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Heiwa

Heiwa

Mark 12:28-34

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

11 August 2019

 

            Could you use help in figuring out how to live with challenging people?  How to defend yourself and love yourself with integrity without bringing harm upon other people?  How to speak truth in difficult times but still in a way that advances peace and love?

            Today’s Gospel lesson is a familiar passage, wherein Jesus engages in a conversation with a scribe about what are the core teachings of the faith.

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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.

 

            No surprise that Jesus puts the focus of the faith on love.  He draws upon the ancient teachings of his Hebrew faith that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor as ourselves. 

            The curriculum for this year’s summer camp, which Katie and I are drawing from for this worship series “Peace Works: Summer Camp at First Central,” focused on how we balance the love of God, others, and self and how this balancing is itself essential to peacemaking. 

            One of the fun features of the camp’s curriculum was that every day focused on a word and concept from a different culture in order to highlight aspects of peacemaking.  Today’s word is Heiwa.  Please say that with me, “Heiwa.”

            Heiwa is a Japanese term that means peace.  The two characters that make up this word can be translated “smooth” and “harmony.”  So peace is a smooth harmony in Japanese thinking.  The camp curriculum described it this way: “The Japanese concept of heiwa invites us to . . . look within as we work for peace, putting harmony over competition . . . .”

Last week we focused on how peacemaking begins with acknowledging that our own humanity is intimately connected with other people, and how that acknowledgment leads us to treat every other person with kindness, generosity, and respect. 

Peacemaking also begins within our own personality, as we cultivate an inner harmony and balance that is not easily knocked off center.  This personal development is difficult work for most people.  Consider questions such as “What are the tools we need to develop in order to be more peaceful people?”  “How do we engage in actions that create more peace?”

 

Raleigh Freeman died this week.  He wasn’t a member of our congregation for very long, and he had spent the last couple of years in a nursing home.  I first met Raleigh out on the sidewalk.  He lived in an apartment here in the neighborhood and since I too live in the neighborhood, we had met as neighbors.  He was a kind, friendly, soft-spoken, gentle man.  And a great example of neighborliness.  One of my fondest memories of him was on a spring day a few years ago when our church participated in a neighborhood clean-up effort.  Raleigh and I ended up on the same crew, walking Harney and Dewey streets picking up trash.

A couple of years ago Raleigh surprised me.  He came to my office one day to talk about how angry he was.  His loss of hearing had robbed him of vibrant interactions with other people.  He missed conversation and was lonely.  He had just been diagnosed with cancer and feared that this meant the beginning of the end.  Rightly, as it turned out.  When I told him I always thought of him as gentle and kind, he informed me that yes he tried to be that.  But as an aging, ill African-American man he had much to be angry about.  Being gentle took work.

Preparing this sermon, I thought of Raleigh.  To me, he was a peaceful soul, a peace maker even.  Yet his own testimony was that this came out through personal effort to overcome anger and be kind, gentle, and loving.

 

In the Gospel lesson about faith, love, and neighborliness, we might miss a crucial aspect of the story—the way Jesus responds when challenged.  Quoting from the camp curriculum,

Jesus is challenged by a lawyer—one who has been listening to previous questions and answers between Jesus and the religious leaders.  He has heard the give and take and comes to challenge Jesus.  Is he coming to learn or show how much he knows?  Is he trying to win the battle or grow deeper?  The context seems more combative than curious.  The lawyer seems to be raising himself up by pulling another down.

So, how does Jesus respond?  The curriculum’s description of the story continues:

Jesus does not attack the man’s motives, but instead restores balance.  Jesus calls on the deep wisdom of the Jewish tradition, . . . then lifts up loving neighbor as self.  The response critiques the lawyer’s actions and motives without attacking him personally.  Jesus has no need to win, but neither does he retreat.  Jesus holds his own center and invites the lawyer to grow . . . .

 

            This story of the disputation about the core values of the faith can serve for us as an example of how to remain peaceful in the midst of conflict.  Of how to keep our balance, our heiwa.

           

            To explore this idea further, I recommend a Christian thinker who wrote about how we find integrity in the midst of conflict—the theologian Howard Thurman.

            Thurman lived and worked and wrote in the first half of the twentieth century.  He was a deep influence upon Dr. King and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.  His major work is a small book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited.  He proclaims that “fear, hypocrisy, and hatred [are] the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited.”  Fear, hypocrisy, and hatred each attempt to knock us off balance, to rob us of our peace, our harmony, our integrity.  What can we do?

            Thurman believed that the teachings of Jesus provide the answer for how not to be overcome by the hounds of hell.  Even in the worst cases of oppression and suffering, we can draw upon Jesus’ example and learn not to be fearful, not to be deceived, and not to hate.  In a situation that attempts to rob us of our integrity and our dignity, we can learn to love.

