Reading: Opening words to service
A GIRL’S GARDEN, Robert Frost
A neighbor of mine in the village
Likes to tell how one spring
When she was a girl on the farm, she did
A childlike thing.
One day she asked her father
To give her a garden plot
To plant and tend and reap herself,
And he said, “Why not?”
In casting about for a corner
He thought of an idle bit
Of walled-off ground where a shop had stood,
And he said, “Just it.”
And he said, “That ought to make you
An ideal one-girl farm,
And give you a chance to put some strength
On your slim-jim arm.”
It was not enough of a garden
Her father said, to plow;
So she had to work it all by hand,
But she don’t mind now.
She wheeled the dung in a wheelbarrow
Along a stretch of road;
But she always ran away and left
Her not-nice load,
And hid from anyone passing.
And then she begged the seed.
She says she thinks she planted one
Of all things but weed.
A hill each of potatoes,
Radishes, lettuce, peas,
Tomatoes, beets, beans, pumpkins, corn,
And even fruit trees.
And yes, she has long mistrusted
That a cider-apple
In bearing there today is hers,
Or at least may be.
Her crop was a miscellany
When all was said and done,
A little bit of everything,
A great deal of none.
Now when she sees in the village
How village things go,
Just when it seems to come in right,
She says, “I know!
“It’s as when I was a farmer…”
Oh never by way of advice!
And she never sins by telling the tale
To the same person twice.
Last year I gave a reading called ‘The Invitation‘ to the participants in the Building Your Own Theology class. The author, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, got her non de plume from Native American friends.
One of the members of the class to whom I gave the reading last year was Carole Paige. Carole knew her son Nick would appreciate it, so she gave him a copy, and Nick gave a copy to his best friend.
Then Nick was killed in a car accident in Reading on December 23. At his memorial service, Nick’s friend shared the reading Nick had given to him.
Nick was a freshman in college when his life was cut short on December 23, and I’ve pondered what it might have been in this reading that made him give it to his best friend.
I went back to it and read it again with this question in my mind and I realized that it isn’t the content of this reading that’s important or revealing- it’s not the words, or any other bunch of words that’s important. It’s something else; more like poetry, or music; something we all recognize but may not be able to articulate.
What is that something…that important something? I want to ponder that question out loud today, in the light of the recent tragic death of Dr. Janet Shaner, Weston’s school superintendent, as well as Nick Paige’s life, and your life, and mine.
So, I invite you to listen, and I encourage you to hear what isn’t said, as well as pondering the words, their meanings, and the ways they impact you, not only on the conscious level, but the deeper levels of your being.
This is ‘the invitation,’ by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon, I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals, or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can sit with pain- mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fake it, or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bare the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver moon, ‘Yes!’
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done, to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know, or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
There’s a little poem by Walt Whitman- one of the group of poems he used as introduction to Leaves of Grass, and as his invitation:
Stranger, if you passing meet me
and desire to speak to me,
why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?
We say hello, and by so doing we offer greetings as we pass one another on the road of life. “Hello,” is our acknowledgement of the other; it’s our way of paying attention.
The alternative to paying attention to the other is to remain isolated, at least in that moment.
To pay attention to the other- to the stranger, as it were, is to risk moving out of the protective confines of the self.
Hello, or any similar greeting, is an invitation; like all invitations it is a request for someone’s presence.
In some religious circles an invitation is an altar call- it is a call to come forward and profess your faith.
Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s Invitation has a religious flavor; it suggests a deeper way of relating–intimacy characterized by authenticity. All relationships have a degree of intimacy and intentionality. Problems arise when the degree of intimacy assumed by one is very different from that assumed by the other.
Human life requires intimacy and intentionality.
Hopefully, we are conceived through intimacy, and we are received at birth by the warmth of intimacy at a mother’s breast and a father’s arms. Hopefully.
We want and need the kind of relationships that Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes about in ‘The Invitation.’
