Opening Words: The Swan, Mary Oliver
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
Twenty one years ago, when I was being interviewed by search committee assigned with the task of finding a new minister, someone asked me a question that I hadn’t thought about before, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
“Frank,” he said, rather matter-of-factly, “what are you afraid of?” How would you respond: what are you afraid of?
I don’t know where my answer came from, but without missing a beat I said, “That I’ll lose it.”
He asked me to explain. As I paused to think about my response, another member of the committee, Ed Bryce, a veteran actor of stage and screen, broke in and said (and I’ll never forget),“I’ll tell you what he means. When you get in front of that camera, or out on that stage there’s something you have to have…”
Someone chimed in, “You mean you’ll forget your lines?”
Ed smiled and said, “Oh, no. What you fear is that you won’t have the thing that brings your lines to life…it’s an indescribable thing, but it’s very real…and if you don’t have it, you’re in trouble, and you know it.”
Emerson provides a perfect explanation of Ed’s answer, and it fits perfectly with what I was thinking when I responded to the question about what I fear by saying, ‘that I’ll lose it.’ In his address to the Harvard Divinity graduates in the class of 1838 he said:
“The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man (sic) on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach. Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.”
Anyone who steps into this pulpit has a healthy respect for that spirit, and a humble hope that it won’t be lost, and a sincere wish that it comes across sincerely. It’s a gift from those angels Emerson named: ‘courage, piety, love and wisdom.’
Now let me tell the story that prompted the title of the sermon.
In April a story broke into the news about the re-discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. He was spotted in an Arkansas swamp. The ivory-billed woodpecker is a most amazing bird. The male is a big red-headed, white-striped bird, nearly two feet long. When people saw it they often exclaimed, “Lord, God!” So they called it the Lord-God bird.
The bird had not been seen for over 60 years. It’s not listed in my Sibley’s, the bird-watchers bible. When it is referred to it’s only to indicate that the species is believed to be extinct.
So the story about the ivory-billed woodpecker being seen in an Arkansas swamp caught my eye, stirred my imagination and tickled my fancy.
Last week, at a new members meeting, Jim Shelly brought up the story of the ‘return of the ivory-billed woodpecker,’ about which he was obviously ‘tickled.’ He spoke with passion and sensitivity about it. He spoke religiously; that is, with enthusiasm, respect and appreciation.
He connected the story about the ‘Lord, God’ bird to the essence of human nature and the precious connection to something more—a higher power, if you will. The Divine. (He didn’t say any of those words, but that’s what I heard.)
He was, first of all, digging into that thing we all need and fear we might lose. The idea that the bird was lost, gone forever, but then was found again, reminded me that we all have some fear or hidden anxiety, at least, about losing the thing we call the ‘spirit of life,’ which is why we sing it in; why that hymn (Spirit of Life) has become a Unitarian national anthem:
“Spirit of life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close; wings set me free; Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” (Carolyn McDade)
Mary Oliver asked a question in her poem about the swan: “…did you feel it in your, how it pertained to everything.”
There was something about the discovery that the ivory-billed woodpecker survived that taps into everything.
It reaches deep into the source of our mythology. For example, there’s the well-known Egyptian myth about the Phoenix, another ‘lord-god’ bird that is said to have lived in the desert for 500 years and then consumed itself by fire, later to rise renewed from its ashes. The phoenix is used as a metaphor to describe ‘a person or thing unsurpassed in excellence or beauty.’
Whitman says, poetically, ‘there never was anymore perfection than there is now.’
It’s sometimes hard to see beauty because there’s so much ugliness around: the ugliness of war, poverty, famine—the ugliness of violence and of human hatred; the ugliness of greed, arrogance with its swagger, bluster and pomposity.
We have to step back—a couple of planets away from earth—to see the perfection that’s unfolding before our eyes.
The return of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a reminder that there’s something in us—a life-force—that is bound and determined to survive…to come out of the swamp; there’s something in us that can’t accept oblivion, so our ancestors invented things like resurrection and reincarnation to try to explain the unexplainable. The return of the ivory-billed woodpecker touches on that deep place in us—the place from which the poetic idea of resurrection springs.
Mark Felt, aka ‘deep throat,’ has nothing on the ivory-billed woodpecker. Mr. Felt, who sang his quiet song to Bob Woodward, kept quiet for only 30 years—half the time our Lord-God bird hid in woods of his own!
