Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: creativity

Long for the Light Like a Marine Iguana Must

My family has a tradition of writing Christmas stories. Here’s one of mine from a few years ago.

Christmas in Cold Blood

Santa Fe Island in the Galapagos 4:48am GALT (GMT -6hrs)
An hour and five minutes before sunrise on December 25, 2011

The sun is rising.  It is still dark but he knows the sun is rising.  Soon the dark horizon will blue at her edge and the lowest stars will begin their daily dim.  The slow breath of his brethren presses against his flanks.  The very slow breath of his very cold brethren can not be heard, only felt under the roar of wave on rock that surrounds them.

He lies there motionless as the darkest hour begins to pass.  Tangled together with the rest in a heap on the rocky shoreline, he anticipates the blood that will flow.  Through his limbs it now trickles but soon it will course.

He understands the light.  He knows to wait.  This takes time.  He cannot rush it.  After all, he has no choice but to wait, but though he is old now, he has not yet grown accustomed to this morning ritual–this longing for first light.  It happens this way always, and yet it happens that he always fears in the final hour.  While all his brothers and sisters sleep in torpor he wakes and waits.  He understands the light, it’s effect on his cold blooded body, but he has also understood the darkness.  He had been created to miss this hour of cold in slumber as his snoozing family brethren always do, but for reasons he does not understand, he always wakes.  He experiences each morning trapped in his frozen body. Fully aware.  So he is the only one who knows that the sun is rising.

“It must” he thinks, “Or I will die.”

As he works through his regular morning anxiety, the earth spins, and the waves crash, and the light grows.  Below the sky’s black melts some blue, and just above the water-lined horizon an orange seeps upward–a very deep, reddish orange that sings in heraldry of great light.

“Aah.  At last!” he sighs to himself.  “It comes.”

But the wait is not over.  The sun is a slow one.  At least to him.  Though it is quite fast in the grand scheme of things, he perceives it as slow because he is trapped in the darkness and has been so all through the long night.  And in the darkest hour, frozen and alone in waiting for his cold death the grand scheme seems irrelevant.  The grand scheme is irrelevant to the one who lays dying.  And, though it happens this way every morning, he has never shaken those death thoughts.  How can he forget with his heart beating this slowly, with his lungs inflating this little, and yet, his mind so alert?

But he understands the light.  He recognizes its effect on his body and he waits for his frozen feet to be warmed.  He waits for the sun to activate his receded self.  The deep orange has now climbed a quarter of the sky.  The blue has taken the rest and only the brightest stars still shine through the veil of dawn.  Below the orange, there is more red and the wisps of clouds high above in the blue reflect back this redness in pink.

Already he is thawing, but the wait is not done.  How he wants to flick his tail, to grip the rock beneath his feet, to be unlocked! He aches for it to be done.  And then, it is.  The sun jumps over the horizon with a dazzle of rays that hit him with a jolt of pleasure.  Each one of his black scales squeals in delight.  He is the first to raise his head to meet the long expected light.  His brethren follow and form a chorus of attentive faces turned to greet the morning.  The long darkness is over and their bodies will soon spring into action.  His core of heart-beating, lung-expanding warmth spreads through him from the center.  The light penetrates him and awakens him fully.  His blood is warming.

Some time basking in the sun passes and his body is now sufficiently warmed for his charge.  He climbs out of the tangle, tromping on heads, shoulders and tails to the edge of the rocky cliff where they have spent the night.  His blood is coursing now.  He’s as hot as he can be–enlivened, fear gone, ready to do what needs to be done, which is to dive into the breakers to forage algae below.  The island is so scarce that the sea bed is the only place for food. Even though it means braving the tumult of waves, the jagged rock, and, worst of all, the freezing ocean current that chills him to the bone., just like the infinite night  He can only withstand ten minutes in the frigid depths before he must fight his way back to shore.  Somehow this cold is invigorating, while the cold of the darkness is frightening.

“I guess it’s because I know it’s right there.” He reflects as he looks over his shoulder at the shining sun and hoists himself back onto the rock.

