession and its sluggish economic recovery. Nevertheless, the low wages earned by many tourist industry workers are painful reminders of growing economic inequality, a shrinking middle class, and the need to establish fuller economic justice.

Third, summers invite me to change my spiritual praxis. A staff member at my parish's day school has been teaching Sunday school in the parish this month. She told me that being on campus six days a week is one day too many for her. She has discovered that she, and consequently the school's students, benefit when she is not on the campus weekends. Her observation prompted me to wonder which of my spiritual practices, adopted in the hope that they would open windows through which God's light would shine into my life, have unintentionally, and maybe without my realizing it, become burdensome, closing the windows I intended them to open.

God may not take a vacation, but God's people should. What worship schedule services best suits your spiritual life today? What would it feel like to skip worship for a week or two? Would visiting a different parish (or even congregation of a different denomination) result in a fresh appreciation of one's own parish? Would meditatively reading a book – perhaps a novel, poetry, biography, or even a book on theology, ethics, biblical studies, or spirituality – provide a helpful catalyst for re-energizing or re-conceptualizing your understanding of twenty-first century Christianity? Sadly, many Christians regard church participation and spiritual commitments as compulsory duties rather than as opportunities to savor God's gifts of freedom and grace. Summer tacitly permits, perhaps even encourages, a much-needed Sabbath in which the over-obligated can helpfully reframe their spiritual practices and commitments.

Fourth and finally, summers invite me to hold my beliefs lightly. Holding tightly to theological propositions has never made sense to me. Sin is pervasive. I have no rational basis for supposing that my theology, regardless of the care, study, and prayer that I invest in its formulation, is perfect. Surely, my theology, like that of all Christians and the Church as a whole, inevitably represents an admixture of truth and error that can benefit from ongoing refinement. Additionally, words are finite and God is infinite. That difference inherently limits the capacity of words to speak of God accurately. Lightly held beliefs implicitly acknowledge these issues, creating the possibility of theological growth while concurrently fostering interfaith and ecumenical dialogue. Leisurely summer conversations can afford uncensored opportunities to formulate, try on for comfort, and examine tentative new theological ideas from various angles.


Summer is a common metaphor for the span of life that stretches from the end of adolescence (spring connotes the period from birth to end of adolescence) to the beginning of one's decline (the autumn of life that precedes winter, the season of death). As I enter the autumn of my life, I am thankful for having enjoyed a long summer, thankful that my summer was an enjoyable season of growth and not of stagnation. I pray that you will enjoy your summer!

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