Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Just Asking: Some Poems from Ephesians

Subject to Editing
Ephesians 2:10

There is no such thing
as good writing,
the gurus tell us,
only good re-writing.
Apparently that even applies
to God. I may be his poem
but he’s not finished.
Here and there in the manuscript
I come across phrases like delete,
stet, find a better word, needs
development,
even an occasional
yes! The continual polishing
hurts but I believe
I’m beginning
to shine.

 

Just Asking
Ephesians 4

Was it optimistic naivety
when Paul told the children of God
to make every effort
to keep the unity of the Spirit
in the bond of peace?

Church history suggests that.
More than geography
and the accidents of birth
have divided the body
of Christ. While Jesus
wisely responded with silence
to Pilate’s question,
What is truth?,
the church has squabbled,
spit, and splintered its multitudinous
answers down through
the centuries. Even we Quakers
in the northwest corner
of a country once known
for its open arms
have sacrificed our reputation
as people of peace
and made every effort
to propound our separate versions
of gospel truth. Now, victims all
of the resulting divorce,
we seek revival and hope
to once again walk
worthy of our calling.
Lord, have mercy on us all.

 

Please, Lord, An Answer
Ephesians 6:5-9                                                                                                                      

How does Black Lives Matter
read Ephesians 6?
Paul’s words of submission,
respect and fear
with sincerity of heart,
obey obey obey,
leave no room for protest,
give integrity of personhood
no place to stand.
To acquiesce with a smile,
to say, It’s Ok to be less
than human in your eyes
‘cause I know God loves me
and is preparing a place for me,
is somehow not enough.
Unless there is justice for my here-and-now
neighbor
hood, how could such a heaven
ever be home?

Friday, March 5, 2021

A Poetic Walk through the Scriptures

At the beginning of the year, I committed to the spiritual discipline of waiting in silence each morning until a poem came to me, asking to be written. (This is not some weird automatic writing, rather openness to the Spirit to capture the idea, with a willingness to later do the hard work of crafting.) Some of these poems are in the form of personal prayers and they will stay safely hidden in my journal. Others are worthy of bringing out into the air.

I am coupling this with a practice of reading the Scriptures, focusing on one book at a time, alternating between the Old and New Testaments. I sit with the book for as long as it takes to begin to understand on a deeper level what God is saying through this portion. Much of my poetry of late comes from meditation on these Scriptures. Some of the poems are interpretative. Others are reflections from my experience, bouncing off a phrase. Some are simply wondering and questions.

I just spent a couple of weeks in Joshua, always a challenging book for Quakers. (I’m now beginning the book of Romans. Gulp.) Here are just a few of the Joshua poems.


Shittim
Joshua 2:1

I remember an adolescent Bible study
when my turn came and the portion
I was to read included
the town of Shittim. I stopped short
of the word. I couldn't read it out loud.
The other kids giggled. The leader,
a no-nonsense grown-up, made me
continue and I somehow mumbled
my way forward. Later I learned
that Shittim meant acacia, that the city
was probably near an acacia grove.
A tall acacia tree stood in the front
yard of the house where we lived
and I used to climb it. My secret place
was hidden in the upper branches.
I loved that tree, that acacia tree,
without even knowing its name.

No Survivors
Joshua 10:40 

In terrible obedience
Joshua subdued the land
      hill country
      the Negev
      western foothills
      mountain slopes,
together with their kings.
The target, by holy command—
any being that breathed.
No beast, no baby escaped
the brutal blitz.
A challenge, yes, but
not too hard for a band
of soldiers seasoned to kill,
not nearly as hard
as God’s latter command
to warriors of a new regime—
love your enemies.


This time, Lord,
you go too far.  


Old Testament War Revisited

As a sophomore
our daughter made the coveted
cheerleading squad.
Some of the chants underscored
the brutality of high school sports.
One afternoon, I watched
as the girls waved their pom-poms,
danced, leaped, and led
the crowd in
      Kill kill
      Hate hate
      Murder murder
      Mutilate
      Go, Team!
I was glad when the school
year ended.




Saturday, February 13, 2021

Stafford and Thomas on Aesthetics, Joy, and Snow



At the Aesthetics Meeting

We invented shape after shape,
color moving to and fro;
then outside where the plain world lives
it began to snow.

--William Stafford


On the Discipline of Joy

1
All right! I say to myself.
I’ll just do it.
So I clench my teeth
 and try to laugh,
 the operative word here
 being try.


