Register | Forums | Log in

Messages of spring

Clockwise from top left, the Very Rev. Matthew Lawrence of the Church of the Incarnation; the Rev. Edward Viljoen of The Center for Spiritual Living; the Rev. Christopher Bell of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation; and George Gittleman, senior rabbi at Shromrei Torah, all of Santa Rosa.

ALVIN JORNADA/PD
Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 1:36 p.m.

All over the world and for millennia, there have been celebrations that either mark or coincide with the arrival of spring.

They range from the ancient pagan rites of spring to the Persian Nowruz, an ancestral festivity marking the first day of spring and the renewal and rebirth of nature.

In Pakistan, boys celebrate Basanth, the first day of spring in the Muslim calendar, with kite-flying contests, and Hindus have the spring festival of Holi. The Effutu community in Ghana each spring hunts deer and makes an offer to the god Panche.

Spring brings Passover for Jews, an eight-day commemoration of the Israelites' emancipation from slavery in Egypt, as well as the Christian Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his persecution and crucifixion.

We asked four spiritual leaders in Sonoma County to share their thoughts and messages during this time of reflection, celebration and renewal.

There is something about the message of Easter that seems to resonate across all denominations, says the Rev. Edward Viljoen of The Center for Spiritual Living. The inter-faith Santa Rosa congregation has roots in the “New Thought” movement of the 19th century and the ideas of Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

“I think it has something to do with this being a time of renewal and the hope of things to come. And it all comes after a long period of introspection,” said Viljoen, “which was so beautifully characterized in the story of Jesus of Nazareth.”

For Christians, Easter is the most holy of days. But the story of death, entombment and resurrection can be embraced for its powerful metaphors, he said, whatever one's faith.

One is the idea of conquering death. Depending on the individual, he said, it could represent the hope of conquering “smaller deaths” like the loss of a relationship, vision or hope.

For 19 years the South African-born Viljoen, a naturalized citizen who first trained as a classical musician, has headed the Center for Spiritual Living, which has its home in a remodeled skating rink on Occidental Road.

This year, he said, his Easter message will be one of hope and renewal.

“It seems our country is ready for that,” Viljoen reflected. “There is a sense people are yearning for something to believe in, something to hope for. They have experienced a loss of faith.”

He will call on people to reconnect by making spiritual practice as much a part of their daily life as brushing their teeth. It can be whatever speaks to them, whether it's prayer, meditation or just setting aside time in the day for quiet reflection.

“I'm asking people to recommit to their spiritual practice not in a random way and not to just turn to it in times of need,” he said, “but to practice it on a regular basis, to build their faith muscles so that when difficulties emerge, they don't get blind-sided. We already know where to turn for strength.”

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in downtown Santa Rosa has its roots in the Christian tradition, but also takes inspiration from all of the world's religions, as well as science and philosophy.

“We're more interested in everyone living together in a generous and compassionate way than worrying too much about the differences in our theologies,” said the Rev. Christopher Bell, head of the congregation since 2006.

“Our basic assertion is that everyone is on their own spiritual journey. We strive to make a lot of room for each person's search for truth and meaning,” he explained.

The congregation's Easter tradition reflects its all-inclusive approach to spirituality.

“We do celebrate Christian holidays,” he said. “Those holidays are familiar to us, and they're part of our heritage, but we have a different take on it, because of the way we see Jesus differently, as teacher, exemplar, prophet and one of a number of enlightened beings who come to us through the centuries.

“We lean a little more on the rites-of-spring side, than the resurrection-of-Jesus side, but with the same spirit of eternal possibility and rebirth.”

Today, the Unitarian Universalists will celebrate their annual Communion of Flowers, a tradition dating back to the 1920s.

“Everybody brings a flower, representing the uniqueness of each individual, and everyone's own way of expressing God's light from within. We create a huge bouquet in the center that celebrates the power and beauty of togetherness,” he said.

“I do preach an Easter homily, which is usually on the theme of rebirth and hope,” Bell added. “At the end of the service people take a flower — 'without choosing,' is the instruction — to show that they're willing to be brother or sister with anybody.”

There is a Jewish prayer to say when you see a tree in bloom, and George Gittleman, senior rabbi at Santa Rosa's Shromrei Torah, had it in mind when he prepared his spring message.

“How wondrous it is that, almost overnight, the leafless trees in my yard turn into a world of white, fragrant blossoms,” he said. “Spring is traditionally seen as a time of renewal and re-birth. It's also a time to witness the wondrous nature of creation.”

Gittleman's message will focus on the celebration of Passover, the holiday that commemorates the ancient Israelite Exodus from Egypt. The Jewish people retell the story at Passover seders, meals where symbolic foods are eaten to recall the past.

“We are told to take in the story as if we're slaves in Egypt, to always remember what it was like to be a slave and to therefore always show concern for the oppressed, the vulnerable, the stranger in our society today,” he said.

Passover began on Tuesday, and continues for seven days until Monday.

When the rabbi speaks “minimally, I work towards not putting people to sleep,” he joked. “Ideally, I want to inspire people to act in some way, for themselves, their community or the world. 'Tikkun Olam,' repair of the world, is the ultimate goal.”

While some may search for God alone, through meditation, others prefer to connect with Him through their relationships with other people.

The Very Rev. Matthew Lawrence of the Church of the Incarnation falls into the latter category. And community is very much on his mind during this season of contemplation and reflection.

“I have a very practical orientation,” he said. “I feel that it starts with things like living a healthy life, and surrounding yourself with healthy people.”

Lawrence has served as Rector of the Santa Rosa church since 2003 and as Dean of the Russian River Deanery (one of seven in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California) since 2011. Hence, the “Very” in his title.

In the past 10 years, the pastor has broadened the church's already rich musical offerings, adding jazz and gospel, rhythm and blues. At last night's Easter Vigil Jazz Mass, for example, his thoughtful meditations were punctuated by a smokin' line-up of jazz tunes, from John Coltrane's “A Love Supreme” to Stevie Wonder's “Higher Ground.”

This morning. Lawrence plans to address the season's transition from darkness to light with a simple question: “Where do I find this new life, and this resurrected Jesus?”

Once someone seeks out a supportive community, where they are surrounded by meaning and love, he said, a renewal of life and hope will naturally follow.

“God will take that and use it to heal broken hearts,” he said. “There's something really powerful about being in the midst of a community that is healthy and supportive and really engaged in one another's welfare.”

Community is very much at the heart of the historic church, which provides a hot breakfast for the homeless every Sunday morning and lends support to homeless women and children through The Living Room, which it founded in 1993 and now supports as a separate, non-profit organization.

Since taking over the pulpit, Lawrence also has empowered lay people to take on more of a leadership role and has created small groups, so that the congregation can learn from one another.

“We do it together as a community,” he said. “This is a team sport.”

Staff Writers Meg McConahey, Peg Melnik, Diane Peterson and Dan Taylor contributed to the this story.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top