Something From Nothing
Nov. 12, 2017
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Reading from Phenomenal By Leigh Ann Henion
In Tanzania to see a migration, Henion meets a guide who tells her that he works six weeks in the bush, then goes home to his wife for two weeks. Home is a one room apartment shared with several friends. He dreams of flying, but believes he will never escape poverty. Osman also helps his mother and his younger siblings, and as he tells her about his life, Henion thinks of the Naval Academy student next to her on the plane. He had a $100,000 grant from the US government so he and a fellow group of Navy SEAL hopefuls could climb Kilimanjaro. It was considered elite military training. They would be accompanied by local porters.
You know, Osman, I said. There are people who make it their life goal to climb Kilimanjaro. They train for months. They buy fancy outfits. They travel for days to get here. Do you know what most of them are probably thinking when they land at the airport?
He shakes his head. This is something he has been mystified about for years. All those seekers, focused on the mountaintop. He has always thought them foolhardy, for making such a calculated struggle in a world already so difficult to manage.
They are thinking: If I can climb this mountain, I can do anything I set my mind to. They return home feeling bold, courageous. You have climbed that mountain 15 times, and you have done it carrying everybody else’s stuff on your back. That’s amazing!
You are right, he says quietly.
I don’t know what else will happen in your life, but you have climbed Kilimanjaro 15 times. I bet every time you went up that mountain, you were helping someone else realize their dream. That makes me believe you are going to be okay. Maybe you will even fly one day.
You are right! he says, louder now. What you say is important for me. I will remember this. Osman puts a hand to his heart. I think God gave you a secret, he says. It is a beautiful thing.
Sermon Something From Nothing
Perhaps you know that the part of the sea that lies just in front of the horizon is called the offing. Ships due to arrive soon are “in the offing” – we can see them. Once upon a time, the offing was as far away as something known to us could be – it was the most remote, yet still visible part of the landscape. I think about people fleeing one place, and taking to the sea; traveling to what they hope will be safety and peace; a new life in the offing. It was a phrase that was understood as referring to the distant future; to something we can just barely make out, over at the edge of earth.
These days the meaning has changed a bit; speeded up, like so many things. Now if something is in the offing, it’s an impending change. I’ve been wondering about that; how something that once was held out there at the line between heaven and earth; a way to orient ourselves to a future we can barely conceive – how did that become an inevitability; something to count on?
The other day I finished an amazing book, a memoir written in 1942 by a woman who spent her childhood, from ages five to fifteen, strapped to a board with her head attached to a pulley and weight system, in order to combat the tuberculosis lodged in her spine. When Katherine was released from her horizontal universe and went out walking, she became vulnerable to the world in a way that was absolutely foreign and unexpected. At home for all those years, she had been treasured. Her parents and her older brother and younger sister treated her as special, and so she thought of herself as worthy; as we all are. But because her illness and its treatment left her quite small, and with a hunched back, Katherine found herself the target of children out on the streets and in the parks of Salem. She had expected children, people who were small like she was, to be her natural allies in the world. Instead, they ridiculed her; shouting names and sometimes chasing her. She began to seal herself up when walking; to get as far inside herself as possible and close all paths of communication, so nothing anyone yelled could penetrate.
I thought of this story in terms of the horizon line; that edge where the sea and the sky appear to meet. We can’t orient ourselves without it; there is no perspective without that line. And yet how far away it is to the horizon depends entirely on how high you are. If you have not stood since you were five years old; if you have spent a decade lying flat and only able to see that which is very near, or that people bring to you, what happens when you become upright? As Katherine became vertical, the horizon shifted; moved miles and miles away, and navigation became impossible. It was as if she entered a kind of twilight, where the sea is not distinguishable from the sky, and she was adrift. Of course, being in the offing also means being at sea. It is the part of the ocean where no one can set anchor.
