What a blessing to have a reminder of the holiness a night can hold. I remember many winters when I looked forward to hearing that song belted out by a couple who sang for the New York Metropolitan Opera but lived in my hometown during my high school and early college years. It was a highlight of the season. A very holy night.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I don’t spend all that much time pronouncing things holy. Much of the beauty of our tradition is that our communities and our individuals find for themselves what is holy. And as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I spend almost no time pronouncing things unholy…until now.
I like movies. And I like movies that keep me on the edge of my seat a little bit, movies with a little excitement. Sometimes this means watching things that are meant to give me a fright or maybe even manufactured to startle me. These are movies listed under subheadings like “Thriller” or “Suspense” or even “Horror” on the shelves of your local Blockbuster Video.
Remember Blockbuster, and the ocean of blue cassette cases they had there? I miss that sometimes.
But whether in a store or on the menu of the favorite streaming service, categories with scary movies are usually far, far away from on of my other favorite genres: nature documentaries.
Some of you know that I am not above prescribing shows on Netflix as a form of self care or pastoral care. And nature documentaries have offered a special kind of care for a long time, ever since Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha brought us Wild Kingdom more than fifty years ago. Remember Wild Kingdom? What a great show.
Nature documentaries can be enjoyed in many, many ways. Certainly watching them we learn about the natural world around us. Or if they’re really, really good, we can be transported to a place where we’ve never been. And maybe, if it’s been a long day, and human animals have worn us out, cuddling up for a special on the migration patterns of the gnu, or the parenting practices of penguins, or the hunting habitats of carnivorous plants, is often just what the doctor ordered, or at least what the minister ordered. It is this long tradition that brings me to an evening after a long day maybe a decade ago now.
I arrive home to see a new Netflix DVD is there. Remember when people got DVDs from Netflix? I snuggle up on the couch for some time in a place free from the concerns or the worries of my human life. And as the fancy Blu-ray fires up, I see the great blue marble of Earth come into focus on my screen and the title of the series appears: The Blue Planet. The Blue Planet is one of those documentaries that is shot so beautifully that it almost forces people to buy a high-definition television. And the grand-fatherly voice of David Attenborough, one of the world’s foremost nature documentarians, fills the surround sound speakers. And I am awash in the visual, the auditory, sensory splendor of that, o so holy night. And then it happens.
The cameras take a new course and leave the churning, undulating, blueness of the surface, plunge past the upper, sun-sparkling layers of teeming ocean life I’d come to treasure through this documentary series, and descend ever deeper into “The Deep.” The episode I’d so haplessly selected, entitled simply, “The Deep,” featured exploration of the deepest, previously undiscovered stretches of the ocean floor. The kinds of life forms that dwell at the kinds of depths we are talking about are truly other-worldly. You might say they were downright terrifying. I might say they seemed unholy.
One of the first animals you meet is a segmented creature that travels around in sort of a dome where it stores its eggs. As the camera takes us close we see the animal is vicious looking to our human eyes. And there might be a reason for that. Because right at that moment, grandfatherly David Attenborough mentions off-handedly, as only a knighted Britton can do, that we are looking at the animal the creature in Alien is based on. Many would argue that seeing Alien for the first time was a borderline unholy experience. Then, not long after invoking one of the scariest movies of all time, he says we’re descending into “the twilight zone.”
He makes no allusion to the television series with Rod Serling. I don’t know what kind of monster tells an audience you’re entering the twilight zone…and really means it. In fairness the zone in the ocean we were passing through is actually the twilight zone. It’s a technical term that describes the place where the last and strongest rays of light reach their end, where the sunlight must set on our journey to the deep, until we pass through the twilight and we are together there in the deepest darkness—a place of eternal night.
