A Travelogue of the Interior

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Captain Phillips and the Mystery of the Missing Commander

Every once in a while I have weird coincidences, and this past week was one of them. A story in my Facebook newsfeed popped up about Michelle Howard.090707-N-5345W-083

Doesn’t ring a bell?

Didn’t to me either.

It turns out that Michelle Howard just became the Navy’s first female 4 Star Admiral. That’s pretty cool, particularly because she’s a minority on multiple counts — and she’s short, so yeah, I’m cheering for her.

I got a wee bit curious about Admiral Howard so I did a little poking around and discovered she’s a native of Colorado (gorgeous state) and that her childhood dream was to have a distinguished service record in the US military (I love it when kids dream big!).

I also discovered that within three days of her taking command of the Navy’s counterpiracy task force in the Arabian Sea aboard the USS Boxer (an amphibious assault ship of the US Navy), she was presented with the hijacking of the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, who took the Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips, hostage aboard a lifeboat and headed at speed toward the Somali Coast.

Howard devised the plan to rescue Captain Phillips, a dramatic mission that Hollywood turned into fantastic movie, a satisfying conflation of just the right amount of truth and fiction. (Cinematic imperative aside, it appears that it took 19 shots by our Navy SEALS to dispatch the pirates on to their Maker, as opposed to the 3 rounds decisively fired in the movie).

Here’s the coincidence: about two days later, I wandered into the family room and David is watching Captain Phillips. I had never seen the film, and my interest was piqued because of my new connection to Michelle Howard, so I sat down to watch for a spell, and Lo And Behold, Commander Howard Is Not In The Movie.

Well, technically she is: a scratchy (female) voice on the other end of the comms can be heard barking generic instructions to the Commander aboard the USS Bainbridge (the Navy Destroyer from which the physical confrontation with the Somalis and rescue of Phillips takes place), a dashing fellow who, along with the negotiator, delivers to us our right and proper sense of What People In Charge Look Like. The chiseled jaws in this movie are a sight to behold.

The movie is all men, all the time, and honestly, I’d be fine with that (remember, I love men!), except that the person in charge was Michelle Howard.

I’m thinking that had Howard been a male-shaped person, the movie would have included the requisite “back at headquarters” shots with men tensely rubbing their (chiseled) jaws as they huddle around technicolor maps displayed horizontally in the center of the room, playing a grown-up version of BattleShip, and, ultimately, high-fiving and wiping their brows when word arrived that the mission they masterminded had been successful.

What we routinely see affects our understanding of what is normal, acceptable, probable. I’m not asking for a fiction here. In no way am I suggesting that the leadership, bravery, creativity and brilliance of the Commanding officer aboard the Bainbridge, and the SEAL team that put their own lives at risk be diminished or downplayed in any way. I’m simply asking for a fuller truth to be told.

That Commander Howard was there. That she was ultimately in charge. That her ideas, her leadership, her bravery, her creativity were part of why the mission was successful.  We need to aggressively terminate this dominant narrative in American pop culture, that Men With Chiseled Jaws save the day.

Because, honestly, not all men have chiseled jaws.

And because men and women work together, all the time, whether or not their collaboration is portrayed on the Silver Screen. Sometimes, women lead.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, probably, Captain Phillips, bound and gagged in the back of that lifeboat, held at gunpoint by madmen, could not have cared less what gender, color or — it must said — height was possessed by the person who was responsible for getting him off that boat alive. He just wanted whomever it was to be competent, determined, empowered, brave.

Michelle Howard is all those things, and she’s got 4 stars to prove it.  Which is 4 more than any of us have.

From what I’ve read about her, those 4 stars don’t prove anything to her though. She’s too busy doing her job to care.


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From the Rabbi: “When Evil Reigns Unrestrained”

There are times in our spiritual pilgrimage when it seems as if the whole world is set against us and we are confronted with evil in all its darkest hues. What does our worship look like then? In Psalm 5 malicious liars (Absalom and his council) have banded together and threaten King David’s life with a military coup, forcing the king to abandon his the city in a shameful, humiliating exit (2 Sam 15-16). Bruce Waltke comments on David’s faith in the midst of this evil context and I offer my personal reflections in the poem that follows.

