The Peace of the Wild Things
By Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Around the time we arrived in Vermont in early July 2015, I read Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of the Wild Things, with intention. It was fitting that I did so at the beginning of this wild adventure as the final line has become my travel mantra of sorts: I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The 12th anniversary of my ordination, which always falls on the Spring Equinox, also began Holy Week this year, so it seemed like the perfect time to marinate on this seeming paradox: the grace of the world. You see, as a clergywoman ordained in the Christian tradition, most of my adult life has been dedicated to preaching and teaching about the grace of God…at least that is what I’m supposed to do. From the outset of my clerical work, I’ve never quite grasped the theological concept of grace. As a professional dancer, I had a handle on grace. It’s what dancers do. Or at least what we’re supposed to do. The grace of the world was something that was taken away by a conservative church that told me, in the words of James, that one cannot love God and the world. This didn’t coincide with my overall worldview—the world is filled with beauty and grace, resurrection and redemption that existed long before Christianity baptized the terms and dubbed them theological—but for a brief period of time I decided that I simply must hate the world. Bless the soul of an undergraduate professor of religion who taught me that people of faith can, indeed, love the world, and that our duty is to love it so deeply and madly that we do everything in our power to make it more just and beautiful.
Along the way, however, I’ve opted to let go of this theological notion of grace altogether, namely because I’ve let go of the notion of a theos. Not in an antagonistic manner, nor with a tremendous amount of certainty, hence my dancing around the word “atheism.” Always dancing. It’s not so much that I’m a pantheist or even a panentheist because one can’t really be either of those things without the theist part. Not god in the world. Not that the world is god. Rather, the world itself is sacred. We are sacred. Sacredness isn’t confined by a god. Nor is holiness. Or resurrection. Or redemption. I’ve worried about how this reflects, or doesn’t reflect, the nature of my ordination. But I still feel the call to preach and work and maybe even pray on behalf of communities otherwise excluded within orthodox traditions. It’s just that my language for describing it has shifted. Elizabeth tells me I’m a strategic theist in the same way many feminists are strategic essentialists, knowing full well that using the word “woman” actually needs a lengthy footnote in the same way that any time I employ the word “god” would need a footnote much longer than this blog.
All those meandering caveats lead me to say this. The grace of this world has never ceased to astound me. I recall reading a commentary by Barbara Brown Taylor in preparation for the first time I was to preach on an Easter Sunday. She admonished preachers to be certain of their theology of resurrection before preaching a sermon that equates resurrection with the stirring of spring out of the dormant death of cold winter. It’s one of the few times that I’ve disagreed with Taylor. Otherwise I think she’s pretty damn fabulous. For me, however, the fact that the cold dark earth rebirths plants and flowers and leaves and new life every year is precisely what resurrection is. It’s the grace of the world. Every. Single. Year.
It’s no accident that I was ordained on the Spring Equinox. As we prepare to leave the Big Island of Hawai’i, our lives now turned inside out in the most beautiful way with the knowledge that we will return to call this place home, I am once again resting in the grace of the world. The grace that explodes in volcanic ash and then resurrects as green sprouts push through the black rubble. The sprouts turn to trees. Fruit grows. Our bodies are nourished. We are free. As Holy Week began, devoid of any worshipping community or church services (by choice and with gratitude), I reveled in this beautiful grace. The week began so holy.
And then North Carolina tromped into Holy Week with an early crucifixion, stringing the least among us—namely our transgender friends and neighbors—onto a cross of the legislature’s own devising and reminded me that the world also has the capacity for great violence and harm. Yes, the lava that flows destroys and new life is eventually reborn, but there’s no malice in the volcano’s intentions. What North Carolina’s legislators did in HB2 was nothing short of malice and fear. Crucifixions aren’t just a thing of the past. Neither is discrimination. Many people of faith hold this view. Many people without faith do, as well. I hold all this from a distance, on an island in the middle of the Pacific where the earth’s core bubbles to the surface with fire, redemption, and resurrection, so far away from the place I called home for five years. It is for these reasons that I want to keep my ordination, though my beliefs—or lack thereof—have shifted. Because the least among us need to know that there are ordained clergy who will not tolerate such injustice. I may even opt to strategically employ the word “God” and claim that God weeps at the sight of such injustice, as well. Can’t you hear Her?
After these 12 years I hold my ordination with an open hand. I was wary it could be revoked when I came out as gay over 8 years ago. And it didn’t happen. Sometimes I worry now that this worldly grace may come at a cost, the cost of a theological grace being withheld to the extent that I may not be able to practice my ordination. I don’t think that will happen. I hope it won’t. In the meantime, I will rest in the grace of this stunning world, offering freedom to whomever I may encounter. Life springs eternal. Daffodils push through snow. Green sprouts burst out of lava. There’s enough resurrection for us all.