One Wild and Precious Life

“One Wild and Precious Life”

Ephesians 4: 1-16

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 3rd, 2012 – MC Chapel Service

Kneeling prayer-like in a field, poet Mary Oliver contemplates a grasshopper who has flung itself out of the tall grass to eat sugar out of her hand.  The grasshopper gazes around with enormous, complicated eyes, snaps her wings open, and floats away leading Oliver to thoughts of the nature of life and what we do with this great gift.  Tell me, she asks, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?[1]

Where will you go?  What will you see?  What will you do with this one life?  Will you stand in a field holding grasshoppers and let them speak through you and your poetry?  Will you explore the universe in a spaceship bringing knowledge of the stars back to earth? Will you find new, healthy ways to feed your hungry neighbor?  Will you be a presence of peace in a world that knows too much violence?  What will you do?  What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Christians believe there is something each of us is to do with the one life with which we have been blessed.  What we are to do is unique to each of us and our unique gifts.  As we hear in Ephesians 4:11, “The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” We might add that some have been given gifts to be poets or professors, ministers or musicians, architects or archeologists.  Each of us has been given gifts to do something with this one wild and precious life.  Each of us has a calling, a vocation to live out.  And each of us has a journey to take as we discern to what God is calling us.

“I, the Apostle Paul, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with humility….” According to Ephesians, our journey of discernment begins with humility.  We must, in a sense, forget ourselves in order to find the ‘true self’ God desires us to become.  Through humility we need to empty ourselves of all that is false- false desires, false ambitions, false efforts to become who we are not—in order to discover the life and the self with which God has gifted us.

Last Spring I led students in a retreat during which they were to reflect upon some of the obstacles to discernment that spiritual greats such as St. Benedict, Ignatius of Loyola, and Meister Eckhart have identified.  Some of these obstacles included self-interest, self-absorption, and self-righteousness.  These “self” motivations or “self” desires get in the way of a free and open relationship with God because they are formed by us and for us, exclusively.  Our self interests, ambitions, desires, and motives obstruct our relationship with God because they muffle God’s voice and confuse God’s will for our lives.  They make the discernment of our true calling difficult, if not impossible.

When I present these obstacles to discernment oftentimes someone has trouble with them.  Someone has trouble, understandably, because in this society we have been taught all our lives that we are the master of our own destinies, that we can do whatever we want in life if we work hard and dream big.  This is the American dream, after all.  This is the message we hear all the time.  So it is difficult to hear and accept the counter-message that we need to set ourselves and our dreams aside in order to discern what God dreams for our life and what God wills for our life.  It is difficult for me to reframe my life around God when I have been brought up and taught to frame my life around myself.  No matter how difficult, though, Ephesians speaks of humility because humility grounds us in a true sense of one’s self,[2] and in a true sense of who God has created and called us to be.

In this letter to the Ephesians we are also reminded that vocational discernment involves not just an inward openness and an inward humility, but an outward openness as well, an outward openness toward others.  We are to bear with one another, the scripture says, to build one another up, to equip each other for ministry.   Discerning God’s call for our lives means being open to the needs of others.  Discerning God’s call means discovering our unique and personal way to love our neighbors.[3]

Frederick Buechner helpfully defines vocation as the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.  The kind of work God usually calls you to, Buechner writes, is the kind of work that (a) you most need to do and (b) the world most needs to have done.  Buechner’s definition is helpful because it turns us outward, to the needs of the world, and the needs of our neighbors, to discover our true calling.

One of the aspects of my ministry here at the college that I am most passionate about is finding or creating opportunities for students to meet and serve people who are in need.  All forms of service are valuable, but I am particularly interested in opportunities where students can meet and have conversations with those who are different from them, with those who are strangers and wholly “other” from their lives and their stories.

One of the opportunities in Monmouth for such engagement is our Meals on Wheels delivery service to homes in the downtown area. For about $1.00 a day the people of Monmouth who are “shut-in” can get a hot meal delivered to them by a friendly face.  So I recruit students to deliver these meals and remind them that, other than the television, theirs may be the only human face these people see all day.

I recruit students to deliver these meals and they go out into this community and meet:

An older couple who invite them in to sit and stay for a cup of coffee and conversation

A young disabled man who is angry and downright mean

An able-bodied, half-dressed man whose apartment reeks of smoke and urine

A woman lying on her couch with the shades drawn, her apartment is dark except for the light let in by the door they open

An older woman whose kitchen counter is full of greeting cards from family and friends wishing her a happy birthday

They deliver the meals and meet hope and hopelessness, poverty and plenty.  No one’s story is the same. The students’ life narratives encounter the life narratives of those who are wholly “other” to them, wholly different, and they are opened…opened to the needs of the community, opened to “others,” and opened to the One who is the greatest “Other,” to our God, to the One who calls us to that place where the work we most need to do meets the work the world most needs done.

It is in this place, in this place of calling, or vocation, that we discover our “true selves.” Through inward humility and outward openness we discern who God has created and called us to be.

Thomas Merton writes, “God leaves us free to be whatever we like.  We can be ourselves or not, as we please.  We may be true or false, the choice is ours.  We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.  [But] if I never become what I am meant to be, but always remain what I am not, I shall spend eternity contradicting myself.”[4]

Most students come to college with the understanding that they are here to get a degree to get a job.  But we really hope to offer more than this.  We hope that they will discover their true selves while they are with us.  We hope that they will discover their personal gifts and abilities that make each of them unique.  And we hope that they will be opened to the needs of the world around them.  We hope for this because we want them to graduate knowing the joy and the peace that can only come when you know who you are, who you were uniquely created to be, and what you are called to do with this one life.

The grasshopper in poet Mary Oliver’s hand gives glory to God by being a grasshopper.  The way its jaws move back and forth while it eats the sugar, the way it jumps from the tall blades of grass, the way it snaps its wings open and floats away is like no other grasshopper before or after it.  No two created beings are exactly alike.  Our individuality is no imperfection.  We all give God glory when we are completely and perfectly the beings God creates and calls us to be.[5]

So tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?




[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA), 1992.

[2] Susan G. Farnham, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, Susan M. Ward, “Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community”, (Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 1991), pg. 33.

[3] Edward P. Hahnenberg, “Awakening Vocation”, (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2012), pg. 174.

[4] Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation” (Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc, 1961), pgs. 31-33.

[5] Metaphor adapted from Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pg. 29.

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