“Sinking Stars, Rising Seas”
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
September 24, 2016
Opening Words from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss whether they was made or only just happened. Jim, he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could of LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
Reading from War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans
My grandfather Urbain Martien was the kind of lad who stole everybody’s heart. He was solidly built, with long curly hair, sturdy hands, and guileless blue eyes. Waddling after his statuesque mother like a duckling, entertaining her with his whimsical ways and irrepressible urges to entertain.., he would dance in his clogs while she scrubbed laundry… During Sunday car rides six decades later, still happy as a child in his old age, he could stare at the perfection of a Boeing gliding through the air high overhead and say, it was all so beautiful, everything he saw in this world…. Standing in the sun on an Easter Sunday morning at the age of seventy, he could blurt out with tears in his eyes that the blue of the flowering irises in the backyard was so unfathomably deep around their bright yellow hearts that it gave him palpitations, and it was a shame that a person had to die without ever understanding how such things came to be.
When it was explained to him as a seven year old in catechism classes that you simply could not see God – not even on a cloudless day -because God was invisible, and on top of that, even on cloudless nights you couldn’t look past the stars to the place where He reportedly dwelled, and accordingly, faith could not be verified, because then it would no longer be faith, he broke in: “Yes, but, Reverend Father, then you might just as well say that there are millions of sea horses floating around in heaven, since nobody can see it anyway.” The astonished priest’s jaw dropped open as if the hinge had snapped.
Those sea horses, drifting through dark and infinite space, in between the stars, sometimes light years apart, have never left my imagination, and they still come floating by, numberless hosts of them in sublime silence, whenever I hear talk of proving God’s existence. Yet Urbain Martien was a man of faith, and more than that; after returning from the Great War, …he got up early and polished his boots and shuffled through ice and snow, even on days when the priest could not be bothered, to sit in the cool silence of the parish church, murmuring prayers, lighting candles, bowing his head.
Sermon Sinking Stars, Rising Seas
Did you ever see one of those maps from the Pacific Islands; sticks and bark woven together at critical points with coconut fibers, and interspersed with shining white shells? Years ago, walking through a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, on my way to an exhibit, I saw these artifacts on display and stopped in my tracks. They were so beautiful! Varying in size, with strands suspended from pieces of driftwood, they could collapse and fit inside a blueprint tube; or be hung like those old beaded curtains made for Turkish cozy corners; that bizarre combination of solid and transparent; a presence registered by a breeze awakening rattly life. It seemed perfectly obvious that they would be in a fine arts display, under glass. But I was intrigued when I read what they were – not art, but a tool. An ancient GPS –– a map of the stars, and of ocean swells, currents, and unmarked islands. The way they work, I learned from Margaret Mead, was to slide the shells into place to match the sky you are seeing right now. If you are out in your boat, and night falls, and you are disoriented, you position the shells to match the lights in the heavens, and then you will know where you are; which waves to ride.
I almost get it. I read somewhere else that these maps were highly localized, and really could be interpreted only by the map-maker himself. This was comforting; gave me permission to appreciate without understanding. There is something riveting about items that are profoundly of this world – natural materials readily at hand, with deeply practical purpose and containing such basic geographical information – that are simultaneously spectral, communicating across time and space, carrying us somewhere. Also, unspoken in all of this, is an assumption that we really know the stars – that we can identify them and place the constellations in a living drama over our heads.
This year was supposed to have been one of the best times in a century to see the stars falling from the sky. When I was ten years old I read about the Perseid meteor showers, and have wanted to see them ever since. I have stayed up all night, watching, and seen nothing; and I have laid out on stone beaches, and been rewarded with a few streaks, but I remain more pleasantly haunted by the image in my story book than anything I’ve actually seen. Two boys climb a hill in the evening, and, having completed the farm chores, throw themselves down under a cherry tree in silent exhaustion. One boy is an orphan, who has been through a lot and is perpetually in danger of seeming a victim; less than. But he has this moment. He makes a prediction – you will see a shooting star in the next five minutes, he says, and the other boy laughs at him. Sure. But then a star zips across the sky, and the disbeliever grows a little alarmed; rises from the ground, questioning. His friend says, just wait. You will see at least 25, and soon enough, the pinpricks above begin moving through the night like fireflies, and the observer’s scalp tingles. How is this happening? His friend makes him number the stars before admitting that he is not really running the show. It is just nature; an annual meteor shower, predictable to those who know the patterns of the planets.
