goodness, despair, and imagination (theology of social witness – post 2)

wild-geese-1024_193558kLast week, we met once again for a small group reflecting on the theological ground of our witness for social change.  This time we were tasked with choosing one piece from the meditations and prayers section of the UU hymnal that reflects our spiritual practice and our aspirations for justice, and then to write about why we chose the piece we did.

Despite my hope that I would find something that wouldn’t be so familiar and stereotypical for a UU minister today, Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese (#490) wouldn’t stop being my clear number one choice.

No other prayer or meditation could match the ways that this poem captures what I know about my spiritual practices and theology of social witness today.   Three ways, to be specific:

1. That it is imperfect, carried out by imperfect people seeing imperfectly, practicing imperfectly: “you do not have to be good.”  As for spiritual practices, I pray imperfectly, read imperfectly, run imperfectly, worship imperfectly – all less regularly, more intellectually, more judgmentally than I wish I did.  And as for my view of justice and social witness, it is never enough, always stumbling, often mistaken.  Yet still, trying, the act of trying, wrestling, being in it, wholeheartedly is all there is to do: “You only have to love the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

2. That it is relational, conversational, and grounded in a willing heartbreak: “tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”  No one lists small groups and other listening and storytelling when they talk about spiritual practices, but these are core to my sense of the holy work.  And also, I feel less clear about justice as an end than I do about the practice of covenant, the art of loving in real life.  Most of all there is this steadfast willingness to have your heart broken wide open, my heart broken, wide open, at the despair of life as it is, the helplessness to make things “all better.” Staying put, being faithful,

3.  Finally, that it is linked to the imagination, “the world offers itself to your imagination.”  That we can imagine another world, that we can know that something about this world isn’t right, that something else entirely could be possible.  Sometimes I think of this sort of imagination as a righteous imagination, because I feel so emboldened by the certainty that we’re meant for another reality – one that I have no evidence could even exist, but I feel it, deep down.  To connect with this feeling is at the root of all of my spiritual practices.  To remember.

And, imagination in another sense, which is to say, the creative work of experimentation and adaptation – we try new things, we learn, we build, we tear down, we build again.  We stay loose, curious, in love with the loving rather than in love with our ideas about how it all should go.

My background in the theatre helps with this – for in the theatre, we build whole worlds and live in them for a few weeks, and then in one night, tear it all down, and move on. This is how I hope to approach all of ministry, including the work for social change.  That we might be less attached to the specific form our worlds might take, than the love and trust we create by the imagining, discovering, and creating these worlds together.   That we might stay loose when it comes to the end results, and instead stay open to the particular call of particular relationships in a particular time and place.  That we might keep on imagining and creating a greater joy, and a greater love – in all the possible ways that might take shape.

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.

Mary Oliver 

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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