He lies down spread eagle on the rocks to be re-warmed so he can digest his belly full of food.  He is reassured by the warmth on his spiny back.  He is safe underneath a blue sky lit by a great light.

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
  have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
  a light has dawned.”

Beloved, may you long for the Christ light this year as much as I imagine marine iguanas long for the dawn.  May you understand the Light of the World in your hearts, yes your blood pumping hearts.

Call God the Pulse: New Language from a New Anthem

My friends Dan and Pat McGowan have created a masterpiece. The newest album from their band, The Tea Club (Pat McGowan, Dan McGowan, Jamie Wolff, Dan Monda and Joe Dorsey), is a gift to the world. I can’t stop listening to the almost 28 minute final track, “Creature.” This post is an unauthorized interpretation of that song. One of the cool things about art is that it can speak to me differently than it speaks to you — a multiplying resonance of meaning bouncing through all of our ears, brains and hearts. But I’m telling you, you have to let this album speak to you. I think I’ve picked up some of what Pat and Dan are putting down. I know them well, but my interpretation is based on my own experience of the song, from hearing it live a few months ago to listening to it four or five times in the past three days since the album was released. Buy the album at theteaclub.net.

A new Oracle

Psalm 35 of The Tea Club
A Song of the Sons of Patrick
(with interlinear interpretation from a very minor director of music, Ben White)

“Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Turn with me, stay with me, rich in my blood
Against any reason other than I may fill you again

Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again”

Call God the Pulse, don’t cast God in stone. God is alive and is life. There is no life through which God does not flow. I meet so many people who are struggling with language for God. People in recovery, people burned by the church, people who have been taught that God is just another fairy tale, people who don’t have the prescribed experience with God but are having some kind of experience with Something. We need new language for God because we are having new experiences. Cast God in stone and it will weigh you down. Circumscribe God to only “Jehovah Jireh,” or “King of Kings,” or some other ancient, often unintelligible metaphor and miss out on the richness of God in your blood, heaven-bent on filling you again.

You can keep your white knuckle grip on language and experience that doesn’t work for you, and have a faith that is only as strong as those fingers of yours. This is true, not just for religious people who are steeped in the old language and thus find comfort in it, but also for those who are wandering alone, white knuckling their life as the nexus of their universe, desperately trying to be their own life. They intend to hold their own comfort together by the power of their own invention. You might be either/or. You might be both/and — probably the later,

Call God the Pulse and God will fill your veins. These words and melody flow through the song as a sort of key to the triumph of the anthem. We sing with the band through the journey of this song. There is an explicit drama in the song. Can this Truth prevail? Will the Pulse win our hearts?

“Unwinding of the thread
The needle of the curtain
The hour of the glass
The forest of amorphous
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing”

Here is the new anthem: “All your creatures long for the new creation/ where the boundaries of death are ever failing.” The kernel of this wheat is in Romans 8:19-23:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The lofty melody speaks to this aspiration, this desire, as much as the borrowed words from Paul. We need an anthem to hold on to this hope. Ironically the way we hold on is not with an iron grip, but with a loose hand and loose body swaying — swaying to the music — floating and flowing — remembering who God is “Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins” again and again.

“Cast me in stone and I will weigh you down
Knuckles white, carry on
Resigned to wander, without any longing other than
I may flow through you again

Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins
Call me the pulse and I will fill your veins.”

But can we rest in that? The music fades and gentles us in a deep breath. I will be still and know who you are, God. I will be still and know who you are, Pulse. Breathe. But can I keep breathing? A scratching, technodystopian noise starts to disturb our peace. Dissonant chords lurk at the edges and start to threaten. But breathe, maybe we can stay here even as the other things that grip us whisper.

No, we must face reality, too. This journey is not just a bliss-out. There is another place we can go. It’s where we live most of the time. In minute nine of “Creature” there is a dramatic shift in tone that grew on us like fungus. How long have I heard that knocking?

“How
How long
In the dark?
I close my eyes
I hear that noise
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?
How long have I heard that knocking?

Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
Hey hey hey, No mercy
They’re screaming ‘til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey
No mercy in this place
Somebody needs to put them down
Like a wounded animal out of their misery
Hey hey hey, what do you say?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
You wanna watch your show about the living dead
well I can introduce you myself”

An intense, caustic struggle with the reality of the hell in which we live bursts in. The option to laugh it all off is real. A death-obsessed culture striving for immortality in eleven different ways at every moment screams at the door of any peace we find till their throats are ripped and raw. Our longing for a New Creation might just be a joke. That Something we felt was just something else. How interesting, your belief in God is. Maybe I’ll make a meme about it. These fucks laugh at everything. Next channel, please. The caustic solution of the hell in which we live will dissolve you.

But   the struggle continues in this song journey.  In minutes eleven and twelve, these forces throw their weight around, quickening their pace and wrapping their tendrils around our hearts. But in minute thirteen they shut up for a second and we can look at the hellscape from a different perspective. The New Creation melody reminds us again of who we are and who the Pulse is. We can sing the same sad, angry words with some more understanding — maybe it’s compassion that saves us from the fray, and thus the infected wounds that come with it.

“Do you dare enter this place?
You wanna meet the devil face to face?
Do you hear what I hear now?
Well these fucks laugh at everything
No mercy
They’re screaming ’til their throats are ripped and raw
They’re screaming in the name of God
But these fucks laugh at everything”

The words of the third track on the album come in (there are echoes of the whole album in the complex melodies interwoven in “Creature”). There is not enough time to convince the world I’m not crazy.  I don’t have to have every fight. I can be still and know.

“I’m just being realistic, I’m not hoping for a cure
Soon there’ll be no time to laugh away our sorrows anymore
No time to flow like water or lay down in peace.”

The rest comes back in minute fifteen with Dan’s amazing falsetto oo-ooh-ing and Joe’s piano flowing like water underneath him. The Pulse flowing through us again, perhaps. And here the drama is all melody. At minute sixteen, the fungal infection tries to creep back in with dissonant synth sounds. Here is your moment to ponder. Where will I live? In the technodystopian hellscape or in the promised future? Who will I listen to? The Pulse or the whispers of the snickering world?  Hope is now on the doorstep, trumpeting in and ultimately prevailing in a new iteration.

“The Chime of the Age of Gold has called all creatures bold
The seeds in the water have burst
The tentacles reaching out
Arm after arm after arm
Each one a different dance
No longer wound like a thread
They reach for a beckoning stream
Now they flow through it again…”

There is nothing we can do to stop the New Creation. Like thousands of jellyfish in a red tide swarming the shores. The spring has sprung and its unraveling whether we accept it or not. Strange, sometimes dangerous beauty is at hand. Can we dance with it? Creation has accepted the Pulse’s flow and shows us the steps of the new. But will we accept it too?  Will you see the writing on the wall and step into the new age of hope, through death, mind you, into the Age of Gold. The Pulse melody helps us along.

Now, a more devotional, personal assurance. We speak directly to the Pulse with some hesitation. Three lines of “If” but no, this is not IF –“I say if, I mean when.” This swelling confidence in the face of all we have been through (in our lives and in this song) has made me weep every time I’ve listened to this song so far.

“If the time of my age has come
If you’ll call this creature home
If I learn to lift up my eyes
Or If the When tells the Why
If you’ll flow through me again
I say if, I mean when
I say if, I mean when”

The New Creation is coming. Say yes! Then build it up. Make your “yes” loud. The new anthem brings all the promises of Jesus to our lips. This is who we are and this IS who we will be. Thank you, Tea Club! The boundaries of death ARE ever failing.

“All will be revealed
All will see the wisdom
All will be restored
All will know forgiveness
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing”

Then as the swell subsides and the melody reverberates into the quiet places inside us, a final threat makes a futile attempt. Minutes 25 and 26 may be my favorite moments of the song. A subtle thing you might miss with out a deep listen or these notes. There comes a static ringing, the musical representative of that knocking that invites me to the other place. It tries to swell back but abruptly stops at 25:30. The anthem melody echoes though slightly unfaithful to the original — just like our faith — like our memory of every swell that uplifted us. How soon they fade! How soon the notes fall! The struggle is always real. The limping melody resolves and at 25:45 and in its aftermath the static ringing builds for a frightening few seconds but does not prevail.

