The poet Mary Oliver is the quintessential “observer” or “consider-er” of the lilies. Listen to her poem, “The Lily”–
Night after night/darkness/ enters the face of the lily
which, lightly, closes its five walls/ around itself,/ and its purse
of honey,/and its fragrance,/ and is content/to stand there
in the garden,/not quite sleeping,/and, maybe,/ saying in lily language/some small words/we can’t heart/even when there is no wind/anywhere,
its lips/are so secret,/its tongue/is so hidden–/or, maybe,/ it says nothing at all/but just stands there/with the patience
of vegetables/and saints/until the whole earth has turned around/and the silver moon
becomes the golden sun–/ as the lily absolutely knew it would,/ which is itself, isn’t it, /the perfect prayer?
(Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early, pp. 24-25)
“Consider the lilies,” Jesus said, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
This is the second Sunday in the Season of Creation, celebrated these first four weeks in September by churches throughout the world, as we in the northern hemisphere move toward fall and our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere move toward spring. Today is “Flora and Fauna Sunday,” a rather quaint and fancy name for Plants and Animals.
I remember Flora and Fauna as the names of two of the fairies in Walt Disney’s movie of “Sleeping Beauty” who, along with their sister Meriweather, took care of the young princess and were able to mitigate the effects of the curse their sister fairy Maleficent had placed upon her. You remember that story, yes? Having been excluded from the party celebrating the birth of the infant princess, this 13th fairy, Maleficent, crashed the party and put a curse on Princess Aurora, saying that when the princess grew up, she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and would die. The one fairy who had not yet given her gift mitigated the curse by saying that the princess would not die, but rather would fall asleep for a 100 years.
Now that may sound like a rather random word association on this Flora and Fauna Sunday, but a case could be made that the plight of plants and animals and our not-so-merry weather are all indicators of the curse we have put ourselves under as our planet warms and sickens and struggles to throw off the toxins we have poured into it and its atmosphere.
“You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,” the psalmist sings to God, “and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.” Divine Wisdom has created an earth intricately woven together–grass for the cattle and plants for people to use, the high mountains for wild goats and rocks as refuge for the coneys. Rhythms of day and night, rain and dryness, work and rest; life and death; boundaries set for the waters; infinite variety; cycles of decay and renewal. And human beings as part of it all, given bread for strength and wine for gladness. God Himself/Herself delights in this creation.
In his book, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos, Bruce Sanguin writes,
“In the last 300 years, during the age of scientific rationalism, human beings have stepped out of the flow of creation. We have extricated ourselves from the story of the life of the planet, and have assumed the position of outside observers, of beings who live on the earth, but who are not of it.” (P. 13) Bill McKibben entitled his book Eaarth, spelled with 2 a’s, as it’s no longer the planet earth that has sustained life as we know it up until now. A 2005 United Nations Millenium Ecosystem Assessment found that two-thirds of the earth’s ecosystems were seriously degraded; 90% of the earth’s fish stocks depleted. Species die-off has accelerated, largely due to human activity and overpopulation. We may think we are above or outside the web of creation, but, alas, we are really proving what an integral part of the whole web we are and are poisoning our own home.
In Nov. 2004, the Gallup organization put this statement to 1000 Americans: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” 45% agreed with that statement. If that percentage were projected out into the whole human population, that would mean, writes Bruce Sanguin, “that approximately 100 million people are walking around with no sense that we have any biological connection to the rest of creation! One wonders how that impacts lifestyle choices and environmental policy-making.” (Op cit. 102)
The two stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis–and there are two different stories–are some of the most beautiful prose and poetry ever written–the first story: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light.” Day after day, in succession, God creates the heavens and the earth, each day declaring it all “good,” until the 6th day, when God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image, and God looked upon it all and said, “That’s very good!” And then God rested.
The second story begins in a garden, and the Lord God scooped mud up out of the riverbank and fashioned an earth creature–adamah– which literally means, of the earth. That is our original name–Earth Creature–and we are enlivened by the breath of God. But both scientific rationalism and Biblical literalism have dis-enchanted our story, either consigning the story of the universe to sheer chance or, in the case of Biblical literalism, ignoring the incredible, awe-some discoveries of scientists about the nature of the universe and of life on our planet, and choosing instead to cling to a 2500 year old creation story never meant to scientifically explain anything.
