When I try to shock myself and others out of our complacency, I usually discover that we’re well insulated.
I get the impression that the Gospel author Luke wanted to shock his readers. In story after story, he illustrates Jesus’ absolute demands on his disciples… and the disciples’ absolute compliance. The central passage may be this one:
So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
In Luke’s account of how the disciples followed Jesus, we see that renouncing of everything. For instance, when Jesus calls Simon, James and John away from their career as fishermen, here’s how they respond
And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
“Everything” — that’s more than I have renounced. And that makes me uncomfortable. What also makes me uncomfortable is how quickly my mind tries to supply excuses. You know, stuff like decorum, not being a burden on others, being “wise.”
Having attended a funeral yesterday, listening to Barber’s “Adagio For Strings,” and reading a sweet post about a charming lady… That’s where I was when these two words struck a melancholy chord. Some things demand eternity. Actually, many things demand eternity, especially men, women, boys and girls made in the image of God.
I’m slowly working my way through Walter Kaiser Jr’s “The Messiah in the Old Testament.” It’s one of the books my father was thinking through at age 86, shortly before he died. The margins are graced with Dad’s notes. Naturally, I’m reminded often of him and his devotion to the Messiah. Some fine day….
This poem reflects on something at once puzzling and confirming about the Bible: God doesn’t operate as we would. If we were arranging things for the eventual coming of the Messiah, we’d probably make sure his ancestors were admirable characters. Read Genesis, and observe what kind of character Judah was. Jesus’ ancestor was a run-of-the-mill sinner. On the other hand, Judah’s younger brother Joseph was a remarkable, admirable character. He’s the hero through much of Genesis. Again, if I had been writing the story, I’d have made the promised Messiah come through Joseph’s line, not Judah’s.
God doesn’t operate that way. Through the story he created, He says, “I promise to bring this thing about, and lest anyone should get the idea that man is clever, and earns what I give him, I’ll bring it about through normal, undeserving sinners.”
This is a dark thought. It compares our occupations with those of the rats that occasionally make noises in my attic. They don’t do anything useful for me, the homeowner. Rather, I always fear that they’re doing damage.
But the poem is also based in part on the hope of an awakening. More and more, I see people asking, “Why this infernal, fruitless gnawing? Is there not something better to do with life?”
Obviously, part of the problem this poem reflects on is a lack of community. Isolated from others, we are hard-pressed to find our purpose.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I listen to Anne Curzan’s The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins. This observation about capitalization is inspired by one of Curzan’s entertaining lectures. In talking about capitalization rules, she confesses that she has never figured out a good reason why “I” is the only pronoun that we routinely capitalize.
Linguists “keep it real” when it comes to language.
I treasure friends who can remember what they read and study. They serve well. But how about the rest of us? What’s the silver lining on a forgetful mind? This poem only poses the question, not an answer.
Teaching and Forgetfulness You’d think that by my age, I’d have come to terms with my limitations. But I haven’t, at least not fully. There are three things I ask God for on a regular basis: growth in 1) kindness, 2) discipline, and 3) ability to teach. How can I teach in any traditional sense, when I forget–or have trouble accessing–most of what I learn?! And If I DO remember, I discount my understanding so severely, that it’s practically useless. Nothing has convinced me that sure access to confidently-held facts is anything but a diminishing proposition. In other words, the more I learn, the more I recognize my ignorance!
Salvation and Forgetfulness I often think about what people mean by “salvation.” One element that stands out for me is being rescued from a descent into uselessness, meaninglessness. In the poem above, I allude to my hope that I will ultimately be rescued from this descent, that my Rescuer will restore meaning, explain the utility of current limitations, and set me on an eternally satisfying course. Then, salvation will be complete.
I suspect there is hardly anything more revealing about the condition of our souls than how we deliver criticism… and how we receive it.
I pray regularly for my own growth in kindness, the sort of kindness that lets others know they’re loved, not judged. To the degree that I love others as I love myself, I should be praying this for them as well!
I lament that so many people (am I one of them?) are in constant “FIGHT!” mode. God bless those who demonstrate a better way: charitable peacemakers who understand that some things matter for eternity, and some things don’t.
The last line is unintentionally ambiguous. What I meant to ask was “Do you wish to beat people in arguments or to rescue them from peril?” When you say “Gotcha,” is it as a self-centered enemy, or as a God-honoring neighbor?
If it’s not obvious already, this is a re-framing of Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable.
It should come as no surprise that a poet thinks by analogy. This morning, I had some worrisome things in mind as I plodded through the end of Matthew. In the events surrounding the Crucifixion (as in countless other settings), Psalm 2 is played out:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’
Psalm 2:1-3 ESV
The analogy? I sat reading in the living room, facing the kitchen, and imagining how roaches would conspire at night (if we had them). They’d gather there on the kitchen floor and hiss their hateful plans. In the end, it isn’t about roaches, but about man. He’s meant to reflect a good, loving God, but often comes closer to reflecting despicable crawling creatures.
The Title I originally meant to title this “Night Crawlers.” But then I looked that up. Worms? No, that’s not sufficiently despicable. So I looked up “roaches” and found the scientific name for the ones we encounter here in Texas: Periplaneta americana. Perfect. The divisiveness, the constant warring, the plotting…. There’s definitely an American species of this global phenomenon.
