By The Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton
Birches, by Robert Frost:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
This poem has been a favorite of mine for many years now; it’s one that I first discovered as a high school student learning to really read for the first time: sure I could read before, but this was a kind of reading where something in the words spoke to something deep in my spirit.
“It’s when I’m weary of considerations, and life is too much like a pathless wood… I’d like to get away from earth awhile and then come back to it and begin over… one could do worse that be a swinger of birches.”
I don’t know about you, but this has been a wearying hand full of weeks; this last week in particular; yet another marred by America’s other pandemics… gun violence and hatred. Last Saturday, ten people were killed and three others were injured while grocery shopping. The racially motivated massacre was a hate crime carried out in the predominantly Black Kingsley neighborhood of Buffalo, NY, by a young white man who livestreamed the attack online.
Then on Sunday evening, one person was killed and five more were injured while gathered for a celebratory church luncheon. The politically motivated attack was also a hate crime carried out specifically against Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, CA, because of the Chinese perpetrator’s disgust. While in this instance, the gunman wasn’t white, my mind immediately guessed he was given the ongoing patterns of violence against those in the Asian American Pacific Islander community across our country.
While I want to be angry and to let that fuel me toward working for change in our hate-filled world… I confess that instead, I am tired. I am tired of grieving with and for my friends who are Black and worrying about my family who visibly carry our Asian American Pacific Islander heritage more than I do. I am tired of trying to figure out how and when
to talk with our dear Afghan family about the things they need to be aware of to keep themselves safe as a brown, Muslim people in America.
I am tired of the threat of anti-Semitic violence to our Jewish neighbors who must have armed security present for Shabbat services. I am tired of our children and teachers having to practice lockdown drills at school, and I am tired of the dehumanization and legislation aimed at harming LGBTQ youth and their families. I am tired of wondering what group’s freedom and protection will be violated by the next Supreme Court ruling. I…am tired.
Maybe you are tired, too. And that is okay. But we must be aware that to be tired and to opt to take a break from these worries and these realities… that is a privilege that marginalized communities are not afforded. As long as we’re clear about that, I think sometimes we just need a nugget of hope and a word of encouragement to help us keep on keepin’ on, to give us the energy to keep causing good trouble in the world when things are heavy, when we are weary, and when life feels like a pathless wood.
For me, Montreat is one of the places that allows me to get away from earth… or at least real life… for awhile. I was up there in that thin place, that holy space where God seems always near at hand for a conference a couple weeks ago. In the midst of that time away, that time apart, one particular verse of today’s Gospel text was rolling around in my head and heart — it’s when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. I know my own.”
There is such rest in that little verse: too often, many of us feel like we have to know God or we have to know the answers; like we have to know the way or know the future, like we have to know what to do or say next. It’s the ongoing human struggle to get ‘right-sized’ as of one my professors called it: to find an emotional and spiritual space where we don’t feel too big — too responsible, too in-charge, too in control— and where we don’t feel too small — too insignificant, too unworthy, too unimportant.
It’s the Goldilocks spiritual disciple of “just right.” To simply be and feel and live like we’re enough, like the Spirit’s work in the world is enough, like there is enough to go around —enough resources, enough freedom, enough love.
And I think that’s what’s at the heart of this text’s good news for us today. Our Good Shepherd says, “I know my own.” In being known by God through Christ, we can come to know God. Mercifully, it isn’t the other way around – our being fully known just as we are isn’t predicated on anything that we do or say or think or are. “I know my own,” Jesus says. And that creates space for us to just be and to experience God.
Y’all… I have never been so glad to be a sheep! If I can’t be a swinger of birches, at least I can just be a sheep. As preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Jesus does not say that we are in or out of the flock depending on our ability to believe, but the exact opposite, in fact. he says that our ability to believe depends on whether we are in or out of the flock, and there is every reason to believe that we are in, my woolly friends, if only because we are sitting right here with the flock this morning.”
This text offers us an invitation to consider what it is that’s keeping us from being right-sized. What expectations – either ours of those of others – make us feel too much pressure to please or perform or achieve or create. What are we bearing that is not ours to carry? What perfectly faithful questions make us feel faithless? What fears and evils break our
hearts and make us question whether there’s anything we can do? What insecurities keep us from living into our fullest, most whole being? What doubts about dignity or worth force us to shrink or hide ourselves? Whatever it may be, beloveds, please let it go. For the love of God, let’s stop exiling ourselves from the flock to which we belong.
Taylor continues, “We are not, at heart, believers in an institution or an ideology but in a relationship that changes from day to day andyear to year. Just because we believe does not mean that we are not afraid of what might happen to us; it just means that we believe we know who will be with us when it does. Some days we are as firm in our faith as apostles and some days we are like lost sheep which means that we belong to the flock not because we are certain of God but because God is certain of us, and no one is able to snatch us out of God’s hand.”
Which brings me to another of my favorite poems, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Even – perhaps especially – when life feels like a pathless wood, we are called to hear the wild geese and simply take our place in the family of things; we are called to remember that we are sheep in God’s flock.
Friends. Beloveds. Dear ones. You are enough. Just as you are. Enough to take on nothing less than the rest of your one wild, beautiful, holy life. In that hope and with that assurance, together, we can face the world’s evil and hatred trusting that the Shepherd knows us, each and all – and refuses to abandon a single sheep. Today, I invite you to find a patch of grass, take off your shoes – maybe in the company of a favorite poet – and to remember the abiding truth that you are a sheep of Jesus’ fold. Always and no matter what. May that give you rest and peace for the journey. Still be our vision, O Shepherd of All. Thanks be to God. Amen.