2
stove won't light
dog won’t bite
ghost won’t fright
knot’s not tight
words are trite
            might
 as well laugh

3
if you think this is funny
you’ve got another thing coming
and it just might be Jesus

4
I sat in the morning grim
determined not to laugh
when I looked out the window
and it started to snow.

5
the joy of little children
can so easily go awry
the sternness of Big People
is needed to keep control

6
Be like little children
Jesus said
besides, who can stay stern
when it’s snowing

7
new definition of sin:
staying stern in the snow

­--Nancy Thomas



Friday, February 5, 2021

The Three Bald Monks


 









The Three Bald Monks

in the window
have journeyed from Uruguay
to daily direct my devotions.
Sebastian the beggar
      with shaggy brows
      and irresistible stare
      implores my generosity.
Alfonso the chanter
      whistles the Psalms while
Thaddeus kisses the cross
      in semi-swoon.
They remind me
      to take up my given cross
      abide in the word
      shelter under the mercy
      wear sturdy shoes
      and never worry
      about wardrobe
      or weight.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Creative Obedience

 

Late last December, I was listening to a devotional app (Lectio 365), and the speaker for the day encouraged me to spend time listening to God for a phrase to carry with me into the new year. He also suggested I find an accompanying Scripture verse and choose a new spiritual discipline. Sometimes exercises like this are helpful. Sometimes they’re not. But I felt moved to try it.

The verse that immediately came to mind was an old favorite from the Psalms: “My heart is stirred by a noble theme. I recite my poems for the king. My tongue is the pen of a skillful writer” (Psalm 45:1). The phrase that presented itself was “Creative Obedience.” That got me excited.

The new discipline to practice came from an unusual source: the poet William Stafford. It has special significance for me because of my personal contact with Stafford. In the early 90s, just a year before Stafford’s death, he invited Hal and me to his home (a story in itself). We spent a whole morning with him, reading our poems to each other and talking about life and art. I asked him to tell us about his own creative disciplines. William Stafford told us he got up every morning at 4:00, made coffee (that part is important!), then sat in silence until a poem came to him. It must be true; he was prolific!

I’ve been mulling that over ever since, wondering if I could possibly do something like that.

Well, I’m going to find out. I took it on as my new discipline for the year (except for the 4:00 a.m. part but including the coffee).

I hesitated to blog this because it kinda makes me accountable. I might just end up embarrassed. But then again, maybe no one will notice. Maybe it only matters to me and (maybe) to God.

At any rate, so far so good for the month of January. I’m having fun. I actually like some of the poems. Others will stay safely in my journal. No pressure. Creative obedience.

Here’s one of my daily offerings, written after reflecting on my reading from the book of Exodus.

 

Magic and Miracles

 

Moses’ staff

like Gandalff’s

looked common enough

but the power that flowed

through it

hissed with venom

summoned blood from the river

heaped waves into walls

brought water from a rock

and defeated an army.

 

God also asks me

What do you have in your hand?

No shepherd

all I have is this pen.

It has yet to turn into a snake

or fill the bathtub with blood.

Where are the miracles?

Maybe this year?


Monday, December 28, 2020

Best Books Read in 2020

 Because this was the year of the pandemic, natural disasters and political/social turmoil, I read even more than usual. Most of it went beyond escape. Thus, my list of good books is longer than usual. It was a rich year, and I gained insight and hope to help face the multiples ways that darkness was attacking from the outside. Here’s my partial list:

 

FICTION:


Louise Penny, Still Life
(2005), etc.: Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny was my biggest discovery of the year. I found her early, before the pandemic shutdowns, and I must confess that I binged on all 14 of her books in the Inspector Gammach series. (Penny has written one a year since 2005.) She is a good writer on different levels: Plot—in every book the ending surprised me, but also caused me to say, “But of course!” As a regional writer: Her descriptions of Canadian cities and natural wonders, the customs, the languages, the food are superb. In her character development: This most of all. The people are depicted as real human beings. Armand Gammach was my favorite. Not perfect, but an example of integrity and grace. In this election year, I found myself wishing that he were running for US president. Two problems with that scenario: 1) He’s Canadian. 2) He’s fictional. Oh, well. One can wish. The basic values of the book resonated: the insights into human nature and on the nature of evil, and the conviction that the kindness in the world will eventually overcome the evil. Penny doesn’t write as a Christian, but that almost sounds like gospel.

Kristin Hannah, Winter Garden (2010): I read several novels by this author. Not great, but good, with page-turning plots.

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Honeyman Is Completely Fine (2017): One of the best novels of the year, it depicts the relationship between three marginal, socially inappropriate people. It encourages compassion and understanding for all strange and damaged people.

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987): A good “old” book that centers on the friendship between two couples, explores the interior of each marriage, and shows how all these complex relationships develop over time, helped by the courage to stand by commitments.

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989): Another excellent “old” book and another book about a marginal character. The plot centers on the long-time friendship between the narrator, John Wheelright, and the strange Owen Meaney, a little person with a loud grating voice who believed that God had given him the date of his death as a heroic rescuer of Vietnamese children. A simultaneously serious and hilarious book. Almost like Latin American magical realism in parts.

