This sermon was delivered to the UU Church of Silver Spring by the Rev. Lyn Cox on October 21, 2018
When we were planning ahead for this month, I suggested to the Worship Committee that it would be worthwhile to spend some time on heritage. It’s a good topic for a congregation going through a transition. So that’s what we chose for the worship theme for October. When I looked more closely at what I planned to say each time I am in the pulpit this month, I realized that I had actually planned a sermon series on grief. Heritage and grief are not unrelated, but I was surprised to find that this common thread was so prominent throughout the series.
Two weeks ago, we talked about ancestors from long ago and from living memory, and we had a chance to honor them with pictures and mementos on the altar. It was important and meaningful for our multigenerational community to have that time to mourn together. Last week our Green Sanctuary team transformed grief into hope and gave us concrete steps to be part of the repair of our interdependent web of life. Next week we’ll delve into Samhain, the Pagan festival of the new year, when we honor our beloved dead and find the courage to cross the threshold into the future. Today is about finding solace in science in nature.
I’m not sure why grief was the topic that took hold and made itself at home in the worship calendar. It could be a response to the needs in the congregation and the world we are facing. There are personal stories of loss among us. We’re missing some of our members in worship this morning who are comforting Joyce Chido at the memorial service for her son, Mark. There are recent deaths and anniversaries of deaths that some among us are remembering. We’re also grieving collectively: the opportunities we’ve lost to heal the planet; the death toll from hurricanes and earthquakes worldwide, the struggle to become the America we could be but have never really been; the political decisions that hurt people of color, assault survivors, Transgender friends, people with disabilities, and immigrants, among many others. This congregation is still grieving the departure of two beloved settled ministers. The pain of ministerial transition may or may not be less intense than it was a year or two ago, but it still comes up. This community is holding a lot.
When we are overwhelmed by the world and are not sure what to do, let us start where we are. Where we are is rooted in the here and now, in a network of living relationships with people and plants and beings all around us. When we are preoccupied with the forces of death and destruction, we can reframe by reconnecting with the forces that create and uphold life. The expression of those forces will be a little different for each of us. For some of us, the forces that create and uphold life are nothing less awe-inspiring than the scientific processes that govern plants, animals, and minerals. For some of us, the forces that create and uphold life are evidence of an eternal Source of Love. For some of us, the meaning of it doesn’t matter so much as the experience of being in the presence of diverse forms of non-human life. Whatever your framework, let us start where we are.
Environmental science and spirituality are disciplines that move with the times and the tides, even as we draw from ancient wisdom. Lately, when I stop to reflect on the natural world, I am inspired to be still, and to know that I am not alone.
Humans have been finding solace in the natural world for a long time. I remember a family funeral several years ago for the grandmother of one of my partners. She died at 96 years old and had seemed like a force of nature herself. The funeral began with readings from Psalms. The rabbi reminded us that we are “like grass which shoots up; though in the morning it flourishes and shoots up, by evening it droops and withers” (Psalm 90), point being to “know how few are our days, that our minds may learn wisdom.” Soon after that, we were invited to recite together the 23rd Psalm, the one where God “maketh me to lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside still waters.” Outside, the weather was anything but green and still. In my mind’s eye, I pictured peace. I imagined the gathered community resting as blades of grass in a meadow, bending gently, part of the family of things from season to season, from generation to generation.
Touching base with the natural world is an enduring form of comfort in spiritual traditions. Green plants and patient stones remind us that we are at once brief and persistent, precious as individuals and yet part of something larger than ourselves. These are things we need to know when we grieve, when we despair, when we fear the unknown. Those who came before us knew this, and adorned their poetry and songs of comfort with natural imagery. And so
did those who came before them, all the way back to the beginning of language.
When our search for truth and meaning passes through a difficult place, the world around us and under us and within us can provide touchstones of encouragement. With apologies for the gendered language of his time, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says,—he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.” Emerson was writing from his own time and worldview, a link in a long chain of seekers who take comfort in our earthly home. Let us forge new links as we deepen awareness of ourselves and our ecosystem.
The value of stillness is the ability to re-orient. Animals, vegetables, and minerals may capture our attention long enough that we can take note of where we are. Sometimes, putting ourselves in a position to be around diverse forms of life can boost the power of spiritual practice. When I am lost in a spiral of despairing thoughts, meditation techniques that bring my awareness to the here and now help to break the spell. What am I feeling right now? What’s right in front of me? Being present, even just for the space of a few breaths, helps us to know which way is up.
This is not to say that the present moment is necessarily the fulfillment of hope. Sometimes stillness means discovering that reality does not match expectations. Even so, I think there is wisdom in putting aside for a bit what “ought” to be, and to find companionship with what is.
Take a moment and quietly observe with the senses available to you. I see the faces of warm, loving people. Is see trees waving in the breeze outside. I hear the hum of this building, the spiritual home of this congregation. I see the sunlight streaming in from outside. I feel joy and hope. Breathing in, I give thanks for this moment. Breathing out, I am grateful for the ability to give back.
One of the things that modern science teaches us about the natural world is that there are processes in motion around us and within us that are beyond our immediate ability to perceive. The atoms in our bodies are busily bonding and releasing around the clock. The universe, from the molecules of air around us to the giants of the night sky, is part mystery and part invitation to discovery. Paying attention to the processes of life beyond or immediate perception may offer reasons to hope.
You Are Not Alone
We are not alone. We are part of nature’s chain, not something separate from it. In fact, we’re even more connected than we might have imagined. Scientist and educator Scott Sampson writes (http://scottsampson.blogspot.com/2011/01/interbeing.html):
We must learn to see ourselves not as isolated but as permeable and interwoven—selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life). The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life forms not as objects but subjects, fellow travelers in the current of this ancient river. On a still more profound level, it enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as static “things” at all, but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow.
We are not isolated beings. This is one place where the Transcendentalists got it wrong. They were spiritually moved by the natural world, yet they assumed themselves to be observers with dominion over the earth. Ralph Waldo Emerson defined nature as “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME.” He wrote, “Nature in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man (sic); space, the air, the river, the leaf.”
Of course we know those essences are changed. Humans have an impact on the ecosystem. In the nineteenth-century view, there was a clear and permanent barrier between the human and the non-human world. The legacy of the Transcendentalists in literature and love for planet is valuable, yet I worry that we have not fully examined what it means to believe in our separateness. I think that the responsible spiritual search asks us to re-examine our worldview every so often.
When we understand that our “selves” can mean our family selves and our communal selves and ourselves of this watershed, that implies a different response to challenge. Each one of us is a multitude, and each one of us is a part of something larger than the individual. That has implications for our ethic of care. Even in situations where there is nothing we can do to eliminate pain or grief, offering our companionship can make those times more bearable for each other.
Thinking of my place, our place, in the family of things helps me to feel less alone when I am in despair. Human beings share a significant percentage of our DNA with other mammals. If the tomato-eating squirrels can thrive, so can we.
Reflecting on the animals, vegetables, and minerals that I observe in my environment, I am thankful for the interdependent web of which we are a part. I am thankful for the people who show up here with open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands. I am thankful for those who protect and defend the natural resources of this watershed. I am thankful for every relationship that reminds me of the persistence of life.
The spirituality and science of our earthly home offer touchstones of comfort in times of challenge. Let water and stone invite us into stillness. May we know that we are not alone, but embraced in a web of relationship with the planet, including with each other.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.