By Mark Nepo: “The Cyclist” 
On the day of the race, he waited with the others and felt that life was waiting in the hills. He couldn’t quite say why, but a blessing was about to happen. As the gun went off, he could hear
the rush of all the racers breathing–like young horses in the morning.
He had trained for months, up and down the sloping hills, cutting off seconds by wearing less and leaning into curves. His legs were shanks of muscle. He often said, “It’s the closest thing to flying I know.”
On the second hill, the line thinned, and he was near the front. They were slipping through the land like arcs of light riding through the veins of the world. By now, he was in the lead. As he swept toward the wetlands, he was gaining time when a great blue heron took off right in front of him, its massive, timeless wings opening just in front of his handlebars.
Its shadow covered him and seemed to open something he’d been chasing. The others were pumping closer, but he just stopped and stood there, straddling his bike, staring at what the great blue had opened by cutting through the sky.
In years to come, others would ask, “What cost you the race?” Wherever he was, he’d always look south, and once in a while, he’d say, “I didn’t lose the race–I left it.”
We honor today the life and writings of Mary Oliver, who died last week. Her body of work is a frequent participant in UU worship the world over. This story of the cyclist seems to bring out a thread in Mary Oliver’s writings that most impacts me. In my last sermon, we looked at Grace – our theme for the month – from both Christian and Buddhist perspectives. Today, we look at what Grace means from a purely spiritual, maybe even an agnostic perspective.
We began our service with her words from “The Gift”
Be still, my soul, and steadfast,
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.
So, be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful. That the gift has been given.
For Mary Oliver, Grace seems to be the other side of gratitude. So often we live our lives looking for the next thing, the boon, the blessing, the achievement – and then we can be thankful. In her words here, even as we slow down in our years, life becomes meaningful, or maybe becomes understood, when we realize that the gift has been given. Much of her writing points to this natural grace; it echoes with transcendental thought of God or Spirit in and among the world, that to bear witness to the natural rhythms of life, is to reclaim our birthright – the gift that has already been given. There’s a lot we try to accomplish in religious life, but for the purely spiritual, for the annual or daily check-up or tune up of our heart, our soul, our spirit – acknowledging the natural world can do it all.
Mary Oliver’s words often dance along the fine edge of belief and unknowing – choosing to land on the side of not needing the answerbut learning to respect what a thing, or a place, or an idea mean in their core. Over her lifetime, she committed to words what Unitarian Universalism, on its best days, tries to convey. At the top of our order of service we see these words, “You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it. ” There’s a deep wisdom in this sort of spiritual agnosticism, unfettered by denomination or doctrine; it’s humble and it doesn’t try to pin down the spirit, leaving the meaning clear but dead. I want to unlearn my places of certitude in the spirit, and be present for what is before us all. We are often raised toward certitude, and spiritual matters like grace, and presence, and even life, wither before the gaze of certitude.
To take an everyday metaphor, I often advise couples on their wedding day, that relationships wither before the gaze of who is right, or how things must be. Relationships, or love, or even grace, share this trait in common. If I’m guilty of sometimes giving less answers from this pulpit, and more spiritual intimations, this is why. The spirit, or the spiritual, isn’t found in a box, and wisdom has no instruction manual besides living into it.
I often ask us Unitarian Universalists, to be learn to be translators of the religious; to attend to what another is expressing from their faithful witness, and seek to empathize toward what they mean, rather than to stand rigid in our belief or our unbelief; to connect across life’s spiritual diversity, rather than to dissect it for its parts. Empathy, and witness, can be a spiritual practice even for the agnostic or humanist. In another part of her work, Mary Oliver admits, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I hope we don’t come here, don’t come to religion, to learn what prayer is. And I say that as someone who has a daily prayer practice. I hope we come here to ask these ultimate questions: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Prayer, or paying attention, or falling down into the grass, or choosing not to lose the race, but to leave the race – can be the next move toward centering our life in meaning, and purpose – in recognizing that the gift has already been given.
The question as the spiritual practice – not for the clean answer, but for deeper intimations toward what vitally matters. As Mary Oliver asked, “Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass…”. It’s the simplest of questions, but what does the answer mean should we ever find it? Life literally jumping into our hand, begging us to ask, where do we come from, who made this human, the one who had flung herself into the next stage of life, and the next challenge, and the next pain, and the next joy? I am uneasy, or I am satisfied, by all that has come and all that will be. I am moving into the next world of this one wild and precious life, step by step, fear by joy, uncertainty with risk and cautious abandon. We do so uneasy – caught between two worlds – when we think of our lives this way; always drawing our stories as tales of what was, and what will be; seeking answers of the details of life and confusing that for the meaning – when we do that we may miss that spark of life should it jump into our hands. Don’t ask who may all this so you can fill out the answer in the notes; rather ask it to inspire you to deeper connection with the life that surrounds us all.
