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When we tug at a single thing in Nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world. – John Muir
I had the opportunity to spend some time in the woods that bear John Muir’s name north of San Francisco. I wondered what would happen if we tugged so hard on growing our nearby cities if this beautiful wood so close to the metro Bay area. Would those giant trees, those towering redwoods fall to climate change? If you travel to CA you can see the remnants of the giants fallen. How many years had those trees been standing there, what had they seen, what could they tell us? Muir Woods was dedicated by Teddy Roosevelt almost a century ago, more as a preserve for game than beauty. Those same trees stand there today. What would they tell us if they could speak their being? “Memory doesn’t come of the blue” writes Thomas Moore (in Enchantment of the Soul) “it requires a temple carefully built and maintained.”
Our temple is falling down.
If trees could speak from memory they would tell us they are broken, in fact, we are broken. We have lost the interconnection with all life as we are called to affirm in our last and seventh principle, ‘respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are apart’. The trees would re-mind remember for us, that we are not so different than them.
All life springs from the same stuff, mother earth, human, humus, humility. All the same. Trees are often sacred simply because they can remember for us… not directly but as the symbols of it. If trees could talk they would tell us to take this much more seriously than we do. If trees could talk they would remember that we are extensions of them, walking, talking, acting, trees. Where we, like all life are sacred. Whales and men. Elephants and children. Women and power. All of us are part of the stuff of stars. And that is what connects us to this day of memory. In the midst of all that has happened to us as a congregation, as a nation, as a people, life goes on. Despite it all, life goes on. Until it doesn’t. Somehow I always think of death in the spring. It’s not as morbid as it sounds. I realize that life comes from death. Even for those who have left us for another dimension. Regardless of whether you believe in an afterlife at all, our memories endure; our lives endure in how they have affected the world in which we have spent our time. You see, even though trees fall, their energy endures, in the humus that they become in the new trees that are gone.
Perhaps God, if such there be, hoped we would see the sacred in every living creature. The Garden of Eden not so much a place but a memory of how it was supposed to be. But at least once before we failed. And the Hebrews teach us that God forsook our world and built another kind of ark, an ark of survival, to float above the world washed clean. No ark can be built for us now. We are not going to float above our errors, this blue boat home is our only craft to sail the wide ocean universe, upon its infinite fathoms. The trees remind us that we too are rooted, even as we move, on this same fragile planet, sharing life as one.
The trees remember for us, but we must remember for them. What if we could actually live like we are all interconnected? What if this time of anxiety was an opportunity to enliven a great expansion of concern? Avoiding box stores, shopping locally, buying as much of your food from home vendors. What if we started our own produce table right here? What if we gleaned our gardens and brought the food – whatever was in season – and put it up for the taking, a small monetary contribution to the church? What if we didn’t have a lawn? The trees survive, they always do. What if we lived in the earth as much as upon it?
We live on the earth and we are also so much a part of the earth, that is what endures. It’s not so much that we lived but rather what we did with the life that we had. It doesn’t have anything to do with God or heaven or hell. It has to do with life, the spirit of life, that makes us the same as the trees and this entire planet.
Aaron Freeman, a writer and contributor to NPR, said that when he dies he doesn’t want a mortician; he wants a physicist. I sometimes use this in Memorial Services, “I want someone to tell my grieving family that energy is neither created nor destroyed. “Not a bit of me has died, not a bit of you is gone it’s all just a little less orderly….tell my mother” he said “that all my energy, every BTU, all that was her beloved child is still here in this world….tell my father that amid the energies of the cosmos, I gave as good as I got…tell my wife that all the photons that bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by my smile and the touch of my hair, have raced off to touch others, children yet to be born who will forever be changed by my simply have lived….tell my children that other photons gathered as the collection that were my eyes, constellations of electrons go on from me bringing a warmth to others in life that once flowed through me. Far from dead, I am only scattered, waiting for you to join me. (Aaron Freeman All Things Considered, NPR broadcast 6/1/05)\
It was the French philosopher and mystic Teillhard de Chardin who said “we are not physical beings having spiritual experiences we are spiritual beings having physical experiences” Why are we so rooted to where we are and what we feel? Are there not forces so beyond what we know as to make the possibility of something beyond what we know understandable enough? Isn’t it possible to just believe that there might be something more to life than the death of our body? And doesn’t that change how we grieve? It did for me….my God it has for so many. The real power of grieving is not that we get through it but in understanding something more for having survived. This is what Kubler Ross understood as she was dying. To the criticism of the medical and therapeutic community, she reformed her earlier statements to say that there actually may be a spiritual purpose to grief, not just a psychological one. She concluded that there is a powerful transformation that happens to all of us in death, that makes living all the more powerful. I commend this thought to ponder: Here on the edge of our planets future, at the very door to our greening temple, what are we called to do before we die? March for Climate Justice, plant a garden, nurse those we love, find peace, letting the memory of Trees speak to who we are. In the last days of her life Kubler Ross brought up the possibility that loss is really only a door to understand that our souls live on in ways we do not fully understand. Grief she wrote might be the door to God.
