Category Archives: Poetry

Even my stable?

Advent is always so revealing.

Yesterday I wrote a pensive little psalm about it. I was just plain distressed about that stable and that vulnerable baby in it being the incarnation of God in the world. The call to be that alive and trusting and welcoming can make me shiver in the bleak midwinter of my hard heartedness and self-occupation!

The Italians set up the kind of nativity scenes I'm talking about
The Italians set up the kind of nativity scenes I’m talking about. That’s one crowded baby!

There is room in the stable for shepherds, who may as well represent pickpockets and thieves of all kinds, the riff-raff of my relational universe. There is room in the stable for magi, who quickly turn into kings as time goes on, who may as well represent establishment figures of all kinds, the oppressors of my relational universe.

Do you ever pray prayers like this?: “I have too much leftover from my insecure attachment to entertain one more person bent on getting something for themselves! Don’t I? I have too much narcissism to allow even the occupiers of the power structure to be valued! Don’t I?”

Is there supposed to be that kind of room in the stable? Even my stable? The church is just your latest stable, Jesus?

If there is supposed to be that kind of room, and I am distressingly sure that there is, then I would like to be a more realized baby. Thus my psalm:

I wish I were not such a typical baby,
like Oliver tired and grumpy
running to grab whatever’s new,
running from Mommy then mad and searching.
You are such a good baby.

I wish no one would come to my stable
and trouble me with their feelings,
breaking the frame and being so real,
making me love and then feel unloved.
You are such a good baby.

I wish I never had to be vulnerable
and sponge up more sin and death,
feeling my desire and resistance,
running in fear then madly searching.
You are such a good baby.

What will become of me,
locked up with you on this scratchy hay?
What will become of you,
locked up with me in my itchy heart?

Pentecost on Memorial Day Weekend.

1) Memorial Day is a hard one. It really means something significant and is sad on so many levels.

  • It is sad that we ignore it as we go to the beach.
  • It is sad that it is “religious” and the dead are made sacred sacrifices to American “freedom.”
  • It is sad that Christians have no more voice in a heavily Christian country. Or that they have used their influence to justify the war machine instead of advocating “love your neighbor as yourself,” much less, “love your enemy.” I wrote a poem.

http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/a-psalm-for-memorial-day/

2) What a wonderful night observing Pentecost last night! It makes me want to talk about it! I think thoughts from last year are still worth considering.

http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/post-pentecost-top-ten-list/

3) My poem about Pentecost and the beach.

http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/the-p-for-pentecost/

A Psalm for 2012

When Gwen and I spent a couple of days on Kent Island in December, I imagined what it must have been like to be the first English settlers there. Even now it is something of a “nowhere.”

When we crossed the big bridge into Annapolis and told a sales clerk we were staying on Kent Island, he said, “Kent Island! What are you doing over there?” He made me a bit ashamed to be on my eroding bit of the Eastern Shore.

Ever since, those images have stuck with me. I sometimes feel like a pioneer in inhospitable territory. Maybe you do, too, as a Jesus follower. So I share my psalm of hope for me and you in 2012.

I confess that my hope was eroded.
The debilities took bites out of my enthusiasm
like Chesapeake Bay taking chunks
out of sandy islands
held together loosely
by scrawny trees and waving grass.

I possess that small hope you created.
But impossibilities blunt it and weaken any resolve,
like English settlers planting rye
on burned-over plots
waiting for hurricanes
to level their homes and carve new shores.

I cannot protect it.
The winds and waves obey You.
I am an island inhabited
by bad farmers.
I am a bad farmer inhabiting
an impossible island.

In this year
I do not expect to move elsewhere.
I do expect waves on my sandy shore
and ploughs sending dust into the wind.
Please guard my hope.
Please husband my plans.
Be my boat when the island is gone.
Be my home when the hurricane hits.

Memorial to Brendan

St. Brendan made a big impression on me from afar. When I visited Ireland on pilgrimage, I was impressed in person.

We made many what-we-considered-brilliant navigation decisions to find his final resting place at Clonfert Cathedral. While it hadn’t been torn down to build condos, or anything, I still found it kind of a sad place: unkept, remote, unused, perhaps mostly unknown. My memory of the time of reflection we shared there, all alone with the past, aroused this poem. I share it with you as one of the ways I want to experience Memorial Day. Some people, like Brendan, have fought hard for the faith. I haven’t forgotten.

The fly’s sporadic monotone
Disturbs the still air of Clonfert Cathedral –
That remote island of memory
In a sea of sleepy farms
On a sleepy summer day.

The dusty, unused altarpiece
Cries out for the old man buried in the yard –
That distant vision of voyage
In a sea of sleepy faith
On a pilgrim’s well-worn way.

A dazzling, sunlit Celtic cross
Shines in the door and vainly warms the stones –
The pavement hiding the hearty
In an earth of rotting flesh
And a land’s forgetful day.