Dan breaks in with the gentle morning song that began the album, “The Way You Call,” giving one more blow to the creeping dissonance at 26:08. The If is defeated by the When, and the When’s song is sweetness — 

“The way you call, as if I don’t already know
The morning sun can share a cup with this child
The way you call and shed a tear with my own
And though it’s far when I believe it’s like Home, Home
And in the heavens there’s a fire returning my friend
Melting away the ruin of another age
We cried at the Lion and swam against the stream
To flow like water and lay down in peace
Hear my prayer, remember it when I am gone.”

I am your child. You share your goodness with me. You share my sadness with me as well. Jesus, the fire that consumes this ruinous age, the Lion who gives us courage to persevere against the current, the Pulse who flows through us and helps us flow in peaceful waters, to you I pray, remember me. This is our prayer. Amen.

So I Started Writing Sonnets

“As poetry moved slowly off the tongue and onto the page the visual appeal of an approximately square field of black text on a sheet of white paper must have been impossible to resist.  Which is what the sonnet is, first and foremost: a small square poem. It presents both poet and reader with a vivid symmetry that is the perfect emblem of the meaning a sonnet seeks to embody… so a sonnet is a paradox, a little squared circle, a mandala that invites our meditation.”

— Don Patterson
via Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons

The beginning of my sonnet craft will forever be inextricable with the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. He is my muse and my mother, feeding me inspiration and strong food. Publishing these sonnets here is an invitation to you into my mandala, and a prayer for improvement for me. Please give me feedback if you are so inclined.

I enjoy the order of it, the game of saying something just so while striving to say something more than fun. Am I just clever or have a dug a little deeper than rhyme and rhythm? Have I said something worth saying? I’m still unsure, but it IS fun! And often it is revealing to me. The meditation of the making is more than enough to keep going. I hope you enjoy.

 

Blue Whale Buffet
(For Rod)

Blue whale, biggest ever born behemoth,
Whose bite’s much softer than all those who prey,
Whose song sends echoes far below green froth,
And whose serenity seems to us say,
“Can you have trust as one so big as I
Must have to grow so large off tiny krill?”
You, whale, so massive, look me eye-to-eye,
And share with me a portion of that which will
From remnants grow beyond the dinosaurs.
Give me heart beats for miles that thrum with hope–
Mine and ours, as we float and one day soar.
For now, receiving with more “thanks” than “nope”
All that’s given from your creator’s hand,
And not despising when we can’t or can.

 

Moo-oo-oon, God
(January 21, 2019 After the Wolf Moon Lunar Eclipse)

Did you realize you made this pink moon trick?
And is it blasphemy to wonder if
The God of all the universe might pick
The constants, hold their decimals from shift,
Then let the rest unwind so unimpinged?
Are you allowed to be surprised by all
You’ve made? Like this moon now shown blood tinged?
Would that offend someone who couldn’t call
Themselves a Christian, or do only those
Self-proclaimed comprehenders really know
Why you designed eclipses white or rose?
Creation made but un-enjoyed — a show
That could be pure delight but willed by most
To be dumb fact or some machine-god’s ghost.

 

Being Seen Seeing

I caught your eyes on me when my own eyes
Were curiously cast and caught on you,
There seated by whoever was that guy
In whose car you o’er the river flew.
And two lanes to your right I glanced across
To see your pretty brake light tinted face,
That’s when perhaps you knew and so you tossed
Your own inquiring look that shrank my grace.
But not before we shared a second locked
As one in two, disarmed and not unsure
Of being seen seeing and yet un-shocked.
I know because you looked again once more.
On eastward slopes of Whitman’s river span,
We knew in silence what no mind could plan.

 

Prohurus’ Pen
(Prohurus is the legendary assistant to John the Revelator)

His words came slowly from a twisted face,
Shaped not by pain but by un-quenched desire.
With all his might he fought to find the space
In which the words and visions would conspire
To full reveal the depth of what he saw
When darkness burst with shining and he went
With Him who called him by his very awe,
On up to where the veil between was rent.
But how to say it well when now was here
And then was all of it in instant blast?
The seals, the lamps, the bowls and holy fear
The beast, the fire and all the crowns off-cast.
John wrung the words from dreaming, shaped them hour
By hour, and we, the channel of this pow’r.

