Everyday Poems #3, “A Poem Is Not Meant To Be Good”

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“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” —Emily Dickinson

The following poem was written after a short poem I had shared was described as “good.” And I remember thinking, “Good? Only good? That may not have even been worth writing.” I did not want to write good poems.

However, if you are worried about what others think about your writing too much, you will never write. Or at least you will not write so others can read.

Which of course, Dickinson did not do. She was a “portfolio poet.” She wrote for herself only. The sheer love of creating the poem is why we have her poems. No ambition. Which is why a book of Dickinson’s poems is worth your time and money. Besides, each one is a true work of art. Not all are equally great. But they are all worth your time.

And in this cultural moment, you have the time.

Unless you are wasting away in front of The Bachelor.

Just remember –– overstatement is not only the province of teenagers, it is also the domain of poets.


A Poem Is Not Meant to Be Good.

No, a poem is meant
to reach into the night sky
and grab constellations
by the tail and swing
from one glory to the next.

It is meant
to lift a heart lost
in the dark night of the soul
and pull out tears
only to dry them.

Silence is preferred over
a poem only meant to be good.

Everyday Poems #2, “A Little Boy Again”

silverstein2

The first poems I remember loving were those of Shel Silverstein. I was in fifth grade and after telling my teacher and my class, “poems are for girls,” I found myself out in the hall with said teacher. But she wasn’t mad. Or at least she hid it. Instead she talked to me about what I said and then she gave me a Shel Silverstein book to read. I was so shocked at not getting in trouble, when I clearly deserved it, I read that book of silly poems.

Yes, they are silly poems, But there is depth, too. And beauty. There still is. I know because the same collection sits just a few feet from me as I type this, between Donald Hall and Wendell Berry. But what those poems really showed me without knowing it, is poems can easily deal with hopes that seems impossible. In a poem, you play with imagination. The veil between the kingdoms of this world and the unseen realities of the heavens can be looked behind. There is something child-like about the whole enterprise. And the older I get, the more and more, I appreciate this.

Today’s poem is thematically similar to yesterday’s. Both are poems of unembarrassed hope and both mention my parents, who tend to show up a lot in my writing – mainly because they show up a lot in my thoughts.

There is even some similar imagery. Even before I heard Malick call dusk, “the magic hour,” that time of the day held my attention. No matter the season, what is possible seems to expand during that short period where day and night meet in communion, the one waning and the other waxing.

Have you ever thought about the undeniable fact that we were all once little boys and girls, who held none of the cares of adulthood? We smiled easier and the world was bigger. Every one of us.

I try to remember.


I hope one day to be a little boy again
so I can have milkshakes with my dad
after getting out of school early
and driving to the dentist across town.

I hope one night I’ll lie down in the back
window behind the backseat of our Caprice
to watch the streetlights and stars fly by
as my mom cries to Hot August Night.

I hope to walk the aisles of K-Mart
looking for Hot Wheels and Star Wars
action figures while my dad buys
motor oil and spark plugs probably.

I hope one day to be a little boy again
and forget about all I’ve known in this
world of sex and violence and bills and
leaky faucets and mortgage payments.

I hope one day to be a little boy again
and take batting practice at dusk and
field fly balls as dad waits along the fence
and mom cooks cashew chicken at home.

I hope to just one more time play hard
throughout the day and then wake up
as my parents carry me from our couch
down that long hallway to my own bed.

Everyday Poems: #1, “Memories of the Future Past”

Dusk

It all started in eighth grade…I think. I’d been secretly enjoying poetry since fifth grade, but in Junior High I started writing my own. Unfortunately they were not very kind. I was trying to be funny and that meant making fun of other kids. But even in the midst of those sins, something happened that was good.

A few kids liked them. They worked.

And so for years, I wrote and wrote and wrote and sometimes let my parents read them  and sometimes I would present one to a girl. And those all mimicked U2 lyrics probably. I still have those notebooks but I am terrified of opening them.

My love of reading and writing poetry can wax and wane. But there is always a current underneath, longing to read and write a line that stretches out and up into the reality we all know is there but just don’t have words for.

Starting today, I’m going to post a poem everyday. I’ve got enough in my bag to get through a few months. Some will be really short because I love short poems packed with lots of meaning. Some will be serious and every now again, there will be levity. My hope is just like that poem making fun of my friend Scott in eighth grade, these will be hospitable for those not all that used to reading poems outside of a greeting card.

Along the way, I will try to introduce you to some real poets.