            Thurman wrote of Jesus, “He recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny.”  He continued, “If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.” 

Wow, those are powerfully wise words.  Let me repeat them.  “If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.”  Let us take those words to heart in this age when we are easily angered.

            Thurman was aware that we can only develop inner peace and the love that flows from it with “painstaking discipline.”  It is “made possible only by a personal triumph.”  Nor is it something intellectual and abstract.  It has to be discovered in real life situations.

            Our good friend Raleigh expressed the same wisdom.

           

 

            On Tuesday morning the world learned the sad news that Toni Morrison died on Monday night.  She was the greatest American novelist of our time and a perceptive voice in understanding our flaws and calling us to our better selves.  Her death this week was particularly painful, in this climate of rising white supremacist violence.  A vital voice, a wise leader, was taken from us at this critical hour. 

            I was directed to an essay she published in The Nation in 2015, in which she described our troubled times and how we should respond.  Way back in early 2015 (and how long ago that now feels), she described our political discourse as “shredded by an unreason and hatred so deep that vulgar abuse seems normal, disaffection rules.  Our debates, for the most part, are examples unworthy of a playground: name-calling, verbal slaps, gossip, giggles.”

            She had felt unable to write, but a friend had admonished her that “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

            Toni Morrison came to agree with the friend.  She concluded her 2015 essay by saying, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.  Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom.  Like art.”

 

And so we face the challenge of peacemaking—not to succumb to the malevolence of the times in which we live.  To maintain our smooth harmony, our heiwa.  To remain people of integrity and dignity who do not succumb to fear, deception, and hatred.  To be agents of love, especially in the midst of conflict.   To be gentle, despite our justified anger.

I close with this prayer:

God, help us find our center.  Help us find our balance.  When we are too wound up, settle us down.  When we are apathetic, set our hearts on fire.  When we are too self-centered, remind us of others’ needs.  When we are not taking care of ourselves, remind us how precious we are.  Amen.

 

 


Ubuntu

Ubuntu

I Corinthians 12:12-27

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 August 2019

 

            What are your summer camp memories?

            I first went to church camp as a preschooler when my parents were youth directors.  Attending children’s or youth camp was an annual tradition in my upbringing.  I have fond memories of the Grand Lake Baptist Association’s campground outside Grove, Oklahoma.  I especially remember the giant weeping willow tree, sadly no longer there, which was fun to hide inside.  And there was another tree, near the First Baptist Miami cabin, where I always sat for my personal prayer and Bible study time. 

            In June I participated in the Faith and Fine Arts camp at Kaleo, our United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ campground on the North Loup River in the Sandhills near Burwell.  Going to camp again, for the first time in many years, has reawakened my memories and affections.

            This year at Kaleo the curriculum used every week of camp was entitled “Peace Works.”  There is a double meaning to that title.  If peace is to be achieved, it takes work, particularly work on our part.  The title also means that peace works in the sense of it is effective, capable, and successful.

            The curriculum explored this theme through a variety of concepts that originate in various cultures—Aloha from the Hawaiian Islands, Heiwa from Japan, Shalom from Judaism, etc.  Each day at camp there was a word for the day, and the campers learned about these concepts and what they can teach us as tools for peacemaking.

            I really enjoyed this curriculum and so when I got back from Kaleo I said to Katie, “Let’s do a worship series with it.”  Katie had directed Senior Camp this year, so she had worked with the curriculum as well.  We sat down to brainstorm and quickly put together a worship series, ideas for Sunday school with the kids, and we thought of various camp-related activities we can do during the series like hiking, kayaking, tie-dying, etc.  Aloha will be the word of the day for our Homecoming Sunday, so I encourage you to wear Hawaiian shirts to our annual picnic.  On Sunday, September 8 Erin Heckeroth-Brown, who taught the art group at Faith and Fine Arts camp this summer and also created a beautiful new art piece for Kaleo, will be with us and we will create a new art piece for our courtyard.  Our series will conclude with our children taking over worship as they share what they have created from the theme Peace Works.  We hope you’ll enjoy this experience of Summer Camp at First Central.

 

            Today’s word is Ubuntu.  Please say that with me, “Ubuntu.”

            Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu word from Southern Africa.  Its simplest translation is “humanity,” but the word contains a richer sense of the quality of what it means to be a human.  This is conveyed in a common phrase “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu,” which translates “A person is a person through other people.” 

Or, to put it more simply, “I am, because you are.”  Who we are, our identity, is intimately connected with other people and vice versa.  To be a human is to be in community with other people.

