My Invisible Friends
October 19, 2014
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “ To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light.”
Ch 7, the Lion and the Unicorn, in Alice in Wonderland
Story from the book of Genesis, chapter 37
This is a story from the book of Genesis, and it’s a long story, so I’ll only tell you a little bit today. Joseph is the 11th son of Jacob, and his father just can’t believe how lucky he is to have Joseph. He is an old man by the time this boy was born, and he seems extra special. Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful coat; something Joseph’s ten older brothers never had. The coat is just part of why the brothers all hate Joseph. He is kind of a suck-up. Joseph knows their father listens to him, so he tells every tiny mistake they make when out in the fields tending sheep. Then Joseph tells everyone about this dream he had, in which there are twelve sheaves of wheat, and eleven bow down. It is obvious, he concludes. I am destined to be the ruler of this family. Just to make sure we all get it, Joseph has another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars fall into orbit around Joseph.
How would you feel if your little brother was telling everyone that he was destined to be the ruler of the universe, and especially of your family? Exactly The older boys seized their chance to get rid of this incredibly annoying younger brother by ambushing him when he was out watching the sheep. They throw him in a pit, and sell him to some traders who are traveling to Egypt, and they take his special coat, and rough it up with goat blood and mud, so they can show their father that Joseph the dreamer is gone for good. He can focus on them now.
Meanwhile, Joseph has been sold from the traders to a rich merchant in Egypt, but it does not go well. Joseph ends up in jail. But, lucky for him, the king gets angry with his kitchen staff, and throws the royal butcher and the royal butler in jail too. These men are both plagued by terrible dreams, which they tell Joseph. And Joseph is able to tell the men what the dreams mean. He tells the baker that his dream is really a nightmare: He will be executed. And he is. The butler, though, will be pardoned, and sent back to work for the king. Which is exactly what happens. And so everyone knows Joseph can understand dreams. But he is still in jail.
One day, years later, Pharaoah – another name for the king – mentions his terrible dreams to the butler. Remembering how Joseph helped him understand his dreams, the butler urges Pharoah to bring Joseph in from the jail, to explain the strange dreams, of dried up corn and skinny cows which swallow up all the lush grain and the healthy, fat cattle. Well, said Joseph, what this means is that a famine is coming, and it will destroy everything. Soon Pharaoh realizes that he should set aside food, so they will have it later when the crops don’t grow. In return for helping him understand, Pharoah sets Joseph free, and gives him a good job. Joseph does not go home, or even try to contact his father or anyone, to tell them he is alive. Soon enough, a famine did come, but Egypt weathered it well.
This was not true for the Israelites. They were starving, and in fact had to go down to Egypt to look for food. Joseph’s brothers go with empty sacks, hoping to find corn. It has been twenty years, and the brothers who sold him into slavery don’t recognize Joseph, but he sees them. From there, the story goes on, but we’ll save that for another day. What I want to highlight today is what Joseph says to his brothers. They are terrified, because their fate is in his hands – and this is before they even know that this man is the brother they got rid of so long ago. When they are trembling and begging not to be seen as spies, but just hungry people, Joseph says to them, “Don’t you know the power of a person like me?”
What do you think he meant?
I don’t want to answer this, although I might talk about it in the sermon, but I think it is worth thinking about. Why did Joseph, who was hated by his brothers because their father favored him, who had spent much of his life in prison, and who used his gift to help the leader of a country where he had been a slave, say “Don’t you know the power of a person like me?”
Reading – from the Odyssey, Book 9
In this section, Odysseus, trying to get back to Ithaca, tells us about storms at sea and being blown across the world; of stops among the lotus eaters, and finally landing on an island near the home of the Cyclops. He writes of going over to the mainland, and “The first thing we saw was a big cave overlooking the beach. Inside were milking pens for goats and big cheeses aging on racks. My men were for making off with the cheeses and the lambs that we found in the cave, but I wanted to see what manner of being made this his lair.” When the Cyclops came home, he blotted out the light in the doorway. He was as tall and rugged as an alp, and one huge eye glared out of the center of his forehead. He didn’t see us until he built a fire to make his dinner.
“Who are you?” asked a voice like thunder.
“We are Greeks, blown off course,” I explained. “I assume you’ll show us hospitality, or suffer the wrath of Zeus.”
The Cyclops laughed, bashed in the heads of the first two men he grabbed, ate them raw, and washed them down with great slurps of milk, and went to sleep.
I wanted to stab him with my sword, but I realized only he could move the boulder from the cave door. We passed a miserable night, and for breakfast the Cyclops ate two more of our companions. It was up to me to make a plan.
While he was out tending the sheep, I made a sharp point on the end of a tree trunk he used for a walking stick, and we hid it, and when he came home for dinner, I offered him wine. It was strong wine, made to be diluted, and the Cyclops loved it.
‘I like you, Greek,’ he said. ‘I’m going to do you a favor. What’s your name?’
‘My name is Nobody,’ I told him. It turned out the favor was that he would eat me last.
When the wine had knocked him out, we heated the pointy end of the pole until it glowed red, and then ran at him like a battering ram, driving it deep into his eye. The thing sizzled like hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an augur.