This first poem goes back a few years. And I think the hope within it is of some value during this weird time. It’s got legs and maybe wings. Feel free to add in “fears from a pandemic” to the list.


Memories of the Future Past

Remember those summer nights
when you were young
and dusk hung in the air
like that kiss
from the girl around the corner?
And the fireflies
lit the yard of freshly cut grass?
And your dreams were bigger
and brighter than the mirror-ball moon
hanging among stars
you pretended to throw into the night sky?
One day.
One day, my friend.
It will come with no end.
And our parents
in all their forgotten strength
will lay down their newspapers
and their dish rags
and join you in the joy
as the screen door slams shut behind them.
The ice cream churn will hum
and the smell of the community pool
will lie thick upon your sunned skin
and you will crave the breeze traveling
fast like the trains
you hear down in the valley.
It will come with no end.
And the tears of cancer
and the tears of Alzheimers
and divorce
and all the broken-hearted times will end
and give way to a taut thread of moments
that taste like the honied memory of dusk unending.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

woods

1. I have been thinking long about Willard’s statement, “Everything that exists outside of the human realm automatically expresses the kingdom of God.” Maybe this is why we so often crave the purity and quiet of the woods and standing at the edge of the sea. The rocks cry out. The trees clap their hands. And the waves of the sea never stop their endless worship in rhythm. Sometimes when the hardness of life takes over inside, I want to get outside of the human realm as much as I can. I think we were created for this. And maybe it’s why Jesus, the King, so often withdrew to a desolate place.

2. My fifth grade son had “neologism” as a vocabulary word and now I have seen this word three times in my own reading since, silencing my complaints.

3. Seamus Heaney only had the equivalent of a BA, which is more than myself and less too.

4. Another quote from Willard I cannot get out of head – “Most are more afraid of obedience than disobedience.”

5. One day we will experience a rest that does not cause anxiety about what needs to be done next.

6. Maybe, we as a culture will rediscover simple pleasures.

7. I am proud of my kids. But yesterday, my youngest came from a school trip after being gone a couple of days. And one of his first bits of information about the three day trip was an exclamation about breakfast and the bacon he ate. My heart swelled. As well as my arteries.

8. When hard times come,
I  miss my parents,
and am glad
they are not around to see them,
knowing they are glimpsing un-obscured glories,
day in and day out if there are any days at all in that sunlit land.

9. I miss the baseball season that has not yet started late.

10. For months I have been reciting from memory Col. 3:1-17. Those words have gotten in me. And now I cannot think of the fears surrounding us in light of these verses. Especially the beginning. “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.” We have died already. We can no longer die. Or be killed. Even more, my friends, we have been raised.

Why I Will Not Be Teaching at Westminster Next Year

Timothy-Keller-Quote-Worry-is-not-believing-God-will-get-it-right

Until the sea of glass we meet
At last completed and complete
The tide of tear and pain subside
Laughter drinks them dry
                  – Jon Foreman

After three years of teaching at Westminster, I will not be able to do so next year.

Last Thursday I was told my contract would not be renewed for me to be a teacher at Westminster School at Oak Mountain. I was told there was no longer a full-time position in the Bible Department available for me. They made it clear this was not a decision based on my performance – I have never had a bad review or been given anything but positive feedback on an observation. It was a decision based on efficiency.

There are two things I want to be known:

1) I want the Westminster community to know this was not my choice. To all the parents of my students – I love teaching your children. I have loved partnering with you.  And I am nothing but sad about this news. After three years of high-fiving your kids in the hall, hugging them, giving them a hard time, and listening to their thoughts on all that matters in this world and the next, it will be hard to move on to another chapter.

2) I need help finding a new job. I have already begun the process of looking for a new position but I need help. We are committed to staying in the Birmingham area. We want to stay at our church and we want to stay in our neighborhood. So, with my hat in hand, I am asking for ideas and offers of help in finding a new job.

Please pray for us. Pray that we would believe the very things I teach my students:

– “Do not worry about your life…”

– “The unseen reality of God and his kingdom rule.”

– “We are citizens of a kingdom of love, joy, and peace.”

– “This is not my biggest problem. My biggest has already been dealt a fatal blow on the cross.”

And of course…

– “Repent. Believe. Fight.”

Pray that we would move forward with joy and not bitterness. That’s a hard one.

Pray that we would know the peace of God, which is better than understanding our circumstances and why they are what they are.

Pray that we will believe God is working even this for our good and his glory.

