I mean no disrespect to Notre-Dame. I chose the background photo for this little poem because when I think of flying buttresses, I can’t imagine any more prominent than those that support Notre-Dame’s vaulted ceiling.
As a side note, surely I’m not the first person to say that when I view a photo of Notre-Dame taken from the southeast (the view in the photo above), I see the flying buttresses as streams of tears flowing from the old lady’s eyes. Her eyes have seen a lot.
The Poem This morning, I was reflecting on how much my thinking has been–and is being–recalibrated. Over the last few years, I’ve had to rethink much of what I formerly thought of as good and noble in politics, religion, national and state history. Almost daily, I learn more and more about flaws in what I once thought was practically flawless. There’s a lot of sadness in this realization. On the other hand, the very low view–verging on hatred–that I had for many opposing institutions and ideologies has practically disappeared. I can now see virtue in people I once despised. I can hear what they say with an open mind. They no longer threaten me. That’s because I no longer count on the institutions they oppose. My honor is not wrapped up in a political party, or nation, or state. More and more, I’m simply a follower of Jesus. More and more, my worth is wrapped up in his worth.
Something VERY Cool Go to this link, hover over the pin for the Notre-Dame cathedral and watch a 360-degree fly-around of the beautiful building.
(background image adapted from photo by Jacques Gaimard on Pixabay)
[Jesus] said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
John 9:7 ESV
This morning, in my crawl through John, I got to chapter nine, and one of my favorite passages: Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. It seems obvious to me that John was capturing Jesus’ playfulness with words, and maybe even playing along. One of the clues is that in telling us about the pool of Siloam, John inserts, “Translated, that means ‘Sent’.”
There’s a lot more going on in the passage than I understand. That prompts me to write a poem, to poke at the story and see what emerges.
Let me encourage you to read John 9. It’s really fantastic. Pay attention to words like “work, works, sent, display, light, and blind.” If you’re like me, you’ll be reading some of it and thinking, “This part looks like something John and his fellow believers put in song.” Maybe you’ll be inspired to write your own song!
WITH SINCERE APOLOGIES TO ALL This opaque poem is an attempt to capture how many of us—maybe all of us—think of the fleeting now as all that matters.
In my crawl through John, I’m repeatedly impressed that Jesus is more interested in his listeners’ eternal life than they are.
The preacher said that God sets eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). More often than not, we chase it out.
PERHAPS APOLOGIES WERE NOT REQUIRED I’ll probably never understand how others respond to poetry. There are poems I think are really good, but I know in advance that nobody else will respond to them–and I don’t blame them! I also publish poems that I’m not especially proud of, and they get a lot of positive response. I couldn’t tell with this poem. It seemed rather opaque (thus the apology). But I was honoring my intuition about repetition and line breaks. Here’s an example of the latter: “By drop of rain” was originally a continuation of the preceding line. So it was “We stare, transfixed by drop of rain.” Then, I thought, “Creating a new line elevates what’s on that line.” And I wanted to elevate the disconnect between the transience of the thing–“drop of rain” and “momentarily” on the one hand–and our response to it–“celebrate” and “Momentous” on the other hand. If my intuition about line breaks is right, then others WILL respond positively, whether or not they stop to identify what’s happening.
These days, whenever there’s a mass shooting, one of the more poignant things afterwards is hearing what the shooter’s parents or siblings have to say. Imagine being Judas Iscariot’s father. John gives us his name. It was Simon Iscariot. Why do we know that name? Did Simon end up following Jesus? I hope so!
Here’s the passage that prompted my flight of imagination (the poem), with a little of its context:
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
John 6:68-71 ESV
A friend of mine wrote this:
In Mark 3, when Jesus chooses the 12, it casually mentions that Judas would betray him. I always thought that was just a throw-in, some foreboding music to alert us about coming plot twists. But then it hit me: What if Jesus chose Judas BECAUSE he was going to betray Him? And what if he put Judas in charge of the money bag in order to keep him around, since he planned to use him as an important part of orchestrating His own death?
“We’re on the same page,” I said, “Jesus was orchestrating events, not just responding to them. It’s amazing.”