You Go, Brain! This poem is part of an ongoing experiment. Starting with a mundane thought, such as “I wonder if the fields near Van are ever covered with crimson clover like they were back in the 1970s,” I start writing a poem, as quickly and as fluidly as I can. The line breaks are intuitive. I trust myself with rhythm and rhyme. Trust is the thing. I want my brain to be at ease when it’s performing, to not be afraid of being judged. If the brain inserts some seemingly inappropriate nerdiness about nitrogen fixation, don’t stop it. Let the brain ramble. It may have more to say than I realize.
Does it Mean Anything? I’m generally old-school about authors and their intent. I expect what I write to convey a proposition. But the longer I write poetry, the more I realize that there are subconscious truths that emerge in our writing. In this poem, my unbridled brain conflated a plant–crimson clover–with a color of paint, and a farming practice–sowing cover crops–with painting. This suggests something to explore: Do we humans recognize the creation and expression of beauty as fundamental in our other activities? Do we know, deep down, that we are all artists in one way or another?
I sat on this poem wondering how I’d explain the weak understanding that it reveals. Then a friend messaged me out of the blue to thank me for being open and vulnerable. So here you go!
Understood, But Just Barely Having been a Christian from my youth, having studied theology, etc., etc., I “know” many things about Christianity. But it seems that the longer I live, the more I realize that I barely understand some of its concepts.
I talked about this with a friend, who teaches theology at the seminary level…. I confessed to him that every time I hit Hebrews 5, I flinch. This passage immediately follows the discussion of Melchizedek:
11We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
“Elementary” Truths My friend, the theologian, pointed out that there’s infinite depth to the most simple concepts of Christianity. Admitting that I don’t understand something fully, is actually laughable. Who does?
I’m not going to say this is an easy poem. I wrote it, but am still trying to understand it! This may be a clue: I suspect that what my sister likes about the beach is what I like about the alpine trail: a vista — a perspective — that heightens or broadens our hope for godliness.
Here’s another way of expressing the longing:
Won’t it be fine When refining’s done, When what we love And what He loves At last are one!
–Brad Hepp, 3/6/2022
Reality This may be a simplistic view of religious hermits…. They live out the wish expressed in this poem. Removed from the irritations and challenges of society, they may think that they are being holy. But they are just living a fantasy. It is in dealing with irritations and challenges that God refines us and in our response that we are privileged to bring Him glory.
Then, welcome each rebuff That turns earth’s smoothness rough, Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go! Be our joys three-parts pain! Strive, and hold cheap the strain; Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!
For thence,—a paradox Which comforts while it mocks,— Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail: What I aspired to be, And was not, comforts me: A brute I might have been, but would not sink i’ the scale.
from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” The first stanza was my Dad’s favorite; the second is my favorite
We both calmed down, and I took a photo to prove it. But not before I wrote a poem* about the vicissitudes of duty. You see, I grew up with the following proverb:
A righteous man cares for the life of his beast. But the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.
For the Grammar Nerds Should it be “Old Cat and I,” or “Old Cat and Me“?
I or Me Some say the pronoun should be I, Some say me. From what I know of how I act, I hold with those who favor I. But if I could choose otherwise, I think we know enough of cats To say that their effect Is quite extreme On mortals such as me.
with apologies to Robert Frost
* That poem, “Duty in Retrospect,” was pretty raw, and I haven’t decided if it’s safe to publish. My response to bothersome cats brings up other bothersome issues.
Increasingly, I find myself turning even simple statements into poems. Perhaps I’m as annoying in this as Fezzik was to Vizzini in “The Princess Bride”:
Inigo: That Vizzini, he can fuss. Fezzik: Fuss, fuss … I think he like to scream at us. Inigo: Probably he means no harm. Fezzik: He’s really very short on charm. Inigo: You have a great gift for rhyme. Fezzik: Yes, yes, some of the time. Vizzini: Enough of that. Inigo: Fezzik, are there rocks ahead? Fezzik: If there are, we all be dead. Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it. Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?
From “The Princess Bride”
The Poem’s Inspiration I don’t recall the context of the exchange, but one of my Facebook friends wrote the following, and her first two sentences seemed like the beginning and premise for a limerick:
I once met a woman at the mall who had seven children in tow: an oldest child, a pair of twins, and, youngest of all, a set of quadruplets. Each pregnancy subsequent to the first doubled the outcome the one prior. If I were in her shoes, I think I’d probably put my foot down regarding future pregnancies.
Despite the silly sound effects in my recording of this poem (and on the video version), it’s a serious poem. I promise you, it is!
I get very frustrated with narrow-mindedness, and with people who don’t develop intellectually over their lifetimes. Hopefully it’s obvious that the speaker in this poem has spent his (or her) entire lifetime defending a narrow, and tired point of view.
Looming Open Door This is the sad conclusion of the poem. Opportunity has existed at every point since the speaker’s feet touched the floor to go out and explore. Instead, he considers the world “out there” a threat.
