“Holding the World in the Light”
Speaker: Becca J.R. Lachman
Text: Psalm 27
It’s truly special to be able to share with you this morning. My husband Michael and I usually only get to join this congregation when we download Sunday services online in our Athens, Ohio home--so imagine us folding laundry or washing dishes while listening in, saying “Amen!” Secondly, my family’s 1840s farm sits just a few miles down the road. I grew up less than a 5 minutes’ drive from here, so you could say this weekend’s a homecoming for me in multiple ways.
In preparing to talk this morning, I (re)learned new layers of my extended family story. Joel read excerpts from prayers written by Johannes J. Amstutz, my Great(x3)-grandfather, who was one of the original Sonnenberg Mennonite settlers in this area from Switzerland, Sonnenberg meaning “Sun Mountain.” During his lifetime, Johannes was a farmer-artist with a severe limp, recorded in history by his faith community as the head of a household who gave the smallest donation toward the new church building. The ministers at that time did not approve of his personal prayerbook-- today, it sells roughly 2,000 copies per year. It turns out that fields I’ve driven through since I got my drivers’ license, fields that now grow houses instead of annual crops, were once part of Johannes’ farm.
In the 1950s, my Great-grandparents Paul and Esther Amstutz lived on the edge of this very property, having helped to purchase land to start Camp Luz. My Great-Aunt Lil came up with its name. Though I never met my Great-grandparents, this service today is a way to connect with them and the long-term vision they imagined: generations of seekers gathering, laughing and singing and eating good food, reaching out to God and God’s creation, just as God reaches out to us.
What does it mean to have a long-term vision, knowing you may never see its full reality?
I was raised to view a global family through the eyes and parables of Jesus. I often have to remind myself that the Upside-Down Kingdom Jesus taught and lived is still worth the effort and heartbreak today, even though we may never experience its fullness here on earth or in America. That old saying “The Light at the end of the tunnel...” takes on new meaning when I consider this kind of waiting.
How many tunnels do we experience in our lives? Many. How do we remind ourselves that God’s light--God’s love--is also carried and made visible by our physical bodies? “The light in me sees the light in you,” I’ve heard yoga teachers say at the end of a class where I’ve just been heartily reminded of my earthly body’s limitations... For a few years, I attended a Quaker Meeting, and when someone I know asks for prayer, I still respond with a Quaker saying: “I will hold you in the Light.”
But when I need to be reminded that I’m not alone and that mystery is a natural part of life (and a part of God), I go home to poetry.
I don’t think it’s strange at all that after 9/11/2001, sales of poetry books soared in the U.S. Poetry is one of those things that un-numbs us. It can help us remember that much of life is lived within some pretty big questions. And: poetry slows us down in a world where we could be stimulated and “awake” 24 hours a day if we chose to be--where doctors and scientists now link the over-use of artificial light coming from screens and gadgets to diseases of both the body and the spirit.
As a teacher of poetry, I tell my college-aged students to forget about concentrating on what a poem MEANS. Instead, I want them to describe how a poem makes them FEEL, what question a poem is born out of, what image or line or puzzlement they carry with them as a reader, days later. I feel like many of us also do this with scripture.
This morning, I’d like to share with you work from two poets who remind me that God’s long-term vision is alive and shimmering in us. Writers of holy texts often use the metaphor or symbol of LIGHT to describe feeling God’s presence and showing God’s love to others. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus still reminds us.
I hear echoes of this blessing/call to action in the poems of William Stafford, who was a conscientious objector during WWII. Like my grandpa and perhaps like some of your loved ones, he served in Civilian Public Service work camps. Even though Stafford’s brother was a bomber pilot in the same war, they had a close relationship, writing to each other on a regular basis. One reason I’m drawn to Wm. Stafford is that my own family is divided by how we define SERVICE, both to our country and to God. Sometimes I wonder if our different versions of Jesus would even recognize each other on the street...
“Everyone’s a conscientious objector to something,” Stafford wrote. “Are there things you wouldn’t do?” His belief in living out nonviolence did not disappear after he returned home from alternative service. “Justice will take us millions of intricate moves,” he wrote in his morning journal. “Of this world, I am a little part reaching outward.” Other Stafford sayings I carry with me include the following:
“Every war has two losers.”
“Know the weight of a happy problem.”
“My belief is what my whole life says.”
As a poet, Stafford is both accessible in his language and wildly courageous in the mysteries he’s willing to circle. An example of this is the poem I’ve
brought this morning:
“SIMPLE TALK” by William Stafford http://williamstafford.org/spoems/pages/simpletalk.html
I connect this poem with Stafford’s aphorism, “My belief is what my whole life says,” but also with a continued longing for a world where living “a clear life” is possible, where human actions and communication are fueled by the light of transformative love instead of fear.
Another poet I’ve found to be an important contemporary psalmist is Mary Oliver. She reminds me that nature is part of God’s holy language. She also doesn’t shy away from stepping right into the heart of humanity’s biggest sorrows. When I no longer know what to say to a world that seems intent on pushing against the Sermon on the Mount, I often go to Oliver’s poems and let them speak for me.
“IN BLACKWATER WOODS” by Mary Oliver
In my experience, God’s creation tells us again and again, “You are loved. You are forgiven. And--sorry, but you are not in control.”
I’ve started to try out a new habit as an avid NPR listener: whenever a radio news story comes on that’s about violence, I sing a hymn. Though some may call me naïve, I like to think that this tiny ripple-of-an-action makes it to someone else who needs it, maybe even someone living out a different version of the same news story.
When I write poetry, I sing to the world in a different way. An adaption of Psalm 27, a poem I titled “Wait,” comes out of the question that began this message: What does it mean to have a long-term vision, knowing you may never see its full reality?
“WAIT” by Becca J.R. Lachman ( 2012, first printed in Ruminate Magazine)
-after Psalm 27
I have seen things shine. Most days, this is enough:
my escape route
more grace than gravel. Every stop-motion memory
of failure stocked in my body like grain.
I am the harvest’s vessel, full and waiting for a match
to find fire where I stand, the whole mess
blitzing down. The heavens want me
empty now. I open
my mouth and sing.
Mama said Don’t as many times
as she could. But my shield, in the end,
is gravity, the faith root not yet
Since childhood, it’s been the same landlord
leaving me notes on the kitchen table he built
into the hard wood floor. This will someday be yours,
he signs at the bottom. “This” is all
I’ve ever wanted—to stop
to cry at the beautiful
God looking out of a stranger, make my life
from something sung
out of joy, not out of training.
There are deer in the gardens
again. And someone’s name
I don’t recognize
all over the mail and magazines.
The landlord was once out of town
for weeks. I asked for different light
bulbs. He brought
me lamps instead. I think it’s him
who throws the fuse, switches off
the news when I’ve been listening
for hours. Who needs that rabble,
anyway? I do. I just want the headlines
to be different. Me too, he nods. Me too.
I don’t know what my Great(x3)-grandfather Johannes would think about me standing up here today, a woman with an uncovered head, my words and emotions uncovered, too... What I do know is “that my heart is sure of this: that on earth I will continue to see” a God of love in action. And that poetry is a sun that I can carry with me. “Sure, there is darkness in the world,” William Stafford wrote. “But when I want to read I use a light.” May we wait in assurance that, in that waiting, we are not alone. May we work towards a more loving world lit by the holy in all of God’s creations.
*William Stafford aphorisms from Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems by William Stafford (Wixon and Merchant) and Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War (Kim Stafford, ed.).