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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz

The Field Outside

Updated: May 20

For many years after I’d become an adult, I had recurring dreams about exploring the interior of the old Hartville Church of the Brethren, where I grew up.

Actually, when I was young there was hardly a square inch of our church that I didn't know by heart. No one ever wagged a finger at us kids for exploring, unsupervised, into all the spaces. The entire church belonged to all of us—young and old, equally―as much as one's home does. And I felt totally at home there.

My series of dreams about this church usually began on one of the staircases, which were found in the four corners of the building.

Sometimes the dream took me down into the church basement, where there was always a welcoming atmosphere filled with smells of potluck dinners and the sound of laughter and conversations from the long tables of good people of all ages―the "village" that raised me.

Other times I dreamt of being alone, climbing the stairs to a darkened mysterious, upper level and making my way through the string of adjoining classrooms of my childhood, but discovering new rooms—wonderful, expanded spaces in that church.

I always understood the meaning of those dreams in the context of my daily life, depending on whether I needed grounding in that moment or needed to be challenged to stretch beyond what was comfortable and known. The dreams gave an accurate description of what I experienced in my church as I grew up, and I’m grateful I had that model for finding balance within myself. It was invaluable to me on the rocky terrain ahead. It allowed me to feel safe exploring new ideas and venturing into new experiences because I trusted there was a gyroscope within me which would bring me back into balance if I went too far in one direction.

The dreams accurately described both my inner and outer experiences of growing up in the Hartville church. In the basement, the foundation of my being where I find my grounding, I cherish the values I was taught in that church. They were earthy people with practical feet and generous hearts. They didn’t proselytize much, in my experience. Rather they let their hands and feet speak their faith by rolling up their sleeves for disaster relief and quietly attending to the needs of others in the outer world. They were moved compassionately to support human rights for all people. They weren’t so concerned about leaving their mark on the world as they were about leaving the world a better place because they’d loved enough to make a difference.

The dream’s stairway to the mysterious upper level of the church where new rooms were discovered describes well how I was taught to explore new ideas and to develop a world view. There weren’t the xenophobic suspicions of other cultures and of other belief systems, fears that are so prevalent in America today. We were encouraged to look at our church doctrine from many vantage points. In my grade eight membership class (before baptism) our pastor taught what other denominations and religions outside of Christianity had to say about God. He took us to worship services of other faiths, so that we could get a glimpse of the bigger picture before we decided whether to be baptised into our church. How can anyone “discern” what is right for them if they’ve never known anything beyond one option?

It seems within the body of a church there is a philosophical continuum. At one end there is a more staid, even rigid, adherence to traditional doctrine, while at the other end a more progressive, explorative attitude prevails. Churches tend to swing back and forth on this continuum. Sometimes the church body cannot bear the tension, and they split apart. The Church of the Brethren had its ancestral roots in an anabaptist group called the Schwartzenau Brethren, which split off at least half a dozen times around the end of the 19th century, giving birth to new religious groups that are quite different from one another today. I feel lucky to have caught the philosophical pendulum in our church on one of its progressive swings. It was the same era when Vatican II brought sweeping reforms to Catholicism. It was a time of change when social justice and activism for civil rights came into my awareness. Round-table discussions were valued. Mediation was seen as a way through stuck-ness and polarized opposition.

Whether or not one is a fan of Coleman Barks’ translation of the poetry of the 13th century Sufi scholar, Rumi, his take on one of Rumi’s poems comes to mind:

Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. / I will meet you there.

I hope that others can find from their early upbringing a model of a place that was safe for exploring ideas and the world beyond their comfort zone. Perhaps it didn’t happen in their church. It may have been in a classroom or from the village that helped to raise them. It’s something that is important for children to experience. It is how we learn to trust that there is a common core of goodness in other humans the world over. It is how we find that field where we can meet outside of our differences.

~K L Kurtz

-Three Photos of the field are courtesy of Paul Benedetto.

-The Hartville Church of the Brethren photo was taken by Willis Kurtz.


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