Pray that we believe He is getting it right.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

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1. “Don’t be afraid.” – The King

2. I have learned a great deal from reading Dallas Willard’s books over the past six months. But one thing stands out. He is right – memorizing long passages of scripture and not just verses is formative. And once those words get in you, those words are in you when the bottom falls out.

3. We are reading Keller’s The Prodigal God as a small group, and discussing it with those friends is possibly better than reading it for the first time.

4. I have been off social media for about two months now. When someone says, “Have you heard?” my answer is now almost always “nope.”

5. Yesterday I went to Publix and picked up some flowers for Bethany. While I was going through the checkout line, “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry played in the background. Last night after Bethany and I went to dinner, we stopped by the same Publix and as we approached the checkout line, “Oh Sherrie” started up again. #shouldabeengone

6. If anyone has read a good biography of Emily Dickinson, let me know.

7. Dieting will help you transform into the image of this world’s picture of beauty. Fasting will help you transform into the image of Christ.

8. I finished Augustine’s Confessions last week. But really it’s the kind of book that finishes you.

9. There is no safer place than the path on which you follow the King in his kingdom.

10.  “For the Day After Our 21st”

We woke up in that Embassy Suites
in Homewood and ate omelettes that tasted
like the joy I bet Adam and Eve knew
when they woke up for their first full day –
Eve with no need for a new blouse
and Adam with one less rib.

We drove to Atlanta,
ate fried chicken,
boarded a plane,
and flew to Newport News –
where the biting wind made us laugh.
We drove in the dark.

All I remember now is eating at
that Ruby Tuesday’s in Williamsburg
which is a restaurant no one cares for.
But I only see you and me,
and how every moment was alive,
whenever we drive by one on the way to somewhere else.

 

Random Thoughts for The Weekend

Image result for james k a smith augustine

1. My first thought about the Coronavirus – which I truly know next to nothing about – is this: “Do not worry about your life…seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” I do not blame those who seek ways to protect themselves. Only seek his kingdom and righteousness with the same determination. Or more.

2. It was not easy being without glasses or any corrective lenses for about 10 days. It was like a disability, though slight. But I learned to slow down a little. “I cannot do that,” was a refrain. Walking was not even always easy. But it felt like a gift I was glad to give back.

3. The newscasts and news sites are calculated to make you worry and be afraid. The Scriptures are calculated to make you unafraid. Ignore the former and feast on the latter.

4. “How can I love them well?” should be the question I am trying to answer when dealing with my kids (at home and at school) when they have done something wrong. But often it is the question I am trying to answer after I have showed them I am angry and neither of us liked what we saw.

5. It is good to look at, listen to, or taste something beautiful, knowing it comes from God.

6. I recently ate pizza seven days in a row, so I kinda know what it’s like to realize your dream and wonder what to do now.

7. In God’s providence I am just now discovering St. Augustine’s life and writings, thanks to James K.A. Smith’s newest book, which I strongly recommend. Both the life and the writings are all at once convicting and encouraging. Nothing helps you along the road away from sectarian thinking more than the Church Fathers.

8. Not knowing what everyone is angry about is the best thing about not paying attention to social media.

9. Asking for forgiveness will make you feel terribly good.

10. Loving and respecting the people you work with, these fellow teachers in the trenches, is an incalculable gift.

An Apology to Jonathan Merritt

Image result for augustine the city of God

I have not been on Facebook or Twitter for about 5 or 6 weeks. This has been good for me for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is you get a good look at yourself as opposed to your online self. Sure, there are overlaps. But while being offline, as it were, I caught a glimpse of the Matt Redmond I knew before the world of social media. Before I was known by the world of social media. And I gotta be honest. I liked that version of me a lot better.

I was a less angry person. More thoughtful. More joyous. And less likely to argue with people I barely know, if at all. I also had a glorious cluelessnes about what everyone is upset about on any given day.

Not long before my exit, I got into a small kerkuffle with Jonathan Merritt. What is so sad is that I do not even remember what he said or what I said in return. But I am pretty sure I subtweeted him with a “Jesus juke.” It was not the first time I’ve done it.  But here’s the thing, what is telling is that I knew it was wrong for me to do. Not necessarily due to the substance of his or my argument. Honestly, those are fairly irrelevant.

The problem is I did not respond with love. My faith was working itself out with an online fist and not love.