A faint persistent irritant
Infects the still air of silent reflection –
The startled pew-creak of contempt
In a tomb for caring men
Shrieks the end of Brendan’s way.

A Psalm — for Courage

I wrote a small psalm to share with the main mother in my life and she thought I should share it with you. I have been admiring the film-makers who are the prophets of the unbelieving world, these days. They are no more heeded than God’s own spokespeople. But the call remains.

Lord, save us from the liars
And from our own lies.

The ice cap is still melting,
But we did kill Osama bin Laden.
There were no WMDs in Iraq,
But we do know that Obama is Hawaiian.
The perps of the money melt down still reign,
But we are now friends with Duchess Kate.

Forgive us as we calculate
How much it costs
to tell the truth.
Each keystroke hurts;
Each small look a threat
Of crass resistance.

The iciness is growing,
So we kill our terror with quiet.
New enemies rummage around in us,
So we deftly adapt reality.
The audacious win the power,
So we turn our minds to drivel.

Forgive us as we obfuscate
How much it costs
To live in truth —
Each threat of conflict,
Each painful question
A reason to live a lie.

You have caused yourself endless trouble
Being and telling truth.
You have caused us endless trouble
Following and discerning.
We lack your courage.
Speak it into us.

Kristen and the Sword of Wendell Berry

I have been meaning to tell this little story about Kristen for a few weeks. The Monday after resurrection Sunday seems like a good time to tell it. Our good feeling of new life is going to meet up with our schedules. The resolve we honed with our Lent disciplines is going to meet up with opposition. The week after Easter can be such a let-down because we get tested and we don’t meet the test as well as we would like. So I thought I would offer you a story about how Kristen got tested met the test. I think of her up on her soap box quite often, making herself heard among the big loud men speaking for the empire. I appreciate her example, because I also need the courage to open my mouth and speak my heart. Like her, I am also confronted with a world that desperately needs what has been lavished on me in Jesus.

She was doing a summer internship last summer at a farm in Massachusetts. It was some, wonderful organic farm that invites the kids up to do some work, get themselves dirty and get reconverted to humanity. One of the farm’s outlets for their produce was the farmer’s market in a village nearby. Kristen went along to help sell the kale and whatnot.

It happened that the village had a good Massachusetts tradition of having a “speaker’s corner.” When there was a farmer’s market, they set up a place where people could exercise their right of free speech. Since it was near the Fourth of July, speakers were feeling especially patriotic and quite a few people were getting up to say something. The rhetoric was tending to lean Tea Partyish.

One man got up and read a familiar paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. — That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”

He thought that the government was doing a relatively admirable job of securing our rights with its various wars. He exhorted the crowd to support the troops. Kristin was not having it. She had been reading Wendell Berry. She was about ready to join Shalom House for a couple of years (at least). So she decided to get up on the soapbox and speak back with poetry. She whipped out the sword of Wendell Berry and said: 

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty, become
What we have feared to be. — 1991 – I

Her new friends at the farm we a bit concerned. Not only were her listeners the prospective buyers of farm-fresh organic tomatoes, they later told her that they were not entirely convinced that the villagers would not do her harm if she kept reading her poetry. But sometimes when Kristen gets going she needs to complete her thoughts. So she kept going and closed with this: 

 Now you know the worst
 we humans have to know
 about ourselves, and I am sorry,

 for I know you will be afraid.
 To those of our bodies given
 without pity to be burned, I know

 there is no answer
 but loving one another
 even our enemies, and this is hard.

 But remember:
 when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
 he gives a light, divine

 though it is also human.
 When a man of peace is killed
 by a man of war, he gives a light.

 You do not have to walk in darkness.
 If you have the courage for love,
 you may walk in light. It will be

 the light of those who have suffered
 for peace. It will be
 your light. 

1995 – V To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzak Rabin, November 6th 1995.

Thank God for people with the courage to share their heart for peace! Jesus died on the cross for reconciliation with God and others. Jesus pointedly did not raise an army to achieve his ends. Jesus rose again and continues to rise in people who have the courage to be the light. The light comes from being at peace with God. But peace with God that does not make peace on earth doesn’t really have much to get up on the box and say, does it? Let’s meet our tests this week with audacity and hope.

The Real St. Valentine: Marriage as defiance

This poem reflects the theme of our benefit last Friday night that promised to uncover the “real” St. Valentine. I’m not sure the event did that, and I am not sure this poem does much better, since it references later exaggerations as 3rd-century fact. But my valentine said it needed to see the light of blogosphere day. So I offer it to you.

The first almond blossoms had begun to green
when the Goths began to mass in the north.
Emperor Claudius, the Butcher, turned his eye
to the budding men of Rome’s underground.