A friend encouraged me to pay close attention to the deep emotion I feel whenever I encounter certain stories. One of those stories is what Luke tells about the — presumably — aged Simeon. When Joseph and Mary encounter Simeon in the temple, they let him hold their baby, Jesus. Simeon says,
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
Why does that passage get to me every time I read it? Simeon seems to be satisfied. Everything’s great, right?
More than once, I have been listening through Luke while walking at the lake. When I get to this passage, I tear up so much that anyone crossing paths with me would know something’s “wrong.” Simeon is satisfied, but I am…. What? Dissatisfied? I infer from the passage that Simeon will soon die, and his impending death figures into my response. Simeon is ready for death because he knows now that all will eventually be right in his world: the Messiah has come. Why does that satisfy him, but not me?
Different Story, Similar Feeling Today, I heard a story that brought the same feeling, though with a little less intensity. The story was about a shy Irish composer named Ina Boyle (1889-1967). Ms. Boyle’s compositions were rarely played during her lifetime, but have been rediscovered fifty years after her death, and are now being played by orchestras.
When I hear a story like Ina Boyle’s or Simeon’s an image looms large in my mind: a great gulf, a void, a chasm separating promise and fulfillment. It’s death. Death and the time that has passed — and will pass — until the Resurrection.
This Poem: Somehow Remembrance… So, today, when the great gulf came to mind, I asked myself, “What spans that gulf?” The picture that came to mind is strange: a refrigerator door, call it God’s refrigerator door. There he affixes the precious artwork of His children. Time passes, but He doesn’t forget our bright hopes and expectations, our responses to His obvious goodness. Somehow, God’s remembrance answers — will answer — the sadness I feel about mortality, the vapor which is our current state.
Pat Answers? I could throw pat answers at myself all day long. Don’t even bother. One of my jobs as a poet is to be a spokesman for the feelings in search of truth.
In explaining this poem to one of my sons, I put it this way…. I’m an Elder, and so there are people that I will someday have to answer for. I’m not sure how that will be. I picture the Lord asking what I did to help these people survive their spiritual battles. I may answer, “Well, I tried, but You know… they didn’t want help.” And then the questions I dread: “Did YOU want my help? Did you ASK for my help?”
Silent battles rage around me. People I love, people for whom I must answer to God, are taking fire. The one most effective way for me to protect them is prayer. Instead, I find passive, unhelpful ways to fill my time.
As I wrote in one lament, “I scroll, I stroll, I scrawl.” I do anything but engage in the intense duty of intercession. My son could identify with that mindless, unthreatening hamster wheel of social media and other time-wasters. Can you identify?
Silent battles rage around me. But I choose to be distracted by other things, even news of noisy battles raging elsewhere: foreign wars.
“Here is your duty, man.” I can almost hear the Spirit say. “Here, not there.” But the news distracts; it almost drowns out the Spirit’s intense, insistent, discomforting voice.
I wrote this poem in anticipation of talking with a fellow poet. One topic I wanted to discuss with him is the vulnerability of baring your breast through revealing words. Is it insanity or inspiration?
We didn’t get to the “inspiration” part, but the “insanity” part was almost funny…. My fellow poet read me one of several poems he has written while struggling with depression. He said that people have phoned him after reading such a poem to say, “I read your poem. Are you okay?” He answers, “Thanks. I’m doing better because I wrote that poem.”
I don’t enjoy listening to people complain. I’ve noticed that other people don’t enjoy listening to me complain. Sometimes, my public complaint is answered by a public rebuke, often with an underlying, “If you were as spiritual as I am, you wouldn’t have such thoughts.”
I don’t know a good workaround. One of my jobs as a poet is to express what’s hard to express. That can include negative thoughts, and problems whose solution hasn’t appeared.
I really don’t have a lot I can say about this poem yet. It is almost entirely a raw, unprocessed impression of my state of mind.
But I can say two things…. As some other recent poems reveal, I am doing a lot of thinking about what it means that we live in a fallen world, and how I participate in the fallenness.
When this “poem” (or “sentence,” if you prefer) popped into my head, I was reading The Reluctant Tommy. Quoting from Wikipedia, it’s a book “compiled by Duncan Barrett from the memoirs of Ronald Skirth, a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery during the First World War…. The book captured attention due to Skirth’s actions during the war to avoid enemy casualties.”
Connecting Blood Although I haven’t figured out just what this sentence or poem expresses, I’m pretty sure that “connecting” refers to various relationships between various things. That’s how my mind works.
I think most people have at one time or another experienced pain that feels strangely pleasant. For instance, when you find a way — perhaps with a friend’s help — to apply pressure to that knot in your back. For some, there is pleasure in the pain of a red-hot pepper. Well, recently, I have noticed that I am strangely drawn to sadness, and feel a certain pleasure in its presence.
In one of my recent poems, I depicted sadness as a lady who has me sabbath in her house. She feeds me and urges me to “rest and weep.” In the commentary for that poem, I suggested that the process I am in is one of becoming more compassionate. I’m pretty sure that’s fundamentally true.
But in the poem above, I ask if the reason for this phase (I guess it’s a phase) is that I need to fully recognize and steel myself against Satan’s lies. The emotion of sadness helps me better comprehend what I’m looking at in a fallen world. Things are not the way they’re supposed to be, no matter what anyone might say.
