Category Archives: Poetry

Pentecost season

You are so kind Lord!
When I wondered who I am,
You said, “Call me Abba”
and the calling made me. Makes me!
I call your name and you call mine.
I name you mine and you name me back.
You are so kind, Lord!

In a day of meaningless words,
who will you send into the streets? Who?
In a day of CGI-fantasy fire,
who will marvel at the tongues? Who?
In an ocean of one-bedroom apartments,
who will join your fire-born community? Who?
In your broken-down church,
wearing its terrible reputation,
where will you show your face to the world? You!

You are so kind Lord!
I shied away from saying, “Let it be me!”
and you still said, “I’ll let it be you.
It has always been you and me.
Always. Before you were born, I knew you.
I loved you and waited for you to grow.
Waited. When you first saw me, I was looking at you.
When you were a twentysomething,
I knew what could happen and laughed.
I laughed at you thinking you were too old
to burn with fire and energize grace.
Old! If you are too old, what am I?”
You are so kind Lord!

In this season of celebration —
wearing red, singing confident songs —
this season of unimagined beginnings,
help me. Help me to be looking for you
as you seek me out again and name me.
Seek me! Lick me with the presence of the future.

Thirty-three and thirty-three again

Today, the sun rises again
and the Son again rises with it.
You may want to sleep through it again,
the pillow over your head in dread again.
It may burn your eyelids as it invades your bed,
make you queasy with its sky turning red,
make your dizzy brain reel in the face of new day.
You may resist it all and hit the snooze,
pick up the phone and zero out, or lay
and feel the uneasy knowledge of staying still.

On your road to your Emmaus
you may not spy the bloom among us
right there at the edge of your blinders.
You may not recognize the warming,
the gentle, but binding, binding heat
of burning light in the deep, in the dark,
in the places you are sure no one sees,
in the old pains you feel will never heal,
in the memories you cannot forget,
in the aches you never could forgive.

But there He is again. You
turn your head and catch his eye again.
You take the bread from his hand again
and the moment is an eternity before
he’s gone missing, gone in some fog —
working and loving, God in God,
until he rises from the good earth again,
descends through a thin place again,
connects through a tender touch again,
surprises with that distant voice again.

My new friends call it Eastertide. It
ebbs and flows unstoppable, again and again; its
waves of life, sweet and swelling, wake us up to live again.

Would you like to hear me read it? Here is a link.

Today is John Leonhard Dober Day! He is the first missionary the Moravian Brethren chose to send out from Herrnhut in 1727. He has a remarkable story of faith and courage. Get to know him at The Transhistorical Body. 

What will it be when deep calls to deep today?

Deep unto deep calls out
at the sound of Your channels.
All Your breakers and waves have surged over me.
By day the Lord ordains His kindness
and by night His song is with me –-
prayer to the God of my life. (Robert Alter)

My Psalm this morning came after pondering the portion of Psalm 42, above. 

Thank you for helping me turn, Lord —
turning: the base skill of spiritual health,
turning: the squeal of worn-out ball bearings
under the faulty drum of my inner washing machine,
turning: the painful choice to stop looking
at the past as if it were not over
but ready to click into the spin cycle and wring me out.

We don’t need to be in the churn of Psalm 42, do we?
What will it be when deep calls to deep today?

The psalmist probably meant
“’Chaos calls to chaos!’
I am stuck in the primordial soup
waiting for ‘Let there be light,’
for life to blow into my nostrils of mud.

The optimistic kataphatics
hear the depth of God calling to the depths of them.
Those “waterfalls and waves”
are a mindful trip to Bali
floating on a calm sea of love.

I always seem to start out in the churn
(only the faithful dare to look into the abyss),
but here I am longing for the turn.

Mindful or mindless, I hold this in my heart.
From the old RSV:
“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love;
and by night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.”
From the new VOICE:
“Yet in the light of day, the Eternal shows me  his love.
When night settles in and all is dark, He keeps me company —
His soothing song, a prayerful melody to the True God of my life.”

