“I wanted to do something completely different this morning as I fear the sermons preached to an empty sanctuary may be getting tiresome . . . at least they are for me. I haven’t had much feedback regarding my Sunday videos. However, over the past few weeks, some of you have offered me suggestions: perhaps the use of a waterfall as a backdrop, or the church labyrinth as a setting . . . or a field of sunflowers.”—The Rev. Robin White
Wing + Prayer
By The Reverend Robin White
ANDERSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—15 July 2020—I love Monty Python, that troupe of goofy British comedians who performed outrageous skits, highly satirical and often irreverent. Their endeavor was to transform the ordinary into the original and to emerge with “something completely different.”
I wanted to do something completely different this morning as I fear the sermons preached to an empty sanctuary may be getting tiresome . . . at least they are for me. I haven’t had much feedback regarding my Sunday videos. However, over the past few weeks, some of you have offered me suggestions: perhaps the use of a waterfall as a backdrop, or the church labyrinth as a setting . . . or a field of sunflowers.
I had an idea. I found a lovely eight-part poem written by Mary Oliver, based on Psalm 145. I took it to our church’s labyrinth, but there was too much truck noise, too many thundering motorcycles, too many shrieking sirens.
Since Oliver’s poem references waves and birds and sunshine, I decided to read it from the shores of Lake Hartwell. I packed up my kayak and paddled, and paddled, and paddled, until I finally found the perfect tranquil beach as my set.
Once on shore, I experimented with my camera and it seemed that the only way to properly video the lake, while reading the poem, was to hold my phone with one hand, while using the other to hold the four-page poem.
Pontoon boats passed by creating impressive waves—just like the ocean waves in the poem. Then, a low-flying airplane zoomed above me creating a tumult. I stopped, deleted the noisy first take, and then started the again. But now, I could smell the musky wild scent of some animal and imagined a skunk or a fox sneaking up behind me. I continued the reading. Two jet skis attempted figure-eights in the waves, then, and a muscle boat pulling a tube with screaming children attached caused a ruckus. Again, I had to stop the video, delete it, and begin again.
Finally, there was enough of a break in the lake action and I was able to record the entire poem and a prayer, without interruption. My hand was tired from holding the phone for so many takes, but I had finished it and just in the nick of time as I could see storm clouds beginning to move across the sky.
Back home, feeling pleased that I could present you all with the sights and sounds of a beautiful South Carolina lake with the poignant words of Mary Oliver in the background, I began to watch what I had recorded. I have never studied photography, but I know the rule of thirds—where the image is divided evenly into thirds, with two crucial lines—one horizontal and one vertical.
My video began with a splendid horizontal line—the view of the lake, the horizon in the far distance, waves gently beating the shoreline. Then, only seconds in, the horizon began to list, as my camera hand, apparently unsteady, began to loll. As I watched, the terrain on the other side of the lake began seriously to slope, and the waves, a bit more forceful than I had recognized in the moment, began to make so much noise that Oliver’s words were nearly drowned out.
As I watched my recorded version of Sunday “worship,” my heart, like the recorded shoreline, began to sink. It was awful! And then, at the completion of the poem, I offered my own prayer based on Psalm 145, and, as I prayed, in the bottom left corner of the screen, something began to emerge. Something completely different. What was that? Something creeping in from the edge of the beach or coming up out of the water? At first, I couldn’t quite tell, but, as it got bigger and bigger, I began to giggle and then burst into laughter—what else could I do but laugh? It was my finger, and, by the end of the prayer it had taken up the entire landscape!
And not only that, but, as it turns out, I am not very good at all at reading Mary Oliver’s poetry . . . .
Psalm 145 has no real development of plot or building of intensity. It is actually rather static in form and is basically a statement of Israel’s exuberant and grateful confidence in God the Creator. This Psalm in essence articulates what is enduringly true of the world.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says of it, “We take Psalm 145 to be the fullest representation of those psalms that understand creation as a mode of equilibrium, coherence, and reliability. Such a presentation of life is an act of high faith.”
