Shall We Gather At The River?

March 30, 2003
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Last Sunday we concluded our worship by singing together " This Is My Song," a favorite hymn of many of ours. After the service several of you pulled me aside to comment on how poignant it is to sing that song; that you can hardly get through it without crying. You spoke particularly of these lyrics as touching you deeply:

My country' s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight too and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.
(John Andrew Storey)

What is it about these words that get to us so much, that causes a lump to form in our throats? I think it' s about what Thomas Moore calls " the particularity of place;" the tenderness that comes upon us when we think about the beloved landscape that we call home. Human beings are not merely territorial. That is, our relationship to our land and landscape is not just utilitarian, but also emotional and soulful. Other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and people the world over are inclined to look at their own skies with the same awe and wonder that comes over us when we gaze at our little piece of it. This spiritual tie to the land is something that joins us with all human beings. The hymn reminds us of that. My country' s skies are blue… and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

Last summer I moved to Norwell in the midst of a heat wave, although the actual day I moved in was blessedly cool. The following days were, however, blistering. But one afternoon I was making my umpteenth trip to the curb with a load of empty boxes for the recycling guys, and I caught a breeze with a whiff of salt air in it. There I stood on Main Street, sniffing into the wind with a great sense of hope and homecoming, treated to the nostalgia that the smell of the sea instantly provides.

Although I did not grow up right on the water, I grew up very close to the Long Island Sound, and spent most of my weekends as a child at family gatherings at my uncle' s big beachfront home in Norwalk. There was a saltwater pool with a slide, and cousins who dunked my head underwater for too long and got yelled at. There were walks along the beach with my dad, one particularly memorable for his reaching into the water and eating the seaweed he plucked out of the waves. There were long days playing in the sand and reading picture books at Compo Beach, happily sunburning. The Atlantic Ocean is very much a part of my emotional landscape, as are the little frog-catching ponds and streams that dotted the backyards and woods where I played, and got soaked, as a child.

Also for the first time in August, I joined many of you for what you winkingly refer to as " The North River Regatta," and I was introduced to the North River that gives this part of the South Shore its special character. I collected some of the water to use in baptisms and child dedications. If water is the essence of life, our own local bodies of water are our own special symbolic lifeblood.

This church is located in a very magical place, in a magical state. We are close enough to the ocean to smell it on a breezy day, and I have heard many of you " local kids" tell fond stories about a favorite stretch of beach where you played and camped as children or lounged around as teens: Duxbury beaches, or Scituate, or perhaps in Hull or somewhere down on the Cape. Some of you live on the banks of the North River in the former homes of old shipping captains, and some of you make your living, or certainly spend a good deal of your leisure time, on the water. We are mere minutes by car from the shores of Plymouth, where American legend tells us European settlers first stepped foot on this continent. There is adventure and mystery and salvation in these memories and stories, and in these bodies of water – perhaps especially in this time of year. " In April," Mary Oliver writes, " the ponds open like black blossoms, the moon swims in every one; there' s fire everywhere; frogs shouting their desire, their satisfaction."

As a former English teacher I remember the enchantment of reading some of the great water narratives of the American literary canon: perhaps first and foremost in the minds of nature enthusiasts, our own Unitarian brother Henry David Thoreau' s Walden : an exquisitely detailed account of the author' s intimate relationship with that blessed little piece of the Concord woods and water; sky-water, Henry called it, referring to that vision that occurs when one gazes upon the tranquil pond and sees the sky reflected in it -- where sky is water and water merges with sky and reminds us, in his words, that " heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."

I have also had the pleasure of teaching Mark Twain' s great coming of age narrative that takes place on the rushing Mississippi, where Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim forge a friendship and grow into free men while rafting down the big river. The river is its own character in the story, a mercurial, dangerous but life-giving entity that both shields and threatens the two fugitives. When I taught that book I lived in St. Paul overlooking the banks of the Mississippi myself, living in the twin cities that are split by the great river (Minneapolis and Saint Paul). Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes, was all the more enchanted for the presence of the river and the lakes. Henry Thoreau certainly would have agreed, as he wrote, " a lake is the landscape' s most beautiful and expressive feature."

Two summers ago I finally read what I agree deserves the title of the great American novel, the titanic work of genius known as Moby Dick. In Melville' s epic, only the beginning of the story takes place on dry land, and the rest is a sea-faring tale that takes us not only into " the ribs and terrors of the whale," but also into the terrors of the human heart. Someday I will expound at more length on Moby Dick as a spiritual quest epic, but for today I just want to acknowledge the novel as the single most powerful work I know of that uses the ocean as a symbol of the human unconscious depths. The whale is another sermon altogether. Perhaps some warm day we can explore the topic together and then go see some actual specimens, if they will oblige us by allowing themselves to be seen.

