A Prayer for George the Snail
© Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church 210 West Madison Street Baltimore, MD 21201
July 28, 2019
Pastor’s Note: This is the final sermon from a five-part series that read the doctrine of creation through the lens of the climate crisis and the work of theologian, Jürgen Moltmann.
If we start from God’s relationship to human beings, then what makes the human being God’s image is not humanity’s possession of any particular characteristic or other — something which distinguishes humankind above other creatures; it is humanity’s whole existence. The whole person, not merely the soul; the true human community, not only the individual; humanity as it is bound up with nature, not simply human beings in their confrontation with nature — it is these which are the image of God and God’s glory.
Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
When, on Sunday, the preacher intones that all human beings are mortal, you quietly, say, yes, that’s true. And you check your messages on your phone. And prepare for a Sunday morning snooze. But when the minister announces that our beloved Jane Smith succumbed to her battle with cancer last night — when a preacher makes that announcement, suddenly, we sit up straight. We plan fellowship meals. We immediately begin a ritual of memory, remembering with thanksgiving the life that has passed from us. And perhaps we practice, in little ways, for our own deaths. And even more, we intensify our commitment to meaningful living. And so, we listen to a sermon like that and we live with a renewed sense of commitment to purposeful, love-filled, self-giving life. Even if we’re not the ones in the immediate circle of those who grieve, we listen, maybe even more intently because the stab of grief is not directly our own, at least not yet.
Today, given our theme of ecology, maybe it would be appropriate, to intone some on species extinction, climate extinction, habitat extinction.
And you would say, most of you, that it’s true. And it wouldn’t really matter. I mean, it wouldn’t not matter, but it would be too abstract for most of us to even comprehend. And this sermon would pass, along with the Dodo Bird, into the history of so many extinctions.
So today, I am sorry to say that I have a belated announcement. Sometime, early in the morning on New Year’s Day of 2019, now nearly 8-months ago, George, 14 years old died.
O Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayers.
I don’t imagine a single church in the world announced his death, much less celebrated with thanksgiving his full-life. He was living in a trailer at the time, in Oahu, one of the Hawaiian Islands.
George was a snail, the final Achatinella apexfulva in existence in the world, in the cosmos. And David Sischo was his guardian homo sapien.
Snail and human, Sischo and George had been living together in this trailer for years. Sischo was his caretaker and, while he was taking a little time off for some well-deserved rest, George the Snail died. He was immediately notified by text that a colleague had found George’s limp body at about 7 a.m.
Ed Yong, writing for the Atlantic Magazine, observes, saying, “Few people would mourn a snail, but Sischo and team had spent years caring for George. He was a daily constant, a familiar friend. He was also the last known snail of his kind, the final Achatinella apexfulva. It is said that everyone dies alone, but that was doubly true for George — alone at the end, both in his cage and in the world.”
Species extinctions, we know, happen all the time. In fact, we are in the midst of what is called the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s natural history. And mostly, extinctions happen without us noticing. George was only exceptional to us because of a human link and a writer who thought this was a story that we should hear.
A bit more about George the Snail. Apparently, Hawaii is known for its snails, which is habitat for some 750 distinct species. But like many fragile species, which evolved in the relatively protected enclosure of an island habitat, they are faced with extinction from external, non-native species. It’s a familiar story. Global trade networks, misguided introductions of non- native species, and so on.
According to Yong, George is known in biological parlance as an “endling” — that means the last survivor of his species. Here are some other names of endlings: Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (after which George the snail was named); Martha the passenger pigeon; Benjamin the thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian Tiger, and Booming Ben the heath hen. Endling will be the title of Najin or Fatu, the world’s last two last northern white rhinos, both female, neither of whom are pregnant.
Mark Mandica, executive director of the Amphibian Foundation, cared for the last known Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed Panamanian tree frog in the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Mandica’s 2-year old son named this endling, Toughie.
The botanical garden was not only his habitat; it was his hospice care unit. According to Mandica, “It was only a matter of time before I came in and found him dead . . . that was nauseating. This species loves to hide, and when I couldn’t find him immediately, I would feel a pit in my stomach.”
Mandica said that Toughie was the silent type. He’d never heard him chirp, the way tree frogs will when they feel safe and unobserved. But one time, after years in the garden, he heard Toughie singing. Carefully, stealthily, Mandica crept up and made a recording of the song.
“There was something about hearing him sing out that really affected me,” he says. “He was calling for a mate, and there wasn’t a mate for him on the entire planet.”
Two years later, Toughie died, and with his death, his species went extinct.
Toughie’s song has not been heard in the natural universe since 2014.
O Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayers.
What, you might ask, is the purpose of this sermon? Why should you or I care about a snail or a lonely tree frog or a pair of white rhinos? There are other urgent concerns. But I wonder if some of our urgent concerns are rooted in our way of viewing nature, as if we were beings outside of nature, in a confrontation with nature, or in a position to exploit nature. This contrasts with how we were created. Human beings are created at the end of creation, almost as if we were created out of everything else. It’s in us, in some primordial way, to love and care for our fellow inhabitants.
