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Gratitude in a Time of Grief

A sparrow was in her tree singing to the dawn. But before the song was complete, a spark somewhere flashed and a tree somewhere ignited. Because the forest was dry, the fire spread from tree to tree faster than though. The whole forest seemed to explode in flame.

The bird flew up to safety above the flames, above the smoke, but how could she know if her friends and family were safe? I must do something, she said. She quickly flew to the river and dipped her beak in. And tho she filled her mouth with water, it was little more than one drop. She flew above the fire and opened her beak to let the single drop of water water fall on the flames. But the fire was so hot the drop turned to steam before it could reach the ground.

The sparrow flew back to the river and scooped up another drop of water. She flew back to the forest fire and let her mouthful drop, but again it turned to steam on the way down. Maybe it cooled the air one little bit, maybe it made a difference.

Again and again the sparrow flew to the water and again and again she returned to the flames. At last, she landed on the banks of the river, exhausted. There on a rock beside the river was a giant eagle. “You fool,” he said. “What makes you think your mouthful of water can make a difference? You are nothing compared to that fire. Why did you do it?”

“The forest is my home, and its creatures are my family,” the sparrow said as breath was leaving her. “Think of the danger! Think of the destruction! What else could I do by try to quench the flames? I had to give myself to it.”


I’ve told this story here before. Indeed, I told it again just a couple of weeks ago at one of our Vespers services. It’s uncanny, it’s so uncanny, the way that a trauma can make you revisit the actions and words of your immediate past. When I have told this story here and elsewhere in the past, it’s metaphor. It’s an eloquent image of the Bodhisattva’s commitment to end all suffering. The forest is a setting for the Bodhisattva; it is separate from the Bodhisattva. It is connected to the Bodhisattva only by intention and action. The forest and the bird are metaphor.

On the Wednesday before the fire broke out in Butte County, I was in Payne’s stationary chatting—seriously, about the weather—with the owner and other shoppers. We talked about the cold back east, and the heat still in the south, and with our arms out we welcoming our good fortune in a balmy day in November. “We live in Paradise,” one of them joked. “Admit it, we live in Paradise!”

But really we don’t. Paradise, too, is a metaphor. Or has been.

In our World Religions for Curious People class this past week, we looked into some Islamic scripture and poetry wherein we find a liberal sprinkling of images of Paradise — and its absence. Paradise is our reward for a life well led, and its absence is nothing but pain.

A poem
by Fariduddin Attar (the 12th century Sufi poet)

Wouldst thou inherit Paradise,
These maxims keep before thine eyes;
So thy heart’s mirror shall appear,
For ever shining bright and clear,
Give thanks when Fortune smiles serene,
Be patient when her frown is seen;
If thou hast sinned, for pardon plead,
And help shall follow at thy need.
But shall he hope the prize to hold,
Who with new sins conceals the old?
Be penitent, be watchful still,
And fly the votaries of the ill;
Avoid the paths that lead to vice,
And win thy way to Paradise.
(sing-songy trans. by Louise Stuart Costello)

Oh, and it is not even just archaic poetry that gives us our images for Paradise. Here’s Joni Mitchell:

They paved Paradise, put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…

How could any of us have known that the next day a spark or two ignited the Camp fire in Pulga near Paradise. The fire razed Paradise—and not raised that means lift up, but its homonym razed, to scrape, to flatten. Forest land, neighborhood, and rural towns have burned. Are still burning.

Ooo sha sha sha sha
Ooo sha sha sha sha

Thousands of families have lost their homes, and their work. Hundreds of people are still missing. Scores of people lost their lives to the fire.

My eyes are burning; my chest is burning. You too? The fact of the fires up north and down south are coursing through our bodies right now. With every breath we take, the fires become a part of us. Of each of us. We each of us become the voice of the fire. We become the voice of the living and the dead.

Long ago I had a friend who was seriously into alternative healing modalities. He told me once that grief is held in the chest, and you must heal the grief before you can heal the chest. I have thought of this in recent years while visiting my mother. When she starts to talk about David, her son who died, my brother, she can barely get a few words out before she starts coughing. She doesn’t cry (stoic Midwesterner that she is), but her grief wells up, and she coughs.

I have been crying. And I’ve been coughing. You too? I can’t even think about the particulate matter. It’s grief, not fear, I feel in the sight and smell of smoke that surrounds us. I cannot help but think of what is lost.

