Oh, Stephen. You would not shut up.
People skip your chapter in Acts
because it is too long.
They can tell you don’t care;
you just don’t care if you get killed,
get killed like Jesus, your mentor,
sure you will see heaven open up if you die
just like he rose before you.
Oh, we want you people to shut up.
We already have your death day in a dead week,
overshadowed by new fat and football games.
We can’t even remember who all those Steves
are named after and haven’t read Acts in ages,
or we would see all the believers who said nothing
while you were getting heated up then stoned cold.
Oh, they wanted you to shut up.
They dreaded what anyone with half a brain
could see coming, saw rocks on their heads.
They knew you were sealing eternity for thousands,
messing up car payments and frightening Mom.
They regretted not having things in order:
a go bag, a will, a trust for the kids,
A DNR at Jerusalem General.
Soon Philip would be transporting
and talking to the Queen of Sheba’s eunuch.
The whole world would be turning upside down
right when the kids were enjoying their new toys.
Cassidy Hutchinson would have looked at you
and suddenly her tongue would loosen.
The women who took down Weinstein
would have looked at each other and agreed,
“The risk is worth it, to infinity and beyond.”
The actor Zelenskyy would go to Bakhmut
and get a flag for Pelosi, who stood up for gays
when it could still cost a career.
Just when you think martyrs are in species collapse
a Chinese phone mechanic decides enough is enough
or Salvadoran women end a war.
Most recent weeks, our faith ecosystem
feels flattened by a bomb cyclone of unbelief,
a blizzard of Blizzards, a terror of inflation or Elon Musk,
an Amazon full of cattle delivering a heatwave overnight.
We avoid it all hard; it’s our last superpower.
Then some Stephen stands up, won’t shut up.
John Lewis gets his head bashed in
and we reflexively hold our own again.
But his courage, her courage, that courage of whoever you are
ripples across the stony, stoned landscape,
and I find myself ready to visit a jail,
talking to strangers I can barely understand,
looking for a way to fuel lost causes, transported,
writing new chapters that might not be read,
risking being dismissed as archaic,
irrelevant, unprofitable, out of order.
Oh Stephen, you will get us all killed,
or you’ll get the world recreated.
Don’t give up, stars!
Shine through the night,
through the CO2,
around the airplanes,
over the missiles and drones.
Don’t give up moon!
Rise over the divided nation,
over the atomized children
fingering their elusive controls,
taking a drug to save or salve
their isolated souls,
afraid to look into the endless sky,
averse to wonder oversold, overun.
Don’t give up on us light!
Surround my children with hope.
Sneak into dark rooms and dark thoughts.
Surprise people when the beauty
they visited comes home with them.
I light my candle defiantly,
like Galadriel fighting orcs,
like MLK loving racists,
like Francis bleeding
at the mouth of his cave —
Elijah listening, Ignatius surrendering,
Neanderthals painting in the flicker.
I light it for everyone stuck in their bunker today,
for all the once-were, could-be saints
suffering in their self-imposed shadow,
walled in by trauma, spite, cynicism, despair,
who gave up on the stars,
who never love the moon anymore.
Touch them, touch me, touch us all
with your mysterious presence,
Light of the World!
It is dark enough,
drought has cleared the sky enough
for stars to make us dizzy
from looking up for once,
looking beyond for twice,
and seeing right into the Third Day.
The lone goose I sometimes see
draws me into the air with him
away from all the noise of the flock,
for a while away from flutter and clamor.
They call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
since you draw lovers into your sky,
your huge, blue, true atmosphere.
And I feel your wind ruffle my feathers;
your sun gently warms my back.
The lone goose will not stay gone long,
but long enough to see with a bird’s eye
a view so hard to find down among the trees,
missing the forest, stuck on winding roads.
I call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
since you raise me up with him into wonder —
that wounded, unwound next,
where I meet my instinct for home
and call the place it leads me new.
I know the goose will soon be back with the rest —
“It is not good for goose to be alone” —
back with freedom under his wings
and the nourishment of silence in his soul.
We call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
brooding over us with release, wooing us into the breeze,
gliding in from unknowing to land on my lake
and splash me with your strange flight pattern,
raising me out of my impending entombment.
My wings brush the clouds as they roll back
and I plunge into unexpected new light.
We’ll be back to flustered flight and noisy mooring,
but always in the memory of soaring.
I turn to you Lord. …..You encourage me.