John Williams, Stoner (1965): Yet another “old” book about a marginal character. Dr. Stoner is a university literature professor who lives a life of hidden and unrecognized excellence in an institution whose inner politics frustrate him. His dedication to teaching literature and his love for his subject hold him steady. I loved this book.

Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop (2016): This translation from the German is a delightful story about the value of reading for comfort and transformation, and the need to grieve our losses.


Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth
(2019): Another favorite this year. The story takes place on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, and both the geography and Russian culture are key to the book. (The author appears to know and love Russia.) Two small sisters are kidnapped and disappear, and for the next year different families and characters are interwoven into the tragic mystery. A dark story, but with surprising flashes of light.

Ann Pachette, Dutch House (2019): An old ornate Dutch mansion is one of the main characters, along with the human families and complicated relationships that whirl around it. It’s about family, loss, mistakes, forgiveness, and coming home again. Intricate plot, well written.

Marilynne Robinson, Jack (2020): Robinson never disappoints. This latest book in the family saga that began with Gilead goes to the next generation as it explores the intertwining of human nature and grace as people struggle toward maturity.

 


NON-FICTION:

Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club (2012): Memoir of Schwalbe’s time with his mother as she is dying of pancreatic cancer, a two-year process. Mother and son make a list of books to read and discuss, and this memoir chronicles their discussions. It addresses end of life issues, the importance of reading good books, and life-long relationships. Their discussions provide the cohesive thread for the life stories of Will and his mother, both remarkable people. The book list (included in the appendix) helped shape some of my reading this year.

Irina Ratushinskaya, Grey Is the Color of Hope (1988): The author’s memoir of her three years in a Soviet prison camp in the early 1980s. Her crime: being a poet. She documents the cruelty and suffering, but the book is more a documenting of the human spirit and the community of friends that formed in her prison cell group. Ratushinkaya has since immigrated to the US where she teaches in a university and continues to write poetry. I heard her read years ago in a writers conference at Calvin College.


Steve Inskeep, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War
(2020): A fascinating piece of US history of which I was previously unaware. Involves the mapping and settling of Oregon and California, the California gold rush, the movement toward the abolition of slavery, and all sorts of political intrigue. The relationship of this complex couple is an important part of the story. What a strong woman.

Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church (2005): Although written over 15 years ago, this analysis seems timely and relevant in today’s political/religious atmosphere. I’ve long appreciated Boyd as a theologian.

Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019): A well-written collection of amazing facts about the human body, together with a history of medical approaches to what happens when body parts begin to betray us. All told with Bryson’s typical sense of humor. Not only a fun read but a good reference book.

Michelle Ule, Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman Behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional (2017): Very informative story of the woman responsible for collecting her late (and young) husband’s writings into My Utmost for His Highest. I hadn’t realized Chambers had died so young or how prolific a preacher/writer he was in his short life. Thank God for his wife who took such careful notes and transcribed all her husband’s sermons.

Paul Kalanti, When Breath Becomes Air (2016): A brain surgeon’s memoir, written as he knew he was dying of brain cancer. I love his metaphor for death: “when breath becomes air.”

Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (1999): This Catholic theologian focuses on the unity of beauty and simplicity in truth, whether it be scientific discoveries or a personal perception of God. The book culminates in a consideration of the glory/splendor/radiance (all aspects of beauty) of God. Inspiring and challenging.

 

POETRY AND PRAYERS:

Brian Doyle, A Book of Uncommon Prayer (1999): Relevant prose prayers for everyday life, using non-religious language and lots of humor.


John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings
(2008): A new discovery, this Irish priest writes with both depth and beauty. I found much that resonated in my spirit during this year of the pandemic.

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace (1984): An old favorite, revisited this year. Loder seems the Protestant version of the Catholic Brian Doyle, and his prayers are equally relevant and refreshingly non-religious.

Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010): Ryan was US Poet Laureate from 2008-2010, yet she had somehow escaped my notice. No more. I love her short incisive looks at culture and language. She’s become a new favorite.


Maggie Smith, Good Bones
(2019): Another new discovery, Smith writes about motherhood and family in this small volume. I especially love the title poem, “Good Bones.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850): Another re-visitation of an old favorite. Barrett Browning contrasts in style (using only the strict sonnet form in this collection) to Ryan and Smith, but she was equally a pioneer for her times, and a rebel who broke from a harsh family situation to follow her heart. The love sonnets are still beautiful.

Friday, October 16, 2020

C. S. Lewis on "trumpery"

 

I recently re-read one of my favorite C. S. Lewis poems and discovered it to be surprisingly contemporary.

 

THE APOLOGIST’S EVENING PRAYER

 

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories that I seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,

Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

 

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead

Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,

O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.

Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

 

After my initial chuckle (I had forgotten that word), I realized the prayer/poem was really about me. Lest I become smug in my judgments, I was reminded that I, too, am capable of arrogance and small-mindedness.

 

Lord Jesus, have mercy on us all.