Sermon in Stone

[It’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, in which we’re looking at poems & hymns from the Hebrew Psalms, follow our theme, Psalm-body Once Told Me: Ancient wisdom from the Psalms.  Each week after we ponder a psalm, I’ve concluded with some admonition, some action that I’ve encouraged you to do: Listen deeply, be silent, read a book, look for home–and this week is no different.  Also, this sermon is yet another following our 2020 themes, that of awe and wonder at creation, and our care for it.]

My sister-in-law sent this excellent C.S. Lewis quote this week. His words —written 72 years ago, in 1948—ring with relevance for us: merely replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus,” aka the Rona.

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, let us not begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, on great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.  [“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays.] 

TL;DR (Too long, didn’t read)?  Don’t think that the Rona is something completely new; death comes to us all eventually, and when it does, let death find us living our lives humanely and for our God.

I know this may not be the moment you want to hear a hymn to the glory of God’s creation, since a part of that creation–the Rona–is trying to kill us all.  But, like Dr. Who has said, every living thing wants to live and is hungry and has a drive to reproduce. Like liver flukes and spitting cobras, the Rona is a part of creation too, just as are husky puppies and mason bees.  Just because something is deadly to humans doesn’t mean it is evil in and of itself. In fact, it seems very much like the Earth has sent us all to our rooms to think about how we’ve behaved.

What is evil, of course, is some of our responses to the outbreak.  A senator from our own state betrayed his country to make millions. A leader lies continually to us about the nature of the virus, and uses racist and xenophobic phrases to create a false enemy, and rants aganist “fake news.” We provide bail-outs for the wealthy, while hourly workers starve, endangering, risking, and dooming the poorest of our nation. I could go on and on; you could too.

If you’re hip to Shakespeare, then you know that this sermon title comes from As You Like it.  The banished duke in this play seeks to reassure his companions, saying “And this our life, exempt from public haunts, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.”  (II.i.14-17)   Sermons in stones: You can, of course find them there, or in the towering trees or fragrant flora, amazing animals, or starry nights.

Psalm 19 begins in The Message:

God’s glory is on tour in the skies, 

God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.

Madame Day holds classes every morning, 

Professor Night lectures each evening. [Ps 19.1-2, The Message]

Like most of Greensboro, Ann and I have spent time this week walking in the woods, mostly near our home in Starmount Forest. In Japan, people practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.  This is not the same thing as exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, intentionally connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.  We open ourselves up to stay amazed. And that can happen, quite naturally, if we do this.

Ann and I have also returned to Mary Oliver’s poetry. Oliver died a year ago at the age of eighty-three, at her home in Hobe Sound, Florida. But she spent most of her life near a far rockier beach, in the town of Provincetown, Mass., where she lived for more than forty years, with her long-term partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. 

Oliver lived a profoundly simple life: she went on long walks through the woods and along the shoreline nearly every day, foraging for both greens and poetic material. She kept her eyes peeled, always, for animals, which she thought about with great intensity and intimacy.  Animals often appear in her work not so much as separate species but as kindred spirits. In her poem “August,” Oliver wrote about joy from the perspective of a happy bear: “In the dark / creeks that run by there is / this thick paw of my life darting among / the black bells, the leaves; there is / this happy tongue.” In 2013, she published “Dog Songs,” a book of poems about the passionate attachments between humans and dogs (not that that’s a thing at College Park). She wrote verse after verse about a little rescue mutt named Percy, about how he gazed up at her “as though I were just as wonderful / as the perfect moon.” 

With her shimmering reverence for flora and fauna, Oliver made herself one of the most beloved poets of her generation. She infused a distinctly American loneliness into her words. Yet her poems are not about isolation, though, but about pushing beyond your own sense of emotional quarantine, even when you feel fear–such as now.  A good prescription for these times.

