Preamble to Worship
Today is the third of three Sundays in which I reflect on using poetry to help us relate to the Season of Easter. I also use it as occasion to honour Earth Day, which, for the 51st time, was celebrated this past Thursday.
Last April, I designed a Sunday service around the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. My reflection that day included a story about how I became an environmentalist on the first Earth Day in 1970, as a 13-year-old. Back then, my main concern was population because in the first 13 years of my life, the number of people in the world had increased by one third; and, since 1970, it has more than doubled.
But today, my focus is less on challenges like population growth and pollution and more on the power of nature to refresh our souls and restore our spirits. And what better time to do this, I think, than during the seasons of Easter and springtime, and what better way to do this than with the eloquence of poetry?
My Reflection is largely made up of poems. Before that Kathy will read a poetic paraphrase of Psalm 98. In a typical English translation, Psalm 98 begins with the sentence “Sing to the Lord a new song.” In the 1990s, Kelowna native and United Church leader James Taylor re-imagined the psalms. He titled his version of Psalm 98 “The Great Dance of Creation;” and I hope his poetic rendering of it fits with Earth Day, Easter, and our celebration of the power of nature and of poetry
Friends, my prayer is that what we experience here today will remind us of the inexhaustible grace of the world despite the wounds inflicted on it by human society.
Today’s reflection consists of nine poems. Some I have known since high school, others I encountered recently. They are poems about spring, or renewal, or Easter.
I begin with a poem about spring written nearly 100 years. It is by African American poet Langston Hughes, and last week it was posted on my Facebook wall by a friend after the conviction of the officer who murdered George Floyd. I believe she posted it because it conveys a sense of longing both for spring and for liberation.
An Earth Song by Langston Hughes
It’s an earth song —
And I’ve been waiting long for an earth song.
It’s a spring song —
And I’ve been waiting long for a spring song.
Strong as the shoots of a new plant
Strong as the bursting of new buds
Strong as the coming of the first child from its mother’s womb.
It’s an earth song,
A body song,
A spring song,
I have been waiting long for this spring song.
Happily, friends, our time of waiting is over. Spring has come. We are in the middle of the season of Easter. And regardless of circumstances, we are blessed by innumerable opportunities for new life.
The title for this morning’s Reflection, “The grace of the world,” is lifted from the next poem.
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time,
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
What a wonderful epiphany, I think, for Berry to see grace in the diversity, beauty, and fierceness of the cosmos and of life, and in an awareness that we are utterly dependent on them.
The next poem is almost 150 years old. It was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a Jesuit priest in England. I first encountered his poem, “God’s Grandeur” in high school. Like Berry, Hopkins is concerned with the destructiveness of human society; and like Berry he is assured by the power of the world. Hopkins’ poem reminds me of a theology called Panentheism in which God is considered to be present in the earth and life but also beyond them somehow.
God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The next poem was written just two weeks ago by Chicago minister Steve Garnaas Holmes. He called it “Red Oak,” and it is a meditation on spring and on mortality.
Red Oak – Steve Garnaas-Holmes
Your twig tips swell and soon
will give us leaves, sweet green.
You’ll sprout then wave them patiently,
and drop them in the fall,
as you have, I’m guessing by your girth,
a couple hundred times or more.
You never tire of this,
never tire of losing and greening,
never tire of being an oak.
The day will come when you drop them
and lift them up no more,
but being an oak, that will likely be
long after I have done the same.
Meanwhile I pray
not that you endure, nor I,
but that as long as I do
I never tire of this.
This past week, Holmes circulated another poem, one that is more explicitly theological, which he titled .. . .
Weather report– Steve Garnaas-Holmes
I come outside
under a seething spring sky,
towers of light shapeshifting,
speaking of a realm within a realm.
The ground glistens.
Earth holds a scriptural silence.
I wake to knowing
the eternal mystery,
something has passed.
as a low pressure region
of the warm, moist unknowable
moves through our lives.
Precipitation: heavy to transcendent.
Highs beyond our understanding,
lows beneath our being,
increasing throughout our lifetimes.
What does this poem mean? Many things? Nothing? I appreciate it as an attempt to approach some of the mysteries of life.
And now, I offer two poems by Mary Oliver. Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and died in 2019. This first one expresses her fierce love of nature
Spring, by Mary Oliver
Somewhere a black bear has just risen
from sleep and is staring
Down the mountain.
In the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring
I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:
how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge
to sharpen her claws against
the silence of the trees.
my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,
it is also this dazzling darkness
coming down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;
all day I think of her -—her white teeth,
her perfect love.
This next poem by Oliver meditates on anxiety, perhaps over individual circumstances or over the fate of the earth, and how she copes.
I Worried – Mary Oliver
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
The next short poem expresses both the contingent nature of our existence and the unending fount of blessings each moment offers us. It is . . .
Yes by William Stafford
It could happen any time, tornado
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out – no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
And finally, another poem about spring and that ends with grace.
Winter into Spring by Lynn Ungar
The trees, along their bare limbs,
A flicker, rising, flashes rust and white
before vanishing into stillness,
and raked leaves crumble imperceptibly
On all sides life opens and closes
around like a mouth.
Will you pretend you are not
caught between its teeth?
The kestrel in its swift dive
and the mouse below,
the first green shoots that
will not wait for spring
are a language constantly forming.
Quiet your pride and listen.
There — beneath the rainfall
and the ravens calling you can hear it —
the great tongue constantly enunciating
something that rings through the world
The concept of grace can be hard to understand or convey. The church defines it as unmerited support or assistance, and which we associate with the Divine. In lives filled with challenges, pains, and losses, it can be hard to see grace. But viewed from the deepest levels, life can be seen as a free gift.
For all the pride we may feel about our abilities and accomplishments, we are utterly dependent on the gifts of the cosmos, the earth, the eternal web of life, and human history and culture. None of us exist without these gifts. None of us accomplish anything apart from these webs that support and sustain us.
The natural world, of which humanity is a part, is a gift. The blessings of springtime are a gift. The promise of new life that we celebrate at Easter is a gift.
I hope that hearing these poems have created a space in which to reflect on these gifts. I hope they help us feel gratitude for the beauty, intricacy, power, and mystery of the world and its wondrous life.
In lives supported by grace, may we never lose our sense of wonder, of awe, and of gratitude.