There’s an odd little passage in John’s account of Jesus walking on the water the night after he had fed the five thousand:
But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
John 6:20-21 NIV
They were willing!? That’s the translation in the NASB and NIV. I immediately ask myself, “Why would they not be willing?” The Greek verb is θελο (thelo), and some translations render that in this passage as “wanted” (NET), or “were glad” (ESV). Those translations may be correct. But I have to wonder if John could be subtly suggesting something that was at issue in the disciples’ response to their teacher: their willingness to accept the unfolding of events on his terms.
THIS IS A STRETCH, I know, but follow me for how I get to my devotional response in the poem….
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus had “wandered” off to avoid a power-hungry crowd. The disciples took off rowing across the lake without Jesus. I think that’s odd. Were they ticked off at him? Now, they were struggling on choppy waters. Is it possible that they were having second thoughts about their teacher? Is it possible that they were just barely “willing” to take him on board given their doubts about his plans?
Maybe I notice that possibility because I myself question Jesus’ plans in my life.
Thus the poem.
Another Thought John is deep. But I doubt he’s introducing any depth that wasn’t there already in Jesus. That’s part of what prompted this poem. Jesus wasn’t merely responding to circumstances in the disciples’ lives. He was orchestrating events, using his full “vocabulary” of metaphors to drive home truth. It was no accident that the sea was thrashing on that night.
(background adapted from an image by Roberto Barresi on Pixabay)
In a sidebar of “Rejoicing in Christ,” Michael Reeves writes about the English Reformer John Bradford. He says, “Most Christians take mealtime as a chance to thank God and remember him as their provider, but Bradford saw every part of the day as a gospel reminder.”
That seems like a fitting response to God’s ubiquitous poetry.
About the Background Image Two blocks over from where I live, there is a house with a tall, elegant sycamore. That’s the kind of tree that surrounded our house in East Texas. I thought they were fairly common, until I began looking for one to photograph for another poem. That’s when I discovered how rare they are, at least in Dallas.
This afternoon, as the sun set at its new, ridiculously early bedtime, I was out for a walk, and noticed how beautiful the light was. As I walked, I was supposedly listening to King David’s Psalms. But my mind was also occupied with how I myself should respond to beauty around me.
I hope you don’t consider this vignette–and others like it–an exposition of a biblical passage. It’s my emotional and imaginative response to the story of Jesus healing a lame man who had languished by the Pool of Bethesda (John 5). It makes me almost as happy to think of a reader saying “No, you got this wrong” as it would for the reader to say, “Oh yeah, that’s it. You nailed it!” I mainly want my reader to enter the scene with me, look around, and take it in, even if that means that my observations and interpretations prove to be mistaken.
A Personal Reflection You may notice that the background I chose for this vignette is a homeless camp somewhere. In growing up to be like Jesus, I often struggle with kindness and compassion. These qualities are tested by seeing beggars and homeless people. So, in considering whether or not I am growing in these qualities, I let my thoughts wander back across my life to earlier encounters. Here’s what I jotted down:
SUFFERING IS LARGELY HID FROM OUR EYES I grew up in a city where the disabled had to get out in public, so they could beg. Although a six-year-old Bradley didn’t feel the compassion that I feel now, I can still recall some of the more heart-wrenching scenes, like the legless man who got around by propping himself up on a skateboard. As with most powerful memories, I also remember the place. He hung out near the city’s one big, modern grocery store. I suppose it’s because the store’s clientele were “rich” folk like my missionary parents. And a few of those rich folk—there, like here—had compassion.
(background image by José Manuel de Laá on Pixabay)
Imagine how sad it would be for a person to grow up thinking they’re one thing when they’re really another. They might spend a lifetime missing out on the wonder of their true giftedness.
This was my first clear thought upon waking from dreams this morning. So I stayed in bed and wrote it down, in the form of a story. It’s partly the story of my life. Only my story doesn’t end in tragedy. Does yours?
I’ll have to confess one possible inspiration for this silly little story: the “Mr. Garvey” skits by the brilliant Key and Peele (warning — coarse language):
This kind of poem should probably be written by an experienced counselor, or pastor… someone who really knows the condition of hearts. As a poet, I sometimes just throw words against the wall to see if they stick. It’s like verbal spaghetti. How did Photine perceive herself? Why had she gone from man to man? I have an intuition that men and women long for beauty, especially beauty that is tied to the goodness of a person, ultimately THE Person: God.
