Category Archives: Poetry

The bellows: A psalm for my troubled friend

Image result for fireplace fire bellows

The relationship wounds me.
Loving them winds around my minutes
like a prickly vine.
My bleeding alarms me.

My arms are open wide —
sinking beneath the surface,
still as a rock on the bottom,
watching my trouble float downstream.

When I go by their door again
I want to turn the knob and risk —
resenting their inattention,
terrified of their illness.

My hands are on my heart;
my arms embrace my torso —
cradling that poor child in me
who is feeling old, aching fear.

We will hold their hand
and accompany me and them,
and accept the longing
for security and trust.

Letting go and letting in
is the bellows of spiritual fire;
the breathing of prayer keeps me alive
as I face all my dying places.

Kindness by Naomi Shahib Nye

Sometimes I find poems that I want to keep. So I thought I’d add them to your collection, as well. This one by Naomi Shihab Nye invites us into the great grief of the world. In the communal cup of loss we share we find our deepest kinship with each other and the living world and beneath it, the kindness of our creator leading us beyond, the movement of Jesus through the world into eternal life after loss.

Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? — Romans 2:4

Kindness -- Naomi Shahib Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

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Poetry power: How art might make a difference

Poetry has a lot of power. Sometimes we put it to music, sometimes we recite it plain. It matters. Beautiful, heartfelt, sometimes prophetic or even harsh words still matter. In the age of alternative facts and people hacking our clouds of data, the poets draw us to deeper truths that are beyond the reach of tyrants, bean counters and hairsplitters. It has always been that way, right back to that huge poetry book in the middle of the Bible.

A new inspiration: Malcolm Guite

Last week I rejoiced to find a new poet I would have liked to meet twenty-five years ago: Malcolm Guite [his blog]. I passed around a speech of his [All Things in Christ].  I asked Joshua to teach me how to lift an interview I heard on a Mars Hill Audio Journal CD in which he brilliantly deepened any art director’s capacity to develop our weekly liturgy [deep, obscure and so useful: Part 1, Part 2].  Mostly, I appreciated his mostly simple poetry that seems well-tuned to connect with people in the present day. Here is an example I passed around. Too bad the weather is so nice — it would be even more useful in our usual February misery.  (click on the title and hear him read it!):

Because We Hunkered Down

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace
When they are memory. In time to come
When we speak truth, then they will have their place,
Telling the story of our journey home,
Through dark December and stark January
With all its disappointments, through the murk
And dreariness of frozen February,
When even breathing seemed unwelcome work.

Because through all of these we held together,
Because we shunned the impulse to let go,
Because we hunkered down through our dark weather,
And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,
Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,
Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.

Martyrs: earth, wind, fire, water — click the picture to view the installation

We have our own inspiration to share

I suppose most of us already appreciate how powerful art can be.  We don’t produce it to to have an argument, for the most part; we just do it because we are creative like our creator.  But art is its own argument, as it inevitably leads people beyond their situation and beyond their present understanding and touches the places where we love and love God.

Our long-term plans as a church include an arts cooperative of some sort because we want to encourage each other to touch people deeply in the Spirit. We already have our Audio Arts team, our events devoted to lifting up artists, our art directors who imagine our worship each week, and many wordsmiths, like our pastors. We’ve begun our cooperative — we always have big ideas and it is amazing how many of them come to fruit! I see artfully acting on our big ideas as one of the things we can do to stay sane, go deeper and prophesy in this weird time we are experiencing.

Malcolm Guite, the Bible, and all my creative friends who are reading this, inspired me to write another poem, myself. What’s more, I am going to share it.  It comes from my morning prayer yesterday as God met me in my questions and in my longing to experience what is next.

Jesus laid hold of me

You are not busy
but you are always working.
I am not sure I will master that
or am even sure about the aspiration.
But I long for a sense of timelessness
as I lay hold of that
for which you laid hold of me.

You are not impatient
but you are always creating.
I would like to see endings
but not despise beginning again.
I long for a sense of calm attention
as I lay hold of that
for which you laid hold of me.