And what I think is that, in “high faith,” I can try to show you the splendor and the grandeur of God as creator, but it can’t really be captured—especially by someone like me, who has absolutely no experience as a videographer. I can try, as well, to read you Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem but I am no rhapsodist. I can try to offer you examples of life’s regularities—those things that are experienced as reliable, equitable, and generous, but what I know is that our times are ordered by God according to the seasons of the year, the seasons of life, according to the needs of the day. I know that what I know does not come out of some great religious insight but, rather, because this is the way life has come to me.
On that lake shore this past week, as I finished my fledgling attempt at seizing the beauty of God’s creation on video, moments, I mean seconds after hitting the stop button on the video, a great, Great Blue Heron, that must have been on the water’s edge just a few yards away, glided by me—and then a second one, right behind her. The ordinary was transformed into the original . . . .
On the Glorious splendor of your majesty and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness.
“On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate (Psalm 145)”
By Mary Oliver
All day up and down the shore the
fine points of the waves keep on
tapping whatever is there: scatter of broken
clams, empty jingles, old
oyster shells thick and castellated that held
once the pale jewel of their bodies, such sweet
tongue and juice. And who do you
think you are sauntering along
five feet up in the air, the ocean a blue fire
around your ankles, the sun
on your face on your shoulders its golden mouth whispering
(so it seems) you! you! you!
Now the afternoon wind
all frill and no apparent purpose
takes her cloud-shaped
hand and touches every one of the
waves so that rapidly
they stir the wings of the eiders they blur
the boats on their moorings; not even the rocks
black and blunt interrupt the waves on their
way to the shore and one last swimmer (is it you?) rides
their salty infoldings and outfoldings until,
peaked, their blue sides heaving, they pause; and God
whistles them back; and you glide safely to shore.
a hundred pink and cylindrical
squid lay beached their lacy faces,
their gnarls of dimples and ropy tentacles
limp and powerless; as I watched
the big gulls went down upon
this sweetest trash rolling
like the arms of babies through the
swash—in a feathered dash,
a snarl of delight the beaks fell
grabbing and snapping; then was left
only the empty beach, the birds floating back over the waves.
How many mysteries have you seen in your
lifetime? How many nets pulled
full over the boat’s side, each silver body
ready or not falling into
submission? How many roses in early summer
uncurling above the pale sands then
falling back in unfathomable
willingness? And what can you say? Glory
to the rose and the leaf, to the seed, to the
silver fish. Glory to time and the wild fields,
and to joy. And to grief’s shock and torpor, its near swoon.
So it is not hard to understand
where God’s body is, it is
everywhere and everything; shore and the vast
fields of water, the accidental and the intended
over here, over there. And I bow down
participate and attentive
it is so dense and apparent. And all the same I am still
here, now, I am thinking
not of His thick wrists and His blue
shoulders but, still, of Him. Where, do you suppose, is His
page and wonderful mind?
I would be good—oh, I would be upright and good.
To what purpose? To be shining not
sinful, not wringing out of the hours
petulance, heaviness, ashes. To what purpose?
Hope of heaven? Not that. But to enter
the other kingdom: grace, and imagination,
and the multiple sympathies: to be as a leaf, a rose,
a dolphin, a wave rising
slowly then briskly out of the darkness to touch
the limpid air, to be God’s mind’s
servant, loving with the body’s sweet mouth—its kisses, its words—
I know a man of such
mildness and kindness it is trying to
change my life. He does not
preach, teach, but simply is. It is
astonishing, for he is Christ’s ambassador
truly, by rule and act. But, more,
he is kind with the sort of kindness that shines
out, but is resolute, not fooled. He has
eaten the dark hours and could also, I think,
soldier for God, riding out
under the storm clouds, against the world’s pride and unkindness,
with both unassailable sweetness, and tempering word.
Every morning I want to kneel down on the golden
cloth of the sand and say
some kind of musical thanks for
the world that is happening again—another day—
from the shawl of wind coming out of the
west to the firm green
flesh of the melon lately sliced open and
eaten, its chill and ample body
flavored with mercy. I want
to be worthy—of what? Glory? Yes, unimaginable glory.
O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am
not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.
Editor’s Note: The image of the Great Blue Heron above (used by permission) derives from the online website of photographer Christopher Martin. Fine archival prints may be obtained from Martin’s site.