Metaphors are powerful. Entire cultures fall under their sway. They can put us to sleep, and even as we think we are spiritually and intellectually awake, we are snoring our lives away.
It is said that the master metaphor of our culture is the American Dream fantasy of a permanent blue-sky season for busyness and achievement and accumulation. New invention succeeds new invention endlessly. Endlessly, growth goes on and on. There are no limits which cannot be transcended, and if a certain limit does seem unsurpassable, well, that only reflects a human failure of imagination and/or effort.
But what room is there in this master metaphor for rest?
What room is there for decline and death?
What room is there for confusion, or perhaps just wandering?
What room is there for hugely disruptive pauses to normal life, as we experienced 20 years ago with the 9/11 event, or as we’ve experienced these past 18 months with the pandemic?
What room is there for truly unsurpassable limits?
When the American Dream fantasy of “onward and upward forever” dominates our imaginations, no room is given for anything that is not sunny, or creative, or limitlessly growing.
Which also means that no room is given for much, if not most, of our lives as they are honestly and truly lived….
Which means, we are alienated from others and from our very own selves.
Sanity requires saying no to the master metaphor of our era.
Sanity requires acknowledging, in the classical words from the Hebrew Bible, that
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance….
That is what sanity requires.
So, for the sake of sanity we are exploring a better metaphor for the meaning of life today, on this momentous morning when we find ourselves gathered together face-to-face for the first time, officially, since March of 2020 when the pandemic rushed into our lives and knocked the American Dream master metaphor for a loop.
This better metaphor we are exploring today comes from the seasonal cycles of nature. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and our other Transcendentalist spiritual ancestors, we are reading the book of nature as if it were itself a kind of Bible.
Like the Transcendentalists, but also like the one who spoke of finding “sermons in stones,” who was none other than the great William Shakespeare.
And then, much more recently, there is Quaker teacher and activist Parker Palmer who, in his beautiful book entitled Let Your Life Speak says, “Our lives are dependent upon an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control.” “Seeds move through their life stages in an endless cycle of seasons, and the cycle of seasons reminds us that the journey never ends.”
Again, Parker Palmer says, “we are participants in a vast communion of being, and if we open ourselves to its guidance, we can learn anew how to live in this great and gracious community.” “We can,” he says, “and we must—if we want our sciences to be humane, our institutions to be sustaining, our healings to be deep, our lives to be true.”
For the sake of humanity, sustainability, healing, and truth, we now go to nature and to its turning seasons.
Start with the one we are about to enter come September 22, and extending through December 20: autumn. The autumn season, like the others, will inevitably bring to mind personal associations for some that will not be there for others. We know this. Yet we can still recognize broad themes that will be valid for everyone in the same climate zone. With autumn comes the harvest and then decline; with autumn the days grow shorter, and the green growth of summer browns and begins to die. It is, as Shakespeare puts it,
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Yet the paradox of autumn is that, even as the boughs shake against the cold, even as the natural world is busy with decay, seeds are scattered that will bring new growth in the spring. Nature plots its own resurrection. Rebirth is enfolded within dying. And from this we can take hope, when in our own lives we experience the pull of autumn in some form or fashion—a relationship breaking apart; an increase in loneliness; a job that is not working or seems targeted for downsizing; one’s own aging and the surprising sudden losses that tell us we are getting older….
Autumn happens in our lives, and it can be a disorienting time, a time of hopelessness. But we must remember the lesson of the season. Nature plots its own resurrection. Seeds are falling everywhere, seeds which will sprout new life in the future. There is a wholeness in nature and it endures despite the seeming decline of its separate parts. So, too, there is a wholeness in us; and so, too, everything that happens is scattering seeds of new possibilities, invisibly, and they will bear fruit in some season yet to come, they surely will, beyond the now in which we may be feeling real fear, real anger, real grief.
Autumn has its gift for us, and so does the next season, winter, which commences December 21 and ends March 19. Says Parker Palmer, “[Winter] is a season when death’s victory can seem supreme: few creatures stir, plants do not visibly grow, and nature feels like our enemy. And yet the rigors of winter, like the diminishments of autumn, are accompanied by amazing gifts.”
One of them is beauty—the beauty of a crisp winter day and snow that has bedazzled grass and trees, all under a brilliant blue sky.
To this gift of beauty, add another, which is a reminder that times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things. One’s saw cannot be perpetually sharp; regularly it must be removed from active use to be sharpened and prepared for the next round of work. This is a law of living.
But the gift that Parker Palmer mentions which I am resonating with most of all this morning is clarity. Winter’s gift of utter clarity. How, as he says, “in winter one can walk into woods that had been opaque with summer only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground they are rooted in. […] Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.”
