“Choose Something Like a Star”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
with “Astronomical Observations” by Alan MacRobert
The First Parish in Bedford, MA, Unitarian Universalist
September 20, 2020
(in memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
When Great Trees Fall, by Maya Angelou
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
Choose Something Like a Star, by Robert Frost
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
Sermon, Part 1
Some of you know that my usual feeling at the beginning of a new church is what I call “cosmic dread.” Who knows what may be around the corner? I look out at the congregation and ask, “Who are these people and what do they want?” And then I say to myself, “What can I possibly say to these people that will be of any positive benefit whatsoever?” I am overcome by cosmic dread.
Mind you, that’s my usual feeling…in a normal year, even in a good year. And then there’s this year, this annus horribilis: 2020, and I hear the hoofbeats of the horsemen of the apocalypse: authoritarianism, isolation, plague, and climate fires. And now the death of RBG.
Every day some well-meaning person will ask me, “How are you?” My usual mock-offended answer is, “Well, that’s an awfully personal question!” Truly, for most of us I think, the answer these days is complicated, variable, and dependent on the circumstances of the moment. Feeling vulnerable to things beyond our control, often we are more – and often less – than OK.
Worsening matters is to be isolated in our suffering.
Recently I read some of the insights of navy submariners and a NASA psychologist who have wintered at one of the most remote spots on earth, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (named, by the way, for two explorers – one who survived and one who died on expedition).
There’s a Harvard astronomer and physicist named John Kovac who has made 28 trips to the South Pole, one lasting 14 months, spanning the winter when it is dark 24 hours a day.
“It becomes very debilitating,” he says. Asked how to survive, he says, having a sense of mission helps.
So, how to get through this time of dread and pandemic? Write this down: Go shopping for…eggs, bread, milk, wine, toilet paper, and pick up A SENSE OF MISSION. Ocean State Job Lot maybe. Got it? Well, I’ll break this down in a few minutes.
The South Pole scientists say what they’re really waiting for is the end of the winter – but they also say, hopefully, “in two weeks it’s going to be a full moon!”
That’s what got my attention, the full moon. Here’s my story: In 1987, I took a six-month sabbatical and I went to India for the first time. I called it a kind of defenestration: throwing myself out a window into an unknown fascinating and far-away place. Sue and Eric would join me but only after four months. We had been married less than 10 years; our son Eric was young. Call it their generosity or my selfishness, I left in January and went to India by myself. Sue’s first letter cursed me for not being home to help shovel snow. In those four months we spoke once by telephone.
Yes, it was fascinating and adventuresome but I was as intensely lonely as I’ve ever been in my life. What comforted me was the sky: the stars and, especially, the moon. Simply to know that seeing the moon was an experience I could have in common with those I loved far away was calming, steadying, and reassuring. And a full moon? That really was something to look forward to, a treat! To this day, gazing upon the stars – and especially a full moon is a way for me to connect with those I love, near and far.
So…what about the moon?
Today the moonrise was a 10:14am and it will set at 8:55 tonight. The moon’s phase is waxing crescent, leading to a quarter moon on Thursday, a waxing gibbous moon (no relation) over the weekend, and then a full moon – or Harvest Moon, or Corn Moon, or Hunters Moon – is coming on September 30.
I’ll unpack the meaning of this some more in a few minutes, but first we’ll hear from the moonstruck Steve Sussman, followed by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about: senior editor of Sky & Telescope Magazine and former Boston Globe astronomy correspondent, our parishioner Alan MacRobert. Now, two astronomical interludes: first Steve, then Alan.
– – – –
Astronomical Observations by Alan MacRobert
I speak to you this morning from the words of the physicist Steven Hawking:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
I’ve been an amateur astronomer all my life. I’ve been an editor for Sky & Telescope magazine for 38 years. We astronomy people take a wider outlook on things, and where we are, our actual, tiny little place in everything. That can give the strength of a greater perspective that many lack, those who spend their years looking down at their feet. Or just looking immediately around them inside the busy little human anthill where most folks spend not just their days but their whole mental lives. And in there, these days, it’s all too easy to let your head droop and just look down at your feet.
Well I’m going to give you a mental and moral posture exercise! Shoulders back! Look up! Look far! I mean, literally! Go out for a walk this evening as the beautiful twilight fades and the stars begin to come out, look southwest, and there will be a beautiful crescent Moon! A whole other world whose global geography is laid right out for inspection, even with your naked eyes (at times when the moon is nearly full), right from your own porch or driveway!
Look off to the Moon’s left, in the south, and there’s bright Jupiter! You can’t miss it! It’s the biggest planet in the solar system, 40 times wider than the Moon but looking so little because it’s 2000 times farther away! Right there, a stupendous creation 11 times the size of Earth, part of your own everyday surroundings if you look up!
And accompanying Jupiter these nights, to its left, is Saturn, a dimmer point in the sky twice as far away. I imagine the two of them as a great pair of eyes glaring in at us from the sky.
Later this week the Moon will march right past those two planets night by night. And later in the evening, Mars rises in the east, shining bright yellow-orange like a faraway celestial campfire. And that’s only the very, very beginning.
