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Carrying Your Own Bag – 3/22/2015

Deep below the surface of the ocean, in the waters of South East Asia, between Malaysia and the Philippines, there lives a type of animal called a Blue Bell Tunicate. I say that it’s an animal, but it has a lot of the qualities we usually associate with plants here on land: it stays rooted in one place, it can’t really move of its own volition, and it doesn’t even really have a brain, in fact. The tunicates cluster together in clumps, clinging to rocks, swaying back and forth with the motion of the waters that surround them, filtering and eating tiny animals out of those waters and looking, for all the world, a bit like translucent, undersea versions of the blue bell flowers that give them their name.

Now, this is a little weird, but its par-for-the-course weird in the odd world of the ocean. Things can get pretty strange down there. But what is particularly fascinating about the Blue Bell Tunicate is that it belongs to a whole family of unmoving, brainless, filter-feeders, who go through an entire phase of life in which they a) move, b) have brains, and c) do not feed by filtering the water. The tunicate begins, like so many other creatures, as an egg, but before it becomes the next-best-thing to an underwater carnivorous plant, it goes through a larval stage. It hatches out of its egg as something that looks almost identical to a tadpole: it has a bulbous little head, and an eye, and a tail for swimming around with, and the very most rudimentary form of a spine and a brain. And when it reaches adulthood, it gives all of these things up: in order to become itself, it stops moving, several of its organs are reabsorbed into its body, and the creature is transformed into something staggeringly different and new.[i]

Nature’s capacity for transformation is humbling and awesome. A redwood grows from a seed smaller than a grain of rice. A river carves a canyon a mile deep into the rock. An off-brand variety of ape with a weak sense of smell and no natural defenses to speak of rises to become the most powerful – and most dangerous – manner of animal on the planet. Change; whether it begins small and ends up humongous, or starts our big and finishes tiny, change is what being alive is about. It is often the changes of life – the moments in our existence that require us to transform in order to continue on – that can feel like the most anguished and challenging times. So when we come to them, it is important for us to remember that we are a part of the vast, continuously unfolding process called nature: change is essential to who we are.

My sermon to you this morning touches on this topic, and comes out of a conversation I had with Jack Reilly, a long-time member of First Parish. Last year, at our annual auction Jack bid on and won the right to select a topic, question, or text to form the basis of one of my sermons, and this is that. By the way, if you find that prospect attractive, you’ll be able to bid on precisely the same item at this year’s auction, next Saturday night.

Jack, you asked me to reflect on how we go about rewriting our lives after a big and particularly an unexpected or a painful change. When the way we have expected our story to go is no longer the way we are headed, how to we reconstitute ourselves and continue forward into the new unfolding of life before us? If they are lived on a long enough continuum, most lives have sharp turns in their course. A lot of these are obvious: the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a major change in livelihood or geography. But one of the first places that my mind went to when I began thinking about rewriting who we are out of necessity was the somewhat different story of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was a magazine editor, a man of wit and letters, who took great pleasure in food and fashion. And then, one day in 1995, at the age of 43, he suffered a major stroke. If there was a singular sharp turn in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life it would almost certainly be said to be this stroke, but I would argue that the most upending thing about the episode was not the stroke itself, but the fact that it did not kill him. Still a younger man, only a little ways into his middle life, Jean-Dominique might have anticipated the possibility – however remote – that he could suffer an unforeseen catastrophe. What he truly could not have planned for, no matter how vast and surpassing his imagination, was that that catastrophe would leave him alive, but profoundly disabled. Bauby was left with what is called locked-in syndrome. His senses still functioned, his mind was fully awake to the world around him, but he had virtually no control over his body. His one remaining means of impacting the world was that he was still able to blink one eye.

This became the venue by which he communicated his thoughts, ideas, and experiences from his hospital bed. It was like a pinhole, allowing the ocean of his mind to pour forth. With the hard work of a dedicated assistant, Bauby dictated an entire book – a memoir called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. His assistant would recite letters until Bauby’s blink called for a stop, so that he could get out a full word in about two minutes. He wrote his book in about 200,000 blinks. There is no way to marvel at that accomplishment without facing the anguish of the condition which gave it shape. In his book, the author talks about the moments where the sadness of being “reduced to a jellyfish” overtakes him, tears rolling down into the lather as an aid shaves his face. And he also observes about life in general that, “There comes a time when the heaping up of calamities brings on uncontrollable nervous laughter.”

