Mary Oliver’s Miracle


Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?

If you say the right words, the wine expands.

If you say them with love

and the felt ferocity of that love

the fish explode into many.

Imagine him, speaking,

and don’t worry about what is reality,

If you were there, it was all those things.

If you can imagine it, it is all those things.

Eat, drink, be happy.

Accept the miracle.

Accept, too, each spoken word

spoken with love.

-Mary Oliver

I was the world’s best rule follower. In first grade I risked my beloved teacher’s disapproval by secretly sneaking a Froot Loop while stringing necklaces. Sugar cereal was forbidden outside of Grandma and vacations. The temptation found me. And the time I decided the churchyard was a better place to relieve myself, than my indoor plumbing just next door. Apparently a neighbor with not enough to do tattled on me, for my mother mentioned a “little birdie” told her.

Beyond this rebellious period as a six-year-old, I can’t recall much intentional disobedience. A couple incidents lacking common sense, and probably some with iffy motives, but mostly I was a terrified, very good girl.

As a dedicated Christ-Follower, I sought with determination to do all the right things and to be amazing. I was an honors’  student, a leader at school and church, a Bible Quiz champion.

Youth group in the 80s was fraught with fear of backward playing records, Satan speaking loud and clear (?) in reverse Heavy Metal form. Movies of the Rapture and ensuing Tribulation kept me awake in a sweaty mess, praying forgiveness, believing I could be the one left behind.

The church I grew up in had a lot of “rules” or “guidelines”. The biggies were: No smoking; No drinking alcohol; No going to movies; No gambling; No dancing. I was a pro. I had these down. Eric and I attended our prom, we did not dance. The movie guideline was circumvented by VCR. I did not drink, aside from a few sips, until I was 40.

And, I went above and beyond. I memorized Scripture, had my daily quiet time (which I dreaded), listened mostly to Christian music. I led Bible Studies in college, went to church every Sunday, never skipped chapel, gave my 10% to the penny, and continued striving as a very good girl – one that a wrathful God could love. I married a Christian man. We waited to have sex until our wedding night…barely. We found a church, attending faithfully, managing our lives in a way we could earn blessing.

It all worked, until it didn’t.

In all that earning and proving and trying I never knew God. Guilt was my constant companion, rarely measuring up, despite the rule following. I may have felt good at the end of the day, with my self sacrifice and righteousness, but the sun always goes down, and it always comes up, another list, another requirement, another effort…constant effort.

Where was the beauty, the mystery, the fullness, the freedom? All the things Jesus talks about…

Somewhere beginning in my early thirties, I discovered grace. I experienced redemption, messing up, coming back, returning humbly each day after admitting defeat and recognizing the mercy of a new day, a new start, fresh chances. Forgiveness. God showed up in the largest and smallest of places, my food, and sat with me.

I read these words of Mary Oliver, and I look at the language. The generosity of prose, the invitation to truly put myself where I not only hear Jesus, but I feel him, his words, his language spoken to me, to us. The power of love, the ferocity and necessity. The miracle that is in that moment, that follows of exponential multiplication. Eat, drink, be happy. In the simplest of actions, we are invited to experience that power, that beauty, that abundance. For there is love in the freedom. There is grace in the moment, of filling our bellies.

Accept the miracle. Accept, too, each spoken word spoken with love. I don’t see a life lived by fear or control. I don’t see a call to living a life of fear or control. I see opportunity and hope and joy. Freedom.

Jesus, the perfect example, our charge as Christians to be like him, was the perfect leader. When asked by Peter how many times to “forgive a brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus counters, “..not seven times, but seventy seven times.” (Matthew 17:21) A good leader only asks of his people to do what he himself has done. Jesus forgives eternal times, we are asked to do the same. However, I recognize, my greatest enemy is usually myself. Extending forgiveness, grace to me, and accepting forgiveness, grace. How much of our proving, controlling, perfection is our need to prove we are worthy of grace and forgiveness? And how much of our church culture continues to perpetuate this unwittingly?

What if, and I know this is hard, we let go of the striving? What if we lived motivated by love…not only towards others, but towards ourselves? What if that love looked like letting ourselves off the hook? With a trigger, my initial response is typically perfection or doubling down.  If I don’t control food and exercise I’ll gain 50 pounds, or my kids will run amok, or my house will fall apart, or my husband will leave me. But I think it’s in this letting go, prying our fingers off, releasing and re-releasing and re-re-releasing that we just might get a glimpse of Mary Oliver’s miracle.

When that familiar icy grip attempts to clench our soul, if we can take a thorough look at what we control and why, dredge up the past violations, inspect, seek healing through honest work and move towards forgiveness…over and over and over again…I know we will find that abundance, the fullness, the call to freedom.

We cling to the words of Jesus, inviting us to lay it down, calling us to accept the beautiful goodness of life in partnership with him. Accepting his spoken words, spoken in the fullest love.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

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