In this particular sense, it could be said that the pandemic has plunged the entire world into deep winter this past 18 month, and it has thereby exposed with utter clarity the fault lines in the normal arrangement of things. Author George Packer speaks to this when he says that COVID-19 “should have been a great leveler. You don’t have to be in the military or in debt to be a target—you just have to be human. But from the start, its effects have been skewed by the inequality that we’ve tolerated for so long.” He goes on to say, “When tests for the virus were almost impossible to find, the wealthy and connected—the model and reality-TV host Heidi Klum, the entire roster of the Brooklyn Nets, the president’s conservative allies—were somehow able to get tested, despite many showing no symptoms. […] Meanwhile, ordinary people with fevers and chills had to wait in long and possibly infectious lines, only to be turned away because they weren’t actually suffocating.” That’s George Packer. The winter of COVID-19 has cleared the landscape, and what we have been able to see, with a clarity unknown in usual times, is inequity and injustice of multiple forms and kinds, and it is intolerable.
There is work to do, folks.
Winter’s gift of utter clarity teaches us–about the bad things of our world, but also about the good. So much was lost during the pandemic, and as the Joni Mitchell song says,
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
till it’s gone
Gone: graduations, celebrations, events that had to be cancelled
Gone: children going to face-to-face school, missing out on friendships and activities
Gone: going out to the movies, or anywhere, really
Gone: being able to come here, to West Shore, in the flesh
Gone: the comfort of singing as a congregation—which is still not possible
Gone: the comfort of a worry-free hug
Gone: seeing each other’s faces maskless, indoors—which is still not possible
Each of us has a story of loss, personal and collective, this past 18 months…
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
till it’s gone
Winter gifts us with utter clarity. Woods that had been opaque with summer only a few months earlier are now exposed and bare, and this becomes a chance to see truly, and to know more fully than ever.
But no season lasts forever. “This too shall pass,” it is said; and while on the one hand it sounds obvious, on the other hand, the rigors of winter can get to a point that it seems they will never end.
And then they do end.
So now consider the gifts of spring, which reigns March 20 to the 19 of June. Winter inevitably turns to spring; it is guaranteed. But the turning of winter to spring is not like flipping a light switch from off to on. It’s a process, and I like how poet William Carlos Williams paints a scene of this: as a
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter….
This is the turning of winter into spring, and the point is: it’s not pretty. It’s easy to want to leap to late spring when the gift awaiting us there is a world in full bloom, flowers blazing in yellows and reds, and love is in the air.
But: you can’t get to pretty until you go through the valley of messy and ugly first.
Which is what early spring is like. Messy and ugly. “I have walked in early spring,” Parker Palmer says, “through fields that will suck your boots off, a world so wet and woeful that it makes you yearn for a return of ice.”
Yet even this has a gift in it for us. Parker Palmer goes on to say, “Though spring begins slowly and tentatively, it grows with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, coming up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. […] [With all the mess and the muck,] I can find it hard to credit the small harbingers of larger life to come, hard to hope until the outcome is secure. Spring teaches me,” Parker Palmer says, “to look more carefully for the green stems of possibility; for the intuitive hunch that may turn into a larger insight, for the glance or touch that may thaw a frozen relationship, for the stranger’s act of kindness that makes the world seem hospitable again.” All this is the gift of early spring, when everything feels so messy, and yet the green stems of possibility are there and all we must do is wait and watch for them, make ourselves available to them; NOT to wall ourselves off by impenetrable cynicism, but to open up our hearts.
West Shore, now that we are returning to face-to-face community—now that we are finding our way back to each other after 18 months of social distancing—this is like early spring for us. We are in that time now: messy, awkward, and yes, sometimes plug ugly! To do anything right in this pandemic time, it feels like you need to be an expert epidemiologist. It’s exhausting. But all we can do is do our best. All we can do is faithfully look for the green stems of possibility, amidst all the messiness. Let us faithfully look for the harbingers of new congregational life to come, with patience, and compassion!
It is the turning of the seasons. So many lessons we can learn. Remembering that we are “participants in a vast communion of being,” and that this implies certain duties and certain limitations. Each season, with its wisdom gift, guiding our personal lives into greater wholeness.
Finally, we arrive at summer, beginning June 20 and ending September 21—where we are right now but for only 9 more days. It is a time when spring is fulfilled, the days are at their longest, life is at its peak. One word comes to mind that sums up its gift to us: abundance. Emerson would say “refulgence.” The gift is for us to enjoy. Enjoyment. Via staycation or vacation, to escape routine and see the world from a different angle. To take time to do summer reading, to take time off from work if possible, to be with friends and family, to travel and to play. To receive these good things into our lives—as far as we can, certainly, while the pandemic reigns.
Which can be so hard to do. At times we just might not know how to receive the abundance—how to trust it, how to take it in and accept it. We crave it, and yet we can be so good at deflecting it. Devaluing praise because we assume that the other person is insincere. Working like crazy to make the money to afford the lifestyle that we don’t have any time to enjoy, because we don’t make the time.
What incredible unhappiness, not knowing how to receive the gift of summer into our lives.
But this is one of the reasons why West Shore exists. Why we create this Beloved Community of friendship and service. We want it to be a version of nothing less than Thoreau’s Walden Pond. We want it to be a place which helps fulfill the immortal words of Thoreau when he says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”
Autumn and winter, spring and summer, through all the turning seasons of the spirit
Let us live deliberately,
Let us front only the essential facts of life,
Let us live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
The bible of the turning seasons teaches us how.