The impeded stream sings
This morning I would like to offer three images for us to consider. Images linked in theme, but unlike each other in content, images, that, I hope, will shed some light on where and how we are in the world today. Especially as we gather this Earth Day, to reflect on our nature as both children of God and children of the Earth.
The first image comes from a poem by Wendell Berry entitled, “The Real Work.”
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
We have land near Cannon Falls and along one side of it runs the Little Cannon River. It is a small but mighty stream, powering the mills of Cannon Falls a hundred years ago, it flows even during the coldest days of February, its frigid water slicing over and under the ice that dares to gather at its edges. It is not really navigable. We joke that if we ever were to venture downstream in a canoe we would need to take a chainsaw to slice our way through. The Little Cannon continually scours its banks as Cottonwoods, Walnuts and Box Elder trees struggle mightily to cling to the shore, only to succumb, inevitably, to the call of the stream, slowly, quietly slumping into the water, creating swirls and eddies and haunts for the brown trout that linger near their water-soaked branches.
There is one particular tree that once lined its banks, I can no longer tell what kind, that now bows in submission to the current, still rooted in the bank but now lying in and on and under the water, pointing downstream, the rush of waters gently tugging its branches, urging it to let go, to come along for the ride, but the tree clings on.
And when the water is either high or low, either flowing over or under its branches, it is a silent sentinel to what was a majestic tree. But when the level of the river is just right, when it hits that tree about trunk depth, that river begins to sing, a literal cascade of notes offering their song to the universe. A song that only exists because of an obstruction, a song only sung because a challenge lies in the way. For it is only the impeded stream that sings.
A second image. A few weeks ago there was a fascinating story in the New York Times magazine about the last of the Marshall Islands “Wave Pilots”. These were people who could navigate in the open ocean in small boats because they had been trained to “read” the way that waves were moving in response to having encountered islands hundreds of miles away. It is an amazing skill, now almost lost to history. And in the course of the story there was an exploration of how we, as humans, do or don’t create maps in our heads, how we navigate our world. And the following paragraph caught my attention:
“Disorientation is always stressful, and before modern civilization, it was often a death sentence. Sometimes it still is. But recent studies have shown that people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost — assuming, of course, that you are eventually found — has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective. From that standpoint, the greatest threat posed by GPS might be that we never do not know exactly where we are.” (Kim Tingley)
Sometimes we need to be lost, we need to know that we don’t know where we are, we need to struggle to find our way, for without that struggle, without that total engagement of all our senses, maybe even without that momentary sense of panic, we do not notice what is around us. It is only by being lost that we wake up and look around and pay attention to where we are and what is happening. It is only by being lost that we begin to NOTICE what is going on.
When my wife, Em first moved to Minneapolis she came from a place where the mountains always gave you a sense of where you were. The mountains were to the west and everything else was in orientation to them. Here it is a different story. About the best we could do for her was to use the Mississippi, a curvy landmark that you really only see once you are crossing it. But she knew that if she was crossing the river, something was wrong. So those first years I would get frantic phone calls, “I don’t know how this happened, but I’m going across the river again, into the wilderness of St. Paul, no less.” But now she knows St. Paul better than I, and I’ve lived here almost all my life, and all those lost moments have coalesced into greater knowledge and self-awareness. All borne out of getting lost. “Being lost… has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.”
A third image. The gospel this morning. Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples. Remember that Far Side cartoon from years ago where it was the contrast between what you say to your dog and what your dog hears? So the owner says, “Okay Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage or else!” But what Ginger hears is, “Blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah.” I think the disciples are in a similar situation, what they hear is, “I’m going away, blah blah blah, you can’t come, blah blah blah.” Talk about impediments, talk about disorientation, talk about feeling lost and abandoned and not knowing where to turn or where to go. The disciples are on the edge of one of the great obstructions of humankind: death. The death of a beloved teacher and leader. The death of a dream. The death of all that seemed good and kind and loving in this world.
But we are in the season of Easter, we know what happened, that life came out of death, that the message lived on, that the relationship was not severed.
But not right away. And not without doubt. And not without fear. And not without grief. And not, and this is the most important part, not without death. We cannot experience the particular kind of life that comes from death unless we experience the death. We can’t skip over that part.
Somehow it has become part of our culture that life SHOULD be easy, that true love is always to be found, that each generation will have more, that obstacles are to be avoided, that we should never feel lost and death, well death, death will always come at the end of a long, well-lived life.
The disciples faced this lost-ness, embraced this obstruction and slowly, painfully, out of that sense of loss, grew hope and in the face of death, that ultimate impediment, they began to sing. Not in spite of what they were experiencing but because of it. And that song of hope and resurrection still reverberates, still resonates, and 2000 years later we sit in this place and hear its echo.
Earth Day. 2016. And what do we know? Well, we know that we face the biggest impediment to human survival that we have ever faced, and, if we are paying attention, we know we are lost. So I would suggest that the question is really this, will our lost-ness help us to grow? Will we fold under the weight of what confronts us? Or will we, facing the greatest impediment in history, find a way to sing? Will we find a way to embrace our lost-ness?
And consider this possibility, that 2000 years from now they might be gathered in a place like this, gathered together because they need to tell a story, and the story they tell starts like this, “2000 years ago, back in 2016, in the early days of climate change, they faced incredible obstacles, they felt lost and abandoned and hopeless, yet out of that grew a movement, and that movement refused to give up, that movement scratched and clawed and fought and sang, that movement rose up in the face of insurmountable odds and catastrophic change and slowly, painfully life grew from death and that life, which lives to this day, that life gave us life…”
And if that is the story we want them to tell… well, we better get to work.
Earth Day 2016