Patricia Monagen in her work The Fourth Genre told of losing her husband. She was never much of a church person, preferring the Sunday paper every time. But when her husband died she was lost, not enough to go to church, yet, but still lost. And then came the incident of the keys. There were five keys bound together on big brass ring. They were the keys to what remained of her life: one to the front door, one to the garage, two to her office and one to which she had forgotten its reason. Anyway, she lost the keys, No big deal people lose their keys all the time. Methodically she searched the house, twice. No keys. Nowhere. She started to cry, again, what she would do without the keys. She cried as she had been but stronger than before, crying from exhaustion of having taken care of her husband until died, crying from loneliness, crying from anger. She stopped crying and started to look again. Still no keys. And then she started yelling, at Bob for having died, at life, at God, at the trees in her front yard. She was not a believer in the afterlife. But her husband had been. She loved that about him, his faith and his integrity, until the end of his life, while in pain and scared, he was brave and certain. But until that day of the keys she had admittedly refused to settle for what religion had to offer, some harpy afterlife to fill the cosmic void. But these keys made her wonder again for the very first time. What if? What then? Did you hide my keys Bob? She yelled despite herself, is this some kind of a joke?
And that is when it all changed. She accepted she had no keys. She went and called a locksmith. She got on. But she wondered about the keys almost every day. Can the world beyond what I see manifest itself? Can there be something beyond what I am so certain is here. She reflected on some of her husband’s last words, “our universe is full of facts and opposites; everything happens for a reason and yet as if nothing exists as all.” Damn you Bob, she thought, you and your Zen koans. But she couldn’t let go of the keys disappearing. The lost keys were becoming keys to accepting the possible as greater than the knowable. Yes, she thought, what could be is as plausible as what we do know. Why not? Someday it might just be different. What Heisenberg called the Uncertainty Principle actually applied to the afterlife. A lack of evidence in one realm does not mean evidence is lacking in another. Matter doesn’t disappear, it is transformed and not always as we assume it will be.
A year later almost to the day of this emerging revelation, Patricia was staring at the door to her study. Nothing special. There was poster tacked to the back of it. She stared and noticed it look odd. She stood up and felt the bottom of it. There was a bulge. She pulled the poster up and there were her keys, behind the poster on the back of a door. She tried throwing them at the door to see if they would hit the door and slide behind the poster. She tried tossing them in the air. No. Those keys were not put there, or even thrown there. It was not possible. And there they were.
She recalled yelling at Bob in her grief, telling him to give back the keys. Was this an answer? Still she resisted. And then she yielded that physics moved in a new way. She yielded and felt a new understanding emerge. Bob was not gone. And neither were her keys. “Death” Einstein once said “means nothing; people like me who believe in physics know that the difference between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
When I sat with a young mother whose husband had just died from a drunk driver, leaving two little kids behind and she demanded to know where God was in all of this and I said “I don’t know – all I know is that we have each other.” She grew angry and stormed off. Two days later she called me to tell me that was the most comforting answer she had heard. Because “God needed another angel” just doesn’t cut it. We like the trees are a living part of this earth and we may remember but we can’t see the future. Our memories and our love is what binds us.
As a boy growing up summers in the Maine woods my father and I would go culling. Culling is a forestry practice by which a woodsman takes down the dead standing trees and those who are crowding out the new growth. The object is not to clean the forest floor – indeed rotting trees are part of the cycle of a forest’s life – but to keep new growth possible. It is so easy to say my small action can’t matter but it can. And it does. When you fly across the great expanse of the forest, you can see by the color of the trees what has been culled. A pebble cast into the pond. Our actions make the difference. From our work here in the land conservancy to our individual efforts to reclaim urban plots for gardens to advocating for political change, we act as if we were connected. Trees, like people, grow best when cared for… their memory is expansive. As we remember those gone, let our love for them live on in our hearts and the very trees that bears our planet.
Glad for life, living, and growing and knowing some things but not all, let us move forward thankful for what we do, hopeful for what we might know, and open to the rest. Amen.