How would one of those island maps cope with the stars moving through the sky like that? Somehow, it is perfect, the capturing of disorientation. Like the heavens are telling you, you can’t navigate right now; you can’t sail on or find a port. All you can do is watch in wonder, and awe.
This summer I read a book that sounds perfect for a UU, because the protagonist is an Italian bookseller living in Lebanon or Syria, just at the cusp of the modern world. Balthasar is Christian, but his best friend is Jewish and most of his trading is with Muslims in the Ottoman world, and everything centers around books. Despite this lovely diversity, it was actually a terrible read, partially because the characters were not particularly interesting or real, but mostly because it takes place in the year 1666, when – according to some readers of the book of Revelation — the world was supposed to end, and everything that happens is a sign. So our drought, Louisiana’s flooding, California’s wildfires; Italy’s earthquake; and everywhere, and with devastating regularity, the shootings and the fear and rage – I had to keep fighting back this feeling that the horror might also be supernatural; as if reality on its own wasn’t quite terrible enough. Balthasar, like me, doesn’t believe in the prophecies and predictions. He is man of reason. But that doesn’t stop him from wondering – is this the end? Each time the dates and times are reinterpreted, he lies down at night afraid that if he does sleep, he might not wake up again – and mad at himself for the fact that such a thought has wormed its way in. In my head, a phrase from tenth grade English class replayed on infinite loop: TS Eliot, the Unitarian who left us and became Anglican, concluded a poem with vicious words disguised in a nursery rhyme: This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
It has seemed to me that for many long months, maybe even years now, there have been people announcing desperate calamities with a tone that is vaguely triumphant and smug, along the lines of I told you how awful it all is…. I think that is what resonated for me throughout Malouf’s book – the part I couldn’t shake off. When terrible things happen, those who believe are actually sort of excited and happy – it is proof of their God, even if it does mean the end of the world. But for the people who don’t believe, these events are incredibly painful and have a huge cost. Human lives – OUR lives – are lost; we are irretrievably hurt and broken; and we are also left wondering – maybe the doomsayers have a point; maybe there really is a God who would wipe out all of creation. Doesn’t this seem like either way, we lose? How does this all work? Where are we? This is not the world I grew up as part of, and it is not what I want to pass on.
For much of the summer I was thinking about water. My youngest son went to sea for two weeks; 13 people in a boat about the length of our living/dining room, and not nearly as wide. At night, they laid the paddles flat across the hull, and slept like sardines. My particular sardine would be the one whose shins stuck out over the edge. I kept thinking to myself; this could be the defining experience of his life, in a very good or a very bad way. Every day I would wonder – is this heat worse out there on the ocean, or better? Are they having to row hour after hour in this? And every night, I would pray that it not rain; and yet wonder, maybe it should – better at night with a tarp than during the day, with no cover. Yet I was painfully aware that we really needed the rain. The grass in my yard was crunchy and beige. Even the reliably damp and foggy Maine coast had day after day of California weather. What do we want for our own little selves, versus the world we all share?
My older son informed me, in the midst of the waterless summer, that Beijing was sinking, which was news to me. But I did know about Florida – the sinkholes opening up and swallowing whole houses; sections of highway collapsing back into nothingness. Underground, Florida is webbed with caves and tunnels in limestone that is eroding. Some of this is from acid rain and its effect on the terrain; some is due to aging infrastructure, like sewer pipes and septic systems falling in to disrepair; most is from heavy drilling and pumping out of groundwater, from development. And sinkholes are more likely to appear after a drought.
This week, in the suburbs of Tampa, a 45 foot wide hole appeared, but this time the problem isn’t the hole itself. It’s the location, under a fertilizer plant. A byproduct of the manufacturing process is radioactive water, and so far 215 million gallons of this water has leaked into the aquifer below the lacy limestone, where the drinking water is located. These aquifers are also being contaminated with ocean water – – Florida is subject to sea surges, and the limestone acts like a sponge. Instead of receding, the ocean water seeps into the holes underground, and works its way into what was the fresh water supply. It is the creation story, deep separated from deep – but it is going in reverse. The barrier between the waters crumbles and the deluge comes from all sides. The glass bottomed boats and their view of native fish and plants disappear, replaced with algae and mud. But coastal projects keep being developed; insurance policies still encourage rebuilding in flood zones; and people keep moving in. Miami, like Beijing, is drowning under the weight of its own economic success.
