I spy a bold green shoot pressing up, tender,
from an inhospitable crack in the pavement
Foolish thing –
likely to be crushed underfoot, dried out, choked of nourishment
But there it is. And in it, the energy and spirit of life driving forward –
through the worst of circumstances.
Courageous little one –
this could not have been the plan, yours or your maker’s
Yet you persist –
bringing life where none was expected, sought or deserved.
Spirit of life, grant us the courage of grass.
Let us feel the energy that courses through all creation in our own hearts
Sometimes we encounter joys for ourselves or those close to us:
may the beauty and joy of the world open us to that energetic source
We also know that difficult times will also appear:
And when sorrow or pain or cruelty touch our lives
may we lean into life’s challenges and reach out in compassion
Offering or seeking a strong shoulder to lean on.
Source of all love and light.
May we not despair when we find ourselves pavement-bound
But press on – the shared energy of life coursing through us.
By Rabindranath Tagore
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked
in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life
and my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
“On that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.”
The rains here in the UK have fallen on and off now for about 40 days, and we have seen the waters rise.
We have seen some 10,000 people forced from their homes. We see many more living without electricity and without drinkable water in their homes.
Thankfully, only eight people are known to have died as a result of the floods, and thankfully again, most of the homes that have been damaged or destroyed are insured. After the floods, most people will be able to rebuild their homes and their lives.
One of the most heart-warming things that has emerged from this crisis in Britain is the way it has broken down the barriers that individualism has erected between people. Neighbours who did not know one another, before now find themselves helping each other, sharing food, and perhaps even sharing a home. In many ways, crisis brings out the best of us because it forces to relax the isolating notion that we much be entirely independent. Such events give us a taste of interdependence which – although it tends to be fleeting in the face of greater societal pressures – we find we like very much.
Throughout the ancient mythologies, stories of a great flood abound! Such stories are found in almost every culture on the planet. These tales probably reflect actual lived experience. Of course, most of us would not expect these to be historically accurate accounts, but ancestral people lived close to water and their lakes, rivers and streams, that provided them the possibility of irrigation, travel, and additional supplies of protein. And these life-giving bodies of water would certainly flood from time to time. It is not surprising that such events would make their way into mythology.
But there is more to the power of these stories than their root in common experience. There is something that connects us to and touches us very deeply about water. We evolved from creatures that lived in and then left the primordial seas millennia go. Our bodies still reflect our old ocean home – over half of our body weight is water and the saltiness within the cells of our bodies matches that of the ancient seas. We are of water and it is of us, and so it strikes particularly hard when life-giving, benevolent, necessary water – rises from its banks and turns against us.
No longer is it the clean, clear, controlled water we knew. Is has become a frothy brown beast moving slowly but inexorably up, out of its confines, and toward us. The water moves on, wiping away the normal routines of our lives that keep us steady. Even without being submerged, we find ourselves adrift as so much that we take for granted disappears – electricity, transportation, drinking water, light, refrigeration, schools, work… Advancing further, the waters begin to threaten our possessions, taking away furniture, rugs, floors, toys, even our homes.
Although most will survive the current floods, many lives – connections and routines that sustain people and families – have been washed away. The survivors will be left – after the flood – to pick up the pieces and rebuild a life.
Perhaps there are so many flood myths because of how powerfully these stories speak to us of the other disasters and crises that are visited upon our lives. The death of a loved one or the break-up of an important relationship washes away our lives no less than do the roiling brown flood waters. The loss of a job or an illness can cut us off from everything we hold familiar or of what stands for life’s meaning and stability.
These personal floods – though they may be almost invisible to those around us – strike daily and wreak havoc in our lives. There are those among us surrounded by roiling floodwaters right now – although we may see no outward sign.
The Buddha asks how we are to treat one another amid invisible devastation, saying “What is the appropriate behaviour for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What's the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?” If we can know that we are all victims of a flood, our compassion and care for one grows and we can begin to answer the Buddha’s question.
In the book of Genesis, God creates the flood because of the evil and violence of humankind. Today, most of us probably find it unbelievable or at least unpalatable that a loving God would so brutally destroy life because of the imperfections of his own creations. We understand the story as metaphorical. Nonetheless, when bad things happen to us, all too often, we wonder if we were not, in fact, at fault.
You may think in terms of divine punishment for sin – some sin for which you yourself have tried, convicted, and punished yourself. If you don’t believe in divine punishment, you may find a more worldly justification for blaming yourself – for being in a particular place at a particular time, for wearing particular clothing – in other words, for just being human. I do not believe in divine retribution. I would that we could all accept these simple words from an unknown writer:
Sometimes it rains on the just. I believe that.
