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I Listened

I Listened

“At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 July 2019

 

 

Last week I spent beside a river.  The North Loup River, to be exact.  I was at Kamp Kaleo, our United Church of Christ campground here in Nebraska, for Faith and Fine Arts Camp.  I was teaching the writing group.

The first morning, I was awake early and so I wondered down to a bench beside the river and watched the sunrise play off the fast flowing water.  The river was high, from all the spring and summer rains.  All the sandbars were covered and the banks were not exposed.  The river was rushing by on its journey through the Sandhills. 

Later in the week we tubed on the river, always a joyful experience.  The high point was either shooting some mild rapids, when I squealed with childish glee, or when we rounded a bend and there was a big, red, Angus bull standing in the river.  We all promptly paddled our tubes to the other side.  Fortunately, the bull seemed confused but not alarmed at the loud tubers floating by.

 

Back in June I also spent some time beside another river.  Our family camped at Pike’s Peak State Park in northeastern Iowa.  Yes, there is another Pike’s Peak than the tall mountain in Colorado.  Apparently explorer Zebulon Pike enjoyed naming places after himself. 

This Pike’s Peak is a tall hill along the Mississippi River that overlooks the confluence with the Wisconsin River.  Our first night we walked to the overlook and were stunned by the natural beauty—the rich green forested hillsides, the many islands dotting the river at that point, the sunlight on the water.  Over the next four days I walked to that overlook two or three times a day and every single time the view and the river were different—the light changed, the colors were shifted--sometimes dominated by blue and another time by pink—and then the final morning a thick fog blocked any view of the river below.  Standing at the overlook I felt as if I was in the Caspar David Friederich painting Wanderer above a Sea of Fog.

 

According to Lauren Krauze, “[Mary] Oliver’s work often invites readers—by way of her own example—to gaze upon their grief, despair, and loneliness.” 

Krauze continues, “but she does not belabor those aspects. Instead, her words encourage readers to turn toward something larger. This shift in focus from an intimate, personal experience to the interconnected movements of the wider world appears throughout her work as an element that seems both elemental and mystical.”

That occurs here in the poem “At the River Clarion.”  Oliver, sometime after the death of her wife and more immediately to this poem, the death of her dog Luke, sits on a rock in the river in order to grieve and in her grief she listens to the river so that she might learn from it.  “We do not live in a simple world,” she writes. 

Death and suffering and pain grieve and afflict us.  Mary Oliver is right to teach us both to gaze at these realities and then also how to live with them. 

Consider these lines from “I Go Down to the Shore,”

 

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall--
what should I do?  And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

 

            Or these lines from the poem “Flare,”

 

Nothing lasts.

There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is,
now.

I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.

 

            The poem “Flare,” from which these lines come, is partly about her parents.  She grew up in a “dark and broken” home where her father abused her.  She writes of her father as “a demon of frustrated dreams” and “a breaker of trust.”  She writes of her anger, her refusal to carry her parents’ baggage forward, of crying out with the voice of child in misery, disappointment, and terror. 

            And yet, she closes the poem,

 

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world.  Notice
something you have never noticed before . . .

 

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves. . . .

 

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.

 

 

            How could she do this?  How did she survive her trauma, find healing and wholeness, and become an inspiration for others.  In a profile from The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin writes, “Walking the woods, with Whitman in her knapsack, was her escape from an unhappy home life.”

            She learned to pay attention to nature, to listen.  In the poem “At the River Clarion” she wrote, “all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.”  In “I Go down to the Shore” the sea speaks to her grief. Throughout her poetry she hears the creatures of the natural world speaking to her and she learns from them.

            In the poem “Hearing of Your Illness” about her fellow poet James Wright, she writes of lying down in a field near a “black creek and alder grove” and talking to them about his illness and coming death.  She writes,

 

I felt better, telling them about you.
They know what pain is, and they know you,

And they would have stopped too, as I

was longing to do, everything, the hunger
and the flowing.