What do we do with these facts? Nobody comes to church to be depressed; to be hit over the head with insoluble problems or to dwell on the sorry state of the world. Nor do we want to debate policy, strategize about legislation. Yet we can’t ignore reality, either — The rising seas, the holes in the landscape, the violence we live with. Later in the book that the source of our reading this morning, Stefan Hertmans writes of visiting the serpentine river in Belgium where his grandfather fought in the First World War; the field and the mud flats where so many boys died, and notes that it is “a landscape with the invisible scars of a submerged catastrophe.” Lovely and peaceful, with poplars standing by the water on a cool day in the spring; with cormorants and grebes drifting over, and a heron standing sentry, it is hard to see the truth: This is the current that once divided life from death. The water flows over the past; the ground shifts around, absorbs the losses. And aren’t we like that, too? So much of who we are, of what has pained us and shaped us and matters deeply to us, is invisible, unseen.
When my son returned from his sailing expedition, he told me this highlight: a luminous and transfixing moment. Late, late at night, way out at sea, he stuck his hands in the water and saw that they were glowing; electrified. Watching him trying to talk about this was to see the limits of language – which made the whole experience more precious, and more isolating – like Urbain Martien, from the reading – crossing that divide, surviving the war, and returning home to rise in the dark and tramp to church; to sit with head bowed, reciting prayers; a vessel for that boy who saw seahorses beyond the stars.
Decades after his grandfather has died, Stefan Hertmans is riding the EuroStar back from London to Brussels, when his own son – who never met his older relative – says, “You know, I used to imagine that the Channel Tunnel was made of glass and you could see the seahorses swimming above your head, and now I don’t even feel like we are crossing the sea at all.”
Living is not about belief or disbelief. Instead, we long to know ourselves as participants in a shared story, one that conveys meaning, even if we can’t quite explain – like a glimpse through the windows beyond the stars, or of the phosphorus that lights up a boy in the ocean. Asher told my mother about the glow in the water, and I watched her face time travel as she recaptured a similar experience six decades earlier. These wild places, where the strange and the beautiful collide; this primal, startling creation that feels poised to change dramatically – to be located only on a map conjured of shells and twigs – places where we are simultaneously astonished and centered — They allow us to feel that something so all-encompassing is also vulnerable; that it offers something that could just disappear; that we can’t hold on to. It makes us want to suspend time; make the experience reliable; something we can guarantee to another generation, and another. We become extremely aware of life, of love, of time – and the impulse to map the events of our days onto a larger epic; to be part of a prophetic narrative. It reminds us that save the people, we have to save the land.
It can be hard to talk about topics when we don’t actually know what to do; how we can comfort and console while also saying a catastrophe is unfolding. Maybe this is why we so often end up choosing between denial and a righteous embrace of doom. I think this is where the cartoons of believers enter the scene, carrying their signs crying “Repent, Repent.” But it is part of the work of faith to raise issues, ESPECIALLY when we don’t know what to do. Confronting reality can help, and it can also show us that our assumptions about time and possibilities are not necessarily true. We can change in ways we can’t predict. A biologist in Florida talks about Miami, and says that the end is coming, physically and economically. “The real estate will disappear, and peoples’ investments, and the infrastructure. But if we plan for it, we can take a slow slide to a different reality… That’s my goal. A slow ride, rather than a crash… The slower the change happens, the more people are able to adapt to it. It can be bad or it can be really, really, really bad—take your choice.”
Years ago, when we bought our cottage in Maine, the woman next door announced that she had always taken care of the house, and would continue to do so. Taken aback, I simply said, Oh. We passed papers in October, so many, many months passed before we went inside the next spring. The house looked neat enough, but it SMELLED. Bad. Eventually I found a lovely little altar on a bureau; a sand dollar and two shells. The caretaker had carefully decorated for us. But the shells had not been ready to put on a shelf. They were part of the beach, the great ongoing drama, and that smell let us know that despite all appearances, they were not finished dying.
I think of Huck and Jim out on the raft, traveling only under the cover of night, and debating whether the stars are natural, or something more than that. The falling ones are spoiled, shoved from the nest of heaven, says Jim – introducing pain and loss into something that is nevertheless beautiful and part of a long, shared struggle to find a new way.
Closing Words Swift Things are Beautiful, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Swift things are beautiful:
Swallows and deer,
and lightening that falls
Bright-veined and clear
Rivers and meteors
Wind in the wheat,
The strong-withered horse,
The runner’s sure feet.
And slow things are beautiful:
The closing of day
The pause of the wave
that curves downward to spray,
The ember that crumbles,
The opening flower,
And the ox that moves on
In the quiet of power.