Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What is Your Spirit Animal?

What is Your Spirit Animal?

According to the BBC, my Monterey Bay “spirit animal” is the humpback whale.  I filled out a simple quiz and they wrote back, “Welcome to Team Humpback!  You are easygoing and appreciate the little things in life.  You are never too busy to relax with your favorite music or hobby, and people find your calm and pleasant personality refreshing.”

It’s “Big Blue Live” week here in Monterey; BBC and PBS crews are everywhere, producing live TV and online broadcasts (8/31-9/2 in the US) featuring (in their words) “some of the world’s most charismatic marine creatures convening in a once-a-year confluence of fins, fur and fangs in the once endangered and now thriving ecosystem of Monterey Bay.”

I just watched the first BBC episode, already broadcast in the UK, and despite the breathless superlatives (fins, fur, fangs!) it really is quite moving and inspiring.  Check it out at

On the Big Blue Live promotional website there’s a button “What is your spirit animal?” Based on your answers to such scientific questions as “Which kind of movie do you like?” and “What’s your dream vacation?” you are welcomed to Team Humpback, Sea Otter, Great White Shark, Sooty Shearwater, California Sea Lion or Garibaldi. 

(This is actually a good way to engage people. I learned in Aquarium guide class, and preaching class, to tell the big story in such a way that the listener connects it to their own story – that story is my story! The whale’s story is my story.)

Curious, I took the test again and answered a little off character (fav movie? buddy comedy rather than musical) and got Team Garibaldi, “You are friendly and adventurous but you demand respect and don’t hesitate to defend what is yours; especially your friends and family.  You take pride in your persistence and tough nature and love to be in the spotlight.”  (Male garibaldi fish defend their babies from predators.) 

I’ve read enough myth and Jung to know about “spirit animals” as sort of mythic/dream companions or guides from the animal world.  Turns out it’s also a popular type of online quiz that purports to predict personality by conflating animals traits (humpbacks sing!) with movie choices (I like musicals!)

OK Streeter, enough with the snide putdowns of promotional superlatives and cute quizzes.  As a matter of fact, Monterey Bay IS big and blue and alive, and the animals there (here) ARE full of spirit, connecting and inspiring us all. 

Just sit back and enjoy the show.  Try to be more like Job, in the Bible, “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.  Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.  Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you.  Let the fish in the sea speak to you.” 

(One of our Blue Theology partners, Kate Spencer, is the whale expert on the broadcasts.  On our youth mission trips and adults retreats we see all these spirit animals!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trust in Tule

Trust in Tule

Remember the children’s sermon or camp activity where you take one stick, and easily break it, but then bind together a bunch of sticks and they can’t be broken?  Community is like that, we assure the kids; together we are stronger.

Call it “the tule sermon.”  Today we honor the humble tule reed. 

Visit a Monterey wetlands and these 15-foot sturdy, flexible plants are everywhere.  Similar to bulrushes and cattails, they are home to myriad birds and fish.  At the top you will see marsh wrens nesting, then find coots at home at water level, and under the water discover crustaceans and fish thriving in their wet roots.

Our region’s native Ohlone also used the tule for homes, weaving and binding them into quick and strong shelter.  Tule became baskets, mats, duck decoys and even breathing tubes to hide underwater during attack. 

I don’t have to use the past tense to talk about Ohlone tule boats – these sleek beauties still ply the waters.

Thanks, tules, for being so beautiful, flexible, useful, strong, and welcoming. 

Two authentic tule boats set sail 3 times a day this summer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as part of the educational and entertaining deck show, “Turning the Tide.”  Local Ohlone wise woman Linda Yamane cut the tule, fashioned the crafts and speaks on the videos about how her ancestors fished from these boats.  Later in the show other local folks tell stories of their particular ethnic and fishing ancestry and heritage.  When the tule boats have left the Great Tidepool, out sails a Japanese abalone dive boat, a Chinese squid junk and a Sicilian lampara sardine boat. We’ve taken some of the youth groups on Blue Theology mission trips there this summer to learn about diversity and sustainable fisheries.

Some fun facts about tule reeds:
-“Tule” is a Native American word.
- Tule is essential in wetlands, serving as a barrier to wind and water forces, preventing erosion. California has built over 75% of its wetlands and eradicate much tule.
-Tulare Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, in the Central Valley, was named by white settlers for all the tule reeds in the lake.  (I do have to use the past tense here; the lake dried up when the rivers that fed it were all diverted in the 1920’s for agriculture.)
-People said they lived “in the tules” when they meant they lived far away.
-It’s the source of more California names like tule fog, tule elk, Tule Lake Japanese internment camp.