 

Beside Interstate 90 Outside of Sioux Falls Almost Twenty Years Ago

I’m going back to South Dakota soon,
To see the prairie’s amber waving grain,
To stand beside the road and sing a tune
Of ocean’s swirling down history’s drain
But leaving here these waves, this roar and span
For eyes to cast across and somewhere lose
Their place to find it ‘neath their feet again—
Where Earth is solid but she wants to choose
A much more liquid state – to come alive
And shake me off my feet. Do you want to dance?
Shall I fall down on my knees? Should I strive
For footing in these waves or lose my stance
To swim in wonder and Dakota soil –
To dive down deep below this standing’s toil?

 

Haddonfield is Flooded

A geyser of the sweetest joy had built
And built the pressure under their school floor
Until it burst at three oh three and spilt
Across the street and into all the stores.
The flood of smiling children gushing out
Undid whatever dams or dikes inside
Me still intact to hold it back – my spout.
So when their Friday faces were untied
My own resistance too was overcome.
Surprised by joy again with old C.S,
Surprised this could amount to such a sum,
Suburban streets could yield from me excess.
A single tear enough for evidence
That life was better than my darkened lens.

 

Saving our Imaginations from Fortnite

I am reading A Wrinkle in Time to my son, Oliver, who is 7 years old. One of my goals is to teach him to use and develop his imagination. I actually stop as we’re reading to encourage him to be still and actively imagine what he’s hearing. It’s hard for him to not fidget with something or even be drawn to other books and images in his room. I remind him, “We’re being still and practicing seeing the story in our minds. What does Calvin look like?” (I’m really glad he hasn’t seen the movie). On our family vacation this summer we listened to the Chronicles of Narnia in the car and he claimed to be able to read his book about dragons and listen to the story on the car speakers at the same time.

I think I’m a bit like Oliver sometimes. Paying attention is a difficult task. I spend a lot of time on my computer and always have way too many tabs open in Chrome. I am prone to popping between tasks and too often lack the stillness for the clarity of thought I desire. I want to listen to God and engage my own imagination in any number of creative tasks, but I am, as I think most people are, chronically distracted.

fortnite and coopted imaginationA big new distraction the gaming industry recently cooked up is Fortnite. It’s a shooting game where players skydive onto an island and gather resources to kill each other. Some kind of plasma storm forces them into a tighter and tighter circle and they can build platforms and ramps out of the resources they gather (that’s the “fort” part I think).

I found out about Fortnite through my nephews earlier this year but when I heard this incredible episode of On the Media about Twitch, the social media platform for gamers, I took a deep dive to find out why and how so many people are interested. If you are an elementary school kid like Oliver it is one of the top topics of conversation. Millions of people watch professional gamers play this game. There are tournaments with prizes in the millions. The most famous professional gamer in the United States is Ninja AKA Tyler Blevins. He reportedly earns a million dollars a month. He got really, really famous when, in April of this year, he played with Drake. Seven million people have watched the YouTube video of their game so far.

I want to save my son’s imagination from Fortnite. Imagining violence is the biggest reason. I don’t want him to be desensitized to violence by repeated cartoonish head shots and rocket explosions. I don’t want him to dream about how to kill anyone, even if only in a game, but it’s more than that–I fear the overwhelming swell of enthusiasm for this game will steal his imagination. Instead of imagining anything, he can see it all. It’s loud; it’s fast; and everybody loves it. He loves it and he has never even played it. It IS indeed creative, but too complete, I guess. There’s not much room for his brain to do anything because it has all been done for him. The artist who made Fortnite are not giving an invitation into anything. They are as 20th century writer George MacDonald said in his essay, “The Fantastic Imagination“, writing “THIS IS A HORSE” on their art (and on our minds).

