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Monday, April 25, 2011

Planting Sequoias

This sermon service includes testimonials by Ann Saalbach, Amanda Chaves, and Tricia Caspers-Ross.

On this Easter morning, as the tight buds on branches reinvent spring, let us consider resurrection as Wendell Berry, the great Kentucky farmer-poet does.

So friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world …
Ask questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest . . .
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years…
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
Though you have considered all the facts.…
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade.…
Be like the fox
Who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

What would it mean for us to invest in the millennium? To take as our main crop the forest we did not plant—our forebears did that—nor the one we will harvest—for it belongs to our children.

Resurrection is about life preserved and restored. In sixth chapter of Genesis, long before Jesus appears in the Gospels, we read of a flood that threatens all existence. In that famous narrative, Noah builds an ark and ferries his family and pairs of animals to dry land. As the story goes, were it not for Noah and the ark, all of creation would be submerged. Hence, the ark preserves and restores creation. It is the first biblical example of resurrection.

On January 30th, I spoke of the ark we could build, the ark our congregation could become. In every sermon since then I have made some reference to the land on Fisher Road, to the potential it holds as an integral part of our ministry. Why land? You might ask. Why now?

Last week, while I was in Nashville celebrating Passover with my cousins, a meeting took place after the service where a conversation ensued. I have talked to enough folks about it to gauge that questions linger.

Why “go with [our] love to the fields [and] lie easy in the shade”? Why “be like the fox/who makes more tracks than necessary/some in the wrong direction”?

“To practice resurrection. To invest in the millennium. To plant sequoias.”

Sequoias as you know take a long time to mature. They are immense beings, stately and majestic. They remind mere humans to take the long view. To invest in them is to invest in a future we will not experience firsthand. But that doesn’t mean we will not be part of it.

In 1768 when the First Parish of Fitchburg formed, the folks who gathered did not live to see the building we inhabit. They never heard the melodious sounds of our organ. They could not glimpse even with power of prognostication the merger of Unitarianism and Universalism. But their gathering formed an ark that traveled the seas of time into a future that we know as the present. We are here because they congregated, week after week, year after year. And because the good folks of the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries instilled in their children the value of a liberal religious community. Had they failed to do that, this congregation and our beloved denomination would have gone the way of the Shakers. No matter how simple and sensible their aesthetic, the Shakers did not plant sequoias.

If we do not invest in our children we imperil ourselves the way the Shakers did.

One of the great joys, indeed purposes of a congregation is to form a multigenerational community where we can learn from and enjoy each other: where the wisdom and patience of experience commingle with the inquisitiveness and energy of youth. Several years ago, I preached a sermon on aging wherein I quoted a doctor whose research found that folks in their seventies and eighties were better baking companions to children than forty-year-olds. Middle-aged folks are often too focused on results whereas older folks more often enjoy the process without worrying about the final product. This comes in handy baking with young children. And it works in reverse. Young children not yet steady on their own feet and free from fixed ideas offer an appreciativeness and realness often lost from late adolescence to mid-adulthood.

Ann Saalbach has agreed to share her thoughts on commingling the generations.

Ann’s testimonial:

Let’s face it – humans are tribal. We need our own private cave-space to retreat to but in the end, we want to join a group around the fire and we want that group to just move over to make space for us because we belong there and with them.

As I grow old and wise, I have realized that one’s own age cohort is special – we all lived through the same global events at the same age, we are going through similar transitions in our personal lives and we understand each other in special ways. But I’ve also realized that my own cohort is not enough. I want elders, newborns and fledglings, middle-lifers – the whole gamut of life – in my tribe. Our western world can make this hard. We are isolated in our own homes and nuclear families. Where can we taste that sense of community?

My tribe is FPC. I treasure its diversity, not least its diversity in age.

Last spring I regularly attended women’s group. It was a magical time for me and a magical mini tribe. Five of us were regulars and three of those five brought their children. Thus we had members in their first decade of life, their second, their third, fifth, sixth and seventh. (Somehow I think we missed out on the 4th decade – none of us in our thirties.) Those of us who were raising young ones got help and advice from the rest. Those of us who were young ones got spare adults who were not at their wits’ end with us at that particular moment. And those of us like me, whose young one is now grown up and very far away, got to rejoice in being stuck into a chaotic family meal once again.