I am working my way very slowly through the Gospel of John, and typically spend a few days translating and contemplating each chapter. I wrote the above poem the morning that I started into chapter 4. It was an attempt to imagine what the Samaritan woman might have been thinking as she trekked to the well for water. As I think about her situation in the days after I wrote the poem, I begin to second-guess myself. And that’s okay. It’s helpful to use one’s imagination, not for coming to conclusions, but for generating more questions.
A Grammatical Riddle Should the last two lines be “competitors FOR peace of mind,” or “competitors WITH peace of mind”? Even thinking through a question like this one raises other questions: 1) would Photine have said that she already had peace of mind? 2) were there false claimants to her peace of mind? 3) was peace of mind really one of Photine’s felt needs in any case? I don’t think any of us knows the answers. But maybe some day we will.
(background image adapted from a photograph by Fr. Lawrence, OP. He comments, “This painting of Christ and the Samaritan Woman is in the museum at the Dominican priory of Santa Sabina in Rome.”)
This poem memorializes something that really happened this morning. I assist St. Bart’s Anglican Church by projecting slides during their service. That means that I show up before their services and step through all the song slides as their worship team practices. They have professional, highly-skilled musicians, which is always a pleasure for me. This morning, the musicians seemed especially creative–maybe even frisky–in their practice time. I believe it was while they were practicing the Doxology that Esther Brister suddenly hit a harmonizing note that blew my mind. I’m not a musician, so it’s easy to impress me. But I wasn’t alone. Everyone there laughed in delight.
The Background Image This afternoon, as I was thinking about what happened this morning, I thought of quasars, and the powerful escape of light from them. That’s probably inaccurate, as I know next to nothing about astronomy. But I’m learning about beauty, and this morning’s occurrence was definitely an outburst of beautiful energy.
When football fans were young, they’d spend the halftimes of televised games out on the lawn tossing their own football. That’s what this poem is. Only instead of watching a football game, I was listening to one of John Krakauer’s mesmerizing, tragic tales. The book was Into The Wild, the story of how and why Chris McCandless came to die his lonely death in the Alaskan wilderness. That’s not a spoiler; it’s how Krakauer tells his tales: tragic destination in the opening pages, and then the twisting road that got there.
I was lying in bed, having listened to a chapter where Krakauer tells several short stories that Alaskans are prone to think of when greenhorns show up ill-prepared. “Here we go again,” they’ll say. “I’ve seen how badly this one ends.”
“Here we go again.” Déjà vu. A recurrence of my own popped into my sleepy head, along with a full-formed sentence that woke me up and got me out of bed to write: “Twice now, some fifty years apart, I’ve seen this one act play performed.”
Call this a writing exercise, or maybe just a way to fall asleep.
The Setting of This Poem What was going on in Nicodemus’ mind the morning before he met Jesus at night? I think it’s useful to imagine that, and then to test the picture against John’s account. I don’t mean for this poem to suggest a radical interpretation of Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus, or even to suggest that my imagination is borne out by what John wrote. As I think about John 3:1-21, I’m noticing a contrast of source and destiny, here and there, old and new. I’m letting those and other concepts play in my imagination as I try to picture Nicodemus’ heart.
A friend who is familiar with church history told me recently that oral tradition suggests Nicodemus was eventually born again. I sure hope so.
I’ve got to laugh at this poem. It’s the kind of thing I write when I’ve been lying in bed, as dreams fade and conscious thought awakens. When I wrote it, I thought it was really good. Two cups of coffee later, I’m not so sure!
I struggle to express my growing impression of beauty. Some of my poems seem to be hitting up against it. I can almost reach out and touch it. But then I find it’s bigger than everything, and so it eludes my grasp.
Two Additional Notes A couple of my friends who have studied the theological topic of beauty at the doctoral level have given me pointers on the topic. Their help gives me hope. But who knows, it may be above my mental pay grade. That’s a fear I expressed recently in the poem “Insufficiency.”
