This sermon was preached on 5/31/15 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. The parable of the three trees teaches us how to move through hardship, and accept Grace, when it finally comes. It speaks to the times when we haven’t caught up once more with the good in the world after a period of difficulty.
We have three trees in our backyard; a dwarf japanese maple, a dwarf breed of magnolia and a dogwood tree. Trees are gentle creatures that each have their own needs and habits. People far wiser than I tell me this, so I’ll believe them. But after this past year, I’m starting to see it myself. Our Japanese maple originally grew in our front, right up against the house. I think it was planted there when it was a bit smaller and the previous owners didn’t realize how broad they could grow. We transplanted it to our backyard where it would have more space and realized the back half of it had branches that were stripped bare of any leaves. You see, no sun had reached the back half of the tree where it was pressed up against the house, and the leaves simply stopped growing there.
It was a rough winter, and the other two trees appeared to have a hard go of it as well. Our Magnolia tree is evergreen. Regardless of how cold and stormy the winter was, the tree remained defiant against the season and stayed green throughout. The dogwood tree, on the other hand, probably had a few too many years of being left untrimmed, and was starting to have long spindly branches. It was basically growing mostly straight up and not out at all. We had to have them trimmed back, and as the winter came, all the leaves fell away and it looked like a tall, lanky stick. By winter’s end, the defiant magnolia, with its thick green leaves in the midst of winter, finally was worse for wear; it’s leaves had mostly turned brown from the frost. It was a sad looking backyard for a bit; a spindly dogwood, a brown magnolia and a dwarf maple, which we were unsure whether half of it’s foliage would ever grow back.
These three trees remind me of each of us, at different points in our lives, when we’re faced with an extended period of hardship. As Spring came around, the replanted japanese maple, regrew all its leaves. It had done fine enough in a corner with sunlight only reaching half of itself, but when it moved to a place with more light, it was able to grow to its full self. Sometimes, when we’re stuck in a place that doesn’t feed us, we need to move. And if we’re too deeply rooted in such a place, sometimes we have to rely on friends, or companions, to help us find a new path – we can’t always handle it all ourselves.
The magnolia tree was stalwart, and unrelenting in the face of the snows and ice. It wasn’t going to allow itself to hold back, or hunker down, regardless of what the world threw its way. And as a result, most of its leaves were totally brown and dying, or withered and most lost. As we approach June, with fertilizer, warm sun and lots of water, the beginnings of new leaves have started to bud. The tree will live, but it’s inability to take cover under adversity, made it slow to flourish when Spring newness and ease came its way. It reminds me of all of us, in those times when we decide to perpetually push forward, never giving ourselves rest or respite from the hard days. Not only can we burn out, and dry up, but when the days of ease come along, it often takes four times as long to recover than it would have if we took each day, pace by pace. The magnolia reminds me, we sometimes need to find our “off switch”, because without it, we may take a very long time to find our center and our vitality again.
The dogwood tree (next slide please), is doing great. It went from spindly, and bare to broad and full. That tree got trimmed back when it was time, and let itself lose its leaves rather than spend the energy to keep them green when they wouldn’t do the tree any good. As scripture says, “to everything there is a season.” Interestingly, the dogwood tree was the worst looking tree at the start of the winter season, and it’s the best looking as Summer approaches. We can feel thin and drawn out in the moment, but cutting back, and hunkering down for a time, may be all that we need to get through what might feel impossible at the time. We don’t perpetually have to be our best selves; sometimes being just ourselves, is the best thing for us in the long run.
Notably, the dogwood, the tree that was the most run down and bare, is the only tree our puppy goes to for shade in the hot days when she can’t handle the direct sun beating down on her but she still wants to enjoy the grass. When we’re weak, there may always be a day ahead of us when our strength is something we can give again to another in need.
