UNLESS A SEED DIES: A Season of Loss and Gain
A Talk for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork
February 26, 2012
It’s been a very strange winter, oddly mild and lacking the snow and ice whose bite I seem to feel more acutely the older I get. I don’t know about you, but even the mild version of winter we’ve enjoyed can still get me yearning for warm beaches and warm water to swim in. My version of heaven includes water I can walk into without shivering! The days are indeed getting longer, even warmer, no doubt. But there are still enough gray, cold days and nights left to feel oppressive and that prompt me to muse on the sadder or more difficult sides of life. The dean of my theological graduate school once remarked that climates like ours in the northeast were the most conducive to theological thinking – he mused that being in California where the school was located might water down the quality of our thought because we had it too easy! Going outside my Berkeley apartment one Christmas Day to toss a Frisbee suggested that his argument was a compelling one. Try reading John Calvin or Soren Kiekegaard seriously when you’re that comfortable. Cold, gray winter climes have produced more than a few solid thinkers in the religious and theological arenas. So maybe it is good for us to reflect together on the gifts of this spare time, lean in the creature comforts but perhaps rich in hidden meaning and symbol.
The gardeners and landscapers among us know this is a season of hidden energy, and a season of expectant waiting. A few months ago, trees and shrubs pushed forward buds that “wintered over” and in the spring and summer those buds will become the blossoms and fruit of the high season. Bulbs need the long, cold and dark “burial” of winter to become the tulips, daffodils, gladioli and irises we love so much. And the seeds that so many plants released last summer and fall “died” in the soil they landed in to resurrect as the children and grandchildren of those original plants.
In the Gospel of John, the writer portrays Jesus using a similar metaphor about himself and the death he volunteers to undergo:
“….unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it
remains only a single grain; but if it dies,
it yields a rich harvest………” (John 12:24)
Written several decades after the events the gospel describes, these words are a part of a tradition of important sayings attributed to Jesus. But more, they are words meant to comfort and inspire the community of believers who were at that time undergoing persecution from the Roman authorities and threats of denunciation from religious enemies. Those hearing that metaphor would have known of martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of hostile secular and religious forces. The brutality of state-sponsored arrests, public punishments, executions and other horrors were fresh memories, or at least readily shared stories, in those precarious early Christian communities. The metaphor of the seed of grain that dies would have likely been a way to help them cope with what was hardly bearable. How does one make sense of horrors? How do people heal from wounds to the psyche and spirit that cut so deeply as those reports of events must have? How do we heal from the worst that life can throw at us?
Many of us are of an age where our own health issues command our attention and often have more psychological weight for us than the larger political or social moral questions. The realities of our aging physical bodies can quickly put us in anxiety and fear when this or that symptom or test result appears and reduce other concerns accordingly. When we or a loved one gets a diagnosis that’s serious, we often rally quickly and go into survival mode – but sometime afterwards the grim weight of such news makes itself felt hard — and cold fear threatens to take us over. What helps? Three things help, in my experience. Information: the more we know, the more powerful we can feel, especially if different options present themselves as part of the information. Time: even bad news loses the original punch it first had as time passes. And perspective: in the light of morning, we often say, things don’t seem quite so bad, and we learn that even limited options can be lived with. The day before my 82 year-old Irish grandmother died, my mother told her to hurry up and get well, “so we can take a trip to Paris.” Not missing a beat, my grandmother said “Sure, and I’ll buy a bikini!” Remembering her wit and attitude helped ease the grief we all felt over her death.
And perhaps faith helps. Our life experience often suggests that bad things pass; good may come out of bad; and that sadness diminishes, even if does so only bit by bit. Is there reason for our faith and hope that losses aren’t the last word? In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I taught a class at Fordham entitled “Faith and Critical Reason.” I used to tell each new group of students that I had a governing assumption with which I approached the readings and topics of the course. Simply stated, I said, “faith is not non-sense.” I said that faith, encompassing such things as belief in some kind of higher power as well as what we usually mean by hope, made better sense to me than many alternatives such as atheism and secular humanism. In our readings, we weighed the perspectives of believers, non-believers and agnostics. I remember, in particular, commending the worldview of The Humanist Manifesto as a credible and honorable path intellectually, morally and spiritually, although I didn’t find the natural world to automatically exclude a supernatural dimension as that powerful statement asserted. In my experience many people in those camps unfortunately caricature each other– a deep reading of most serious statements about what people think is ultimate will usually generate respect, in my opinion, if people are open to it. Atheists don’t have to put down theists or vice versa to buttress their own deepest convictions. I assured the students that they didn’t have to agree with my perspective whatever their beliefs and worldview. The point was to try to have a meaningful conversation about those beliefs. I gave them my best account of why faith made sense to me. And I asked that they give me their best account of whatever made most sense to them. As we wrestled with Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Nietszche, and Bertrand Russell, I asked them to invest themselves in a search for clarity and conviction.
