Rev. Stacy Swain
Do any of you remember that 1960’s children’s book “Are you my mother?” by P.D. Eastman. You know the one, with the blue cover and the picture of a little bird standing on a hound dog’s head peering inquisitively into the dog’s sleepy eyes?
It was a well loved book of my childhood and told the story of a little baby bird who cracked out of his shell when his mother was out looking for food. Eager to know her, the baby bird tumbles out of the nest and then spends the rest of the book wandering around asking “Are you my mother?” first to a kitten then a hen then a cow and a dog and on and on. And as each one says “no,” the baby bird gets more and more frantic until finally a big steam shovel picks up the baby and plops it back in the nest, just in time for the arrival of the mother with a big wiggly worm in her beak.
Up until this past week, I had not read that book since I was a child and yet I remembered it vividly, from the red scarf of the mother bird to the “snort” of the steam shovel.
And as I reread the book this week it evoked in me those very same feelings that it did when it was first read to me all those many years ago when I was snuggled up on the soft lap of my grandmother. I felt again this immediate identification with the baby bird, delight in the baby bird’s tenacity and determination, then an increasing anxiety and fear as the baby wanders farther and farther away in an increasingly dangerous landscape, and then the sweet relief when the baby bird is delivered safely home and recognizes and is embraced by his one true mother.
But before we go too far on what must seem to you to be an irrelevant tangent, let us pray: Gracious God guide my speaking and deepen our listening so that we may hear your word for us this day. AMEN.
I am quite convinced that this children’s book , this 1960s classic has such staying power because at its core it is a retelling really of a deep primordial narrative of our communal being. Somewhere in our collective unconscious, I think, there is a deep memory of a time when all was as it ought to be. Call it that little nest in the Eastman book, or call it the Garden of Eden as the Christian and Jewish tradition does. We “remember” a time when all was well and all manner of things was well.
But as the narrative goes, somehow we have fallen out of that nest, fallen out of Eden. And now, for many of us, in the words of that old Crosby Stills Nash and Young song, much of our life energy is spent trying to figure out how “to get ourselves back to the garden.”
We may feel at first feel tenacious and determined but over time I think some of us feel more and more anxious and fearful as over and over again we do not find that “mother” — that homecoming that we deeply crave.
So we turn to those out there who are quite convinced that they know and have exactly what it is we need to find our way back to whatever it we feel we have lost. They tell us “You need a new car!” “You need to lose ten pounds and get your teeth whitened.” “You need to drink more beer!” And we can get more lost than ever in their insistence for how many times have you found yourselves in the grips of an “if…then” mindset. If ___________, (you fill in the blank), then ______________________ you fill in the blank.
Maybe some do find what they need there, and God bless them if they do. But many do not. And for those of us who don’t, the hard thing is that we don’t even get the benefit of the placebo effect. We take the sugar pill they offer as medicine for whatever ails us while knowing full well, deep down that it has no power to cure us. So our feelings of displacement, of being not just where we need to be are compounded.
And so some of us, continue to wander with this deep dis-ease, a restless, exiled people, a baby bird having tumbled out of the nest, wanting nothing more than to find a way home.
There is some interesting research out of the University of Virginia by a man named Jonathan Haidt. Haidt a professor of psychology, has from a very early age been troubled and fascinated by this question of “how do we come home to our life?”, “How do we cease our restless wanderings and find fullness and peace?” Or as he puts it “How do we discover for ourselves, each one of us what is the purpose within our life?”
In his provocative book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” he postulates that there are three realms or dimensions that when calibrated in a way that is right for our unique selves, create the environment or atmosphere in which happiness, or groundedness, or home coming, or sweet shalom whatever you want to call, can rise and flourish in our lives. In essence he says that the nest or garden we crave is not out there, but instead is right here, available now. He writes “Just as plants need sun, water and good soil to thrive, people need love, works and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and how you spend your time, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”
I will not go into the first two dimensions of right relationship he lifts up: relationship between ourselves and others, between ourselves and how we spend our time –because we do not have time right now. But I do want to speak briefly of the third relationship: that of our relationship with something larger than ourselves.