 

That they could not--
merely loved you and waited
to take you back . . .

was what I learned there, so I

 

got up finally, with a grief
worthy of you, and went home.

 

            Debra Dean Murphy writes that this intimacy with the created world is “in keeping with the kinship of creaturehood described in the opening lines of the Bible.”  And she quotes theologian Douglas Christie on the contemplative life:

 

The capacity and willingness to become small, to acknowledge the primacy of the living world, to open oneself completely to the life of the world, and to do so without any aim beyond the simple pleasure of the gesture itself: such unselfconscious simplicity and innocence can become the foundation of a more responsive and reciprocal way of being in the world.

 

           

            One of the oldest of human questions is “Where is God when we suffer?”  Mary Oliver is not a philosopher or theologian; she develops no robust theodicy, no logical defense of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering.  No, she is a mystic, who provides no final or sufficient answer to this question; “I don’t know who God is exactly,” she writes. 

Instead she speaks to us by her example.  She models a type of life that gazes at our suffering and yet finds a measure of healing by listening to the natural world.  For by listening, she encounters God.

            Jason Oliver wrote in the review America, that Mary Oliver is a type of panentheist, which he characterizes as “her ability to see God in all things and all things in God. In a spider under a stairwell and a favorite pond, the flowers along the beach . . . , a cleaning woman in an airport bathroom and a young man with a gift for constructing with lumber but not with language, Oliver sought and saw revelation. It is this quality that gives her work the luster of the eternal.”

            In “At the River Clarion” she encounters God in everything—in the river, in butter, the lilly, the forest, the leaf of grass, but also the ghetto, the dying ice caps, the hands of those desperately preparing their weapons, and the tick that killed her beloved dog Luke.  She writes,

 

Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.

 

For her, consolation arrives in discovering God all around us.

 

            Mary Oliver teaches us—in the midst of our grief, if we but listen, we can hear God speaking to us.  And so the poem ends,

 

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice

singing.

           

            So, find your river this week.  Find your place to sit and listen.  For only if you listen, can you hear God speaking.


Pay Attention

Pay Attention

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

7 July 2019

 

 

On January 17 of this year, Mary Oliver, America’s most beloved poet, died.  Oliver was not only the nation’s most popular poet, she was also a deeply spiritual writer.  Her collected works, for instance, is entitled Devotions.

And so last winter Katie and I decided that in Oliver’s memory, we wanted to spend a month of worship focused on her poetry and the spiritual and theological ideas it conveys.  We launch that series today, with this, one of Oliver’s most popular poems, “The Summer Day.”

 

 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

            In a 2017 article in The Christian Century entitled “Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems,” Debra Dean Murphy wrote, “Oliver’s poems are not religious in a classic sense, but they do have designs on their readers. They are occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight.”

            For example, here’s a segment of a poem entitled “Humpbacks” about whale watching off the coast of Cape Cod.

 

We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky--
like nothing you’ve ever imagined--
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning

 

            Yes, Oliver’s poems are a summons to wonder and delight, and there is a deep theological connection to this idea.  As Debra Dean Murphy points out, “the gift of wonder, of a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God], to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.”

            The summons to wonder and delight is a summons to be more fully human, to be more like God, to fulfill our calling.

 

            Which is why I paired today’s poem with the eighth psalm, that lyric to the glories of humankind.  The God who created all things has made even us, with mindful attention and care.  We are crowned with glory and honor and given power and dominion.  God desires that we flourish.

           

            A key theme in my own theology and in my preaching is this idea of living our best lives.  It is contained in the ancient Christian idea that “the glory of God is a humanity fully alive,” and the reformed idea that the chief end of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever,” and the claim about the resurrection that we Christians “are the eternal beginners.”

            But in the last couple of years I’ve been reading more about trauma and resilience.  One of the things so many writers in trauma studies tell us is that the traumatized person continues to carry their wounds with them.  That some possibilities at human flourishing are forever cut off.