Where love flowered, he put down his boot
and forbade the young men to seal their vows,
“Rome is doomed if her imperial needs
Are thwarted by the demands of squawking babes.”

If Valentine had been photographedThe church in Rome had grown like a wild vine,
and tending it was a priest named Valentine,
who was blind to the edict and married the church
and included the faithless in proclaiming their faith.

The powers quickly found his garden of grace,
burst in and beat him beyond recognition,
then buried his love even deeper in their prison,
where forty-six captives soon sang praise by his side.

The jailer’s blind daughter in the first dew of spring
had never seen a flower or the first light of day.
The saint prayed again and light spread further;
his last words to Julia: “From your Valentine.”

On the day lovebirds mate in 269, they say,
the guards dragged him to the place of execution.
For marrying against the emperor’s order
he lost his head in a final spray of blood and love.

The powers rage against the blossom of covenant:
each spring a new war, each day a deeper blindness,
every season of time a new martyr to take a stand
in the ever-foolish cause of revealing God’s image.

Poetry in the Face of Power

poetry in the face of powerSeveral people asked me for a reprint of the poem I quoted last night, so I thought I’d offer it to everyone.

Creating is a sure way to reveal the Creator; the Creator is revealed in our creativity. By re-imagining the world for everyone whose imagination has been re-organized by the domination system, we help restore the broken image of God we carry.

The poem is a “targum” by Brian Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat from their book Colossians Remixed based on the following “poem” by the Apostle Paul (or one of his friends) included in his letter to the church in Colossae.

Apostle Paul

He is the image
of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
For by him all things were created:
things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers
or rulers or authorities;
all things were created by him and for him.

He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head
of the body, the church;

he is the beginning
and the firstborn from among the dead,
so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:15-20

Walsh and Keesmaat

Here is the expansion on Paul’s poem, designed to help us re-imagine with him for our time. I’ve made a few edits.

In an image-saturated world,
a world of ubiquitous corporate logos
permeating our consciousness
a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations
in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted
to be able to dream of life otherwise
a world in which the empire of global economic affluence
has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations
in this world
Christ is the image of the invisible God
in this world
driven by images with a vengeance
Christ is the image par excellence
the image above all other images
the image the is not a facade
the image that is not trying to sell us anything
the image that refuses to co-opt us

Christ is the image of the invisible God
the image of God
a flesh-and-blood
here-and-now
in time and history
with joys and sorrows
image of who God is
the image of God
a flesh-and-blood
here-and-now
in time and history
with joys and sorrows
image of who we are called to be
image-bearers of this God.

He is the source of a liberated imagination
a subversion of the empire
because it all starts with him
and it all ends with him
everything
all things
whatever you can imagine
visible and invisible
mountains and atoms
outer space, urban space, cyberspace
whether it is the Pentagon, Disneyland, Microsoft or Comcast
whether it be the institutionalized power structures
of the state, the academy or the market
all things have been created in him and through him
he is their source, their purpose, their goal
even in their rebellion
even in their idolatry
he is the sovereign one
their power and authority is derived at best
parasitic at worst

In the face of the empire
in the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty
in the face of the imperial and idolatrous forces of our lives
Christ is before all things
he is sovereign in life
not pimped dreams of global market
not the idolatrous forces of nationalism
not the insatiable desires of consumerist culture

In the face of a disconnected world
where home is a domain in virtuality
where neighborhood is a common “like” on Facebook
where public space is a shopping mall
where information technology promises
a webbed-in, reconnected world
all things hold together in Christ
the creation is a deeply personal cosmos
all cohering and interconnected in Jesus.

And this sovereignty takes on cultural flesh
And this coherence of all things is socially embodied
in the church
against all odds
against most of the evidence
In a “show me” culture where words don’t cut it
the church is
the flesh-and-blood
here-and-now
in time and history
with joys and sorrows
embodiment of this Christ
as a body politic
around a common meal
in alternative economic practices
in radical service to the most vulnerable
in refusal of the empire
in love of this creation
the church re-imagines the world
in the image of the invisible God.

In the face of a disappointed world of betrayal
a world in which all fixed points have proven illusory
a world in which we are anchorless and adrift
Christ is the foundation
the origin
the way
the truth
the life
In the face of a culture of death
a world of killing fields
a world of the walking dead
Christ is the head of the resurrection parade
transforming our tears of betrayal into tears of joy
giving us dancing shoes for the resurrection party

And this glittering joker
who has danced in the dragon jaws of death
now dances with a dance that is full
of nothing less than the fullness of God
this is the dance of the new creation
this is the dance of life out of death
and in this dance all that was broken
all that was estranged
all that was alienated
all that was dislocated and disconnected
what once was hurt
what once was friction
is reconciled
comes home
is healed
and is made whole
because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
everything
all things
whatever you can imagine
visible and invisible
mountains and atoms
outer space, urban space, cyberspace
every inch of creation
every dimension of our lives
all things are reconciled in him.

