The Turning Seasons of the Spirit

It was back in late August of last year, during our annual Blessing of the Animals service, when, for the first time, I found myself in this pulpit officially. Our regular program year began soon after that, with our annual Ingathering Service, and since then, how quickly it seems the wheel of the year has spun, into autumn and then winter, and now we near the end of spring, and the close of the regular program year. Summer is before us, opening up its own complement of activities and programs, and perhaps the most visible sign of the change here at UUCA is moving from two Sunday services to one (starting next week, at 10am).

It’s the wheel of the year, the spinning wheel…. and all of a sudden I’m finding myself tempted to sing a couple lines from the Blood, Sweat, and Tears song about how the “spinning wheel got to go round.” Know which one I’m referring to? All you classic rock lovers, sing along with me:

What goes up must come down
spinning wheel got to go round
Talking about your troubles it’s a crying sin
Ride a painted pony
Let the spinning wheel spin

There it is. Let the spinning wheel spin. In fact, what can we learn from it? That’s the question I want to ask this morning. What might the spinning wheel of the seasons teach us about the meaning of our lives?

It’s a question that activist and educator Quaker Parker Palmer asks in his wonderful book entitled, Let Your Life Speak. “Seeds move through their life stages in an endless cycle of seasons,” he writes, “and the cycle of seasons reminds us that the journey never ends.” “We circle around and spiral down,” he says, and this process of our hearts and spirits—this pilgrimage to the fulfillment point in our lives—is supported by and embedded in nothing less than the ecology of the world and the rhythms of nature. The wide universe is our home, and we cannot help but be created in its image.

The metaphor of the turning seasons. Before all else, I am struck by an idea which it necessarily presupposes, that we can discover spiritual meanings first-hand by going to nature and reading it as if it were a kind of bible—and the fact that this makes sense to me and has value to me and perhaps to you can remind us about the meaning of who we are as a religious people. That we are heirs of the Transcendentalists. That our spiritual parents are people like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. Transcendentalists, all—all, people who looked to nature as a source of revelation concerning life’s deepest meanings.

It’s about coming home to ourselves as Unitarian Universalists, in just the act of taking the metaphor of the turning seasons seriously. And it’s important. We need to come home to ourselves, repeatedly; we need to connect with our Unitarian and Universalist forbearers again and again, to understand ourselves today and where we are going tomorrow. Remembering them is not merely a vain exercise of listing the names of famous dead people so as to bolster a sagging religious ego. The issue at hand is not so much vanity as it is clarity. The ironic fact is that, even as today we stand upon the shoulders of people like Thoreau or Emerson, we can nevertheless feel vague about our spiritual identity as Unitarian Universalists and wonder what’s wrong with us. This is the ironic fact! Listen to how the religious historian David Robinson describes it. He says, “Like a pauper who searches for the next meal, never knowing of the relatives whose will would make him rich, American Unitarians lament their vague religious identity, standing upon the richest theological legacy of any American denomination.” That’s what David Robinson says. And I can just see him scratching his head. What explains the “collective amnesia or ignorance” about our spiritual heritage? Why?

We need to come home to ourselves as Unitarian Universalists, become fully conscious of and own the Transcendentalism that’s in our blood. To this end, I’d like to recommend three books that could make for some good summer reading. One is called Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, and Parker. Edited by Harvard historian Conrad Wright, it’s an opportunity to explore and savor some of the foundational texts of our movement. Then there is this book: American Transcendentalism: A History, by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill historian Philip Gura. It came out in 2007, and it is proving to be THE essential introduction to Transcendentalism. Finally, there is a third book, published in 2006, which is a little different from the other two but equally wonderful: it’s called Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds. Here, the author Kit Bakke is in conversation with Louisa May Alcott in the form of email correspondence, and though it is ultimately fiction, still, Kit Bakke knows her history and has done her research, and the result brings Louisa May Alcott into a real engagement with life today. This book, together with the other two, would make for great summer reading that could reconnect us with our spiritual roots, help us appreciate what it really means to go back to Walden Pond, how it is (as poet Mary Oliver puts it) “the slow and difficult / Trick of living, and finding it where you are.” Finding the sacred here in the Atlanta everyday….