Perhaps more troubling than any creature revealed by the lights of the underwater submersibles in “The Deep,” was the revelation that more humans have walked in space than have explored the deep sea floor. The abyssal plain, which is two and a half miles under the surface of the water, covers half of the face of earth. And at the time of filming “The Deep,” only 1% of its surface area has ever been explored. Today it is more like 10%. And every time another expedition goes into the abyssal plane new forms of life are discovered. David Attenborough tells us that if you divide the time humans have spent exploring the abyssal plane by the number of new forms of animal life discovered there, then humans discover a new form at a rate of one new form of animal life every ten minutes they spend exploring the deepest parts of the ocean.
Now for those of you wondering, no you have not accidentally wondered into a grant-writing workshop for deep-sea exploration initiatives, though we could spend our time in worse ways than that. We are talking about something we are specially qualified to consider here on this island, in the shadow of the tallest mountain on earth, measuring from the earth’s crust, Mauna Kea, which we heard about during the story for all ages today. And we are on the most remote inhabited outpost on Earth surrounded by this ocean of blue. We are talking about a search for truth, a search for meaning, that others have undertaken far below the surface. So many of us undertake our own searches when we come into a Unitarian Universalist space, whether for a Sunday or two or a generation or two. Most people don’t just stumble in here. Many, many of us arrived here along a course we had to chart for our own journey, or maybe we hitched a ride on the course of the journey of a relative or loved one.
But after we arrived, we faced the challenge so common in a tradition that seeks freedom of mind and of body and of spirit, of exploring so many ideas, searching through the truths of so many faiths, scouring sources far and wide for meaning, that we often wonder if we will ever really find answers. On our journey will we ever find answers…out here? When the questions we’re seeking to answer…are coming from in here? And many of these questions show up in stark relief this time of year.
This time of year holds a lot for people. The meaning so many of us spend a lifetime making out of celebrations at this time of year, the reflecting many do on the change of the year, the tilt of the very earth moving back to warm the hemisphere we call home, there are so many ways that many of us take on the meaning of these days.
It was so many years ago now when the prophetic voice of a child rang through the hearts of millions to address the ways a world was losing its way. And many listened with full and open hearts when this child declared to the world the words we hear at this time of year, “Good grief.”
Yes, it was fifty-three years ago this week when Charlie Brown witnessed too much of commercialization of this time of year and spoke his catch phrase aloud. “Good grief.” Remember that? But lamenting commercialization at this point, for many of us, is really more of a surface issue, one that churns and bubbles with the tides. Deeper, more powerful truths of how people experience this time of year are also in Charlie Brown’s words, though. Good grief.
A friend told me this week that celebrations and travel he’s taking this year are harder than they’ve been before, and different. This is the first time he’ll be going through this time of year since his father passed away. And the grief he’s experiencing is entirely, entirely changing how he sees this time of year. I could see the difference he spoke of, the pain of missing someone he loves, of remembering someone he loves, right there in his eyes, right on the surface. Because one of the ways that grief changes our universe, is by taking things from us that used to be out here, and forcing them to live on only in here.
The feelings, the songs, the practices, even the ceremonies we know so well at this time of year hold so, so many reminders, so many memories, of all that we’ve known on our journeys. For some that means fond memories of this time of year, of people, places, experiences we enjoyed, but those same memories may now be forever altered or changed through loss or estrangement. And for others, this time of year may have been a reminder of a generosity that never came, whether from a supernatural being or from someone else. And taking part again in so much of what surrounds this time is an aching reminder of the grief, the sense of loss, they have always known. But however it works in some of us, grief comes once more, like clockwork, like a season, as sure as the tilting of the very earth upon its axis, to rest once more at the depths of our being.
And there is hardly a category on Netflix, section in that ocean of blue at that last Blockbuster left standing, or any movie at all that’s easy to recall at this moment that can fix this. Because as a people we seem so much more interested in what is out there, than we are by what’s in here. Remember more people have walked in space…hundreds of thousands of miles away, than have ever even explored a few miles under the blue surface of our earth’s oceans. We know the surfaces of Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Moon better than the surface of Earth. Kind of makes you wonder about a people who would rather literally be on another planet than deal with what lurks below our own surface. Good grief.
