Everyday Poems #12, “This Is the Day”

monday

I hated Mondays slightly more than other days when I worked at the bank. They were always frantic and everyone was running around and the more some ran around frantic, the more others did too. You’ve seen it, too.

But it wasn’t just the bank. Everywhere seemed to burst into a frenzy after the weekend. And I did not like it. But I was always trying to get perspective. At least I had a job. We never missed a meal. And you’ve felt that, also.

We were healthy.

While we lived in Greenwood, Lori, a friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer. I remember that on one particular eventful day – maybe the day of surgery, I cannot remember exactly but I do remember that it was a day that held the possibility of dread and fear – she woke up, sat up in bed and quoted from Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

“Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.” – Salvatore Quasimodo

That took something, I have always wanted. On hard days, Bethany and I quote this to each other. Keep in mind that what we call a “verse” is a line from an ancient poem written by someone from a very different culture. And yet what he wrote we all “get.” We want to look at even the hard days and see them as something to rejoice. We get that. If poetry does anything well, it has the ability to reflect back what we recognize within us and sometimes around us.

The following poem is a result of Lori’s confidence and my desire to acquire that confidence.


 

“This is the day”

You have made –
a Monday –
a day of full inboxes
and frantic bosses –
and car repairs
we cannot afford
regardless of cost –
a day with a child’s fever
and sales goals –
a day of projects rushed
and turned into teacher –
a day of prayer for mercy
and simple graces –
a day to rejoice in –
a day he has made
and I’ll be glad in it –

at least I’ll try.

 

Everyday Poems #12, “Just Now”

auden

One of the great wonders of poems is how they can capture a moment and help you understand the moment is more than what skates on the surface. This is good because often we have more than one thought and often more than one emotion swirling within us at the same time. Who has not felt grief and anger and wonder all at the same time?

Auden defined poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.”

Maybe that’s why we see so much poetry in the Bible. Depending on who you ask, you will get different answers as to how much of the Bible is poetry. But it’s at least around 30%.

And that makes great sense to me. Because the Bible is dealing with all the great mysteries of the Universe, including the mysteries within us, it makes sense for the varied authors to hand us revelation in the form of poetry.

Some of that poetry is beautiful and comforting. Sometimes the poetry is sad and brokenhearted. Often it is frustrated and confused. What is interesting is how all that includes God. That may be an obvious point. But here is the thing – whether it is about a loss, a reason for anger, a betrayal, fear, grief, wonder, the beauty of creation, lovers entwined, or advice for a son – God is in the mix. Though unseen, he is the highest reality.

Wallace Stevens said the poet is “the priest of the invisible.”

And that is why poetry –including the poetry of the Bible – is often what I go to when I am tired of this world. I need a clear expression of my mixed feelings to stare into and to know that what I see is not all there is.


“Just now”

Just now,
on the way to the school,
I saw
a cat writhing in pain
in the opposite lane.
And I hated this world
of death
and the friends of this world
who, when
(every time, it seems)
we speak of our cats
feel free
to tell us how, they
do not like them and prefer dogs.

 

Everyday Poems #10, “No Worries”

eliot

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” – T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

I wrote a lot of poems while at my last job. Yes, while. On the clock sometimes under the guise of bathroom breaks, I confess. But most of the time, at lunch. Not only were the ones I read tools of survival. But also the ones I wrote. Xanax was not enough.

It would do little good to tell you all of what I had to do in that cubicle. (Actually, it was many cubicles because every time you made a friend next to you, they moved you. Friendship and conversation were not efficient.) Our job was one of constant frenzy. I worked for a bank and my department was an internal help line for branches. When I took the job, you answered the phone and did everything you could to assist the person on the other end. I enjoyed it because I knew what it looked like and felt like to be in the branch and not be able to find a document, etc.

But that was not efficient. And my department generated no real income for the bank, so efficiency was naturally a driving force.