We need small people. And they need us. Amen.

Some of you asked last week, why does an urban congregation need rural land? John Muir wrote upon reaching Yosemite: “We are now in the mountains, and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell.” Nature is not just for so-called “nature-lovers.” It is the best way we have to remind ourselves we are creatures of this earth. Everything we make, ingest, discard, adore and disregard is of this universe that births and sustains us. Spending time with the fertile earth reminds us how our forebears lived by the rhythms and seasonal cycles of the sun, moon, and earth. It restores us to green pastures and invites members of the wider community to “put faith in the two inches of humus / that will build under the trees / every thousand years.”

In my upstairs window hangs a piece of stained glass edged with the words of E.B. White: “I rise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world.” It is in savoring the world that we find reason to save it; without saving it we lose the capacity to savor it at all.

Many of us seek communal worship to give expression to our savoring of life’s sweetness, just as we seek the comfort and companionship of Sunday services in troubled and troubling times. Since I have been here, this church has closed during the summer months, an oddly counterintuitive gesture since as we all know illness, accidents, grief, loss, and loneliness don’t go on holiday. But truth be known, our sanctuary is just too darn hot and many of us retreat to our gardens and lawns or seek the shade of backyards, parks or woodland trails.

I believe presence matters. I am old-fashioned enough to think consistent weekly connection builds community. Last Friday in Nashville, I reveled in my cousins’ weekly Sabbath dinner, a tradition instigated long before I was born. After my aunt and cousins die, my cousins’ children and their children will carry on the tradition just as they will gather annually for Passover Seder which Jews have been doing for thousands of years. Even though I cannot read or recite Hebrew, the prayers for the bread of the earth and the fruit of vine roll off my tongue. Simply because every Friday night of my childhood, my family gathered to light the candles and bless the bread and grape juice. How grateful I am.

Now I invite Tricia Caspers-Ross and Amanda Chaves to share their thoughts with us.

Tricia’s testimonial:

Like many people, I joined the UU church for my children because I want them to grow up in a thinking, exploring, community, one that teaches them that every person, every being, is valued.

When Rick and I were deciding whether or not to move across the country, we brought the kids to visit Ashburnham. Seamus was three months old, and one summer Sunday I packed him up along with all of his baby paraphernalia, borrowed my mother-in-law’s car, and drove to this church for Sunday service. But, as you have probably guessed, when I arrived there was no one here. Later, I was dismayed to learn that there are no regularly scheduled summer services.

While I was disappointed, this wasn’t a deal-breaker for our family, as it might be for some, but I did wonder how the congregation, especially the children, maintain a sense of community through those long, wet, summer months. How do parents reinforce UU values out in the (sometimes very un-UU) wider world without the weekly support of a UU community?

When I think about the land at Fisher Road, I see an answer to that question. I see a place where those who choose could meet on a sunny Sunday morning and garden, walk a labyrinth, hike, birdwatch, do outdoor yoga or tai chi, play croquet or hide-and-seek. The land is not only a way to maintain the connections that the adults have here, but also to create connections between the older and younger generations in the church, which for the most part, are lacking.

Right now there’s maybe one teenager in the building on any given Sunday, and the youth group is, for all purposes, defunct. I see the land on Fisher Road as a way to re-vive the teen community here, to draw in new families by reaching out to other youth groups in the community. I see the possibility of picnics and barbecues and campouts, Frisbee, and soccer games. I see our youth living UU values and having fun in a way that’s not possible within the confines of this building.

If we buy the land on Fisher Road, we show the children and the teens of our church that we hold true to our UU beliefs by valuing them. And when the children want to be together, having fun, they will continue to come, and the church thrives, and we raise a generation who, like us, want to make the world a little bit better.

Amanda’s testimonial:

I’ve been kicking around this church for I guess about 10 or so years. I started as a teenager watching over the littlest ones who are now as old as Ayla is….she was a just a baby then. I’ve watched a lot of these kids grow… I’ve been pregnant here, and my son Connor has grown up here almost five years now. My family has connected to this family so strongly. When we needed to be held up during uncertain stability, and extreme loss many of you came without call. For this and many other reasons this community is very special.

