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Winter Share – January 30, 2011

How wonderful and wild is nature? It is so complex, so ever-changing, so deeply and fantastically interwoven that the abundant strangeness and variety of our planet is inescapable. We human beings have, for millennia, made it our business to bend and contort and otherwise manipulate the natural world into shapes more convenient to our chosen ways of living. Last week, I spoke about the dangers of this habit when taken to extremes, as it has been in our era. The Earth, made to conform to a shape too narrow and too crooked, threatens to spring back and enforce upon us a way of living not of our choosing, but our necessity.

But the resolute determination of the living world to spread and multiply and diversify is also a thing to marvel at. Even in cities and towns of asphalt and concrete, plants and animals remain persistent and insistent in their natural imperative to grow. The grass that grows between the slabs of the sidewalk, the dandelion that springs up from the perfectly manicured lawn, and the ants, mice, raccoons, foxes and other animals that make their way into places supposedly reserved for humans and their pets. These things may not be particularly welcome or convenient for the people whose neatly planned spaces they disrupt, but they are, nonetheless, amazing.

I grew up a child of the city, and I am accustomed to a world shaped from blacktop, glass and metal. But growing up I was also fortunate enough to have a yard to play in. There was no truly unplanned or undeveloped land for many miles in every direction, but when I was a child, that little yard seemed to me to be vast and wild wilderness. Everywhere there was something to be explored, inspected, tasted and smelled. The raspberries mixed in amongst the rose bushes. The spot of earth beside the garage wall where crocuses came up in the early Spring. The apple tree that was never any good for fruit, but always great for climbing in. The honeysuckle clinging to the fence, and the soft scent of the lilac tree beside it. One of my favorite pastimes was to turn stones up out of the dirt, looking for worms and beetles and snails and slugs. Nestled in a corner of the world defined by fences and telephone wires, by roads and property lines, that little bit of land still teemed with life in a way that fascinated me.

I tell you all of this because this year, the theme of our annual congregational pledge campaign is “Garden of Hope: Cultivating Our Community”. And a childhood spent playing in my backyard and digging up slugs to show my ever-patient mother, is about all I’ve got for credentials as a gardener. The parents and children currently listening from my office may note the sorry state of the one still-technically living plant there as further evidence of my not-so-green thumb. Knowing that we have several members of our congregation with intimidating abilities in this department, there isn’t much I can say about the craft of gardening itself.

Luckily, for those like me who do not have the skill or the space to create their own gardens, it is still possible to enjoy produce that is seasonal and local. Community Supported Agriculture programs let people band together to support a farm or group of farms in exchange for a share of their crop. To work the land and grow anything at all is a risk, or drought or flood or blight; CSAs help to share that risk across a community and make growing many different foods for immediate consumption – rather than cash crops – a much more financially appealing option for growers. By purchasing a share in the risk of the growing season, and often contributing some sweat-equity, helping to pick beans or pack up ears of corn, you get a regular supply of fruits and vegetables from the late Spring into the Fall. This works pretty differently from the buy-only-what-you-choose grocery store experience; instead, you get an assortment of whatever is in season at the moment. A taste for variety, and a willingness to try new things, becomes important. Otherwise you’ll run through the broccoli and carrots on the first day every week, while the okra and kale just pile up in your refrigerator.

An imbalance like that can be a dangerous thing: the kitchen, after all, is the spiritual center of the home. It is the point from which all nourishment is distributed to the resident bodies; on the altars of the stove and the counter-top the offerings prepared before the three daily sacrifices, with optional snacks in the evening and afternoon. What goes on in the kitchen is sacred work for us, and perhaps for our food as well. In a translation of the mystical poet Hafiz, Daniel Ladinsky describes the spiritual lives of vegetables:

Today
The vegetables would like to be cut
By someone who is singing God’s name.
How could Hafiz know
Such top secret information?
Because
Once we were all tomatoes,
Potatoes, onions or
Zucchini.[i]

If we all were vegetables once, I wonder if we were more at peace then with the cycle of the seasons than we are today. We come together today in the depths of Winter, the season of least praise and fewest accolades. Talking about the weather is a popular human pastime, and complaining about almost any subject is common enough as well, so complaining about the weather is a near universal habit. And this Winter, there has been rather a lot to complain about. Snow, snow, and more snow. Snow everywhere, and not just here: up and down the Eastern seaboard and shutting down cities as far apart as New York and Atlanta. Purely from a public relations standpoint, it has been a bad year so far for the season of cold and ice.

Max Coots, the Unitarian Universalist minister, served for many years in Canton, NY, just barely South of Canada – a location that saw plenty of long, cold winters. He had much to say in defense of that season, and one of his points being the importance of the Winter to the growing cycle of plants. He writes:

The farmer used to know things about the snow we ought to know. The farmer used to call the snow “the poor man’s fertilizer.” A homely sort of name—A crude, but honest thing to call this drifting promise. It is next year’s water and next year’s grain. Fall’s end and Spring’s beginning. So, when was it we learned that the earth would end? In Autumn? Never!

