Friends of a certain age would finish that phrase with “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its SUPERMAN!” And I have lots of fond memories of those shows, movies, and stories, ranging from good old George Reeves (who my Dad denied resembling), up through the recent expanded “Justice League”. I’d sure love to have super powers – flying, laser vision, et al would come in handy for day to day life – but that is of course all fantasy. But recently, I have been looking up in the sky a bit more, and have some thoughts on what I see there – starting with our recent trip to Muir Woods, less than an hour north of us in San Francisco.
I was surprised to learn that John Muir really had very little to do with Muir Woods, but rather the famous naturalist was honored with the naming on his behalf by President Theodore Roosevelt, at the insistence of the land donor, a William Kent. It was the first national monument created entirely by a donation, and Kent wanted to honor Muir, a Scottish immigrant to California, for his leadership in natural preservation and environmental concerns before the phrase was coined, and a co-founder of the Sierra Club. I had never visited these world famous “old growth” redwoods; for my birthday in 2020, we had planned a trip north but the park, and most of life, was shuttered days before our visit. It seemed like a promise kept having the chance to at last drive up a year later, surviving all the tempests in between.
I had of course heard of the majestic redwoods of the Northern Pacific, and how these trees are among the oldest forms of life on our planet, predating humans by millennia – averaging in age from 800 to 1200 years, but some living for 2000 or more. My grandfather Richard, a descendant of Oregon pioneers from the first wagon train to settle there, was a virtual stranger to me – but among the items I have from him was a poster from the “Pacific Lumber Company” in 1945, titled, “The Redwoods parallel in history”. The lumber company itself, based further north here in California, was started in 1863 to provide wood during the civil war; in 1945, they issued this poster showing the “San Francisco Peace Conference” as the top of the chain of historical events over its “lifetime”. That conference, held in this city where I now live more than 75 years later, led to the United Nations charter.
My husband had wisely made the reservations for parking and tickets early in the day, but there were many cars in the lot already – still, as we proceeded down the path, seeing these giants stretching like fingers from the earth into the sky surrounding us – we had moments of complete isolation, silent except for the song of birds, the buzzing of insects, and the breeze far above our heads. This was especially true in the aptly named “Cathedral Grove” where visitors are urged to respect the silence in the oldest trees of the Park. No architect could create more a more majestic tribute to creation than this natural temple which the earth provided without mankind. Rather than stained glass windows, the sky overhead drew my attention to that which lies beyond.
And that is the source of my title for this reflection, friends … look up in the sky … what do you see? After a year in which many of us have felt torn between being beaten down by fears, disappointed by unmet hopes, and faced with crises of all kinds in our personal as well as shared lives – perhaps you, as I, have looked up and asked ourselves what is the meaning of all this. As I have written before, my own history has been undeniably shaped and influenced by the teaching of the faith in which I was raised … a faith which, at times, has led to great pain, perhaps not as often as great hope and comfort. Our world, filled with an unending variety of cultures and beliefs over the far lesser period of history than the redwoods have witnessed, has birthed many faiths – and by that term, I deliberately try to disassociate the desire to understand that which is beyond understanding from the structure of religious practice. Some have lasted, evolved, and changed over hundreds of years – others, disappeared without much left to document their impact other than ancient writing, illustrations and practices. At their best. the tenets of faith have brought peace, comfort, and hope; but it is after all we humans who can take what we believe to be true and use it to oppress, crush, and control, as well.
I am blessed with a wide variety of friends (I take them where I can find them, folks!). I appreciate that they do not always share my perspective, history or understanding – really, more of a lack thereof – in matters of belief. As I have grown old – surely, not as old as a these redwood sentries standing silently around me – but feeling the passage of time a little differently than a decade ago, I am realizing that letting go of a desire for certainty brings me a greater peace than insisting I have answers. I certainly know and understand how the tendency of organized religion to excoriate “outsiders” – including those, like me, who do not conform to their concepts of wholeness, normalcy, or any other measures of acceptability – proclaiming the power of love, practicing the principles of hatred, exclusion and condemnation.
I respect that people in my life that I love believe – or, as some might say, choose not to believe whatsoever – differently than I do. We do not have to all be “right”, and I dare say none of us are. Certainly, in the faiths that celebrate, as in this season what Christians call “Easter”, Jews celebrate “Passover”, and other faiths holy days – there are vast differences in beliefs. For those who hold these beliefs dear, many do not know, or seek to understand, why the history behind the evolution of those beliefs bring into question aspects of their practices which they would prefer to accept rather than open a Pandora’s chest of uncertainty. I have always respected the line in “Inherit the wind” where a potential juror questioned by the agnostic defense attorney in a case regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools says “My wife tends to the religion for both of us”; the attorney replies with the question “In other words, you take care of this life, and your wife takes care of the next one?” It is so much easier to not ask ourselves why we believe – just to somehow hold on, clinging onto the buoy we have found in an ocean of uncertainty, pretending we can keep our head above the crushing waters. I have found that neither pretending certainty nor ignoring doubt gives me any kind of lasting peace.