Make me an encourager. …..Defeat the enemies who live in my head, …..whose betrayals and insults dominate conversation — …..damning words inside and in the living room. …..Mute them as my rusty swivel squeaks.
Make me an encourager, Lord, …..like you finding your disciples and soothing their doubt, …..like Francis tousling Giacondo’s hair, …..like my director taking me seriously as I ramble, …..like someone remembering me out of the blue. …..We need the gentle reminders you are near.
I know you are content if I am small; …..you seem to prefer I don’t grow to reach the countertop.
Save me from assessing how tiny I am: …..my few words, unheard words, …..my scant opportunity, …..shouted down by TV, by children, …..by catastrophe and weakness.
I am still a harsh critic. …..You chasten thoughts your forgiveness — …..the grace you voiced with your dying breath, …..the word that recreates the world, …..does not apply to my incompletion.
Make me an encourager Lord.
Everywhere I look this week …..chins are dragging, …..lips are quivering, …..eyes are vacant. …..People are tired, sick, ruined. …..The leaders are fools, …..as are their blind followers.
You do not recoil.
Your reach out your hand as I look in the mirror, …..the fool thinking his dashed-off psalm is worthy of you. …..And you say, “Yes. It is. You are.”
Make me to say, “Yes,” today and every day. …..May my yes be yes as your yes is yes to me.
And if I die or my work comes to naught, …..is despised even, my love thwarted,
encourage me to keep on in a wicked day, …..so I can gently say with you, …..“We do not recoil.”
An effective way to develop, if you are able to write, is to write. Writing is another integrative activity that helps us deepen psychologically and spiritually. It takes strength and mind to pick up a writing utensil or sit down at the keyboard and express ourselves. If turned the right direction, writing expresses heart and soul in a way that makes our feelings and our spiritual experiences more tangible and more connective. If you are interested in loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, then it makes sense to take out the headphones or put down the remote and write.
I know that last line sounds accusatory, so please forgive me if you must. But we have to acknowledge that what used to be simple is getting harder for lack of use. It feels hard, even weird, to write. Writers write and we consume their product. But we don’t write back. Someone told me last week that their family member wouldn’t even text back to a family group text! — writing is too something for them. Our capacity is being reduced by the technologies we use and the slave masters behind them. So writing has become an exercise in nonconformity or rebellion — if we aren’t too dulled or afraid to do it.
I suppose I am innately rebellious, but I mostly use writing to keep open to God. For me, writing is about opening things up, exploring things, revealing things, and receiving things of the Spirit. Receiving things is what I mainly want to talk about today. I was reading Teresa Blythe’s very practical book 50 Ways to Prayand she started by suggesting we use writing to pray. Other Jesus followers have written wonderful things, the New Testament being primary, and you could exercise the same Spirit and intention those writers exercised by writing yourself! Let’s try that.
Create your own psalm
One of the ways Blythe suggested praying was to write your own psalm. She offered an exercise to help us create one. This appealed to me because I have been writing pslams, with my dear wife, for many years. Most Sundays we get up and write a psalm. Then we share it with each other and pray together. If I am not with her for some reason, I do it anyway. It is a good way for me to pray. There is so much heart, soul, mind and strength involved in that loving, open receptive act! I would have a terrible time parting with the discipline.
This past week I was reflecting on songs that had moved me and sustained me in my grieving. I wrote this final stanza to my psalm:
I thank you that Spring
will be right on time again,
and though my sprouts
will never be the same,
they will, in time, sprout again.
and so many have died,
my past is gone
and soon go will I.
Maybe they are waiting,
I will then know, in the place
where the lost things go.
When I feel a bit lost,
lose things, lose thoughts,
I delight in your touch.
A whiff of music scents my soul
And pulls my attention
like Spring in the air.
I turn into it expectantly
and meet you there.
My psalm is not high art, even after I have fixed it up a little from my original. I never meant to show it to you, anyway. Most psalms are not written for public use; they are a way to connect with God, a way to open up, to use some strength on behalf of what’s happening inside, to get it out, to get it heard. Writing a psalm is much more like your baby or your dog, for that matter, making sure you know it is time for dinner than it is about doing good art. It’s following an urge. Besides, God’s great art is you. When we function spirit to Spirit with him, she sees a piece of art in action. A beautiful rendition of your best is frosting, but everything you do with heart, soul, mind, and strength is cake.
