“Following the Signs” by Mark Harris – June 3, 2007

“Following the Signs” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – June 3, 2007

Opening Words – from Kalidasa

Look to this day! For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

Sermon

Last Friday, June 1st was Rabbit, Rabbit Day. A few years back when Andrea and I were first dating, she introduced me to the concept, and the ritual involved. First when you awaken on the morning of the first day of any month, you must not speak to anyone. Then you must balance on one foot, and turn around in a circle three times without falling over. At the end of this circular dance you must reach down and touch the ground while remaining on one foot, again without falling over. Then you utter the words, Rabbit, Rabbit. If you follow all these steps faithfully good luck will ensue for the next month. Now to be honest, I tried this on and off for several years, but I cannot say that it effected the luck I would have. It did however, seem to improve my balance.

I suppose it is silly to suggest that some little ritual will predict how good a month we will have. We cannot predict the future even though we humans have tried to be prognosticators from the beginning of time. Certain events are likely or even probable in our lives, but the winds can change and the storm clouds can either blow in or blow out. In the movie version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Bing Crosby is about to lose his head until he takes out his Farmer Almanac, and predicts a total eclipse of the sun. After the eclipse occurs the medieval populace is convinced that he has supernatural powers, and can predict the future, but in fact he simply uses a little science, and a little luck. Films also warn us of the danger of knowing the future. In the second installment of Back to the Future, the villain Biff obtains a sports record book from the future, and uses all of the scores to bet on games to make himself very rich. This changes everything that would have occurred, if life had not been tampered with.

There is something intriguing about trying to know the future. Take the Zodiac signs. Most all of us know what our signs are, and what they represent; what kind of person we will be based on our sign. I am a Libra, the seventh sign of the Zodiac, represented by the scales, with a personality of balance and equilibrium. I have never been a devoted follower of astrology, but for a long time I identified with Libra, thinking of myself as steady and calm, weighing all the facts as a good historian should. When we give our sign even a little bit of credence, then a daily horoscope takes on some significance, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Popular music has also reminded us of the influence of astrology. Years ago there were long hairs who predicted the Age of Aquarius because the moon was in its seventh house and Jupiter was aligned with Mars. While the stars could predict world wide peace, there was also a countervailing doom that Eric Clapton sang about in being “Born under a Bad Sign.”

Do people really believe that the stars can determine our destiny? Although I didn’’t know much about the zodiac as a child, I certainly learned the usual litany of things that could bring bad luck. These included: don’t let a black cat cross your path. Don’t walk under a ladder. If you break a mirror, it will bring seven years of bad luck. And the one I still repeat for my boys, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Even if you think they are silly, the ritualization of such phrases meant I never stepped on a cracked or walked under a ladder. Superstitions were especially apparent in my athletic endeavors. I always stepped over the white line when crossing through the base path in that most superstitious of sports, baseball.
Once you have done something successfully you want to do it the same way again to ensure continued success. I once had a friend who kept lucky socks and shirts until they became so dirty they disintegrated. Unfortunately, his locker was next to mine.

In my own life sports, superstitions and religion literally crossed when I saw friends come to bat in baseball. Just before entering the batter’s box, they invariably made the sign of the cross, and then stepped in to hit. I suspected that my friends believed this would help them get a hit. Even today, we see the major leaguers look to the heavens in thankfulness after they have hit a home run, as if the hit was somehow aided by divine intervention. There is an intermingling of habit and ritual and superstition in many of our actions. We may organize our lives in certain ways, or always take the same roads. We become accustomed to the familiar and the predictable. But what if we have an accident on the road? Sometimes we change our patterns so as not to repeat or be reminded of some bad luck or an unfortunate event.

Most of us don’t fear that bad things will happen if we don’t perform some regular ritual, or do something in exactly the same way, but our need to have established patterns does indicate how fraught with chaos life can appear to us. We want to have rituals that give some predictability to life. We want something where we feel a measure of control. Something we can count on – a measured walk or a swim. Our worship service fulfills this need, too. It is always at the same time, and its order is repetitive. Its sameness is calming and predictable, and thus may bring comfort and assuredness that there is peace and control in the world.

Having something to count on gave rise eons ago to the science of astrology. In the Bible we learn that many people believed that the destinies of human beings were in some way determined by their “stars.” Isaiah says,”Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, perhaps you may be able to succeed, perhaps you may inspire terror . . . let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you.” (Chap. 47:12-13) We are most familiar with the star guided event that led the wise men to Bethlehem where the infant was.