I remember very clearly something that a senior colleague — an internship supervisor for a friend –said decades ago: “You can never say that you don’t have something to preach about! If you don’t know what to preach about, then write a sermon about what it feels like to not know what to say!” This is advice that sounds all right until you try it. My thought last month, as the newsletter deadline hit me, was that something would come of a couple of images that intrigued me. One was from a summer fair in a Maine field seventy-odd years ago, the kind with temporary rides and exotic animals and fried dough and onion rings. The painter N.C. Wyeth was there with his family, including his 19 year old daughter-in-law, Betsy, recently married to Wyeth’s youngest child, Andrew. One of the rides was a giant circle of swings; about a hundred swings hanging down on chains, perhaps four deep, with the wooden seat and back, and the safety bar across the lap, because when the machine starts up, the centrifugal force sends the riders out sideways as they spin round and round, higher and higher, until they are almost parallel to the ground.
Betsy decided to go on the swings, and her father in law stepped up to the ride operator, but instead of paying just for her, he paid him for all of the seats, so that no one else could board. Betsy had the ride all to herself. Then NC Wyeth kept paying the operator for another turn, and another, and Betsy went around and around and around. I saw an old film of all this – the stuttering sepia toned movie documenting the empty swings breezing by, again and again, passing the trees and the temporary fences. Every few seconds you’d get Betsy’s leg flailing past, or an arm waiving like a scarf riding the breeze, and then NC Wyeth’s face, chuckling and eventually laughing. But we couldn’t see Betsy’s face. I kept wondering how this felt. Was flying through the air like this fun? Or was it a little terrifying, to have had her new father-in-law step in and take control of the terms of engagement? How long would this continue? If you know that the senior Wyeth and the newest member of the family saw themselves as rival for Andrew’s attention, does it change how that scene looks?
So, I was thinking about that image, and also about islands, which have been popping up in my life lately. I don’t mean the hurricanes knocking into island nations or all the places that are one thing to tourists and quite another to those who live there; islands that are desirably away from it all; until that turns out to means cut off from infrastructure and sources of aid. What I mean was that in books, islands kept surfacing in disparate ways. I read about growing up in the far northeast of Scotland, on the Orkney islands, and escaping to London only to find that the wind and the rocks and the salt spray were more sustaining than people and clubs; and about Andrew Wyeth venturing off Hupper Island and crossing the river over to Cushing, where he met Christina Olsen; and then there is this memoir I mentioned.
Called The Little Locksmith, it begins with the young Katherine Butler Hathaway, alone in her room, immobilized and inspecting her hand only to discover an island in her palm, right in the middle of her fate line. It is big, and shaped like an almond, and she sees that island as a sign that her quiet existence will explode into something new and strange, and resonant with meaning. The island she holds in her hand becomes the seed of faith in a more satisfying life than the one she was enduring. I felt a sermon in the offing. But it has stayed out there – a faint glimmer by the horizon, never getting any closer.
Religiously, islands mean something. They are symbolic of spiritual renewal; a sign of a pause, and strengthening. They are safe havens, where we can literally keep the world at bay; and more than anything, islands stand for a kind of bridge between this world and the next – the one beyond the horizon; between the real and the imaginary, or the ideal – like Avalon, where the Excalibur was forged for young Arthur. Journeying to and from islands involves a kind of shifting of the boundaries to our identities; about what is possible, and how we might grow. I was a little stunned to discover that for palm readers and fortune-tellers, islands do not convey any of this. They stand for obstacles. I was glad that the young Katherine saw her island as magical – as a place to climb ashore, and let her life be transformed.
Last Sunday I was filling in for a colleague in another town. There was a digital clock glued to the pulpit, so I know that at 11:25 the time of meditation and prayer was just beginning. I was asking that we would find the strength to keep helping all those whose lives have been upended by the natural disasters; that we would remember them even when our news cycle has moved on to the next thing, but I was also wondering how we could better cope with the disasters that are not natural; that are born of human hatred and a love of violence. Earlier in the week a man had purposefully driven a truck along a bike path in New York City. I want desperately for us to be effective both at granting respite from this craziness, and at challenging it; transforming the society we live in. Then, as I was driving home in the early afternoon, I learned just what was happening in a small Baptist church while I was praying for strength and peace.
So I don’t know what I had in mind with this topic any more. It’s all gone out of my head and I feel at sea, and blown about, like Odysseus trying to get home. Do you remember that story? Aeolus, the god of the winds, helps Odysseus by capturing all the nor’easters and gale forces and stuffing them in a bag. Only the gentle west wind is free, and the ship is headed safely towards that spot where the sun meets the horizon. Home. But the crew, believing the bag to contain riches that Odysseus is hiding from them, opens it up. They want their share. So the winds escape, and everyone is at their mercy. Instead of heading to Ithaca, they go where they are sent. Where are we being sent?