As hard as I try, I can not think of a time in my life that someone explained their way to deeper wisdom. Yes, talking through a thing, working with your therapist, or reflecting on spiritual poetry like Mary Oliver’s, can help us through issues or personal challenges. But no amount of explaining in the world, will teach us how to be present to the sudden spark of life that is that grasshopper that jumped into our hands and inspired us to wonder. No amount of explaining in the world will turn our attention away from the race, to live our life. Prayer, meditation, attending to the wood drake, or the heron, or the moment before us however – are the real path toward wisdom. There is a reason the Buddhists say, stop talking, and sit. There’s a reason some Christians have a prayer practice that asks for nothing. And there’s a reason why Thoreau or Mary Oliver, or Wendell Berry, go into the woods. It may be the very same reason – translating to each their individual hearts.
The poem, “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, I read earlier, reminds me of this parable of the three trees I gave earlier. For many of our graveside services in our memorial garden, that poem is one I often read. “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.” We even have those words in our hymnal. I usually hear those words calling us to remember to live life fully, with the people precious to us, while we’re here. And to give us permission to continue living with meaning and purpose after our loved ones are gone.
After a time, what we’re holding onto is no longer that which we loved so dearly. After too long, healthy grief can turn into something that makes us hold onto our hardship instead. No one else can ever tell any of us how long is too long, and deep loss may never fully go away. But there comes a time for all of us when holding onto the deep sense of loss becomes too much, rather than healing. We may need to hibernate for a time within our hearts, but when the season turns, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to those we so dearly miss, is to allow ourselves to grow green once more; to wake to another Springtime.
Sometimes hardship lasts a long time. As the story of three trees attests, we’ve had one bruising winter after another these past few years, and it’s not just hard on the plants, it’s hard on our spirits. More seriously, our Fellowship has endured an almost six year long span of time, where we lost too many members or immediate family members to death. It can be too much to bare. We experience loss individually acutely; but we also experience grief collectively.
Can we imagine our theme this month of Grace, and wonder what would it mean to be a people of Grace, in light of long hardship and grief? It can mean giving one another space through the difficulty. It can mean helping a friend replant themselves in a better spot with more warmth and more light. It might mean, giving ourselves the time and care to slow down and to hunker down so that we can come through to the other side sane and whole and ready to be ourselves once more. It can mean not trying too hard to stay too strong when we really need to lean on another. All of these things can be ways to be beautiful in the world in the face of loss and adversity.
But eventually, and always, the season turns, and hardship gives way to grace. When we let it, it’s a beautiful gift. But we don’t always let it; we don’t always accept the new times when they come. Accepting Grace can be a spiritual discipline. When the wheel turns from hardship to newness, Grace unfurls in corners we may have forgotten to look for when grief or hardship refocused our vision. But life, or newness is there – ever reminding us to ‘hold what is mortal to our bones as if our life depends upon it’ but not so long that we can’t ever let it go.
Hardship, in any of its many forms, can turn into something we hold onto. Maybe grief isn’t your burden; maybe adversity is the thing you can’t seem to shake. We may never like it, but it can be like my Magnolia tree that only knows how to stay at its fullest, even in the worst of times. I will be stalwart and see this through because that’s who I am. We can sometimes wear hardship as a badge. Pushing people away who might hold us up during this time.
Or maybe our challenge is sharing with everyone we know justhow busy we are – I know I’m not alone with that challenge – as if busyness were a noble medal to shine and pin to our jackets. I think our corporate or consumer world teaches us this un-virtue – that busyness is a good thing to have. Maybe Grace is found in being less full all the time. Maybe it’s found in not becoming identified, in our spirits, with the adversity before us, or the busyness we enter and reenter into again and again. Maybe the struggle is real, and must be honored; maybe it helps us to grow into the people we are, but can we do that without also letting the hardship name us with its own words – as its own.
But Grace comes. That which we have done nothing to deserve, but feeds and nourishes us all the same, ever comes again and again. Winter turns to Spring. We each find new homes in the most sudden of places. The job comes around, or the grief weighs just a little less heavy on our hearts than the day before, or we find the strength to put down that bottle of liquor – finally. We often think of these things in terms of willpower or endurance. Sometimes they are. But I think just as often, maybe more often, something just turns in the world or in our hearts, and newness is before us in the places where habit and hardness once resided and all the world is different. Grace.
May we be people of Grace. May we learn to be gentle with one another never knowing what burdens our neighbors carry silently next to us. May we find ways to see Grace when it comes sudden before us, and grant us the strength to accept its gifts – especially on those days when we have become so adjusted to a world of hardness and hardship. May another way be found, and may we have the wisdom to take it when it comes.