Service: “Redder Apples” April 22, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
My father, whose ashes we interred at Arlington National Cemetery last week, was an officer in the Navy and the Naval Reserve, and spent his career working for the Naval Research Laboratory. He never actually spent very much time at sea, but images of ships nevertheless call him to my mind, including this sonnet by May Sarton, entitled My Father’s Death:
After the laboring birth, the clean stripped hull
Glides down the ways and is gently set free,
The landlocked, launched; the cramped made bountiful–
Oh, grave, great moment when ships take the sea!
Alone now in my life, no longer child,
This hour and its flood of mystery,
Where death and love are wholly reconciled,
Launches the ship of all my history.
Accomplished now is the last struggling birth,
I have slipped out from the embracing shore
Nor look for comfort to maternal earth.
I shall not be a daughter any more,
But through this final parting, all stripped down,
Launched on the tide of love, go out full grown.
“I shall not be a daughter any more…” At this age, I suppose, it’s time – time to take my place as the senior generation, with no one standing between me and the prospect of mortality any more; time for me to become the carrier of our accumulated wisdom, such as it is – I have, after all, been rehearsing for this role for quite a while now. Time to be launched on the tide of love, full grown, into the wide universe that is the ocean we travel, here on our blue boat home. It feels like a cultural as well as a personal bereavement; as if adults are no longer in charge of the world in general, never mind my own family system. It’s probably always like this, I imagine – the sense that while I was happy to be in charge of certain aspects of life on this globe, it was someone else’s responsibility to fit all the pieces together, to give out assignments, make sense of the whole thing. Now I am aware that it has been left in my hands – our hands, and here we are, all mystified together.
Annie Dillard describes this sensation in her book Holy the Firm; she writes,
There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery, and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time– or even knew selflessness or courage or literature– but that it is somehow too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone, in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead-as if innocence had ever been…. But there is no one but us. There never has been.
It is this, more than anything else, that I bring away from my father’s obsequies – the realization that our elders were in truth no wiser or stronger or better than we are. They had more experience in the days when we had less; they had gifts, and opportunities which they variously seized or fumbled; they were as baffled and complicit and unprepared as we imagine ourselves to be, and it is our watch now, because there is no one else.
What does it mean, then, for us to celebrate the earth? To set aside a day to acknowledge this globe as the literal ground of our being – which modern theologians have offered as an adequate definition of god? Have we come full circle, back to the day when every river and mountain was thought to be alive with sacred spirit, animated with consciousness and intent? I think we have too much science for that, and too much self-awareness – it is clear that we are the ones who attribute personality, who are programmed to imagine the world as a reflection of ourselves, to assume that the natural world thinks as we think, and feels as we feel. No, the animism of our ancestors will not serve us now. And yet we have too much science, and too much self-awareness, to believe that ours is the only truth, the only thought, the only will, the only well-being that matters. We are not the one live spirit wandering in a dead world of objects, to consume or destroy according to our impulse. We are woven into a fabric more complex than our thought has yet imagined; at our most cellular level we are cooperative assemblies of creatures; at the planetary scale we are part of an organism that either thrives or decays as a whole. The mechanical reductionism of our materialist predecessors will not serve us either, not if we want a future for our children.
It is not enough to praise and appreciate the beautiful and generous complexity of the earth, as if we were deciding to give it five stars on Amazon.com. Earth day is an opportunity to reclaim our humility – literally, our connection to the soil, to being of the humus that is the flesh of this planet, the substance out of which our bodies arise, and into which they dissolve, sooner or later. “I know,” says Millay, “but I do not approve. Yes, the roses are beautiful; elegant, and curled, and fragrant – the roses that arise out of the dust into which we melt, and the ashes that will be all that is left of us. But some part of the human condition is never reconciled to that thought; some part of us will always be willing to trade all the roses of past, present, and future, for the light in one pair of loving human eyes. Yes, we know it; and we know that there is nothing to be done about it, but some part of us will never accept it; I know, but I do not approve, and I am not resigned.” We would not be the human creatures that we are if that resistance to oblivion was not part of our very DNA.
Yet neither would our shared humanity be what it is, if we refuse to recognize that we are indeed dust, and unto dust return. Spiritual traditions down the ages and around the globe have taught that we humans squander life until we realize that it is finite; that we become aware of the preciousness of life – both in ourselves and in all our fellow beings – only when we understand that it is a temporary gift, uncertain of duration, and irretrievable once lost. The Humanist philosopher Robert Ingersoll once speculated that “It may be that death gives all there is of worth to life. If those we press and strain against our hearts could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. Maybe this common fate treads from out the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness, and I should rather live and love where death is king, than have eternal life where love is not.” If Earth day does not remind us that to be human is to be of the humus, one impermanent strand in the ever-shifting, interdependent web of this material world, then it has failed of its purpose.
What we are called to do in order to become spiritual grown-ups is to learn to imagine that impermanence without despair. Reflecting on the classic phrase “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Jill Haeberlin, a UU from Minnesota, writes this: “I’ve never been quite comfortable with the dryness of this expression. Moreover, it always seemed somehow slightly demeaning: don’t go putting on airs, don’t expect too much — dust to dust is all we are. But if I take those words and just add some water, everything changes. “From out of the life-giving, carbon-sequestering, precious soil of the Earth, made rich by eons of life abundant cycling on before you, you are generously made; and to that home your vibrant life shall return, and be gratefully received.”
This is the same aspiration expressed by the message of Conrad Seiver, who asks to be buried not in the formal graveyard of Spoon River town, where no cows are allowed to graze on the grass, and the manicured evergreens grow no fruit, and people dream of an artificial immortality, but rather in the orchard, among the roots of the apple trees that he tended and nurtured in life. His wish is to return to the dust of the earth:
To move in the chemic change and circle of life,
Into the soil, and into the flesh of the tree,
And into the living epitaph of redder apples!
I shall not be a daughter any more; it is my watch now – yours and mine. Let this earth day recall us to our responsibility for the fate of the planet we share, for there is no one more competent in whose hands we can leave it. We are in fact no less wise or noble, or resigned to our fate, than those who came before us. There is within us, as it was within them, a refusal to approve of this mortality business; a conviction that trading love and laughter for scented roses or redder apples is not a fair bargain. It is not, of course; but the reality is that we are in no position to haggle; we are of the earth, and the earth will have us in the end. All we can do is let that awareness be our incentive to cherish love and laughter, and life for the moment that it is ours. We can let it remind us to live so that when we die, the world cries for the loss of the light in our eyes, and yet we have cause to rejoice, in our return to the soil – to the humus that is the source of our humanity – to the substance of the earth, to the circle of life, to the flesh of the tree – to rejoice in the promise of redder apples in days that shall come.