But in the nights to come, we will hear so much of holiness. We will hear about the light returning, or the light of the world, or we will see lights strewn across rooftops and palms trees, reminding us of the comfort that comes with seeing. But if we only focus on the light, we are missing an opportunity. We are leaving an expanse of our very own undiscovered if we do not also trust more than our eyes, that yearn and stretch for light to see the world, if we do not trust that which is unseen, that which we know with keener senses, at depths and pressures to some unfathomable. And we don’t have to look much farther than oceans that surround us.
In the beautiful reading by Rachel Carson, Mike told us about the ways that so many tiny beings create the great reefs that crown the earth’s crust—truly jewels of cooperation and vibrant life on this planet and a testament to the wonder of the interplay between the sun and the waters we bathe in. But what Rachel Carson did not know, because it hadn’t been discovered yet, was that at miles below the surface of the ocean, at pressures greater and darkness denser than humans could hope to inhabit, miles from a single ray of sun, there grow coral reefs. They are among the oldest forms of life in the deep ocean. And they feed not on sunlight, but on bio matter that falls to them from above. Many of these species live at temperatures below freezing, defying almost at every turn what most people think they know about life. And that is cause for admiration.
How a living thing survives, when its survival surpasses reason and what we think we know about the world, deserves our attention.
How a living things thrives, when thriving depends on what looks like chance or fate, deserves our attention.
How a living thing makes new life around it, when what binds it on all sides looks like death and barrenness to the untrained eye—that deserves our attention.
A few weeks ago, I was playing in the ocean. A friend who lived here for the better part of a decade was back in town, and he said he hadn’t had a simple day at the beach…in years. I know, good grief. So we went into the ocean together. It was fun watching a grown person play like he was in the surf.
And I said, “Isn’t it funny that in many ways this is all we really think of as ‘the ocean’? We walk a few yards into it. We bop around and maybe ride some waves. We laugh and talk and go home and say, ‘I love the ocean.’”
I love my friends for listening to my rhetorical questions.
I went on, as I tend to do, “But there is so much more going on in the ocean we can’t see, can’t understand, can’t even draw into our consciousness if we tried. And we still love it. Just for what we see or experience of it. I think that’s how some people feel about God—something enormous and unknowable offers this little place across an ocean of blue, to bring me a little joy, while also doing that other job of, you know, sustaining all life as we know it on an entire planet.”
He paused and thought and then said, “Sounds like you’re working on another sermon there, buddy.”
Nobody wants to go on a daily expedition to the wells of the soul, to the trenches that drop between continents. We get it. But friends, there are beaches down there, where waters of different densities lap together against shores made entirely of muscle shoals.
There are upside-down lakes down there, where superhot waters pool under the lips of underwater caverns.
And there are waterfalls of molten metals falling upwards past the lips of the caverns in silver, glinting against the lights shone upon them.
Underneath the surface of our ocean there are miracles. The untouchable, the unknown, the holiest reaches and depths of the very edge of what we know beckon us,
To remember for some the love we’ve known,
To remember for others the pains we’ve known,
And in that remembering, in that grief,
To honor the love we’ve known, by the feeling of its absence.
To honor the pain we’ve known, by the presence of healing we know now in our lives.
But however we remember the past, let us always remember that every breath we draw, honors the entirety of the life we have lived before, honors the lives of those who we’ve lost, whom we honor with that breath, so that we might join together and sing together, a song of hope in these times, a song of meaning in these days, a song of life in this holy day.
 There is actually a single remaining Blockbuster Video store at the writing of this sermon in the United States, in Bend, Oregon. Read more at theverge.com and the article “The last Blockbuster: what we really lose when video stores shut down,” by Bijan Stephen (August 29, 2018).
 The Blue Planet, episode 2, “The Deep,” Alistair Fothergill for the BBC (London, UK), released September 19, 2001.
 “Deep-Sea Corals,” by The Smithsonian, located at ocean.si.edu.
 “Scientists Discover Upside-Down Lakes and Waterfalls at the Bottom of the Ocean,” by Sarah Emerson, published December 14, 2018 on vice.com.