The poem, “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, I read earlier, reminds me of this parable of the three trees I just gave. For many of our graveside services in our memorial garden, that poem is one I often read. Mary Oliver is certainly one of our great poets. Here is a brief excerpt from a few lines: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.” We even have those words in our hymnal. I usually hear those words calling us to remember to live life fully, with the people precious to us, while we’re here. And to give us permission to continue living with meaning and purpose after our loved ones are gone.
After a time, what we’re holding onto is no longer that which we loved so dearly. After too long, healthy grief can turn into something that makes us hold onto our hardship instead. No one else can ever tell any of us how long is too long, and deep loss may never fully go away. But there comes a time for all of us when holding onto the deep sense of loss becomes too much, rather than healing. We may need to hibernate for a time within our hearts, but when the season turns, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to those we so dearly miss, is to allow ourselves to grow green once more; to wake to another Springtime.
Sometimes hardship lasts a long time. As the story of three trees attests, we had one bruising winter, and it’s not just hard on the plants, it’s hard on our spirits. More seriously, our Fellowship has endured an almost two year long span of time, where we lost too many members or immediate family member to death. It can be too much to bare. We experience loss individually acutely; but we also experience grief collectively. And this does not happen in isolation. We hear stories of neighborhoods across our nation in crisis and riot. We know our soldiers are still abroad, and have been for too long a time. May all who serve return safely, and may we find new ways to bring peace into this world.
Can we imagine our theme this month of beauty, and wonder what would it mean to be a people of beauty, in light of long hardship and grief? It can mean giving one another space through the difficulty. It can mean helping a friend replant themselves in a better spot with more warmth and more light. It might mean, giving ourselves the time and care to slow down and to hunker down so that we can come through to the other side sane and whole and ready to be ourselves once more. It can mean not trying too hard to stay too strong when we really need to lean on another. All of these things can be ways to be beautiful in the world in the face of loss and adversity.
But eventually, and always, the season turns, and hardship gives way to grace. When we let it, it’s a beautiful gift. But we don’t always let it; we don’t always accept the new times when they come. Accepting Grace can be a spiritual discipline for a people of beauty. When the wheel turns from hardship to newness, beauty unfurls in corners we may have forgotten to look for when grief or hardship refocused our vision. But beauty, or life, or newness is there – ever reminding us to ‘hold what is mortal to our bones as if our life depends upon it’ but not so long that we can’t ever let it go.
Hardship, in any of its many forms, can turn into something we hold onto. Maybe grief isn’t your burden; maybe adversity is the thing you can’t seem to shake. We may never like it, but it can be like my Magnolia tree that only knows how to stay at its fullest, even in the worst of times. I will be stalwart and see this through because that’s who I am. We can sometimes wear hardship as a badge. Pushing people away who might hold us up during this time.
Or maybe our challenge is sharing with everyone we know just how busy we are – I know I’m not alone with that challenge – as if busyness were a noble medal to shine and pin to our jackets. I think our corporate or consumer world teaches us this un-virtue – that busyness is a good thing to have. Maybe beauty is found in being less full all the time. Maybe it’s found in not becoming identified, in our spirits, with the adversity before us, or the busyness we enter and reenter into again and again. Maybe the struggle is real, and must be honored; maybe it helps us to grow into the people we are, but can we do that without also letting the hardship name us with its own words – as its own.
But Grace comes. That which we have done nothing to deserve, but feeds and nourishes us all the same, ever comes again and again. Winter turns to Spring. We each find new homes in the most sudden of places. The job comes around, or the grief weighs just a little less heavy on our hearts than the day before, or we find the strength to put down that bottle of liquor – finally. We often think of these things in terms of willpower or endurance. Sometimes they are. But I think just as often, maybe more often, something just turns in the world or in our hearts, and newness is before us in the places where habit and hardness once resided and all the world is different. Grace.
May we be people of beauty. May we learn to be gentle with one another never knowing what burdens our neighbors carry silently next to us. May we find ways to see Grace when it comes sudden before us, and grant us the strength to accept its gifts – especially on those days when we have become so adjusted to a world of hardness and hardship. May another way be found, and may we have the wisdom to take it when it comes.