Not long after I transferred into that department, the job changed and the primary way we assisted the branches was through “chat.” And by the time I left, that is all we were doing. Except that we were doing two at a time. And as soon as we finished one, another chat with a dire problem would pop up. All day long. It never let up. It was frantic. Thus the poems. I knew of at least three others beside myself who were on Xanax or some other anxiety medication.

As far as I knew, I was the only one on poems.

When I found out T.S. Eliot was a banker, I was elated. I immediately went and bought a book of his poems featuring The Waste Land (with a great introduction by Mary Karr) during my lunch break. I also found a short biography. All this encouraged me. I did not always understand his poetry, but I was okay with that. I was so discouraged about my job and full of anxiety, I understood little about anything. The Waste Land was able to say something to me even when I could not understand what he was saying.

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” – T.S. Eliot

Worry and anxiety are everywhere now. There is so much chaos and confusion and anger and suspicion and disappointment.

When Christ teaches those who would listen to him, “Do not worry about your life…” in the Sermon on the Mount, he is saying something about reality. And it is not a reality that is no less real because it is unseen. He is saying, “If you follow me and trust me, you will be made citizens of my kingdom and in that kingdom there is no reason to worry. You are safe from the need to worry.”

The following poem anticipates the desire for such a kingdom.


“No Worries”

is what she told me
when I thanked her
for her understanding.
And as the words sat
there on the screen,
I could not help but
think of, “No trespassing.”

And that got me
thinking –
what if we had
structures where
worry had to keep out?

Worries were simply
not allowed.
And in that space – we
could sit
and stand
and even
run free
from what sat outside,
we could not bring them in even if tried.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

wendall-berry

1. Chaos is not real. It is a perspective skewed by ignoring the highest reality of God and his love. Chaos is looking through the glasses of those who trust only their own perspective. If the light within by which we see is darkness, then how deep is that darkness.

2. Let Spring be wisdom. Or maybe even sermon. A letter would do.

3. We have a chance to “educate” our children during this time. We have a chance to teach them our first world problems are a vapor. Our plans are often born of arrogance. Our perspective is often dictated by the fleeting whims of pop culture. That we have a King and a kingdom. Within that kingdom we are perfectly safe. We know…know that all things are working out for good – the good of those who follow the crucified King. That we carry a cross because we have already died and our lives are hid with Christ. And when he appears we also will appear with him in glory. We can tell them these things, sure. But only if we proceed with kindness and joy will they learn it.

4. The Avett Brothers sold Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise to be used in a financial planning commercial.

5. Willard said we should ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. I think this has now been done for us.

6. I hate living in a world where COVID – 19 is a marketing opportunity for businesses and churches, of which it is often hard to tell the difference these days.

7. Wendell Berry is far easier to hear during this time. His poems are like prophecy – not so much foretelling as much as forth-telling. He sees more than we do. And in a way they remind me of Dylan’s songs. There is something else out there we are not seeing. Indeed, we don’t even know how to see them. If only because they do not seem beholden to them times, they are worth our time. I have found more than a little comfort in both.

8. One of the things I was teaching my 7th grade OT students was how to approach the Scriptures. I used five lenses. One of those lenses was “Sin is our biggest problem.” This was just another way to say, “Our circumstances are not our biggest problem.” The goal was joy. Each and every circumstance is to be colored with the knowledge that our biggest problem has been defeated. It was true in the stories of the Bible. And it’s true when you find yourself in the middle of a story that includes a pandemic.

9. Are you alive in a world dying to binge-watch?

10. Everyday Poem #11, “Doing Nothing”

I am pretty sure I was in Mrs. Grissett’s room at W.J. Christian Elementary when I learned about the Haiku. I could be wrong about that but I have very fond memories of learning poems and writing metaphors and similes and enjoying the difference in that room. There was never a day I could say I enjoyed school but I do remember enjoying learning those things. There seemed to be a power in that knowledge.

I only remember learning the 5–7–5 line scheme but it is possible we were told more was required. Matsuo Basho, the great writer of Haiku, said that words pointing to the seasons and nature were required also.