In his chapter entitled “Divinity with or without God” Haidt retells the story of what a “charming little book written in 1884 by the English novelist and mathematician Edwin Abbot entitled Flatland. “Flatland is a two dimensional world whose inhabitants are geometric figures. The protagonist is a square. One day, the square is visited by a sphere from the three dimensional world called Spaceland. When sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flat landers is the part of the sphere that lies in their plane, in other words a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking) on the plane of Flatland and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane and then reentering it.) The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two dimensional square but the square though skilled at two dimensional geometry doesn’t get it.”
Haidt says that we are all, in some way, the square. We all have encountered something we failed to understand yet smugly believed we understood because we could not conceive of the dimension to which we were blind. Then one day something happens that makes no sense in our two dimensional world and we catch our first glimpse of another dimension.”
That happened to me yesterday. I was the square that the sphere suddenly lifted up and I caught a glimpse of a new dimension. Bart Kelso took ten of us on a walk through the Arnold Arboretum. I am afraid I was a bit like that square in flatland when we started out for I did not expect to be astonished. I live quite close to that arboretum and run or walk through it multiple times throughout the week, I thought I had already keep all there was to see.
But yesterday, I was astonished. I was lifted up into a different dimension. As we slowly meandered Bart pointed out things I had never seen. Have you ever seen a dove tree in bloom! It will change your life I promise. Have you ever peered into a dogwood blossom and heard the story of its bloom? Have you ever stood under a centuries old, Beech tree and felt the power of its life force surround you and claim you as another blessed living creature on this planet? I had this rather eerie but powerfully real realization that the arboretum was not just a beautiful backdrop to my walks and runs but a living, breathing, world full of elders who held a wisdom and a sense of place and knowledge that I had been craving but that which I had been running by day after day!
My husband, Mark works at an educational center in Milton that as part of its mission, invites Boston public school kids out to the site to learn from and experience the natural world. The Russell School kids were out there this week as a matter of fact. He says that about half of those urban kids who come out to the site have never been in the woods. They do not know what it is to sit on grass, to hold a frog, to wander among the trees. Growing up in concrete and asphalt in city streets that are unsafe and city parks that are more dangerous still, they have not experienced the relationship with nature, with that something larger that may very well be if Haidt is right, a key to coming home to the purpose in living.
How much of coming home could begin by just being present to the natural world. Of taking up our place in the family of all things? How are we robbing our selves and our children by not experiencing the embrace of the beech and the beauty of the dove tree?
Being in relationship to something larger than themselves is exactly what is happening in the Pentecost story from Acts today. The same spirit that moved over the waters of the deep is now moving through those gathered and they are being brought home to their place in the family of all things. Divisions and boundaries are dissolving under the common language of the inspiration of being caught up in the family of God. This is the moment when those that day discovered that the home that sought was the now they lived. Eden was now.
So on this care of creation Sunday, let us too explore what it may mean to be in relationship with something larger than ourselves. Let us look out on the world not as a stage, (sorry Shakespeare) but instead let us look out on the world as a living, breathing being with whom we are called to be in relation.
This is what Paul proclaims, in his letter to the Romans, we are children of the creator God who made all things. We are adopted into the family of creation. We are brothers and sisters to the wren and the whale, the ancient and massive beach tree and the delicate dove tree. They are our brothers and sisters as much as the person in the pew next to you today.
Isn’t that what Jesus was getting at when he said over and over again that the Kingdom of God is at hand? That the healing you desperate need is available to you know. That your alienation is over and that right now you can come home to your place in the family of all things?
So what if my favorite children’s story played out a little differently. What if it told the story of a baby bird that toppled out of the nest but that met a kitten along the way that said, sure! You can be at home with me! What if it the hen and the dog and the cow said, you bet. What if that bird discovered the freedom of being at home right where he was. I wonder if that story is the story that needs to be told, the story that the disciples full of Spirit announce, the story we celebrate every Sunday here. We are the children of God at home in God’s good creation, right now. That is a good story, a story worth remembering. Amen