In my current rapid listen-through of the Bible, I got to 1 Kings 8 today. Here’s a passage that may relate to what I said about the enormity of beauty:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
1 Kings 8:27 (Solomon’s dedication of the temple)
(background image is a composite of crystal by “DaModernDaVinci” and sand by Uwe Jelting, both on Pixabay)
Word to the wise: Don’t take Claritin-D shortly before going to bed, especially when you really need to sleep. Your sinuses will be clear, but you’ll just lie there with racing thoughts. The “D” in Claritin-D apparently stands for doggerel.
On the night I wrote this poem, I messed up, and took the wrong medication. As a result, I was wide awake, and I started doing something I often do when I first wake up in the morning: in my head I was taking words and arranging them in various orders, looking for an arrangement that pleased me. In the end, the only way I could get this out of my head was to get out of bed and write down the results. It’s not a great poem, but at least I DID get to sleep after writing it.
These days, I’m reading slowly through the Gospel of John. This morning, I got to the end of chapter two, where John notes that whereas people were believing in Jesus because of his miracles, he was not entrusting himself to them:
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
Here’s one thing that caught my attention: John uses the same verb in “many believed” as he does in “did not entrust.” The verb is a common one for belief: pisteuo. It struck me as a play on words that begs for the reader to dig deeper. The main question that comes to my mind is, does this suggest that there are elements in the witnesses’ belief and Jesus’ entrusting that are parallel? Do they contrast?
I haven’t gotten to the bottom of my question, but as I read what commentators say about the passage, I found some of them pushing one of my buttons: they denigrate people for basing their belief in Jesus on his miracles, as though there were a better basis for belief! But John himself summed up the purpose for his Gospel like this:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The Poem I registered my objection by writing the poem above. In the third line, “God at rest” stands for a God who is not active, doing things, interacting with his creation, performing miracles.
The last two lines are the test I propose: is there anything we can see or know about God apart from his actively making himself known?
Next time you hear someone piously pray, “God, I worship you not for what you’ve done, but for who you are,” pull them aside and remind them that God IS a creator, lover, healer, savior. Who he is cannot be separated from what he does. Thank God that’s so!
Caveat I could be wrong. I’m the son of a theologian, and I have friends who are philosophers. But I am not one of them. Any time I refer to Plato, just know that I’m in the deep end, and don’t know how to swim.
(background photo by Joshua Woroniecki on Pixabay)
In my dream two nights ago, my friend and I were stealing large tables from a church. We spotted a police officer, and my friend said, “We’ll rent that box truck!” Quickly, I threw my table into the back of the truck and leaped in after it. WHAM! I had launched myself out of bed and landed on my knees. Crime doesn’t pay, even in my sleep.
In trying to come up with appropriate hashtags for this poem that I wrote last night, I did a search for “moving in dreams.” I’m not going to dignify the results. As with most searches I make these days for “what does it mean if I [fill in the blank],” Google supplied articles suggesting that I am in the early stages of senescence. I suspect the little boys and girls at Google are having a good laugh at my expense.
Back to reality…. Obviously, Susan woke up and asked why I had landed on the floor. I spared her the details of the dream until morning. But she went and got some arnica cream for me to rub on my knee caps along with an ice pack to prevent swelling. I lay there feeling the chill on my knees and contemplating the end of my walking days. Two days later, I think I’ll be fine. But Susan has mentioned a guard rail. And she definitely wants me to keep a pillow on the wooden chest that my face would hit if my knees don’t hit first. She isn’t worried that I’d lose my good looks. It’s my cranium that concerns her.
I finished my crawl through Luke, and have begun my crawl through John. So far, the Greek seems easier, but John is every bit as much an allusionist as Luke.
John’s account of how Jesus called Nathanael to be one of his followers seems to be FULL of allusions. I doubt we can be definitive about what was going on in Jesus’ exchange with Nathanael. It does seem clear to me, though, that Jesus is alluding to Jacob/Israel in what he says to Nathanael. What was the condition of Nathanael’s heart? Why was he dismissive of goodness? How was he like Jacob, and how was the prospect of his own “Jacob’s ladder” a meaningful promise?
