Entrance into the Temple
Of David. A Psalm.
1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
2 for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
Good morning! This is the final week of our three-part series on ordinary people living out God’s extraordinary calling on their lives. If you’ve missed either of the last two weeks you can find the sermons on The Gospel According to Mister Rogers and The Gospel According to Rev. Dr. William Barber II on our facebook page and on our church website. This morning, as you may have guessed from the video we just showed, we will be learning from the poet Mary Oliver.
I was first introduced to Mary Oliver when I was in my second year of seminary. As a part of my education, I was required to do a one-year internship in a congregation. A few months into this internship I was asked to hold down the fort while the senior minister went on vacation. During that time, there was a family in the church who had a death in their extended family, and they needed someone to preside over the funeral service.
So, it fell to me to work with this family to create a meaningful service for their loved one. This was my first time working on or presiding over a funeral, and I was so anxious about getting it right. The hardest part was that although this family was a part of our church, their loved one was not religious. So, they asked me to put together a service that was meaningful and spoke to who he was, but that did not include scriptures or prayers.
None of my seminary textbooks gave me great resources for this. They seemed to assume that religious language would be a part of any funeral that a Christian minister would preside over. I quickly found that I would need to get creative. The family shared with me that the deceased loved nature, so I began looking for poetry that we could use as a reading in the service…and this led me to the writings of Mary Oliver.
I read her poem “Summer Day” in place of where I would normally have read a scripture…and the words of her poem were perfect for this simple, meaningful service. That poem goes like this:
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?
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room as I finished this poem, and we reflected on what the deceased had done with his one wild and precious life. It still makes me tear up when I read it!
Mary Oliver was born into her one wild and precious life in 1935 and raised just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was abusive and her mother was neglectful, so she spent much of her childhood trying to stay away from her home. She found safety and love and God in nature.
According to Ruth Franklin’s New Yorker article about Mary,
“It was in childhood…that Oliver discovered both her belief in God and her skepticism about organized religion. In Sunday school, she told Tippett, “I had trouble with the Resurrection. . . . But I was still probably more interested than many of the kids who did enter into the church.” Nature, however, with its endless cycles of death and rebirth, fascinated her. Walking in the woods, she developed a method that has become the hallmark of her poetry, taking notice simply of whatever happens to present itself. Like Rumi, another of her models, Oliver seeks to combine the spiritual life with the concrete: an encounter with a deer, the kisses of a lover, even a deformed and stillborn kitten.”
In the late 1950s, Mary Oliver fell in love with photographer Molly Malone Cook. Her first book of poetry was published in 1963, and since then she published 21 other books of poetry, prose, essays, and other writings. Most of those books were dedicated to Molly, who was her life-long partner until Molly’s death in 2005.
Mary Oliver is America’s best-selling poet, and for good reason. Her work invites the reader into whatever scene or circumstance she has written about with vivid imagery and accessible language. She wrote about God and faith through descriptions of Wild Geese and grasshoppers and forests. Her writing reminds us that nature can be deeply spiritual, and that from the very beginning of our human existence we have been called to be caretakers of creation.
In an essay in her book Winter Hours, Mary wrote: “Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the recognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude.”
As she grew older, her poems and essays became more explicitly religious. In her poem “Praying” she described prayer as a few words patched together that didn’t need to be elaborate because… “this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” In her poem “I Happened to be Standing,” she had this to say about prayer:
I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
One of my favorites of her poems tells the story of Jesus and the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, describing how nature waited with Jesus while his disciples slept. It goes like this…
The grass never sleeps
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
We can learn a lot of lessons about our faith from Mary Oliver’s writings. Debra Dean Murphy put it this way:
“Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver—
First, her way of regarding the created order can help inform a deeply theological vision of the world. A poem is a kind of dwelling place—intimate and durable—and Oliver constructs poems that invite us to dwell in other habitations more thoughtfully, more honorably, with more integrity and intentionality than we might otherwise. In this respect, she echoes the summons to stewardship and relationship issued at the beginning of Genesis.
Second, Oliver’s poetry witnesses to a deep love of neighbor. She writes mostly about the neighborhoods of forests and fields, ponds and seashores, but some of her most poignant poems are about the work—and the giftedness—of seeking the well-being of others.
Finally, Oliver’s relative lack of theological sophistication can be surprisingly compelling. Although many of her recent poems employ a more explicit Christian vocabulary, they do so with a naïveté and wonder that challenge the cynicism of our times. It turns out that accessibility in the poems of Mary Oliver can lead to encounters for the argument-weary that are like fire, like ropes, like necessary bread.”
I agree with all of that, but I think that the biggest lesson we can learn from Mary Oliver is found in another of her poems. It’s called “My Work is Loving the World.” In it, she wrote:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
May we follow Mary Oliver’s example by standing still and learning to be astonished. May we follow her example by finding gratitude in the little things, by seeing God in all of creation, and by spending our time devoted to loving this world. Amen.