The first time I read Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” I tripped over the first line, and I couldn’t get back up.
As she explained in an interview, Mary Oliver began writing this poem while giving a demonstration on the impact of ending a line with a period. While she was teaching, she heard the honking of geese outside, then the poem just poured out of her. Like poems do to poets.1Gillis, Trent T. “Mary Oliver reads ‘Wild Geese.’” On Being. February 9, 2015. https://onbeing.org/blog/mary-oliver-reads-wild-geese/
If you ever google “Wild Geese” and read it for yourself, be careful of that first line. If what happened to me happens to you, the first sentence of the poem could call into question nearly everything you have come to believe.
It goes like this: “You do not have to be good.”
Can you imagine if she’s right… A whole lot of us give our lives to the pursuit of being good. We were children in a world that very much wants children to be good, says the world all smiling and worried.
Pretty soon after being good, the quest turned into being good at. Be good at school. Be good at sports, or music, or leadership, or what have you. After being good at, the quest turned into being good enough. A person can live his whole life with the question gnawing his soul: how can I be good enough? Now along comes the poet who surely doesn’t mean to rattle your secret fear, but she’s telling you something nobody else has. You feel all the power turning upside down.
And so the poem ends on a promise of hope. The last sentence goes like this:
“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.”
You do not have to be good.
Today is Mother’s Day. If you decide to give yourself a gift of reading two short poems, I hope you will make “Wild Geese” one of them. It does the thing poems do when they call out: “Hey come take a look at this! This is what love looks like.” The amazing part is, you might believe it…
You might find yourself convinced by love.
These days, parents in our world are facing significant challenges. More than a few parents are locked up. It is really hard to be there for your children when you are in prison or INS detention, and there are those who are managing to pull this off.
More than a few parents are homeless. Did you know, it is remarkably harder for parents with children to secure stable housing than it is for adults without children. Not only are landlords more unwilling to rent to adults with children, but according to researcher Matthew Desmond, “the presence of children in the household almost tripled a tenant’s odds of receiving an eviction notice.”2 Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Broadway Books: New York, 2016. page 332. More than a few parents are fighting to give everything they can to their children while dealing with illness, and poverty, and abuse. This is our world.
These are days when parents are working from home, caring for a household during a pandemic, and if that’s not enough, homeschooling! Not all parenting struggles are the same, but I don’t know any parent who is not thick in the struggle. At the same time, the message from Facebook is that other families seem to be crushing it. How are they keeping a daily school schedule for kids in multiple grades! How is their house so clean!
And look. I know we don’t mean to compare ourselves to others. Of course, we’re not competing! (Pastors say this too and we want to mean it.) It’s just, we all know. It can take everything you have and then some to convince yourself that you’re not failing miserably.
Here’s the thing: You do not have to be good. The grace you generously offer to others is available for you as well. So imagine if we could let go of this worry.
Imagine if there was something more to hope for! Something more than our family’s success or our children’s achievement… Something more than our own salvation or our children’s salvation…
Today’s scripture comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This was a church that had some real issues, no kidding! In the first half of the passage, Paul encourages church members to stop competing with each other for status. See Paul heard it from Chloe that people were saying: We belong to Paul, while others were saying: Oh yeah? We belong to Apollos! Well, we belong to Cephas (Peter)… and on and on. And look, I don’t think Paul is wrong to call this out. I think we can relate to this church. We know what it is to measure our own worth by comparing ourselves to others. We really do this!
And the message would be good enough if Paul simply shouted: “Hey stop it! Your worth is not based on getting baptized by a rock star; we all belong to Christ.” That is good news, no question. But it’s what Paul does next that changes everything. He changes what is at stake.
What if there is something more to hope for than being good or good enough? Something more than your children’s achievement or your own salvation… Paul tells the church something so shattering you’d think he were writing the first sentence of a poem! He says:
You could put your faith in the cross.
Can you imagine if he’s right… Imagine how this sounded to the early church! The cross evokes the shameful and horrifying death of Jesus. It stirs up our own guilt! It has become the emblem of the ultimate failure of humanity. Here you are worried about your fourth grader’s earth science homework while trying to meet your own deadline, and when is the last time you had a lunch that wasn’t just peanut butter crackers and sprite, and here Paul’s got the nerve to say— we could put our faith in the cross.
And I kinda wish I could tell you that he’s wrong. Can’t we please just have the triumph of the resurrection? That part is lovely! Instead. As the emblem of suffering, what happens is the cross becomes a meeting place. That’s the first thing.
In the middle of “Wild Geese” Mary Oliver names this tenderness. She writes,
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.”
She’s naming precisely what happens in the cross. This is different from scrolling through pictures on Facebook. When we go and sit down next to somebody else (look, these days I know we can’t do that physically but still-) when we go meet each other in the suffering, this is precisely where we’ll find our competitiveness beginning to soften at the edges. It begins to turn into compassion.
Here, your own heart could break open for somebody you don’t even know. We could lift up our eyes and see there’s something even better than our own salvation, something more than our own children’s salvation because— there’s your children too. Meeting up with each other in the middle of the struggle is the work of the cross. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is the cross represents the ultimate failure according to the powers of this world, but God has gone and turned those powers upside down. And God keeps on doing this.
Listen to what Paul tells the church: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength… But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak… to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…” (1 Corinthians 1:25-28a).
God turns power upside down. God turns our expectations of power upside down, and what if the poet was right: You don’t have to be good.
You only have to let your heart break open with those who are broken.
Today is Mother’s Day. If you decide to give yourself the gift of reading two short poems, I hope you’ll make one of them Wild Geese. I hope you’ll make the other one the song that comes from the first chapter of Luke, verses forty-six through fifty-five.
What happened was this nobody teenager from Nazareth was chosen by the LORD our God to turn the powers of the world upside down. When she learned that she was pregnant with Jesus, she went to meet up with her cousin; that’s when this song just poured out of her. Like songs do to prophets.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed…”
Mary’s first recorded act of motherhood was to sing of God’s power and promise to the world.
“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty…”
After Jesus was born, I wonder if Mary remembered singing this. I wonder if she ever worried that Elizabeth’s baby was reaching benchmarks before her baby. If she ever felt like there’s no way she’ll be able to pull this off… No way she’ll be able to save her own son.
Can you imagine her at four in the morning, pleading with the LORD… Oh God, there is still so much violence in the world! Where is your promise now? Where is your power! And maybe God left her prayer ringing open in the air…
Maybe that baby finally unclenched his little fists, and gave in to sleep, and turned all heavy in her arms, and Mary knew that was love.
Maybe Mary found herself convinced by love. I hope so. I hope this happens to us all. Amen.