Lent 2: We Speak What We Know
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church at the Second Sunday of Lent, March 16, 2014
Genesis 12: 1-4a John 3: 1-17
Jesus said that “we speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen.” But the pioneer of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, grasping the difficulties of perception, cautioned, “We must always say what we see, but above all and more important, we must always see what we see.”
I’m reading a very engaging book on perception right now by Alexandra Horowitz. It is called On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. She begin,
You missed that. Right now, you’re missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You’re missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.
By marshaling your attention to these words … you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your [seat] presses against your legs and back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or joints, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic…, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a [machine].
This ignorance is useful: indeed, we complement it and call it concentration.
Horowitz teaches psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of the New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. In her new book, Horowitz moves from animal perception to human perception through a series of walks around her neighborhood, seeking to uncover what she calls “the spectacle of the ordinary – the things we overlook everyday and the things we don’t even know how to see.” She does so by walking with diverse experts who help her see.
She began with her toddler, bundling him up in their New York City apartment, riding the elevator down to the lobby, crossing the lobby, greeting the doorman, and out onto the street to take their walk. Her first learning occurred when she was standing on the street and said to her son “alright, let’s go for a walk,” and realized that that from his perspective they were already well into their walk. Whereas she thought of a walk as being from point A to point B, to the toddler the entire process of getting dressed, bundling up, riding the elevator, crossing the lobby, greeting the doorman, and moving through the revolving door was already quite an adventure, with lots to do and see. In subsequent walks she circumnavigated her neighborhood with a geologist, who taught her to recognize the fossils of ancient sea creatures in the walls of New York’s limestone buildings, and a physician who taught her to identify underlying medical conditions in people’s gait; she walked her Manhattan block with the man who wrote Tracks and Signs of Insects and other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species who taught her to recognize the holes made by larva on tree leaves, the webs and retreats of spiders in dumpsters, the exoskeletons of flies clinging to lampposts and the traces of bugs who hide under just about everything. On one particular walk Horowitz spent several hours with an artist and only made it a few blocks from her apartment. For the artist, every open door was an invitation to enter, so they entered a halfway house and spoke to the social workers, listened to music in an open church, and met residents in a senior center, all places the author passed everyday but never dreamt of entering. They spoke with a mailman, various policemen, a couple of movers, and numerous passersby, an office worker and two cooks. The artist seemed to approach every human being as an informant, with a story to tell. While the artist respected every person’s personal space, she seemed to assume that personal space meant that there was a person there to meet. Each time Horowitz returned home after one of these walks she did so aware of having seen her neighborhood (again) for the first time, but even more aware of how much she does not, and does not know how, to see.
“Part of normal human development,” she writes, “is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound – but to function, we have to ignore some of it.”
And then there are those moments when we get a sense of what we are missing. Norah Jones beautifully captures such a moment in her song “One Flight Down”:
One flight down
There’s a song on low
And your mind just picked up on the sound
Now you know you’re wrong
Because it drifts like smoke
And it’s been there playing all along
Now you know
Now you know
I had the opportunity to take a two-hour car ride with John [a well known church member] this week. I drove, and he was the passenger, and about the time we hit I-95 heading East toward Connecticut he said to me that he was grateful for the opportunity to be a passenger on a route which he normally drives himself. It gave him the chance to look around and see things he usually misses because he’s paying attention to the road. As we rode John named all the rivers that we crossed, rivers I wouldn’t have seen anyway because they were obscured by the highway. He named each of the bays and inlets along the coast and told me bits of history from each of the towns, which companies owned offices in which buildings, of the hospital where he had his finger removed. He recounted the story of the night the Mianus River Bridge collapsed in 1883. He saw things I would never see. Personal stories, public stories. Histories and his own stories.
John has spent a lot of time on the road in his lifetime, traveling both with his family and for work. When we passed a car carrier truck, he looked at it with a kind of attention usually reserved to young boys. He counted the number of cars on the trailer twice and noticed that one of them had a license plate. John said that while all of the cars were being transported, the one with the license plate probably belonged to the driver of the truck. I had not have even noticed the license plate.
Jesus said to Nicodemus that we speak of what we know. Which of course is like the punch line to a joke, because the whole encounter reads like Abbot and Costello rehearsing “Who’s on First?” Jesus and Nicodemus are using the same words but they know different realities. Jesus is not dividing the earthly and the heavenly, as if they are two different things. Rather he is inviting Nicodemus to experience all reality as spiritual. He is inviting Nicodemus to see what he has been missing, the life of God as love in and for the world.
I asked my son the other day how many senses human beings have. August simply rolled his eyes at me and said “Everybody knows that, Dad. I’ve known that since I was in kindergarten.” So I asked him to name them, which he did quickly: “there are five – sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.” My wife Noelle asked whether I wanted to count the sixth sense, which I did, though I could not define what it is. Did you know that scientists today hold that we have at least 10 distinct senses, and may have as many as thirty? These include blood-sugar levels, empty-stomach, thirst, joint position, and more. We may be hard-wired with a sense of direction, though many of us have obviously forgotten how to exercise it, and then there is something called proprioception – the sense of our bodies in space, including movement and balance. This is what allows us to touch our fingers to our noses with our eyes closed.
The idea of undeveloped or poorly exercise senses is compelling. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, the book that our church book group will be discussing on Tuesday morning, ponders whether there is such a thing as a spiritual sense. He tells of a time when his own son Matthew wondered, “Is faith a sense?”
“What do you mean,” Louv asked.
“You know, as in sensing a higher power.”
Could such a literal sense of spirit exist, he asks, “out on the far edges of our senses? Might this particular sense be activated by the other senses when they’re working full throttle – which often occurs when we are in nature” – when we are walking, hiking, out beside the ocean or immersed in our own garden? Perhaps, he writes, “this is why so many of us use religious terminology as we talk about our experience in nature, even if we’re not religious in a formal way.”
Jesus says that we must be born again, to enter the world with the wide-eyed wonder and attention of a child, to see what we have grown accustomed to unseeing because we foolishly believe we have seen it all before. Jesus calls us “to re-learn what we know about the world so that we might learn about God, to re-look. In order to step into the holy we are called to know the mundane as God would have us know it, to spend that energy of re-seeing, re-looking, re-naming the world. What does the language of those around you, the simple everyday language of the earthly invite you to see with fresh eyes? Where is the world being re-revealed to you?”
Prayer: Blessed Word, give us new ears and eyes to hear and see the world around us as you have created it. Grant us patience and perseverance to re-discover the world through your eyes and your ears, sustaining us in the knowledge of your love, your grace, and your mercy. By the power of the one who opens our hearts, Amen.
 Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. (Simon Schuster, 2013)
 Richard Louv, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. (Algonquin, 2011)
 Louv, The Nature Principle.
 Jason Stewart Sierra, staff officer for the Episcopal Church Office for Young Adult and Campus Ministries, writing for Words Matter, 2011. The prayer is his too.