In the Balance

Reading 1

The Seven Of Pentacles

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

~ Marge Piercy ~


Reading 2:

By Lisel Mueller
It hovers in dark corners before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels that sail from the tops of maples.
It sprouts in each occluded eye of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born. 
It is the singular gift we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.



There is a story about two children – one is an optimist and the other a pessimist. The pessimistic child receives all sorts of wonderful gifts: toy trains and cars and planes and rockets and bicycles – but he grows more and more miserable because nothing is exactly right and he despairs of ever getting anything to make him happy.

On the other hand, the optimistic child is given a load of manure and is soon found cheerfully shovelling in it, saying to himself “with all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Now, you may expect that I’m about to tell you to look on the bright side – that every cloud has a silver lining, and that every misfortune can be seen as a blessing in disguise.  That if we just have a positive outlook, all the sorrows of life will be revealed as joys.  

To tell the truth, I think this is a terrible story.  The pessimistic child is a spoiled brat and the so-called optimistic child is not just positive and cheerful – he is downright pathological. Sometimes a load of manure is not a sign of a pony and not even a great source of plant fertilizer, but just a load of manure and no more!

The challenge is that there are times when everything looks and smells to us just like a big pile of muck.  For me, those times tend to come between three and four o’clock in the morning.  When I wake up, look at the clock and see that the number begins with a three, I know I’m in trouble.

In the darkness of those bad early mornings, nothing can keep me from despairing for myself and for the world – not my sleeping wife beside me, my son down the hall, or any of the many other joys with which the sorrow of the world is amalgamated. The litany begins to play in my mind:

•    Kenya
•    Darfur
•    Iraq
•    Pakistan
•    North Korea
•    Burma
•    Gaza
•    Sri Lanka
•    Tibet

I try to push it away, to reach for the surface – for air – but I am pulled even deeper into the smothering depths…

•    Starvation
•    Poverty
•    Oppression
•    Terrorism
•    Torture
•    Murder

In the gloomy early morning hours, the cruelty of humankind comes into a fiercely sharp focus bringing with it fear and despair. I don’t think about trying to change anything – at such times I don’t even think it’s possible. I want nothing more than to escape – to be separated from this terrible, terrible, world and its miseries.

Eventually though, the sun rises as it does every morning and has always done.  With the morning light, the world takes on a much more benign appearance. It’s not that the threatening images of the night vanish entirely – they can not.  They are all too real.  But the beauty and kindness of the world begin to reappear and that makes all the difference.  When we can see the world in some balance, it becomes possible once again to have hope that the terrors and evils of this world can be lessened and a brighter morning found for all.

And so hope is restored.  But what is hope? Often, we think of hope as a passive thing – I tried passively hoping that my sermon would get written for today… nope… I checked the computer every hour, but every time I looked, the page was still blank.  We can hope that things will change, but passive hoping does nothing.

No, hope is active – it is what makes it possible to go on.  Hope is what tells us that it’s worth trying. It is a heart full of hope that allows us to get up off the floor to try again when we have been knocked down.  Hope is the deep sense that things can be better and more – that we ourselves can make a difference.

But some will ask, as I do at 3.30 AM, how can we hope to make a difference in a world full of so much pain and cruelty?  

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove. “Nothing more than nothing,” the dove answered. “In that case I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said.

“I sat on a fir branch close to the trunk when it began to snow. Not heavily, not in a raging blizzard. No, just like in a dream, without any violence at all.”

“Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,471,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch–nothing more than nothing — as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coalmouse ran away.

The dove, an authority on peace, thought about the story for a long while. Finally, she said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

Yes – perhaps there is only one more voice needed for peace.  Perhaps this world needs but one more loving touch to bring the kingdom of love. Perhaps only one more unselfish act will bring a tidal wave of generosity.

This is how it is to be filled with hope.  It is to act as though every single thing that we do – and how we do it – matters.  

Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of 12th century Spain offered this very wise advice:

“One should see the world, and see himself as a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed the scale is tipped to the good - he and the world [are] saved. When he does one evil deed the scale is tipped to the bad - he and the world [are] destroyed.”

Maimonides is talking about living with a deep sense of hope – living with the belief that each one of us can truly make a difference.  

Last week, an article in a local newspaper roused me out of a sleepy sense that I can not make a difference in the larger community.  The article implied that all of the Islington clergy stand behind a particular Islington employee who has refused to register civil partnerships for same-sex couples. I could have spoken out sooner, but it took this particular prod to get me going.  I have spoken out now. My letter in response has appeared in print.

Will it change anything?  Maybe the views on this issue are, as Maimonides describes, poised in a delicate balance. And maybe my small contribution to the debate will tip that balance.

Most likely, my letter will have only a small effect – an almost imperceptibly small push in the right direction.

We are not naïve enough to expect to change the world dramatically with each action.  We will probably not be the snowflake that finally breaks the branch.  But the important thing to remember is that every snow flake that came before it made it possible for number 3,471,953 to do the job.

I am happy to be just one snow flake on the way to the breaking of the branch of inequality. Whether you are snowflake number 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000, every single thing you do can matter.  Every kind word, every smile, every favour performed, every gift given can change the world for the better.

I close now with these words by Adrienne Rich:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save: 
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely
with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.