“How I long to see
among dawn flowers,
the face of God.”
– Basho

I forget this often and transgress. But I love Haiku. And when I sit and read some Basho, I feel like I have often taken in more volume than those three lines. A good Haiku says more than those seventeen syllables. There is compact power.  Because there are so few words each word can be mined and then held up to the light and seen for what it is and what it can be.


 

The Sabbath shows us
doing nothing is sometimes
better than something.

Everyday Poems #9, ““Who Knows If Being Alive is Dying, And Dying Is Being Alive”

paterson

I’m not a big fan of movies. Rarely do they do what I want them to do. They seem to usually either distract or propagandize. And neither of those options open up the heavens. But every now and then I find one.

Not long ago someone told they didn’t like the movie, Paterson, because it was slow and didn’t go anywhere. That person is exactly right. And that is exactly why it is one of my favorite movies. I want to move slow and I don’t want to go anywhere…on a a number of levels.

Paterson is about a bus driver poet (played by Adam Driver, no really), named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. His favorite poet is William Carlos Williams, who is from Paterson, New Jersey. The movie is full of Paterson’s poetry (actually the poetry of Ron Padgett) voiced-over while he is driving and walking through his day. Paterson owns no cell phone and there appears to be no TV in the house. His day is fairly predictable except for the whims and artistic pursuits of his wife.

But actually the movie is about something else. William Carlos Williams’ most famous piece of work is a lengthy work called “Paterson.” And in that work, he says something that poets and critics have been debating for a long time.

“No Ideas but in things”

There is a scene when Paterson is walking his dog and he hears a guy (Method Man from Wu-Tang Clan) in a laundromat working on a rap. In that rap he quotes the above line from WCW.

The great American poet, Donald Hall, friend to WCW, helped me see what this line is all about. Williams wanted to write without a message. No sermon. No lesson to be learned. No big ideas. He simply wanted his reader to see what is there. See it differently. See it for what it is. See people for who they are.

Even the movie Paterson is meant to do that. There is nothing exceptional in the lives of the characters (unless Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s seeing is exceptional). You are meant to simply appreciate them as they are without any need to be a big idea or a message.

Of course, the irony is the movie does have an important idea. Apart from our ideas and our opinions…and even our convictions, there is value in this world in which God has made. Our ideas and thoughts or feelings about a tree blooming in early Spring do not add or subtract from the intrinsic value of said tree. It is a thing wholly outside of us and it’s value and beauty is not beholden to usefulness. And if that is true of trees it is true of the most ordinary people.

And things.


“Who Knows If Being Alive is Dying, And Dying Is Being Alive”

If you were to say the above title to this,
my poem,
you would,
I think,
be quoting me,
yes.
But I’m quoting Augustine,
who was,
understandably,
quoting Plato,
who was,
of course,
quoting Socrates.
And it turns out,
he was,
in fact,
quoting Euripedes,
the playwright-poet,
whose tragedies I bought this morning,
at the library bookstore along with a $2 puzzle for my wife.

In Lieu of Excitement About Church

I know there’s someone out there feeling just how I feel
I know they’re waiting up, I know they’re waiting to heal
And I’ve been holding my breath,
Are you holding your breath, for too many years to count?

Every now and then I’ll run into a piece of writing – a book or blog post, an article – that I feel I could have written if I’d had the words at hand. You know what I mean, everything else blurs for a moment and you breathe deep, “I am not alone.”

All these thoughts and hurts and fears and cares and joys and feelings causing our chest to heave in the quiet moments are not our’s alone. There is at least one other person who sees and feels these things. God has made another, not only in his image but in whom we can see even a shadow of a reflection of our own soul.

Last monday I heard this over and over.

“There are others who are not always excited about church. I am not alone in a faithfulness to God – a real faithfulness – that could not be called one of excitement. It feels more like the comfort and hope of treatment than the announcement of healing.”

