I almost hit a black bear on Saturday. I was coming down a mountain road, having just entered the Del Water Gap National Recreation Area, and he walked onto the pavement to cross the road. I slammed on the brakes, we made eye contact, and he turned and jumped back into the tall grass.

It was a scary moment. It was also majestic and humbling, and somehow in being some thirty feet from this wild and fierce friend of the Poconos, our eyes and souls meeting, I felt seen and alive. The moment has stayed with me.

This morning, the small Unitarian fellowship in the Poconos we’ve attended celebrated what it calls “flower communion,” its answer to the Christian tradition’s Eucharist, or holy communion.

The service goes like this: everyone brings a flower which is placed in a vase, consecrated by the minister, and during the service, members retrieve a different flower from the one they brought and take it home with them. It’s a way of binding the congregation together in our shared beauty and interconnectedness.

The consecration includes a line that says, “whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do this work in the world.”

I kept thinking of that bear–his or her role in this world, and mine. Our responsibilities laid before us, so wildly different, yet maybe not that far off. If nothing else, we could see each other’s special place and belonging here from our world’s apart and let it be what it’s supposed to be.

The flower communion stems from a Czech Unitarian who visited the United States in 1940 and introduced the ceremony to a fellowship in Cambridge. He returned home, only to be murdered in the Dakhou concentration camp a few years later.

After the service ended, a congregant mentioned that her father had been in Dakhou and survived the Shoah, only to take his own life some seven years ago this week. Synchronicities brought out as we heard and saw each other–and shared.

Her father had carried a bitterness throughout his whole life, she noted. He and his mother had been in a shop ordering soup, and when he went to get a second bowl of soup, his mother was taken by the Nazis and–he learned later–died in the gas chambers. He was never able to forgive himself for wanting a second bowl of soup.

His best friend, David, who was the same age, had come out of the concentration camp not bitter, per se, but with a determination to live life as fully and as healthily as possible. “It’s so strange,” the congregant said of her father’s friend, “how trauma can shape different people in such different ways, but my father just never could let go of his anger.”

In that moment, I had this immense respect and empathy for both the father and his friend. From the distance of nearly eighty years, I felt like I could see both of their perspectives: a time for bitterness that made so much sense and another time for gratitude for the good we do have.

All of this, of course though, shared in the context of a time when we’re living again through the global rise of authoritarianism, a time of hatred of the other, of mass violence and paramilitary troops. We’re both a long way off from Dakhou and also not as far as we might hope to be in 2022. There is both immense darkness in this world we’ve inherited, a world Dakhou made possible–and immense light in the world that found a way forward whether despite it or maybe because of it.

At the alter, I grabbed a red prairie clover, the trifolium pratense. They aren’t anything special. They grow everywhere, of course, and are about as common to the Poconos as anywhere else, or as Google puts it, it grows “wherever corn grows best”–a field, a dale, a mountain pass where wild bears roam free.

We pause to consider and reflect, and we move forward because that’s what we have to do, or back because we don’t know how to move forward, though even backwardness propels us. And every once in a while, something stops us in our tracks, and it can be as simple as a flower, as foreboding and graceful as a bear, or as thoughtful as an old story that makes us feel connected to someone we never knew–or knew particularly well. But it’s in the pause where we can refresh, reconnect, redirect–and then go again reminded from whence we came and to where we are going.

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