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You Do Not Have To Be Good

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“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

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 landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

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.”

~”Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver

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I grew up attending a pentecostal, evangelical church, I attended a baptist high school, and a non-denominational Christian college. I know all the ins and outs of teachings on sin, I’ve read through the Bible more than once, and I have always wanted to do better, to sin less, and to be good. But what I can tell you is that reading Mary Oliver’s first three lines sprung a burst in me like the releasing of a pressure valve when I first read them. “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” I felt like I had been given more oxygen when I didn’t even realize I needed it. I knew God was a loving God and that he didn’t require me to shame myself and torture myself with a walk through a desert on my knees, and yet, my experience of life trying to be a good Christian felt a lot like that excruciating desert exercise in repentance.

And then came Oliver’s even more liberating yet dangerous lines, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” So much of my religious training had taught me that the body and the flesh are synonymous, and that the life of the flesh equals sinfulness which equals death. The body is deceptive and might love things it should not love. How could I possibly let my body love what it loved? And the idea of my body being animal – “the soft animal of your body” – seemed to run counter to all that I was supposed to strive to be: not animal. We humans, I had been schooled, are supposed to be the “crown of creation” and therefore higher than the animals: capable of conscience, morality, and nobility. Capable of containing passions and appetites. How did Mary Oliver have the boldness to say with conviction that I could love what the “soft animal of my body...loves?” How could that be an acceptable option?

Of course I do not believe that loving whatever I want, without thought, without conscience, is an acceptable way of being. I don’t believe I have carte blanche to give in to animal desires and whatever I think I might love without thought for how it might impact others, without considering if I am loving others well if I do so. I still believe firmly in morality, decency, and wisdom. But I am beginning to feel an expansive compassion for both myself and others when our desire to be good falters or our animal pleasures override wisdom or selflessness. We are creatures, and I realize now that much of what moves me in this life is our humanness – and the beauty and redemption found alongside the sadness and the pain of existence.

I am drawn to stories of fallen people and complex people and people who have a fatal flaw, who pay the ultimate price for hubris. I think a lot of us are. I see both the beauty and the tragedy in people who live boldly and suffer severely the results of misguided boldness. I am going to be honest with you and confess that I have long felt a kind of nondescript sadness when reflecting on the notion that we should be “in the world but not of the world,” that “this world is not our home.” The proposition that we should not focus much on the here and now but rather on the hereafter has always made me feel a little melancholy: like something was being lost. Why would God create us to have a human experience in this world if all the while we were only supposed to long for what comes after and to live with that reality at the forefront of our minds, never becoming too attached or too enmeshed with the world and its varied, complex, and beautiful people? It always has felt like a bit of a waste of a life to me.

In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, American Episcopal priest, author, and academic, writes about how she now believes that we can be at our most spiritual when we are most fully human: when we are doing human things that center us in our bodies: things like washing, cooking, gardening, cleaning, making. “My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life right now is becoming more fully human, trusting there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world” (xvii). I had never thought of there being a spiritual thread woven through physical activity, but it will explain why many of these body-grounded actions produce a satisfying state of flow and provide a relief and a reprieve from over-thinking and too much cerebral wheel-spinning.

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I remember when I was putting the finishing touches on a Masters dissertation, concluding my graduate studies. I had spent the better part of a year deliciously, decadently immersed inside Virginia Woolf biographies, literary criticism, and Woolf’s novels. I was passionately devoted to my yearlong baptism in all things Woolf, yet what I felt most of all at the end of it was an urge to spring myself forth, outside of the world of ideas and into my body. I needed to do something physical, something with my hands like garden or care for a child or cook or bake. I needed to get out of my head and into my physicality. Even to start teaching school children instead of reading and writing and studying felt more concrete and more right at the time. It was what prompted me to resist continuing on to a doctoral program straight away, a decision I sometimes have wondered about but suspect was the correct one. Brown Taylor sums up my internal dialogue as a twenty-three-year-old deciding her next course, “In a world of too much information about almost everything, bodily practices can provide great relief. To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger – these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir” (xviii). Or, in my case, to teach.

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A fact many do not realize about Virginia Woolf is that as cerebral as she was and as spiritual (though atheist) as she was, she was also a runner at a time when women generally did not run. As a runner myself, I enjoy this additional point of affinity with her.

