(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 11, Gospel of Thomas 22)
For everything there is a season, and in this season, this season of autumn, there seems to be everything. Autumn is somehow closer to the center of the cycles of life and death, the pulses and rhythms of time.
We reap the final harvest of our past labors, we gather seeds for the future, we put beds to rest for the winter.
People often feel in autumn that the veil is thin between this world and the next, that the spirits of the departed are closer to us. However you understand it, people feel moved at this time to gather to celebrate the lives of generations past, and to grieve for those who we’ve lost too soon.
The leaves may fall, but as they fall and blanket the earth they blaze with their final flames of life.
For those of us whose fires are still well stoked, there are hearths to clean, and nests to reinforce, and woodpiles to labor over …
… because, yes, as we know winter will come.
Autumn is a time of the fullness of life, all that that means, even of tender new beginnings.
The past week and a half I have been overwhelmed by the holiness of welcoming a new soul into this world in this season. It is just astonishing. And we are so grateful for all the support that this community has given to us.
At some point this past week Rachel said to me, “You know, I feel like the past few days I’ve been through the full spectrum of human experience.” It’s true.
You cradle in your arms this warm bundle of new life. You peer into these eyes of this luminous soul who’s just joined us here. That’s bliss. And wonderment. And a love that’s just overwhelming, almost unbearable. We feel immense gratitude, a rightness of being.
And then of course there’re all those human experiences of confusion and frustration and exhaustion.
And then there was the birth itself. Wow! Simply: Wow. That’s like all of life just packed into one experience.
A few days after the birth Rachel said that the laboring experience made her confront a sense of her own mortality. In these ultimate times, life and death can feel very close. The closer you get to the center of lifecycles the more you see that beginning and end flow one into the other.
In having this child, I feel a kind of presence from my ancestors, this connection with those who have come before me, the lineage of my family stretching back generation after generation, whose bearing and raising of children made my life possible, and now the life of my child.
And I reflect about all the elders in my life and teachers and friends and the struggles in life that have helped me become who I am becoming. And I reflect on what of that I want to pass on to my daughter, and what I want to avoid passing on. And then I reflect on what will eventually be my own passing on from this life and my hope that Alma will herself live fully and in her own way give of her life in this sacred and mysterious human existence, all while this earth wheels through the seasons that God has set in motion under the sun.
When Jesus saw babies nursing with their mothers, he said, “These little children are like those who enter God’s realm.”
When we enter into his world we are utterly helpless. And that is how we leave this world. We all ultimately must surrender to death. And that’s good. Whatever we have done in this life, whatever we’d had to survive, whatever our pride and resentment, whatever our sense of identity, we lose it all in the end when life dissolves. And just as a newborn can do nothing but reach for her mother’s breast, so, in the end, we must reach for the abundant grace of our mother God. This is not just true at the time of our own deaths, but also for all those other times when we are rendered helpless by death.
Someone dies too young and we desperately want for that to be different. But we are helpless to change the brute hard fact. This kind of grief requires a surrender. We must let the tears break through. We may protest the fact, we may know it should be different, and we may struggle to make the world more just and safe and peaceful – as we should. But the loss still remains, as we remain with the loss.
Slowly, slowly, through our grieving the life lost, through our celebrating and memorializing, through struggle and through grace, slowly, we can surrender to some mysterious perspective that brings peace.
We are given life, we have life taken away, and each life lived is a gift that is enough.
So, a baby nursing with her mother can disclose the realm of God. It is a picture of surrender to a source outside ourselves. As Jesus says, the truth of the realm of God is that our sense of separate identity is not ultimately real.
Male, female, inside, outside, above, below – everything that marks our difference, these aren’t actually real. We are not separate. We are woven with the generations of those who have gone before; we are woven with the elements that flow through this world of light and air and fire and earth and water. Our weeping and our joy, our fighting and our peacemaking, our building and our destroying, our speaking and our silence, our seeking and our finding, these all come and go like the seasons that God has set in motion under the sun.
We are not separate. We are not two. We are in one. That one is the one whom we call God. And in the cycles of our lives, it is love that leads to our reunion.
Thanks be to God.
[Delivered November 1, 2015 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla. By Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg]
Image: “Eathrise” by Bill Anders