In this poem, I apply what I hope is sanctified imagination to the story. I realize that some of it is ambiguous. Let me clarify what I had in mind…. Nathanael seemed surprised that Jesus had seen him under the fig tree. I’m guessing he thought his being under the fig tree was completely private. But there’s more. Jesus welcomed Nathanael as “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Why “deceit?” And why, “a true Israelite?” Because of what Jesus says later about Nathanael seeing “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” I’m guessing that Jesus was comparing Nathanael to Jacob, who is often called “Jacob the Deceiver,” but was also called Israel. Here’s the premise of the poem: Nathanael had been under a fig tree reflecting on how he, like Jacob was a deceiver. He wondered — and doubted — how God could be merciful with him. Jesus knew all that, and showed him otherwise.
Another Possibility About Nathanael Nathanael has always fascinated me. When Jesus said of Nathanael, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” was he being facetious? That’s the possibility I am currently exploring. I used to think that Jesus probably meant something like, “that Nathanael speaks his mind!” Such a guileless man appeals to me. Regardless, truthfulness was probably an important issue to Nathanael. I speculate that duplicity–whether his own, or what he experienced from others–was oppressive to him. In this poem, I also speculate that he doubted the availability of mercy. But the God who sees and knows each of us intimately sought him out. That’s amazing grace!
DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME In this poem, I’m doing two things that are generally discouraged. First, I’m playing with the Greek idioms that Luke used in his telling of the Resurrection. “At early dawn” in Luke 24:1 is literally “at deep dawn” (ορθρου βαθεωσ, orthou batheos). “In dazzling clothing” in 24:4 is literally “in clothing flashing like lightning” (εν εσθητι αστραπτουση, en estheti astraptouse). I pushed lightning to its root: aster = star. OF COURSE, THIS IS GENERALLY FOOLISHNESS. Translating idioms is not a matter of dissecting phrases down to their literal components. Imagine how “knock your socks off” would be translated into another language if the translator were translating word-for-word!
The second thing I’m doing — more successfully in my head than in the poem — is relating New Testament events to Old Testament events. Where, in the Old Testament, was a stone removed for a woman by a man? One place is Jacob’s initial meeting with his bride-to-be Rachel (Genesis 29:1-10). Does that story have anything to do with the Resurrection account? PROBABLY NOT. However, probably not isn’t the same as definitely not.
I say “don’t try this at home.” Don’t make too much of literal meanings of words, or of slight coincidence. But DO THIS: read the Bible with heightened vigilance and imagination. When you encounter stories with wells, or stones, or swords, or angels, or fire remember: the Author was there; often, if not always, He was a character in the story. And He has a long memory.
As I try to get caught up with posting poems here on my blog, I’m encountering some poems written so long ago that I don’t recall what I was thinking! I do remember that this poem was an emotional response to Luke 7. One of the questions that’s often on my mind when I read the Gospels is “What did Jesus and his listeners think that salvation means?” Of course we can read the accounts with the benefit of systematic theology, but I’m uneasy about that process. A theological grid can obscure as much as it reveals.
[NOTE: Luke 8:4-18 has far more to it than I deal with in the following commentary. Also, one of my Facebook friends mentioned that she had dealt with the same passage, and largely come to the same conclusion as I did. You should read Laurie Mather’s well-written blog post.]
I didn’t always pay close attention in Sunday school. But if memory serves right, the “light under a bushel” motif was always taught either as a prod to keep witnessing, or as an encouragement to recognize and use our gifts and talents. It was all about what we can and should do with the good things we possess. They taught us a catchy little tune that probably did more damage than good.
Despite our Sunday school teachers’ excellent intentions, I currently doubt that they got Jesus’ meaning right, or that they understood how Luke uses the motif. Here’s what changed my thinking….
Recently, as I struggled through the Greek1 in Luke 8, a word kept popping up: ακούω. Hear! Listen! Luke points out that while telling the parable of the soils (that immediately precedes the “light under a bushel” illustration), Jesus interjected a word of urgency:
“As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’”
Luke 8:8 ESV
Notice that “he called out.” That must have caught his listeners’ attention. It should catch ours as well. Let us hear.
Listening And Receptivity In Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the soils, some form of “listen” or “hear” is recurring. The characters in the parable hear the word with varying levels of receptivity.2 We’ve already seen that Jesus emphasized the need for his listeners to hear what he was saying.