When I contemplate oppression, poverty, and death, it’s hard to imagine a future world where these are eradicated. It seems that everywhere I look in this current world, wealth is amassed at someone else’s expense. In a generally prosperous culture, that’s not always easy to see, but I’m learning to connect the dots.
How could it work any other way? I believe it will some day, but how? That’s what the last stanza of my poem addresses. When the all-powerful Creator has restored the world to its original design, then my questions will be answered.
Backdrop This morning, I was thinking through the questions I want to ask a fellow poet when I meet with him tomorrow. He’s a better poet than I am, but I see similarities in our approach. So, I want to explore the similarities. One of the things I want to explore is what drives us to write poetry. I suspect it has something to do with a God-given hunger for beauty.
Seeking and Speaking Beauty When I idiotically scroll through Instagram Reels or TikTok, there is one small consolation: I find myself increasingly able to appreciate beauty as expressed by a variety of people in various ways. It probably helps that I had already determined to grow in this ability. On many a long walk around the lake, the question has always been, “What is the beauty I have missed thus far?” The same is true of my “walks” through Scripture. God writes beautifully everywhere.
This morning, I wrote a LONG reflection on legalism and generosity. Then the poet in me said, “Let me handle this!” Thus the little poem above.
Here’s an outline of what prompted the poem:
In Matthew 12 and Galatians 2, we see Pharisees and Judaizers spying on the liberty that Jesus’ followers have vis-a-vis Jewish Law. In Matthew 12, it was the Pharisees objecting to the disciples’ foraging as they walked through a grainfield on the Sabbath. In Galatians 2, it was apparently the Judaizers insisting that Gentile converts had to adopt Jewish mores. (this event is very like–possibly the same as–what is described in Acts 15: the Jerusalem Council).
In both passages, the response is that righteous behavior is more associated with mercy, compassion, and generosity than it is with punctilious rule-keeping.
Notice what Jesus said to the Pharisees (I have bolded what jumps out at me):
And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.
Notice what I bold here in Paul’s Galatians 2 summary:
…when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Is Righteousness Rule-Keeping? I think many of us who know that righteousness is NOT merely rule-keeping still hang onto that notion. I see it in the culture wars. I can almost hear some Christians say, “Those people out there are not righteous. Just look at how they break God’s moral laws!” Does it matter that “those people out there” are sometimes more loving, more generous, more merciful than the Christians who are judging them?
That’s why I wrote in the poem that by righteousness, “I mainly mean love.” And when I look “out there” at a world of people who don’t know Jesus Christ, I must also look “in here.” Do I demonstrate that I know Him by practicing the righteousness of love? Is God’s gracious rule operating in my heart?
When I was ten, we moved to the States from a country where practicing religion was always costly. Mostly, the cost was self-imposed, as many thought they could earn God’s favor. For a few, the cost was appropriate, and unavoidable, as they could not be comfortable with surrounding culture. IN CONTRAST, what I saw here in the States was that practicing religion seemed to cost nothing. That concerned me then, and it concerns me still.
Someone may respond, “I’m not comfortable with surrounding culture! So, wouldn’t you agree that I am paying a price to be a Christian!” My answer: maybe, maybe not. The thing about culture is that it is never merely “surrounding.” Rather, it works its way into much — if not all — of what we think and do. We’re part of it. It’s part of us.
Simply being upset at others’ immorality is not enough. Jesus’ prescription is not “Get mad at the world.” His prescription is, “You! You. If necessary, cut off your own arm. Gouge out your own eye. Renounce everything that YOU have.”
So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Recently, one of my ongoing projects has been peeling back layers of personal, church, and world history in order to better comprehend this world’s fallenness. I felt a certain compulsion about it. I needed to feel sadness about the many insults to God’s purpose and His image in man. I needed to feel sorrow about ways that I participate in those insults.
On a recent Sunday evening, I hit pause on the project. I thought, “Enough of this for now. I’m not feeling the compulsion.”
Was I done with exploring sadness? I don’t think so. It was just a rest. My heart still has chambers of ungodly anger that must be flooded instead with compassion. Like the Pharisees who despised the Lord of the Sabbath, I look for fault with His followers. I treasure offense at His disciples’ trespasses. Like the Pharisees, I need to understand what this means: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (see Matthew 12). Then, perhaps, I will not be so quick to condemn.
SO, WEEP SOME MORE I had just finished writing this poem (and was pretty broken up by the process of writing it) when Susan came in and told me that an old friend — a GOOD and brilliant man — now has Alzheimer’s. My sadness turned to sobbing.
“Now rest, and weep, And rest, and weep, And rest, and weep Some more.”
I can’t help but think that this season in the house of Sadness is what I should expect as a follower of Jesus. It’s on the path to becoming compassionate, like He is compassionate.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
This poem is me trying to convince myself of something I believe, but have had trouble seeing recently. My attention has been drawn — hopefully by God, and hopefully just for a season — away from delightful things in this world to things that are broken, and terribly in need of restoration. I wrote about that in my recent poem, “Beauty’s Time Tabled.” Frankly, I have a slew of poems coming out about the sadness I currently feel, including one I’ll post on this blog soon: “The House of Sadness.”