I will try not to toggle today Lord,
wobbling and banging like an overfilled washer
then floating on a sea of forgetfulness and wonder —
the twain rarely meeting.
I will have joy in one hand and suffering in the other
and turn into the song of eternity in me and ahead of me.
Help me listen
and listen again…
and turn and turn into your song,
even turn round right.

Memorial Day Psalm for Uvalde

 Old graves to decorate

Many towns in the United States claim they invented Memorial Day after the horrible Civil War, from which the country has never recovered, I’d say. All over the nation, graves were growing uncared for and many people thought that was shameful. Within 30 years the government made Decoration Day into a national holiday. It was placed at the end of May when flowers are in bloom everywhere.

Roughly 2% of the U.S. population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty during the Civil War.  Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the toll would have risen as high as six million people. 

There are many people to remember on Memorial Day. It is hard to get a hold on just how many there are!

Most record keepers suggest that about 75 million people worldwide died in World War 2, including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians. Many civilians died because of deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, disease, and starvation.

America has been in 19 known wars since World War 2. But just remember the death toll from three of the bloodiest conflicts: The Korean War, The Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The total death toll of people killed by American troops in all these wars put together is over 12 million.

Our war weapons are used on our own own citizens, too. 

This week last year, the sad facts of Memorial Day were heightened when we heard about 18 year old Pedro Ramos, who shot his grandmother in the face after they argued over how he did not graduate from high school. He then took his two legally purchased AR-15 automatic weapons to Robb Elementary and shot 36 people, mostly children in two adjoining classrooms, killing 21.

You probably don’t remember the details. There is a year-full of subsequent shootings. As of the end of April this year, in just four months, there have been 185 mass shootings in the U.S. (using the definition of 4 or more people shot in one incident). 254 people died. 708 were wounded. Untold numbers were traumatized. 

The Uvalde victims

I often say, “How could someone do that?”  But there are many terrible reasons. They are not all personal. Pedro Ramos lived in a country in which leaders of his state tenaciously protected his freedom to buy an automatic weapon in the name of freedom. He lived in a country which is committed to spending, if I calculated the unfathomable right, about $26,000 a second in 2023 to maintain by far the largest military in the world to protect Pedro Ramos’ freedom. You can do your own moral math about that and watch the country refight the  civil war on the “news.”

New victims to memorialize

I want to spend my Memorial Day tears on placing symbolic flowers on the graves of
people killed in Uvalde on May 24, 2022. I know the survivors are more overwhelmed by their losses than I can imagine, even a year later.   But I can imagine a lot.

Lord, I pause the fun at the lake.
I dare to look at my lively grandkids.
I force myself to look at the numbers,
at the evil statistics too horrible to know.

I will ask for forgiveness later.
But first I examine the sin, the heartbreak,
the wounds reopened every second
with every dollar spent on power,
spent on the mistaken notion the right to kill
makes Pedro Ramos free, like he must have thought.

Ten year old Nevaeh Bravo.
Her name was heaven spelled backward.

Nine year old Jacklyn Cazares.
Her first communion picture was offered to the press.

Ten year old Makenna Elrod.
Four sisters and three brothers will never forget.

Ten year old Manuel Flores.
His mother said, “He was very good with babies.”

Irma Garcia had taught at Robb for 23 years.
Two days after her death her husband died of heart failure.
Their children were told mom was seen shielding her students.

Ten year old Maile Rodriguez.
She died helping others to safely hide.

There are more Lord. Always more.
We are overwhelmed with more.
You bear the overwhelming sins of the world.

No amount of decoration on graves
will conceal the hideous truth.
Humanity chooses power over love,
even makes you a warrior God
instead of a suffering servant.

Can you forgive us who rarely forgive?
Can you save us who believe AR-15s save?

 

A psalm of examen: Bite and bile

Francis receiving stigmata: Seville Cathedral

Not long after I spent a few minutes staring at this amazing piece of art in the sumptuous Seville Cathedral, I popped into a neighborhood church on the way to more gelato. Unlike how I imagine frustrated Francis patiently enduring his place in the wall of a treasure house, treasuring a lost bird winging through the  air near the ceiling, and seeing Christ in the hordes of tourists, I felt a bit too much bite and bile rise up in reaction to the state of the church — my church, and God’s.