After telling about the parable of the soils (Luke 8:4-15), Luke relates something Jesus said about lights, containers, beds, and lampstands (Luke 8:16-17). Given the way I had typically understood this “light under a bushel” motif, its use in these two verses struck me as a non-sequitur. That’s always a good sign that I’m missing the point. So I kept reading….
The form of the following verse suggests that the soils parable and the light under a bushel illustration were not disparate thoughts, but were supposed to be one cohesive section. Luke brings us to a logical conclusion of the section with verse 18 (notice my bolding):
“Take care thenhow you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”
Luke 8:18 ESV
In the concluding verse, we’re back to the matter of hearing, and a stern warning to those who aren’t listening well.
In “light” of this, how does the “light under a bushel” motif fit in Jesus’ flow of thought? Is he suddenly, inexplicably talking about witnessing or using our hidden talents?
My tentative conclusion is that Jesus has not interrupted himself. When he talks about lights and how they are either minimized or maximized, he’s still talking about receptivity. Our hearts, like various soils, can receive or reject God’s life-changing word. We need to LISTEN well. Similarly, when the light of God’s word is illuminating our hearts, we need to LOOK well. We need to receive—respond to—what we’re being shown.
Am I ready for God to shed light on my heart? Am I receptive to his correction? Am I prepared to remove the rocks and weeds that he reveals so that better things can grow?
Maybe that’s the flow of thought in Luke 8. I could be wrong. I’ll keep the light on.
ABOUT THE POEM The Luke 8 account has two settings: outside and inside. Outside, there’s the soils by the path; inside, there’s the room that’s being illumined. That’s one of two reasons why I used “without, within” in my poem. It’s also the case that some of our sin is externally obvious (rocks, weeds), and some is less obvious (like shallow soil).
Since I always doubt myself…. Here’s a question for future consideration: is the soils parable really about sinful responses?
1 I rarely ever admit to having any facility with Greek. Two reasons: 1) despite having studied Greek three years in seminary, I don’t consider myself anything above a “beginner” and 2) even if I were fluent, I wouldn’t mention it because my real goal is to encourage others to study the Bible in whatever their mother tongue might be. I don’t want anyone getting the impression that Greek is necessary. Frankly, the only reason it helps me at this point is that it slows my brain down enough to notice things. I could probably turn the text upside down and read it in a mirror and get the same benefit!
2 The fact that “believe” and “be saved” are used in Jesus’ explanation of the soils parable may seem to limit its meaning or application to evangelism. I suspect that’s too narrow, that the parable applies at any point in the run up to producing good fruit. [This begs for exploration: the relationship of being fruitful and salvation, or of not being fruitful and needing salvation. Helpfully, the cursing of the fruitless fig tree may challenge, deepen, and expand our understanding]
On my walk yesterday, listening through Exodus, I heard this fascinating snippet:
And they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
When I encounter passages like this one, I want to explore, to stop and study. Not necessarily to study in an academic way… more to gaze intently until my senses have taken in the scene, so that like Mary I may ponder in my heart. But there are voices—do I only imagine them?—who murmur “Move along, and stay behind the railing.”
The Poem’s Structure I woke up this morning and initially wrote the last five lines. As often happens with me, something subconscious was giving the poem physical structure by creating a pattern of line lengths. When I see that happening, I try to follow through. The poem was taking the form of a mountain, but it needed a summit. So I inserted the first seven lines.
Docents I have toured many a museum, and been thankful to many a docent for guiding me there. I mean no disrespect by picturing them in this poem as dripping clouds who live only to put out sparks of curiosity. What am I actually picturing? Dull, strangling systematic theology, at least as practiced by some.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem that stirred up as much emotion as this one stirs up in me. Today, I began reading a book* about a theologian who wrote extensively about beauty. This is a subject whose extreme importance I sense but cannot intellectually grasp. I thought maybe an introduction to Hans Urs Von Balthasar would help. So far, this book only serves to remind me once again how far my reach exceeds my grasp. I want to understand something essential in God, but the mind he has given me is insufficient for the task.
On the flip side of that frustration, there is this: Our beautiful Savior imprisoned himself in our limitations for a time in order to remove the worst of those limitations forever.