I heard from some who had been hurt by the church…or more specifically a particular church. I heard from some who were just going through difficult circumtances and could not find the energy to be excited about much of anything. Belief was still present and alive but all it’s strength was being spent in just hanging on.

And I heard from those exhausted by the roller-coaster rides. Their stomachs churned one too many times because of the highs and lows of a Christian experience replete with emotion and lacking in sobriety. The twists and turns and changing tracks were just too much.

Hopefully the lack once despised is now not missed. After all, we have not been called to excitement about church but to love Him, the Head of the Church and his people. All else may just be filigree, luxuries some of us cannot emotionally afford right now.

What now, though? How do we move on?

As I talked with people about this and looked back over my own life over the past couple of years, the corporate worship was a focal point. Makes sense. This is where the excitement is expected and is expected to be worked out in public. I’ve felt the pressure to be moved emotionally and even dispostionally in corporate worship that caused me to struggle to want to be there.

I don’t think anyone has ever meant ill in these situations, it’s just part of the new celebratory mindset with Coldplay worship. So a good place to start for me was to ask…

“How do I approach the corporate worship I have not really looked forward with any kind of excitement but recognize I need?”

I’ve had two conversations with people who I know well, both are decidedly not excited about church, particularly the worship service. One is struggling with just keeping their children still so they can glean something from the sermon. Another is frustrated with the sermons, period. Neither seems to be getting much. They want to receive a word of encouragement, something to move them along in this life under grace. But it ain’t happening.

I told them both the same thing. I didn’t have advice. So I unfolded to them where I am and have been for almost a year.

My own struggle started more than a year ago. I’d never struggled like this before. I didn’t understand it at all. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t losing my faith. But that excitement and enthusiasm for church was waning continuously. Even as we moved from the church where I served, to sitting in the “pew” of the church where my wife and I met and grew so much years ago, I found it hard to emotionally be glad I was there. I wanted to be in church on one level. I knew it was needed. But man, it was painful.

However, there was one thing that kept me going and keeps me going still. It keeps me moving forward even when my faith is not an excited one.

I sought just one thing. I went each time asking God to give me just one thing only. Whether it was a line in a song, a verse or even a word in a verse, or communion itself, I was after just one thing. Even if everything else fell flat, even if the sermon was off, the music offended, or something ridiculous was said, that one thing was enough.

This was a struggle with myself, I knew full well. So instead of looking for something dramatic, I hunted between all the parts for just a nugget of help.

Communion always guaranteed this. Each time I tasted the elements, my whole self engaged with my need, his provision. Those few minutes seemed to reach back over time and extend into the coming week. Often, I would only be encouraged by the  knowledge that I am communing with all the Saints in the room and who have tasted this meal since it was given to us. And sometimes it was a little more mysterious and I would’t be able to explain it other than to say, Jesus knew what he was doing in giving us this gift.

Just sitting in a pew is hard when you’ve been to Seminary. Criticism is second nature. The difficulty is being critical about, well, pretty much everything. So now I fight to not really care like I did. I just need something. I used to want a service that would catapult me into the week with wild-eyed abandon for God and his glory. Now I look for a phrase giving me the will to take just another cautious step, maybe two.

Now I feast on details. Small parts. I don’t expect to walk away “wowed” by a worship experience. And God is gracious. In between the crevices of all the building blocks of a worship service are notes and words and moments of silence (even moments of laughter) quietly calling me to trust him. To trust him when every fiber of my being is stretched out into the great unknowns of life is the goal now anyway.

So I told them I was just looking for one thing to help me every time I was in corporate worship.

Of course, this assumes that even in the worst of churches, there is something to be had of God and his goodness to sinners. This is no call to stay in bad churches. This is no call to leave them. I’m only saying – for those who are struggling in corporate worship, there is probably one nugget of grace like gold you can hoard. You may even be able to mine that one nugget and come across the mother-lode of all finds – a truth you would never have found otherwise. And then not trade for all the excitement you once had.

