The spark of inspiration for this week’s message came as I read the new memoir of Joy Harjo, our former Poet Laureate of the United States, and the only Native American to have been awarded that role for three consecutive terms. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Nation, which is a federally recognized tribe in the state of Oklahoma. It was a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross that first caught my ear, because as Harjo talked about her childhood in Oklahoma, I heard inwardly–from 50 years ago–my great-grandmother’s voice as she told me her stories of growing up in Chickasha and seeing the great and grand tribal leaders coming into town for meetings.
Joy Harjo’s new memoir Poet Warrior is a creative work that mixes poetry and stories of people, places, and events in her life. Her writing is lyrical and lovely, alive, and honest. I could hear as I read how vibrant the world was and is to her, how accessible the wisdom, how affirming of choices that nurture life and encourage respect and care for everything that is. It is a connected life she describes, where the family of robins and the family of humans share a land, where there is mutual respect and safety, and help when you need it from those who have gone before.
This sense of living as part of a vast interconnected web of life is something many modern-minded Westerners might dismiss as fanciful or romantic or old-fashioned. In a time when resources are valued most for their usefulness and the price they will bring at market, what is the point of seeing the life in the trees, caring about the dwindling honeybee population, or taking steps to reduce the harm our human presence causes our environment?
On one level, it’s a rhetorical question, but on another, it is quite practical—about our survival—and quite urgent. We see the answers becoming ever more real around us. If you’re paying attention to the news—or stepping out into your backyard—you notice that already our climate is showing significant signs of stress and change. Oceans are warming. Glaciers are melting. Storms are becoming more powerful and damaging and lasting longer; fires more prevalent. Whether any of these great calamities have yet reached our doorstep, the earth and her systems are calling out for attention and care. It seems evident that our future and the futures of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren at least to some degree depend on our ability to listen and respond.
Joy Harjo writes about how in difficult times in her childhood she learned that the presence and memory of her ancestors would come to offer comfort and guidance. She writes,
“In this world of forgetfulness, they told me, you will forget how to nourish the connection between humans, plants, animals, and the elements, a connection needed to make food for your mind, heart, body, and spirit.” (p 13)
Our connection—to one another but also to all created life—the wind, the grass, the sky, the trees—nourishes us because when we remember it, it touches something true about who we are most deeply, in the interweaving of all that God created and loved and named Good. As Quaker Catherine Whitmire writes in her book, Practicing Peace,
“Richard J. Foster talks about the three great “books” that guide our lives: the book of scripture, the book of experience, and the book of nature. And since these three books are based on continuing revelation, just as God once spoke to Moses through a burning bush and sent Noah an olive branch in the beak of a dove, God is still speaking to us through sparrows singing on the sidewalk, trees nodding in the wind, and shafts of light breaking through dark thunderheads. It is not the birds, trees, and clouds themselves, but the sense of God’s presence they invoke that speaks to us of wonder, compassion, and transformation. But we must watch patiently and listen prayerfully if we are to hear God’s message of peace whispering to us through the voices, both grand and humble, of the mountains, soil, rocks, plants, and animals great and small.”
Watching patiently and listening prayerfully are exactly what we need to do—but we may not slow down enough to see and value the life within our brother and sister forms of creation. To feel a sense of reverence and gratitude for the blossoming of a single flower—is that too hard? To watch a fox run across the yard with a bewildering sense of awe and thanks—instead of a fearful reaction or an instant desire to drive him away—is that too risky?
You may have heard the stories of St. Francis who regularly preached sermons to the animals and birds of the forest in Assisi. They would gather around him as a vast audience, listening intently with love and respect. It’s likely they came and listened because they knew he spoke their language, a shared language based on reverence and appreciation for God’s good gift of life to us all.
Our Old Testament scripture today comes from the book of Job, a book which you probably remember is filled with the difficult story of a faithful man who is visited by terrible hardship. He lost his family, his home, his livestock, his status, and ultimately his health. The whole story is a parable about the true intentions of our faith—do we love and obey God so God will be good to us and bless us and give us what we want? Or do we love and obey God because we love and trust God, letting Him do as His wisdom dictates in our lives? Choose one answer, and we put ourselves at the center of creation; choose the other, and it’s God we worship.
Throughout the book of Job we see the tension between arrogance and humility. Whose wishes should ultimately be carried out? Job’s so-called friends have lots of unhelpful advice for him, mostly suggesting either that he did something wrong he needs to atone for or that he give up and curse God and die to get himself out of his suffering. Either way, they don’t see how arrogant and wrong their suggestions are, if living by faith, trusting in the goodness of God, is the goal. But Job is a good man who has lived with a great faith, and that won’t change now, even though his circumstances are unbearable. He trusts God to bring about the right result for him, whatever it may be. Which of course, God ultimately does, restoring all that was lost and blessing him besides.