He came awake with a roar, screaming in blind rage that brought the other Cyclops running to the mouth of the cave.
“What is it, brother?” they called. “Is somebody harming you?”
“It’s Nobody!” bellowed Polyphemus, for that was his name.
“Then for the love of Poseidon, pipe down in there!” And his friends went away.
In the morning, Polyphemus stayed by the door to the cave, patting his flocks as they passed by, and making sure no Greeks escaped. But my men were tied under the sheep, and snuck right by. Then we beat it down to the sea as fast as our legs could carry us.
Sermon – My Invisible Friends
When I was three years old, my great grandmother said very casually one morning, as we walked out into the damp yard in the early morning light, “Oh, I see the fairies must have had a party last night; they left their tablecloth behind.” And sure enough, stretched between blades of grass was a beautiful white lace spread, several inches in diameter. “Sometimes when they forget one, they forget several, “ she said, “so let’s see if we can find more, and figure out how big the ball they held was.” She was right, there were more, tucked in dewy corners, glistening when the light hit, and disappearing by the time most humans awoke. I do not ever remember believing in fairies, and yet I still look for their tablecloths. I like the image of a little midnight gathering; of fireflies as lanterns and reflected light that keeps everything shiny and shadowy at the same time.
Over the summer, there was a strange little battle about fairytales in the English media. It started with a study in the journal Cognitive Science, which explained that “Children who have been exposed to religion find it more difficult to separate fact from fiction than children from secular backgrounds.” I wondered how you measure whether children have been exposed to religion. Is it like chicken pox? Or is religion some kind of monolith? Do Greek myths count? Apparently not, in England. The categories they divided stories into were: fact based, ordinary event stories, fairy tales and fantasies, and stories drawn from the Bible. In this day and age, that seems strangely blind.
Basically, the experiment involved reading stories to 66 children who were five or six years old, and asking the children to say which characters were real and which were fictional. All the children pegged the ordinary characters correctly, but the study results said those born into religious families did not understand when things were made up. They thought characters could be real even when implausible elements like swords that protect you from all danger, or sails that no one could see, were introduced into the narrative. Secular children, they said, could discern the use of imagination. The study concluded that religion had a powerful negative impact on children’s ability to differentiate between fact and fiction.
Soon the evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, while speaking at a science festival, said that fairy tales were bad for children, and explained that these stories instill false beliefs in supernatural powers. His remark was tweeted, and a huge controversy erupted in the twittersphere, or wherever it is that hashtags live. Dawkins, used to attacking religion, was not prepared for literature lovers and child development specialists. Soon he was claiming that he had been misquoted, and he backpedaled. Now he says that fairy stories may, on balance, have a positive effect, because they force children to develop critical thinking skills.
One of the ironies of this rigid approach to measuring meaning is that it puts Dawkins on the same side as the most conservative religious practitioners. They are more interested in control than in free exploration, and they are incredibly skeptical of the human capacity to think independently or creatively. Is banning books because they have magic – the devil’s work – that much different from trying to intimidate parents into believing that reading these stories to children will cause stupidity? Or to okay their reading, but only if you use them to test your child’s ability to discern what is plausible from what is fantastic?
In the late nineteenth century, there was a debate about whether or not horses could fly. There was a man who was obsessed with being able to prove they did. Obviously this could not be done – flying horses are the stuff of myth. But as still photography evolved, the camera was used to show that horses really do run so fast that they have no contact with the ground. All four hooves are in the air at the same time. So here is a proof that grants us magic — flying horses — while also bringing us down to earth, capturing every move on film, so there could be no debate. We didn’t have to wonder any more. And yet it is a wondrous thing. It puts us in touch with some power beyond reason. Can you picture Pegasus, with those feathered white wings?
Somewhere in my education I was exposed to the idea that the story of humanity is one of estrangement and loss, and that religion is about trying to get back to connections that were once far more immediate than the ones we have today. When Adam and Eve were in the garden of Eden, God was there too, strolling about in the cool evenings. There were direct relationships, shared space, little chats about what was safe to eat and what was best avoided. God had been worried about the loneliness of one creature, and so created another. Later generations, after Moses, who could see God but not directly; or Jonah, who could hear God, but not see, never had this experience. Oddly, this makes me think of my great-grandmother, showing me the fairy tablecloths. She died six months later, at the age of 89. Twenty or thirty years ago, my mother asked if I remembered her Nana, and I said yes; she was very old and had soft loose skin, her hair was snow white, and she sat in a wicker rocking chair out on the lawn. It was the description a three year old would give.
“No,” my mother said. She paused, and added, “I can see why that’s what you thought, but she never sat still. She was VIBRANT. She was a lot of fun. You don’t remember her the way she really was.”
It wasn’t until I had my own three year old toddling about in the wet grass that I remembered where I learned about fairy tablecloths. It just popped back into my head; a forgotten memory that allowed me a moment with someone I had never truly seen.
