Dreaming of Rain when the Fire Comes First
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
September 6, 2020
Here at UUCM we use monthly themes facilitated by the Soul Matters organization.
This summer, as I was looking ahead to these September services, I struggled to connect with the planned theme of “renewal.” Given the ongoing pandemic, the rising racial reckoning, the only-going-to-get-more-and-more-maddening presidential election, I felt that the real theme for September ought to be “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a wild ride.”
As lovely as “renewal” sounded for this moment, it felt too early. I sensed renewal as a future we are heading toward, a point on the horizon toward which we must aim who we are and all that we are doing. Right now, the needed focus is more about resilience, I believe, more about becoming increasingly flexible, about finding and holding onto the threads of our essential selves and our essential values, and letting go of so much of what we usually try to cling to for a sense of security. Just when grasping feels most urgent.
Like the rain in Jan Garrett’s song, “I Dreamed of Rain,” renewal is coming, eventually, but we’ve got some steep miles to go.
The spiritual need, it seems to me, is to ready ourselves for renewal – and to help each other stay heart-centered and open-hearted on the rough, anxiety ridden, and transforming roads ahead – so that we are prepared for deep and transformational opportunities for renewal whenever portals open to them. Therefore, we’ve chosen to focus on heart-centered renewal as our theme this month, our theme for the year, really, with that larger, ongoing journey in mind and heart.
When Gail and I first brainstormed images and symbols that might embody the theme of renewal, Gail named the phoenix: that mythological bird that lives for five or six centuries in the desert, and then burns itself on a funeral pyre in order to rise from the ashes with renewed youth, to live through another cycle.
When Gail named the phoenix, I remembered a line in a song by Ben Abraham and Sara Bareilles, titled “This Is On Me.” It’s a song about the impending end of a relationship and the tentative possibilities of saving it in a new form. It’s a very tender song. Ben and Sara sing, “Some phoenix MAY rise from these ashes, but the fire comes first.”
That’s exactly how I feel about renewal and the future these days. Well, almost exactly. My hopeful self sings, instead, “Some phoenix will rise from these ashes, but the fire comes first.”
The fact that we have had so many fires since that conversation, including a fire right here, affecting some of you very directly, and close enough to put UUCM’s building in the evacuation warning zone, has heightened the strength of that image for me… and the depth and power of the journey between this moment and renewal to come.
Christy’s wonderful stories about Birding the Burn, about chronicling the abundant bird life that burn snags invite, sparked memories for me of a particular variety of bird from my childhood: the Kirtland’s Warbler.
The Kirtland’s warbler was one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They’d always been very rare since first identified by Europeans in 1841, but by 1974 their population was down to 167 singing males (which is how they count these birds, by their singing). At one time there were only 7 square miles of breeding habitat available to them.
Kirtland’s warblers winter in the Bahamas, and 95% of them nest in only one place on Earth – in the middle of the Michigan mitten, not far from where I grew up. They have one of the most geographically restricted breeding distributions of any bird in the continental United States.
The thing is, Kirtland’s warblers nest almost exclusively in jack pine trees.
And only in jack pine trees that are between 5ft and 16.5 feet tall.
And only in jack pine trees between 5ft and 16.5 feet tall growing close enough to each other for their branches to overlap, so as to hide the birds’ low nests.
This means that Kirtland’s warblers need relatively young, dense stands of jack pines, before the trees get too tall. Which means they require that new jack pine forests are getting started at least every 15 or 20 years, so they always have trees of the right height for nesting.
And there is one more catch.
Jack pine pinecones only open and release their seeds under extreme heat. Once in a very great while, the weather in Michigan can get hot enough to do it, but most of the time, it requires fire. It has required that Jack pine forests burn periodically in order for Kirtland’s Warblers to survive as a species.
OTHER KINDS OF FIRES
I expect that you have your own stories, your own metaphors and parallels, for this awareness: that in order for something new to arise, the old has to come apart enough – maybe even completely – in order to make the new possible. The truth that sometimes, things must burn or otherwise be destroyed in their current form, in order for new life to take shape, or even for existing, rare and precious life, to continue. The knowledge that sometimes it takes a while after the coming undone, before new growth reaches the right, sweet-spot height for giving birth.
You may know of relationships that wither, or die of starvation or thirst, or that implode or explode before people have enough energy to change their behaviors or take enough action toward something better. You may know of organizations and institutions that come crashing down or that slowly fade into silence, releasing people and resources to invest in something new, more in tune with current values and needs. You may know first-hand of dreams and expectations that have to be released, or dashed, or sometimes ripped away before a truer path and a truer self can be seen.
At the time, such painful endings seem the worst of all the possibilities. Until later… looking back, one recognizes the necessity of the ending for the beginnings and all the benefit that came after, eventually.
