A couple of years ago, I was asked to give the homily for Evensong at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Paris, Kentucky. I count it among my greatest honors to have been invited by my friend, The Reverend Donavan Cain to give this talk and am glad to share it with you here today.
Drawing In the Dirt
In one of my favorite novels, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, her lead character, Ames, writes the following: “For me writing has always felt like praying…you feel you are with someone.”
I have never identified more with a line in a piece of literature, for writing has always been my strongest connection to God. Art has been my salvation. Truly, writing saved me.
I had a profound relationship with God from a very early age. On more than one occasion I was convinced that God was speaking to me. One time I remember very clearly: I was in my back yard, playing on my metal swing-set by myself. I spent lots of time alone, by choice, and not by choice. As I was swinging, a great wind tore down the valley, the kind of wind that turns out the pale side of leaves, that spreads a shiver out over everything in its path. I was certain that this was God passing through. And I heard Him speak to me: “I am here,” He said, plain as day, and I knew He was speaking to me, because in that moment, I needed someone there with me. I had felt very alone, but suddenly I felt as I was with someone.
Instead of telling someone this had happened, I went into the house and got out my little black and white composition book where I wrote down everything. I turned to a clean, smooth page and wrote: “March 30, 1981, God spoke to me today. In the wind. He said ‘I am here.’ I believe him.”
Lots of artists I know relate similar experiences. Perhaps some of us are artists because of our strict Christian upbringings, and our wildly creative minds led to these encounters. Perhaps as writers we were doing what writers and artists are supposed to do: hearing like an animal, seeing like a camera, feeling everything intensely. For this is the artists’ great responsibility, to listen, see, feel, smell, taste. To experience everything as intensely as possible, and then report our findings.
There are many beautiful instances of art being used in the Bible. Among my favorites are Exodus 15:20 when Miriam sings her song of celebration. The verse goes, “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.”
2 Samuel 6:14 tells us that David danced before the Lord with all his might.
But my very favorite is in John 8, when Jesus deals with the angry people by drawing in the dirt. Beginning with John 8:3 it goes: “The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”
Christ’s drawing on the ground is one of the great mysteries of the Bible. Scholars have theorized over it for years: What did he draw on the ground? Or, what did he write on the ground? Why did he do this? What is the symbolism here? I am not sure, of course. But I like to think that Christ wrote in the dirt because the act of writing was a way of prayer for him. What I know for sure is that his drawing in the dirt--whether it was letters or pictures--was an act of art, just like Miriam’s song of celebration and David’s dancing. Just as the Song of Solomon and the Psalms are among the most amazing works of art to have ever been produced.
Another of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, who wrote masterpieces like My Antonia and O Pioneers! Once said “The prayers of all good people are good.” This quote is somewhat of a mystery, too, really. But when thought on, I believe that one thing Cather was saying is that anyone who strives to be good is thereby good. I also believe that one of the many functions of art is to make us better people. The act of making art makes us better people. The act of looking at, reading, hearing, or experiencing art has the potential to make us better.
Art, by illuminating the truth, sheds light on how we can be better people. Nearly everything I ever learned about being a better person, and more specifically a better Christian, I learned from books and poems. I am thinking of novels like The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, which taught me that the true path to God is to recognize Him and honor Him every single day. In that book the character Shug Avery says, “Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets trying to be loved. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see He’s always trying to please us back.” When you walk through the world every single day noticing everything, you are honoring God. And that is what any artist must do to be a truly good artist. There is no way that an artist can walk through the day without seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, and experiencing everything they can. It is not a great leap to make this a part of one’s religiosity or spirituality.
Often, nowadays, many Christians are taught that our job is to judge and then condemn everyone. Many do not hear the message of compassion. Sometimes I am confused by the modern state of Christianity and religion, period. Sometimes I question it's validity in the modern world. Sometimes I question everything, which is something I was not taught to do in my childhood church. "We are not to question God" was the refrain back then, or, somewhat more eloquently we were reminded that God moved "in mysterious ways" and we were not to wonder too much about His Great Mind.
So imagine the spiritual and religious breakthrough for me when I read the following poem by Mary Oliver, a poem I try to share with as many people as possible because I think it is a lesson in how to be a better person, a lesson in how to not judge, but to have compassion, to spread love instead of hatred, and most of all it is a lesson in loving ourselves, which so many of us have such a hard time doing because we have told that this is a selfish thing to do. This poem is “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 praying
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 landscape,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue sky
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.
I believe God shows up there, in the lines of that poem. A thing of so much beauty must surely possess him. What Oliver is saying, I believe, is that we don’t have to punish ourselves to be children of God, that in fact, God is love and He has his arms outstretched to all of us, not just a few. These are verses of kindness and compassion, and verses that remind us to look for God’s wisdom in every single thing, like the wild geese flying overhead.
Art teaches us to give thanks. Anne Lamott, the author of books like Traveling Mercies, Bird by Bird, and others, says that the two best poems she knows are “Please Please Please” and “Thank you thank you thank you.” I’ve used both of those prayers many, many times, and they are cleansing things.
On this night of evensong, let’s give thanks for all the art around us: the wonderful building we are in, the moving songs given by the choir, the perfect scriptures read by our beloved Donavan, the precise gray of the winter’s sky, the beauty of every single person gathered herein. With that in mind, a poem of thanks, by a Kentucky poet and a good man, Maurice Manning. His poem, Bucolic Number 76, in which the narrator refers to God as “Boss”:
Thank you for the leaf Boss
Thank you for the tree thank
You for the knife-edge wind
Thank you for the breath behind
The wind breath sweeter than
A horse’s sweet oat breath
Thank you Boss O thank you
For the yellow-belly sun for
The moon fatter than a tick
Thank you for the season
Thank you for the long-leg
Shadows Boss thank you
For paring down the day
Today for bossing all of it
Away except the fish-eye sky
O except the leaf that leapt
Into my hands thank you for
Two hands to make a cup
To hold the leaf Boss thank you
For the red bug riding on the leaf
That’s another poem that taught me the way to serve better, that taught me to give thanks. I will close with my favorite Bible verse, which I am sure many of you know: Galatians 6:9: "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” This is what I try to think of every morning when my feet hit the floor. I think about the bright possibility of a new day and how I can be of service. Not because I want to reap that harvest the verse speaks of, but because I think that’s why we’re here: to be good one another, to help one another, to work hard and laugh much, to love and love and love.
I believe God lives in everything. Not just churches and cathedrals. Not just in trees and leaves of grass and flowers. But even in—especially in—the leads of pencils, the lenses of cameras, the tips of paintbrushes, the pirouette of a ballerina, the rich alto of a singer, the curve of a sculptor’s cut, in books and poems and music. He made all of these things and made them a gift to us, so let us all go out into the world with the hope of giving back this gift.