When did we ever learn that life was always Summertime and Spring and harvest time? When was it that someone guaranteed a year of twelve Julys, complete with everlasting picnics and never-ending potato salads? What sort of quaint, mistaken almanac said Spring could come without December—That life was all in June—That May and August can go on forever? Even Winter in ourselves may be the poor soul’s fertilizer. And Spring within can come only if some Winter has come first.[ii]

Hard as it might be admit, we need the Winter; both the time of literal snow and ice, and the periods of spiritual frozenness. Each is a part of life. But that does not mean that either is easy to endure. In the Winter of the Earth, besides the bitter cold and biting wind, there is also the death and dormancy of plants and trees which leaves little for animals, human or otherwise, to eat. And in the Winter of the heart, the meaning of life seems to fade and falter; simply living becomes harder each day as the spirit wastes from lack of nourishment. To ensure a supply of food throughout the Winter requires hard work and planning. You must grow enough hearty, long-lasting foods well in advance and then harvest and store them against the barren months ahead. Many community supported agriculture groups offer a Winter share of such enduring vegetables: potatoes and parsnips and cabbage, leaks and turnips and onions. Not as vibrant and brightly colored as the bounty of summer, but robust and filling enough to fortify a body against the cold.

I can’t help returning to the example of the CSA because it reminds me of our own religious community. Both are institutions built on values that push in a different direction than the dominant culture. We live in a world where most food moved by ship and truck and plane from California and Argentina and New Zealand all over the world; valuing local food production is a counter-cultural choice. And we also live in a world that grows every day more separate, where we are made superficially aware of other people by technology, but rarely find opportunities to actually know others, or to become known to them. To participate in a religious community, weaving real connections and seeking to make a love that is loving, as Marge Piercy put it in our reading this morning; that is a radical act.

One of the creation stories from the Hebrew bible describes human life as beginning in a garden, in a place called Eden, which means “delight”. It is a place held up as an ideal: something wonderful that could be again if the world were returned to its most just and peaceful state. Like a number of other visions of an ideal world, from the Sumerian paradise of Dilmun to the hobo utopia of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, one of the hallmarks of Eden is that is that no work is ever needed to live there. Abundant food grows constantly, without planting or tilling the soil, and it is always warm enough to walk about comfortably wearing only but strategically placed fig leaves. A life in which every want and need is met without any effort has an understandable appeal, but I believe the carrot is sweeter for having been dug out of the ground. I believe that freedom is more meaningful when it must be fought for, and peace more enduring for the struggle that preceded it. Spring can come only if some Winter has come first.

This is why we come together in religious community. To find the joy in the struggle of living. To go out in the fields together, and turn up the soil of the spirit. To plant crops of loving-kindness, and orchards of justice, even the ones that we may not live to see take on full bloom. We come together to haul in the harvest of wonder, to celebrate as one body the glory and mystery of existence. And we also come together to store up mercy and love, so that the connections made in the Spring and Summer of our souls will last us past the harvest, and through the long Winter, as it visits each of us in turn. A dire illness, a death in the family, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of faith itself. We come together so that, when the wind in the heart grows cold, we have more than just ourselves for warmth and company. Because we do these things, and because we do them together, we are connected, each day more deeply, by the seasons of the spirit, just as farmers and gardeners in many places and times are connected by the seasons of the Earth. We grow together in the manner of the trees of the forest, as feminist author Susan Griffin describes in one of her poems:

The way we stand, you can see we have grown up this way together, out of the same soil, with the same rains, leaning in the same way toward the sun. See how we lean together in the same direction. How the dead limbs of one of us rest in the branches of another. How those branches have grown around the limbs. How the two are inseparable…[W]e are various, and amazing in our variety, and our differences multiply, so that edge after edge of the endlessness of possibility is exposed…[I]n the way we stand, each alone, yet none of us separable, none of us beautiful when separate but all exquisite as we stand, each moment heeded in this cycle, no detail unlovely.[iii]

This is the garden that you are being invited to nurture. This is the hope we are cultivating together as a people of faith. In the next month you will have before you a choice: how much of what you have will you pledge in support of this congregation in the year to come? Your share in this garden is up to you to set; we do not issue itemized invoices for the light of truth, the warmth of community or the fire of commitment. But this year I invite you to get a little more dirt on your hands. Feel the sun beating down on your neck among the growing plants, and join in the songs of the other planters at the end of the day. I challenge you to pledge not just out of gratitude for what you have already received from this community, but in hope and aspiration for what you wish to enjoy from and accomplish with this community in the future. For just as Winter always comes, so too does the Autumn, and the richness of the harvest depends upon the wisdom and foresight of those who plant the fields.


[i] From I Heard God Laughing. The faithfulness of Ladinsky’s English to the original poetry of Hafiz is disputed; as mystical poems in their own right, however, I heartily recommend them.

 

[ii] From Seasons of the Self, by Rev. Max Coots.

[iii] From “Forest (The Way We Stand)” in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, by Susan Griffin.

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First Parish Church

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Beverly, MA 01915

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