            Maybe Mary Oliver helps us to connect these two disparate themes.  For all the inspirational quotes drawn from her writings, they acknowledge darkness.  The dangers and violence of the natural world.  And the great harms inflicted by human beings.  As a child she was sexually abused by her father.  In 2005 her spouse of over forty years, Molly Malone Cook, died of cancer.  Pain and suffering are themes of Oliver’s poetry.  Consider, “The Fish.”

 

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows.  Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him.  Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea.  Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain,
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

 

 

            So, how does a woman who experienced pain and trauma end up writing inspirational poetry that summons us to wonder and delight?

            By teaching us to pay attention. 

            The primary spiritual and human practice revealed in Mary Oliver’s writing is to “pay attention.”  For instance, it’s there explicitly in the final line of her essay “Upstream”—“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

            Debra Dean Murphy writes that Oliver’s poems point “readers to the gift of presence—reminding us, in poems that are often deceptively simple, of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment.”  She teaches us to attend to our natural world and the myriad creatures and happenings around us.  She also teaches us to attend to our own inner states, our physical bodies, and the body of our beloved.  We cannot begin to wonder at or to love that which we have not noticed, carefully.

            We notice this in the poem “The Summer Day” when she draws our attention not to grasshoppers in general but to a particular grasshopper, the one in her hand.  She can speak with affection for it because she has taken the time to attend to it. 

 

            Which makes her a powerful poet of our time, when we can be so easily distracted.  Franklin Foer wrote about this in The Atlantic after Mary Oliver’s death. 

 

In the age of surveillance capitalism, the biggest corporations redirect the gaze, exploiting the psyche’s vulnerabilities for profit. Even silenced phones light up with notifications that break eye contact and disrupt concentration. YouTube plays videos in an endless loop, queued on the basis of intimate data, so that the emotional rush of one clip stokes the desire to watch the next. Facebook, the ultimate manipulation machine, arrays information to exploit the psychic weaknesses of users, with the intent of keeping them on its site for as long as it can. The hand touches the phone upon waking, even before it can rub the eye or reach across the bed to wake the spouse.

 

He pointed out that Oliver herself was not directly criticizing these developments, but her writings teach us to live differently. 

 

            What are we going to do with our “one wild and precious life?”

            Will we be distracted?  Will we fail to enjoy the world God created?  Will we miss a chance to love and be loved? 

Or will we heed the “summons to wonder and delight” by attending to what is before us at any given moment?  And thereby fulfill our call “to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God]?”

 


Inspired

Inspired

I Thessalonians 1:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 June 2019

 

 

Today we come to a letter written by the apostle Paul, which most scholars believe is Paul’s very first letter written to a congregation he founded.  Which makes this the oldest text in the New Testament.  Hear now, these words of grace and peace:

 

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Heavenly Parent and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

 

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Parent your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

 

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.  For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.  For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for God’s Son from heaven, whom God raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

            When I was only a college student, I received one of the great gifts of my life—a library.  The pastor emeritus of my home church, the Rev. Dr. Weldon Marcum, had lived with Alzheimer’s for some years at that point.  According to his wife Elizabeth, Dr. Marcum told her he wanted to pass along his pastoral library to me.  So, on two occasions when I was home from college, I drove over to the Marcum’s house and boxed up his library and took it home with me. 

            I have built my own library over the decades, of course, but the core of mine is this collection of books from a mid-twentieth century small town pastor.  And one source I continue to use on a regular basis are the little red commentaries on the New Testament by the Scottish theologian William Barclay.  Barclay’s commentaries have been guides to biblical study and preaching for decades of Christian ministers.

            The inside front cover of the commentary on First Thessalonians is signed by Dr. Marcum, who had a lovely signature, and dated April 1960, when he apparently bought the book. 

