FirstDay Sermon: You Do Not Have to Be Useful

Mary Oliver starts her famous poem “Wild Geese” by saying You do not have to be good, which is such a relief. And saying You do not have to be useful is kind of saying the same thing.

American culture, unfortunately, as vibrant and interesting and scary as it is, suggests that we only matter if we are productive. We only matter if we are making money. We only matter if we have accolades and a certain number of “likes” or “followers.”

It teaches, Grasp, grasp, grasp. Reach hard, reach far, reach wide. Attain. Acquire. Grasp again.

These things are helpful, at times. But a nation built on claiming and pioneering and acquiring is going to fizzle out eventually. We’re seeing that culmination now. And so the next phase, the obvious resort, is to sit back. It is to practice surrender. It is to go deep within ourselves in the quiet, perhaps surrounded by trees, which are a dying breed.

Political people will tell me this is way off. And I respect political people. Someone has to do the work of pulling us out of this mess, politically. I just don’t think the way out is the way we got in. I don’t know that the same practices that put us here will work to create a new world. Peace and simplicity, which is what we’re all craving, does not occur from applying more and more force.

Truth may be unsettling at first, because it is so gentle, because it is so solid, because it is so natural.

But we are in such a mess, with so many layers of muck, with so many years and generations of people we respected doing it the other way, we don’t know how on earth we would make a positive change. I feel you.

So we start small.

Instead of world domination, as is the inclination, or the automatic assumption when it comes to a good, new idea, we can think about the nature of bees. We can think of how different creatures have different roles, and how those roles change depending on the season. We can think of how pollination does not come from a swarm dominating a certain area, but a hive spreading out, applying a gentle touch here and there.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, after all. It starts small, but it grows and grows. The way an acorn develops from a small kernel under your foot into an entire oak tree. 

What I mean to say is, don’t despair if you need to take a season of rest. Recognize there are always things happening inside, turning, simmering, marinating. We are souls, after all, not just body parts. Not just brains. Instead of forcing ourselves to act, act, act all the time, it is beneficial to actually retreat, to sit back, to process. And then when we do act, it is from a deeper place, it carries more weight, it is way more effective.

But we have adopted a neurosis about resting. We need it, sure. And we do it. But we feel guilty the whole time. We feel like we are failing. So instead of conscious, careful, relaxing rest, we end up scrolling like zombies several times a day on social media feeds. Or we end up sleeping too much or watching too much football. We drink a lot of wine to get into a relaxed state. Or we end up with depression. Or we suffer from post-traumatic stress and break down.

I don’t know how to make it all better. I’m not God. I am just astute enough to see that what we’re doing isn’t working, and so the way we operate needs to change. We all know it doesn’t make sense to do the same things over and over again if you are getting poor results. There is a balance, a discernment, between persevering in a task and toiling mindlessly. And a lot of us are mindless. We are encouraged to be. We are taught that money makes you happy, or that good grades are the be-all-end-all, or a fancy title is where happiness lies, or objects satisfy. And if we end up getting those particulars, we still feel empty in some way. So something is going wrong.

We all have great capacity within us, layers and layers of potential we can open up. And now is the time to tap into that. Now is the time to do the work of less. Process more. Meditate more. And recognize the change in the way you operate in the world, and the ways flowers get pollinated anyway, with the sweetest, juiciest of juices.

You were not created to be a robot, never thinking for yourself, never accessing the resources you have within, never knowing who you truly are.

And sitting, closing your eyes, and breathing for a time is completely free.

Perhaps that’s why people don’t know how valuable it is. So much is a matter of what we believe in.


“Bee” by bobosh_t is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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