The pain of the world is more than just dust or dirt to be swept aside with ease. It is solid as stone; enduring as granite. The water of joy and hope will not serve simply to wash the loss away: rather, its role to drip into ever crack and seep into every hollow in the surface of our suffering. To let the stone of sorrow serve as a container, to catch, and hold, and replenish our stores of the waters of life. Denying the pain is just a doomed strategy for standing still; the only way forward is to accept the new shape of life and begin to change again within the scope of those boundaries.

Transformation, of people and of communities, is a major theme in the bible. One of the most jarring and dramatic left-turns in the Christian cannon is the conversion of Paul – a persecutor of the very earliest Christian communities who, as the story is told in the book of Acts, had a revelatory vision which moved him to join the very faction he had railed against. The sudden epiphany can clearly be powerful, but it’s also a hard thing to force or depend on – and may often be met with skepticism by those who don’t share the experience.

During his career as a lay preacher, Hosea Ballou, one of the great voices of Universalism in America in the 1800s, who served briefly as minister at the First Universalist Society of Salem, ran afoul of this. He was preaching at a Universalist convention when the minister he was sharing the podium with was so moved by the quality of Hosea’s message that the man took up his bible, pressed it to Ballou’s chest and pronounced his ordination right then and there. Flattered and a little bewildered by the incident, Hosea wasn’t quite sure what to do, and there were whispers and rumors questioning the integrity of such an unorthodox ordination. Eventually, it was arranged to give him a second, proper ceremony, so that no lingering questions as to his credentials would remain.

Perhaps more apt to our topic is one of the stories of Jacob in the Hebrew Bible; how he met an angel and wrestled with it, through the night, until that angel gave him a blessing, and a new name, and a wound that would last for the rest of his life. That struggle took place on the eve of Jacob’s meeting with his estranged twin brother, Esau – with a goodly share of concealed identities, murder plots, and infidelity, there are some biblical synopses that read like the plot points of soap operas. Jacob had dealt unkindly with Esau and cheated him in their youth. He needed to wrestle with his past, to change his name, his self, in order to face his brother again and make amends. Again, we never change by ignoring the past – only by accepting it.

Sarah Shamel, who served as our chalice lighter earlier in the service, sent me a poem this week as a possible chalice reading that was so well-matched to the theme Jack chose for me that I asked her permission to reserve it for the sermon. These words come from the poet Marie Howe:

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

 

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

 

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

 

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

 

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

 

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.

 

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

 

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:

I am living. I remember you.

Marie wrote these this poem as a letter to her brother John, who died in 1989 due to complications from the AIDS virus. Interviewed about the piece many years later she said of that loss, “you think, ‘My life is changed so utterly I don’t know how to live it anymore.’ And then you find a way.” We live by doing the 10,000 little things that are required of us each day, and by yearning, and cherishing, and remembering. It is by doing these things that we change who we are from the way that we were to the way we are going to be.

The conversation which led to this sermon came out of Jack’s experience over the past year, since the death of his beloved husband, Ray. There’s a death of some kind in every change – an ending, a final close to some story of chapter of it. But death is the most serious sort of death that there is. And after the tears, or the season of their heaviest flow, at least, there comes the work of starting the next story. Jack, one of the things you shared with me is the challenge of figuring out how to do for yourself what you had unlearned, or never bothered to learn how to do in the decades spent with that other person. In just one small but telling example, Ray always carried your bag when you went to the airport together.

Now, for the first time in a long time, you have to carry your own. And so I picture you rolling your suitcase through the gauntlet that is Logan Airport. It’s a small thing, but sometimes it’s the small things that seem the hardest.

For you Jack, and for any and all of us who have faced or are facing or will face some cruel twist in life’s road, this is the best that I can do. I can remind you that once you were a very little baby. There was a time, for each of us, when we were water-dwelling creatures, perfectly adapted to life inside the oceans of our mothers. The world was warm and soft and nourishing and comfortable. And then we were born. Remember, however surprised or dismayed you may be in the course of your life: you have done it before. You have already gone, without warning or explanation, from living in water to breathing in air. From being swaddled in darkness to the shock of the light. The colossal, spectacular, and eternally transforming process called nature – of which you are a part – has already enveloped you in its embrace. However severe the adjustment is now, you have already made one just as serious before. You’ll move forward again by accepting the change, by mourning and cherishing and remembering – and by knowing, my friends, that you don’t have to do it alone.

[i] Want to learn more about tunicates? Of course you do – they’re fascinating! Here’s one place to start: http://depts.washington.edu/fhlk12/links/StudentProjects/Tun.biology.html

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