Don’t mess with this dude, George MacDonald

“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

As admirable as the creatives responsible for Fortnite are (I love their worldwide campaign with the llamas), the main force behind Fortnite is not art but business. Companies are going to great lengths to tap the veins of a generations’ desires as they have with Fortnite. But instead of awakening something in their imaginations, they feed us back their desire like a soon to be foie gras duck. If they find something we want, they slap a “THIS IS A HORSE” label on it and shove it down our throats in every conceivable medium. They took our dreams, made them very real, and then edged out the competition by dominating our imaginations for as long as possible.

Imagination is key to being a Christian. The cooperation of mind and heart with God takes contemplation, stillness and creativity. It is not always so clear what God might do next and we who are committed to following that next thing must have unclaimed space in our heads for the project. Other things crowd it too–worries, earning a living, etc.–but Fortnite is the most recent in a string of increasingly demanding and enticing competitors for our hopes and dreams. You might have a future in professional gaming, son! Maybe Fortnite is your ticket to the big time! Lord, save us.

Lord give us space, rest and real hope. Awaken us to what is already in us and where you already are. Stoke our imaginations and make something new. 

 

 

There is Beauty We Don’t See

Sunday night turned was poetry night at Circle of Hope’s 7pm meeting on Marlton Pike in Pennsauken. Joyce Fazio and a team led us to consider how poetry can tap us into a deeper connection with ourselves and reality.

Words! “Words are a super power,” Scott Sorrentino said. Jesus, in John 1 is named the Word, the Logos. God incarnate was and is the Word–the organizing logic, the naming of all things, the content of everything, the initial act, the speech coming from the Source and the Source spoken–yes, the Word. And we have words. And we too can name, and speak, and reason, and act.

We can word too.
We are word-ing when we meet together with Jesus.
Then for sure, yes,
Certainly then, at least,
If not always, but then, yes,
when we are with Him so purposefully.

I love birds because they can fly. I cannot fly but when I discovered Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem, the Windhover, I thought that my ability to word could come closer to flying than I had previously realized. In this poem, Hopkins names the thing I longed for in flight more skillfully than I may ever achieve. He writes about a flying bird and marvels at “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” in a way that made me marvel at his own “achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” His word-ing of flying demonstrated mastery in two directions. I wanted to share it with you (I had to).

On this site some of his arcane language has easy footnotes: poetryfoundation.org/poems/44402/the-windhover
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
     
   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Hopkins gets to the title of this blog post in the last three lines. He describes in great detail the moment that stirred his heart; when he noticed the Windhover, or kestrel, and intensely enjoyed it for what it was. The naming of its beauty intensified it. Realy experiencing beauty may be as much naming it as perceiving it. Words make reality more real, if only because they are shared, and maybe only with your self-same ears is enough. Like praying out loud when you’re alone. Word-ing is worth the time and energy (maybe all time and energy). There is so much hidden, unnamed beauty. We could spend our lives looking for it and never find it all (thank God). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” Hopkins says in another of his famous poems .The stirring of our hearts is just the occasion of our knowing and engaging fully with what is always infinitely present. It’s “no wonder” this bird so enchants him, because even dirt is shiny beautiful when turned out of the packed field (sillion is a very rare, old word for the mound made by dirt turned up by a plow). And because even wood turning to ash dies in flamboyant brightness. There is so much beauty to see and to name.
We gather on Sundays to see it and name it together, among other things. Hope to see you there soon.

Swimming Under Niagara Falls with Jesus

At the Lent retreat this weekend we were led to practice prayer of imagination. Here’s a story I wrote about my experience:

I’m on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes tourist into the clouds at the base of Niagara Falls. If the light is right, there are rainbows everywhere. The light wasn’t right. It was a gray day. I am seven years old and not too old to pout a little. But I am still captivated by the thundering water. Who wouldn’t be?

Everyone is wearing Maid of the Mist branded blue ponchos. As we motor out toward the thunder I lean against a familiar pair of jeans. I look down at the wet deck of the boat and I am startled by the fact that the shoes on these legs are wrong. I jump back and I can’t meet the eyes on the face of the strange man looking down at me. I think he smiles but I’m swiveling away to find my Dad who is not the guy in these jeans. Dad is three feet behind me. He saw the whole thing. He widens his eyes to say, “Here I am.” I retreat to the correct jeans for a moment.

