I’m thrilled to step offstage and make room today for my friend, mentor and pastor, Brian Morgan – around these parts he goes by “the rabbi” and for good reason. For the foreseeable future, Brian is going to be a regular contributor to my blog.
His deep and abiding passion is the Psalms and the ways in which they teach us how to speak with an authentic voice – to God first and then in the community of God’s people. You are slowly going to get to know the rabbi on these blog pages, and you are in for one of the richest blessings of your spiritual life (and no, I’m not biased. Ok, maybe a little …).
I asked Brian to start by telling his story of how the Psalms, and writing sacred poetry in response, came to be his passion.
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Besieged by poetry
Like most of my discoveries in life, the gift of poetry in a word-soaked world landed upon me much later than I would have preferred. I studied economics at Stanford University with the intention of going into business but, through the ministry of Peninsula Bible Church, I changed course and became a pastor. Shortly after Emily and I were married in 1972, we lost our firstborn son (David Jonathan – nine days after birth) due to a rare enzyme deficiency. The following year our daughter Jessica endured the same fate. Nothing prepared me for how to process my grief until years later poetry found me.
I was that age, thirty-seven, when poetry arrived. On the outskirts of hell a poet had shaped the soul of his nation to sing. The place was România and the year 1988, a little more than a year before the brutal, 20-year regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would come to an end with his execution on December 25, 1989. The poet was Traian Dorz, born exactly seventy years earlier on December 25, 1914, a man of profound and abiding faith who watched in horror as his beloved country was ravaged, raped and left to grope alone in the darkness, her dignity stolen, her faith mercilessly stomped out. Working in this wasteland, God gave Dorz a voice powerful enough to pierce the oppressive darkness of Communist Romania and energize his silent, suffering countrymen. So powerful were his poems that the Securitate brutally confiscated every page of them, piled them in an oxcart and burned them before his eyes.
Over the next seventeen years of imprisonment, house arrest and brutal torture Dorz worked with relentless energy. Equipped with only his memory, a glass shard for a pallet, lime and spittle as his paint, and a matchstick for a brush, he resurrected his poems from the ash heap––some 4500 poems.
Ceausescu, the dictator, and Traian Dorz both died in 1989. Ceausescu has no lasting legacy from his fleeting, vulgar shadow, but today, thousands of Romanians sing Dorz’s immortal songs as the sacred expression of their faith. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that I was transported to another place and time where one touches the face of the Holy.
And then I met the man. It was a warm summer evening in Cluj. I just had returned from a secret meeting, full of song and Spirit and entered my host’s home. As I opened the door to my room, I saw him standing there––Traian Dorz, seventy-three years of age. He was a man of small stature, but he possessed a powerful presence––a peasant yet a king. Here was a man who endured more suffering and swallowed more evil than I could comprehend. Seeing him, I felt conflicting emotions warring within me. Repelled by my own sense of unworthiness, I felt like dust on the scale, and at the same time, drawn by a holy love. I showed him a photo I had taken of the Roman pavement stone in Israel where Pilate presented the scourged Jesus to the crowds, saying, “Behold the man” (in Latin ecce homo). He took it and held it with unspeakable tenderness and wept. Then he took me into his arms, looked deep into my eyes and said, “You teach about the cross….we live under the cross.” Then in an act of extreme tenderness, he gently pressed his cheek to mine and prayed for me. I needed no translation. Like the apostle Paul, he was praying that I might “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:17-19), a love that he had come to know in suffering living under the cross. The words rolled off his tongue in dream-like cadences. The soft timbre and pulsating rhythms of his voice seized me and tore my heart like water.
That one touch was all I would ever experience from the poet. But it was all I needed. “Suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open…my heart broke loose with the wind.”
As the Apostle James writes, “the prayer of a righteous person has great power in its working” (Jas 5:16). Traian Dorz’s prayer for me was beginning to transform my life and would continue to so for years to come. The following year, after escaping the clutches of the Securitate in Cluj, Ceausescu’s cronies followed us into the forest where he conducted a second camp in Costeşti. It was here that I experienced the “explosive” power of the poem.
Reflecting on Paul Celan’s poem Es Stand, John Felstiner, Stanford University professor of English and poetry, commented that the most a poem can do is to bring four worlds together through its metaphors or images. “And when it does,” he said, “the poem becomes explosive.” These worlds are the natural (creation), the spiritual, the political/geographical, and the personal.
While we were studying the David/Jonathan story, several Securitate agents were searching for us in the forest. In the midst of their intrusions into our camp, three brothers (all were named Jonathan, as if by divine coincidence) put their lives on the line to protect us from being arrested. I had never experienced this kind of sacrificial love before. It was as if the ancient David/Jonathan story was being re-enacted right before our eyes (1 Sam 18:1-5). At one point I took my position on a secure height to watch for any agents who might be coming up the road, while the Romanians took cover inside a large tent to worship and study God’s word. Sitting in silence I began meditating on Psalm 27. David’s metaphors broke my soul wide open.
When evildoers assail me
to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
it is they who stumble and fall. (Ps 27:2)
On four different occasions, the Securitate came to devour our souls, but each time they stumbled and fell. And then I read further in the psalm:
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord. (Ps 27:5-6)
As I was reading these verses, I could hear the voices of the Romanians singing their songs of praise concealed “under the cover of his tent.” Suddenly I realized that all four worlds were converging before my eyes. The David story and song that had shaped Jesus’ story and Dorz’s poetry, was now shaping our lives in this new setting on a hillside in Costeşti, România.
Coming home, I came to treasure the poem and to recognize its unique power to unlock grief in the soul in a way that doesn’t deny or obliterate it, but rather transcends it by naming and embracing our grief in the presence of God and his people. Like David, I learned to write my own laments, articulating the grief over the death of my first two children, and shared them with the congregation. Experiencing the power of the poem changed my orientation as a pastor. I have always been passionate about teaching the Hebrew Scriptures in all their beauty. But it never occurred to me that teaching was only first step in making disciples.
If God’s chosen way of communicating to people was “story” and “poem,” then my job is to equip people to become storytellers and poets and to offer their psalms of lament and praise publicly as acts of worship. Our experiences, rather than being a litany of morbid dirges, became unforgettable moments uniting us in sacred love. Fragmented people who had been living broken lives, disassociated from their pain and trying desperately to live victorious Christian lives began instead to deal with grief head on, to heal, to participate honestly in the larger community of faith, and walk with God in deeper intimacy. It is a gift that, as the poet prayed, has enlarged my heart to begin to comprehend the length, breadth, and height of the love of Christ.
 Ilan Staven ed., The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, 660.