In my little prayer, I turn to praise
and I am raised and drawn to care
and led beyond what wears and harms
by gentle arms that find me here.

You are not confused
but you are always relating.
I would like to wake up trusting
instead of needing so many songs.
I long to sense my deepest self
as I lay hold of that
for which you laid hold of me.

In my little prayer, I turn to praise
and I am raised and drawn to care
and led beyond what wears and harms
by gentle arms that find me here.

Laughing out loud

The rain feels like the tears of the world today
and it is wobbly and foggy,
like me stumbling into the daylight
still blurry and choked up over Birth of a Nation.

The rain reminds me of people in Haiti
and they are ruined and soggy.
They are stumbling into the morning
traumatized again and asking “What happens next?”

Puddles fill up
with marital woes,
unprocessed fears,
unresolved conflict,
hopeless situations
and broken systems.

Yet I am so at peace in my comfy chair
listening to the rain, feeling the pain
and trusting You, thanking You.

The rain whispers of oceans filled with favor
and it is unfathomable to me.
I keep stumbling into it like a grandson
wobbling around on the walk, arms raised, ready to swing.

And I am so at peace in your loving grasp,
flying in the rain, splattered with pain
and trusting you, laughing out loud.

Solstice thoughts and prayers

My favorite days of the year! Living in the light!

Here are a few thoughts and prayers to enjoy as the sun sets:

Moments of great calm
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

R.S. Thomas

Think of it, all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody…what a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, intelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

Thomas Merton

Give us some evidence, Lord.

I picture the upper room
filled with 20somethings.
A few old heads are there with Mary.
But Peter may be the only one as old as Jesus.
Like me in high school
their concrete brains need some proof
that all this talk is not just a head trip.

Give us some evidence, Lord.
Seeing is believing for us.
And we see more on TV in an evening these days
than most people in the past
needed unseeing in a lifetime.
Give us evidence today.

There will be 20somethings in their rooms,
still hiding from the authorities,
still screening out all
but the most determined old heads,
just a few, like Peter, who get Jesus.
But even they are secretly being attacked
by doubt, by unmet hope, by 5000 ads selling death.

Move among us so people can remember,
so they connect the dots
when they feel the sun a certain way,
or empathy makes tears well up,
or music calls out their worship, or a baby laugh,
or they learn to pray, or learn to care or think.
And there you are in the every day, unceasing.

We know you don’t forget us.
So don’t forget us.
We shouldn’t need more evidence.
So gives us more.

Peace. Be still.

Last night’s yearning to be a “non-anxious presence” leads me to offer my psalm for last Sunday. Peace be with us all.

Mother God,
I am feeling tossed by the ferment
of men thrashing around in my small lake,
upsetting my vessel,
commandeering it on a Zimbabwe road,
steering it from a secret church committee,
upending it with their loud philosophizing.

Yours is a “still, small voice,” indeed,
I hear speaking to the waves I fear
as I am powerless in the wake:
“Peace. Be still.”

I hope you have the whole world in your hands.
But I fear that, for the moment,
you are holding those who are reborn.
We are your unlikely brood,
crammed on the kayak of your church,
like the grandkids headed for the beach:
some trailing along in life jackets
or trying to swim it on their own,
an armada of babies
the next huge man to rock us with a cannonball.

Your voice seems small, indeed,
if I only want a foghorn in a murky world.
Teach me to rest in your arms,
in you: my life jacket, my Nana,
my strangely unsinkable boat,
my peace, among the waves.

Thank God my faith is not all in my head.

Last Sunday we welcomed Jesus to raise us up with him. It seemed like a lot of people at the meeting really meant it when we shouted “He is risen indeed!” But I suspect others weren’t into it, or just watched me shouting. Their “mind” had the upper hand. They did not engage their body at all. Maybe they didn’t even come to the meeting. Why bother? They keep their “religion” in a private space in their head. Whatever love might be in that head, in concept, is left unexpressed. In fact, some other love is probably the object of their de facto worship, although they might not notice.

Welcome morning

That’s OK. Today is another day. And this week, as well, is loaded with opportunities to live in the spirit of Anne Sexton’s poem:

Welcome Morning by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.