Today I invite you to take a journey with me…

Imagine the warm sunlight peering into the sanctuary while the astounding sound of the organ and the loving voices of our church family come together and form worship. Where we sit and stand, pray and meditate, share moments of laughter and times of troubles together. Where there is no better place to pass the flame from candle to candle on Christmas Eve, where our dear Leaf can stand before us delivering just what we need to carry through the week and remind us who we are and what is important.

Picture a Labyrinth, a long winding labyrinth with one threshold where the object of walking its path is not to get lost, although it resembles a maze, but rather to clear your mind, breathe deep, and remember yourself…to find peace, and equilibrium inside yourself only by walking, walking down a path to it’s center where all you find is clarity of mind, a wholeness of spirit and an overwhelming sense of love.

Picture a garden, where you or I, or our neighbor can sit and be still, or work the land in community, or smell the flowers. Where we can learn from each other and get back to our UU roots where summers off from congregating in a hot, sticky church are replaced by community and spirit in harvesting a crop that was gingerly cared for and watered and talked to the year through.

Picture an invitation to walk the trails of a more peaceful place in our city. For Fitchburg has many facets. That we may hold our presence for now in the graces of the inner city common…and a more rural place that reminds us of our human roots where people used to experience daily what it means to be surrounded by the natural world.

Picture a place where old and young and somewhere in the middle, find common ground. Where each can do their share, in his or her own way, own ability, and yet common ground invites us to learn from each other and share with each other the things we know, the things we wonder, the things that make us who we are.

Picture our children, for they are all ours, playing games and laughing as they run out of breath and fall cushioned by the greenest of grass and lay watching the birds fly overhead. Learning what it truly means to take care of our earth by doing just that. Learning from Nature what an interdependent web of life is by watching it take place right in our patch of earth. Where children who are able to sit and listen patiently and those who use their bodies to experience life can both participate during a lesson by having lots of room to be free to move and yet be close by without walls or doors so that they too can listen. For those whose voices carry far, that a walled room can make it impossible for those with small ears to hear… that the free air outside will absorb it into the sky.

Picture the sun shining on your faces as we all gather during the summer for a vespers that takes place in the cool evening air. A place that is always open for visitors with no reservations or obligations from each other to celebrate our end of the year picnic.

Someone I know is very interested in Bee Keeping…as I’m sure many people are. They long to learn the ways of having a relationship with the bees. I for one am so far from that desire. Quite frankly bees scare me…I would be utterly terrified and besides I have never been stung so they could be deadly, however his passion for it excites me and I know that something very good comes from this relationship and love for the bees…honey... and I definitely love honey. I can appreciate that keeping the bees is not for me but in seeing the good in it and the good that can come from it…I support it. And so for those who feel that they don’t connect to the vision or the possibilities at Fisher road…know that there is a bigger picture…that our current family and future UU’s, Maybe Connor’s children, just may benefit from our decision to journey together and take a leap of faith. (end of testimonial)

When Wendell Berry says do something everyday that won’t compute: love all that is sacred and love the world, it is a bold reminder that love doesn’t always compute. Perhaps it never does for love is not about bottom lines and accounting columns, nor is it a series of zeroes and ones. Love resides in the joyfulness we find even when we have considered the facts. Love stirs and coheres us even though we have markedly different experiences and desires. Love allows us to hold on and to let go.

Consider this Easter morn, dear Jesus who like the fox, made more tracks than necessary often in the wrong direction, not because he was lost, but because like many a spiritual wanderer, Jesus understood the value of unsettling himself as much as he unsettled others. Jesus did not merely advocate change. He resurrected it. He turned commandments inside out exposing their fleshy truths. He brought a fresh perspective to accepted ways of being and he took risks for the sake of preserving and restoring creation. In short, he did Noah proud.