A college course is a bit of a hot-house environment, rarefied in atmosphere and tone, not quite like the booming, buzzy stuff of everyday life. So let’s look
at a more typical scenario of daily life to see what it might yield by way of wisdom and insight into the stuff of faith and belief.
Here’s one of my favorite stories:
An exhausted father is awakened in the wee hours of the morningby his
crying and frantic five-year-old son coming out of a kiddie nightmare.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” the father says soothingly, as he hugs
the distraught child and rubs his back gently. After a few minutes, the
father, desperate for sleep, says. “OK, now, son…time to go back to sleep.
I’m going to tuck you in and turn out the light and go back to bed.” The
boy immediately bursts back into tears and says, “No. No, don’t shut off
the light, I’m afraid of the dark! I don’t want to be alone!” Near the end
of his patience and definitely on his last nerve, the father pulls out one of
the Big Guns of parental rhetoric, “You’re not alone, son……God is with
you.” The little boy looks up at his father and says, “Where’s God? I don’t
see God!” Praying for patience and hoping against hope, the father says,
“Of course you can’t see God, son… He’s invisible.” The son looks
skeptically up at his Dad and says……”I want a God with skin on!”
I’ve used this story to make different points at different times. Today I want to focus on the first thing the father said upon entering his crying son’s room… … “Everything’s going to be all right.”
In his book A Rumor of Angels, Peter Berger takes a version of that story and freezes right on that very statement. Is the father telling the boy the truth, Berger asks, when he tells him everything is going to be all right? Is he speaking responsibly, or trying to sell the boy a bill of goods to quiet him so he can return to sleep? Is the Dad’s statement right up there with the story of Santa Claus, to be discarded as time goes on as a childish fancy? Berger, a liberal thinker in the Lutheran lineage, thinks the Dad can make such a statement with integrity. From his perspective of faith and given his life experience, Berger asserts that the statement “everything is all right,” has some truth value and is a conviction that fits an open reading of life experience much of the time. The father may have mixed motives in trying to soothe his son’s fears, but his basic assertion can reflect a deep faith that such things as setbacks, atrocities and downright failures of decency are not the last word about life.
Wait, you might say… That doesn’t sufficiently take into account unspeakable horrors like the Nazi holocaust of Jews and others they labelled sub-human. Or the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Or the decades-long systematic wars on poor Latin Americans by American political and corporate forces. Or the knee-jerk anti-Westernism that fuels the murderous acts of radical Islamists. Or the lynchings of black Americans by Klansmen and other terrorists. And perhaps the most painful truth on the personal level – how many ordinary, good citizens like ourselves were needed to cooperate with those levels of evil for the handful of really bad actors to succeed. Can we look at such truths without flinching, and still maintain that everything is all right?
How do I put the horrific acts and systems of so much of the world into perspective without the kind of cheap, feel-good, happy-happy, joy-joy words that mask evil or fit it into some kind of Pollyanna strait-jacket? And where do my personal feelings become irrelevant or unimportant in the face of larger negative realities? And, a classic question, where if anywhere might “God” be in all of this, and what does that mean anyway?
Peter Berger, among many others, suggests that if anything like God or Higher Power is to be believed, it makes sense that there are what he terms “signals of transcendence” to be uncovered in our ordinary experience. These would be clues or at least suggestions that there exists a structure or order of things within which hope for reversing or transforming evil would be possible and grounded. One such accessible signal, I would maintain, comes in the experience many of us have had of life after loss. After losing a loved one, we go through a period of grieving that’s different for each of us, but also exhibits some common elements like anger, denial, depression and acceptance. At some point in our journey through grieving, the load begins to get lighter and our taste for living comes back to a greater or lesser extent. I suggest that such experiences are clues or signs that life has healing power at its heart.
There also exists the experience of friendship, one of the most powerful and yet readily accessible signs that trust in what’s positive and good may prevail in the face of loss and diminishment. Last year, during my own serious illness, long hospitalization and longer recuperation, a core of friends stood beside me and my wife. They spent long hours with us in the hospital, and offering their gifts of time and presence and hope that lifted us and that contributed so much to my physical and psychological healing. In the classic sense, our friends demonstrated that friendship is a sacrament, an embodied living and rich sign of Love that exists in the midst of ordinary living… and that friendship is therefore most powerful and life-changing.
The experience of metaphor, for me, is another signal of transcendence or grace. As long as women and men have sung songs, made poetry and told stories, metaphors have been a means of communicating truths that are otherwise elusive and hard to grasp, such as the seed metaphor referenced in the Jesus saying in John’s gospel. When we take an experience and see a deeper meaning in it, are we just being imaginative or does that meaning somehow exist within it? The seed that “dies” and then multiplies is based on real plant biology, but in our minds, the metaphor offers a whole universe of loss and rebirth, suggesting quite profound wisdom and perspective from some very ordinary experiences. Seeds…babies…political and social movements… the connections are endless in possibility. Might that connection suggest a deeper reality than what my imaginative mind can conjure? Might that deeper reality I glimpse, if I allow myself to access it, be seen as the work of some kind of Higher Power?
