What Is Really Important?

The only thing that really matters is faith expressing itself in love. ~ Galatians 5:6

Last Tuesday morning, our family and friends gathered at Vincent Cemetery, a green grassy knoll dotted with cedar trees overlooking the rolling waves of wheat fields in central Kansas, the breadbasket of America. My Grandfather Albert’s farm lays to the northeast of the cemetery. The one room schoolhouse my dad attended up until the eighth grade is a short pony ride away to the south. The Methodist Church, the center of the Vincent Community, long ago disappeared along with the small family farms, usually on a quarter section of land.

The songbirds, the wind, and the graves hold the memories of a near distant way of life.

Before she passed on, Mom asked us to spread her ashes over my dad’s and sister’s graves which sit side by side. “Let my ashes rest with them and blow over the old Paschal farm.” She loved telling stories of the city girl visiting the farm. “Your grandmother kept an impeccable house and made the best meals. Always homemade ice cream after church on Sunday. When your grandfather made a special trip to town to get me a Pepsi, I knew I was accepted and loved fully.”

As I bowed down to spread my mom’s ashes, Jennifer sang, “And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.” Overhead, cumulus clouds moved across the sky like ships on the blue ocean. All was well and in peace.

We gathered in a circle around Mom’s stone marker to offer a blessing. “Let’s make the circle wide. Saints are all around us—Mothers, Fathers, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Children, Friends, and Community—who have blessed and enriched our lives. Let’s not forget them.” All of us stepped back to encircle more and more graves of loved ones. It got bigger and bigger.  Finally, Cousin Dell asked, “How big are we going to make this circle?” “Well, I guess we need to make a circle around the entire cemetery, so let’s just symbolically make it around everyone. We can’t leave anyone out,” I said. So, we did.

I prayed, “God of Love, we give you thanks for all those who have gone before us. We thank you for the love, the peace, and the kindness from you that they shared with us. May we receive their gifts and use them to love who You loved. May we be rooted and grounded in your way of love as we pray, Our Father…”

I admit, I get nostalgic when I return to the site of the former family farm, and I romanticize about a simple agrarian way of life that is no more. Corporate farms have taken over and the shells of farmhouses remain if any at all. Yet the question remains today as much as it did yesterday, what is really important?

Various theologians, including John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, have been quoted as saying, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.” What are the essentials and who determines what they are? What is the “marrow of the Gospel” as St. Francis called it? Where do we set our feet and stand firm?

Paul writes to the Galatian churches in an extreme crisis and says, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6). I remember a young mother who joined our church a few years back. “I would like to join the church, Craig.” “O.K. But don’t you want me to explain our views on baptism, communion, and social justice issues?” “No,” she said. “Isn’t it just about love?” I blushed, “Yes, that’s it in a nutshell.”

Brain McLaren, in his book The Great Spiritual Migration, writes, “You might think that the primacy of love would be a settled matter in Christian faith. But here we are two thousand years into this religion, and for many beliefs still rule, and love too often waits out in the hallway, hoping to be invited in and taken more seriously.” Sadly, beliefs often exclude rather than include. Beliefs often make the circle smaller and smaller defining who is in and who is out, who is acceptable and who is not.

“We cannot keep avoiding what Jesus actually emphasized and mandated. In this most urgent time, ‘It is the very love of Christ that now urges us’ (2 Corinthians 5:14),” writes Diane Butler Bass. “We should care more about love and less about sex,” says Quaker pastor Philip Gulley.

We gathered on a grassy knoll surrounded by wheat fields to release my mom’s ashes. The Methodist Church adjoining Vincent Cemetery is gone. Most of the family farms have disappeared. What remains? What is essential? The Spirit speaks and the sound of her voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing (see “In the Garden”). Love remains. It is essential and sustains us.

May we stay rooted and grounded in the love of Christ and may we make the circle wider and wider until no one is left standing outside it.  Amen.

Blessings and peace,