How utterly fitting that it was on a Christmas Eve that I walked away from ministry and out into the starry silent night. After fifteen winter solstices of trying to speak meaningfully to humanists and Christians, agnostics and Universalists, pagans and Unitarians, atheists and mystics (while children secretly listened for sightings of Santa being tracked and broadcast by NORAD), my final sermon was a message not of angels but from astronauts.
Exactly forty years after that Christmas Eve when three astronauts orbiting the moon read to the world from Genesis, I preached on the new-born gift of that evening:that glorious view of our planet ascending into heaven, taking its rightful place among the stars. The Big Bang incarnate appeared as a baby blue sphere swaddled by clouds, lying in a black backdrop of infinite space.In that sacred moment, everything shifted: Heaven became the heavens, and snowflakes became star stuff. And wondering turned into wonder as the humans who had trained to explore the moon ended up discovering Earth.
Fueled by Cold War fear and scouting out a future landing sight on the moon, the space race was intercepted by surprise:‘Oh, my God, look at that picture over there. Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty. You got a color film, Jim?’*
Suddenly, our geopolitical globe became everyone’s Earth.
While separately tending our own humble lives, we each received the Good News simultaneously. Astronauts became magi, erstwhile prophets proclaiming a whole new world-view. Yet, in our era as in all previous ones, we the people have refused to heed what our prophets keep trying to tell us.
Coming back from her final space mission, concerned Shuttle Commander Sheila Collins couldn’t get T.V. coverage: ABC’s lead story that morning was on the danger of driving in flip flops, not that of receding glaciers and expanding deserts. So that lo, these many years later, NASA’s James Hanson must get himself arrested to warn that our fossil fuel burning human misbehavior is about to be game over for the planet.
But he is not ‘out there’ alone. Now the image from that long ago winter solstice has become part of the collective psyche, embedded in our conscious and unconscious Mindset. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Earth’s disciples are rallying around the planet, demanding that our elected leaders lead in the effort to contain the oncoming climate catastrophe.
Those of us alive on that Christmas Eve were brushed by the angel wings of our better human nature; whether this dawned right away or came upon us years later, a brand new consciousness and conscientiousness came forth from out of the stars on that silent night.
Leaving ministry was my way of saying ‘yes’ to doing whatever was mine to do for the sake of this vision of Earth.
*from NASA’s files.
Fall’s flaming foliage brings forth a burning-bush message of purification: it is a time for letting go of what is no longer needed, for paring down to one’s bare essentials, for getting rid of old baggage.
Fall invites a time for cleaning out the old behaviors that once assured our survival but that have now hardened into bad habits that keep us stuck, stunting our growth into the new. Organized religions that reflect this need to clear away the old in order to give space for the new year include Judaism’s Rosh Hashanah followed by Yom Kippur, and Hinduism’s Durga Puja, that comes before Diwali.
This urge is also reflected in the garage sales so popular at this time of the year !Meanwhile, Twelve Step Programs (which have been called the West’s contribution to world spirituality) name this process as making amends…both apologizing for the harm done others and then changing the damaging behaviors: turning over a new leaf, so to speak.
By clearing out the clutter of our lives, we make space for the presence of the Sacred.Fall invites us to realize there is something more to life than we presently know, something that is waiting to consume us, something for us to be in communion with. But first we have to un-clutter our lives, purify our psyches.
Hold a leaf in the palm of your hand; study both:
what old piece of behavior are you willing to let go of in order to open to the new,
with its promise of At-One-Ment.
Fall arrives, and the cool clear days speak to us of perfection with a beauty that is almost painfully poignant. Perhaps this is because, with the diminishing of the light after the equinox, we know this time as finite. And so, it commands our attention. If we choose to pay attention, rather than getting caught up in the season’s busyness, we can let this season speak to our spirits.
For there are important spiritual tasks that autumn invites us into.
In fact, the sense of urgency that comes over us as we seem to come most alive even as the earth is dying reflects the PARADOX of the season, and teaches us to live in the moment: not in the summer just past; nor into the winter to come, but in the here and now of the now here, where the No Where is most fully present. In this urge to sit still, sit still and ‘know’ is an invitation to become in’form’ed by the Holy.One way to sit still and know is to create a special space in your home, in your life, for contemplation.
Contemplation has been defined as ‘taking a long loving look at what’s real.’ In other words, it means paying conscious attention. But it is also a matter of opening, of waiting to receive. Many of us receive messages from nature.
Thus, one way to create a special space is to set out a symbol from each of nature’s elements: earth, water, fire, air… e.g. a flower or stone, some shells, a candle, a few feathers.
You may want to include a particularly meaningful image from nature that can be your companion on this spiritual journey. It can become your symbol of transcendence, an image that points to the need for liberation from any state of being that is too immature, too fixed or final; it can open you to the process of change.