            In his introduction to First Thessalonians, Barclay sets the context for this letter. Thessalonica had for six hundred years been a great city, and its population at Paul’s time was 200,000.  It was a free city, as Barclay writes, “that is to say it had never suffered the indignity of having Roman troops quartered within it.  It had its own popular assembly and its own magistrates.”  Plus, its main street was the major road that connected the West with the East.  This was a wealthy, prosperous, cosmopolitan city.

            Barclay continues by pointing out that Thessalonica is in Macedonia, in a territory “saturated with memories of Alexander [the Great].”  Thessalonica itself is named for Alexander’s half-sister, for instance. 

Why should the memory of Alexander matter for understanding Paul’s first letter to a Christian church?  Barclay reminds us that Alexander “was almost the first universalist. . . . He dreamed of one world dominated and enlightened by the culture of Greece.”  Barclay continues, “Alexander declared that he had been sent by God ‘to unite, to pacify, and to reconcile the whole world.’”

Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, was developing precisely the same sort of vision.  The Christian church was to be God’s universal agent, reconciling the world through the formation of a better humanity and a new social order. 

Barclay concludes, “If Christianity was settled in Thessalonica it was bound to spread East along the Egnatian Road until all Asia was conquered, and West until it stormed even the city of Rome.  The coming of Christianity to Thessalonica was a crucial day in the making of Christianity into a world religion.”

 

            And at the time of this letter, that vision seems to be working out.  People everywhere have been hearing about the church in Thessalonica and their joyful example of Christian faith.  They are now worthy of imitation by others.

            Presuming that we too would like to be a congregation known far and wide for our vital Christian faith, what is it that the Thessalonians did so well that we might learn from them?

            Notice in verse three—“your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Faith, hope, and love will become an important triadic formulation for the apostle Paul, and that formulation appears here first in his commendation of the Thessalonian Christians.

            But notice that faith, love, and hope are connected to work, labor, and steadfastness.  The Thessalonians embody these virtues and ideals in their daily actions. 

            Because of this, and some other hints, scholar Victor Paul Furnish suggests that the congregation’s members are mostly artisans and that maybe this early Christian church was located in an artisan’s workshop.  Paul was himself an artisan, a tentmaker.  So he would have found affinity with those like himself. 

            The core revelation is, as Furnish writes, “faith, love, and hope [are] constitutive of the believer’s new existence, and thus of the church’s life.”  To live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope is what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a church. 

            Furnish explains the relationship, “As the community’s trusting response to the reality of God’s electing love, faith provides an opening in the world for that love’s transforming power, and for the hope it nurtures.”

            So, if we are to be like the Thessalonians, this is how we too should live.

 

            But notice something else from Paul’s letter.  The Thessalonians have not done this alone—they have been empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

            Today is Pentecost, the third most important day in the Christian calendar, the day on which we celebrate both the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church.  For the two are intimately connected—the Spirit makes the church, as the power that enables us to live the lives to which we are called.

            At its simplest, we believe, as Victor Paul Furnish writes, that the Holy Spirit is our “present, vital relationship” with God.  The Holy Spirit is God’s “empowering activity” that enables us to live as if all of God’s plans for humanity and history have already come true.

            The Holy Spirit is not just some individual gift we receive; the Spirit is given to and embodied in a community of people.  Nathan Eddy writes that this “is central to the cooperative way God works in the world.”  And David Burrell adds, “What distinguishes a ‘living and true God’ from idols is precisely this new life that forges community freighted with expectation.”

What we celebrate today, then, is God’s vital presence in us, together, which empowers us to live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope, which will reconcile the world through the formation of a better humanity and a new social order.  This is our mission as a church.

 

And let’s take this one step further.  In his commentary David Burrell makes this interesting statement: “They will have to come to know this God through coming to know and appreciate one another: formation of the community becomes the new revelation.”

We did not live in first century Palestine.  We did not walk along the shores of Galilee or the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus.  We can read the stories of those who did, but we were not there. 

