“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on the hilltop, on a light stand—shine!” Matthew 5:14-15
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”Theodore Roethke
Grief, sorrow, they are part and parcel of the human experience, and none of us here today are strangers to them.
Today, I invite you into a period of grief that our family and the Tabor Academy community, the high school where Camden recently graduated from, went through in early February. It had been a long week in Lake Wobegon, I mean Cape Cod, that week. You know what I am talking about, one of those weeks when the bad news came piling on, stuff that you thought was a big deal at the time.
And then there came the news that stopped everything. Perhaps you can recall a phone call or email that shook up the ordinary and stopped the relentless pace of busy-ness of your work-a-day world, with the deep truth of death and grief. It was one of those moments.
It had been a great afternoon on Tuesday of that week. I brought Sailor in to the office to work with our office administrator on a few things. The snow was falling, Kristin Lind popped in to see the dog, the energy was hopeful and then it was 3:00p.m. Reed came into the kitchen where I was making a cup of tea and asked if I had read the email from the Head of School at Tabor. The email read:
Today I need to share the devastating news that a member of the Tabor family has passed away this morning. Tucker Francis ’16, who was employed by Tabor as a member of the TABOR BOY crew to assist with the REEF program in the Caribbean, died while snorkeling in the US Virgin Islands. While we are working now to get more specific information about the accident, our hearts are broken. We are joined with Tucker’s family (Peter, Jennifer and Holly’14) in grief and our prayers go out to their family and all of Tucker’s many friends.
We have notified the school community and have arranged counseling services. I am on my way to St. John as soon as possible to be with the crew of TABOR BOY and the program directors to assist in any way I can.
There are no words sufficient to respond to the loss of a beautiful eighteen year-old boy; someone who was one of your son’s close friends and crew member aboard the vessel where Camden had been planning on heading down to participate in a coral reef study program in a few short weeks, and then sail the vessel home on open waters back to Buzzards Bay in March.
We had a close connection with Tucker’s family. The Francis family has been beyond generous and kind to our family in so many ways: welcoming Camden into their home as a freshman; his older sister, Holly-the first female Executive Officer aboard the Tabor Boy, taught freshman Camden how to swab the decks and hoist the sails. Holly even met with Camden when he toured Stanford last year and introduced him to her roommate to attend classes in computer science. Tucker had been the cook aboard the vessel for the past few summers and was using this year as a Gap year before enrolling in Santa Clara University in California. When Camden was injured aboard the Tabor Boy last summer, I raced to the Francis house to pick him up and whisk him off to the Emergency Room at Tobey Hospital in Wareham. Peter Francis had calmly met me at the front door of their home and helped me get Camden into our car.
There are just no words in the face of such a loss.
The children and faculty at Tabor were reeling with grief. The kids aboard the vessel were sent home the next day and the remaining crew aboard the vessel wrestled with guilt and sadness, wondering if there had been anything they might have done to prevent this catastrophe, asking all those “what if” questions that go through the head when something like this happens.
These are the times when there is darkness. Easy answers, simplistic responses that God has a plan or everything happens for a reason is simply bad theology and unacceptable.
And so I entered into the cave.
The cave, and darkness, is where we all began. Our lives begin in the darkness of the amniotic fluid of our mother’s womb. The sounds we first hear are the sounds of our mother’s heartbeat and our own.
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, about entering the stone. “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” (Theodore Roethke) Midway through her study of darkness, Taylor was invited to enter a cave to experience darkness. A retired Presbyterian minister named Rockwell and his wife Marrion, take Barbara into a “wild cave” in West Virginia. Excited and afraid of her own reaction to an experience of total darkness, Barbara sets out to explore the Organ Cave with her friends and an experienced guide. Her survival guide suggested packing at least three sources of light and extra water, to wear caving clothes and always travel with an experience guide. Theoretically, Barbara was intrigued by the idea of caving because many of the major figures in religion spent extended periods of time in caves, but she was unsure if she would freak out while experiencing total darkness inside the Organ Cave. She writes,
I think about all the great spiritual leaders whose lives changed in caves. Gautama Buddha meditated regularly in them, setting such an example for his followers that if you go to India, China, or Tibet, your tour guide can almost always take you to a meditation cave. In Bhutan, you may even be invited to prostrate yourself in front of a niche in the wall where a great master once sat, hollowing out the rock by the force of his consciousness alone.
Muhammad spent a lot of time in a small mountain cave two miles outside of Mecca, where he meditated and prayed for days at a time. On what has been known as the Night of Power, the angel Gabriel came to him there.
“Recite!” Gabriel said.
“Recite what?” Muhammad asked, and Gabriel told him, so the first verses for the Qur’an spooled into the world from the belly of a cave.
Jesus was born in a cave and rose from the dead in a cave. Like most Westerners, I always thought of the stable in Bethlehem as a wooden lean-to filled with straw, at least until I went to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank. There I learned that caves day—no wind whistling through the boards, no predators sneaking up on you from behind. The traditional place of Jesus birth is not in the Church of the Nativity but under it, in a small cave under the altar.
Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.1
As a mother, my heart breaks for Tucker’s mother and father. There are no words to fill the spaces. As a mother to my own son, my heart breaks that he should lose a friend. As a pastor, I sat in the darkness and know that only when our eyes adjust to the darkness, can we begin to see, smell, hear, and taste what we cannot experience when all is bright and shiny.
And so, we sit in the darkness, our eyes adjust to the lack of light, and when we exit the cave, there is the night sky and the light bursting through the constellations takes my breath away. The moon shines for everyone, those who mourn and those who dance with delight.
Our scripture for today speaks of salt and light. I found an intriguing article about the microscopic structure of human tears from the Smithsonian magazine. Tears and ocean water are both 35 parts per milliliter salt. There is a drop of ocean in a human tear. The microscopic imaging of tears shows the beauty of human emotion. Tears of suffering and loss are fractals spaced out with human proteins formed by fear or grief. Tears from an onion are caused by an irritant and are more uniform in shape and topography. It is amazing that the source of emotion behind our tears changes the microscopic shape of the tear itself. Within the drop of tears on the slide, she can see whether the tear came from an irritant like an onion, or primal fear and emotion like joy or sorrow.
The photographer writes in her essay on tears that, ““Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage,” she says. “It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”2
Jesus called us to be the salt of the earth. The salt of the ocean, the ocean where Tucker lost his life is the ocean that heals and saves our planet. The salt of our tears is the same chemical compound as the ocean. We are all connected through salt, tears, ocean, light and darkness. Without the darkness, we cannot see the light. In the unknowing, in our grief, in our loss, we become aware of our need for the light of other bodies, other souls that cry and suffer and mourn.
That day, as I processed my grief, I saw the light of Tabor students reaching out to each other as lights and citizens of a city on a hill. They created a wall where anyone could write a Post-It note and dedicate their thoughts to remember and honor Tucker Francis ’16.
The School, in leading by light and integrity, wrote “Tucker Francis ’16 embodied all the best of Tabor Academy and we will miss him dearly. His kind and generous spirit will be our guide forward and his legacy of friendship our strength. It is said that grief shared is grief divided. We are grateful to know that those here on campus and everyone in the Tabor family can rely on each other in this terrible moment.”
At the beginning of John’s gospel we are told, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Today, I invite you to remember your own times of cave dwelling and darkness, and yet remember the power of our tears. Our tears of grief remind us of what it means to be both human and related to the Divine. And so let us see through those tears the un-extinguishable light of our God’s love, and may we, in our lives, shine that light out into the world. Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 127-129.