But in the passage we heard today, Job responds to the arrogance he hears in his unhelpful friends’ advice, saying:
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”
This is also an important theme in Joy Harlo’s memoir: Wisdom comes to us from everywhere, if we have the ears to hear it, and nothing is above anything else in creation. One being is not more important than another. A bird isn’t more necessary than a bud, a bee isn’t more important than the flower it pollinates. All are needed to keep this big web of life going. We each have our part—even humans. But we humans have the unfortunate tendency to put ourselves—as Job’s friends did–at the apex of creation, staking a claim—right or wrong—as the most intelligent and evolved of God’s species. We are just beginning to see that that kind of thinking isolates us; and when we act as though we are separate from the life around us, we make choices that mess up the systems of life God put in place for us all.
And that sense of being separate from the larger web of life makes it hard to us to experience the gifts of wisdom and comfort we feel when we are a part of something big, connected to a purpose larger than ourselves, gladly receiving and giving what we can as a part of this genius system of life. When we feel like we’re the ones responsible for it all, when we have to control everything, then we aren’t part of it, we’re above it; and help and support—and maybe the answers we need most–can’t flow our way.
When Jesus was speaking to the disciples on the hillside in Luke chapter 12, he tells them in a sweet and simple way what it means to feel connected to the flow of life and thus be natural recipients of God’s tender care. He’s been telling them not to worry about their practical needs—what they’ll eat and what they’ll wear—because it will be provided. He says,
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”
There is something so key here, so central to how we can see ourselves as God’s beloved children and as a vital part of God’s greater flow of life. We can be in harmony with the life around us and feel expansive and connected and in touch with something infinitely greater than we are. Or we can think of ourselves as unique beings, the pinnacle of creation, important and purposeful and in charge, but the result of that view is painful: We won’t be able to feel and know that we share one life–God’s life—given to us because of God’s goodness and love, God’s delightful sense of beauty and joy and play.
There are infinite opportunities for us to learn and deeply enjoy this life when we are willing to listen to the song of the earth around us each day. There is so much to hear and see and feel. And we’re learning more all the time. Just the week the journal Animal Behavior published a study that found the personalities of squirrels are very similar to human personalities, and often the more outgoing, bold, energetic the squirrel, the more likely they are to achieve status in their group, attract the best mate, and amass the seeds and nuts they need for the winter. It pays to be an extroverted squirrel.
And in a hopeful story happening right now that shows maybe we’re beginning to catch on to the idea of protecting and caring for the preciousness of life, firefighters in California are going to extraordinary efforts to save the largest trees on the planet, the great sequoias that are now perilously close to an encroaching wildfire. They wrapped the world largest tree in a fire-resistant blanket and will do the same for other nearby sequoias as well as some buildings in Sequoia National Park. The largest tree is thought to have been alive when the great pyramids of Giza were built, some 2,500 years before Jesus walked the earth. Think about that. It stands 276 feet tall and is nearly 102 feet around near the base of the tree. Can you imagine how much it has seen and how much wisdom it could share if only we knew its language?
The writer of Job and Jesus himself pointed us toward the truth that all the earth is God’s and God is caring for it every bit of it—and every one of us—in a tender and perfect way. We are all family, all loved, and we need worry for nothing, but we do need to recognize our part in this beautiful system and act with love and respect and care to nurture and protect it. It’s all a gift. Let’s not get to the end of our lives and realize that we missed 90 percent of the sacredness all around us. Our kinship is not limited to our species alone but extends as far and wide as the spirit of God reaches. We are part of the kinship of all life. And what a blessing that is, when we have the eyes and heart to see it.
Let’s end where we began, with the lyrical inspiration of Joy Harjo. This is her “Eagle Poem.”
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
EPILOGUE: On my way to the meetinghouse for worship this morning, I was almost out of my neighborhood when I spotted something colorful and round in the middle of the road. I turned my car around and went back and it was a beautiful turtle with gold and brown petal-like patterns on its shell. I picked him up and asked him whether he was okay. (He didn’t answer but eyed me calmly with a clear intelligent poise. He looked okay to me.) Not wanting to leave him in the road, I wasn’t sure where he was headed (there are no water sources right there) so I put him on my passenger’s seat and drove home and carefully set him in the prettiest part of my back garden, in the shade of the river birch tree, beneath the exuberant purple impatiens. And then I drove happily to church, thanking God for a perfect object lesson–and a joyful moment–that perfectly fit the ideas of the day. God is good.
- OT Job 12: 7-9
- NT Luke 12: 27
- Harjo, Joy. Poet Warrior. https://www.joyharjo.com/book/poet-warrior
- Squirrels have human-like personalities: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000334722100244X?dgcid=author
- World’s Largest Tree Wrapped in Fire-Resistant Blanket: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/17/worlds-largest-tree-wrapped-in-fire-resistant-blanket-as-california-blaze-creeps-closer
- Whitmire, Catherine. Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk through the Quaker Tradition. https://pendlehill.org/product/practicing-peace-a-devotional-walk-through-the-quaker-tradition/