All in nature – a funeral sermon

Sun and Shadow (photo by Martin Malina, Joyce WA, August 2022)

In the memories you shared moments ago, at least a couple of you mentioned the ‘chaos’ that ensued during your family gatherings of grandchildren and great-grandchildren descending en masse. I like the term you used with me just before the start of this service: “My home was jungle!” Jungle. The image of intertwining vines and large limbs of trees pressed in close together. I love it!

During one of the last times that I met with Vladimir, I interrupted his outdoor yard work. He was caring for his impeccable lawn, the garden, and the trees around your home. His work to care for creation extended naturally from his work to care for the human body. His scientific mind and his drive to excel were energies that defined his life. And these gifts were put to good use in the simple yet dedicated yard work near the end.

Living in the world of trees, air and light, we must confess our innate connection with the natural world. Human and nature are interconnected, entwined. This past summer I travelled with my family to the Pacific Northwest and visited coastal regions in Oregon and Washington State specifically. These regions are really all about the trees. The trees—the Sitka Spruces, Douglas Firs and Western Hemlocks— more than anything captivated my senses and thoughts.

Like the tree, we yearn “…for a place where earth and sky are joined. Trees invite us to a height that’s grounded in roots … In climbing we’re also reaching down.”[1]

Climbing, as a metaphor for life, we understand:

The tree and the human share the compulsion to climb—to reach higher and go farther. Vladimir’s life suggests that movement, physical and mental, of going higher and farther. From humble roots in Prague to world travel, taking risks, willing to make major transitions in life, emigrating to a new country during wartime, learning a new language. Not just surviving but thriving in the new world.

In feeding themselves, trees support human life, producing up to thirty percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere. Trees absorb our carbon dioxide even as we inhale their oxygen. There’s nothing mystical about the fact that trees and humans breathe each other. We help each other grow, reach higher!

Indeed, in our climbing we confess our love affair with light. If photosynthesis uses light to produce oxygen, heliotropism is a tree’s capacity to get more light. Trees extend their branches in every direction to reach the greatest possible sunlight. Plants and trees bend toward the sun as they grow.

But in climbing we are also reaching down. What is meant by reaching down? Here we explore the paradox of life and death.

The roots—what’s beneath the surface, not at first visible. In some hardwood trees especially, like the cottonwood, the roots can expand beneath the surface of the earth in every direction, making its root system twice as wide as the tree is tall. It’s what happens underneath the surface that is truly fascinating.

Scientists are finding that trees communicate with each other through an underground fungal network. This network allows them to share food and water with adjacent trees, nursing their sick neighbours as may be needed. It even functions as an Internet cable, warning other trees of danger—for example, the coming of bark beetles or leaf rust—by sending electrical signals across this fungal grid. Trees are social beings.

When we, as humans, take root of our life: When we grow in self-awareness, affirm what we value and live out of the truth of who we are—this is the process of ‘going down’. Which isn’t an easy process all the time. We experience the pain of loss, of change. But, learning from the trees, going down to take root is but another way of going up. The paradox: Taking root of our lives is the spiritual way of growing up, reaching out, and leaning towards the light, the sun.

The bible is full of tree metaphors and images. The fig tree in the story Jesus tells[2] describes a reality we all must face: the death of a tree represents our own death. What use is there in death? Our impulse, quite understandable, is like the man who petitioned the gardener: Cut it down. Get rid of it. Because it hasn’t produced anything. And it isn’t producing anything anymore. What value is in that?

But God pulls the rug from underneath our initial expectations. God is a God of second chances. God never gives up on us. Even if it has the appearance of death, you never know. What’s under the surface may still yield more than we can ever imagine. What is not visible can still bring forth abundance.

Vladimir’s body has returned to earth. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust—we will say shortly at the inurnment. But his body, his life still has meaning, still offers nature the rudimentary building blocks for life on earth, nourishing the growth of new things all around us, nourishing growth in our souls. In our memories. In our hearts. In the legacy he leaves. 

We pray that what was good in his life will continue to be good in ours; what he valued and sacrificed and made good for others we would value, sacrifice, and make good for others.

For life never gives up. God’s life and love never end. At the end of the bible, we find another tree.[3] It grows right on the shores of the River of Life. Continually being fed by a water source that never ends, the tree lives forever.

[1] Belden C. Lane. “Trees” in The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, kindle edition, 2019), p.82-97

[2] Luke 13:6-9

[3] Revelation 22:1-5

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