Everywhere you look, in Oliver’s verse, you find threads of connectivity. In “The Fish,” in which she reflects on eating the first fish she ever caught when she was a child growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, she writes, “I am the fish, the fish / glitters in me; we are / risen, tangled together, certain to fall / back to the sea.” The affinity she felt for the animal kingdom was something more than a banal idea of “oneness”; it was about the mutual acknowledgement of pain. Whatever the fish felt at his moment of death, Oliver assumed, she, too, would feel. And together they would both become part of the infinite churn.

Oliver rarely discussed it, but she escaped a dark childhood. She was sexually abused as a child. “I was very little,” she said. “But I had recurring nightmares; there’s damage.” We are just now starting to have broader religious conversations about women’s trauma, about how so many women move through the world with heavy burdens.  But for more than five decades Oliver gave voice to the process of confronting one’s dark places, of peering underneath toadstools and into stagnant ponds. And, when she looked there, she found forgiveness. She found grace. She found that she was allowed to love the world. When she writes, in her poem “When Death Comes,” “I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she tells us that wonder has to be earned. Marriages are hard work; they take nurturing and constant vigilance. By comparing herself to a bride, she yoked herself to being amazed; she gave herself the lifelong assignment, however difficult, of looking up. [ “Mary Oliver Helped Us Stay Amazed,” Rachel Syme, The New Yorker, 19 Jan 2019]

Near the end of his life, Tuskegee Institute’s brilliant teacher George Washington Carver was asked by an interviewer what he thought was the most indispensable thing for science in the modern age. Dr. Carver replied, “The capacity for awe.”  [Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book, p. 321]  Awe is what opens our finite minds to the infinite intelligence of God. Awe is what connects our limited hearts to the limitless love of the Lord. Awe is what helps us to see God’s glory in the sea and the land and the moon and the sun.  The brilliant Einstein echoed this same sentiment: “Those who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe are as good as dead; their eyes are closed.”

My family likes to play this newish board game, Wingspan, that Kevin Shortt taught me. As Matt Cravey has said, it’s less a game than an activity, so you play not, so much to win, as to enjoy being surrounded by birds. In Wingspan, each player has three terrains: forest, wetlands, and prairie. The goal is to place as many birds as you can in each habitat over four rounds, all the while feeding your birds and laying eggs, and learning fascinating random facts about each bird species. It’s a hypnotic game: you get lost in the beauty of the birds and their incredible aspects.  Several CP families have this game; I highly recommend it. And the cool side effect is that, after you’ve played awhile, you are much more attuned to and curious about the avian world.

Back to psalms, many of which wonder and awe about creation.  In the words of the poet who penned Psalm 19:1, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.”  To the connoisseur, not just sunsets and starry nights, but dust storms, rain forests, garter snakes, and the human face are all unmistakably the work of a single hand. Glory is the outward manifestation of that hand in its handiwork. To behold God’s glory, to sense God’s style, is the closest you can get to God this side of paradise, just as to read As You Like It is the closest you can get to Shakespeare. Glory is what God looks like when, for the time being, all you have to look at the Divine with is a pair of eyes. So said Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite spiritual writers. [Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, “Glory.”]

Consider, if you will, going to a favorite place in nature where you easily connect to God, where you are sometimes struck by divine glory, a place you can daydream about God.  It could be as close as your back deck or porch; it could take a walk or drive to get there. Once there, please snap a picture of that place, and send it to one of the ministers.  We will collect these into a collage to share with you next week. In other words, please share your sermon in stone; show us where you practice shirin-yoku, forest bathing.

There’s a Hasidic story about a rabbi’s son who used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned. The woods were dangerous. The father did not know what lurked there. He decided to discuss the matter with his child. One day he took his boy aside and said, “You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder, why do you go there?” The boy said to his father, “I go there to find God.” “That is a very good thing,” the father replied gently. “I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”  “Yes,” the boy answered, “but I’m not.”  [David J. Wolfe in Teaching Your Children About God, cited in Spiritual Literacy, p. 128]