This dashed-off psalm down the road by the pool reflects my examination.

An instinctive turn into the church:
Sevillans are intoning a rosary.
The leader gives a glance to verify
We are invisible tourists.

I make my companion sit with me:
Sevillans creating a foreign atmosphere,
making a world for the initiated.
I get through a cycle and leave.

Out on the sidewalk I speak softly,
m sotto voce of contempt lest they hear,
“That’s a good reason for the church to die.”
I am self-righteously upset.

I am right again. So right. So right.
But my scorn is also a good reason
for your beleaguered Church to die.
I kick its last leg in the shin.

Every time I wander here, I lament
when the baroque church was powerful,
when they got a cut of the land and gold
from which I still benefit.

They spread out art in every corner of each town:
brilliant details amplify your honor and glory
with the ill-gotten gains of thieves and murderers.
I inherited murderous thoughts.

I am instinctively turning into this psalm,
Into a place outside my bite and bile.
If for just a moment, I am freed by worship
As my heart sees the invisible.

Make me alive, so I see death dying.

where dead beasts stay dead

He confessed a classic movie scene:
a hero must offer Dad’s eulogy
and can’t complete it because he sobs.
That’s not him. He’s a stone lit by flickers,
afraid someone will see his tearless guilt,
or hear his relief echoing in the loss
of the father he never had — that death
finally completed, his secret resurrection.

She held a service in her mind:
another tree fell in her strained forest
when the dominator finally left —
moved on to a new host, declaring victory,
leaving the rotting hulk of their influence,
a shadow still dimming the light in her bunker,
where she reflexively cowered in the springtime
of their crucifixion, weeping at the tomb.

Both pleaded, “Please stay dead, so I can rise.”

Though free they still felt oppressed,
surrounded by the blare of faux idealism,
screens teaching what no one is
but who everyone is supposed to be.
They could not confess their liberty,
consigned to forgive people who were not sorry,
bearing sins which others committed,
forever fearing the day they trusted again.

Both prayed, “I can’t die with you; only the living can.
I’m killed, choiceless, double crossed.”

Lord, the old confession finally seems relevant.
I welcome You into the fullness of your death:
the “daily death” Paul dies from the wild beasts
snapping at his soul, sitting at dinner tables,
leading business meetings, filling pulpits,
the stench of their breath accepted as atmosphere.
When it lifts, we feel normal might be in the air.
But it is the breeze of resurrection we smell.

We pray, “Make me alive so I see death dying,
so I am not an empty, tearless loss,
or still at home in a toxic memory.

Please stay alive, so my death can die.”

Jesus wants to ransom you: Get rescued for Lent

When I discovered John Donne’s sonnet in my college literature anthology, it preoccupied me for months. I even turned it into a song for my Music 1 course. My TA thought the tune was a little strange, but I still sing it in my head.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet XIV (pub.  1633)

I still sing this poem because I often need to. Like Donne, from the first days of my faith I doubted the primacy of my mind when it came to my relationship with God — reason is about as good as the reasoner. I was more concerned with the irrational thinking (and the habits associated with it) that felt like a prison. So I loved Donne’s image of God battering on the big oak doors of my heart like always happened in movies about knights and sieges. And I secretly loved the erotic imagery of a passion so insistent I could use it as a touchstone memory of ecstasy.

The prison

Donne’s sonnet helps me put the proper passion into the work of Jesus. God comes to free me from my prison: sin, unbelief, death and, ultimately, sadness, physical pain and mental illness. He’s not doing the paperwork, he’s risking his life for a lover.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. – Hebrews 2:14-15

God shares our flesh and blood. The other day at Chuck E. Cheese, my son was recounting his astonishment when he opened his birthday-present-subscription to The New Yorker and read about the condition of gold miners in South Africa. I’m not sure we needed more evidence of the evil in the world than driving up Roosevelt Boulevard offers every day, but there it was, brazenly at work among the poor in South Africa. And there it is in the fact Russia has stolen children from Ukrainian parents! And there it is in the mirror most of the time. It appears we are all betrothed to God’s enemy whether we choose it or not. John says, “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).