Resurrection is not for the faint-hearted. Every spring as the trees transform their bareness and the bears lumber out of their dens, life renews itself. Whatever we as a congregation decide to do—to borrow the words of Lincoln—“fondly do I hope and fervently do I pray” that we each embrace the invitation not just to build an ark, but to become one—an ark sturdy enough to carry First Parish into its next incarnation, among sequoias whose mammoth trunks cannot contain our immeasurable laughter. Amen.

Listening to the Earth

I have two readings this morning. The first reading is the opening monologue of a play by Paul Zindel entitled The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

He told me to look at my hand for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine. This part of me was formed from a tongue of fire that screamed though the heavens until there was our sun. And this part of me—this tiny part of me—was on the sun when it itself exploded and whirled into a great storm until the planets came to be. And this small part of me was then a whisper of the earth. When there was life perhaps this part of me got lost in a fern that was crushed and covered until it was coal. And then it was a diamond millions of years later—it must have been a diamond as beautiful as the star from which it had first come. Or perhaps this part of me got lost in a terrible beast, or became part of a huge bird that flew above the primeval swamps. And he said this thing was so small—this part of me was so small it couldn’t be seen—but it was there from the beginning of the world.

The second reading comes from a book by David Abram called The Spell of the Sensuous.

To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, is to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time, to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen.…We can experience things—can touch, hear, and taste things—only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds, and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world we perceive. We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh and that the world is perceiving itself through us.

I have heard it told though I do not know if it is true, in Japanese, the sentence “I see the dog” would translate as “I dog seeing” to acknowledge the perception of both dog and person. David Abram suggests the world perceives itself through us in the same way we rely on our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin to perceive the world.

The playwright Paul Zindel notes the atoms that comprise us come from stardust. If our atoms are whispers of the earth and we in our totality function as the earth’s ears, listening to the earth takes on new urgency.
Jim Nollman, who has been making music with orcas, dolphins, wolves, turkeys and other animals for more than twenty-five years, said in an interview,

I have a lot of friends around the world who are able to actually hear the natural world. Still, whether or not we hear, listening is important. Until we start to listen—and, I hope eventually hear—the natural world for ourselves, nonhumans will be regarded as objects. Just the act of trying to listen can change a lot of our perceptions about nature and that can change the way we live.

What would change if we listen to shale as we hydrofracture it to release its natural gas? Here’s the process involved, also known as “fracking.”

First a drilling rig will dig a vertical hole several thousand feet deep, gradually bending until the concrete-encased well reaches the shale layer. After burrowing horizontally for as much as a mile (1.6 km), the drillers lower a perforating gun down to the end of the well. That gun fires off explosions underground that pierce the concrete and open up microfractures in the shale. The drillers then shoot millions of gallons of highly pressurized water, mixed with sand and small amounts of additives known as fracking chemicals, down the well, widening the shale fractures. Natural pressure forces the liquids back up the well, producing what's known as flowback, and the gas rushes from the fractures into the pipe. The grains of sand included in the fracking fluid keep the shale cracks open — like stents in a clogged blood vessel — while the well produces gas for years, along with a steadily decreasing amount of wastewater from deep inside the shale.

I pose this question neither rhetorically nor poetically. Does the earth whisper as this happens—or roar? Can we hear ourselves in the sound of the shale yielding to five million gallons of highly pressurized water forcing gas through its cracks? Or in the sound of the Tokyo Electric Power Company “releasing more than 11,000 tons of radioactive water used to cool fuel rods into the ocean [or] water vastly more radioactive gush[ing] into the ocean through a large crack in a six-foot deep pit at the [Fukushima Daiichi] nuclear plant” ?

I dog seeing.
We earth speaking.
Listening earth we?

The poet Rilke writes to God:

At my senses’ horizon
you appear hesitantly,
like scattered islands.

Yet standing here, peering out,
I’m all the time seen by you.…

All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
Because, to hear you, I keep silent.

The contemporary writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen chronicles feeling swept away by a “future that looks dark, and darker with each passing species,” until he looked closely, and saw one blade of wild grass and then another…and heard the hum of flies…and saw ants walking single file through the dust…and knew in that moment…that it is no longer possible to be lonely, that every creature on earth is pulling in the direction of life—every grasshopper, every struggling salmon, every unhatched chick, every cell of every blue whale—and it is only our fear that sets us apart.

