March 21, 2019

Beating the Bounds

After ten years of being a nomadic church, renting space from Sunday by Sunday, we finally had land. It took us three years to raise the money to buy it, three years of anticipation and longing. Then, it was finally ours. Fifteen acres of old farm land on the north end of town, with a pond and a 1960s ranch style house. We were like kids on a playground, discovering the trees, guessing what kind of flowers would bloom from bulbs planted decades before, watching the turtles race. We knew that soon we would also host a chapel. But that was still a ways off. We wanted to do something to celebrate, to claim the land, to ask God’s blessing on it, on us.

So we “beat the bounds.”

It’s an old custom from England. Youtube videos from the 1930s show clerics and kids walking around their church properties waving sticks, whacking them against buildings and trees. The idea is to remind everyone of the boundaries of the parish, and also to make sure those boundaries are in order. There’s a strange bit in which the children are “playfully” and gently hit on the backside with a stick at each corner. We changed that part of the custom to building a small cairn of rocks at each corner instead.

We gathered by the pond, stoked the thurible and pulled a bucket of water from the pond for asperges, and prayed:

O God, as our prayers go up with the incense, we pray your blessings on this water, that as it flows from pond to pitcher, and flies from holly branch to leaves and grass and pine needles, it would be a sign for us of your abundant blessing. Amen.

From there we walked to the mail box by the road, where we stopped and prayed:

O God, You know we need boundaries, definite times and places in which to seek You and be found by You, to get better acquainted, to dream dreams, and to make future plans. O God, thank you for the gift of this land. Today we beat its bounds to banish fear and hatred, cowardice and complacency. Today we sow seeds of passion for justice, solidarity with the displaced, and love for the earth. Make us forceful and fruitful. Give us a good harvest. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

And we began our circumnavigation.

It wasn’t so much to claim the land as “ours” after all. It was more to bless the land and set it apart for God’s purposes and God’s delight. The land had been there way longer than we had, the pond had been fished by locals for generations. We were simply the next stewards. It was now our calling to tend to it, to share it with others, to be strengthened and inspired by it. Like so much else that is “church”, the land was given to us to help us be more faithful.

Five years later, it’s time for the beating of the bounds again. We can always use an outward and visible reminder of the spiritual grace that this land is God’s land, to be used for God’s purposes,
and we are blessed indeed.