“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 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.
For the past several weeks we have been reflecting on our month’s theme: Finding Our Center. And I have been quite inspired by it. Particularly the ‘our’ part. For those of you who have been able to attend worship these past two weeks, you know that ‘relationships’ and ‘connection’ have been the glue that have held them together. I have tossed out the term: ‘shared ministry’ here and there too. And today I plan to dig into this more deeply. For Shared Ministry is the way in which I understand spiritual community, and leadership; ministry and the spiritual life; within and with. So hold that–see if you can thread it all together. I will be curious to know what comes up for you, and I hope you will share it with me.
On Thursday, April 7th of 2022, all the goings-ons of my life came to a screeching halt. My time had come. I wasn’t feeling well, so I took a Covid test. That second blue line practically leaped out of the little tray…like within a minute. And I felt awful. Pressing on, virtually, was not an option. I was OUT. And here is where the story turns…serendipitous.
That Sunday, a mere few days away, I was getting ready to preach a sermon called, “From Me to We,” and it was all about Shared Ministry. And that Thursday night, April 7th, Judy Kamm will remember that I called her to ask if she would be willing to write and preach a sermon about this theme. This was a natural fit. Judy is the chair of the Committee on Ministry, whose charge is to companion and support both my ministry, and the ministries of the church. We had been, for months, exploring how Shared Ministry showed up at First Parish, and could continue to grow. And without missing a beat, Judy said YES, and preached a beautiful sermon that Palm Sunday. A sermon that didn’t just explain shared ministry but lived and breathed it. Hence the serendipity of the thing. In Judy’s words that morning: “…we at First Parish of Watertown do indeed ALREADY have a shared ministry. The very fact that in Reverend Sophia’s unexpected absence today our service is being conducted by lay leaders and staff and that I am substituting for her in the pulpit now, is probably the best example possible of shared ministry…”
And the next Sunday, Easter Sunday, our wonderful Worship Committee did the same. And delighted in the same rejoicing: Look at us! Doing shared ministry!
And every one of these leaders, who made these services possible, at some point or another, thanked me for the opportunity to lead worship, grateful to preach, pray, and plan. All of them, from my point of view, came alive in its doing. And those two services were the better for it. Truly.
This brings to mind something that a colleague of mine wisely preached to his congregation on a Sunday morning, where he announced his retirement after 30+ years of ministry to a people who loved him dearly. He said, “If you think you can’t live without me, then you aren’t doing congregational life very well.” This was a man who had learned how to keep his ego in check, hence my calling him wise. He taught many intern ministers about this over his many years of ministry, who have carried this wisdom forward. Rev. Frank Clarkson, who you have come to know as my most treasured of mentors, was one of these interns, and he puts it this way: “I never want my ego to become so unchecked that I vainly presume that the people can’t do without me…” “Sophia,” he used to say, “don’t steal the ministry from the people.”
And this is Shared Ministry. Where no one person, the minister or otherwise, sees themselves as the sole bearer of a gift, that no one else can offer or share in, do as well or try their hand at giving. We, instead, understand ourselves to be precious bearers and recipients of gifts. Both!
Not unlike our meditation hymn today: Be Ye Lamps–these are the words of the Buddha who taught about the Divine light that resides in us all. Each of us arrive here with this light–some of us know what it is, many of us don’t. We all need a sanctuary to cultivate it in. And this is the first piece, to come to know, trust in, take care of and bear out the blessed light that resides within.
The second piece is that we come to know, honor, trust in, and receive it from others. This gesture in Buddhism holds this perfectly (MAKE PRAYER HANDS), accompanied by a bow and a spoken “Namaste,” which means: “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you,” or “the light in me sees the light in you.” I bow to you.
And there is a third piece: to trust that in the giving and receiving, the ebb and flow, that we are co-creating something that transcends us all. For me, this where God comes in. That we are being led by something bigger. We are creating something BIGGER. The Sacred and BIG WE that stretches far, far before we came to be, and will stretch out far, far beyond us. When we are no longer here.
At my installation as your 30th minister back in September our theme was “Weaving Together Our Shared Ministry,” and we seemed to find our way to what this meant through the symbol of the circle. The circular shape of this sanctuary, the circles around the chalice that I gifted you with and this new pulpit whose very inspiration was this our shared and widening circle, handmade by Will Twombly.
When Will first showed me this pulpit I kind of lost my mind–for a few reasons. Not only is it just resplendent, but the piece of stained glass that was very much a surprise–I had no idea it would be there–really knocked my socks off.
It’s a water scene, with a distant mountain range, and three geese flying in V-formation overhead. And Will might remember me delighting in those geese, and there is a reason for this. Beyond just my general love for these delightful, honking creatures, Geese embody shared ministry in their flight behaviors. Seriously. I am not waxing poetic here. They have been written about by so many church and temple leaders–across faiths –precisely because of this.