Is it fear that prevents us from listening?

I have had the experience after an injury or surgery of not wanting to look at the wounded part. There is something disconcerting in trying to reconcile the sight or sound of injury in oneself.

“He told me to look at my hand for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine…formed from a tongue of fire that screamed though the heavens … And this small part of me was then a whisper of the earth.”

It is difficult to listen to our own cries in the heaving; in the grieving earth. Bitter to taste iodine 131 or the salt of our tears. Painful to feel eruptions of skin and tectonic plate. Easier to turn away, to withdraw our touch, seal our lips, close our eyes, cover our ears than to listen to the sweep of the tsunami as it swallows villages whole, or the detonation of the mountaintop swept away for coal.

It is easier perhaps to tune out the real sounds, replace them with noise: talk radio and jabber TV, the audible posturing of politicians along coordinates of bluster and denial.

Derrick Jensen asks: “If salmon, tuna, or wolverine could take on human manifestation, what would they do?”

What would they hear in fracturing shale and exploding water? What would we hear in ourselves if we could take on the manifestation of tuna, salmon, wolverine? Ocean? Mountaintop, old growth forest?
David Abram explains in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, once humans developed phonetic alphabets we no longer relied on pictographs, images that connected us to our “sensory participation with the enveloping natural field.” Whereas we used to depend on images tied to our interaction with other species and the elements, now “each letter [is] purely associated with a gesture or sound of the human mouth.” Our written images no longer “function as windows opening onto a more-than-human field of powers but solely as mirrors reflecting the human form back on itself.”

The downside of mirrors is that they never offer the entire view.

We can romanticize the earth by conceiving of it as a paramour—a lover we dote on or worse, use to gratify our desires; but the earth is not something we choose to love; it is what we are. Earth is our provenance. We carry it in our cells as much as we are carried by it.

We’ve all been in situations when we needed to listen to ourselves, heed that inner voice, but we didn’t. Instead we tuned into old tapes, social pressures, cultural tropes. By the time I was thirty-eight, living alone and loving it, I knew I was happiest living by myself, blessed with wonderful friends and family and work I enjoyed, but I kept turning the volume down on that voice of clarity deep inside. I would get into a relationship and move in and move out and disrupt and distract myself from what I loved and what nourished me. It took me another ten years to finally listen.

Tuning out the earth is the quickest way to disruption and destruction. We lose touch not just with the beauty of the earth, the power of creativity, and “our place in the family of things.” We lose touch with ourselves and the parts of us that belong to “a star that exploded too long ago to imagine.” We lose touch with the red hills and red river valley, the canyons and the salmon swimming upstream and the orcas singing with us.
Jim Tollman, the man who makes music with non-human collaborators explains the benefit he gets from listening intently.

I experience a sense of grace. That's what communication with nonhumans is really all about. When communication happens, no matter how subtle it is, no matter if it doesn't register on some meter, or on tape or on film, I feel as though I've been blessed. It is the greatest blessing of my life. In some very basic way, I suppose it's the same thing that other people experience through religion.… I've always felt that the primary purpose of religion is not intellectual, for instance to explain a mysterious universe we can never really know. It's sensuous, a feeling that places us in a situation where blessing can occur. When that happens, however it happens, the universe suddenly seems less distant. We all need that experience, whether we find it though religion, or through playing music with whales.

When we turn soil and plant seeds, tend a garden, our hands hear the earth and we feel the connection. The seasons, the cycles, the thrum of life reclaims us as we stake ourselves not to the ground but with it. We join together in communion—a community of union that refastens us to the holy within ourselves.
That’s what listening to the earth and for the earth does. To touch the bark of a tree, the fur of animal, the grit of dirt is to feel our own tactility, ourselves being touched back. Held in the embrace of a world that includes us and comprises us and in turn, allows us to be its eyes and ears, its fingers, mouth and nose.

The grains of sand in fracking fluid, the radioactive waters flowing from Japan, the vanished mountaintops of Appalachia beckon us to be their eyes and ears, to see and hear in them the obstruction and absence that diminish our earthliness.

“All creation holds its breath, listening within [us].”
We earth being.