RAISING THE HEAT
In seminary, one of my teachers, Thandeka, who grew up as the child of a preacher in a black church, pointed out that the white protestant religious traditions, which is where UUism came from, tend to want to keep things cool, and reasoned, and orderly – emotionally and spiritually calm. Historically, we don’t want to get too worked up and we get anxious when it’s otherwise.
When what’s actually needed to bind us together meaningfully as a theologically varied community, what’s needed to reach into and transform our hearts, what’s needed to make room for the movement of the spirit, what’s needed to allow us to “love beyond belief” – as Thandeka would put it – is to raise the heat. She tried to teach us quiet, bookish, cool, reasoned ministerial students, to raise the heat in our services and our ministries.
The challenge, in general, is to raise the heat enough for transformation, but not so much that people get burned, or everything destroyed. The challenge is to manage a controlled burn, which, as you know, can’t always be controlled – for better, for worse. Or it’s important, at least, to recognize the value of the heat.
In my own internal journey, I’ve been extending this metaphor of necessary heat to the racial reckoning underway in the United States, as the nation faces in new ways its original sin of slavery. Nothing about racism and white supremacy will change significantly until there is enough heat and pressure to melt or burn what holds the current structures and behaviors in place.
Personally, I prefer that things happen calmly, peacefully, smoothly and without confrontation, but I know that addressing something as foundational to our nation’s heritage as racism will require some mighty powerful heat. Perhaps “the fires this time” will burn hot enough, or long enough, or in the right enough places, to open up more genuine possibility of liberation for all of us. Even Trump’s latest edict trying to ban racial sensitivity training in Federal agencies only adds fuel to that fire.
I find myself applying this heat metaphor to all of national politics these days, and the current threats to democracy as we have known it. As viscerally frightening as some of the possibilities feel, the way that I’m able to hold hope and to face the disorienting evening news each day, is to understand that these fires, too, may provide the heat needed to better “confirm America’s soul,” as Kathryn Lee Bates put it in America the Beautiful, and to lead the nation, ultimately, into more of its promise.
I picture the Buddha smiling at all of this, at all of us, in our angst. The Buddha, who passes down through myriad lineages the truth that everything is, always has been, and always will be uncertain, unpredictable, and in disorienting flux. Guatama Buddha taught that we suffer when we deny and struggle against instability and change, in other words when we struggle against the nature of existence.
And, oh, my friends, I know, we are being gifted with a lot to struggle with lately.
Our greatest suffering might not come from what’s happening and what frightens us at the surface, but from our very human resistance to the truth that everything is always in motion, “that we [ourselves] are always in transition” As Pema Chödrön puts it, the “ordinary and obvious truth of change (24 The Places that Scare You).”
There, for me, is a pathway to hope: to learn to let go enough to enter the uncertainty with an open heart and open expectations, looking not backward to some sort of return to the familiar, but forward to some yet-to-be-revealed possibilities. To understand that even a burned forest is not truly barren. At least not for long.
With so much in our lives uncertain right now, this cannot help but be a time of deep anxiety, heartbreak and tenderness. These feelings come with the experience of this kind of in-between moment, and we’ll need to hold each other in all of the nurturing ways that we can, so that we might learn, as Rev. Doug Kraft invited us in his offering of Buddhism’s essential teachings: the invitation to turn toward our pain -instead of away from it – and to feel and see it on its own terms. The invitation to relax into our suffering in order to know it more honestly and more deeply. The invitation to settle into and savor the tenderness that is always underneath our angst and suffering, where, with openness, we might discover an experience of freedom.
As Doug said to us, “the only path that works in the long run goes through the suffering, [the] tenderness, and [the] openness rather than around them.”
Christy Sherr has shared with me that many people she talks to about burn snags expect that there is nothing there, in those forests after a fire, nothing of worth, but Christy knows from experience about the abundant life that arrives in a fire’s aftermath, and she lights up when she talks about it.
You’ll be glad to know that with controlled burns, and many other kinds of on-the-ground work, there are now 2300 breeding pairs of Kirtland’s Warblers. The recovery numbers exceeded expectations for 16 years in a row and Kirtland’s Warblers have been taken off the endangered species list.
It’s difficult to imagine with any sort of clarity life beyond the fires, the pandemic, the economic unknowns, the presidential election no matter how it turns out. We can’t know this future.
At this entrance to the church year – I invite us to stay heart-centered and open-hearted, and to dream of rain, yes. To dream, as much as we need, of rain coming down soft and easy, sweet and clear… Without any need to rhyme it with fear. We need the respite.
The rain will come, eventually.
And, in order to cultivate our resilience and our honest hope, for our own lives and for a world genuinely more compassionate, more sustainable, more just, I invite us to know also that, chances are, the fire comes first. And that that, may be just what’s needed to release the seeds of a future closer to our vision – seeds that despite all our previous efforts are still trapped inside impenetrable shells that will open only with high enough heat. Seeds for the next grove of growth and new life, in time.
So may it be, my friends.
So may WE be.