Monday, April 18, 2011
The Home That Gives
Ten years ago, I served as an Associate Minister for the UU congregation in Jacksonville, Florida. The buildings that house that congregation were designed by a student of the great architect and Unitarian Frank Lloyd Wright. There are walls of glass, unpainted concrete block and ceilings of stained wood. Covered decks and outdoor walkways are everywhere. Like many Florida campuses, one has to go outside to move from one room to another. Inside or out, nature is always was present…
Even though this congregation’s buildings are very close to a busy main thoroughfare, they are on a little oasis of North Florida wilderness. There is a small pond, a larger wetland area, and a wooden path through the wetlands. The large windows behind the pulpit look out over the water and trees, out over the western sky where one often may see a large bird or two wading in the water or floating through the sky. If the sermon gets boring there is always a wonderful view of nature to look at.
One wall of the office I used while I was there was very large sliding glass door. I positioned my desk to face that glass so that I looked out over one of the wooden decks and the pond below. That deck outside my glass wall was also the main walkway between the sanctuary doors, the bathrooms and the parking lot. That deck and several others had been built around the old, huge moss-covered live oak trees that filled the property with shade.
One afternoon I was sitting at my computer trying to get my thoughts together while writing a sermon. It was a Tuesday or Thursday. It had to be one of those days, because it was on those days when the local Tai Chi Society rented the sanctuary and moved the chairs aside to do their meditative body movement. On those afternoons people I didn’t know would pass by the glass wall of my office.
So, I am sitting there looking out, working on what I was going to say on Sunday. I am watching as a woman I don’t know walks up to the oak tree just outside my window. She stretches her arms as far as they will go around the tree and embraces it like you might embrace a family member or a close friend.
I am watching. I’m thinking…I have heard of people doing that.
I like trees. I have even occasionally admired activists who have planted themselves in trees for weeks trying to keep old growth forests from being cut down.
But, I felt a little voyeuristic just sitting there watching her hug Mr. Live Oak…
Her embrace seemed so… romantic.
As much as I love nature, and as obvious as it is that that UU “campus” was designed to intentionally include the natural world in its sacred space, I had never thought to hug a tree and I had never seen any of the members there hug a tree!
As I watched her, I realized I was watching exactly what ought to happen in sacred space…”an embrace”…
Or, to say it another way, when we find we are embracing whatever it is we are connected with we are in sacred space…
As Earth Day comes round again, I want to encourage all of us to find our own ways to connect with nature, to embrace the “sacred space” that we are in….our home/the earth that gives us life….
And, as we are made aware, again, after last night’s wild weather, the home we live in can also take our life…
I was going to invite you to hug a tree, at least metaphorically, this morning….
I was going to talk with you about how as a culture we are making our relationship with nature too hard, too much work…I was going to mention how we use Earth Day as just another opportunity to beat ourselves up about all that we aren’t doing, or have yet to do enough of, or fast enough to “save the planet” from destruction. ….about how we have let Earth Day become a shopping frenzy for every product that claims to be “green”. Or as a way to count ourselves as more enlightened than everyone else who we need to get on the ecological bandwagon…
I was going to remind you to just relax and give Mother Earth a big kiss and a hug!
But, I don’t know ….after last night, she seems a little scary!
I know there is a lot wrong in our relationship with nature, and there is plenty that needs fixing.
But, I was going to remind you of all that is so right about nature.
I was going to say there is so much beauty and so much “healing” power for what ails the human spirit, so much joy that comes from all that is the non-human world…I was going to ask… can’t we just enjoy it and celebrate it?
…without thinking of a million more things we have to do or all the ways we must persuade others to do a million things to save us all from destruction.
I was going to say; let’s just embrace what’s so easy about the “wonderful web of creation.”
And then look what happens. She had a fit! And, we have to clean up!
Is she mad at us? Does Mother Nature target some of us for elimination, for destruction? Or do we just happen to be in the way…when she slams a tree down?
I am not sure this is the time for a hug…
We have been reminded once again, that we humans are in an equal relationship with a big tree or the wind. We certainly are not gods; not the masters of creation.
We are fragile, vulnerable to forces way more powerful than we can ever really imagine. We have been reminded again that our lives can be over in an instant.
I still want to say to you, this Earth Day season; “live while you are alive.” Enjoy the beauty of what you can see, what you can hear, what you can taste and smell, as you move through all that this earthly home gives us. It is our home. …and it can be comforting to believe that it gives us all we need… and yet nature is not our servant…and at times, not our friend!....and what we need to live can be gone…in a flash…with the rise of the sea, with the roar of the wind, by fire, by mountains falling, ice melting….trees crashing.
Our Christian neighbors are getting ready for their high holy days this week. Many will be retelling the story of the God who became a man sent here to die so we might be saved from this earthly existence ….to go somewhere else….where there is no fear, no suffering, no pain…and perhaps none of nature’s fury….no wildness, no wilderness…
I am frightened when the wind blows hard and the trees bend and crack and the water rises and nature threatens to destroy my home, but on this earth is where I want to be.
I don’t want to leave this world, or to be saved from it.
My home is here.
And I know that “my home” can kill me…
We can only control so much. It is easy to embrace beauty…azaleas, green grass, tall shade trees….lakes, ponds, birds….It is much more difficult to embrace wildness…the part of nature that kills what we love….those we love…us…
I don’t need to be made to feel guilty or that it is my fault or our fault that nature is wild and mostly beyond my control, that life comes and life goes in ways that give me pain. I know that there is so much I cannot fix… I can grieve and I am sad about the loss of life, human life, animal lives, homes and places that once were and are no more….
It is easy to embrace beauty and joy and trees that hold still or just gently sway in a soft breeze. It is a whole different thing to “embrace” what has the power to kill you….at random.
All of life on this earth is precious. My life and yours is short. We are vulnerable to forces beyond our control, forces that have no awareness of the details our existence.
One day while I was alone in the Jacksonville UU congregation’s buildings, I went for a walk on the wooden deck that meandered through the wetlands. The water was high that day, because of the tide or rain. I hadn’t gotten very far when I heard something in the water. I looked and for about 5 seconds, the amount of time one could count say 1000 five times, I locked eyes with a river otter. This was not pristine water. It was full of polluted inner city sludge. But there I was face to face with a creature that I had only previously seen in a zoo or an aquarium.
Later I had to ask myself, did I really see that otter wiggling itself up out of the water to look at me? That was a “god-moment” for me…
I don’t hug trees. But, I have locked eyes with a river otter in sacred UU space…
It gives me hope to know that we can and are doing so much to clean up what has gotten messed up. We see the incredibly beautiful and horrific videos of vast ice fields melting into the seas, the images of stranded polar bears and the Amazon forest burning and tsunami’s rolling over homes and fields and people. We care and we make choices based on empathy for all of creation.
We will never be equal to the forces of nature. What we can do is embrace the sound of birds and the beauty of forests...appreciate the precious gift of this earth, walk quietly in the woods, allow our pain and sorrow and confusion to be healed by the glory of creation, that keeps on living and dying and living…. Feeding our souls and spirits with both the simple and the complex splendor which can tell us what our place in the universe is.
May we learn to live our lives in harmony with the energies and rhythms embedded in the earth, that we may appreciate the glory of creation forever.
May it be so.
Posted by Rev. Ann Marie Alderman