CornucopiaCornucopia and Southwest Airlines
November 9, 2014

Not long ago I was at the San Diego airport, again, waiting for a flight. This is not a new experience for me, though this time was actually somewhat different. Normally, in order to accumulate miles and elite status, I fly United Airlines or one of its partners. But on this particular trip, flying to Reno, Nevada, United was much more expensive, with much less preferable flight schedules. So, I wound up, for the first time in a long time, on Southwest Airlines.

Just the thought of Southwest Airlines makes some people nervous – no seat assignment? Will I have to fight for my place? Somehow the opening of the Hunger Games comes to mind – with everyone fighting over his or her share of the cornucopia…

Being the somewhat privileged traveler that I am, I took advantage of paying an extra $12 to get bumped up closer to the front of the line – not the front, but at least not the back. Since I was only to be gone a few days, all I had was a carry on rolling suitcase – of the small, able to fit in the overhead style – and a purse. Actually, that’s what I fly with almost always. When I fly United I know that I will have room for my roller bag as my status gives me privilege in boarding the plane. But this time I was on Southwest and I could feel myself getting a bit nervous as the boarding time neared.

That was when I noticed it – or, rather them. A number of signs spaced evenly, with numbers on them. 1-40, 41-60, etc. I looked on my boarding card and saw the number A 39. Oh, I get it – that is how we line up. We don’t have seats, but we line up according to our numbers. Soon I saw people getting in line, so I did too, just ahead of the pole that marked ’40.’

That was when I began to notice something – in myself, but also in the other passengers. Or, rather, notice the lack of something. There was none of that sense of frenzy that accompanies boarding a United flight. None of that sense of heightened anxiety that I normally feel as the time to board approaches. Even though I know I have a spot toward the front of the line, somehow I feel the need to jockey for position. As do, it seems, the rest of the passengers, who often don’t let the families with children or those needing assistance to pass through, so closely are they guarding their spot.

Being me, I posted something about this to facebook, so fascinated was I with the vastly different vibe that was present as we began to board that Southwest flight.

Is it the fact that I have a number, a place in line, that makes it different? I wondered out loud. Is it that we all know our place and can’t really do anything to change it that makes this boarding process so much calmer than they normally are? It seemed counter-intuitive that boarding without a seat might be more peaceful than boarding with one. So, knowing you have a place in line is more important than knowing you have a place on the plane? That somehow didn’t seem to make sense.

And that was when it hit me – the difference. It wasn’t about having a place in line, or about having a place on the plane – those both are virtually guaranteed.

It was about stuff. Namely, luggage.

You see, the other difference with Southwest is that they do not charge for checking a suitcase. Most other airlines do. Not only do they not charge for bringing a suitcase, but you can check two bags on Southwest, completely free. What was different about that Southwest flight was that those who were waiting to board were not, in their positioning, trying to get on board before everyone else so as to have a spot in the limited overhead space.

It felt like a sort of epiphany to me. There was no fear. No sense of scarcity. What there was, instead, was a sense of ‘enough’ – a sense that I did not have to jockey for position to ensure my space, but that there was abundant room for all.

It made me wonder how much of our lives we spend like those United passengers, struggling to get our place to ensure that we have space for our stuff, that our stuff is secure, taken care of, vs. Those Southwest passengers who seemed content, trusting that there would be room for all.

Our theme this month is ‘cornucopia’ – I have to admit, I did not pick it. When I first heard it I thought, huh? So I asked for some more clarification from the person who suggested it.

You know, abundance, plenty, enough – as opposed to greed or hoarding or scarcity.

Wow, I thought. Now there’s a theme.

Of course we are near Thanksgiving and cornucopia’s are a well known symbol of that holiday – as is the feeling of needing to loosen ones trousers and lay down on the couch after eating too much turkey.

It got me wondering – do we live our lives out of abundance? Or do we live our lives out of a scarcity mentality? Do we trust the ‘enoughness of life? Or do we let fear lead us to hoard, to control, to worry that I won’t get my fair share? If you get more, does that mean I get less? If you win, does that mean I lose? And, is it easy to trust abundance when life is good? What about when life is challenging? What about when we are brought to the very edge? What then? Is abundance possible?

I’m an only child – let’s just say, sharing can be challenging for me. I actually act more like a child in a family of ten, worried when food to be shared is placed on the table that I won’t get my fair share. I’ve never gone hungry – this is not a fear based on any actual reality.

And, moreover, is it easy to talk of things such as abundance when we feel that all is going in our favor? Can we find abundance, a mentality of enough, of trust, even in the midst of the challenging times in life?

September 14, 2014

Strawberries Ripening © Erin Dunigan

Strawberries Ripening © Erin Dunigan

For most of human history, it’s as if we have had long spring-times and only the briefest of summers, a lot of time to put down roots and sprout but almost none to mature. But now, around the world and especially in the developed countries, more people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Our normal life span, which stayed at an almost steady twenty years for most of human history , has leapt in an evolutionary eyeblink to seventy-eightyears in the West. Why is this so important? Think about how helpless we are as infants and children compared to other species. It takes us so long to be able to live without our parents’ support, so very long to develop our intelligence and adaptability and skills, to grow in our capacity for compassion and wisdom, good judgment, and discernment. To put it bluntly, it takes all of us a frightfully long time to grow up and many of us never do.

The sudden spurt in longevity over the last fifty years has changed the landscape for growing old. Doesn’t that make you wonder what these years are for? That’s precisely what I’ve been wondering for the past twenty years: How do I make the time ahead count? How can my generation and the ones coming after us not just fritter our later years away, not doze through our aging?  – Sherry Ruth Anderson, “Ripening Time.”