So Full of Rocks Read “rocks” in this poem as the dull, lifeless, colorless sort that make up most of the world. When I think of those rocks, I know that they are actually fascinating, but only in ways that a geologist would recognize.
Won’t Go Far I sometimes despair that all my thinking and writing is practically useless. When I do point to something beautiful, the response is generally a chasm of silence, an echoing yawn.
But… I Insist Although I’m currently discouraged and disillusioned, I do still see bright, shiny things here and there, enough to keep hope alive. For instance, this morning, reading Matthew 12, and comparing it to Galatians 2, I saw something that reminded me of God’s better ways. God shows us that we get to obey Him as a celebration and imitation of His gracious, generous, merciful purposes. So I wrote this little poem:
Getting Hungry I’ve had my taste whetted For righteousness. And by that I mainly mean love.
I long to see God’s gracious rule In my heart and in my world, Not just in Heaven above….
On my walk yesterday, I finished listening to Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. It got me thinking about how God views the little triumphs so far and few between in His fallen world.
Why does this matter to me? There are two reasons. First, it matters because considering it is what I should do. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son prompts us to compare ourselves not only with a prodigal or a resentful older brother, but also with a compassionate, generous, and joyful father. Nouwen spends the last third of his book driving that last point home.
A second reason why this matters is that it relates to my current state of mind. I wrote about this already in my commentary for “Beauty’s Time Tabled.” In the arc of my reflection on how evil has been manifest in my own life, the life of the Church, and the life of my nation, I have come to a significant point. Having fancied for some time that my thinking and my poetry might yield fruit beyond my own life, I have begun to dial down my hopes and expectations. The best I can realistically hope for is limited and isolated triumphs. That’s reality in a fallen world.
So how should I respond to this disillusionment? Does God’s joyful response to limited triumphs serve as a model for me?
Heaven is a Party Town
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of three parables that Luke puts together (in Luke 15): The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son. A common element in the three parables is the joyful celebration. The shepherd, having brought home his one errant sheep “calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'” (Luke 15:6). Jesus, who knows well how Heaven is run continues,
I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Luke 15: 7
When the woman finds her one lost coin, she likewise calls together friends for a party. And again, Jesus compares her response to the joyful response in Heaven:
I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Then we get to the much longer Parable of the Prodigal Son. By now, we know to equate the earthly father’s response to God’s:
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.
If God and His angels celebrate small triumphs, can I? Will I? Or does everything have to work out just as I wish in order for me to be happy? Would I be a party pooper in Heaven?
The poem mocks my own severe view of things. Luke was severe. He clearly had high standards for our response to God. But he was careful to record what Jesus said about Heaven’s response to small triumphs: it’s a party town, where music and dancing can clearly be heard even by a resentful older brother standing outside.
Recently, I have written some light and playful poems. So where does this one come from?!
It seems that I have come to the end of a hopeful period. What I have been investigating–in personal, church, and world history–has been dark. It has left me sad, but sad in a hopeful way. I thought that by identifying the source and nature of various evils, I could somehow propose reformation.
I thought that I, through poetic thought and expression, could be a channel of God’s reforming beauty. Maybe I’ll regain that perspective tomorrow. But today, it feels like beauty has been put on hold; it has been tabled for now.
Is this depression talking? I doubt it. It’s probably just reality setting in. Beauty will have its time. But now–at least today–belongs to lament.
ADDENDUM: On my long walk today, I finished listening to a book my counselor assigned: Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. The final chapter of that book encourages the reader to consider how he or she might become more like the Father in Jesus’ parable. Well…. In considering that, one thing stands out to me tonight: God the Father takes joy in isolated victories. If He can, is there any reason I cannot as well?
This poem is about the “end” or purpose of life, and whether or not we can achieve that purpose when our numbered days are few.
We are not Jesus Christ. But God invites us to identify with Him very, very deeply. I suppose He’s pleased for us to compare ourselves with Jesus when pondering the very little time that remains to any of us.
Jesus began His public ministry around age 30, and lived another 3 or so years. So, he began his public ministry ten-elevenths through his earthly life. Imagine all the ways Jesus could have faithfully reflected God the Father, all the healing, preaching, and loving he could have done with a few more years! But I have to assume that three was enough.
How About Me? The amount of character development and spiritual growth that I have experienced over the last three years astounds me. That’s not bragging. In fact, it seems more a sad admission of how many decades I have wasted than anything else! This development leaves me suspecting–or hoping–that God has something surprising for me to do with the time that remains in my life. How could that be? How could anything a 61-year old man (62 this summer) do that matters in Eternity?
I don’t know. He loves me deeply. He wants the best for me. As old as I am, He’s still my older brother. He says that in one of my favorite passages:
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.
The Background Photo For several years now, my most profound thinking has happened while I was on long hikes, largely near or around White Rock Lake. The other day, I was thinking about what I have written in the poem just as my hike reached the area pictured in the background photo. I took the photo initially thinking of using it to say this:
Here’s the path That I in former days, On longer walks, Often saw And wondered ’bout.
