Responding to Oliver’s question

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

That question, the last two lines of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”, is one of the best questions ever asked. It is a question that both compels and defies an answer. How can anyone of us know with certainty that what we plan to do in one moment or one period of time will be what we plan to do with our whole life? Sure, there are those things – marry, have children, travel, go to seminary, buy a beach house, etc. – that are plans we can make and then achieve. There are those things, sometimes even the marrying, having children, traveling, going to seminary, buying a beach house, etc., that aren’t actually plans made in advance but more responses to opportunities that present themselves.

What strikes me when I hear Oliver’s question and think about the kinds of plans we make is that often our responses do not answer the bigger question, the question Oliver seems to be asking in this poem: How do you plan to live into the fullness of who you were created to be? Or, asked another way: How do you envision living as your best self and reflection of the image of God within you?

No matter how we frame the question, no matter the specific language we use, the question essentially is one of discernment, a.k.a. listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to your life. One of the best ways I know to do that is to take some time – some planned, intentional time – to do some listening. For many of us, summer is a good time to do that because the rhythms of our daily lives change in ways that offer space and time. I encourage you to try to avoid filling all the “empty” space in the calendar with activity. Instead, redefine this time to be “Spirit’s” time or “listening” time or sabbath or retreat time or whatever works to remind you that Oliver’s question is an important one, important on more levels and in more ways than I can articulate in this message.

I’ve got some of this kind of time planned this summer. I’ll be at Cross Roads Camp the week of July 10th. I’ll be chaplain for the first week of summer camp, which is a gift of spiritual renewal and time to listen, as well as fun and worship with the campers and staff. I’ll be away from August 16th to September 6th, which is both some vacation with Katie and then with Ron, Kevin, and Alex, and time on a mountainside in Golden, Colorado to pray and write, which is one of the ways I listen for the voice of the Spirit. I’ll also spend some time thinking about my sabbatical, which is tentatively scheduled for September thru November, 2024.

My hope and prayer for you is that you hear this question and find some time to respond in the ways that nurture you, body and soul.

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

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