Astrology occupied a powerful place in people’s belief structure for many centuries. They believed the whole sky was filled with signs. Astrology endowed all of nature with power to affect life in some way. The calendar was structured around the sun, and the twelve months were related to some kind of agricultural activity. As late as 1600 Astrology was dominant over science and medicine. In fact doctors relied on the stars. If a patient required bloodletting, then the patient’s astrological sign dictated where the point of incision would be. Libra, for instance, rules the kidneys.

Science succeeded astrology because it offered an alternative, more plausible and reliable explanation of the universe. In its day astrology conferred stability and certainty because it explained why things happened or failed to happen. We still take note of some of these patterns. When I am in Maine in the summertime, the moon and its control over when high tides occur help with all our planning for water time activities. This certainty of nature’s cycles brought stability to people’s lives, but it also led to conflict with religion. This became especially true at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when Calvin said that to attribute good or bad luck to the stars was a direct threat to Christian dogma. Astrology was condemned because it made people forget the role of God in human affairs. For some there was no conflict. They felt the stars and planets were placed in the sky by God, and their workings exemplified God’s power. But the main objections are actually quite pertinent to us today.

While granting the influence of the heavens upon climate, vegetation and physiology, theologians feared that a belief in astrology fostered a kind of astral determinism that destroyed free will and moral responsibility. If you truly believe you are born under a bad sign, “been down since you began to crawl,” as the song says, then you will never feel like you can exercise any moral choices, you are in bondage to the stars. If the will is free then you cannot predict human behavior. While we may not feel bound by stars these days, many of us have wondered how much we are bound by the DNA that makes up who we are. I have spent many hours in the last few years pondering not only the genes which produced the physical resemblances that make our children carbon copies of Andrea, but moreover the kinds of emotional and cognitive proclivities we hand on to our children, Even the television ads tell us that our cholesterol levels come partly from our eating habits such as the fatty desserts like apple brown betty, but just as important are the traits we inherited from my Dad’s sister, Aunt Betty. This makes me concerned about the predilection of our culture to believe in other forms of determinism. As much as we rely upon them, even our machines leave us with some question as to their capabilities for predicting the future. We all wonder if weather predicting is any better when they use computer models, or rely on more ancient methods of scanning the sky. When my son Dana was in utero, after the ultrasound, they told us that he had a hole in his brain and in his heart. It was an instance where more information was too much information.

It seems as though all of the attempts to predict the future are weighed down by potential error. We should be skeptical of consulting any outside sources to predict how we are going to behave or what we are going to do in the future. It is helpful to know what emotional and physical afflictions have occurred in our family history. We can better prepare ourselves for what may befall us, but these predictors should not lead to abdicating our own powers of action and reason when we know predictors can be wrong, and we can take many steps to manage whatever we are afflicted with.

In this human predilection for submitting to some kind of determinism we sow the seeds of losing our moral responsibility. In her book, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, Wendy Kaminer says she worries about the public impact of a mandate to submit, which appears in much popular religious literature as well as in the recovery movement. We only have to think of countless historical examples of people submitting to religious charlatans or political leaders. The personal danger in astrology, popular religion, the recovery movement, and even the fate we bestow on ourselves with gene determinism is that we say we are powerless. Where does the fault lie in why we are the way we are? In many ways our gene make-up does help predict the course of our lives. In recent years we have embraced some of this information. We have heard that biology may determine susceptibility to alcoholism, and a predilection for violence or mood disorders. While biology may give an explanation for certain traits, it should not be an excuse for behaviors we can make every effort to manage through medication, exercise, learning and behavioral efforts. We do not have to submit to biology, astrology, family history, or even God when it comes to making choices for helping to determine the direction of our own stars. We can still do a great deal to determine our destiny by choosing to learn more about ourselves and our conditions and do more to overcome all those life situations that plague us and wear us down because they are fraught with such seeming peril. The famous quotation from Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar by Cassius is very pertinent here, “ The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

In his speech to Brutus, Cassius will not give over their personal failings to the rule of the stars, but takes personal responsibility. Although he is unhappy with his place in the universe, he will not offer excuses for it. This is why overcoming learning disabilities and emotional disorders can be so daunting. Many people are endowed with a difficult place in the universe. Their genes or bad luck have given them much greater handicaps to overcome than others. Too often society tends to place the burden of responsibility on those people who suffer. We often say they are not trying hard enough or they could do better or more. This makes it extremely discouraging for those who struggle with some issue. The problem is that we all long for an assured place in the universe. But when we let some determinism determine who we are, then we have lost touch with our innermost longings and feelings. We all want a happy place in the universe. For those with a great burden, we can reach out with understanding for how much of a predetermined burden they do suffer from, and give them choices so that their place in the world is vastly improved. Too often we just characterize these people as losers.