It’s what it means to come home to ourselves as Unitarian Universalists. Taking the metaphor of the turning seasons seriously can lead us to this. And it can do something else. It can remind us about our collective call and vocation in the world, which is speaking truth to power. For when we choose to see our lives through the metaphor of the turning seasons, we are actually taking a stand against something, we are contradicting what Parker Palmer calls the “master metaphor of our era,” which is the metaphor of making. Listen to how he develops this line of thinking. He says, “If we lived close to nature as an agricultural society, the seasons as metaphor and fact would continually frame our lives. But the master metaphor of our era does not come from agriculture— it comes from manufacturing. We do not believe that we ‘grow’ our lives—we believe that we ‘make’ them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, make love.” We make everything, and everything is made. Thus our culture has become one that “insists, against all evidence, that we can make whatever kind of life we want, whenever we want it.” Our culture, insisting that there can be a permanent springtime season for making and consuming. Insisting that there are no real limits to our demands for more, no real limits for economic growth, no real need to live more lightly upon the earth, no real need to scale down, get simpler, get serious about figuring out how to live in ways that are sustainable.

Metaphors are power. Entire societies and cultures fall under their sway. They can put us to sleep, and even as we think we are awake, we are snoring our lives away. So, here and now, for us to see the meaning of our lives in terms of the turning seasons—and when we start plumbing the depths of what this really implies—we commit what is truly a counter-cultural act. It’s speaking truth to power. It’s saying NO to the fantasy of a permanent springtime season for anything. It’s acknowledging that “our lives are dependent upon an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control.” It’s seeking ways of balancing our human demands with the demands that the ecology of life makes upon us. It’s getting with the program, getting with the larger truth that “we are participants in a vast communion of being, and if we open ourselves to its guidance, we can learn anew how to live in this great and gracious community.” “We can,” says Parker Palmer, “and we must—if we want our sciences to be humane, our institutions to be sustaining, our healings to be deep, our lives to be true.”

There’s so much that the metaphor of the turning seasons has to teach. It brings us back home to our Transcendentalist roots. It represents taking a stand against the “master metaphor of our era,” and suggests a better way. And then, finally, there is this: it illuminates the up-and-down journey of our personal lives, our relationships, our souls.

Consider one of the turning seasons: autumn. I know that this season, like the others, will bring to mind different things to different people. And yet we can still recognize broad themes that will be valid for everyone in the same climate zone. With autumn comes decline; with autumn the days grow shorter, and the green growth of summer browns and begins to die. It is, as Shakespeare puts it, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

Yet the paradox of autumn is that, even as the boughs shake against the cold, even as the natural world is busy with decay, seeds are scattered that will bring new growth in the spring. Nature plots for its own resurrection. Living is enfolded within dying. And from this we can take hope, when in our own lives we experience the pull of autumn in some form or fashion—a relationship breaking apart, an increase in loneliness, a job that is not working or seems targeted for downsizing, the approach of the death of a loved one, or our own. To remember that, just as there is a hidden wholeness in nature, and in the midst of decline seeds are falling everywhere, seeds which will sprout new life in the future; so, too, in our own relationships and circumstances, somehow, in the midst of everything, possibilities are being planted, invisibly, and they will bear fruit in some season yet to come, they surely will, beyond the now in which we are feeling fear, feeling anger, feeling grief.

We learn about this paradox from autumn. Seeds of new life scattered even as, on the surface, all that looks to be happening is decay, and decline, and the nearness of death.

Autumn has its gift to us, and so does the next season, winter. Says Parker Palmer, “It is a season when death’s victory can seem supreme: few creatures stir, plants do not visibly grow, and nature feels like our enemy. And yet the rigors of winter, like the diminishments of autumn, are accompanied by amazing gifts.” One of them is beauty; another is a reminder that times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things. But the gift that Parker Palmer mentions which I am resonating with most of all this morning is clarity. Winter’s gift of utter clarity. How, as he says, “in winter one can walk into woods that had been opaque with summer only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground they are rooted in. […] Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.”

