Mind the Light
Our reading this Sunday came from the book “Mind the Light” by J. Brent Bill.
There is this great story that comes to us from Loren Eiseley, a well-known anthropologist and natural science writer from the 1950s and 60s. Then again there are many great stories that come to us from him.
He was one of those great luminaries that spoke poetically of the natural world and the universe around us – he gave a mystic and spiritual element to the reality of science.
He was, one might argue, amongst the first religious naturalists – people that feel something they can only describe as being religious when faced with the grandeur of life the wonder of science. This story begins as many great stories begin:
Once upon a time, there was a man who used to go to the ocean to wander, wonder, write, and simply think about life. He was the philosophical type, always musing this or that quandary, and he thought of himself as being wise, well learned, and alone in his way of thinking.
It’s why he went to the beach, he felt that only the vastness of creation before him in the ocean could swallow up his grand thoughts. Humility was not one of his virtues. Nonetheless, he would saunter along the beach, lost in his thoughts, perhaps conceiving of something new to write.
One day, as he was walking along the shore, the sun was peaking over the horizon and rising fully, swiftly, announcing the day before him and the world. Bright orange and black turned to blue, streams of yellow and pink and glory crept higher and higher.
The tide began to obey. As he continued his walk and his enjoyment of daybreak, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day – he wanted to dance himself in the presence of such beauty, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a boy, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The boy was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He knew it wasn’t stones, the boy was throwing them too frantically to be skipping stones. He came closer to him and called out, “Good morning! What on earth are you doing?” The boy paused, looked up, furrowed his brow, and replied matter-of-factly, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean.”
He bent down and resumed his throwing immediately. The man wasn’t sure if he heard the boy right. The man asked in a startled and baffled manner, “Well then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” The boy replied, not looking up this time, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the man commented, “Well let me tell you, boy, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The man allowed a small grin to sneak onto his face – the way adults do when kids do something well-meaning but entirely too large in scope for them to accomplish.
The boy stopped. Looked at the man searchingly and grinned back. He bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean.
As the starfish plopped into the water, the boy looked at the man and said, “It made a difference for that one.” The man lost his grin and didn’t know what to say.
When have you strolled through life thinking one way suddenly to come across a person or moment that changed how you saw the world before you? This is one of those perennial questions we in religious communities ask ourselves.
And religions and philosophies are all but too happy to offer the tools for changing how we view the world. The Buddhists have a path to enlightenment, the Christians have variations on salvation, Muslims submit to and live the five pillars, Stoics contemplate mortality, name the tradition and you have an example, even if the answer is simply “Do what you want.”
But truly, think back, or perhaps you don’t need to think that far back, when has your thinking changed significantly in an instant? Was it an aha-moment? Was it joyful? Was it distressing? Did it make you fearful or hopeful? I suspect we all have had those moments in our lives.
Many of them may have happened over the past few months, and we’ve had immense moments in our lives, on a national level, let alone what is happening in our personal lives. How could we not emerge as changed people? How could we not long for a simple revelation on a beach full of starfish instead of revelations that changed how we see ourselves and each other in this country?
And I leave the emotions attached to these changes to you. There certainly is good that has happened to us in this room amidst the strife we have found. But think back again, not to a few months ago or years or decades or a lifetime – but think to yesterday.
What do you think about differently today than you did yesterday? What has changed in the span of twenty-four hours? Or what are you prepared to see and think and feel differently about today?
I ask these questions of all of us in a time when things are changing rapidly around us. Many of us are shaken, many of us are finding despair, and yet, still, many of us are just trying to make it day to day because our lives were already precarious. The world does not often wait for us. That much is true.
What is also true, and we’ve touched upon this, is that we need to equip ourselves to face each day. To enter in to the dawn with renewed hopes, however small, and find a way forward. We spoke of resistance last month – how shall we resist in a politically fraught and post-fact country.
We spoke of finding ways to personally resist, to regain our voice, to speak truth to power. And yet, still, we need to find ways to see and know the world differently. All of this is intertwined: our work of resistance, our work of endurance, our work of practicing.
The story of the man seeing the boy throw starfish on the beach, also known as the Star Thrower, reminds me that every moment is an opportunity to gain perspective on what is before me.
It doesn’t mean submitting to someone’s version of the truth, but it means learning to check my own feelings, emotions, judgements, and enter in to the day with compassion. But how do we do that?
This year I’ve been diving into the world of Quakerism quite a lot. Through my work with Parker Palmer and his Center for Courage and Renewal as well as my own curiosity, I’ve found a rich tradition that has much to teach us.