After God withdrew from creation, and no longer had face to face meetings with humanity, dreams became a way to visit. They were a venue for connection; a chance for spirits to speak, or for a vision to appear. And dreams are, of course, what makes Joseph into the important character in the story this morning. He is not the only person who dreams. Many people do – the baker and the butler in prison, and the Pharaoh, too. But everyone else is afraid of their dreams. Joseph is not. He just listens to them, and lets them speak.
To the ancients, dreams represented an intrusion. They disrupted sleep, and life, with messages that came from beyond the world we see. Dreams signaled a loss of personal control, and being able to pay attention to them without fear was a powerful statement. The images – corn stalks bowing down; a baby born in a barn under a special star, a ladder that climbs into the heavens – tend to point to sources of power that challenge tradition. Custom says that oldest sons, not youngest, are the leaders. It says that rulers come from wealth, not poverty; and that authority controls us. But dreams say something else. They rattle around in our heads, and mix up what we think and feel and what we know. They help us develop the capacity to imagine new possibilities, so that we address suffering, and injustice, and pain without just driving it underground, or locating it far away from us. Dreams suggest that we can live in a world different from the one we see before us. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
The other day, I read an article on the history of sleep, which mentioned that in previous centuries, people had very different sleep patterns from those of today. No one slept uninterrupted for six, seven or eight hours, but instead went to bed in the late evening; slept for four or five hours, then woke for an hour or two before beginning their second sleep. When I read about this, I remembered learning the same thing in a colonial history class years ago, but at the time, it did not make an impression on me. Of course in an era with no heat and no lights, people took to bed early. What else could they do? But this time the idea of first sleep and second sleep intrigued me, and I thought about how we remember dreams only if we wake up at the right time; if we lie undisturbed for a bit and let what we experienced in a dream replay itself while we slowly transition to wakefulness. Did people dream more in the past? Or remember the visions that came to them in the night more clearly? Do children, who sleep and wake and sleep and wake and have to be coaxed into long, uninterrupted stretches – are they attended by images that slowly fade from view?
I do not particularly want answers to these questions. I just like to think about things. It made me wonder if the Biblical narrative that I learned, applied to human history, was the story of each of us. We start out intensely and physically connected to those who created us, and move over time, until they become voices, and dreams, and, finally, memories.
In Wonderland, when she is asked to check who is coming, Alice says “I see nobody on the road.”
”To be able to see Nobody, and at this distance!,” the king responds, enviously. “Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people by this light!”
The king is doing the same thing dreams do for us, turning the invisible into part of the story; and even measuring himself by it. It is a remarkably humble attitude for a king, and I can picture him looking back in time, searching for people he used to know. Instead of claiming his power, he admires Alice’s vision. Alice, of course, isn’t aware that she has any.
Emily Dickinson announced: I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
It is a poem that functions exactly the same way as dreams in the Bible. It challenges authority, and brings us together by pointing out how universal that feeling of being alone is; that we are dissatisfied with trying to fit into a culture that cannot see the nobody on the road. Dickinson says she is Nobody, and it sounds modest, but she is claiming a lot of power. It just isn’t the power that is respected.
I chose my readings impulsively, long before I started this sermon, and I picked the encounter with the Cyclops because of Odysseus’s astute claim to be named Nobody. His is not the humble statement of insignificance; it is a manipulation, and it is proof of Odysseus’s greatness. It also isolates Polyphemus completely. All the other Cyclops come running to help when he is attacked, but when he says Nobody is hurting him, they grumble and leave, and go back to sleep. In other words, my reading doesn’t fit with the sermon at all. Oops. But you can never have too many stories. Perhaps this is one the anti-fairy-tale folks would approve, since thinking is what saves the day. But there are definitely some unrealistic elements – one eyed giants so big that grown men fit like kittens in their hands. Maybe it proves that the world cannot be reduced to a choice between supernaturalism and skepticism. It isn’t a matter of belief. It’s just how it feels to be alive. Sometimes there do seem to be monsters around us, and sometimes we see the remains of a midnight gathering of fairies; their tablecloths abandoned in the dewy grass. Sometimes forgotten memories return, and bless us with a glimpse of a life that’s past.
I close with a tiny scientific fairy tale: Once upon a time Albert Einstein was asked a question. The woman who asked it was devoted to knowledge, and to her child. She desperately wanted her son to become a successful scientist.
“What kinds of books should I read to him?” she asked the famous physicist
‘Fairy Tales,’ Einstein responded without hesitation.
‘No, really, I am serious about this,” she said.
“So am I,” said Einstein. “Read him fairy tales.”
Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?’ the mother asked.
‘More fairy tales,’ Einstein stated.
What about after all the fairy tales? What do I read him after that?, she asked.
Well, if you want him to be intelligent and wise, never stop reading fairy tales, said the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure.
Closing Words, from Smoke Signals, by William Stafford
There are people on a parallel way
We do not see them often
But it is precious that they are sharing our world
Something about how they have accepted their lives
Or how the sunlight happens to them
Helps us to hold the strange, enigmatic days in line
For our own living
We are following what comes, going through the world
Building our own little fires
Sometimes seeing the smoke
Signaling from others
And reading the signs.