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Apple blossoms at the Adobe of the Message, New York

The Abode of the Message, a spiritual community founded by the Sufi Order in 1975, is housed in the former Mount Lebanon Shaker Society in New Lebanon, N.Y.

This last three weeks I have been traveling for a variety of reasons, some church-related, others not so much. Along the way, a number of locations and contexts have triggered memories, old friends and new have reminded me of the joy and cost of relationship and always the bitter-sweet awareness of time moving forward, of life continuing its ongoing process of change and expansion. Over the years, I have recognized that life is a wonderful and terrifying mystery, requiring my patience, love and presence.

The week of April 29-May 2 found me in Santa Cruz for the initial presentation of a regional clergy retreat, Called to Wholeness, for those who minister in the United Methodist Church. Three-plus days of inquiry, reflection and quiet for men and women serving in a variety of settings in the regional church, from very urban to quite remote to suburban and in a wide variety of communities. My work was to serve as the logistics person for the event, welcoming, assisting and serving those who came to be renewed and celebrated for their call. It was a blessing to be a part of this process of remembrance of call, of why people serve and what each one’s gifts and challenges are.

A retreat center in Danville the week of May 5-10 hosted the Academy of Spiritual Formation, a two-year program, to support a fuller understanding of each participants’ spiritual life. This was the fourth of eight gatherings for the Academy with times of prayer and silence, of worship and wonderful lectures. The most impactful part of this last week was my small covenant group; eight people passionately engaged, dedicated to one another and to realizing their divine purpose.

Then, this last week, from May 12-20, I was in New England for three purposes. First were the college graduations of my twin nephews, Josh and Sam. Saturday and Sunday, May 18-19, my sister and I celebrated their four years of study, socialization and life skill development, as they received bachelor of science degrees. Amazing to see these young men, who I still remember as babies, achieving so much, going out into the world with excellent educations and surrounded by love.

The second reason for my trip east was to visit old friends who I have not seen in quite a while. Michael, Christopher and I grew up together in the little town of Bethel, Connecticut. We ran, played and lived late childhood, adolescence and early adulthood together, adventuring and consoling each other through life’s wonders and heartbreaks. But over the years, we have grown distant, living quite different lives, in neighborhoods far apart of each other. So, it was past time to visit with each, Mike in Brattleboro, Vermont and Chris in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Springtime was cold and rainy this year in the northeast, but it was a joy to see old companions, to catch up and share in each other’s lives.

Finally, I had one last visit to make, the commune that my wife Caroline and I had lived in for before we moved to California. The Abode of the Message, a spiritual community founded by the Sufi Order in 1975, is housed in the former Mount Lebanon Shaker Society in New Lebanon, New York. We moved there early on in our relationship. It was my first faith community experience, my initial deep dive into the spiritual life, and forever changed us.

Back in 1980-‘83, it was a vibrant community of 70-90 people, families, singles, young and old, who gathered to live and work to create a place dedicated to Love, Harmony and Beauty. I went back to visit not knowing if I would see anyone I knew or what state the Abode was in. The setting is still peaceful and beautiful, with rolling hills, tall maples, oaks and sycamore trees, a working farm and all the old Shaker buildings still in use. Mostly anyway.

Fewer than 20 people live at the Abode today, with less spirit than in the past. I was struck by how different it felt and how empty the community seemed. The people I knew are gone, the worship services occasional and the dining hall, once bustling and the heart of the community, more often empty than not.

These last three weeks’ travels have shown me a number of things. First of all, looking back on the past can be shocking. I knew that my old community had changed, how could it not? Yet there are some signs of hope nearby. Local, younger farmer families have taken on the farming on the property and are turning it into a sustainable business. The spiritual community is struggling but the “back to the land” movement appears to be setting deep roots. I believe that God still has plans for the Abode!

My friends, sister and nephews and I grow older, and at times, even wiser. We have and continue to lead full lives, bringing our gifts and graces into this world. The church in St. Helena and all the Methodist churches in our regional conference continue to work to create a place where the divine can be found, through worship and fellowship, by outreach and acts of compassionate justice, and most importantly in the act and practice of recognizing the miracle that is God within each of us, that is at the heart of all.

Home is not what it once seemed, a place where I was a child and was protected as one. Home today is where I live and support the unfolding of God’s grace in the midst of this world, where I look to see the beauty and miracle that is the essence of creation. The place where we meet in fellowship, in love, and in gratitude for all we have and all we share.

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Burke Owens is pastor of the Saint Helena United Methodist Church located at 1310 Adams St. at Oak in St. Helena. Sunday Worship Services are at 10 a.m. and childcare is provided. Regular weekly small groups, classes and events are also held. Please call 707-963-2839 or check our website, sthelenaumc.org for more information. All are welcome here!

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