Now, a myth was debunked for me this past week as I plunged into my fast-track education on geese. Before this week, I thought that geese fly in V-formation as a stunning display of shared leadership. They do, but not in the way I thought. So, first and foremost, it is a scientific fact that geese flying in this V-formation fly 70% faster than a single goose. This is the main reason why religious leaders love goose symbolism: migration and ministry are just BETTER as a WE.
But here’s the myth that was debunked this past week. I thought that the leader-position of the V was the hardest spot to be in. You wouldn’t have a tail wind as you’re not behind another goose. You are also leading the way, and are the map holder. This would have to be the most tiring of positions, right? The beauty of geese is that, YES, they do indeed share this position, and ‘do-ci-do’ frequently, in an un-orchestrated balance of flight position. But not for the reason I thought.
It’s not true that the goose that seems to be the leader because they are out front, has the most strenuous position. High-Flying Geese are, rather, a part of a complex aerodynamic process where the benefit of the upwash field which is created by the V-formation is enjoyed not just by those in the back, but by all its members, EQUALLY, including the “lead” bird.
This alters our understanding for why geese change position, doesn’t it? They aren’t relieving each other; they are simply changing it up! No position is greater, or harder, or easier than another. Talk about equanimity. And with these shifts of position, different paces are set, adjustments in direction happen, and new flight neighbors are enjoyed.
And here’s the last delightful bit of goose knowledge I will impart to you this morning. The honking. Geese honk during flight for two reasons: 1) as a kind of heave-ho rallying cry; a vocal network of encouragement, and 2) is a way of communicating which way to go so that no one bird, or few birds are the sole map-holders. And no goose is left behind or gets lost.
Shared Ministry in a congregationalist spiritual community such as ours, is all of this too. Or at least it aspires to be. We get to practice and fail at being the high-flying geese. 70% faster in V-formation!
So, practically speaking? Right now many of you are asking yourselves and one another: what team, what committee, what pocket of church life holds this or that? And why? Are we out of balance? Many of you, as leaders, are engaging in articulating processes, and role descriptions–not to be fastidious and fixed–but so that we can easily shift in flight position and feel in rhythm with one another, right? Many of you are calling this work, “living welcome,” not just saying it but living it, so that no one of us becomes the unintended sole-holder, including your minister, of all the things. So that we don’t unintentionally exclude others from these ministries.
Many of you know that we are about to engage in a time of nominating. Where I hope each of you might ask yourselves where and how YOUR gifts might be cultivated or born out. Where I also pray that all of you who are already serving as leaders on committees might consider if the V-formation needs some ‘do-si-do’ing’. Get some new honkers in the back, and some new geese in the front. Wobble the pace and direction a bit. And round and round we go!
And I sense this is what our poet, Mary Oliver, is getting at in her wildly popular poem, Wild Geese. Where she creates a kind of holy trinity, not unlike those three interwoven pieces of shared ministry that I named at the beginning, that undergird how we care for ourselves and each other. How we do this thing called life: Discovering deep within yourself what the soft animal of your body loves. And that there is not a gift in this soft animal body that is too small. There’s the sacred I; getting proximate to your fellows–so close that you can listen to their despair, as Mary Oliver writes, and in turn, tell them of yours. There’s the sacred You/We. (Namaste); and last, to put your faith in the inexplicable bigness of this life, the lives who have come before and the lives who will come after, Spirit, God, Geese…Where, as Oliver writes: “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.” Do not be afraid. Take faith Dear Ones: I, You, We, WE.
I pray that over these next few weeks you ask yourselves with a gentle and loving voice what light in you might be waiting to be kindled or shared or ignited here. And to bring it, or your longing for it, forward.
And I also pray that over these next few weeks you ask yourselves, also with a gentle and loving voice where it might be time to know and receive the lights of others, change position, not so that your light is diminished or snuffed, but so that it might reveal new vistas. Maybe a time of unexpected rest and stillness here–you also give us a gift when you take that–or a time of brave new YESES. Or a time of honking encouragement. For who among us doesn’t need that?
Something beautiful has been and continues to be made manifest here at First Parish. It takes my breath away every day. You, in our short time together, have made me a better minister. A wiser pastor and human being. I learn more from you than I ever could hope to give or teach. What a beautiful and imperfect dream of reciprocity and shared ministry is taking place here.
And to this I say, Namaste and Blessed Be!
African-American spirituals spoke to the saving power and hope of the WE. As an oppressed people their hope lied in the lights they carried alone, together, and by the grace of a flame-sustaining God. Let’s now rise in body and spirit and sing this spiritual with care, honor, reverence, and JOY: #1018 Come and Go With Me
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.