So it’s a very California plant – linked to our native heritage, used creatively and also exploited, drained and killed, associated with beautiful bounty as well as with genocide, still surviving thanks to conservation and determination.  Yes, we are stronger together.  Let’s be like the tule and use our strength to create shelter and beauty.  And to sail.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Written on the Chalkboards of History

Written on the Chalkboards of History

The signs read, “Attention! Failaises dangereuses!”  Dangerous cliffs.  Don’t get too close to the edge, read the signs at the top.  Here at the bottom, they meant, stay back from the cliff base, where giant rocks regularly crash down.

You can see that we ignored the signs and scrambled all day, both at the top and the base of these massive chalky French monoliths (right across the Channel from their sister White Cliffs of Dover).  Norah and I had long loved Monet’s paintings of this coast and vowed to go ourselves.  That night we stayed in the small fishing village, St. Valery-en-Caux, St. Valery-in-the-Chalk. 

I’m indulging in a little travel nostalgia here, our trip almost ten years ago to Normandy’s “Alabaster Coast.”  Alabaster meaning white, like the chalk of school or sidewalk or sideline. 

Chalk, which is, like so many things in our lives, a gift from the sea.

Thomas Huxley was the first to slice chalk very thin and place it under his simple microscope.  Seeing these complex round globules he said they looked like “badly grown raspberries” and christened them “coccoliths,” literally “berries of stone.”  In a fascinating lecture “On a Piece of Chalk,” (1868) he told the citizens or Norwich that “a great chapter of the history of the world is written in chalk.”  Like all English, they adored their precious white cliffs, source of their mythological name Albion (white).  But Huxley used the story of chalk to promote the then new science of geology, that the world was much, much older than the Biblical calculus of 4000 years. 

He proved that these coccoliths were actually the skeletons of ancient marine organisms, tiny plankton. Using this picture, and evidence from the deep sea muck being pulled up that year by the engineers who were laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable, he proved that England’s precious white cliffs, were “the dried mud of an ancient deep sea.”

We now know for certain what Huxley asserted, that when these tiny sea creatures died, millions of years ago, they sank to the bottom, where massive deep sea pressure and weight compressed them into chalk.  Then came millennia of geological shaking and uplift, and voila, (Sacre Bleu!) chalk cliffs.

“Attention!  Failaises dangeureuses!”  It was dangerous for Huxley to challenge the theological establishment and assert that the world was so old, and still constantly changing.   But he too was a rash explorer who ignored signs that said be careful. 

He had tasted the pursuit of truth, as sweet as a “badly grown raspberry.” All thanks to a little marine organism.  Written on the pages of time.

(Check out <> for more on our church’s adult retreats and youth mission trips on ocean stewardship and spirituality.  I also post these weekly meditations on Facebook.  Join the Blue Theology Mission Station page/group.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Joyful, Joyful

Joyful, Joyful

Preachers know the good advice, “Let the text work on you before you work on the text.”

Early in my Blue Theology ministry I was trying to write a sermon about the ocean, called “Water and the Word,” and I was getting nowhere.  I went to sleep (mercifully it was only Friday night) to let it work on me.  As I woke up I was puzzled to find the hymn tune “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” running through my head.  As I made breakfast, the text finally worked on me, verse three; “You are giving and forgiving, Ever blessing, ever blessed, Wellspring of the joy of living, Ocean depth of happy rest.”

Wellspring and ocean depth – God is like a spring and an ocean of mystery and new life and abundance. “The water that I will give will become in [you] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” “The spirit hovered over the deep.” “Deep calls to deep.”  The sermon wrote itself.

Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke wrote the words for “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” in 1907.  He was also Professor of English Literature at Princeton for 30 years, US ambassador to Holland and, near the end of his life, a Navy Chaplain, in World War I.  He said of this hymn,

 “These verses are simple expressions of common Christian feelings and desires in this present time—hymns of today that may be sung together by people who know the thought of the age, and are not afraid that any truth of science will destroy religion, or any revolution on earth overthrow the kingdom of heaven. Therefore this is a hymn of trust and joy and hope.”

His hymn reminds me of St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” how it’s not just us humans singing, but all of creation praising God, “Praise God, sun and moon!” and how all creatures “lift up their voice and with us sing.” 

And it’s all about joy.  Singing seems to come from joy and produce joy. “Chanting birds and flowing fountains call us to rejoice in Thee.” 

Then there’s that curious phrase, “flowery meadow, flashing sea.”  Flashing sea?  What does that image evoke in you?

But my favorite line is: “Hearts unfold like flowers before you, opening to the sun above.”  These sea anemones (painted by German biologist artist Ernst Haeckel around the same time Van Dyke wrote the hymn) are actually animals, not plants, but they are named for the anemone flower.  And they sure look as if they are opening their very hearts in joy and praise. 

May our hearts unfold like flowers, and sing, with joy.