She lists things that prevent the kind of invitation she’s talking about: being concerned about what you do for a living…how old you are…astrological charts…how much money you have…who you know…where or with whom you’ve studied…
None of those questions is wrong, or bad, in and by itself, and we all ask most of them, eventually. We think about them, to some extent, and it’s silly, naïve or both to suggest otherwise. But we can get trapped in those questions: of age, gender, money, political party, professional titles, college pedigree or proximity to the rich and famous.
Those are often the stones in the wall we keep between us, and cause distance rather than intimacy; competition, rivalry and jealousy rather than friendship, mutuality and generosity.
If you are a Superintendent of schools in a town like Weston, you may suffer from a sense of isolation by the wall that is built with accusations, judgment, criticism, creating a lack of warm, openness, closeness, and supportive caring relationships. You may find yourself relating to people who care more about what you do for a living- a title. You may not be able to ‘bare the accusation of betrayal,’ as our reading says. You may not be able to live with failure- yours and others.
The little Miller Williams poem, ‘The Ways We Touch’ says it: “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears conceit, cynicism or bad manners is always a sign of things no ears have heard no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
It’s a poem worth committing to memory. It’s the subtext of our affirmation: “Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenent…”
Another subtext is the familiar benediction: “Now say to thyself If there’s any good thing I can do or any kindness that I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.”
This is not complicated theology, but it is theology, make no mistake about that.
Everything you need to know about God is found in it.
Everything you need to know about Heaven and Hell and Eternity is in it.
What we need from one another is summarized in ‘The Invitation:’
“I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or … fix it.”
“I want to know if you can be with joy…if you can see beauty…if you can source your own life from its presence.”
“I want to know if you can live with failure…I want to know what sustains you…if you can be alone with yourself…”
We build relationships by sitting with one another’s pain- without saying ‘don’t cry,’ or ‘it will be alright,’ or ‘this too shall pass.’
We build relationships by sharing joy- a good laugh may bring us closer to a sense of spirituality than prayers or sermons. We build relationships by sharing the beauty- the natural beauty in flowers and trees, and the creative in music, poetry and all the arts.
‘The Invitation’ is a reminder that much of the meaning of life is in the sharing of all these parts of life, and it is a reminder that we can create a sense of distance even when we want and hope to make more meaningful relationships.
Can you live with failure or mistakes, intentional or otherwise? And if you cannot live with failure- if you do not have access to the process of forgiveness, both of forgiving the other and forgiving oneself- you may decide to end your life in a dramatic statement of self-destruction or in the more slow process of allowing things to eat away at you from the inside.
Can you survive having made a mistake- having accepted gifts from the contractor? Having people criticize you and even call for your resignation or dismissal?
Can you survive having made a mistake–being overly critical of one who got caught up in that insidious web which was described to me this week by my friend Herb Adams, who was president of SRA, IBM’s text book publishing arm–who told me how text book salespeople push gifts on to superintendents and other decision makers, leaving bicycles for their children on their front porch, sending gifts in the mail?
We are here to consider these things, to dig in, to look more closely at what’s going on in and around us.
This needs to be our spiritual training camp where we can accept the invitation; where we can stretch ourselves morally and ethically; where we can feel forgiven and develop the ability to forgive- to cleanse our hearts, minds and spirits.
Those are high-sounding words and phrases but they are as real as rope tied into a noose; they are as real as words that can destroy a person’s will to live; they are as real as the love that can overcome that judgmental, critical self that keeps us from realizing our potential to be healers in a wounded world.
Those high-sounding words — love, forgiveness, warmth, kindness and a caring sensitivity — the essence of our theology. They must be nurtured in the garden fertilized by the decaying faults and failures of our lives — the earthy stuff we use to plant our best and most noble intentions.
In a word it is humility that provides the soil in which those high-sounding seeds can be planted.
Janet Shaner was humiliated…cut down…mortified. The Latin root, mortificare, means ‘to put to death.’
So, ‘have compassion for everyone you meet…you don’t know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.’
Have compassion for your self, as well.
Peace be with you, now, and in the days ahead.