What mathematical physicists and cosmologists like Brian Swimme have discovered about the unfolding of the universe over 14 billion years is as awesome as any fairy tale, and while Swimme does not refer to God or Spirit, he does talk about the Heart of the universe. From the original Big Bang or “Flaring Forth, ” the universe burst forth from “the void,” as Genesis put it, sending sub-atomic particles forth at incredible speed and temperatures, not going into space, but creating both time and space as they expanded. As the poet Hafiz wrote, “the secret One, slowly growing a body.” (Sanguin, 80)
Over billions of years, through violent explosions, waves of destruction and creation, supernovas and negative spaces, starfields and galaxies formed and re-formed. On our tiny planet, one grain of sand in a universal shoreline, atoms came together, eventually differentiated, organized, learned to renew themselves. From bacteria to higher organisms, emerging from the water onto land, coming together, evolving, until creatures able to reflect upon themselves– human beings– emerged. Our bodies share the same elements as the stars, and as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “the only difference between us and trees or rocks and chickens is the way in which these elements are arranged.” (Cited in Sanguin, p. 85)
Some people–notably some Christian people–are offended that we are related to apes and monkeys, let alone chickens and crysanthemums, but it is in fact that very kinship, or at least reclaiming and re-membering that kinship, that may finally wake us out of our disenchanted sleep and return us to the Wisdom built into creation in the first place. The emerging field of biomimicry looks to the designs and functioning of nature to learn about energy-efficiency, locally derived materials, non-toxic to the environment. Lily-like impellers have been designed for cooling systems and pumps. Velcro got its design from the hooks on the burr plant. Consider the lilies…
The stories our culture tells us–the story of consumerism, where the more you have, the happier you’ll be; or the story of Not-Good-Enough–you need to be more, do more, be something or someone you’re not; or the story of celebrity–that the glitter and lights of celebrity will warm your heart and light your way–these stories have led us to this place of estrangement from our true selves as earth creatures infused with the breath of God. And, of course, it’s more than estrangement from but also endangerment to the rest of the planet. The Sacred Story of the universe’s unfolding, connecting us with all that ever was and all that ever will be, has the power to restore us to our true selves and to turn us away from the distraction of those cultural stories to the Great Work, as Thomas Berry puts it, of healing the planet.
This web that we are part of, which quantum physics now describes for us as energy, as light, as connection far beyond our imagining, is both our blessing and our curse. It is a curse because, as we’ve seen, when one part of the web is destroyed or weakened, we all are made weaker, part of us dies. We are vulnerable. The blessing is that we each can make a difference, we each can send energy and healing throughout the web, infused as it is with God’s own being. When we practice meditation and go beneath the surface clutter and busyness, we tap into that deep Wisdom. When we engage with others in sacred rituals to re-enchant or remind ourselves of the sacredness of all things, when we celebrate, lament, encourage, empower one another to begin again, we strengthen the web. When we act and speak together for protecting and restoring the environment and its creatures, we strengthen the web. “Taking up one’s cross in an ecological age,” writes Bruce Sanguin, “means exiting the culture of convenience.” (Op cit., p. 175). “To make holy or sacred” is the deep meaning of the word “sacrifice.” We need to return to knowing where our food comes from, supporting local farmers, growing gardens, living closer to the seasons of the earth. When we gather to pray for the earth, for the people of Syria, for the rainforests in the Amazon, for the poor and the homeless and the sick, we send our energy along the threads of the web. It makes a difference.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow… Do not be anxious, but rather strive for the kingdom–the kin-dom– of God, the kin-dom that includes all the peoples of the world, the plants and animals of the earth, even the sun and moon and the stars. “Where does the temple begin, and where does it end?” asks Mary Oliver….
There are things you can’t reach. But/ you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.
The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily/out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing/from the unreachable top of the tree.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around/as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, some/ shining coil of wind,/ or a few leaves from any old tree–/they are all in this too.
And now I will tell you the truth./ Everything in the world/ comes.
At least, closer.
Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake./Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold/fluttering around the corner of the sky
of God, the blue air.
(Oliver, op cit., pp. 8-9)
Where does the Temple begin, and where does it end?
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark