Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I love this poem. The way Mary Oliver has crafted these words together in this beautiful tapestry. The way each line on its own might just be a pretty thread, but woven together with the loom of her pen creates this beautiful landscape. It creates this layered world with its own topography, and each of us settles on a different peak, valley or plain. Each of us looks at this work and sifts out a meaning that seems somehow crafted just for me.
For me this poem is a great exhale. It’s this sigh of relief. You don’t have to be good…what a relief because I am not…not really. There are times in life when you or I walk around with a smile plastered on our faces that just barely masks the darkness within. Knowing this keeps us in this defensive state where we are constantly trying to prove ourselves. Perhaps I should just speak for myself here, but I’m fairly confident this isn’t just true of me. I see evidence of it all over our nation and our world… each country or corporation or individual climbing over the backs of the one before it, all clamoring to stake our claim and prove our value. And each time we reach some kind of bench mark or goal, finding ourselves unfulfilled even still, and barely even taking a breath before we begin clamoring once again. But here, Mary Oliver reminds us their is another choice. We don’t have to be part of that game. “You do not have to be good… you don’t have to crawl through the desert repenting…” There is another option.
Interestingly this poem resonates this week’s scripture from Mark where the disciples and Jesus are on a journey. It’s kinda their thing. But along the way, they start to argue about being good. In fact, about being the best. They begin to play that clamoring game of one upmanship…who is the best? Who has the most to offer to the group? Scripture doesn’t share the content of this argument, but surely they were boasting over who was the smartest, or who had given the most or who had done the most service projects? What a shame, huh? Even the seemingly good deeds being used to say who is better than who.
So any way, Jesus notices his students arguing. And, as he’s want to do, he asks what were you arguing about? I’m guessing teachers can identify with this…they get all quiet on him. Like super guilty quiet on him. What he likely already knows is they were arguing about who had walked on their knees a hundred miles through the desert if you know what I mean. They were arguing about who was the greatest disciple… So I’m sure Jesus was way more patient than me, but I imagine one big ol eye roll from Jesus here. Seriously guys? Have you not figured this out at all? By the way, the gospels are always answering that with a resounding no.
They don’t get it…So Jesus gets all radical reversal on them…again as he is want to do. And he says, “just let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Wait, that’s not it…but its not too far off when you think about it. “Whoever wants to be the first must be the last and servant to all.” Who ever wants to be tough, like crawl through the desert tough, must be soft and gentle, whoever wants to be great must serve, whoever wants to be strong must be vulnerable.
And then, in case they still don’t get it. He scoops up one of the children in his arms and tells them to love the kids…and by doing so, that’s how you love God. By loving each other, by serving each other, by being vulnerable and living out of a place of love instead of fear, that’s how you live according to Jesus teachings. That’s how we live a life of peace. We don’t live into the despair of me or of you…we live into the harmony of earth where the world goes on and the rain still falls and the wild geese make their annual pilgrimage above our heads.
Now don’t get me wrong here. That doesn’t mean ignore or attempt to eliminate your fear or despair or doubt…I don’t think that’s possible…but for heaven’s sake don’t let it drive. Keep it in the back seat, it can be a good warning and a healthy part of your complete self, but the second fear and doubt and despair take the wheel, we find ourselves on that treadmill of clawing to justify our existence. We find ourselves on our knees in that desert.
And yet, that sneaky force of destruction, fear and doubt, will sometimes find its way into our driver’s seat…it happens to all of us…those dark cloud days or the days where we feel worthless or hopeless…in those days remember the sound of the wild geese “harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
You belong, and you belong, and you belong…each of you belong in this world, and I believe in this place in this time. You have a place here. And you don’t have to crawl through the desert to justify it, you don’t have to argue for your place in it…you belong here. You are on purpose.
I believe, most days confidently, in this loving creator God who made me, on purpose, and that I belong. And everyday I try to make sure my children know that same thing. You are on purpose my beloved child, you belong. They don’t have to fight for my love or prove themselves or bring anything to the table accept to be authentically them…and my GOD how I love them. From the depths of my being I love those two little girls, more than I ever knew was possible. And somehow that makes me understand why God would love me and want me. Flawed, broken, doubtful, cynical me. Not because of what we do or who is the greatest, but because we are God’s children and we are beloved.
Listen, I know what I’m telling you isn’t logical. Stephen Colbert recently said “logic will not finally lead me to God, but my love and gratitude for God’s work in creation can.” “The the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” May you hear God’s voice and see in God’s work that you are beloved and on purpose, and you belong. Amen