“I need solitude. I need space. I need air. I need the empty fields round me; and my legs pounding along roads; and sleep; and animal existence.” The Diary of Virginia Woolf

The physicality of the legs pounding on roads, the sensation of air in lungs, the bodily satisfaction of sleep and everything encompassed by Woolf’s umbrella term of “animal existence,” all point to a woman writer who needed the physical as much as she needed the sustenance of thought and existential insight. Another study could be produced (and I am sure already has been) of the connection between Woolf’s productive periods when she was feverishly entrenched in producing a new piece of writing and neglecting her body, and its concurrence with periods of pronounced mental illness. We need, day by day, moment by moment, to honor our whole person instead of siloing ourselves into worlds of thought and action, spirit and flesh, unholy and holy.

We can not only harm ourselves and others when we insist on separating between body and spirit, between this human world we live in and the next, but we run the very real risk of perpetuating the damage being done to the world in which we currently live out our days. Great harm has come from treating ourselves as the “crown of creation,” forgetting that this earth we inhabit and its animals speak to us of God and His glory. We puff up our importance on earth as though it isn’t true that “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 NKJ). We think too little of preserving the earth and the heavens that declare God’s majesty. We gloss over Jesus’s explanation that not one sparrow falls to the ground outside of the Father’s care (Matthew 10:29 NIV), deciding that human life and human “progress” have to eclipse concern for creatures not human, creatures other than ourselves. But to love what God has made is to love all of creation, not merely ourselves, not merely other humans, but earth and sky and water, leopards, whales, and bees. All of the earth is the House that we must care for and cherish, and we are all dependent upon each other for the sustaining miracles of our ecosystems to continue.

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Attending to matters in the “house of God” (in a designated building of worship) and attending to matters in the House of God (outside of buildings, in the vast and stunning expanse of planet Earth) are not mutually exclusive, and the first is not more spiritual than the latter. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us of a marvelous truth: that we “do not have to choose between the Sermon on the Mount and the magnolia trees” (13).

The House of God stretches from one corner of the universe to the other. Sea monsters and

ostriches live in it, along with people who pray in languages I do not speak, whose names I

will never know. I am not in charge of this House, and never will be. I have no say about

who is in and who is out. I do not get to make the rules…I am a guest here, charged with

serving other guests – even those who present themselves as my enemies. I am allowed to

resist them, but as long as I trust in one God who made us all, I cannot act as if they are no

kin to me. There is only one House. Human beings will either learn to live in it together or

we will not survive to hear its sigh of relief when our numbered days are done” (13-14).

There is another way to live and one that upholds a sense of goodness and rightness without making goodness a bludgeon by which we beat ourselves and others down, by which we demand desert repentance. Or by which we draw stark dividing lines between those who are good and those who are evil. The seeking out and practicing of wisdom is the starting point. As Brown Taylor suggests:

Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when the practice

succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before

they act. They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need

to know…Reason can only work with the experience available to it. Wisdom atrophies if it is

not walked on a regular basis.

Such wisdom is far more than information. To gain it, you need more than a brain. You need

a body that gets hungry, feels pain, thrills to pleasure, craves rest. This is your physical pass

into the accumulated insight of all who have preceded you on this earth. To gain wisdom,

you need flesh and blood, because wisdom involves bodies - not just human bodies, but bird

bodies, tree bodies, water bodies, and celestial bodies” (14).

If, as St. Irenaeus declared, “The glory of God is man [humankind] fully alive,” then the glory of God necessitates that we be fully alive to both body and spirit. This aliveness, in the here and now, comes packaged with pain and disappointment and aching backs and blood sugar spikes, with sorrow, with complexity. It comes rolled up with animal urges, with baser desires, with quick tempers and restlessness. Jesus understood this. Jesus hung out with a bawdy lot; Jesus loved people deeply inhabiting their bodies. All of this extravagant aliveness necessitates wisdom: copious amounts of it. But when we fail, as we all do and will continue to, we can remember that we are creatures learning how to live out our aliveness, striving to live in such a way that we suggest to others, “Here, perhaps, is a better way.” We can practice loving and practice wisdom as we seek to revere God and to care for our earth, each other, and ourselves in open, compassionate, earnest resolve.

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