It’s more familiar now Than what I knew When time and strength Had bound me To my former ways.
But then I wrote a better(?) poem about “The End of Life,” and needed a background photo!
This light-hearted poem is a prequel to the more serious “The King’s Toast.” By the way, my initial commentary on that poem was pretty muddled. If you already read that commentary, do me the favor of reading the improved version.
It’s probably obvious that in this poem I’m exploring the idea that an awareness of God’s presence would help us regulate our behavior. Have a problem with foul language? What if Jesus were right there beside you in a physical, visible form? Would you curse then?
I hope it’s not arrogant to say, “I like this poem.” Here’s why….
First, The Easy Stuff I like how a poem can suggest a whole story in just a few words. Who is “He” who “told the King”? I didn’t have to describe him or do any character development. “He” is a humble man with a home the King can enter.
I like how the King’s easy familiarity can be established with just a “propped up his feet” and “took a swig.”
Finally, I like how poetry enabled me to to build a story around a verse that impressed me so much: Isaiah 57:15 (see below, where that verse brings possible resolution to a vexing question).
The Spirit in Which I Wrote This (By the way, the following is a meandering rumination. As you’ll see, I don’t end where I began) Recently, I have been thinking about what effect it would have on a person if they were fully aware of God’s presence in their life. I mean, what if they could see him literally, physically walking with them in the park? Literally sitting beside them in the office? Literally sitting in the passenger seat of their car as they drive on the freeway?
I can’t help but think that it would regulate their behavior. Right? What about awareness of God’s actual, though not physical presence?
Someone wrote a book about this (at least that’s what I assume the book is about):
I’ll get around to reading Brother Lawrence’s little book sometime soon. But first, I need to think about this on my own…. So I pay attention. I watch for clues as I read or listen to the Bible.
Here was the first clue. I was listening through Isaiah, and came to this beautiful passage in Isaiah 11.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah describes a time when the knowledge of the Lord will regulate even the animals’ behavior. How? I can imagine human beings possessing special knowledge, intellectually understanding facts about the Lord. But animals? They are the ones whose behavior is regulated in this passage. So, I’m guessing the “knowledge” is more akin to “awareness.” Awareness of the Lord will be so thorough that even otherwise dangerous animals will not hurt or destroy.
So, this passage seems to support my theory that awareness of God’s presence would help regulate our behavior. How do we tap into that behavior-regulating awareness?
How About the Holy Spirit? Is He the Answer? Aren’t We Aware of Him? In God’s current arrangement with man, He causes the Holy Spirit to indwell every believer. Problem solved, right? No. The indwelling is no guarantee of awareness. Ask any longtime believer!
If He’s Indwelling Me, Why Doesn’t He Make Himself Known? Or Does He? Does familiarity cause us to drift in and out of awareness of the indwelling Holy Spirit? Is this just the best we can expect from an ongoing relationship? Some speak of God–including the Holy Spirit–as a “gentleman.” They might say, “He doesn’t impose on us, intrude in our thinking, but like a very quiet guest simply waits in the guest room for us to call Him to the dinner table or to the parlor for a good conversation.” In this scenario, He’s present, but we’re not aware of him, and that’s all we can expect if we don’t summon Him.
That sounds pretty passive on God’s part.
But another passage, also in Isaiah, starts to shift my thinking:
For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Isaiah 57:15 (NIV)
It seems that this passage describes an indwelling WITH awareness. Here, the indwelt person experiences revival. It seems reasonable to guess that this revival is effective, noticeable encouragement. It’s not just God saying “Cheer up there, fella.” It’s God succeeding in cheering him up. NOTICE THIS IMPORTANT OBSERVATION: The awareness of God here is an awareness of what He has done, not an awareness that enables us to do something. It may come around to that, but awareness here is the result, not the cause. That may take a moment to sink in.
If Awareness Isn’t the Magic Key, What Is? To whom does God grant such awareness? Who does He actively encourage? To whom does He say “I’m staying in your home. I’m sharing this drink with you. Cheers!” Is it someone who puts up a little shrine to God in every room? Someone who ties a “remember God” string around his finger? Perhaps. It could happen. But it is certainly to the “contrite and lowly in spirit.” That’s who.
Why am exploring this awareness of God? It’s because I wish for God to regulate my behavior. I really do. For instance, I pray often that He’ll make me a noticeably kinder, more generous person. In this and other areas, do I start by recognizing my brokenness and my inability to change apart from His work in my heart?
Will I experience His encouraging, “YES, I will change you… I AM changing you!”?
First, I must ask, “Am I contrite and lowly in spirit?” It seems that’s where it begins.
Headline The title started as something else, but by the time I had finished my outburst (er, poem), it occured to me that the whole thing was in the form of a headline, a very long headline. It’s “too-long” in a double sense: too many words for one headline, and it speaks of a too-long history of evil.
Journey From Evil In my imagination, the author is looking out a train window as he travels across history. What he sees out the window is a passing scene of perpetual destruction and oppression.* His guidebook explains the sites along the way. The guidebook is unofficial. Official history is written by the victors, and it is written to justify the evil by which, and for which the victors fought. This is the true history — ancient, recent, and current — “from” which we move toward God’s Kingdom. In my eschatology, there is little expectation that things will change much for the better until Jesus returns and establishes his rule. I could be wrong. [for instance, could I successfully refute the evidence Steven Pinker marshalls in “The Better Angels of our Nature”?]
