Holding Hands with Shadows

Sermon delivered by Zan Spaihts-Mohns on Sunday, October 8, 2017.

One day this summer, I stood with my four-year-old son, Lucien, in front of a magnificent strangler fig tree. It was a giant of the rain forest, its branches lively with birds, its trunk ridged like thickly braided ropes had melted together. It was hollow inside, all the way up, and Lucien asked why.

“This tree begins as a small vine on another tree,” our guide explained. “Slowly the vine surrounds its host tree, growing thicker and stronger, until the host tree is enveloped completely. Eventually the host tree dies and rots away, and the fig becomes a free-standing tree.”

Lucien stood for a moment, looking at the tree, and then tears came to his eyes. “I’m sad for the tree that died,” he said.

I nodded and hugged him for a long moment.  “It is sad,” I said. “But it’s also true that this fig tree bears fruit that feeds many animals. And its hollow trunk provides shelter for even more animals.” Our guide nodded. “These trees are essential to life in this forest.”

Lucien listened to this, but he looked unconvinced. He kept glancing back at that hollow where another tree used to be.

We live surrounded by those hollow places, whether we’re aware of them or not. The Native American names that our state and so many of its towns and beaches and banks still carry are echoes of a thriving culture, now reduced to a small minority in its own homeland. The seed pods that litter Newburyport’s sidewalks in this season are dangled out to tempt animals ten thousand years gone. The birds in our skies and at our feeders are cousins of lost giants, the few and tiny survivors of an extinction that swept away a reptile dynasty eight hundred times longer than the whole of human existence. Even the oxygen we breathe, so necessary to life as we know it—these very same atoms poisoned nearly all life on earth when they first came to fill the atmosphere.

In the wake of each of these calamities, the world changed. Life rebounded, but it was different life, never again quite what it had been before. We, like the dinosaurs and great mammals before us, were able to evolve precisely because the old order died and left a void. And on this weekend of Indigenous Peoples Day, we must also confess that, like the strangler fig, we were not innocent in the all deaths that allowed us to flourish.

We are here, breathing in, and breathing out.

And yet, here we are, ghosts and all. In the whole grand sweep of time, this moment is the one we are given to live in. And there is so much in it that is beautiful. We live in a time of wonders, and I hope we don’t forget that altogether under the press of tragedy and worrying news.  We are connected across vast distances as never before, discovering things no living thing has ever known. We can prevent diseases that dogged humans for millennia, heal wounds that meant death even a hundred years ago. We are learning new ways of harnessing energy, and new ways of loving one another in all our glorious variation.

We are living and working and loving one another beneath the same sky, a sky that is, every moment, invisibly protecting us from forces that surround our tiny precious planet.

We are here, breathing in, and breathing out.

And I wonder whether we can find it in ourselves to celebrate the improbable wonder of this moment, and still keep a childlike heart that remembers and mourns each life to fall.

I remember when I first really grasped death—not just what death was, as a biological fact; but really grasped that I would eventually die, and so would everyone I loved. I must have been seven or eight years old. I remember lying in bed one night, in the dark, overwhelmed with horror at this nothingness I couldn’t hope to escape. Even knowing it was probably many years off didn’t really help; it was still there, waiting at the end. I imagined the world spinning on without me, all the events I would never know about, the discoveries I would never see. I imagined how the world would change in a hundred years, a thousand, ten thousand. A million.

I imagined myself extinguished all the while, forgotten dust in the ground, along with everyone I ever knew.

The feeling haunted me for days, weeks. Maybe you’ve known it, too. It was like a great void had opened in the world, and I couldn’t imagine how everyone just kept going about their business.

I tried talking to my mother about it, but what could she say? This is the abyss we all live over.  We each have to find our own way to keep living anyway, to put our hearts into the stuff of this world, to plan breakfast in blithe confidence that we will see sunrise, and not to get stuck staring at the shadow below. For most of us, we find that balance, and we hold it for years, even decades, steady.

But sometimes a hole opens in our lives where a beloved person used to be, and we find ourselves looking into that abyss. Back in the darkness, seemingly alone with the hollow in our souls.

This week, fifty-eight families are sitting with that emptiness after losing their loved ones to a single act of senseless violence.

This week, our minister and his wife are mourning the loss of her uncle, the last of his generation.

This week, people close to us and people across the world, and perhaps some right here in this room, are sitting with the emptiness left by a loved one’s death. Lives lost peacefully in the fullness of age, and lives lost suddenly and much too soon. Deaths met with heartbreak, or shock, or relief.

These moments come, even as the sun still shines. Even as the wind still whispers in the trees, and the crows call on the rooftops.

And time passes.

And in time, life begins to grow in around the empty places. Even when we don’t expect it. Even when we wish it wouldn’t, even when the holes in our lives feel so wrong that it seems like anything that comes after must be wrong too, like the wound in the world should be so great that it can never close.

But it is the nature of life to be ever in motion. Life keeps growing, envelops the empty places and branches toward the light. And what comes next is always something different from what we imagined our lives would be. Slowly, sometimes very slowly, transformation comes, and perhaps life flourishes again, even as the hollows remain.

In the end, this is part of the work of being human: to hold hands with our beloved ghosts as we continue our own journeys; to remember the shadows of our history even as we treasure this singular moment; look with hope and curiosity toward the future, even knowing that our time must someday end; and to reach out to one another when the long nights come.

Achaan Chan Subato writes, ‘One day some people came to the master and asked, “How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?”

‘The master held up a glass and said, “Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.”’

Great Mother,
As we know ourselves already broken,
May we also know ourselves precious, each and every life.
May we hold one another in our moments of fragility,
And celebrate with one another in our moments of joy.
May we give ourselves to the sacred work of this world,
And as we grow,
May we grow in compassion,
May we grow toward justice,
And may we open ourselves to your love like leaves to the sun.
Amen, and Blessed Be.

Looking into where the tree no longer is.