Messenger, by Mary Oliver
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
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the 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.
Plato said he liked poets better than historians because poets never lie.
But do poets tell the truth, or do they simply remind you of things you already know to be the truth?
A poem that speaks to you, that moves you, tells a big truth, that why it touches you; but it’s mostly truth about the internal world — not the kind of truth telling that’s required in our day-to-day relationships.
A good poem tells the truths you already know, even if you hadn’t realized it; the poem holds it up to the light for you to look at. It’s like a sunrise; it’s about insight.
In the mid-60’s I took a yoga class that was held in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Harvard Square. One night, when we were in the prone position, the instructor gave a talk he said was out of the Buddhist tradition. The gist of his talk has stayed with me. He said, “There are four things you have to do in life: show up; tell the truth; do what you do with intensity; and don’t get attached to outcomes.”
He talked about each of them. I don’t really remember what he said about each one, but I’ve been thinking about this list ever since.
Woody Allen quipped, “80% of life is just showing up.”
In pastoral counseling class in seminary, there was a lot of time devoted to the task of being fully present; of letting the counselee know that you are there; that you’re listening; that you care. It was called by various names: ‘active listening,’ or ‘compassionate presence.’ It was all about showing up in a special way – it’s about being fully present; it’s about being in the moment.
Showing up in this way is a conscious, intentional, demanding and rewarding process. The ‘process theologian,’ Henry Nelson Wieman defined God as ‘Creative Interchange.’ The great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, talked about the “I – Thou” relationship, to distinguish it from the “I – It” relationship. The I – Thou relationship is a meeting of souls, the essence of what it means to be human: creative interchange. The I – It encounter happens when we simply ‘use’ one another; when we fail to notice the humanity of the person behind the check-out counter at Stop & Shop, the bank, the Post Office; and we may even grumble because we had to wait.
Showing up has something to do with being receptive to the I – Thou moment.
There are lots of cartoon jokes about husbands and wives that show a man sitting at the table reading the newspaper; she’s says, “You’re not listening,” but to prove he’s listening he can repeats the words that his wife has said. He’s in the room; he hears the words, but he’s not present to her in that moment.
At first glance, showing up sounds so obvious, but showing up in that special way is the first or primary ingredient of what it is we all have to do in life. It precedes being able to ‘speak the truth in love.’
Showing up is profoundly powerful. It can feel a bit awkward at times; it can feel a bit risky at times. When it works, however, it’s the source of deep meaning; it’s not just a technique, it’s an engagement, a connection.
Showing up in this way is about authenticity; and we all say that we want to be in authentic relationships, that we crave authenticity.
Indeed, a good, healthy life requires caring relationships, and those relationships are built on trust.
Ministry, whether professional ministry or lay ministry, is first and foremost about showing up in this way. It’s about paying attention. It’s about active engagement. It’s about compassion.
You can’t ‘show up’ in this way all the time. It’s too demanding – too intense.
We need to be able to be in the same room, or house or sanctuary, without the intensity of that engagement all the time. We need to be able to withdraw into ourselves; then we can return.
This is one of the most basic themes in religion. Look at the old stories, which I think of as poems, really: Moses withdrew in the wilderness for forty days, returning with commandments carved in stone. Jesus withdrew into the desert for forty days before taking up the mantle of his ministry; the Buddha withdrew under the Bodhi tree for forty days and then got up and began his ministry; Mohammed withdrew to the cave for forty days and emerged with the Koran.
After withdrawing for the prerequisite time, Moses, Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammed were able to show up in a powerful way. You and I have to be able to ‘withdraw,’ so that we can return, better prepared to be engaged in ‘creative interchange,’ which Wieman would call ‘doing God’s work.’
The second of the list of four is to tell the truth, or to speak truth in love. Sometimes truth-telling can be risky; it always reveals things about you, even if you say it’s not about you but about your perception of the other.
Speaking the truth in love takes courage — it sometimes means that you’ll disagree with someone you care about and you risk harming the relationship; it often happens in families, because families are the most sensitive of our relationships; they’re often very delicate, so careless words that may simply sound like ‘telling the truth,’ or, more accurately, ‘telling your truth,’ and can cause hurt and can result in families getting broken.
It’s one thing to have the courage to speak your mind, to speak your truth. It’s another thing, however, to speak your truth with love, with sensitivity.
Speaking the truth without sensitivity is a form of abuse.
Very often when we talk about telling the truth we’re referring to the need to say something that may be hurtful. Telling the truth about positive feelings or compliments doesn’t take courage; it may feel a little risky, because it’s sensitive; but you know it’s not going to be hurtful.
This is one of the most challenging areas for those of us who occupy the free pulpit – it’s a freedom that comes with a serious responsibility – a freedom we inherited from Francis David, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Olympia Brown, Phoebe Hannaford – to whom we owe not only gratitude, but faithfulness to use the freedom responsibly and sensitively.
This is one of the great challenges about ordination. It’s worth dwelling on a while since it’s so central to the reason we’re here today, and it’s so central to the meaning of ordination for Leela.
In addition to sensitivity, speaking the truth in love requires a very large dose of humility — otherwise it comes across as anger and arrogance, and will do no good at all, for anyone, except perhaps for the truth teller as a way of blowing off steam.
I’ve been there. During the Vietnam war, after three or four anti-war sermons in a row, I was told, carefully, sensitively and clearly, that it was time to stop beating on that drum. Lucille Cavender, whom I had come to trust and respect, approached me after the third-in-a-row sermon; she told me that she understood how difficult it was for me to talk about the war in Vietnam, and how painful it was for me. But, she said, she needed some inspiration, some help getting through the week.
The Desiderata says: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly,” which is followed by the admonition to ‘listen to others.’ Truth telling requires honest listening. I told my truth about the war in Vietnam and I listened to Lucille tell her truth about my sermons.
I’ll briefly mention the two remaining things you have to do in life. After showing up and speaking the truth in love, comes ‘do what you do with intensity, or enthusiasm.’
The word enthusiasm may be closer to the mark here. Enthusiasm is contagious. It generates energy. It’s inspiring.
The word enthusiasm is rooted in the Greek word for god: theos. ‘to be inspired.’
If there’s no inspiration in the speaker there will be no inspiration in the listener; if the stuff that’s coming from the pulpit doesn’t come from a place of inspiration, it won’t reach the pew. It will fall flat on the floor.
The fourth of the things we have to do in life is expressed in the negative: “Don’t get attached to outcomes.”
It seems counter-intuitive at first. Why would we bother putting in effort if we weren’t attached to the outcome.
We need to parse this word: attach. It’s one of the key concepts in the Buddhist tradition.
After you show up, speak the truth in love, and do what you do with enthusiasm, then you have to let it go.
If you are too attached to a specific outcome you’re bound to be disappointed; and disappointment has a very short shelf life – it quickly spoils and turns to resentment; and resentment turns to some very ugly stuff.
There we have it, the four things you have to do in life: show up, speak the truth in love, do what you do with enthusiasm, and don’t get attached to outcomes.
We’ll close with some lines from Whitman’s signature poem, Song of Myself, which summarizes all four:
‘Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
I have heard what the talkers were talking
The talk of the beginning and the end.
But I do not talk of the beginning and the end, there never was any more inception than there is now, nor any more youth nor age than there is now, nor any more heaven or hell than there is now, nor any more perfection than there is now.
Now understand me well: it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, comes forth something to make greater struggle necessary.
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.