I’ve been reading a lot of Augustine lately and about him. In Garry Wills’s small biography, he says…

“Augustine is, as usual, reorienting classical thought, which based society on justice. Augustine early on calls Cicero’s definition of a polity (civitas) mistaken. Cicero, like Plato before him, based society on its member’s joint recognition of what is just (juris consensu, 2.21). Augustine bases society on a social agreement on “things one loves” (rerum quas diligit, 19.24). We see once again that Augustine gives primacy to the will, not the intellect, to love, not to theories of justice.

I wish I had responded with love. Or because of love, just not responded at all.

So I would like to apologize to Jonathan Merritt. But the problem is, after repeated attempts, Twitter will not let me log in. When I stepped away from social media, I had my wife set up passwords for my accounts.  And for some reason we cannot get into Twitter. Even when we attempt to reset the password it puts us in am endless loop telling us the password has been reset and then asking us to set the password. It is a thorn I am somehow thankful for.

So I need your help. I need someone to post this to twitter and tag me and Jonathan Merritt so he can read my apology.

Jonathan Merritt, if you are reading this… I was very unkind to you and not loving at all. I apologize and offer no excuses. Please forgive me.

Holiday Gatherings and the Philippians 2 Challenge

xmas party

If you spend any amount of time on social media, there is a good chance you have read about someone’s dread of getting together with family for the holidays or you have posted something yourself. It’s a common topic of discussion among those of my generation and younger. Most of the time, it’s said in a joking manner. But often the dread is real.

Now there may be real legitimate reasons for disliking family gatherings at the holidays. There are deep wounds. And it is not hard to imagine hurt feelings over some past slight or forgotten birthday. These are real and need to be acknowledged.

But most of the time, that is not the case. Usually, with contempt on the tip of our tongue, we just find someone annoying or irritating due to their personality or differences of opinion over religion or politics. I live in Alabama so sometimes even college football can be a landmine. And if there are any small children or teenagers in the mix, someone is going to provide advice on how you should raise them between passing the potatoes and the green bean casserole.

Just a few days before Thanksgiving I was reading Philippians and later that morning I saw someone on social media heap contempt on their awful relatives and how they were dreading Thanksgiving dinner. I had two almost simultaneous thoughts. The first was how such an attitude is totally at odds with Phil. 2:3-11. And my second thought was how guilty I have often been on being at odds with that passage.

And then I had the life-giving thought…

What if instead of contempt and dreading our family gatherings, we took a Philippians 2 challenge: consider others more important, look out for the interests of others, and adopt the attitude of Christ Jesus, by being a servant and emptying ourselves of glory?


Can you imagine how this would change us and our family gatherings?

Can you? Because we need to have that kind of an imagination if we are ever going to experience the Philippians 2 challenge lived out.

Let’s imagine what that might look like:

Contempt – Let’s face it, adults look down on younger people and young people are more than willing to take an “OK, boomer!” attitude towards their elders. Our world is so full of contempt…we are like fish swimming around in the stuff.

Dread – Usually there is some fear within the dread. Fear of being known and rejected. Fear of not being accepted for who you are. Or maybe the fear of someone saying something uncomfortable and ruining the meal.

Consider others more important – A lot of the friction around family gatherings is due to more than one person needing to have their way. What if we decided to not have the last word? What if we made the decision beforehand that we will just go with the flow and be content? What if we did not have to have our way? What if we looked for the best in everyone else instead of looking for reasons to disapprove?

Look out for the interests of others – Most of us love to talk about the things we are into and what we are passionate about. But what if we took the time and effort to ask others about their lives and loves? This is an especially good practice for us older folks. What if we cared enough to talk to the young people at our gathering and got to know them without any hint of judgment and condemnation? What if we loved them through listening?

Adopt the attitude of Christ Jesus – Dallas Willard defines a disciple as one who is, “learning from him (Jesus) how to lead their life as he would lead their life if he were they.” In other words, how would Jesus approach this family gathering? (If you are thinking, “Well, Jesus turned over tables once!” you’ve already lost the battle.)

Be a servant – Walking into a room with a goal of loving who is there instead of wondering if they will love us, will do much to drive away fear.

Empty yourself of glory – We evangelicals preach a theology of the cross but far too often we live a theology of glory. What if we walked into our family gatherings and as we passed through the door, we took on an incarnational attitude with the hope of everyone gathered seeing the light of the glory of God in our faces as we have sought to follow Christ in the living room, den, kitchen, and dining room?

The Philippians 2 challenge will not be easy. So I suggest you train yourselves. Practice before the big day. Practice while at home among those you love. Practice at work. Practice while you are out Christmas shopping. Practice at church and in class at school.