By remembering to buck up and look far, you gain perspective, and calmness, and strength. Do not think of this as escapism or disengagement. No, that kind of talk is your little foot-staring self speaking, stuck in its foot-staring miasma of the world’s muddy awfuls. Of which we have plenty right now. Instead, think of bringing your mind up and out, in this moral posture exercise, as a regrouping, a strength gathering, a healing. Perspective will brace you and steady you with the calm and serenity you need to carry yourself forward with confidence.
To continue the words of Stephen Hawking: Once looking up,
“Try to make sense of what you see (he said). Be curious. However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
In the civil rights movement, the term they used for that was “keeping the faith.” Keep the faith, and it will keep you.
– – – –
Sermon, Part 2
First and foremost, what I like about Alan’s advice to would-be stargazers is that he begins with the admonition to “look up.” And that is, indeed, critical.
Robert Frost’s poetic admonition begins with the critical word “choose.” “Choose something like a star…to stay our minds on and be staid.”
If you’re gonna see the sky, you’ve got to choose to look up.
“Choice” is a fundamental concept in our faith perspective in so many ways. Unitarian Universalism is sometimes called “our chosen faith” because, though some of us were born into this tradition, most of us were not: Unitarian Universalism is not a “given” or an “inherited” tradition. “Just because I was born in a stable,” said the Duke of Wellington, “does not mean that I am a horse.” Or, even better, “just because you were born on third base does not mean you hit a triple.”
Our faith perspective says that, unlike our Puritan forbears, we are not “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” predestined and fated to salvation or damnation, but rather we have free will, human agency, and the ability to determine – not everything – but at least some of what we shall do with this “one wild and precious life.”
You know the little poem by Bonaro Overstreet titled Stubborn Ounces,
(To One Who Doubts the Worth of
Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)
You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
“…my right to choose….”
Choosing, moreover, is not simply a right: it is an imperative!
So, once again, the perspective I’m trying to articulate is that our response to the loneliness, the anxiety, the powerlessness and the uncertainty – not only of the pandemic but of our political crisis as well…and whatever ails us personally – requires that we “choose something like a star.”
Each of us must muster our stubborn ounces to choose something like a star – something that draws us out of ourselves toward something larger than ourselves…something that asks of us a certain height and gives some vision wider than the four walls that, in these days, too often are closing in upon us.
A solitary human being, wrapped up in oneself, is a very small package. There is a human tendency to care most about those people and things that are closest and most familiar; and in a crisis, there is a tendency to make ourselves even smaller and to close in even more tightly. Our chosen faith calls us to resist such tendencies and for the particularities of our lives to open us, to be windows to awe and wonder and larger purpose.
Remember William Blake: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.”
I have a neighbor who has chosen her pandemic isolation to take exquisite close-up photographs of wild flowers and birds in her backyard and on the pond behind her house. Remember Henry David Thoreau who said, “I have traveled widely – in Concord.” Who has not listened to beautiful music and sometimes been…transported?
Someone else has chosen this time to wash the sheets on her bed: She says, “The scent of sun-dried sheets fresh off the clothesline can completely change my state of mind…. Once the linens are reassembled, I crawl between the sheets, breathe in, and feel the muscles across the top of my back begin to loosen. As my friend Serenity’s mother is fond of saying, ‘ There are very few problems in this world that putting clean sheets on the bed won’t improve, even if just a little bit.’”
Remember too that you may choose to put yourself in the way of something that, in turn, may choose…you! Remember Cheryl Strayed who walked the Pacific Crest Trail and chose to put herself in the way of beauty – and beauty chose her! Or John Lewis who chose to put himself in the way of trouble…good trouble; and trouble chose him as an instrument of justice!
You may know that I’ve been spending time lately with the Gants Family, following the tragic unexpected death of Ralph Gants, Chief Justice of our MA Supreme Judicial Court. Last week, accepting condolences in their backyard, Ralph’s wife Debbie was greeted by Governor Baker and House Speaker DeLeo who asked if there was anything they could do for her. Debbie replied, “Pass a lot more money for rental assistance to stop evictions. It was a big thing Ralph was working on.”
Faced with the painful particularity of her husband’s death, Debbie chose to honor something larger, her husband’s vision of justice, compassion, and doing the right thing.
Yes, our chosen faith calls all of us to find a sense of mission, whether that mission is to bring order or beauty to that which is close at hand or to mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.
The great Victor Frankl, survivor of the Holocaust, wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” “Everything can be taken from a (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” “Those who have a ‘why’ to live,” he said, “can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
And so, therefore: Choose something like a star – or a planet or a grain of sand or a wildflower, or a fresh bed sheet, or music, or justice, or the stubborn ounces of the postcards so many of you have been writing to get out the vote, or choose to get in the way of beauty or get into some good trouble or choose whatever it is gives you a ‘why’ to life, that connects you to, propels you to, gives you a lifeline to, points in the direction of that which does not diminish but enlarges your self and imagines – dare I say? – another possible world, heaven, infinity, eternity…the divine.
Cosmic dread be damned!
Choose something that asks of you a little height. So when at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star…to stay our minds and be staid.
Let us spend just a few moments in quiet.
“We can walk out into the dark and look up at the sky. We can remind ourselves that the universe is so much bigger than this fretful, feverish world, and that it is still expanding. And still filled with stars.” – Margaret Renkl.