In the great literature of the Bible, much of which takes place in a desert region, there are still countless references to the sea – the Red Sea, the waters of Babylon, Jonah in the heart of the Leviathan, and those famous fishermen of Galilee who were invited to become " fishers of men." Rabbi Jesus, whom I heard described recently as a " minister who was always running away from his congregation" was known to preach from a boat when the crowds on shore got too big and too rowdy.

In a beautiful scene from the gospel of Luke, Jesus is found napping at the back of a boat; peacefully sleeping after a hard day, poor man. In a Jungian reading of the scene, we can say that the great Wisdom (represented by Jesus) is allowing itself to rest in the womb-like safety of the great Soul (represented by the sea). When the sea is whipped up by a storm, Jesus as Wisdom calms the waters. And so it is that wisdom tames the unconscious forces. Leonard Cohen sang, " And Jesus was a sailor when He walked upon the water…"

When I lived in the Midwest for nine years I complained of feeling land-locked, and of missing the ocean. My friends who were native Midwesterners teased me: " how could you prefer New England to here? It' s so safe here! There, you take a wrong turn and you could drop right off into the water!" (or, " Isn' t Lake Michigan big enough for you?" ) But I like to know where the land ends, where the hardness of earth and the solid ground of solid ground gives way to rocky ledge and crumbles into sand, and then melts into briny water. " I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky…"

Lake Michigan is a beautiful great lake and I have many fond memories gazing out over that horizon when I lived in the Chicago area, but although it is aesthetically perfectly pleasing, it isn' t the ocean. The key difference, spiritually and scientifically is this: Lake Michigan isn' t dramatically guided by the law of the tides.

You may see this as overly poetic perhaps, but I do not doubt that being predominantly comprised of water ourselves, our little tides respond on some primal level to the great tide that pulls and tosses the mighty waters so close to us. We who live near the ocean are tidal people. The tides inform our perspective, even if unconsciously. Living with the reality of the eternally changing tides grants us, I dare say, a wisdom about life that people in other lands must discover, or learn, in other ways.

Did you ever stand upon the shore and notice that the tide was moving both in and out at the same time? Cape Cod naturalist Robert Finch noticed this phenomenon one day while walking along the inner edge of a salt marsh one day and stopped to watch. He described it thus: " Even as the long finger of the tide withdrew back down the creek bed, innumerable bits of seaweed and other marsh debris continued to be carried forward inside it, like a separate flow of arterial blood. The tide has two separate components, one vertical – which we call the rise and fall [of the tide], and the other, less obvious and horizontal – which is known as the ebb and flow, or current, of the tides." (Common Ground: A Naturalist' s Cape Cod)

Last night as I celebrated with so many of you this church community at our marvelous Canvass Potluck dinner, it occurred to me that this tidal rhythm, this pulling and pushing -- of leaving things behind even as other elements are pulled forward – is part of the sacred nature of this community, part of its largely unconscious but very obvious nature. I have rarely seen a community of people who can move from laughter to tears with such ease and such frequency. Last night was a special and happy feast with much love and appreciation expressed among you and I saw a lot of you wiping tears from your eyes. So did I. Ocean people cry salty tears, and many of them. In magical terms we would say that people with a strong water element are good at going with the emotional flow. Perhaps it' s overly romantic or esoteric to say so, but we are legend and myth in the making. There' s no harm in romance.

Shall we gather at the river? We do most Sundays, at this little church on River Street, and like other citizens of Earth who live emotionally in two or more places at once, we gather in the need to inspire, comfort and companion each other body and spirit, to reenergize those weary spirits that we have sent out so far into the distance over the past week – into the desert terrain of the Middle East and sent out in distress and concern with suffering all over the world-- sent out over the seas of the imagination to landscapes sometimes so radically different than our own that we can barely recognize the place as being on the same planet --

Let us come back home again for at least this moment, resting in the assurance of the tidal rhythm, that eternal ebb and flow,

" the moving finger of the universal forces that writes, here on the shores of our own humanity – inspired, passionate holy water."

May we be guided by the wisdom of the tides, gathered with these saints by this river, which isn' t so far, after all, from the throne of God.

BENEDICTION Inuit Shaman Uvavnuk
The great sea has set me in motion, set me adrift,
moving me like a weed in the river.
The sky and the strong wind
have moved the spirit inside me
till I am carried away
trembling with joy.
May you be so carried into your week, floating gently and faithfully with the tides.
May peace be with you. May you be peace.