But something has gone wrong. As a culture, we have studied nature in order to dominate and extract its resources, but we have not cared so as to preserve and to participate, as co-inhabitants with other beings here on earth. Jurgen Moltmann, who has been my reading companion throughout this series of sermons, identifies two kinds of knowing. One form, which is quite familiar to the modern mind, he calls dominating knowledge and the other is meditative knowledge. Dominating knowledge is when “we know something to the extent that we can dominate it. We understand something if we can grasp it.” Or we understand it to the extent that we derive direct benefits from its continuation or, alternatively, its extinction.
If science is in the employ of cultures of domination, which industrial science mostly is, it is inevitable that a dominating form of knowledge will prevail in human relationships with nature. But when we speak of God who creates and who continues to create, rejoices in the creation, delights in it, is surprised by it, then we arrive at what Moltmann calls “meditative knowledge.” He quotes Augustine in this regard: “We know to the extent to which we love.”
“Through this form of astonished, wondering, and loving knowledge, we do not appropriate things. We recognize their independence and participate in their life . . . . We desire to know in order to participate” (Moltmann, God in Creation).
Moltmann believes our wisdom tradition, an ancient one, has this to offer to our modern world. Astonishment, wonder, love. This is knowledge, too.
In the story about George the Snail and his human co-habitant, the model for grieving is that of the biologist, who isn’t merely studying to dominate but, in some way, finds himself linked through meditative knowledge to this other being. To the extent that he is known as a “weird snail guy” who lives in a trailer with his non-human family, we know he lives in a state of peculiar awe.
And Sischo cares. And he preaches good news. He wants people to know what he knows in this far-flung part of the world.
And to the extent that he cares, he knows. And to the extent that he knows, he grieves; and to the extent that he grieves, he hopes; and so hoping, he loves. Meditative knowledge. That’s the only thing that can explain to me this kind of effort.
And maybe that’s the point of contact for us today. I think God would want our tears to rise not with resignation but with cheerful acts resistance, with commitment to hope, even to become known as that “weird church” where they care about endlings everywhere. We’re the weird church, where, along with our financial offerings, we bring compost. We’re the weird church where we try to show God’s love, even for the soil on our campus.
We should grieve but not as the world grieves, but with hope. Think. Human beings, in Genesis, give names to the animals of the world.
That’s a primordial act of hope and a declaration of our stewardship of our little sisters and brothers in the creation. Of relation. In the beginning was the relation, says Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian and mystic. Toughie, George, Booming Ben, Lonesome George, Najin, and Fatu . . . and likewise, God calls us by name, endlings every one of us, those created in his image, by name, Jacob and Israel. And God knows how precarious our existence, endlings every one of us, but God knows us even more than that, God knows us to the very extent that God loves us, and God’s love knows no ending, and God is powerful to make our endlings into beginlings.
“But now thus says the Lord, the Lord who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
And we are yours, O God. Perhaps Toughie, Najin, and Fatu, Lonesome George, and Booming Ben are not far from your care, not far from your redeeming, not far from your loving.
Not a bird falls from the air, O God, and you do not know it completely!
Maybe my feeling is today that we commit ourselves to living for exotic creatures, fragile habitats; give ourselves with extraordinary abandon to endlings, and wanderlings, and lonely things everywhere.
Because none of us are really alone, solitary, but all of us live through each being, each thing, each song . . . and it’s endling.
By God’s grace, we can become a beginling.
Would it be purely gratuitous for us to feel the stab of grief when we hear the song of a tiny creature, named Toughie, singing its song for the very last time?
Or a snail?
It depends. We, homo sapiens, want to be saved from the fire, from flood, from the rising fear of overwhelming waters. A remnant, according to scripture, will be saved. Not all will be saved. A remnant. This means, concretely, many will die in this age. Some will survive. Some will not.
When Isaiah speaks of the return of the remnant out of its forced exile, the prophet speaks in creational terms, speaking of the way in which God promises to rescue even the dead from the grave.
But this is what we often miss as we talk about salvation: in the ongoing story of creation, all beings must pass through waters, fire, and flood.
Isaiah’s God does not promise a fire-less, waterless, windless, bodiless salvation; instead, God’s prophet reports that when we pass through the creation, which is behaving like chaos, God, the Spirit, will be with us; and the wind, God’s chariots, and the waters God’s choir, will sing God’s praise. We will not be saved by an existence without fire, by an existence without water, by existence without rivers, or by an existence without love.
But our salvation, which is what God creates, is this thing with God: “Because you are precious in my sight and honored and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east and front the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Booming Ben. Lonesome George. Naji and Fatu. George the snail. It is late. Perhaps too late, by some measures, for some species. But, in a deeper way, perhaps this is God stirring us up for an alternative world. When we pass through the waters, and through the rivers, and through the fire, God is with us, for all things were created for God’s glory and reflect God’s glory and will return to God’s glory.
For now, George the Snail’s body is all that is left of his species. Its remains sit in a cabinet labeled, Death Cabinet.
It’s almost as if he’s a beginling-in-waiting . . . to pass through waters, through fires, and rivers.
O Lord, in your mercy. Hear, our prayers.