Because this is a time of holy reflection for so many in our world – in different faiths – I offer you a personal observation from my own history. More than half my lifetime ago, as I struggled with trying to find a way to conform to the expectations of others, and the teachings of my church and those who truly did love me, but like me, had a less than complete understanding – I took a trip to Israel with a noted scholar of both the Jewish Old Testament writing and faith, and the Christian New Testament history and traditions. It was a wonderful experience, unforgettable in many ways; it gave me a sense of the sweep of time and belief over centuries and cultures in the small corner of the globe that reverberates still today. We visited “both” traditional sites of Christ’s tomb – one, buried in an ancient Greek Orthodox structure, the other a Protestant site oddly positioned adjacent to a parking lot; and, many other sites of various sects and incidents throughout the history of that conflicted land. Not surprisingly, both were empty (I had to go there). We also visited the Holocaust memorial; and, farther from Jerusalem, the crumbled remains of a pagan temple with the signs of the zodiac in mosaic, and a crumbling yet still striking crusader castle from the struggle for control of the “Holy Lands” against Islam. We were diverted from one area – Jacob’s well – because of safety issues relating to Palestinian acts of defiance nearby. Centuries of faiths gaining and losing power, leaving relics behind, each one proclaiming its unique, undeniable right to control. The devotion to those sites – and the bitterness between rivals – has not lessened over centuries.
As I reflect on that visit now more than half my lifetime ago – and today, as I stare up the seemingly endless length of the towering trees surrounding me in this chapel of nature – I realize that there are many in this world, many of my friends even in my daily life, who have abandoned, discarded and in some cases would if it were within their power would eradicate the concept of faith in something beyond. They see only the destruction and pain that history records. The words that are holy and sacred to some, are for them the names used to curse and hold in contempt. The practices and teachings, used as weapons to pronounce judgement are wounding for them; at times, they have wounded me, as well. It is so hard for us to see the little acts of grace, the kindnesses between strangers, as acts of God, through the pain and despair that seems to pile up daily. I cannot tell my friends they are wrong, and I am right, that I continue to believe we are as much spirit as we are physical beings, or that there is a reality beyond that which is measurable, observable by “science”; our knowledge on this earth is insufficient to capture all truth, and much of what we experience, we know alone, in a silent place in our deepest consciousness, where no one treads and where the light is often hard to find. I am not a good example of a person of faith; I serve better as a disciple of worry, fear, and uncertainty – yet I still, somehow, believe in that greater source of power – of life – and yes, love. That which is eternal, and unknowable – but is present, when I look up in awe at these trees, or see it in the beauty of a brief smile, or an emerging seedling, or a faded petal – or in the slumped body of another child of God on the streets around me. It does not make sense – but perhaps faith lives apart from that which does. I can only say that my sense of that love, that grace, that power – in whatever limited understanding of “truth” that my mind can encompass – carried me through. Carries me, still. Gives me a glimpse beyond, and some sense of peace, and hope.
I have not been a regular attendant at church for many years; the hymns of my youth were old even then and are mostly not sung today. In fact, being an old man now, I admit I crankily abhor the dependence on other methods of “worship” and entertainment in church gatherings, and the ignorance and lies that are often spoken as truth to congregations of people who trust in their leaders to know better than listen to something deeper speaking to their souls. But I believe there is a value in the tradition of people of faith, as they understand it however imperfectly and incompletely, to gather in churches, mosques, synagogues; to break bread together; to mourn together, laugh together, and pray for one another. These practices are the real love in action, where each heart In offering the small glimmer of light it struggles to keep burning inside gathers with others and creates a greater light, a common hope.
In 1984, director/screenwriter Robert Benton created a film, more of a reflection of the lessons of his rural Texas depression upbringing than a memory, that touched on these elements – struggling, flawed, desperate individuals and families dealing with poverty, racism, unfaithfulness and grief – uncertain lives, abandoned and rejected individuals looking for a moment of hope, coming together. I remember seeing it in Hollywood, and marveling at the depth of compassion shown by these otherwise unexceptional everyday people, just trying to get by, trying to make sense of a world that did not work, did not always show that love, or justice, or hope, prevails. It features two hymns that I remember from my childhood in the Methodist church – “Blessed Assurance” at the beginning, before an act of violence ends two lives and sets in motion events affecting those who remain. And, at the end, as a communion service closes the film in a small church where the choir sings “In the garden”, and the minister reads about love from Paul’s first letter to the tiny, outlying church of believers in a radical new faith in Corinth – we realize suddenly that there are people in the service that weren’t there a moment before; that somehow, they are together even though they are not in that moment. The last two faces, passing the sacred elements to one another as the light fades, are those whose deaths began the film, joined together. If you have not seen it recently, or before – it is worth a visit one quiet day. Here is that final sequence from Places in the Heart …
Today we too are faced with the challenge of survival, and at times, it seems overwhelming. Threats surround us, bury us, choke our hope and our joy. It is so much easier to give up on facing the big questions in life. We can’t really come up with answers as much as make peace with the uncertainty. But in believing, as I do, that there is a greater source of love, perhaps our goal should be – at least, for those in our little circles of life, coming in and out seemingly randomly – to try to let that love come through us without putting up more barriers. For Easter this year, Steve Hartman of CBS “On the Road” shared some reflections on faith – how it is shared in this time, how it survives, why it matters still, to many.
The sentries of time in Muir Woods have endured centuries on earth in a way that you and I will never know; staring up at them, knowing they have witnessed more sunrises and sunsets than I can count, leads me to reconsider my own perspective and priorities. As I look “up in the sky” at the vast expanse beyond these ancient witnesses of our world and hear the hymns that the birds sing to ears more able than my own to understand their joy – I truly sense the presence of that greater love that lies beyond daily perception. I feel it as I hold my husband’s hand and begin another year of life; I believe that greater love brought us together, to what end, I may never know. I believe that same love is reaching out to each of us, even though we cannot see it or prove it or measure it or hold it. I cannot say what you should look for as you raise your eyes – but I hope you will keep looking, and that in time, we shall all see what is hidden, and know what we have longed to understand. One day, we all will know – perhaps, gathered together, in a tomorrow beyond anything we can imagine. I hope to see you there, and smile, again.