The question I bring before us this morning is a simple one – as we journey through the chronology of our lives, are we ripening, or are we merely rotting? The rotting, of course, is inevitable – the ripening is not.

The next question is, what will we do about it?

What does ripening look like? How does it happen?

BananasMost of us are familiar with the situation of fruit in our grocery stores – bananas that come from Ecuador, picked green – I’ve seen them there at the port in Guayaquil – and shipped around the world. This is done since a green banana travels much better than a ripe one. So, they are kept intentionally immature so that they travel better. Once they reach their destination, the ripening process can be induced – artificially. The primary chemical that is at play in ripening is ethylene – it is that which is fostered when you put your fruit in a brown paper bag to help it ripen. It’s enhanced if you put an apple core or a banana peel in the bag – increasing the ethylene and thus the ripening.

What’s the big deal? It seems to work, doesn’t it? The fruit can travel better, then it ripens on demand – sounds ideal.


tree-ripened-peachWhen fruit is allowed to ripen on the tree, or the vine, or the plant, it’s ripening happens from the inside. When fruit is picked too early – for commercial and cosmetic reasons – that process ceases, and the ripening that happens is from the outside in. This second process resembles the first, more or less. But if you’ve ever tasted a peach, picked right from the tree and bit into on a summer day you will know that though the process might seem similar, there is something categorically different.

It is sweeter. Juicier. Tastier.

So, you may be asking yourselves about now – have I come to a horticultural presentation, or to Not Church? What does this have to do with anything?

I’m glad you asked…

We are, of course, all aging. We are all getting older. Our culture is full of ways to convince us that that doesn’t have to be the case. That aging doesn’t have to be inevitable, that getting old is just another problem to be fixed with the right cream, the right powder, the right pills. You can stay young forever! That is the claim. That is the promise.

But is it the truth? Is it reality?

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for being young at heart, for enjoying life to its fullest – and I am the first one to hope that people, when they guess my age, get it about ten years wrong in the direction of 29.

unripened peachesBut do we really want a bunch of perfectly hard peaches lining the shelves of our world? Durable, sure. Not showing any age spots or blemishes. Not showing any of the inevitable bruises of life. But tasteless. Bland. Lacking sweetness. Lacking depth of flavor, of color.

kenny-rogersI can’t help but think of Kenny Rogers – whose music I love, but whose face has lost all expression, to quote a line from the Gambler – his eyes forced in a perpetual perkiness.

Is this what aging is all about? Or is there something more?

Many of you know Glenn, who can’t be here today as he begins teaching for the new school year tomorrow up in Palm Desert. Those of you who know Glenn know that he is quite the horticulturalist.

In my conversation with Glenn he told me this: “The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation. Plants, in that way, are always sort of forward thinking.”

I began to wonder – is it the same for us? Sure, of course, technically on a biologically level it is true – if someone is not reproducing we are not going to continue. But on a more mystical level, or a spiritual level, or a metaphorical level – is this true?

The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation.

Many years ago I was working with a youth group – I was just out of college, the students were young teenagers. We were on a work project in a poor rural area in the east. On our day off we headed to a local river to go white water canoeing. I’ve got to admit – I’m something of a chicken. I know I might not present as that, but it’s the truth. So, as I sat there looking at the canoes, and at the rushing river, I began to consider who I wanted in my canoe. The youth group leader, of course. He was more than a decade my senior, big, strong. But as the assignments were made I was shocked to realize – the younger students wanted to go with me for just the same reasons I wanted to go with the leader. Wait a second, I remember thinking, how did I turn into an adult?? It was a rather shocking realization, this sense that instead of the one receiving it was time for me to be the one giving, to step into that role.

Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Why would any of us ripen until it is demanded of us?”

Bernie Zimney (June 2014)Sherry Ruth Anderson in her book, Ripening Time: Inside stories of aging with grace suggests that we are at a time in our collective lives in which we are hungry for ‘elders’ – and into which we are being called to become those elders for others who will follow.

If it is true, what does it mean? What does it ask of us or invite us into?

How do we let ourselves be shaped and transformed – how do we let life ripen us if it will?


In my pondering and research on ripening I came upon a rather geeky chemistry related conversation. Is ripening a physical or a chemical change? I thought, “Who cares?” But being the inquiring mind that I am, I figured I’d read a bit further and see what it was all about.

The consensus is that ripening is a chemical, not a physical change. Again, you might ask, as I did, why do I care? A chemical change involves the alteration of the physical and chemical properties of the substance. You can’t get the original back through physical means. Once you ripen, you can’t go back.

Last month I shared with you a quote from an author named Shane Claiborne “Most good things have been said far too often and just need to be lived.”

It is not merely by listening, reading, or discussing ripening that we get there – if we stay at that level we are in danger of being like parrots repeating what we hear from gurus or teachings, without converting the intellectual knowledge into our own experience. The way for us to ripen is to convert these teachings, like the starches converting to sugar. Instead of being something we say, they become who we are. But this ‘becoming’ is not an end in and of itself – no, the ripening of the fruit is for the dispersal of the seed. This becoming is meant to be shared.

Two points I’d like to leave with you – the first is that often ripening is enhanced through wounding. A fruit that is gashed or otherwise ‘damaged’ in some ways is actually able to ripen better than one left untouched. Lest we think that ‘ripening’ is all butterflies, rainbows and puppies – hardly. It is a transformation of our very being. It is not without a cost.

The second is this – you know the phrase, one bad apple spoils the bunch? Well, it is actually true. But true in a positive way as well. Once one fruit begins to ripen, others in its vicinity also increase their capacity for ripening. Exponentially. It is, in a sense, contagious.

The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation.

As we journey through the chronology of our lives, are we ripening, or are we merely rotting? The rotting, of course, is inevitable – the ripening is not.

The next question is, what will we do about it?