Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: poetry

Epiphany in Not New Words

Washed by Jan L. Richardson paintedprayerbook.com

There’s this amazing moment in the gospels when Jesus comes up out of the water after John baptizes him and heaven is torn open. The veil between this world and another world is lifted. Such a glimpse beyond the ordinary is an epiphany — a strike of lightning pulsing with inspiration, clarity or God.  From the ripped seam in the sky above Jesus in the water something like a dove descends to alight upon him. And then a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 

Last week when we were celebrating Epiphany I heard another translation of this voice from heaven that struck me as its own epiphany. I caught a glimmer of that shimmering dove and heard the voice afresh in my own ears . “This is my beloved son in whom I delight.”  Not too much of a difference, really, but this new language opened a sort of lock in my heart that let the water flow to a new level. I had probably heard this translation before, but something new happened this time, so I had to write it down.

The various translation of the verb eudokeō εὐδοκέω are the operative elements of my epiphany. Is it “with him I am well pleased” or “in whom I delight”? A beautiful thing about language, and especially Greek, is that it’s both! What we say and what we communicate are two things entirely. That which we hear travels through our hearts and histories before it comes to our comprehension. That which we say can never anticipate the circuitous route between every set of ears and the mind of their owner. Layers and layers of meaning pile up in each individual, and in the collective mind of any one people group. The process of translation brings these often unconscious trails to brighter light.

Malcolm Guite
malcolmguite.wordpress.com

It was in the words of a poet whom I love, Malcolm Guite (in him I delight), that I had this great experience with an ever so slight shift in linguistic direction. Poets spend their lives searching for new paths of meaning in ordinary words and experiences. They specialize in epiphanies. And though these new words were not his nor really new, I credit his trustworthy tongue (it was his mouth in which the newness of these words were found by me).  At least a few translations of the New Testament land on delight for eudokeō (Weymouth, Darby and Young’s) and Malcolm had found them for me!

“I am well pleased” is but two steps to the left or right of “I delight”, but the difference was significant to me.  I grew up with the New International Version translation of the Bible — not for any particular reason, but for the “Thinline” NIV edition embossed with my name in gold letters that my parents gave me when I was twelve. I had read the story so many times that “in whom I am well pleased” had worked its way into my heart track. Partly thus, “pleasing” and “being pleased” are part of the ground on which I stand whenever I cast my eyes to the sky in search of seams that might shutter with heavenly light from other worlds, and words of love from any heavenly father.

There are many reasons “pleasing” and “being pleased” are elemental to my psychological make up, and I haven’t identified all of them yet, but I have definitely observed this pattern of thought and heart when I relate to God. Are you pleased with me, father? Am I pleased with what you have given me, Dad? Have I done all that is required of me? Am I satisfied with this moment? These questions often come to mind when I try to settle into God’s presence, or whenever I am prompted to consider the state of my soul (Every time we gather, following after Wesley and his Holy Club, the pastors in Circle of Hope ask each other “What is the state of your soul?”). It seems I always aim to please and I’m always hoping to please myself and for my life to please me. My mind and heart are stuck on a hook of evaluation. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? I know some of you feel me on this.

But delight! “Delight” is different than “please.” I mean, not really too much though. “Please” and “delight” both have to do with pleasure or desire, but for the twists and turns that “please” took through the English language and the tiny part my life played in the meaning of the word, “please” has acquired an air of approbation resultant from evaluation. That gets me on that same evaluative hook. Please, no.

“Delight” is more effusive — more joyous. Jesus himself delights the Father. I, myself, delight the Father. Something about Jesus and me (and you) is so beautiful and lovely that just the sight of us brings a smile to heaven’s lips. God really likes Jesus, not for what he has done (which by the way is nothing of much import at least to the gospel writers at this point in their stories save being born and maybe learning scripture), but for who he is. I’m sure “I please God” could be trying to get at the same thing, but “God delights in me” is so much better. Plus it is something God is doing, not me, which sounds right. God’s delight is not dependent on me. That frees me up to be and do my best even more than the striving for satisfaction that often drives me.

May you have an epiphany today — in a poem, a new reading of the gospel, a pile of snowflakes, a shimmering sky, a fantastic melody, a good cry, a sincere prayer, your child’s tears, a winter landscape, a soapy dish, the perfect bite, a warm bed.  Pay attention. Look again. See. Hear. Delight.

You Should Read Poetry

 

 

A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa

Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17

“Venus’s Fly Traps” by Yusef Komunyakaa takes me back to the Southern California of my childhood. I spent most of my time as a child running around the safe sunshiny neighborhood with a tribe of boys of which my brothers and I comprised the better part. I remember my own lot of sunny grass at the corner of Arlington where, once, we found a dead cat. I remember the shortcut through a backyard and over a cinder block wall into the Sears parking lot which I insisted on taking even when I had a broken arm. I remember the stillness of the backyard in the afternoon when, for some reason, I had it to myself. Silence is quite loud. Do you remember that?

The entire universe that existed in our three block kingdom echos in the bravado of the five year old in “Venus’s Fly Traps.” I had that same sort of confidence in my knowledge; that same sort of arrogance in my ignorance. I remember that for a few months “ass” meant “penis”. Yusef Komunyakaa takes me to that part of my life when the world was small enough for me to know it all.

In “Venus’s Fly Traps,” sexuality, fertility and life are juxtaposed with killing, danger and death from the title onward. The Venus Fly Trap is one of “the tall flowers in [his] dreams” that “eat all the people except the ones [he] loves.” They have “women’s names and mouths like where babies come from”—women’s names, like Venus, the fertile one herself. The five year old Komunyakaa doesn’t comprehend the sexual innuendo. His adult self inserted this expression, but I won’t say that the knowing wasn’t there.