This has been a long season of heartache. Pipe bombs sent to political “enemies.” Murders committed in racial hatred. A massacre of Jews praying on Shabbat. College students shot and killed at a dance night. One tragedy after another. One insanity after another. Our whole country seems to be wheeling towards despair. It seems never ending. It leads ever deepening. The violence is heedless of the rest of us. We, men and women, have become poll numbers, ratings fodder. We have become an audience to watch our world spinning out, spinning away.

Is that all we are? A point on a graph? An audience? No. No.

Take a deep breath and remember that we are the voice of our world, we can witness and we can speak. We can lean into one another for support, for comfort. We can lead one another forward into a future that hears our voices.

Ooo sha sha sha sha
Ooo sha sha sha sha

We contribute to the recoveries, with donations of funds and goods. This is a generous congregation.

But how— how do we learn to be the ears, to be the voice of one an another? How, at this point, today, after the violence and these fires, in this thick choking smoke, how do we speak and how do we hear each other’s voice?

Lord there is so much this smoke can teach us. If we can see through the sting in our eyes, we can learn to see more clearly.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” taught John Muir. We are living that now. “”Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you a part of it,” taught St. Paul. Every breath we take connects us to the earth and to each other.

In the book of Matthew, at the end of the sermon on the mount, Jesus reminds us that:
“God causes the sun to rise on the bad and the good alike, and sends the rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5: 45)

Frankly, it was a radical idea at the time. At the time—and for some even still today—it was thought that misfortune, illness, fires, floods, droughts, all of the pains in our world, were cast down upon men and women as a judgement. To be afflicted was to be cursed. Noah was saved because he listened to God. Not so the ends of the earth. There was an attitude among Job’s friends that if he had fallen into such a decrepit, destitute condition, it must have been God’s punishment. The lepers that Jesus healed we outcasts because people were afraid that leprosy was God’s misfavor and that misfavor might be catching.

It was a shock to hear a message of God’s grace enveloping everyone like the sunrise and the healing rain. Yet we know this every day of our lives. The glory of a sunrise is there for the bad ones, the snide ones among us just as much as for the compassionate.

This smoke reminds us that disaster doesn’t choose based on how you behave. The smoke reminds us that we are united in life and in death.

But the magnitude of disaster everywhere too often makes us turn away. What can we do about it, anyway? Monster snow fall in Pennsylvania, or a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. What can we do? What can we do?

Sometimes I would much rather have my metaphors than to have to face the reality of Paradise burned to the ground.

It’s not an either/or choice. We understand through facts. We comprehend through metaphor. It is in the interplay between fact and metaphor that art is found. That mystic connection is found. That even science is found. It is a marriage made of imagination and hard reality.

This is the same place where in—if we can stay with it— we can learn to change.


Long ago when we were first out here, Roy and I were friends with another very young married couple, Adam and Karen. It was kind of a relief to find another married couple in our generation, it seemed there were so few of us. Our friendship grew slowly but steadily. One spring, Adam and Karen decided to take a month off and go travel in India and Nepal. Three weeks into their trip, the bus they were riding in drove off a mountain road and everyone inside was killed.

In the morning of their memorial, I stopped at a flower shop to buy some flowers for Karen’s mother. I grabbed a bunch of small blue flowers, I didn’t know what they were but they were pretty. Oh, nice, forget-me-nots, Roy said as he put the car in gear. Forget-me-nots. How could I not know the name of these flowers? I felt so stupid, so inappropriate. Karen’s mother would never forget her. It was an insult to suggest that she might not.

All the way to Richmond I argued with myself. Looking back it was a clash of metaphor—the sentimental name of the flowers— with the fact of a mother’s grief for her daughter. I was ashamed of the puny token I had to give in the face of her grief.

And yet the gift was given with love and received with grace. “I miss her so much,” I said. “One day,” Karen’s mother said, “you will make a choice that you couldn’t have made without her. Then you will know that she is still with you.”

Each of us today, here breathing smoke from fires we can’t see are bound together. We would be bound together even without the smoke. It is the nature of being a part of this world. We must take actions with each other in mind. Give your gifts with love and receive them with grace. It is never a case of us vs. them. It’s always us. Always.

Today we enter into Thanksgiving week, knowing that we are for each other the living voice of the world. We are the ears to hear. We will spend time with our loved ones, eat too much, watch football. At many Thanksgiving tables families have a ritual of say out loud something they are thankful for” Thankful for family and friends, for good food, for the beauty of the earth, for laughter.

This year, let’s also ask, what are you thankful to give? Let’s use the imagination given to us to seek a better world, and speak of how we will give: to our families and friends, to the people who are suffering in our state, to the people on the other side of the world who we may never meet, to the generations not yet born.

Our greatest gift is our ability to give to others.

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