I hold this insight close to my heart, for it helps me understand my life after the death of my parents. After winter came in and stripped them bare. It was brutal. And yet, somehow, it has opened my eyes, I am discovering things about them and myself which I had never knew before. Just the other day, for example, this is what I wrote in my journal. It was a letter to my Dad, who died back in 2001 but I write him letters anyhow. “Dear Dad, I don’t think I’ve ever clearly realized how much I resented you for allowing your health, in your last years, to go all to pieces, and for eating so poorly and gaining so much weight. But I’m starting to realize it now, even as the same resentment begins to boil in me against my own self—against my own increasing waistline. Is that what it was, really, that you didn’t care? I think this suggests too much intention. How about this—that you persisted in certain eating habits you had had for a lifetime, and you took comfort in them as life kept on throwing you one curve ball after another? One of those curve balls being aging. Turning 40. Turning 50. Turning 60.Your metabolism changing. Once again, I’m amazed by how my own feelings for myself are reflected in my feelings about you. I’m so sorry to have felt such resentment towards you, Dad. Not fair. I love you.”

Winter gifts us with utter clarity. Woods that had been opaque with summer only a few months earlier are now exposed and bare, and this becomes a chance to see truly, and to know compassionately.

But now consider the gift of spring. Winter turns to spring, and I like how poet William Carlos Williams envisions the turning of one into the other as a “waste of broad, muddy fields / brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen / patches of standing water / the scattering of tall trees / All along the road the reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff of bushes and small trees / with dead, brown leaves under them / leafless vines- / Lifeless in appearance, sluggish / dazed spring approaches-.” This is the turning of winter into spring, and the point is: it’s not pretty. It’s easy to want to go straight to late spring when things are in full bloom, and the gift that spring has to give us is obvious. But early spring has its gift too—early spring, before nature becomes beautiful again, when it is messy, and muddy, and plug ugly. “I have walked in early spring,” Parker Palmer says, “through fields that will suck your boots off, a world so wet and woeful that it makes you yearn for a return of ice.”

Yet he also says this, “Though spring begins slowly and tentatively, it grows with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, coming up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. […] [With all the mess and the muck,] I can find it hard to credit the small harbingers of larger life to come, hard to hope until the outcome is secure. Spring teaches me,” he says, “to look more carefully for the green stems of possibility; for the intuitive hunch that may turn into a larger insight, for the glance or touch that may thaw a frozen relationship, for the stranger’s act of kindness that makes the world seem hospitable again.” All this is the gift of spring, especially early spring, when everything feels so messy, and yet the green stems of possibility are there and all we must do is wait and watch for them, make ourselves available to them, NOT wall ourselves off by impenetrable cynicism, open up our hearts.

The turning of the seasons. So many lessons we can learn. Coming home to ourselves as Unitarian Universalists. Remembering that we are “participants in a vast communion of being,” and that this implies certain duties and certain limitations. Each season, with its wisdom gift, guiding our personal lives into greater wholeness.

And now summer is before us. A time when spring is fulfilled, the days are at their longest, life is at its peak. One word comes to mind that sums it all up: abundance. And so the gift of summer for us is just to enjoy. To take the time to do summer reading, perhaps the books I recommended earlier. To take time off from work, to be with friends and family, to travel and to play. To receive these good things into our lives.

Which can be so hard to do. Easier said than done. So hard to receive, and to savor, as opposed to hurry, or stuff, or bolt.

So often we see this in relationships, especially when people are on vacation together, and work is no longer a distraction. A man tells his partner that he needs him to express more affection—and then he resists his partner’s kisses and kind words because (he says) they don’t feel genuine. A woman admits that when her husband offers verbal support, she shuts down and doesn’t respond. “Do you believe that I love you?” the lover asks. The beloved responds: “No, I don’t think that you do.” “But,” says the lover, “given all that I do for you and our life together, how could you not know how much I love you?”

And on and on. Summer enters into our lives as abundance, and all we need to do is receive and enjoy. But at times we just might not know how—how to trust it, how to take it in and accept it. We crave it, and yet we can be so good at deflecting it. Devaluing praise because we assume that the other person is insincere. Working like crazy to make the money to afford the lifestyle that we don’t have any time to enjoy, because we don’t make the time. What incredible unhappiness, not knowing how to receive the gift of summer into our lives.

So I will close today with an invitation: to take a close look at your capacity to receive the abundance of life. To make more room for that in your life. Perhaps even to take your own pilgrimage to Walden Pond this summer—to find Walden Pond wherever you happen to be—and realize Thoreau’s immortal words for yourself: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” May we all learn how to do that. Live deep. Suck out all the marrow of life. The turning seasons teach us how.