We respond to the discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker for lots of reasons, including the fact that we have an uneasy feeling that our species, Homo Sapiens, is an endangered species: we identify with our endangered brothers and sisters of the woods and seas. God’s charge in the book of Genesis to ‘have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle,’ etc To have dominion means ‘learn to live with one another…share the earth, your common domicile.’
Our eco system is threatened—we are soiling our own nest. Since the Lord-God bird was last seen we’re told that “…human activity has depleted 60 percent of the world’s grasslands, forests, farmlands, rivers and lakes.” (Werner Fornos, Population Inst.)
Family planning should be seen as a religious responsibility—it should be the preamble to any set of ten commandments.
Speaking up and speaking out—criticizing our elected servants—is being painted as unpatriotic, a kind of crime, when it should be seen as a responsibility of good citizenship.
William Safire, a conservative from the deep-throat era, said a few months ago, “The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before.”
I think the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker touches something deep in our collective human consciousness.
Without stretching the point too far, the return of the ivory-billed woodpecker touches the nerve center from which all the poetry, all the religions, all the music and art come; it’s why people go out into the swamp in Arkansas with field glasses and cameras to look at birds and to report that the ivory-billed woodpecker isn’t dead, after all.
In his signature poem, Song of Myself, Whitman writes: “The smallest sprout shows there’s really no death, and if ever there was it led forward life and does not wait at the end to arrest it. All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier. Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it. I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe and I am not contained between my hat and my boots.”
The return of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a sign of hope—it touches the deep place in us, out of which the spirit of life flows—a spirit that needs to be nurtured (which is why we’re here in this religious home of ours.) If that bird can do it, so can I, so can you.
An editorial in Science magazine begins: “The announcement… of the persistence of the ivory-billed woodpecker has received more press attention than any bird news in my lifetime, and perhaps in all history.”
“It only seems as though the ivory-bill has arisen from the ashes. In fact, it never went away, so it can hardly be said to have returned.”
Another article in the magazine referred to the bird as ‘the Holy Grail of American birdwatchers…a charismatic species.
The press the bird has gotten “…has resulted in an outpouring of support for conservation efforts in the region. On the day the bird’s discovery was announced the U.S.Departments of Interior and Agriculture pledges $10 million for efforts to protect the ivorybill and its habitat…the value of a flagship species in generating support for conservation’ is clearly demonstrated.
A story in the Times says, “The great 18th –century ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, tells a story about shooting, but not killing, an ivory bill [woodpecker] in order to paint it. Wilson locked it in his hotel room and when he returned an hour later the bird had all but hammered its way to freedom. Wilson was so impressed with the bird, which also attacked him, that he was ‘tempted to restore him to his native woods.’ He resisted temptation, however, and the bird died after three days of refusing food.” (Jonathan Rosen, The Woodpecker in all of us, in The New York Times, 3 May 2005)
Emily Dickinson uses the bird-like image in her wonderful little poem:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Before Jim reminded me of the story of the return of the ivory-billed woodpecker, my final sermon of the year was going to be titled The Key Ingredients. That was before I knew this wonderful group, The Key Ingredients, was going to be singing this morning.
The sermon I’d planned was going to focus on the two most important things we need in order to have a religious or spiritual life—the life of the spirit which Emerson talked about; I don’t think they’ve changed since 1838.
Your summer assignment is to write a 500-or-less-word essay or sermon on those key ingredients. I’d love to read what you have to say—maybe I’ll get you to read it to everyone from the pulpit.
With a nod to Mary Oliver and her poem, The Swan I’ll close with my personal rendition of The Ivory-billed Woodpecker:
Did you see it? Lord, God, what a bird!
Did you see it’s nearly two-foot wing spread, the white stripes, like a saddle, the red-crown, like a cardinal or king?
Did you hear it, rat-tat-tatting, digging into the old tree, determined to keep on living, and to come back, again and again.
Do you get it? The tenacity. Determination.
And do you feel it in your ivory-white bones—have you finally figured out where the beauty merges with strength, the heroic in us all?
Have you discovered the Holy Grail in your own heart, in your soul, in your spirit…the source of all the mythologies, all the sacred stories?
It’s in you. It’s in me. It’s here, now, between us.
Let it change your life, forever.
Benediction: White Heron John Ciardi:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.