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Steve West: The little things that point upward


WORLD Radio - Steve West: The little things that point upward

Are our lives really too busy to delight in small creatures?

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NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 11th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next, carving out time to savor God’s goodness in a broken world.

Because of common grace, Christians know that unbelievers can express truth that believers will understand at a deeper level. Non-Christian writers can prompt us to praise God, even though that wasn’t their purpose. Here’s WORLD commentator Steve West.

STEVE WEST, COMMENTATOR: All of Mary Oliver’s poems are small things. Opening one of her books of verse, I’m most impressed by the emptiness of the pages, a quality I relish. All that space within which to rest and ponder! One poem, “Invitation,” asks, “Oh do you have time/ to linger/ for just a little while/ out of your busy/ and very important day/ for the goldfinches/ that have gathered/ in a field of thistles/ for a musical battle,/ to see who can sing/ the highest note,/ or the lowest,/ or the most expressive of mirth,/ or the most tender?”

"A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it," writer Brian Doyle once said. The seed I crunched under my heel on the trail I walked earlier today contained an entire tree, a microscopic blueprint of brown and green and science and time only God fully comprehends. The gray cat reclining by my feet carries the weight of history. She is descended from ancient Near Eastern wildcats. Which explains a few things. The point: she has bigger in her even if it is represented here as a twittering waif.

“My busy and important day?” says Oliver, gently poking my ego. Do you think you are so busy, she says, so very important, that you can’t pay attention to a couple of tiny, insignificant birds? She’s right, of course.

Why do they sing? Oliver says “not for your sake/ and not for mine/ but for sheer delight and gratitude — / believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.” Oliver wasn’t a Christian, but her words may serve to point those who are to worship.

Next time I hold the bread and cup at communion, I’ll try not to think about my busy, important life, about the lightness of the elements I hold, about the commonness of grape juice and Wonder Bread pointing to God incarnate. I’ll remember the goldfinches, the poem, the gray cat, and the tree and how pitiable they are as expressions of the divine — and yet they do point to something bigger. How much more, the cup and bread of Christ’s table?

For now, it is enough that an unseasonably warm late winter day is spread out before me, along with the white space of another kind of poem: “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.”

Outside the window, a crescent leaf flickers in the slight breeze, and I imagine that if I stare at it, I can see all the way back to the seed, back to the ancestral trees that started it all, back to the Garden, back to the Spirit hovering over the waters, back to the One who made it all.

That’s some kind of crazy grace to see that way, to see the big in the little. Yet I pray for more grace, because it is a serious thing to be alive in a broken world.

I’m Steve West.

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