Why Did I Keep Believing?

Some thoughts seem to come out of no where. You’re just driving down the eastern side of the mountain to pick up a Mediterranean pizza so you can have a nice stay-at-home date with the wife and watch some Hercule Poirot. Some thoughts are like that. Like this one…

Why was I able to keep my faith in college?

I’ve never even thought about this before. It’s never been asked of me. Never crossed my mind. Ever. And then boom, Mediterranean Pizza, and I’m thinking about it on the way back up the mountain.

Let me get two things out of the way before I attempt to answer the question.

First, I do not mean, “Why was I able to be moral in college?” That is an altogether different thing. I was never “wild” or anything like that. But I also do not look back and see a Puritan in the making. My question is in regards to keeping the faith in the face of all the intellectual challenges college threw my way.

Second, one answer is that God is responsible for me remaining a believer. God is sovereign, in control and powerful, so one might want to leave it at that. At the risk of being contrary, allow me to say how lazy that answer is. While true, it is incomplete. And while sounding spiritual, it is usually not. There are always earthly, human and “fleshly” means God uses to achieve such an end. Ignoring this is unspiritual.

OK, now that those are out of the way, the obvious answers need to be dealt with – Christian home, church attendance, church involvement, etc. All these I experienced and drank in deeply. My Father was an associate pastor for 25 years. My mom a SS teacher, my much older brothers were great examples of these things (come to think of it, my three brothers never rebelled against the faith). But here’s the thing making me ask the question above.

This was true for so many others.

So, humanly-speaking, what kept me believing in and following Jesus from the age of nine till now? Why did college with all it’s temptations, trials and challenges have no effect on me? Why did I never, ever veer out of the stream of believing?

I was never trained in apologetics. To be honest, besides a shallow interest in poetry, I had not read deeply at all. No classical education.

Actually I was the opposite of who you would expect to survive college with a faith intact. I was the son of a Baptist pastor. I went to public schools and was a terrible student, barely passing each year of school. My teachers, my parents, and I all wiped our brows that I made it through to the next grade. And I was a little nerdy. OK, maybe a lot nerdy. And heck, my parents threw away my copy of Kick by INXS (Jan 1, 1989…a day that will live in infamy). Just for that I should have rebelled. Add to all this a growing intellectual bent filled with lots of questions about the world we live in and you have a recipe for walking away from the faith according to the conventional wisdom.

But I didn’t. I kept believing.

Well, I have one idea. It is not one supported by science or any facts. It is mere theory. But one I think is worthy of more thinking.

Though I was a pastor’s kid immersed in church life to the nth degree, I was not secluded from the world.

When I got to college, I was pretty ready for the world. I was ready for all the challenges to what I believed, they were familiar to me. The rocky soil of a culture bent on unbelief was not all that uncomfortable under my feet. The shards of reasons for doubt were everywhere but they never really cut deep.

The world was familiar territory to me. But that is not all. If I left it there it would be too much like the above “God” answer. There is just too much more for me to leave it there.

My faith was forged in an environment of seeing the world filled with more reasons for wonder than fear. Sure, I knew there were reasons for fear. The monsters were real. But there was a lot of beauty out there too.

I grew up with all the usual, expected supports for faith you would expect in a Christian family.

But I also grew up in a home with Lionel Hampton in the cassette player, Merle and Willie singing “Pancho and Lefty.” I grew up with a Mom, who after years of collecting shells on the beach, still looked at each new one the way others look at Van Gogh. My parents took pictures of everything long before hipsters were on the scene. Back before my dad was struck with too many….far too many health problems, he built computers from scratch. And with each new innovation, you could see the awe and wonder.

I just didn’t grow up with a fear of the world. But I also didn’t fully trust it. I knew there was something bigger. Always. Something bigger than the sky above and more sure than the ground beneath me.