Look, if you are uncomfortable with the “practice” language, remember that to do anything well – artistic, athletic, academic, etc. – you must work at it. Think about what what Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, “Work out your own salvation…for it it is God working in you.” This is the Philippians 2 challenge after all.

This is not legalism. This is seeking the best family gathering possible. This is seeking the kingdom of heaven and doing what you can to bring that kingdom of love, peace, and joy into the homes where you gather. ”On earth as it is in heaven,” right?

Who knows? Maybe you will see that living these practices will put you on the path of not only the best holiday gathering possible but even more, the best life possible.

Thoughts on Icons and Iconography

When I was growing up, there was a small plaque with an encouraging spiritual saying, hanging by our back door. It was on the left side of the door, which swung right. So it was right in front of me whenever I went outside to play catch with my dad, or shoot baskets while listening to Foreigner. Below the plaque was our family television, a piece of furniture covered in picture frames. So if I sat on the couch and watched MTV or Scooby Doo, that plaque hung just above my line of site. It was the kind of decorative piece you knew every inch of but never actually sat and looked at.

Earth has no sorrow heaven can’t heal.

I thought about this while reading Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. He discusses the primacy of our thoughts as disciples of Christ and how those thoughts are formed, or rather transformed. He narrows down what forms and transforms our thoughts: ideas and images.

Ideas? As a Bible teacher I trade in ideas, so this seemed obvious. The discussion was illuminating and encouraging but was not controversial. What I found interesting was his discussion of images and how they shape our thoughts. The following is from Chapter 6, “Transforming the Mind, 1:”

…with references to the use of images. We need to be in the presences of images, both visual and auditory (good sayings, poetry, and songs). These can constantly direct and redirect our minds toward God, Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the church (people of God). “Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange to have them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts to see ourselves before God in all levels of our being.

Not long ago, people in the United States commonly had edifying sayings on their walls. I recall from my childhood one that said, “Only one life. It will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” This and other good sayings were constantly before the minds of all who lived in the house. They were powerfully effective because they became, through mere habit, an enduring presence and influence within the minds of those who constantly saw them. What is now constantly before the minds of those who live where we do?

Today we as a culture are schizophrenic on such matters. We want to say it doesn’t make any difference what we look at or hear. This, no doubt, is because we want to be “free” to show anything and see anything–no matter how evil and revolting. But businesses still pay millions of dollars to show us something for thirty seconds on television. They do that because they know that what we repeatedly see and hear affects what we do. Otherwise they would go out of business.”

A whole other post could be written on the place of music and what we read and how the ideas and images from those form our thoughts. But I was shocked by his statement about icons and the use of those. Shocked because I am not used to evangelicals talking this way.

But only for a moment.

Because then it dawned on me –– our thoughts are already being formed by iconography. We are awash in screens covered in images. We have whole social media accounts dedicated to images, images which are forming our thoughts about others and ourselves. Indeed, they are transforming our thoughts and minds.

We are fools if we think we are not already using icons to shape us. Sometimes we do this passively, Sometimes we act more consciously. Regardless, we knowingly shape our thoughts through images. We are being transformed and shaped by images all the time.

A possible objection would be, “But icons are used for worship. Couldn’t that be a problem? Might they distract from Christ or take his place?”

Maybe. But nearly every pastor I know references movies and TV shows and they assume the images the hearer will use will aid the listener in thinking about the point being made. Why are those images okay and an image of Christ as the King on a board is not? Why is a print of Monet’s Waterlilies okay to hang on my wall and an icon of Jesus or the Apostles not okay? Why do we assume one is natural and the other is more likely to be worshiped.

monet.jpg

Think about the movie posters above. One is a picture of romance and sacrifice. One is a picture of redemption. And one is a picture of manliness and courage. All three of these movies have been used in sermon illustrations. All three images and their corresponding stories are ingrained into the minds of our culture.

Willard, I think, is making a very logical and wise point. We are being formed by images all the time. If that is the case, we need to put before us images. These images are not to be worshiped but are used to transform our thoughts, reminding us we have a King and we are part of a real kingdom. We are sheep and have need of the Good Shepherd. We are brides and have a Groom. We are hurting and weary, but we have One Who is interceding for us.

Are they necessary, no? Are they more beneficial than the images we demand daily on our computers and televisions? No question.

We can and should debate the use of icons in daily life and in corporate worship. But what we as evangelicals need to recognize is we are already being formed by images. That is not debatable.