Sometimes it rains on the unjust. I believe that, too.
But I also believe that sometimes it just rains.
Neither God nor Justice or belief has anything to do with it
Bad things do – most certainly and assuredly happen to good people.
Well – good people – here we are. Flood waters swirl and churn about us at the most unexpected times – just when we are finally in the right job, just when we are finally over him or her, just when he have finally found him or her, just when we felt we could finally relax – the river leaves its banks and sweeps our lives away.
James Baldwin, black American novelist of the 20th century knew the rising of the waters well. He never met his father and suffered under the mistreatment of a cruel stepfather. He lived in a starkly racist time, amid inexcusable, fierce oppression. He saw waters receding and hope springing forth, and then saw those dark waters rise again with the assassinations of three personal friends – the great black leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Baldwin knew the flood waters and still he says:
"I know we often lose[...] I think I know how many times one has to start again, and how often one feels that one cannot start again. And yet, on pain of death, one can never remain where one is ... It is a mighty heritage, it is the human heritage, and it is all there is to trust ...This is why one must say YES to life and embrace it wherever it is found-and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is[…]
We must say YES. We must wait for the waters to recede and then we must put our lives back together as best we can. It can be agonising to find the strength to do so – to pick ourselves slowly up off the floor of despair and say YES to the pain and yes to the pleasure and YES to the disappointment and YES to the opportunity.
The strength can be there for each of us. Camus said: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.” In each of us, a strength can be found.
Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, has been an inspiration for me. She writes in part:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Over and over announcing your place in the family of things. Your place. Your place. Each of us belongs. We are a part of the family of things. We are not alone. You are not alone.
In a Peanuts comic strip – Charles Schulz’s work at once amusing and a veritable fount of wisdom – Charlie Brown said this to his dog Snoopy: “Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don't worry...I'm here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.
Isn’t this what we all need to know? We will not be alone. We do not have to be alone.
You may feel alone right now.
You may feel that you will always be alone.
But, we are connected, although we may not have found the way or the courage it takes to reach out to that connection, we are not alone. As Tagore’s says in our second reading today, “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world.” “ It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.” It is the same life, the same stream that connects us all.
This is a community of people with very diverse theologies, and so, we may find we want to describe our connectedness in many ways. We may find connection in a relationship with God, Allah, Adonai, the Godess or with Jesus. We may know we are not alone because of a connection to a force of love, or a spirit of life, that surrounds us. We may know we are not alone because Buddhist or Hindu meditation and teaching has revealed to us a greater unity than we can see with our eyes. And we may know we are not alone because of human beings – people like those who sit beside you this morning and who care what happens to you.
You may discover and connect with this comfort in prayer or meditation, by gazing at a starry sky, in art, in music, in the experience of nature or, as I do, through the sacred presence I see in the faces and hearts of regular ordinary human beings. However you understand it and whatever your approach to connection, you are not alone. We are connected by the sacred continuity of life and its joy and energy.
Remarkably, crisis itself – if we recognise that we are not alone in our suffering – may bring us into greater connection – eases our aloneness. Suddenly, we may know “the proper salutations between people as they pass each other in this flood.” How can I help you? I care what happens to you.
Let us close by reading a poem by the 13th century Sufi Poet Hafez. Each line ends with the phrase: “don’t despair walk on” and I would ask you to join me in saying that phrase together.
Aching hearts heal in time, vanished hopes reappear,
the disparate mind will be pacified, don’t despair, walk on.
As the spring of life grows the newly green meadow,
roses will crown the sweet nightingale's song, don’t despair, walk on
If the world does not turn to your whims these few days,
cosmic cycles are preparing to change, don’t despair, walk on.
O heart, when the vast flood slashes life to its roots,
Captain Noah waits to steer you ashore, don't despairwalk on.
Though oases hide dangers and your destiny's far,
there's no pathway that goes on forever, don’t despair, walk on.
My trials and enemies face me on their own,
but mystery always backs up my stand, don’t despair, walk on.
[…] weakened by poverty, alone in the dark,
this night is your pathway into the light, don’t despair, walk on.
So may it be with you.
Closing Words (Extinguishing the Chalice)
Return to the most human,
nothing less will nourish the torn spirit,
the bewildered heart,
the angry mind:
and from the ultimate duress,
pierced with the breath of anguish,
speak of love.
Return, return to the deep sources,
nothing less will teach the stiff hands a new way to serve,
to carve into our lives the forms of tenderness
and still that ancient necessary pain preserve.
Return to the most human,
nothing less will teach the angry spirit,
the bewildered heart;
the torn mind,
to accept the whole of its duress,
and pierced with anguish…
at last, act for love.
~ May Sarton ~