*The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar. It looks like I may have better luck with another book once I get my hands on a copy: A Key to Balthasar: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by Aidan OP Nichols
My Original Confusion (what I was thinking when I wrote the poem) In Luke 12, the tone of Jesus’ parables switches from reassuring to threatening. Just as the tone changes, Luke throws in a question from Peter:
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”
This is one of those seeming non-sequiturs that makes me sit up and ask, “What’s going on here!?” Luke doesn’t give us Jesus’ answer. Or does he? I don’t know yet. But I know that the passage makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.
On Further Reflection (what I wrote on a subsequent day) You know, as I read through Luke 12 again this morning, I am getting a really different picture. How does Jesus describe the master (Himself) who returns at an unexpected hour and finds his servants being good to one another?
Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.
Luke 12:37 ESV
The picture is grim not for those good, Christ-like servants but for those who selfishly look out only for themselves.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything more than He has done… or anything less.
Inflection points in life can be very good… or very bad. I experienced a major inflection point back in 2017, when I became my own boss. The years since then have been years of remarkable spiritual growth. My new freedom afforded ample time for frequent long walks where I listened through the Bible repeatedly, along with other inspiring literature. I spent more time with people who influence me for good. My eyes were opened to beauty I had never noticed in the world around me. I began writing poetry, which means that I began listening more closely to my heart. I watched my responses to fellow human beings, and noticed some deep-seated problems in myself. God has been fixing those problems, changing my heart. So the inflection point in 2017 was very good.
Right now, I seem to be at another major inflection point in life. Once again, it has to do with a career change. As I move through the coming five years, will I continue growing more like Jesus? If so, it will have been a very good inflection point. If not, it will have been very bad.
(background adapted from an image by “domeckopol” on Pixabay)
This poem is a lighthearted way of putting a serious problem: we humans often care more about being on the winning team than we do about accomplishing something that matters in the long run. We just want to win, to get our way, to come out on top. We race each other to the summit of Everest. There in the death zone, we plant our flag, and hasten to die.
(background image by Dimitris Vetsikas on Pixabay)
My crawl through Luke brings me this morning to chapter nine. As everywhere in Luke, this passage is replete with metaphor, allusions, and strong undercurrents.
Although the word “sabbath” is not even mentioned in Luke 9, I am reminded of it in reading the account of the feeding of the five thousand.
On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.”
People seem to generally think of Sabbath merely as a time of rest. Sometimes, they think of it as a time to get rested up for coming labor. I like to think of it as a celebration of God’s miraculous provision, a time when you relax and receive God’s bounty.
The Sabbath seems to be an inexhaustible subject. One thing I puzzle about is whether and how the Sabbath is supposed to inform everything that comes before. How does knowing that God will provide color the time before His provision?
AS FOR THIS FRIDAY
I’m glad that life’s challenges are not — and will not be — wasted on me. The Teacher brings those lessons lovingly.
Don’t be fooled by the playful image. The key word in this poem is “pretend.” There are many times when I realize that I’m not fully conscious of meaning in my own poems. That seemed like a sorry excuse for sloppy writing when I was younger. Now, I increasingly recognize that I don’t grasp so much as I am grasped.
In my crawl through Luke, I got to chapter eleven today. Jesus’ disciples seem a little concerned that they might miss out on God’s blessing if they don’t have the right technique. They say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, like John taught his disciples.” We sometimes concentrate on the components of “the prayer” that Jesus taught them, but the bigger point (as seen in the illustrations Jesus follows up with) seems to be, “God is good; just do it!”
ME: (referring to the photograph above) No matter how many times I walk under these bois d’arc trees on my shortcut to the lake, it feels like I’m entering a special place, or embarking on an adventure. What are the magical places and moments in your life?
JOSH VAJDA: When I was a teen, we had 10 acres of forest and brush behind the house, with paths winding through. My favorite part of the walk was in the back corner on just the right winter’s day. After a hairpin turn in the brush, you walked along the side of a patch of older trees, which soon sharply turned right, inviting you inside, and winding so you could not see too far ahead. With a fresh blanket of heavy, wet snow, it was truly magical. The frosted pine and birch towered above, while the brush heavy laden hugged the path. The sun lit the chamber like a cathedral, and the snow smothered every sound except the crunch beneath your boots and the swish of your winter coat. Sometimes I would just stand in the center and soak it in as long as I could.
