Mary Oliver and Realized Eschatology

“Look and look again. / This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes. / It’s more than bones. / It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse. / It’s more than the beating of a single heart. / It’s praising. / It’s giving until it feels like receiving. / You have a life—just imagine that! / You have this and, and maybe another, and maybe still another.” – Mary Oliver, “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass”

“If anyone is in Christ–new creation!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17 (a “very literal” translation mentioned by R. Hays in Moral Vision, p. 20).

Poets have long seen the world with clearer, brighter vision. I suppose because they’ve taken the time to do so. When I began reading Mary Oliver on my sabbath at the beginning of the year, I struggled to describe the grandeur of her description. It’s not overbearingly symbolic, so far as I can tell. All I could say, to my sister who gifted me the book, was that Oliver was able better than anyone to capture the brilliance of the world in the simplest of terms.

Not long ago I revised this poem into a prayer for the congregation’s invocation. Here’s the prayer in full:

“Come Holy Spirit. Teach us to look, and look again. As a poet has written, with such lovely clarity, “This world is not just a little thrill for your eyes. It’s more than bones. It’s more than the delicate wristwith its personal pulse. It’s more than the beating of a single heart. It’s praising.” And, so, Lord, we comebefore you today with praise. With songs, prayers, thoughts,feelings, and words, we lift our hearts to you,for it is good and right so to do. We ask only that you dwell richlyin our hearts, changing us from those whodo not see into those whose eyes see how much more there is to this world,to this life. For you are a God who is with us, and all of creation points to you, and your Spirit has chosen to meet us in the waters of baptismand the meal of communion, in the sharing of possessions, and the chorus of singing, in the ministries we carry out and in the hands that minister to us. Come Holy Spirit. Teach us to look, and look again. In Christ’s name. Amen.”

In other words, we invoked the Holy Spirit to help us see God at work in the world, to regard the world not from a merely human point of view but from the view of new creation. Scholars agree that the Corinthians had an “over-realized eschatology.” This diminished their concern for faithful living in the day-to-day and, it seems, also minimized the significance (or possibility?) of a future resurrection. Paul resists the over-realized eschatology at every turn. Yet, he never concedes that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was an apocalyptic, age-turning event. So, in the second letter we have to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ–new creation!” When I adopted Mary Oliver’s verse for my church’s prayer, I did so hoping they might, like Paul hoped for the Corinthians, learn to see the new creation taking place in the world.

Substantial pastoral and theological concerns need earmarked, returned to, for further consideration. (A growing field of theological and biblical research is doing just this!) How much is it realized? How do we know when we’re engaged in an eschatological reality? The church in America is still quite a lot like the church in Corinth. But we pastors and theologians do well to listen to a poet like Mary Oliver who attests to the world being “more than bones.” It is alive with God’s love and, so, life “is praising.” Yes, “look and look again,” because, on second glance, you may see the new creation you couldn’t imagine before.

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