Stillborn Might-Have-Beens One area of history that I have been reviewing recently is the Reconstruction era immediately following the Civil War. It was a time of remarkable reversal. People who had only recently been enslaved were now welcomed into political leadership and higher education. I heard today that in one prominent South Carolina university, the enrollment was more than 50% blacks at some point between 1865 and 1875.
But then all that came to a screeching halt. Some Northern whites decided that it was in their best economic interest to let their disagreement with the South be forgotten. Some who still pressed for reconstruction lost their moral authority because of scandals. Greed had gotten the upper hand. What followed was almost a century of oppression: what the South referred to ironically as “The Redemption“: Jim Crow laws and all sorts of other UNKINDNESS, whose devastation is still evident (although some would white-wash it).
Humankind: what a cruel joke!
[In writing this, I know that I am laying myself open to some blowback. Christians don’t appreciate someone pointing out that they’re invested in a world that serves them well (though only for now).]
*There’s a personal history as well. Examining that history, I’m increasingly aware of how desperately I need Someone to save me from my sins.
This is a poem I started writing yesterday and finished up this morning. Yesterday, I thought of the phrase, “running out WITH time,” and asked myself how that might upend the notion of “running out OF time.” So, I didn’t know where I was going to go with the poem, but started writing anyway.
In a friend’s Sunday School class several few years ago, the friend asked us all if we thought there would be no time in Heaven. It seemed that my friend and I were the only ones willing to assert, “I don’t know of any reason why time should NOT continue to exist!” It surprised me that we were in the minority on this one.
Where do people get the notion that time will cease to exist in the eternal state? I suspect one source is a spillover of neoplatonism. But take this with a huge grain of salt. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “I served with a philosopher. I knew a philosopher. A philosopher was a friend of mine. I am no Philosopher.” Regardless, the theory is that people with this thinking lump time in with matter, and therefore consider it unworthy of their ideal, immaterial “Heaven” (a disgusting non-place, if you ask me–I’m looking for the restoration of God’s GOOD creation).
Another possible source is an old translation of Revelation 10:6
And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:
Revelation 10:6 KJV
Most modern translations render that along the lines, “that there should be no more delay.”
I ran my poem by a philosopher/theologian this morning, and he assured me that whatever reasons people come up with for saying that there will be no more time in Eternity are a matter of “blindly swallowing [wrong notions of secondary issues] without theological reflection.” Whew (it could have been me)!
Back To The Poem: Time Our Fellow Inmate Here’s how I got around to using my upended phrase…. It occurred to me that people may think of time as one of life’s evils… that it limits us, perhaps even imprisons us. If so, the answer is to think of time not as the prison, but as a fellow inmate! Someday the prison of current limitations will be torn down. Then we’ll escape our prison cells and joyously run out WITH our fellow inmate, time.
On Christmas Eve, I sat up in the soundbooth for two services. First, there was the heavily-attended service of St. Bart’s Anglican Church. I think there were 50 kids in their Christmas Pageant. As you can imagine, there were at least that many parents and grandparents. It was lovely.
Then, an hour after St. Bart’s was done, we had Redeemer’s Candlelight Service. One person counted about 40 people…max. The service went well. It was disheartening at first. Nevertheless, our handbell choir, who had already performed in the St. Bart’s service, played beautifully in this service as well. The readers and singers and preacher all did a great job. Someone said of our small crowd, “We sang gustily.” “With gusto,” I thought. Yes. A small crowd, fully aware of their Audience, will do so.
This morning, I watched a YouTube video in which a professor of “Christian Psychology” explained various approaches that he and Christian peers take to secular insights. He went a long way toward helping me categorize and understand a complex subject. I especially appreciated the irenic tone he takes toward approaches that differ from his own.
Shortly afterwards, I learned that professor had been ousted from Southern Seminary because the rest of the faculty in his department are of the mind that Scripture is all we need for counseling, and that no secular insights are welcome or allowed. Not so irenic on their part!
The Title:When Every Hill’s a Place to Die A certain gentleman once complained to me about people who say things like, “That’s not a hill worth dying on.” I should say he was a “very certain gentleman.” When I asked him if there aren’t some secondary issues in Christianity for which he wouldn’t die, he answered, “I’d die for everything I believe.” I know he probably considers himself brave and loyal. Perhaps he is. But I suspect he’s also inordinately proud of his ability to fully comprehend all those issues. God is not simple; the world he created is not simple. We need to be humble about our understanding. Ask Job!
Shelter in Redoubt In warfare, a “redoubt” is a fortification to which combatants can retreat. It is often their final resort, their last defence. I picture a theological combatant (unlike the irenic professor described above) retreating to a simple structure that he thinks he fully understands. The complexities of others’ thoughts cannot defeat him as long as he is in his theological redoubt. “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” yells the proud, combative theologian from within his little fort. He forgets that what God said isn’t always so easy to understand!