How, then, do we experience a vital, personal revelation of God in Christ?  It is through one another.  We come to know who God is through our loving communion with other human beings.  This is also one of the profound implications of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the truth of Pentecost.  What we need is here, in each other, in the ways we encourage one another to live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope.

So, may it be said of us, “We always give thanks to God for you who have become examples to all.”

 


A Thousand Small Sanities

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of LiberalismA Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea."

Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate." He admits this is an unwiedly description, but that's how liberalism works. It cannot be easily contained within slogans and catchphrases.

Liberalism emerges out of humanism, and Gopnik argues that humanism continues to come before liberalism. The movement begins with Montaigne's critical self-examination and willing to try out new ideas. It develops through modern efforts to eliminate cruelty.

What Gopnik does is not present simply the ideas of major thinkers, but he describes the lives of various figures, with John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill as his paradigm examples. For he believes that liberalism is a way of life more than a set of ideas and that we learn about it by learning about the lives shaped by it.

I found the ideas he advances to be Mill as filtered through Karl Popper and updated by Richard Rorty. This despite Popper rarely appearing explicitly in the book (though his defenses of the open society and scientific thinking do) and Rorty is only mentioned once in the bibliography (though his spirit and themes are throughout the book).

Gopnik refines his presentation of liberalism by contrasting it with both the Right and the Left. In each case, he looks for the best examples of each (Charles DeGaulle and Emma Goldman) instead of arguing against straw persons. And he shows how liberalism has learned from both movements and also contributed to them.

I very much appreciated the chapter contrasting liberalism with the Left, as it helps to clarify tensions I have felt professionally and personally in recent years as different approaches to Trumpism and other issues have emerged. In this chapter he tackles many current topics including free speech, religious tolerance, pronouns, etc.

Note: Gopnik argues that Liberalism is NOT centrism, which is its own movement. A chapter contrasting the two would have been helpful. It is interesting to note that David Brooks's column from last week mentioned this book and is why I ordered and read it.

Overall, I recommend it. Now, what I'd like is for Amy Kittelstrom to moderate a discussion over liberalism with Gopnik and Marilynne Robinson (her recent article in the NY Review of Books sets up an alternative view of liberalism's origins) and then for the responder to be Wendell Berry.

View all my reviews

Robinson on Puritanism & Liberalism

Speaking of Liberalism, a fine essay by Marilynne Robinson defending the liberal history of Puritanism, along the way pointing out the illiberalism of the Lockian tradition.  

In a fun aside, she mentions that interpretation of Walt Whitman should begin with an understanding of Puritan theology.

The closing paragraph is fine; here are the final two:

Our heavily redacted history has meant the loss of many options. The idea of a good community, one whose members are happy in the fact of a general well-being, is not native to us, natural to us, possible for us—or so we are to believe. It is too far left. It is downright socialist. Hugh Peter [a Puritan divine] speaks in terms of practical enhancements, crowned roads to help prevent flooding, for example. He proposes that all advocates and attorneys should be paid by the public, that no one should be above the law. He proposes that artists and craftsmen of modest income should not be taxed. There is nothing sectarian in his list of reforms, assuming that most of us would be pleased to have improved infrastructure, equal justice before the law, a creative environment that acknowledges the social value of art.

We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness? Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy.

 


Brooks on the current kerfluffle and Liberalism

In a smart column that one wishes was a longer essay, David Brooks writes about the current debate in the Democratic party and how this is a debate over the future of liberalism.  An excerpt:

Liberalism loves sympathy, suspects rage and detests cruelty. Politics is inevitably a dialogue between partial truths. Compromise is a virtue, not a sign of cowardice. Moreover, means determine ends. If you win power through rhetorical violence, and by hating those who disagree, your regime will be angry and destructive. Liberalism arose out of the fact that political revolutions, while exciting at the outset, usually end up in brutality, dictatorship and blood. Working within the system is best.