A powerful metaphor I see working in many lives I touch is that of the addicted person “hitting bottom.” People in recovery from addiction’s grip can and do testify to a debilitating powerlessness in which free will is compromised beyond the ability for a quick fix. The image of hitting bottom captures the beginning of recovery where one is tapped out, so beyond the point where self-generated change can make things better. In the lack of power to “fix” addiction is the needful opening to a power beyond oneself, such a power needed absolutely to deliver the person from the inability to make it better. What’s the nature of this higher power? It doesn’t matter, say recovering addicts – as they quip, “the only thing you need to know about higher power is that there is one…and you’re not it!” If I hit bottom, the metaphor goes, I have nowhere to go but up…and I need some kind of assistance in getting and staying up. Mediating that power, they report, is the shared experience of people who have been in recovery a little longer; the group of drunks (aka G.O.D.) often serves as the functional higher power for many newly recovering folks. Previous travelers on the recovery road function as beacons and guides for newcomers. What’s interesting is how often that leads to an appreciation of a deeper reality undergirding that experience. Does love, indeed, “steer the stars” as they sang in “HAIR”? And don’t we catch glimpses of that love in the people and circumstances that raise us out of despair and the shackles of things like addiction? God with skin on, indeed.
In the latter years of his life, Albert Einstein suggested that THE most important question we ask is always, “Is the universe safe?” Can I trust that life will not only break my heart sometimes, but also may mend it? The metaphor of the title of this message and the scripture it draws from says that without some kind of death and diminishment, new life will not come. That metaphor functions on several levels, from most literal to highly abstract. From physical entropy (winding down) on the cosmic level to psychological/spiritual disintegration at the personal level, experiences abound that say brokenness can lead to wholeness and reintegration, and that good can come from the worst of things. Elie Weisel, the uncompromising witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, became a human rights advocate for peoples all over the world. Real evil exists, and is genuinely terrible. But as the lives of people like Gandhi, Mandela and Rosa Parks remind us, evil can also inspire courage, commitment and change that far outweighs the worst that evil can devise when it is named, accepted and resisted in love and truth.
The signal of transcendence that matters most, I am suggesting, is the one we experience when good is unaccountably drawn from evil, when grace trumps tragedy. Some of us are comfortable with naming that which enables something positive to be produced out of evil higher power, or the divine, or God. Others are not so comfortable with such names. To me the differences that might keep us from agreement on these points are far less important than the way we live and act on whatever makes most sense to us when faced with the worst news or the most terrible prospect. At such moments, can we stand for one another on the important points? Are we there for each other in those extreme moments? Do we have enough empathy for all people caught in pain to act differently and perhaps make some kind of justice and peace in our small corner of the world? The ancient Hebrew prophets had a word from Yahweh that said the ceremonies of religion meant nothing if the weakest in the community like widows and orphans went unprotected. Regardless of how I imagine ultimate things, such needy people demand our best response.
On a more personal level, regardless of my particular beliefs, if I am not addressing the pain and suffering within myself, I can’t be there as effectively for others and I may do more harm than good when I try. In my profession, we call it “doing the work,” and by that we mean the hard work of self-awareness, self-examination and confronting some of the unloveliest parts of ourselves to prepare ourselves for change. (My use of the “us” word there is intentional – any therapist worth his or her salt had better be prepared to do the work themselves, or risk an inability to effectively connect with a patient by ignorance or short-sightedness.) The take-away from that for the rest of us may be that self-empathy is the best foundation for empathy with others. Work on my own healing from whatever needs work seems required if I seek to help another and perhaps glimpse a deeper reality.
Along that line, some Buddhist wisdom seems relevant, as offered by American Pema Chodron:
When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you find it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space. Your world seems less solid, more roomy and spacious. The burden lightens.
(START WITH WHERE YOU ARE – Pema Chodron)
Is “everything going to be all right?” Perhaps the answer to that lies within ourselves and our deepest experience rather than outside of ourselves. And I suggest that a positive answer to that question may intelligently and meaningfully include a recognition and affirmation of a power greater than ourselves… that at the heart of the universe and at the heart of my own personal experience lie signals of transcendence, signals of care and signals of grace. It’s my choice, certainly, to call those signals by whatever metaphor or name makes sense to me, but I’m very grateful to have such signals in a pretty tough world.
We come full circle to the metaphor of the title, the grain of wheat that Jesus images in the passage from John’s gospel. In context, it’s an image that lends meaning to something very negative, in fact quite horrible: the impending violent and unjust public execution of an innocent man, and more broadly, similar acts of violence against Jesus’ followers in the decades after his death. As the buried seed becomes a stalk of wheat that makes more grains, so, too, the passage implies, these deaths will transform a rag-tag bunch of easily pushed around followers into a community of faith and purpose that changed the world. From death came life.
In our experience, finally, winter always gives way to spring. That’s worth a little “alleluia” even if Easter hasn’t quite yet arrived. I can’t wait… ALLELUIA!