The theology escaped me. But the implications were present regardless. I had not yet worked out an understanding of God as the One, Who created all things good. The importance of this fact was not officially acknowledged. But it was enjoyed nonetheless.

Though I’m not sure this is why I kept on believing when others did not, I think it is one reason why I kept on believing. Others have reasons too, maybe far different than mine.

I’m not sure I want this to be advice. But this world is full of beautiful and terrible things. And I think it is important for young people to think deeply about the terrible things and to look on in wonder at the beautiful things. Criticism is far too often our only posture.

Maybe I’m thinking about this because my daughter is entering 4th grade. The shadow of all these things creeps closer to her life. And I’m tempted to do nothing but shelter. I mean, she can do whatever she wants when she is 35, right? I kid, I kid. But really, every reasonable parent veers into unreasonable thoughts of sheltering their kids. I’m afraid of sheltering too much and sheltering too little. I suppose this has been the dilemma for parents time out of mind. Maybe, just maybe, helping them see the terrible, gradually, for what it is AND making sure they see the beauty is the…a 10 and 2 keeping us on the road – betwixt the ditches – to where we want them to be.

And maybe I’m thinking about these things because I’m a former youth pastor whose been hearing from his students over the past week as a result of this. So I’ve been rehearsing my decisions and second-guessing. But this kind of thinking is why I think so many of my students were ready for college. We talked about the terrible things of the world. We talked about the fears and temptations. But we also listened to and talked about Josh Ritter and U2 and Bob Dylan and encountered a lot of beauty along the way.

There are a lot of reasons students walk away from the faith in college. And my guess is those reasons are as myriad and complex as the students themselves. But after 40 years of taking strides in my faith and watching myself fail, I’m pretty sure I would not have stayed on the trajectory I kept in college if I had grown up in home without a Mom, who listened to Neil Diamond and a Dad, who listened to Jazz while cleaning up the house on his day off during the week.

No, no, no…I’m not suggesting what parents should be doing, so much as saying we tend to see them as unspiritual parts of my upbringing. But, the more I think about it, I’m not convinced that kind of thinking doesn’t hold any kind of water. I’m more inclined to call those actions very spiritual.

OK, maybe I’m suggesting a least some Van Morrison.

There is a reason why unbelievers walk away from things like The Grand Canyon and U2 concerts and call them “spiritual.” They were. They have souls created by God to be moved by all he has created. How much more a believer?

When I was much younger, say about the age of ten, we had some relatives, who lived up in Gatlinburg, TN. They lived up on the side of one of the mountains just off that main strip. You turned left at The Goof Golf. Seriously.

Anyway, we went up there at least once a year. I loved it. You saw bears, bought cheap pocket knives and saw real Native Americans from the Cherokee tribe (I did not know I am 1/16th part of their tribe till many years later). I have lots of great/beautiful memories of those trips. And some are scary. I cut myself really bad with one of those knives and on the same trip, my older cousin david fell down into a ravine while hiking. No harm done but I was scared when it happened. I remember it was the same trip I got the pocket knife because I wondered if it would have hlped him to have my knife…with a picture of a bear on the side. All three inches.

One of those always stands out like the oldest of mountains high above the younger ones, all covered in mist.

We drove up to Cades Cove, a pioneer settlement, long deserted. If you have not been there, picture The Village and you have it. But the thing my Mom loved the most and would keep my Dad driving around the dirt roads on the top of that mountain were the deer. There were deer everywhere. So many even a non-hunting 10 year old could look at them in wonder. My Mom wanted to count everyone and she remarked at how many, many there were again and again. And I would bet there were tears on the edges of her eyes. You had to keep the windows up and the doors locked because of the black bears. But that fear never kept us from the beauty of seeing dozens upon dozens of deer wandering around, some with their heads just above the long winter grass. If I live to be a hundred, I could not forget all that, even if it is just me remembering the memory.

I’m not sure my parents had all the theology worked out. I know I didn’t. But I’m so thankful I was sent out into the world with the understanding that it was my Father’s world after all.