None of us wants to accept a predetermined place in the universe. We want to create our own place which is more learned, more beautiful and more creative because that is where we can find meaning in life when we can develop these traits in relationship with others. For many years I identified with my zodiac sign of Libra. I tried to appear balanced and calm. Yet in fact my biology has given me a make-up that is quite emotional, and I tend to react very strongly to outside stimuli, although not always articulating my response very well in words. My emotions go back and forth, and if anything it is a balance of emotions I seek. My steadiness of outward demeanor masks a cauldron of emotion. I am not really a good Libran – some days it fits, and others it does not. You can read most anything in the predictors of the stars. We do that not because we truly believe, but because we want our lives to have some meaningful pattern.

In her book, Remembering the Bone House, Nancy Mairs talks about always waiting for happiness. I am going to be happy once I am married. I am going to be happy when the bills are paid or when I graduate. We can always find things that can control our fate, and offer up excuses for happiness not being present in our lives. This happiness is dependent upon some greater event that may or may not occur, and even if it does, we cannot predict what the circumstances will be surrounding it. With couples I conduct weddings for, I can never predict whether the marriage will work or not. Some who seem to pass all the test of likes and dislikes and time spent together may create a volatile marriage that will not last. Others who seemingly have nothing in common manage to carve out a meaningful and lasting marriage because they find their own niche. You just cannot say. People change. Times change. There are stresses and strains. The teenager who brought much trauma while he or she was in high school, may turn out to be hard working and trustworthy. Mairs reminds us, we will not find happiness if we expect that it will come at some future date once something else is settled. This is why predicting anything is an occupation fraught with great hazards. Life happens in the present. Maybe you remember being happy once, but that was then in that present, not now. Maybe you hope to be happy in the future, but who knows if you will be. We cannot ultimately predict. Whatever our genes or our stars determine we are, it is ultimately what we see, how we act, how we feel about ourselves in this moment in time that will give us happiness or joy in what we choose to do and who we choose to be with.

Astrology once helped people look to the starts and see beauty in the world in that moment in time. In his book, Conversing with Planets, Anthony Aveni writes, “Long ago the fingertips of humankind touched earth and sky more sensitively, and from those sensations there came a self-awareness that we could never be separate from nature.” He says stargazers were remarkably astute in their understanding of the movement of the planets. The Mayans associated Venus with the god of rain because the planets absence is shortest when Venus vanishes during the dry season, and longest during the time of rain. The planet’s cycles and the earth’s agricultural cycles were associated with the cycles of life. In fact, Aveni writes, if you observed their fickleness of swaying to and fro, shining and fading, “they seem almost human.” I think the astrologers were telling us, if we want to be connected, if we want to be assured that our lives are good and part of a large magnificent process, we will gaze at the stars and feel the pull of the planets. Summer time looms ahead of us. It is a time when we are invited to gaze at the stars, and feel the joy of creation. Perhaps we can stop, and live in the moment of not waiting for tomorrow, or for something to happen or for something to be over, trying to predict when things will be better. The stars say gaze on the beauty now, and feel its eternal pull. There is no future to wait upon. Despite our fears, we have a place in the universe, we belong here as children of the stars. Despite the chaos of the everyday, there are marvelous patterns and cycles of life that we will endure and grow through, as does our home planet. We are connected. The stars won’t tell you whether you will have fame or fortune. Nor will your genes, but both will tell you to feel your connection to this earth, to each other, and to do it now. There’s nothing to wait for. In the summer I go to Maine where it is easier to see the stars, billions and billions of them. They give no answers to our future, but they do give assurance that life is beautiful and lasting, and that in our lives, love is possible right now, and we are at home, here in this place. Why follow the stars to predict the future, when we can gaze together today?

Closing Words – from Henry David Thoreau

We must learn to awaken and keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep; For we are encouraged that a man or woman can elevate his or her life by their own conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a picture, or to carve an object, and so to make a few objects beautiful; But it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. It is the task of every man or woman to make his or her life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of their most elevated and critical hour.