This poem came to mind as I listened to a performance of “Benedictus” by 2Cellos. I had heard the tune many times in the past, but never paid attention to its title.
This time was different. I was starting into a nap, being soothed by beautiful music. I had just returned from a public event where I felt horribly alienated. Frankly, a friendless freak.
As the tune started playing through my ear buds, I literally heard a slow faint beat, not of drums, but perhaps of cello bows changing direction as they sustained and grew the opening strain. Perhaps it was the bows, or perhaps it was the pulse in my ears from elevated blood pressure. I’ll have to listen with good speakers to figure that out. In any case, my heart was attuned to the playing of the cellos.
What is “Benedictus”? Since I was listening on my smart phone, I did a quick search for what this Latin word might reference. There were two answers, both from excruciatingly beautiful passages in the Gospels. The first is from Zechariah’s words “Blessed be…” when Zechariah was moved by the birth of his son, John. We know him as “John the Baptist,” who prepared the way for Jesus:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David…
Such high expectations!
The next “benedictus” is from Matthew 21, where the story is told of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem, just as his Passion Week began:
And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Such high expectations!
The Meantime Jesus’ first coming was full of hope, both at its beginning, and at its end. But he ascended to the Father, and has not finished putting things in order, restoring His creation. Now, as we await his second coming, we are in the meantime. Someone has referred to it as the “in-between time.” I thought of using that phrase in the title, but opted for “meantime.” This is a time in-between, but it is also a time of meanness, a very mean time. Even those whom Jesus has brought into his family can feel rejected and lonely. As George MacDonald said somewhere, “The end of the Maker’s dream is not this.”
These little trails have always intrigued me, be they in the mountains or in a local park. Why do they evoke such strong emotion?
Seriously… I took the photo, walked another 200 yards, and sat down on a park bench to edit the photo and pen a few words. Then, as I continued walking home, I felt a tremendous lump in my throat. Why?
As I have revealed before, I’m seeing a counselor to help me explore what may be some deep-seated emotional “problems.” I don’t say that with shame. Frankly, I think we all have deep-seated emotional “problems.” I just have the luxury right now of exploring mine.
One of the things my counselor has encouraged me to do is to try to figure out what relationship some of my poetry has to my life story. Now that’s a good challenge for a poet!
Really a problem? Is it really a problem that I get inexplicably emotional? After all, what do we expect of someone God crafted to be a poet? If a poet cannot feel deeply, and desire with determination to express that emotion, what hope is there for any of us? God is an intelligent designer. We are not random results of happenstance. God has a purpose for making us as He did.
This was one of those middle-of-the-night poems that I felt compelled to write AND publish when I should have been sleeping. So, I woke up this morning and looked at my phone with a little bit of fear. “What did I write last night?”
Was I drunk when I wrote this poem? No. In fact, my thinking was remarkably clear. Last night, I had just seen someone’s Facebook post in which they revealed how worked up they are about politics in the United States. I thought, “Yeah, I used to get worked up about that….” Then I confessed to myself that for all my equanimity regarding politics, I still do get worked up. My irritation at politicians has been replaced with irritation at people who care about politicians. This is not much of an improvement!
In a moment of clarity, I visualized a coming time when the equanimity I now feel toward politicians will extend to people who get worked up about politicians. I sat up in bed and jotted down this convoluted thought, which had to be worked out in other, better words:
Will I someday care as little That YOU care now so much About the things for which I now no longer care?
the convoluted beginning of a poem
Irritableness & My Efforts Irritableness (irritability?) is a trait I have lived with far too long. I’m working on it. I think about it. I read about it. New understanding comes by way of counseling and books. New concepts fill my mind: “attachment theory,” “affect regulation,” “interpersonal neuro-biology.”
Here’s what I expect to happen, based on past experience…. The Holy Spirit will take all my efforts, grind them into a powder, and sprinkle a dash of them in his delicious, surprising feast of provision. God made me with my penchant for problem-solving. He honors it, but not without poking fun at my self-reliance.
extradite this passion In case the above background didn’t open up the poem for you, here it is in plain words: Just as a nation, or an embassy, gets tired of harboring someone who is wanted as a criminal by some other nation, I am tired of harboring passions that God would be more than glad to take off my hands. There are better things to do with my remaining energy in my remaining years, things that will make a difference forever.
Revolution That’s a strong word. It describes a thorough change. That’s what I desire.
I’m not going to beat up on a certain tourist attraction here in Dallas. My wife walks there most mornings. But when I join her there, I do sometimes wonder, “Where are the mosquitoes?” “Where are the bees, and the butterflies?” And, “How much pesticide are we breathing in here?”
Oh, the flowers there are gorgeous, all sterile in their fruitless prime. They’re a sea of brilliant colors. None of them is disfigured by caterpillars. None of them is dying off or producing those awful, unsightly things called seeds.
The place is designed to attract tourists, after all. Not pollinators.
This applies to more than plants…
Healthy, life-giving interactions occur when we care more about honoring God-given processes than we do about the honor of managed appearances. That’s dense, I know; think about it….
What’s true in cultivating gardens is also true in cultivating friendships. Be honest with flowers and with friends.