But now Jesus’ story from Matthew 19:13-15 is at play here too. I’m reading the account of Jesus telling the disciples to “Let the little children come to me.” The guide for my prayer retreat asks, “What do you see? … People’s legs?”

“Yes,” my imagination answers with the flashing memory of those mistaken pants. And now I’m on the Maid of the Mist jostling on deck to get close to Jesus. I’m on a pillow breathing deeply, swaying a little in Circle of Hope’s building in Fishtown, but I’m on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls thinking, “Jesus is here.”

My Dad gives me a flip of his hand on the back of my blond head, suggestively flinging me forward through the legs in front of me. “Go,” he says silently, and I trust him. I weave past the wrong jeans, also sandals, bare skin, skirts and shorts. I get to the prow of the boat and Jesus isn’t here. The magnetism I feel in the crowd is focused on the falls so I figure he must be there. I strip off my Maid of the Mist branded blue poncho and climb up onto the first rail. I look over my shoulder. Dad is three or four rows back giving me a smile and a wave. He switches to a thumbs up. I grin back. With one foot up now on the top rail, I wait one more moment so as not to be surprised by the roll of the water beneath the boat and slip. When the time is right I duck out of my Donald Duck T-Shirt and dive off the boat and into the churn below.

Underwater, I don’t need to breath so I can dedicate my full attention without limitation to getting behind the waterfall. That must be where Jesus is. My thinking is I have to go really deep–way down deep below the power, and the clouds, even below the current that penetrates the surface. So down I go until I think this must be deep enough. I back up like a cartoon rearing to run and dart at the curtain of current that is still there this far down, but hopefully weak enough to penetrate. But it tumbles me back like a crashing wave. After tumbling backward I try again with the same result. Again and again, but it’s always the same.

Back on my pillow in Fishtown my sway has a gentle tumble to it. Again and again, head nodding in a gentle whip remembering summers at Huntington Beach getting tossed by the surf and loving it. But I don’t love this.

“Why is it always like this?” I cry in a soundless underwater shout. “Why are you so hard to get to, Jesus?! You’re supposed to be here.”

I’m still in the tumble and sway in Fishtown. “How does this story end? How does this little child get to Jesus?”

I slowly stop my subtle pillow dancing and I am still. And the Niagara river is suddenly still as well. Turning away from the tumbling current, I look up. The surface of the water, far above me is now calm and I can see by the gilding around the Maid of the Mist’s silhouette that the sun has begun to shine. I look over my shoulder at the impassable barrier, then back up to the boat eclipse. I am still in the water, floating in the depths without effort. My eyes fall slowly from the surface tracing the steady fade from a blue that’s almost white to a deep, deep blue at my eye level. I stare into this darkness, “How does it end?”

classic 70's snorkel maskThen something touches my shoulder and I wiggle away. Kicking madly toward the surface in fear, I look down and there is Jesus waving to me in the deep blue. He’s wearing one of those snorkel masks that’s just an oval from the 70’s, big fins on his feet, and a speedo. Yes, with the classic hippie hair and beard, but also hair all over his body. I swim down toward him and he darts away, though not too far this time. He lets me catch him and now it’s my turn to be pursued. We circle round beneath the Maid of the Mist ascending through the shades of blue and I am so happy. Jesus and I are playing tag beneath the Maid of the Mist in the Niagara River. “And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.”

Why not the Whole Delaware Watershed?

 We live in the megalopolis- the swath of concrete dominated land that stretches from Washington DC all the way up to Boston. In my neck of this urban and suburban mass of human concentration, the boundaries slip and slide like hikers boots on wet, mossy rocks. One minute you’re in Haddon Township, the next minute you’re in Haddon Heights, cross the street and you’re in Haddonfield. I can say now, after 3 months on the job (Monday was my 3 month-a-versary as Pastor of Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent- woot!) that I’m getting the hang of how these municipalities work. I’m probably more attuned to the boundaries then most people who have lived here all their lives. It’s kind of like when I learned English grammar by learning Spanish. All the grammatical rules which I had intuited in my mother tongue needed a name and a category when I had to memorize them in a second language. Folks who aren’t so new to the area are often not as interested in where exactly all the borders are. Their lives have their beaten paths and it’s not really important that the coffee shop is in Pennsauken and the Wegman’s is in Cherry Hill.  I’m taking a lesson from this indifference to boundary lines when it comes to Circle of Hope.