And it all happens on a cross
it all happens at a state execution
where the governor did not commute the sentence
it all happens at the hands of an empire
that has captured our imagination
it all happens through blood
not through a power grab by the sovereign one
it all happens in embraced pain
for the sake of others
it all happens on a cross
arms outstretched in embrace
and this is the image of the invisible God
this is the body of Christ

The Common Loneliness — Francis Day 2010

On Francis of Assisi Day, 2010

It could have been that Francis
Crawled out into the bushes of La Verna to die
Like an old alley cat —
Scrawny from fasting
And disappointed that his dream turned so human.

Or it could have been that Francis
Longed so much for home, he couldn’t resist.
Like the prodigal son,
He came to his senses
And gave in to seeking the meal his holy memory could taste.

Either way, he ended up in the wilderness
And the mountain was a lonely silence,
Like nothing but a frightened man
With nothing to offer but emptiness.
And yet he had to keep going, step by step, up the hill.

Either way, he ended up alone,
Experiencing the pain both of separation and union —
Like a young man leaving home
And like a father letting go,
And he aware of it all, yet powerless before it.

It could have been that Francis
Did very few of the things people recalled.
But what believer is not so lonely
With disillusion and desire
That they would dare to disabuse us of their own story?

A Psalm for Memorial Day

A simple psalm to spur some thoughts of love on the day we mourn for all the people who have died from the lack of it. 

Even in the room with the wedding
there were conflicts worthy of a Memorial Day.
The wars of the world
are personal bad blood writ large
and the blood we carry
is the war in the world writ small.

So even on the weekend of remembrance
it is not dishonoring to remember
the wars in our souls,
even though no one may spill our blood
and the injuries we cause
are hidden, internal bleeding.

What shall be our memorial?
It can certainly start with Jesus
and that should lead away
from memorializing our wars:
the slight, the snub, the stolen power,
the theft, the hate, the wasted hour,
the stealth ill-will before which we cower.

We can choose better memories,
like Jesus choosing to forgive us.
And that could lead toward
memorializing our blessings:
the hug, the laugh, the spoken love,
the gift, the note, the look above,
the moments we feel we have enough.

The toxins we carry would like to marry
each moment, until each remembers them,
and a statue to war
is on each corner of our daily path
and the blood of Jesus
is an unused way, a memory.

The P for Pentecost

In the acrostic of the year
the “P” for Pentecost
is mainly for patience,
or persevering in the practice
of being “empty, open, choiceless
as a beach waiting
for a gift from the sea.”

The waves beat, “Patience…patience.”
But I seem to have dug up sand
and acquired treasure,
or it has been delivered to my door
to make me full, fenced, fretful
as a wedding planner waiting
for the bride to arrive.

In the history of God’s gifting,
the patience is primary;
the fretting follows,
or apostles would have only written
stories of retreating, listening, staying,
and Jesus would not set his face
like flint toward Jerusalem.

It is the digging that can stop.
And most deliveries
can be refused,
lest the gifts become grandiosity:
looking to be affirmed, notable, effective,
and the lovely spring day of Pentecost
is no beach day at all.

Prayer for Recognition

The atmosphere pulses with your glory.
We praise you for the moments,
The moments we awake and breathe in newness.

The whole world feels spring rushing up.
We praise you for the daffodils,
The flowers that bloom with snowless joy.

Our winter was too long.
The snow was too deep.
We were not sure it would melt.
The despair had caught us.

And the atmosphere groans with your hidden glory.
We praise you for the moments,
The moments we can bear to enter it.

Very few feel the suffering behind the bloom.
We praise you for your humility,
The food that feeds the flower, the fire that melts.

Your winter is long.
The snow is still so deep.
So many lives frozen in the drifts –
The despair is caught in your throat.

May your tears wake me up
As they water the earth.
May I not turn away
From the cost of a daffodil,
And not hollow out joy
By refusing to suffer love.

Expecting Daffodils

Gwen and I often share “psalms” with one another. She appreciated my little, Lenten, snow-day meditation, so I thought you might be able to use it, too.

When trouble comes, I will persist
in looking for a sprouting crocus.
I will stubbornly listen
for a bird singing in the cold.

And yes, I will feel a bit guilty.
I will stand before the sadness tribunal
and be judged out of order.
I will be questioned by the magistrate of misery
and have no answer for my happiness.
The logic of the law of the land will cry out
and I will again feel a bit crazy.

But You have the words of eternal life.
And though tempted by death at times,
you provide a ram.
Though slipping from my tight rope,
you catch me in your net.
Though today seems impossible,
you will come again.

I am surprised that trouble surprises me
as I am watching for daffodils.
I am absurdly unprepared
for anything but salvation.