My wife can write a nice psalm that reflects the basic structure of the Bible psalms, which tend to repeat thoughts rather than sounds to make a lyric. Lots of people have written about how they work. Here’s a little article.Robert Alter wrote his great work on the Psalms; I have poured over it to good end. Walter Brueggemann wrote one of my favorite books about how the Bible psalms work. But Teresa Blythe is not suggesting a prayer pursuit that feels like what scholars do. She just wants us to practice getting our heart and soul through the blockade of our minds and expressed with our strength. Writing a psalm is good practice for a life full of that love. She says “It doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a writer or not. This is heartfelt communication, not an exercise in pretty writing.”
The Bible’s collection of Psalms reflects the thoughts of the collectors at the time. There were undoubtedly more psalms and there is demonstrably more poetry in the Bible that might qualify as a psalm. All of it can serve as inspiration for your psalm, if you need some. Blythe made a list of psalms you can go to if you feel a certain way and want to express it, or need to be seen as feeling a certain way and are looking for a response. Of course, no psalm was written topically, like “I am going to write a psalm about joy.” They are all pretty organic, not abstract. But many are well known for the parts of them that always resonate. I edited Blythe’s list a bit for you:
I feel or want this positive experience. “I’m happy.”
I feel or want relief from this negative experience. “I’m needy.”
Fear – 86, 130, 131
Anger – 55, 58, 94
Threatened – 17, 26, 35, 69, 141
Distressed – 29, 42, 44, 71, 88, 109, 113
Sick – 22, 37, 72
Uncertain – 25, 37, 72
Oppressed – 26, 52, 114
Guilty – 39, 51
You could take one of these Psalms and use it as a form for yours. It may have been based on something else, itself! You could re-write it in your own words and tilt it towards your own purpose. I’ve done this many times and it is always a good exercise – as long as it doesn’t turn into to a poem critique like in English class! Using a well-known psalm as a base is a good way for me not to worry about form and content and let a person guide me to my own expression.
You could sit back and let your greatest desire, feeling or conundrum (as of today) rise up and come into focus and then write a psalm that expresses it.
I want to feel_____.
I want help with ________.
I think of myself as (ungrateful, over-certain, flawed, etc.).
I appreciate this about my relationship with God
I am puzzled or distressed about this in my relationship with God.
Those are just suggestions. Let it flow and see where you end up. God is with you as you use your strength to be with God.
When you are done you could put your psalm in your drawer or notebook for future reference. You might pass this way again! You may not want your stuff laying around, so you might not keep it at all. Maybe you want to share your psalm – but that is hardly required. Think of all the people who wrote psalms, just like King David (St. Patrick, too), sitting out on a rock with the sheep, and never got one of them into the Bible or a blog post! They were just doing it.
The main challenge with any kind of development, is to overcome our resistance and do something. When we get out of ourselves and enter the space between us and God, the Lord meets us in many ways. As simple an act as writing a psalm — getting the feeling and thought out of our hearts and minds and onto the paper, is one of many ways to move into the space between. It is a good way to pray. Give it a try!
“Truly, I say to you,
unless you turn and become like children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” — Jesus in Matthew 18:3 (ESV)
I am thankful my childhood home life included a lot of music. My father sometimes played his old guitar and my mother was often singing a snippet of a tune. My siblings are all musicians. I latched on to singing like a life jacket, I think. Floating with the harmonies was like a return to Harmony, itself.
When Jesus gives the profound teaching, above, which no one ever forgot, I think he is drawing his disciples back into that Harmony — just as he demonstrates how to live in harmony and is, in fact, an expression of it. So often we go with many translations which read “turn” as “unless you are converted,” or “unless you turn yourself around and go a new, better direction,” or “unless you repent of your sins” you’ll never get into heaven. The word does imply “turning one’s back” and can be used in all those ways.
However, the older I get, the more I think the simple word “turn” is probably the best way to get at the meaning. Turning is the basic skill of spiritual development. And when Jesus attaches the word to becoming like children, I think he has to mean it more in the sense of “return.” As in, “Unless you return and keep returning to what you knew as a child, to the experience of knowing God’s presence you had, you’ll miss eternity.” Part of what Jesus forever represents is the Son of God, the child of God, even God identified with the lost child of Luke 15, returning to the loving embrace and extravagant care of the Father, who has been waiting and watching for the sight of that lost and longing child coming up the path.
The right brain has a memory of harmony
We tend to read the whole Bible with the left brain. That’s not surprising, since language resides mainly in the left hemisphere and, if we don’t watch it, that part of us can end up fencing off the words from any influence other than themselves. In that context we could easily think this Bible verse provides a principle for how to get into heaven: one must become like a child, having the traits of that abstraction – trusting, humble and forgiving. This is true as far as it goes. But I was already a child. I don’t need an abstract child to become, I need to return to being myself in harmony with God. That is where I think we start out.