Circle of Hope exists over and across a lot of different borders. The one I am most attuned to in my new role is the Delaware River that is a state line and major psychological boundary for a lot of people. Living on the Eastern banks of the Delaware means I do not live on the Western banks; this is an inescapable fact. But Circle of Hope as a movement scoffed at the mighty Delaware’s capacity to divide us when we planted a church in South Jersey 7 years ago.  And this is really great.

A friend of Circle of Hope creates cool maps and I bought the one pictured above last week because I was inspired by the Delaware River.  I had this fun thought. We’re all part of the same movement, AND we’re all part of the same watershed! The Delaware drains our creeks and gutters to the sea. We share a vital resource and the earth channels us together. We have three congregations in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, but we have 4 in the Delaware watershed!

This excited me enough to trace the path of the Delaware up to Delaware County, New York where the Eastern Branch of the Delaware and Western Branch of the Delaware flow together to form OUR Delaware River. What if we, as Circle of Hope set our sights on expanding throughout the Delaware Watershed. The Megalopolis is too big and it’s borders are arbitrary. The Delaware has changed but it takes her a lot longer. There’s a stability in her flow that seems more substantial than any of the other borders I know. And if we see her as a point of unity for our movement we could be directed by her. Maybe I’m just geeking out on my new map, but if we want to spread the love of Jesus throughout our watershed, it would take Circle of Hope to Reading and Allentown, and Trenton.  It takes us not to New York City but Binghamton, New York. Then Philadelphia is our biggest city (as it should be!) and Circle of Hope in most of the other towns we make it to looks a lot like what we’re trying to do in Pennsauken- draw people together for Jesus sake across a lot of dividing lines. I think our united watershed would be another fun way to bring us together for our common cause, and to spur us forward in our ambition to see God’s redemption project advancing.

Creativity, the Holy Spirit and Everything in Between

In my job as Development Pastor at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington I am always on the hunt for a good idea- a new flyer idea, an idea for an event that could attract some new friends, a new idea for how to engage someone at an event in the city.  Doing so much brainstorming and so much listening to God has me thinking about the creative process.  What’s me and what’s God and does it matter?

A professor of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary, Robert Dykstra, said that in writing a sermon a pastor ought to plan to reach the edge of him or her self–the limits of his or her capacity for boredom–and in that place he or she would experience the best environment for God to speak.  I still remember what Chris Falson said at a worship conference at Circle of Hope more than a year ago: when he writes a song it’s a meditative experience.  He’s just jamming for a long time, almost turning off his mind, waiting for the song to emerge (he probably said more than that, but that’s what I remember).

I think what Dykstra and Falson are describing is an emptying process.  The Christian artist is not interested in filling up the world with self expression, but in filling up the self with God.  This is what we mean when we of Circle of Hope say in our proverbs, “Since we are each and all temples of the Holy Spirit, art among us is never merely a matter of “self-expression.”  This is not only a commentary on the prevailing philosophy in the art world, but a proclamation of freedom for those who wish to create.  I’m hearing it as good news today.

I know I’m not reaching the limits of boredom or meditating my way to many of my ideas these days.  I wish I had enough time to do that, but usually I’m just going with whatever idea comes up first.  I guess this blog post could become a lament for how my creative process is less developed than it should be, but I’m not going there.  I am receiving the free gift of the ideas that I do get blessed with, and even more so I am praising God for the good work he has done with my under developed ideas.  I am free from the demand to produce for my own glory and the subsequent burden of scrutiny that the creative process  inevitably yields when the work is shared.

My creativity is all about sharing.  I am trying to find new ways to connect with people, so everything I do is designed for someone to see.  It has me feeling vulnerable and pretty used up.  When I find myself in that condition–begging for some new ideas, I’m really begging for God to fill me up.  So pray with me today for time to spend being filled by God.  I pray that for you too.