We never know where the invitation will come from. For Mary Oliver, it came when she chanced on a clutch of gold finches, chittering and warbling in a patch of thistles.
Their strong, blunt beaks drink the air, she said, as they strive melodiously
not for your sake or for mine, not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude.
In that display Oliver read something deeper than just a momentary distraction on the way to wherever she was going:
Believe us, they say, it is a serious thing
just to be alive on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
And so, she urged the reader, before going on:
I beg of you,
do not walk by without pausing
to attend to this rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something; it could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote
you must change your life.
Does something like that ring a bell with you? Have you ever had such an invitation? I’m guessing that most of us have in one way or another. It may not have been golden birds dancing in the thistles. It may have been having our attention drawn suddenly to a gentle fold in the soft skin of an infant’s neck. It may have been at sunset when the clouds shift and open into shades of deep magenta. It may have been watching an aging parent’s face suddenly break out into a beaming smile.
D.H. Lawrence describes this as being “born to humanity,” a moment when we are drawn outside of ourselves to a new perspective on the world. He says that what he calls our “first birth” is to ourselves. The world is our nursery: pretty things are to be snatched for, pleasant things to be tasted. Some people, he says, never leave this state. But most of us open eventually to a larger perspective. We become conscious, he says, of all the laughing and the never ceasing murmur of pain and sorrow that each reverberate across the world.
It is here, he argues, in what he calls this second birth that we begin to formulate our religion, “be that what it may be.” And here he introduces an interesting phrase: “A person,” he says, “has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together.”
From his perspective, then, religion is something that we come to know not so much by joining a church or affirming some statement of belief. It comes with how we gather together and make sense of all the ways that we are stirred by what he calls “the low, vast murmur of life . . . troubling our hitherto unconscious selves.”
Lawrence was a controversial figure for the sexual themes that emerged in his writings. But it’s worth knowing that, while he had little use for organized religion, he called himself “a passionately religious man” whose work is written “from the depth of my religious experience.”
It’s something we share with him in how we frame the first of six sources of our living tradition: Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, which moves us to renewal of the spirit, and openness to forces that create and uphold life. So, our religion, our faith is a response to how we experience the world. It is, as D.H. Lawrence puts it, something we are always shaping and adding to; it is never complete. We are ever being invited into new ways of experiencing it.
My colleague Victoria Safford offers one way to look at this:
“What if,” she says, “there were a universe, a cosmos,
which began in shining blackness, out of nothing,
and into it came billions and billions of stars,
and near one of them a blue-green world so beautiful
that learned clergy couldn’t even speak of it cogently and
scientists trying to describe it would sound like poets.
And into that world came animals and elements and plants
and the imagination.
If such a universe existed and you noticed it, what would you do?
What song would come out of your mouth, what prayer,
what praises, what whirling dances, what reverential
gesture would you make to greet that world
every day that you were in it?
I hear a similar invitation in the passage I read earlier from Isaiah: how might we learn to live in such a way as to see the world infused with wonder. It isn’t easy, for our lives are too often mired in the pedestrian and pecuniary. “Here,” he says, “come buy without money, without price.”
Come in, come in: attend to the goldfinch, to a blue-green world so beautiful not a one of us captures it cogently until we begin to sound like poets. “Why labor for that which does not satisfy?” There is goodness before you without a price tag attached. And there is goodness within each of us that calls us to larger life, that invites us into service whose value is beyond what we could ever charge.
On a different occasion, Victoria Safford wrote of a conversation she had with a friend who worked as a counselor in the health clinic of a college. The woman told how not long before, a student she had known and counseled, committed suicide. It was a difficult loss, one that hit close to home.
At one point, she said, the woman looked up with tears running down her cheeks with a tone of what Victoria could only call defiance, as she spoke of a new resolve she had found, a new understanding of what Victoria called her vocation, and ours:
“You know,” she said, “I cannot save them.
I am not here to save anybody or save the planet.
All I can do – what I’m called to do –
is to plant myself at the gates of Hope.
Sometimes they come in, and sometimes they walk by.
But I stand there every day, and I call out
til my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon
and urge them to beautiful life and love.”
Beautiful life & love. I tell you when I first heard that story the mountains and hills before me burst into song and the trees of the field clapped their hands.
We are each laborers in the field with limited scope. We put in our hours, we do our jobs, we attend to our loved ones and our households. But there is more of which we are capable. There is a larger way of being to which we are invited if we would be born to humanity and accept our calling to beautiful life and love.
These are the words I want to place before you as we look to the worship year ahead of us. What invitations are calling to you? And how might you respond?
Is the craziness of your schedule getting to you? How about some experience with mindful meditation? Are your heart and mind telling you to dig deeper, to find a way to connect better with what truly matters in the company of others who share your hope?
Oh, there is so much! Theme groups, classes, spiritual practice groups . . . Well, you just need to find a place and jump in. Are you ready to put your heart and your hands into work that serves your values? Let me tell you, that will open your eyes and fill your soul like nothing else. It can be a little daunting to jump in by yourself so hop on board one of the projects we have going now, then perhaps you can help lead us to the next step.
I offer all this not as marching orders but as an invitation, an invitation to live into the promise that you are, the gifts you bring into this world, the hope that we realize when we join in common cause to give flesh to the great vision of beloved community, where we let all that divides us fall away like the insubstantial froth we know it to be and affirm the unity that is ours.
It is not easy, and because it’s not easy we stand together and support each other. It’s too much on our own, we need others to be in it with us: to cherish and teach each other’s children, to listen with full presence and speak with full respect, to help us celebrate our successes and grieve our losses, to reach beyond our comfort zones and put ourselves in places where we have the temerity to think that we just might help change the world.
Come in, come in. We have so much to do.