The experience of oneness and harmony for which I keep looking is not only an ideal, or a promise of something I have yet to see, it is also a memory. Before I had language, I lived in the presence of God. I did not know any better. My parents may have contributed to that sense or not. But I wanted them to. I wanted to attach to that trust, truth and grace forever. My parents were my first shot at experiencing such harmony consciously. For most of us, it was a bit of a shock that what each of us needed at the core of us was not fully realized. [Attachment theory explained in the NYTimes].
I am not among the many people I know who cannot remember much of their childhood. I remember a lot. I think I gloss over the troubles of it and retain the goodness — sometimes to a fault. What came to mind just now was laying in the tall grass that had grown up in a housing development that went bust not far from my childhood home. I thought I was the only one who had thought of doing this. Invisible. Ignoring that I was not supposed to be there. Staring up into the sky for I don’t know how long. Feeling secure in the embrace of the earth, entranced by clouds in an endless sky, returning to the presence of God. In harmony. I later attached that feeling to the songs and lessons I learned when I got dropped off at Sunday school. I think I can safely say I learned all I needed to know about God by the time I was in kindergarten.
Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary gives me some exhaustive science and philosophy to validate my experience. He reminds us that the right brain was the first hemisphere to develop. It is not an add-on to our more scientific left brain, it is the part of us that developed the left brain and feeds it.
In childhood, experience is relatively unalloyed by re-presentation: experience has “the glory and the freshness of a dream,” as Wordsworth expressed it…Childhood represents innocence, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of offering what the phenomenologists thought of as the pre-conceptual immediacy of experience (the world before the left hemisphere has deadened it to familiarity). It was this authentic “presencing” of the world that Romantic poetry aimed to recapture.
The Romantic acceptance that there is no simple “fact of the matter” – a reality that exists independently of ourselves and our attitude towards it – brought to the fore the absolutely crucial question of one’s disposition towards it, the relationship in which one stands to it. This emphasis on disposition towards whatever might be rather than the primacy of the thing itself in isolation or abstraction, explains the often contradictory accounts of what Romanticism “stood for.” (McGilchrist, 359)
Prayer is returning like a child
When I turn to centering prayer, meditation, even the left-brainish “mindfulness,” I am returning to childlike thinking, just as I think Jesus is encouraging. Meditation is the older sibling of science. When we move into the silence, we still the left brain and experience the holistic, right-now, apprehension of the right — including the longstanding memories of what it was like to know God and feel one with the earth, full of boundless hunger and curiosity, before we were constrained to find our place among others and compelled to consciously turn and turn into harmony.
McGilchrist quotes Wordsworth as a prime example of someone who is good at returning to the wonders of childhood. The art of the Romantics is a conscious turning into the presence of God (at least for many of them). Some are turning into the presence of “presence” itself, which I think is mostly just moving to the fringes of left-brain domination. Their movement, as short-lived as it was, is a good example of how humanity never really forgets who we are. Here is part of the poem to which McGilchrist refers above
But for those first affections, ……………………Those shadowy recollections, ……………Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing; …………….Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake, ……………To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour, …………………..Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
I think Wordsworth is embellishing what Jesus is saying. We have all experienced the “fountain-light” of all our days. It may be dimmed by the messy attachments we have made, but it still has the power to reveal eternity when we turn into it. The enemies of joy may threaten it, but it can never be destroyed.
Just me? Don’t the oak trees seem happier?
Haven’t they soaked up extra green from the earth?
But isn’t that their roots communicating
about this strange, over-cool July breeze disturbing their wet leaves?
I appreciate their lack of worry,
though I can’t be sure of how they’re reacting
to their cousins roasting in British Colombia
or to the tiny whiff of smoke they must smell from California.
I suspect they leave the worry to me
and just grow, taking the best the summer offers
and savoring it; pulling the sun right out of the air,
just swallowing it whole, wearing it, defiant of the future.
They rest in glory, immortal glory.
I’m the one who can block out the sun with a mood.
I can smell imaginary smoke or fear a possibility.
I know I must turn into the green of the morning and feast.
So the trees and I are writing this praise,
sitting together in your forest, in your gift of today:
this sun, this air, this love in which I have always lived,
this endless potential present in each drop sailing off every leaf,
present in me, present in us,
present in grandchildren skimming across the lake,
present in the stumbling church and diseased country,
present when the next disaster or betrayal occurs,
as you well know, Lord, as you well know.