 

From this core idea an entire philosophy and theology of Ubuntu developed.  One of its key proponents has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Ubuntu ideas helped to shape his fight against apartheid in South Africa and his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when apartheid ended.  In 1992, Archbishop Tutu described Ubuntu:

 

Ubuntu refers to the person who is welcoming, who is hospitable, who is warm and generous, who is affirming of others, who does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for [this person] has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing they belong in a greater whole, and know that they are diminished when another is humiliated, is diminished, is tortured, is oppressed, is treated as if they were less than who they are.  What a wonderful world it can be, it will be, when we know that our destinies are locked inextricably into one anothers.

 

            A proper understanding of our humanity, our selfhood in community, then leads to right action.  When we are kind and generous toward others, we embody Ubuntu.  As one website I read stated, “A person who behaves in these ways . . . is a full person.”

            To be a full person, then, is to be someone who behaves well toward others.  To treat others with dignity, kindness, and respect is an expression of our humanity.  Someone who disrespects other people, therefore, is not fully a person.  When we disrespect and mistreat others, we are actually harming ourselves, robbing ourselves of our full humanity.

            So one way we work for peace is by gaining a proper understanding of our humanity and the obligations to right behavior that flow from it.

 

            Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth develops similar ideas to this traditional African concept.  Paul writes that God’s people are the Body of Christ.  We, each of us, have different gifts and positions, yet we are all needed; we must cooperate together in order to be effective and faithful.  If you dishonor or disrespect someone else and their unique gifts, then you bring harm to the entire body.  This hurts God’s work in the world. 

            The camp curriculum explains,

 

we need each other . . .—in mutual relationship—not only for the common good, but indeed, to survive.  When we each bring our open-minded, open-hearted, diverse gifts and talents to build communities, we become something more.  We know that we are always in the process of becoming, having never completely fulfilled our potential.  In partnership with others and with God, we do our best to fill God’s world with beauty.

 

            Archbishop Tutu helps us to tie these ideas together.  In the contemporary lesson for today that Marilyn read, Tutu proclaims that to disrespect another person is not simply wrong, it is also blasphemy, for it violates who we are created to be in the image of God, a divine fellowship.

 

            And, so, I invite you at the start of this series on peacemaking to do three things.  First, to recognize your own value as a human being created in God’s image, and how your identity and worth are interwoven with others. 

            Second, I hope you will commit yourself to the building of community in all your relationships with other people.  In what ways can you be kind, respectful, generous, and hospitable with everyone you encounter?

            Finally, let us experience our shared joys and challenges.  When others are joyful, that is ours to share.  When others are in pain, that is also ours to share. 

            Peacemaking doesn’t have to involve the big, grand, society-wide projects.  It begins with the simplest acts of human kindness.  As Archbishop Tutu has preached, “What a wonderful world it can be, it will be, when we know that our destinies are locked inextricably into one anothers.”

 

 


Body Love

Body Love

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

28 July 2019

 

 

Today we conclude our series based on the poems of Mary Oliver, who died in January.  And we are concluding with one of her most popular poems, “Wild Geese.”

 

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

 

 

            Krista Tippett, the host of the radio show On Being, described this poem “Wild Geese” as “a poem that has saved lives.”  What does she mean? 

I found one example online written by a biochemist named Brandon Taylor as he described the effect of the poem upon him:

 

For a long time, I felt unworthy of the world. For great periods of my life, I still feel unworthy of the world. This is not an uncommon state. Worthiness is the chief subject of the poem, to me. The speaker, in an act of breathtaking generosity, offers the reader, no matter how lowly or afield they have found themselves, an opportunity to reenter the world. There is an entreaty to follow the natural grain of one’s character, to heed one’s desire. There is no need to repent, to apologize, to make amends for how one is. . . .  The source of all of this acceptance and love is in the beauty of the world as it is. The rain. The geese in their flight. And at the end, one is offered a place, not in the world of people, but in the kingdom of things, a haunting reminder of the scope and presence of nature.

 

I feel worthy of being in the world when I think of “Wild Geese.” I feel that the world has use for me, that there is a place for me in the world that is vaster and greater and eternal.

 

            And so this poem is quite popular; it comforts and inspires people.  But there is more to it than one might realize on a first read. 

            Shortly after Mary Oliver’s death, Jeanna Kadlec wrote a piece for Lit Hub pointing out the power of Mary Oliver as a queer poet and particularly the queer perspective in this popular poem “Wild Geese,” a perspective often missed by readers.  Kadlec wrote:

 

“Wild Geese” is distinctly, uniquely queer. In the poem, the speaker gives the reader permission to inhabit their body: to be present in it, to know and own what they want without shame. Harder to do than it sounds, as any queer can tell you.