The response to the bloodshed in a Texas church is about the same as what it has been for every other mass shooting. People who work creating policy and legislation, jobs implying that they believe in the value of both, say legislation will not help; that behavior cannot be regulated. Which is odd, because they have tried to legislate a lot of other behaviors. They use religious words a lot – evil and prayer – as if to make sure we understand that the law is not involved. So maybe what we are being told is that actual leadership is for religious people rather than our elected officials. On that note, I want to give a shout out to Charmian Proskauer, who has been laboring in the fields working against gun violence at state levels for years now. I hope more of us will join her. I also want to say that prayer is not a passive acceptance of the status quo. That is withdrawal. Prayer is inherently relational, and begins with an acknowledgement that we are all in this life together. What happens to one of us affects all of us, and when we pray, we are opening ourselves up to be changed. When a governor suggests that we pray, or do God’s work, it should not mean that nothing happens. Real prayer sets things in motion. It turns us around.
When Katherine Butler finally stood up and went outside to walk, she believed what the children yelled at her. She thought it must be the truth, because these authoritative little people had experience, and she did not. So she learned that she was less than a full person; an embarrassment. She wanted to protect her family from her own disgrace, and so did not tell them what was happening to her. One day she realized she had become so afraid that she was even more vulnerable than she had been when she started, and so she completely changed tactics. She decided to pretend she was a lion tamer, and slowly and methodically forced herself to stare into enemy eyes. She would pretend to be calm, and curious, and just look and look until the bully started to turn his attention inward, and away from her. This method worked, changing both the lions and the lion tamer.
I don’t know if Hathaway was purposefully alluding to the Biblical Daniel, or if she just happened to pick the role of lion tamer. But Daniel’s is a story about prayer. It is also one with a political plot. It was a time when there were leaders who spent more time trying to get rid of their opponents than governing. An old and faithful man, Daniel had risen through the ranks honestly. Rivals persuaded the king to decree that for one month, anyone caught praying to a god other than the king would be thrown into the lion’s den. Daniel continued to pray in his own way, and was thrown to the lions. But the next morning, he was unharmed – the lions tamed by his faith in doing right. In the story, the king recognizes the error of his ways, reforms, and gets rid of his advisors. In real life, we haven’t got to that part yet.
Betsy Wyeth, once a young bride endlessly flying through the air, is now almost a centurion, and the owner of three islands off the coast of Maine. Places that were once year round communities, with schools and fields and a little church; now there are just abandoned cellar holes and spruce forests moving over the land. Her vision, in purchasing these islands, was described as resurrection. She wanted a home for herself and her husband, a spot at some remove from the mainland; but she also wanted to remake what was once there – the old fishing village and kitchen gardens; the slow and simple life that was once the norm. The island for her was the perfect place of creative tension, where we are connected, but also on our own. The future is not inevitable. It’s something we fashion for ourselves, with the decisions we make and the battles we choose to take on; what we are willing to sacrifice, or where we take a stand – which effects how far away the horizon lies.
Katherine Hathaway explained that her bedridden childhood had given her an ability to create a life with very little material, and that this magical sense that the best things were made from nothing stayed with her. But as time went on she discovered there was another side to this belief. She was acting as if the inverse were true — she believed that too much would lead to nothing. And so she was not really embracing the idea of choices; of a full range of options. Her ascetic life had given her depth and meaning, but as she grew and changed and met more people, that same way of living threatened to confine her; to imprison and isolate her. She wanted to cross that bridge – to connect –but it wasn’t easy. Our world is so fixated on possessing, and owning, we neglect what it means to be creators – people who make something of ash and dust and mud. What does it take to make something new, and then swim or fly across the oceans that divide us, and sing a new song together?
Closing Words from the Gospel of Thomas
This little child Jesus was five years old and playing at the ford of a brook: he gathered together the waters that flowed there into pools. And having made soft clay, he fashioned thereof twelve sparrows. And there were also many other little children playing with him. And when the adults came, to chastise them for playing on the Sabbath, Jesus clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows: Go! and the sparrows took their flight and went away into the sky, singing.