The Overwhelm comes upon us,
an angel of death coursing
through the streets like an oily snake
invented for the screen by Cecil B. DeMille.
We can’t tell if it’s real or not.
But we feel it sucking the life out of Spring.
We shut down and cower in our darkness.
Memorial Day tries to jump start Summer
but it’s another rainy day
taunting us with our dashed hopes of
a maskless picnic in the sun.
The Overwhelm rises up like a pool
of sewage in the basement.
We turn the air freshener in the socket
up to high but soon just go to sleep.
In the dark of night I rise with
outrage stuck in my throat.
I imagine ancient Roman wives with flowers
skulking out to the graves of their husbands,
his death day guarded in a private brain cell,
matrons in Charleston fighting for the honor
of inventing her son’s Decoration Day,
women wearing poppy pins from Flanders Fields
and Seeger asking where all the flowers have gone.
I have many reasons to dissociate.
The face of Trump rises like a blood moon
in the nighttime of the Empire,
the church crippled by the pandemic,
and our wan faces blearily, bravely,
weakly attending to one another on screen.
We can barely find the energy
to try a vacation on our one day off,
much less move with the impulse to be
outraged over Armed Forces Day,
Veterans Day, and Memorial Day
tromping around the calendar.
God help us, it is George Floyd Death Day!
At the same time it is San Jose Death Day,
which followed Palestine Oppression Day and
Jews beat-up-on-the-streets of New York Day,
not long after Asian woman pummeled-on-screen Day,
and police killing-filmed Day, killing, killing
at the same rate as this Day last year.
Even the Underground Railroad masterpiece
can’t shake us out of the stupor of the Overwhelm.
Oh Lord, stoke my outrage!
What a colossal waste of flowers!
My God, we are still making weapons!
The police are armed to the teeth
trying to protect our right to carry
and still formally killing the caught killers
not informally executed in the streets.
O my God, how much did they spend
in Afghanistan and on the Israelis
for rockets targeting Gaza apartments?
Jesus, I need to be flabbergasted
and all I can do is throw a poem out there
on a day when people would rather rest in their grave,
avoiding the feeling of death inside,
and just try not to remember for a moment.
Oh God, the Overwhelm is snaking through the streets
and no amount of flowers can mask the smell.
I needed a new taste of your cruciform love
as I lay awake feeling at home
but entertaining all those homeless thoughts of loss
which are always looking to move in.
I received a word from the poet, C. Day Lewis,
pondering the day his son left home.
Oh, he would be at dinner, but gone, nonetheless,
finding his way among friends. He said:
I have had worse partings, but none that so Gnaws my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly Saying what God alone could perfectly show – How self-hood begins with walking away, And love is proved in the letting go.
At every table I eat a bowl of letting go
and feel hungry as I find my way.
On your icon across the room you are loving,
vulnerable in your passion.
I have a lot to learn of the cross in the night
as others feel free to sleep away —
or so my piece of broken heart often tells me
as I resist learning love from you,
as I hear the voice of love in me.
Off a road we never travelled,
the empty lot for the trailhead parking
seemed eager for a visitor
on a mild day in March.
Bits of snow lay untouched on the path
and painted the forest floor in patches.
The sunshine felt as new as the trail
after months locked indoors.
The rocky way relied on blazes
and our old feet relied on memory
of many hikes over many years, those
with less expectation of falling.
There are wonders to be seen.
Inside and out there are vistas.
Now the tree growing out of a rock
seems like a personal statement.
Now the stone like the Stone Table
has a deep spiritual history.
Now the slab like a stage
is pondered from erotic to sublime.
Now the muddy flats speak of
foreign places and mysterious art,
while the destination creek flows
with thoughts for the future.
It is always striking how the way into
the unknown of a new forest seems long.
How far is it? Should we keep going?
How can we gauge the effort this takes?
Yet the way back through the now
familiar landscape, dotted with experience
like patches of snow, seems short, soon to
embolden an unknown route back home.
Just a bit of courage to try
a new path and the interior landscape
feels the breeze of a spring thaw
where it is frozen with fear and doubt.
Though the pilgrimage of Lent seems long
in a year so hard and fraught,
so many days it seems like a short way
back to the home You make for us.
And even when my courage seems so small
and the mud of spring annoying,
You move me to stay on the way of the heart:
that old unknown end, always a familiar new end
marking the trailhead of hope.