Lo, the Earth Awakes Again

What a difference a week or two makes this time of year. The snow is nearly all vanished, except for a few dirt-crusted banks of ice in the shadows under bridges and on the north sides of buildings, sending rivulets of muddy water down the gutters and swelling the brown river, all open flowing water where there was a jumbled crust of ice two weeks ago.

It has been warm enough of an afternoon to open the window for a bit and let the winter air out and the smells in. The cats are appreciative, sniffing the window screens with twitching whiskers at the awakening of the world. My sinuses are less so, and with the uncovering of the decaying vegetation and dust I rededicate my devotion to allergy medication. I saw the first pale points of green arising in the yard this week, marking the territories where the crocuses and ditch lilies will bloom.

I took a walk this morning, down the hill and through downtown and along the river on the walking trail by the disused railroad tracks with the clear sunlight glittering on the mica in the gravel rail bed and the foam on the rough brown river water. When the snow melts it reveals things that lay hidden through the winter, the fallen limbs of trees broken in the winter storms, damp rubbish, dog shit and broken glass. The swollen brown river is not in flood stage, not yet, but it flows high and strong between its banks with the occasional drifting debris or vestigial iceberg racing down on the current.

I walked this morning with my heart full of death and rebirth and scattered in a thousand pieces among my beloved community. This is my life now: my heart lying in pieces with my people. All my people, scattered.

Last weekend was full of church. My home congregation here in Augusta hosted guests from our mentor congregation for a weekend of congregational discernment and celebration – an odd combination, maybe, but in the context of our journey it makes sense. I have not written much about Leap of Faith since last fall — my studies have pulled me away from active involvement in this process that I was so deeply invested in last year — but this was the culmination of our year’s work, and now my home church family will prepare to carry on that work of becoming without me, as I continue my work of becoming that leads me further and further afield. But a piece of my heart will remain here with them when I go.

And so it was that I was in Augusta, and not with my teaching pastor and her congregation in Brunswick for their first worship service in their new church building, for them the culmination of nearly three years’ recovery work after losing their historic structure to a fire in 2011. It was never really mine to celebrate – they don’t know me yet, and this homecoming is theirs not mine – but a piece of my heart was with them in their joy last weekend too. I got a tour of the building, smelling of new paint, with boxes stacked giddily in the corners, when I went down early this week.

And a piece of my heart is also with colleagues and friends in the greater Chicago area following the death of the Rev. Georgette Wonders, minister at the Bradford Community Church (UU) in Kenosha, WI, from injuries sustained in a freak car accident earlier in the week. A classmate serves as DRE in that congregation, another classmate is from there, and their pulpit will be filled tomorrow by the minister who taught my pastoral care class last month. I never met Rev. Wonders or her congregation, but this is a small denomination and there are so few degrees of separation between any of us in this interdependent web of connection and care.

I am coming to the deep understanding that these things, these people and communities beautiful in their struggle and imperfection, are not mine to keep – only to hold for the moment that I have them. And what does that leave me?

When the snow melts away and the river rushes down, then we see the mud and the litter, the dog shit and broken glass, the flotsam caught in the snags along the riverbank, the forgotten yard tools and what the wind blew in over the long, cold winter.

In the midst of life, we are in death. Of whom may we seek for succor?
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.

I have been thinking a lot in music the last couple of days, while I have sat staring at the computer struggling to compose the pastoral care paper I submitted late last night, or the theology & praxis assignment I submitted earlier yesterday, while checking on social media for updates from all my people in all their struggles and joys. Last night, it was the Requiem, by John Rutter. I sang that in high school, with the University Chorale, and it still whispers to my soul. The Agnus Dei is the fifth movement, tortured and discordant with the anguish of the world.

The words of the Requiem weave themselves with a bit of liturgy remembered from a Samhain ritual years ago:

“Behold the fruit of life!”

She holds aloft the pomegranate, then sets it on the altar and swiftly chops it in two and lifts the halves, all hard seed and no sweet flesh, dripping with juice the color of blood.

“Which is death.”

The other raises the apple.

“Behold the fruit of death.” It echoes the story of Eve and the Serpent, a story with roots when stories began.

“Which is life.”

Another chop. It takes work to cut an apple across the core, the halves lifted to show white flesh within.

“Behold the sacred star of death and rebirth.”

Two traditions, two liturgical years that don’t line up, but there is a common thread of turning in toward the darkest of darkness, for a day or a season, that we may emerge into new life. Without winter, there can be no spring. Without death, there can be no rebirth; without the sacrifice, no resurrection. In the Tarot, the card named Death is the card signifying transformation.

But what of senseless death? We would so dearly like our deaths to mean something, to be controlled, to be important, given in some noble cause in search of the greater glory, the weight of our sacrifice bending the arc of the universe a little closer toward justice. We yearn. We strive. And we are not perfect in living and there are countless tiny casual risks that we take, countless times a day, and sometimes the roll of the dice comes up all ones and against all justice and mercy the laws of physics win.

The laws of physics are a lousy storyteller.

What do we do with senseless, random death without a narrative of resurrection? Most of us UUs do not swing that way. How do we make meaning of powerlessness and subjectivity in the context of a world we do not and cannot control? Who are we to dare – to risk – to strive – when we are reminded that there are not ever any guarantees, that there is no victory and yet we cannot, we must not acquiesce to defeat? How do we sit with the uncertainty that we are wandering in the wilderness and will ourselves never set foot in the promised land, that this holy broken world is not entirely fixable, neither by any of us nor by all of us, neither in whole nor completely in any part, and yet…

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Oh, Leonard Cohen. A voice like a dryer full of gravel and some of the most powerful music I have ever heard. I have been thinking in music while my mind flickers between the immediate cares of the world, and the practical knowledge that frames them, and the deep theory beneath and behind that which tries to describe the way of being in the world that allows these layers to suddenly stack themselves with poignant clarity that I cannot quite articulate, but feel in the pit of my stomach and the thin places in my soul.

In the Christian tradition tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the end of Lent (when the Hallelujahs are buried) and the first day of Holy Week, culminating on Easter Sunday a week from tomorrow. I am at the edge of exploring what is holy in this observance – this year I feel the deep need for holy darkness and am considering whether to seek out someone else’s worship where I can lurk in the back pew and observe quietly. Not sure if that will happen but it is on my mind, along with everything else floating in the swift brown river of thought.

And yet in the end the ice melts away, and the green things rise. We hope, because not to hope is to despair. We strive, because not to strive is to acquiesce to defeat. And in the end, that is the resurrection and the life.

Amen.

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