But God is with us. So the apostle, Paul, writes to his protégé and instructs him to act

with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. — 2 Tim 2:25-6

The preacher last Sunday deftly sidestepped the skepticism people have about the devil. He didn’t exactly say there wasn’t one, he just implied it didn’t make much difference if I said there wasn’t. I did not mind that much (John might mind, however). I think he was working with what was in front of him. Powerful and power-grabbing people from the U.S. Empire think there is no legitimate opposition to their authority, which is why we will likely be ruled by AI and overrun by nanotechnology before long, if Antarctica does not melt first. Who needs a devil?

I’m fine with the origin of evil being mysterious. The effects of it are ever-present. We’re surrounded and often manacled. I think any spiritually aware person is amazed at how free they can be and still feel pushed around by sin, death, and suspicious spirits. If Jesus does not ransom and rescue us, we’re in trouble.

The ransom

Paul basically assumes his readers in Corinth know God ransomed them from the prison of sin and death by the work of Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection. He writes, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Then he assumes it again in the next chapter: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of humans” (7:23).

Icon: “Origen Teaching the Saints,” Eileen McGuckin

Origen (c. 185–c. 253), the famous scholar from the early church in Alexandria, is often accused of popularizing a “ransom view” of the atonement. I think post-1900s theologians are more likely the culprits. They needed a neat way to explain church history according to Enlightenment theories. I think they put the word “atonement” at the top of their chart like it was a genus and went looking for species; the “ransom theory” became one of many. Origen describes his idea of ransom but I doubt he was being too specific, since even in First Principles he assumes most concepts can be considered in a literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical way. Origen was primarily an ascetic, so he was probably enjoying the feeling of being ransomed and feeling the desperate need for it, just like John Donne.

But he did say:

To whom gave he his life “a ransom for many?” It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus, was paid to him, being deceived into thinking that he could be its lord, and not seeing that he could not bear the torment of holding it.  (apparently in his Commentary on Romans, but I did not find the source online for you).

Whether we need to credit Origen or not, for the next 1000 years this understanding of the atonement is probably the most popular. Many people think “ransom” is a better metaphor than a doctrine, but most people just take it for how it is taught by the big names, like Augustine, who in the 400’s says,

“The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors” (Serm. cxxx, part 2).

People have always had some problems with this explanation of the Lord’s work for the basic reason it is a theory of how the atonement works, not a story. Rather than being a drama or a revelation of mystery, the work of Christ becomes a mechanism to be explained when the philosophers get a hold of it.

What’s more, there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically says Satan was the one to whom ransom was paid. But that is a bit like saying there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that grants women political rights. Origen and Augustine were offering an amendment to the Bible and the church folded it in.

The ransomed ransom

I welcome being ransomed, me and John Donne. I don’t need a theory to approve my eligibility for rescue. I need to be rescued. Every day in psychotherapy I become better acquainted in the many variations of our captivity. We can’t rescue ourselves or each other effectively. We need Jesus, our ransom and rescuer. I am less interested in how, exactly, the ransoming occurs. I am more interested in the passion I feel being enacted on my behalf. It is good to know Jesus is tirelessly beating on the castle door.

I think Lent is a good time to get out of prison and help set others free. Jesus taught:

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”—Mark 10:42-45

A lot of people looking for a theory have an “Aha” moment when they hear Jesus giving his life as a ransom, “So THAT’s how it works!” But it seems clear that Jesus thinks his disciples won’t get how things work until they enact a passion like his. Be loved and love. Be ransomed and be a ransom.  Be suffered for and suffer. In my experience, I feel more ransomed when I ransom. Like the abused often become abusers, the ransomed become ransom.

So for Lent, how about being ransomed? If you just made up your own tune for John Donne’s sonnet, it might lead to feeling rescued.

A psalm for St. Stephen’s Day

Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, by Jacopo & Domenico Tintoretto

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.

For light where the darkness is deep

Oct 29 moon

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.

Lone Goose

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.

 

Want to hear me read it?