ME: Josh, you have written elsewhere about the importance of imagination. In the space set apart, the cathedral, we begin to imagine how everything could be different. As you describe that magical place from your youth, I want to map it out in my head. If I were sitting with you, I’d ask you to sketch the scene. I want to locate that cathedral and enter it myself. Those of us who have read Lewis think immediately of a wardrobe in an old professor’s house. But we should probably find our own wardrobes. Then, what is it we encounter in the set-apart space? To define it seems only to diminish it.
JOSH VAJDA: As usual, you are correct. I couldn’t help feeling it had a certain Narnian magic to it.
ME: This one’s for Josh Vajda (an echo of your elevated prose):
[Note: Josh Vajda kindly gave me permission to include our Facebook exchange in this post. Josh is an excellent thinker and writer. Check out his blog. For instance, this study of “The Sin of Sodom.”]
[NOTE: this could also be called “End of the Internet.” Anyone who has ever sought comfort in doom-scrolling may know what I mean]
I struggled for an hour to express this feeling and realization. I almost captured it in another poem, but that poem was too much of an abstraction. The simple truth is that I try to fill too much of my life with useless knowledge, and too little with useful service. It’s one hazard of being a poet, but I’ll not pretend that’s an adequate excuse.
So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 2:17 ESV
[NB: I almost always try to stuff more than one meaning into my poem titles. “End” in this title is intended to suggest two questions: where does knowledge get you, and what’s it for?]
In my crawl through Luke, I’m to chapter fifteen. There are several celebrations in this section—and some people who don’t care to celebrate.
This morning, I’m reminded of family devotions at the Hepp house in Puebla. Before heading off to the seminary to teach, Dad would lead us in considering a portion of the Bible. We took turns reading. Then Dad would often say, “Now tell us what you just read in your own words.” If it was my turn, I’d just as often sass, “Why should I do that, given that it’s already in the best possible words?!”
Now, I’m grown up. I’m forever trying to put things in my own words, often in the form of poetry. Much of what I hear, read, or experience gets compressed and squeezed through the piping cone of my poetic mind. I’m like a cake decorator in training, looking for celebrations, looking for something to squeeze decoratively into my own words.
I woke up thinking, “It’s Saturday again. Already. Time is fleeting.” Then, I thought about other things that are sometimes fleeting, but should not be. Love and friendship make the passage of time tolerable. Their loss make its pain more intense.
Rest is not negligence, but it sometimes requires neglect.
This poem was inspired in part by looking at my cherished moss garden. Right now, it’s a mess. In fact, nothing worked right this year in the gardens I look out upon from my office window. I had to replace most of the moss in the garden because something killed it last year. Then, I didn’t keep up with weeding it. You see the results in the background photo. I failed to plant the annual vines that grow up on the trellis that covers the moss garden and is supposed to shade my office windows. The wildflowers that I planted this year didn’t bloom as they have in past years. It was a different brand. So, nothing worked. Soon the year will be done, and I’ll try again.
This is not my idea of how a fallow year should look. But maybe it is how a fallow year does look!
Is my garden a reflection of my heart? I hope not. In fact, I know that I have been paying closer attention than ever to what grows in my heart. I’ve been pulling weeds, amending soil, watering. The effects aren’t obvious yet, but maybe by next year, the gardens outside and the garden inside will both reflect the hidden growth of a fallow year.
Seriousness, kindness, and criticism. These are currents I negotiate in my daily swim. Always swim with a buddy.
Here’s how I explained this poem to an old friend: “Who you’re becoming matters for all eternity, so I will spend time and effort on our friendship now.” That’s the perspective I want to fully embrace.
Here’s the occasion for this poem…. I woke up in the middle of my night to a son coming home from a miserable shift bedeviled by a horrible manager. In my sadness for him, and my anger at the manager, I could not get back to sleep. So why “Listen Longer”? Deep down I know the Good Teacher never stops teaching.
When I wrote this, I was working through Luke 12. The returning master in Jesus’ parable wants to serve his servants, and is angered when his servants respond with selfishness, looking out for themselves and not each other. I begin to understand the master’s anger.