For autumn’s ultimate message is one of change: we can’t hold onto the perfection of its days.
Shaped by the landscape celebrated by my hometown poet Robert Frost, and aching for the colors of fall, I found my way to the cut off for Willow Spring Creek, where a cluster of yellowed cottonwoods held onto the last of the autumnal light. For although I create and conduct worship services that nourish others, I feed my own spirit out in the natural world.
Yet out here there were just a few of trees, beyond which lay a dirt trail leading into the dust of the desert, with a yellow surprise of still blooming flowers scattered across the sand.A posted sign read, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” So being careful to stay on the trail, I walked until I came upon a series of red handprints splayed across the face of a beige rock, paintings made by the prehistoric peoples who frequented this area perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago.Five hauntingly small hands seemed to be hugging the boulder, touching and touching in with the numinous power of the planet as it manifested itself in this particular landscape.The reverence of these ancient ancestors wrested my attention away from the figurative desert of my childhood religion, and challenged me to pay attention to this actual one.And more: I found myself wondering whether indeed, as Vine Deloria has written, on this continent ‘God is Red.
’This insight intrigued me. Did bringing their middle eastern religion with them blind both the pilgrims and pioneers, prevent them from bonding with this land, thus turning it into the abstract idea found in our musical renditions, such as in ‘my country ‘tis of thee; sweet land of liberty,’ or ‘this land is your land,’ or ‘all over this land,’ or ‘the land of the free.’Our patriotic allegiance is to this country seems to have no relationship to the continent upon which live and have our being.
In contrast, the Native peoples still experience this land as the source of all life, which is why they “return thanks TO our mother, the earth, which sustains us, TO the rivers and streams, which supply us with water, TO all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our disease, TO the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and squashes, which give us life.”
Was this the difference between an ego-self and an eco-self?Was being here an opportunity to consciously commune with this American desert, connect with its essential Nature, and learn from the wisdom that is native to this landscape?
Yet I knew that I must not misappropriate the life-ways of anther culture; I must use the techniques of my own tradition.
This landscape would become my sacred text for contemplation (taking a long loving look at what’s real), then for reading everything I could find about deserts in general and this desert in particular, then processing it all via writing, and finally for extending my experience through conversation with companions I’d hike with on this path and many other trails.
The five red handprints on the beige boulder beckoned me back here again and again, to where I could feel the anxiety and confusion of my extraverted profession drop away,and invited me to pay attention to what wasn’t there until I looked again,…until I began acquiring a taste for this Place.
The desert is where Light is so intense and unrelenting that you can believe it is coming from the beginning of Time, feel its heat fire your cells into life, its energy fuel your imagination.
And so you strike a candle flame for contemplation, let its light become your enlightenment, its glow invade your whole being with Being and spark your further Becoming.
The desert is where layers of deposited Earth are lifted up into your epoch and you know that the planet’s story is playing out in your own flesh and bone, and that its heartbeat is your own.
And so you pick up a pen, extending your awareness of what wants to come through you, let the DNA of your fin, flipper, limb, wing, claw, paw become hand have its say.
The desert is where Water is so precarious it is precious and its pulsing through your body leaves you gulping for more as you shift between dwindling fossil aquifers and current snow melt.
And so you become as water, imbibing the nutrients from the great soup of life by reading the record of those here before, and gleaning the wisdom from all that’s here now.
The desert is where Air that’s unfiltered by the moisture from oceans and trees makes you acutely aware of the interchange of your own breath with the breathing of all other life forms.
And so you accept that your breath passes over vocal cords and that you’ve been given a voice to speak up for all, bring every living thing into the planet’s conversation.
A desert is anywhere your ego-self becomes an Eco-Spiritual Self.
Whenever I get too full of myself I do this:
Using my body to measure our planet’s time within the 14 billion years since Time began, I stand up.
My feet planted on the ground mark the beginnings of earth at the birth of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago,
the first living cell appears at my ankle (3.8 bya),
life’s common ancestor is at calf level (3.5 bya),
multiple cellular life emerges at my knee (3 bya),
DNA exchange comes into being at hip level (2 bya),
plants and oxygen come about at shoulder height (1 bya).
Then, raising up my arms:
the largest explosion of life is at my elbow (500 mya),
dinosaurs come and go just below my wrist (70 mya),
at my wrist’s bone is when humans appeared (2 mya).
In the span of Time between the two lines wringing my wrist, modern humans walked out of Africa and landed on the Moon.The 500 million years to go that our planet should support life can be plotted from wrist to fingertip.
Sitting down with my hands open upon my lap, I see my personal lifeline etched on one; across the other is the whole arc of evolution. Yet the continued viability of that narrative now lies in human hands.
To grasp my place in this Age of Human Hubris, when we truly have become the measure of things, I go out into the desert and press my palms down on the sifting, shifting sand.