Hello there

for some people, it is all mentalIt may embarrass some people to hear the poet say: “in the spoon and the chair that cry ‘hello there, Anne’ each morning.”  It is so something, so immediate, so heartfelt! So many of us have our faith stuck in a mental construct; we’re arguing about principles in our head and fearing we don’t have it all right yet so we better not commit. Our silverware is certainly not talking to us! Others of us are trapped in a “worldview” that is a bit more human, but is still a philosophical construct by which we compare and contrast who we are with others and from which we draw a politically sanctioned identity, so we think sorting that out is about all the meaning we get — and all we do is sort. We would certainly think twice before we announced to the public that we were overcome with joy this morning at breakfast! It just wouldn’t fit the self-concept.

Last week, during the holy week, the commemoration of Jesus’ last week, when history is offered a restart, we were invited to put our mental dialogue in its place and find joy in our own pea-green house, in our own bodies, walking alongside Jesus, who is God ennobling and redeeming our true selves as the author of creation and its restorer. Like him, for the joy set before us, we endure the cross.

Move with my loves

If you have a mental faith, Holy Week probably seemed like a lot of time spent on redundant material. If you are training your body to move with your loves, you may have awakened every day, like Anne Sexton, and said,

“So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.”

circle of hope, philly, philadelphia, south jersey, churches, love, hope, Jesus, Christian

On each day of the holy week we made a special, communal, concerted effort to “paint a thank-you on” our palms, and so get our bodies moving in the direction of our salvation. We moved through darkness into light, not just in our thoughts or beliefs, but in our hearts and time with those we love in the creation we feel. And so we trained our hearts for joy and opened our days to grace. We were saved, not in theory, but in fact.

There were words and thinking, of course, but, as I am prone to saying, “It does not really matter what happens, it matters that I did it.” What I do ends up being the liturgy of my loves. Thus Sexton’s poem is so profound because she realizes that even her breakfast is charged with God’s presence and should she fall on her knees by her table it would be an appropriate action that would unleash the joy stored up in the meal. How much more profound was the “breakfast” of Holy Week, as we knelt before our common table of grace and looked forward to the joy of Easter morning: these birds, these seeds, this realization that I am welcomed into eternal joy, and this “God, this laughter of the morning!”

God help us, we do not coerce anyone to do what we plan as Circle of Hope, so I am not trying to get you to come to meetings! We would not risk driving you into another bout with all the shoulds the mental overlords have caused you to resist as you rebel against their science and social construction. But, again this week, we are offering a lot of ways to express your loves with people who love you. We have a lot of ways to cooperate with the reorientation of our desire towards true joy. Just being with your cell or making it to the Sunday meeting might get the ball rolling or keep it rolling —  if you don’t just think about it, of course.

[The original post appeared at Circle of]

Psalm in the morning fog

The fog was so deep the other day I could not even see the lake out my back window. As I prayed, I remembered another morning I shared with God as an elementary school boy. I wrote a psalm about it and decided to share it with you. I am thankful for all the ways God has been near to me from an early age until now. I look forward to new revelations in the new year.

I ran across the familiar playground
in the fog
until I reached the backstop in the far corner
and waited.
Others would soon have the same idea.
But for now I was all alone
feeling the silencing muffle of the cloud.

I need muffling
but I am longing for sunshine.
I need silencing
but I am waiting for others to arrive.
I need waiting
and here is my psalm:

I will trust in this small wait,
this little silence,
this brief appreciation of the fog
because you are trustworthy —

certainly not because I expect great vistas again soon
when the pesky fog lifts,
and not because I will keep anxieties from crowding out your embrace
in the silence,
or because I won’t fill my life with people before it is too late
as I wait;
it is because you are trustworthy.

And even as a child in the fog
my moments with you taught me your presence
and all about my ultimate safety,
no matter what happens next.

Tributes to St. Valentine

My tributes to St. Valentine.

1) A poem about his obscure but courageous-sounding history [link]

2) Making a connection with poor Whitmey Houston [link]

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.

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.

3) My poem about Pentecost and the beach.

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.