Get ‘Grounded,’ part 4: Can we see the forest for our trees?


This summer, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Christian educator Debbie Houghton invite readers to get a copy of Diana Butler Bass’s new “Grounded: Finding God in the World” and read along with us. For five weeks, David and Debbie will offer five reflections on Bass’s book with questions to consider. Here’s a link back to Part 1, also to Part 2—and Part 3. This week, David offers Part 4, looking at the sections of Diana’s book on Neighbors and Commons …

Here are links to Part 1, also to Part 2, and Part 3Part 4 and finally Part 5, our concluding reflection.


And now, we come together.

In our overview of Diana Butler Bass’s Grounded, Debbie and I have divided the book roughly into five sections. In what we have defined as the first three sections, Bass’s stories and spiritual reflections have led us out into the real world of dirt, water and sky. She also has led us to reflect more deeply on our families and our sense of home. These stops along our pilgrimage with Bass bring us spiritual solace from fresh insights into our connections with the earth and the family taproots we have sunk into our planet’s soil.

An appropriate metaphor—used on the book’s front cover and through these first major sections of the book—is a tree.

Now, in chapters called “Neighbors” and “Commons,” Bass is saying: Perhaps we cannot see our forest for the trees.

If your commitment to reading is waning, here are a few previews of coming attractions in these 74 pages of the 335-page book. This section opens with the beloved Fred Rogers and shares a bit of poetry from Robert Frost. Bass includes one of Hillary Clinton’s lessons from her Methodist family heritage, very timely now that Clinton has publicly identified her own value of public service as having Wesleyan roots. In these chapters of Bass’s book, there’s even a retelling of the moving story of the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce.

For pilgrims who have visited the “thin space” of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, Bass’s section on “commons” will spark deep memories of that spiritually potent little island. No, Bass doesn’t specifically mention Iona in that section, but Iona pilgrims will share a special thematic connection because the Machair, the Iona “commons,” is a centuries-old symbol of the island’s cohesive community.

Those are just a few of the gems awaiting you in this part of the book!

As you read this portion of the book, remember that Bass is highly respected as a historian of religion in America. She also understands all of the latest research into religious trends—especially the dramatic growth in the number of Americans who say they don’t have a religious affiliation. Once, that percentage of the population was in single digits. Now, 23 percent of our adult population—nearly 1 in 4 Americans—tell pollsters they don’t have any particular religious affiliation.

Here is a link to a Pew magazine cover story on that trend, which I researched and wrote for Pew earlier this year. One way to greet this news is with fear about the future of our congregations. But Bass is urging us to appreciate the abundant possibilities in this situation. People are open to new definitions of what it means to gather together in communities of faith. The old definitions and labels don’t interest more than 50 million Americans anymore. This is a historic opportunity for creative freedom!

My wife and I have been a part of the Ann Arbor First United Methodist Church for more than 40 years, dating to my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan and her years at Eastern Michigan University in the mid 1970s.

We’ve seen thousands of “neighbors” of our church come and go. Remember when the Borders mother store was a neighbor? Or, the more exotic Shaman Drum bookstore? An Olga’s? Various other shops, restaurants and second-floor apartments that now are history? How about the UofM Frieze Building, home to students and faculty in a wide range of academic disciplines? All gone.

Now, the church is surrounded by enormous high-rise living facilities, plus an ever-changing array of retailers. These are our neighbors.

Through all of this history, however, the people who meet in our building have gathered for worship, Christian education and social service from all over Washtenaw County—and beyond. Inside our church building, we are an intentional community comprised of people who—with few exceptions—don’t physically live as neighbors.

Imagine for a moment what our church building would feel like if we convened a truly neighborhood service of some kind? What if we could convince a lot of the people living in the new high-rises, the dormitory as well as staff and regular patrons of local businesses, to gather for a time of collective prayer and spiritual renewal? Can you even imagine such a gathering?

“Nice idea, but obviously it would never work!”

If you’re saying that right now, then I probably would agree with you as a pragmatic journalist who has covered religion in America for many decades. People just don’t think like that! Imagine the spiritual diversity of all the people who live around our congregation! The range runs from atheists, agnostics and neo-pagans to religions with Asian roots—to all of the Abrahamic faiths, including Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.

Here’s another way to ponder this section of Bass’s book: Did you know that public health research around the world confirms that intentional, locally based friendship circles are closely related to well-being, lower levels of chronic health problems and, overall, a longer lifespan? Scientists right now are studying these small, intentional friendship circles all around the world from Japan to southern California.

Today, it’s commonplace to talk about our “friends,” because the smartphones in our pockets provide a long list of so-called friends on Facebook, our email Contact list and other forms of social media we enjoy. However, those lists of “friends” aren’t the healthy circles researchers are finding will predict greater wellbeing and longevity. A true friend is more than a Facebook link. And, that’s not to disparage Facebook as a tool to keep in touch! It’s a call to look for something deeper in friendship using whatever tools and whatever time and talents are available to us.

What Bass is prompting us to think about in these two chapters is a question that was central to Jesus’s teaching: Who is my neighbor? Do you remember those passages from the Gospels?

Think about all of the ways this idea is explored throughout scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, this question resonates: Who is my neighbor? It’s a cornerstone of ancient Jewish law. It’s foundational to Jesus’s teaching. And, as Bass points out, it’s the core of the Christian sacrament of communion.

In this era when millions of us are quite comfortable shedding centuries-old religious identifications—and perhaps shedding traditional spiritual teachings along with those labels, we have to ask: So, what are the responsibilities we have as neighbors? Or as friends?

This week ask yourself: What is my relationship to the people living around me? What should our relationship be as neighbors? How does our faith call us to interact with the people we should value as friends?

Our series will conclude next week with Part 5, written by David and Debbie.




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  1. Bob Bruttell says

    This is another transitional moment in American religious history. In some ways all of American history is a constant transitional moment. Among other things the Trump campaign is putting the nail into the Evangelical Movement know as the Moral Majority. Ten years from now there will be no one who will admit to having supported him. Along the way, the religious groups – just like all those that supported slavery for so long – will have to appologize and point out how they have changed root and branch. This will contribute to a shrinking of the independent Christian movement that has built so many mega-churches. At the same time as the immigrant movement from eastern religions is and has been disruptive since 1965, it will also infuse new religious fervor. Immigrants need religious identity for at least two generations. It will also affect others. For instance, I have suggested that to be spritual-but-not-religious is a lot like being a Hindu. There are an almost infinite number of dharmic paths. Some of these spiritual-but-not-religious may coalesce into a path that is given a name. It will be interesting to see what comes of this transition. Who knows, this transition may come to be known as the Great Eastern Awakening.