Last Saturday something tragic occurred. Something that should not be, that should not have been.
My mind was in slow motion as I heard it unfold – first shouting, or was the shouting second? Almost at the same time, a loud bang, or more like a giant popping sound. I ran from the garden to see what happened to find this – my trash can, and, in the distance, to see the gas truck disappearing up the hill.
So I did what any sane person would do in such a situation – I ran after the truck.
Up the hill, panting despite my recent attempt to start running again, I finally caught up with the truck just as it had turned left down the road toward Viktorya’s house. As the truck came to a stop so did my Spanish, and what poured out of me was the worst load of Spanglish you’ve ever heard. “What are you thinking? You killed my trash can! What is happening here?!”
To which the young guy driving (the normal driver was in the passenger seat next to him) said “I didn’t see it.”
I didn’t see it. That was it. The extent of his explanation.
I realized, as I walked back down the hill that this wasn’t just any trash can – this trash can was a memory. My dad, who died 9 years ago, had painted this trash can, carefully scripting the word ‘Dunigan’ along the side.
Sure it is old, sure it has seen better days, even before yesterday. But it was a reminder to me of him. A random one, of course, but for me it was a trash can, but it was also somehow more than a trash can – a visible sign, something tangible, of an invisible reality – the religious word for that is a sacrament – something that we can see that mediates for us what we cannot see.
It was just a trash can, but it was also more than a trash can – now crushed, because the driver ‘couldn’t see.’
It is interesting, in light of yesterday’s events, that today happens to be the day, in churches at least, for reading one of the best known stories from the Bible.
I don’t always talk about Jesus – this is not because I don’t think he is important or worth talking about – I just usually leave it to Ron.
But today I want to tell you a story told by Jesus. A story which, whether you have ever opened a Bible or not, just by living in our modern world you have come into contact with at some level.
It is a story about interdependence. It is a story about relationship. It is a story that shows us something, and invites a response from us.
Something has always bothered me about this story.
The man asks, who is my neighbor? As the story unfolds we realize that the answer given is not ‘who is my neighbor’ but ‘who is a neighbor to the man lying in the ditch…’ Not who is my neighbor, but Who is a neighbor to me?
That is a different answer than the question asked.
I am no longer the one in charge here. I am the man lying in the ditch.
It is a perspective shift. A different way of seeing the question.
Last week I had just such a shift. Glenn was over, and, as it happened, we began to talk about the garden.
As we walked along the patio he happened to notice a cardboard box full of small pots. He asked me about the pots and I explained to him that I was trying to start new tomatoes from cuttings from my existing tomato plants – I had heard about it that week and wanted to see if it actually worked.
Glenn, in his gentle and kind way, proceeded to point out to me that what I had in fact done was to plant the leaves from the tomato plants. There was nothing wrong with this – except that they would never actually grow, never actually bear fruit.
So, though I had followed the steps carefully, I had thought, in preparing the soil in the pot, using a pencil to press a hole into it, and then putting the tomato shoot into the hole, pressing down the soil and then watering it I had made one slight error in the process – not using the right part of the plant.
So close, and yet so far.
Glenn, with his training and his background, could see this immediately. I, in my ignorance, could not. But once he pointed it out to me it became clear, my eyes were opened, and I was able to make the slight, but essential adjustment.
I was able to see.
There is a well-known question of whether or not a tree falling in the woods makes any noise – but the reality is that whether or not it makes any noise that we might hear, trees ‘talk’ to each other.
Trees are actually much more connected than it might seem to us, looking upon them from the outside.
They have, beneath them, under the surface, something called fungal threads – these threads can stretch more than a kilometer. It is the job of these fungal threads to collect minerals and then bring them back to the tree itself. The fungal thread gives the tree minerals, and the tree gives the fungal thread starch in return.
But what has also been discovered about trees is that these fungal threads, and even the roots of trees themselves, allow the trees to communicate with one another.
Studies have been done on a grove of trees that show that when an insect blight is simulated on one side of the grove, trees on the opposite side begin to release a chemical to prepare themselves for the onslaught of this attack.
This is true amongst tress of the same type, but what was even more startling for those doing the study to discover was that the same phenomenon was true amongst trees of different varieties – through their roots, unseen, under the ground, they are actually able to communicate not just to other trees, but to different types of trees as well.
The world, it seems, is far more connected than we might assume upon casual observation. It is a small shift that has the potential to change everything, if our eyes are opened, if we begin to see.
As we’ve talked about before, the origins of the meaning of the word religion is a bit unclear. But one of the early meanings is thought to be to ‘re-bind’ or to ‘re-connect’ – to take that which is separate, or which appears to be separate, and to connect it again. Or, in the case of trees, to take what we see and experience as separate and learn to see connection.
The word yoga has similar meanings at its root – to join, to unite, to attach.
Which brings me back to yesterday – to trash cans and to Trayvon Martin. (You didn’t think we could talk about all of this without talking about that, did you?)
As I began to reflect last night on the court’s decision I began to realize something.
Earlier that day I had been outraged – because of a trash can.
The injustice of the driver seeing me, not seeing my trash can, driving over it, knowing he did so, and then continuing on his way as though nothing had happened. It was not the running over the trash can that was the worst of it – it was the callous disregard for having done so. As though it didn’t matter. As though it weren’t his fault. As though he could just continue on as if nothing had happened.
“I didn’t see it.”
Like the two religious people in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.
Granted, they weren’t the ones who inflicted the injuries upon the man in the ditch. But, in a sense, they might as well have. They saw the man lying there, and then they continued on their way, as though nothing had happened. As though it didn’t matter. As though they could just continue on as if nothing had happened. As though they didn’t actually see it at all.
But it did happen.
It does happen.
Trees can feel the pain of other trees, different trees, on the opposite side of a forrest. Can we?
Connection, it seems, is the reality. Interdependence is the reality. It is separation that is the illusion.
It is a shift that is needed in our world today. A shift not so much in our believing, but in our seeing.
The purpose of religion, of spirituality, of deepening in the spiritual life, is to help us to continue to wake up. To open our eyes. To see.
To encounter the sacramental in the everyday – that which though tangible, visible, points to that which is beyond, invisible. Trash cans as a reminder of a father’s love. Trees as a sign of our inter-relatedness – something that is, that points to something that is more. A portal, if you will, from the here and now to the here and now.
The ancient Celtic people used to refer to such encounters, such epiphanies, such moments of seeing, as ‘thin places’ – the places or times where that which was more, beyond, seemed to ‘break through the veil.’
It is what can happen in meditation.
It is what can happen over a delightful and delicious meal shared amongst friends.
It is what can happen when someone unexpected comes to our aid when we are in need.
It is what can happen when we take a long walk along the beach.
It is what can happen here, within us, amongst us.
It seems to me that our world is in need of a bit more of such seeing.
What does it mean to be a neighbor? To be one who sees. One who is awake. And one who acts. One who shows mercy.
I wonder what it might look like were we to go and do the same?