I’ve always loved the Quakers – I’ve loved them knowing that that tradition is not for me, and also knowing we have much in common. A Quaker friend once reminded me that Unitarian Universalists are just Quakers that don’t know how to be quiet. I’ve never quite known what to think of that assessment of us.
But what I do know is that there is much to be found in the Quaker tradition that strikes a chord with Unitarian Universalism. The search for the inner light – that voice of personal agency, the spirit moving through us, and the depths of silence where the goodness and mercy speak to us in a hectic world.
We could go on and on. This concept of the inner light does not just rest with us. Quaker author and thinker J. Brent Bill in his book, “Mind the Light,” goes on to share just how we can learn to crack open our perceptions of the world and see with spiritual eyes.
Or with respect to our various abilities, I would say, learn to approach the world with a spiritual heart. He calls this practice minding the light and explains it with the words of the poet Tess Gallagher when she writes:
My father loved first light
He would sit alone
At the yellow formica table
In the kitchen with his coffee cup
And sip and look out…
My father picks up his
Cup. Light is sifting in
Like a gloam of certainty
Over the water. He knows
Something there in the half light
He can’t know any other way.
Certainly not a poem of grand transformation, but a poem of sitting in the morning and taking stock of the simple moments of life, taking notice of what is before us and what we can learn from all things.
For J. Brent Bill, every encounter is an opportunity for seeing things differently – for inwardly transforming our own perceptions and finding the dignity and worth inside and beyond us. In many ways, it is a practice of compassion. Compassion for ourselves, for others, and for our fragile world.
For many Quakers, seeing and being aware of the light within all things is simple: it is a spark of the divine. The presence of God. J. Brent Bill adds that this, “illumination leads us to a deep appreciation of the soulful things in life.”
What a beautiful idea. For Unitarian Universalists, our tradition doesn’t necessarily teach for or against such an idea. But what we do teach is that within all things, there is something redeemable, however small. Something that cannot be lost. A boy throws a starfish into the ocean and knows he made a small but important difference.
I originally thought I would stand up here this morning telling you to search for the light in all things. To approach the world differently. It is still my hope that you will do this. But it is interesting how any spiritual topic these days is tempered by the events occurring in our nation.
And I’m coming to realize that what we need most in our lives and in our communities is not just the practice of observing – observing can be a very passive thing – but a practice of doing. We need to go from acknowledging the radiance and wonder in all, including ourselves, and leverage that radiance and wonder to make a difference, however small.
Stretched out before you is a beach of starfish for miles and miles and the sun is rising, the tide is pulling away, and the starfish will surely die. What are you going to do? Will you acknowledge the beauty of the starfish and have compassion for them – and continue on your walk? Or will you put that compassion to work, even if you’re the only one.
This is perhaps the hardest set of questions we can ask ourselves once we unpack this metaphor and apply it to what is before us as a church, a community, and a nation. The work of resistance and the work of justice, along with the work of our own personal development, can be slow, tedious, frustrating, and lonesome.
And still, we will have experiences that change our understanding of the world around us, some more shocking and devastating than others. How will we respond? How will we continue to not just stand with our jaws dropped but to get out there and, one by one, throw our hopes and compassion back into the world?
I ask this knowing that hope and compassion might not be where we are yet but we certainly have it within our capabilities to cultivate those things. God knows our world needs it. We can still be angry, sad, frustrated – but do we want that to be what we give an already angry, sad, and frustrated world? This is a tough one folks.
But what I think we can still learn from this minding the light that J. Brent Bill talks about – this practice of not just observing but doing – is an invitation to come to know the world spiritually.
And I’m not talking about the mystical and fantastical, but about the questions we ask in our religious communities and the values we espouse. What if the political trauma of our country was an invitation to be more compassionate – especially with those we disagree with?
What if the work of justice was a call to live our values instead of talking about them? What if what we do here every Sunday was a means to strengthen us and equip us to keep hurling those starfish back into the ocean – one at a time?
What if we found radiance and wonder in ourselves, yes, and our neighbors, yes, in the suffering, yes, but also in the very things we are resisting and fighting against? How would things be different? I do not know.
All I know is that these past few months have awakened sleepy pulpits near and far and called them to preach good news that gets us out of our seats and into the world in a meaningful way. My greatest hope is that we can do so with compassion, with an understanding that there is always something redeemable in everything and everyone.
In closing I share with you the words of Gandhi,
It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.
Keep throwing stars, one at a time. It makes a difference, however small.