Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Hannah named the child Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” (I Samuel 1)
I spent some time this week reading the notes from our Emmaus Gatherings. These conversations, where we have shared our experience of the pandemic, and looked ahead to what the future might bring, have produced some deep responses.
Some people have talked about how the pandemic has heightened their own sense of mortality. Others have expressed sadness about the lack of trust in society as a whole. Many commented on how much the isolation and separation strengthened their appreciation for gathering in community. Some observed that these months have left us all in very different places spiritually, while others noticed they had prayed more and become more deliberately contemplative.
One comment in particular really jumped out at me. It simply read, “Nothing can be taken for granted.” That seemed to me like a kind of summary of everything else that was said.
Take nothing for granted. That’s one of those peculiar phrases that has two very different meanings. On one hand, to take something for granted means not to appreciate it, to overlook its value. We sometimes feel like a friend or a family member takes us for granted.
But on the other hand, to take something for granted can also mean to assume that it is true, without ever questioning whether that is the case. Until recently, for example, we took it for granted that our democracy is robust enough to be self-sustaining.
The story of Hannah, which we heard a few moments ago, is about a woman who refuses to take anything for granted—in both senses of that phrase. In the first instance, she is an aged woman without a child, but she will not take it for granted that she is no longer capable of bearing a child. She questions back.
And so she goes to the temple to pour her heart out, and receives through the priest Eli God’s assurance that her prayer will be heard. And it is: she bears a son whom she names Samuel. But again, she doesn’t take the gift of his life for granted, but dedicates him to God’s service as an acknowledgement of the value of what has been given to her.
These two sides of taking nothing for granted—both the questioning of assumptions, and the valuing of what is given—are important lessons for us to hold on to in these chaotic days. In the Emmaus conversations, many people have spoken of re-evaluating their own priorities, realizing for instance that their spiritual life extends much further than just rote participation in church. God is to be found in silence, in nature, in solitude, in service.
Yet at the same time, many of us have realized how much we do value what happens in community, and how the act of gathering together is so much more than just a kind of personal spiritual tune-up. Our weekly worship is a time when we are expectant that something is about to break through the ordinary and uncover a new vision of the holy, if we are open and receptive enough to allow for it.
The poet Mary Oliver might be described as the voice of what it looks like when we learn to take nothing for granted. For instance, in her poem, “When Death Comes,” she writes (in words that sound very much like those we have shared with one another in recent weeks):
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. / When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder / if I have made of my life something particular, and real. / I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, / or full of argument. / I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Her constant refrain as a poet is that when we avoid taking the ordinary for granted, then layers of beauty and pain and gratitude and everything else that goes together to make life worth living, open up inside us. Like Hannah, we receive the impossible, and our emptiness is filled. The important thing is not to fail to appreciate, nor to assume that we fully understand, life as it is. She encourages us to accept the givenness of life, and to receive it with astonishment and wonder even when so much closes in upon us.
The final poem in a volume of her selected work is “Morning in a New Land.” It reads like a coda to her life’s work, though it is actually one of her earliest poems. It reads like this:
In trees still dripping night some nameless birds
Woke, shook out their arrowy wings, and sang,
Slowly, like finches sifting through a dream.
The pink sun fell, like glass, into the fields.
Two chestnuts, and a dapple gray,
Their shoulders wet with light, their dark hair streaming,
Climbed the hill. The last mist fell away.
And under the trees, beyond time’s drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.
That, it seems to me, is pretty much where our Emmaus conversations have brought us, or at least, where they have indicated we would like to go. Amen.