In the Spanish language there are two verbs where English has one. Conocer means to have experienced something or someone. Saber means to have knowledge about a subject . Yusef Komunyakaa at five sabe mucho (knows/understands a lot) even if he has not yet conocido mucho (known/experienced much)—he has a knowing that is beyond words. His impressions of the world are technically incorrect in some cases. For example, all bees do not live in domesticated white bee hives. But his impressions are correct in their knowing. For example, fertility and death are inextricably linked. The adult poet who has conocido mucho gives words to the unspoken world that the child sabe. With Komunyakaa I am drawn back to that moment of knowledge and ignorance all wrapped in one. I can never repeat the purity of that mental emptiness, but I can conjure the memory to aid me in centering prayer and meditation, practices I use to perform my own tiny kenosis each day to make room for the real God that wants to fill me.

The remembering of childhood is a great pond for reflection, a collection of meaningful experience that has survived the evaporation of the years. The adult communicates with the child, gives him words, wonders what exacly each of those moments contained, and adds his own existential angst that may have, indeed, been buried in the child or may just be a projection from the adult. This is an invitation to integration, a worthy portal toward wholeness. If your heart is filled with unresolved pain of your own—full of unexamined memories and forgotten feelings—there will not be much space for others, let alone for God. The soul of a leader needs a great deal of tending. Poetry is one way to do that I recommend.

Komunyakaa transported me to an important place within me that needs healing and does not often get the attention that healing requires. Thank you, Yusef. You gave me, an awareness of my weakness, my still unhealed scars, and the simple quietness of my childhood play.

Poems like “Venus’s Fly Traps” are especially useful because they go back so explicitly to forgotten places. They get the reader to the right place in the caves of memory to discover new corridors and passageways that have yet to be explored. This is the poet’s gift. Any leader who accepts these maps and does some spelunking will be great regardless of his or her way with words because of the depth of self they conocen and saben. The union of past and present, that which you knew long before you learned it and that which you thought you knew but at some point learned to forget come together and talk it out. This union is the essence of good poetry about childhood, and a great starting point for any time of prayer—get small, get quiet, go to a place inside you that hopes and dreams better than any other, the part to which belongs the kingdom of God.

 

Marriage Architecture in Verse

I recently had the chance to officiate a marriage ceremony of Circle of Hope people (the first time I have done this as a pastor). These words are based on what I shared with Scott and Anneliese and their guests. Scott discovered this poem for me. I am very grateful to him for that. May their union be blessed, protected and deep.
“Most Like an Arch This Marriage”
by John Ciardi 1958
Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.
Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.
Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss
I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.
This poem struck me so truly with truth and wisdom I decided we need to walk through it again after Anneliese’s friend had just read it.

Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.

This marriage began a long time ago, but we pause now at the entrance of its new era. The two of you have been becoming married for quite some time, learning each other and in the process better learning yourselves. You’ve become geologists intensely interested in the formation of each stone that makes the column standing there across from you. Each glint and divot; every smooth and rough edge wants to be known and so many of them are between you two. You come to other, in many ways fully formed. Pressed into somethingness by outside forces, made from nothingness maybe, and since then, hewn by previous hammers, crushed before by lives lived in joy and sorrow. You come to the other as you are. This whole ceremony is designed to give you that moment to see your beloved as who they are. To love them in their fantastic intricacy and beauty. To wonder about what more will be made. We stand at the entrance, and pause. It’s time to secure this arch.

Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.

Stepping in to these vows, you make real the idea of firmness that has sprouted in your minds. The dreams of partners idealized or otherwise, get set aside. The stones are set. Now we make it real. You make it real, and heaven gets made with you.

You know Paul when he was talking about marriage in the letter he wrote to the New Testament letter to the Ephesians seemed to think that marriage was tied up in the redemption of all things. A great mystery he said. I don’t claim to know how it will be, but I do believe that what you two are doing has something to do with heaven unfolding.

Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.

And its power is in weakness? What?

Yes!

Accepting your falling and planning to fail, but doing it together will lead to marital success. And to do that together, today you resolve to set much aside. Do we all know this word, abeyance? The force of the weight above the arch is abeyed to the side and channeled firmly into the ground. Each side putting the weight to its side. The weight of your life together will come from within and without. Life will continue to crush from above, and your common weakness will perennially hurt your beloved. The abeyance for that inevitability will be forgiveness or this arch will not stand forever. You will set to one side your hurt out of love for the other and your common purpose: this marriage, most like an arch.

And the poet knows that this type of relating is at the heart of meaning itself. That expectation, that trust, that hope, says something about the nature of meaning—a term naming the fact that teaches fact to mean. It is foundational truth, not just to your marriage, but to the truth itself.

Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss

I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.

“All I do at piling stone on stone apart from you is roofless around nothing. Until we kiss I am no more than upright and upset.” I love this poem! This is where the particular becomes essential. It is not just any column, This specific one is the one on whom you lean. The one you chose, the one who chose you. The one you choose, the one who chooses you. The threat of rooflessness is specific to THIS one. Without her you have no home. Without him you have no home. This is clear to you now, but it might not be as clear in the years to come. And so we make a big deal about the promises, the vows, you make today. We make a memory that cannot be forgotten and we tie it to these promises. To love, to forgive, to lean, to be one. We’re all here to remember this with you, and help hold you up when the geometry gets shifted, and your own weight doesn’t hold you up as well as it does today.