 

            Kadlec wrote about growing up an Evangelical who later in life had to learn that she could desire within her own body.  Since I grew up a Southern Baptist gay kid, I can identify with that statement.

            Kadlec wrote, “’Wild Geese,’ and so many other poems, are about allowing ourselves the permission to be fully present in our bodies and their incumbent desires.”  She then drew this connection to queer life:

 

This world, still, would diminish and constrain and limit and imprison and even kill gay and lesbian and trans and bisexual and queer people, simply for occupying our bodies in a way as honest as the otters and birds that Oliver observed on her walks through the woods and beaches of Provincetown. Don’t be afraid of its plenty, she says of love. Joy is not made to be a crumb. [sic]

 

 

            What a delight that America’s most beloved and best-selling poet of recent decades, a writer widely embraced for her spirituality, who was described as the favorite poet of Christian ministers, was in fact a lesbian.  And a lesbian who wrote with erotic passion about her lover.  Such as this excerpt from “The Gardens,”

 

How

shall I touch you

unless it is

everywhere?

I begin

here and there,

finding you,

the heart within you,

and the animal,

and the voice.

 

            In the late 1950’s Mary Oliver was staying at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which drew writers and artists, when one day she walked into the kitchen and saw the photographer Molly Malone Cook sitting at the table.  Oliver described the moment, “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.”

            Oliver and Cook were together for more than forty years.  They lived much of that time in Provincetown, Massachusetts, known as a gay mecca.  They ran a bookshop together there and each pursued her art.  Oliver learned much from Cook that affected her poetry.  She wrote, “M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.”

            When Cook died of cancer in 2005 at the age of eighty, Oliver produced a book entitled Our World which combined Cook’s photographs with Oliver’s writing.  A true testament of love and devotion.  In that book, Oliver wrote of the surprising ways one can spend a lifetime with someone and still not fully know them.  This is best expressed in the poem “The Whistler.”

 

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden

I mean that for more than thirty years she had not

whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was

in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and

she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and

cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-

bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

 

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she

said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can

still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled

through the house, whistling.

 

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle-

Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.

And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin

to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with

for thirty years?

 

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

 

            Jeanna Kadlec points out that Oliver is best known as a nature poet, but she also wrote about what it means to “love and learn one woman for nearly half a century.” What it means to pay attention not just to birds and rivers but to the body one loves.  Kadlec continues, “There is a consistent affirmation in Oliver’s poetry that we are worthy of our lover’s time, effort, gratitude. This is the queer erotic: the validation of our bodies as worthy of attention, of desire, of sex.”

            Consider these lines from the poem “The Plum Trees,”

 

There’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation.  Joy
is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments.  Listen,

 

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

 

into the body first, like small

wild plums.

 

            According to Kadlec,

 

Oliver’s eroticism is more visible to the queer reader, who knows that queerness isn’t just about queer sex: it is a fundamentally individual way of looking at the world. To queer is to break down—to destroy—the structures that would limit or bar or imprison us, and to rethink or even replace them.

 

 

            Of course this June was the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, a key turning point in the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights.  I was away on vacation that weekend, camping out with my husband and son.  Michael and I had some melancholy that we weren’t at one of the big gay pride festivals or parades occurring all over the country.  But we also felt a sense of liberated accomplishment that here we were, a queer family, living our lives.  Surely that was its own celebration of what Stonewall and the gay pride movement have meant. 

           

            Christianity has long been responsible for the oppression of sexual and gender minorities.  This resulted from some deep theological mistakes.  Christian theology has often struggled with embracing the human body, sexuality, and desire.  This is a legacy of St. Augustine and other early thinkers. 

            But history didn’t have to be that way.  One of our core teachings is that God inhabited a human body, becoming fully flesh and experiencing all that it means to be human, and thereby transfiguring human bodies into divine bodies.  These teachings are the more ancient heritage of Christianity.  And in recent decades, sometimes led by queer scholars and theologians, the church has reawakened to its own ideas and has come to more fully embrace desire, sexuality, and the body.

 

            And so we hold Mary Oliver as an example.  A queer religious poet who taught us that we love God by loving what God has created.  That includes rivers, whales, plums, and geese.  And also bodies.  Our own bodies and the bodies of those we love.  We can in fact draw closer to God by desiring and loving each other.

            That remains a healing, liberating, life-saving message.  A good news for us, as God’s people, to proclaim. 

           

            Let me conclude with one elegy I saw posted by an ordinary fan on Facebook.  It said, “Mary Oliver a quiet pioneer, a queer icon, a brave poet, and a beautiful human. Thank you for everything you gave to us.”  Amen.


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]?”