In Psalm 5 corporate Israel typifies the corporate solidarity of the Lord Jesus Christ and his church whose life is threatened by fraud and deceit. Christ comforts his church, warning: “Slaves are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). In the alchemy of grace, God uses nefarious enemies to drive us to prayer and so to know him better and to participate more fully in redemptive history.[1]

Reflections on Psalm 5

The Watchtower
Caught in the crucible of evil, gashed
and bleeding through the terrors of the night,
your ’ebed[2] ever so carefully arranges
his well honed words on the altar;
lit with soul-fire,
they ascend like an ’olah[3] consumed in smoke –
a ringing cry splits the dawn
darkness flees
and our sentinel is seen standing
still
eyes fixed upon another place,
waiting for you in the watchtower.

Watching, waiting, gazing, penetrating –
its seems so foreign to my divided
distracted, doing heart,
but what little of it I have tasted,
has sent me longing for more
The Morgue
Caught in the crucible of evil
our ‘ebed is forced to stand up
and take a good long look at evil in the eye.
It is a dreadful trip to the morgue,
who can endure an autopsy?
But the medical examiner is relentless,
he pulls back the sheet, hands you the knife and says,
“Take him apart piece by piece.
He was a chain smoker, but don’t worry,
he’s dead, though he is still breathing.”
 
The gruesome task turns your world around
there are no more greys, or self-seeking lies
only flaming, everlasting truth
and the invitation to dine at Le Meurice
on the rue de Rivoli with Royalty.
Who could refuse?
 
If I’m honest…
I must confess I want to dine
in all the wanton extravagance of You,
yet I dread the thought of doing
what my father[4] did in the morgue.
Who will I see when the examiner
pulls back the sterile sheet…
will it be me?

The Party
From the towering heights of the watchtower,
out of reach of ribald rebels and bloodthirsty assailants
our ‘ebed peers past history’s horizon and sees
an explosion of light that sets things aright.
 
When the smoke clears
“unblemished eyesights now pierce time,”[5]
the future leaps out of its holding tank
to invade the painful present,
infecting everything it touches with simchah[6]
that spontaneous, unrestrained, riotous joy
that overtakes all our sensibilities,
such that even the Pope lifts his robes
to dance unabashedly like David before the ark of God.
 
It is a crucible of joy that remains and sustains,
it is perhaps the greatest gift poetry can give us,
or as we say among the “Men of Monday Night”
as we pass the cup and look into our brother’s eyes,
“It doesn’t get any better than this!”

[1] Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston & Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 24-25.

[2]ebed is Hebrew word for “servant.”

[3] ’olah is the Hebrew word for the “whole burnt offering” that was completely consumed in smoke.

[4] My father, Dr. Wendell Morgan, was a surgeon. But the image is dual edged. In one sense, Saul was David’s father, and the fear of every son is inheriting their father’s sins.

[5] This line is taken from Ionatan Ille’s Romanian poem “Vecernie,” translated by Marcelus Suciu.

[6]simchah” – the wondrous Hebrew term for unrestrained, full-bodied, spontaneous joy.


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From the Rabbi: My Favorite Biking Experience

My favorite biking experience took place in Bossano del Grappa, Italia in 2008.

Altopiano_di_Asiago

Altopiano di Asiago

Each morning scores of Italians would fly by and we would hear the hum of the gears. We did five rides of varying degrees of climbs. The most spectacular was a 50 mile ride with about 3500 ft. elevation to the wondrous town of Asiago. At the end of each day I would withdraw by myself for some quiet time by the river just below our little family run hotel. There is simply no better way to vacation for me than to exercise through Italian scenery and reflect by the river’s edge. But the sweetest moment came on the last day when I borrowed the hotel bike and headed off in my flip flops, pedaling to find some flowers for our host. Not finding the flower store, I stopped to partake of some gelati when…

“A Wave of Beauty”

While biking up river seeking fiori…to no avail
a gelati bar binds me to a group of lively old menPICT0061
who just descended the Forza climb
each one dapper draped in red and white
take their repose at the bar
but just before they cross the threshold
a young beauty makes her way up the hill
on an old bicycle oblivious to the all bravado
she catches their eyes and seizes their hearts
with more emotion than they can constrain,
until one relieves the strain and shouts, “Belleeeesimaaa!”

Laughter roars as they make their way into the bar,
but one lingers long enough to see her face once again,
she turns, smiles and yes, even waves.
That insignificant gesture sends shock waves
through his beleaguered bones
and infuses the old man with such vitality
a warrior’s cry thunders from his lungs
summoning all his friends, who pour out into the street
to hear him recount the story
with wild hands waving as only Italians can do,
they surround him in their huddle of gregarious congratulations.
It was as if he had won the lottery, or had won her hand in marriage.

What is it that captures a man’s eye?
in its purest form it is not lust
but elegant beauty,
young, graceful and innocent
that makes us boys again
Flowers failing search
even across the ponte
one closed store after another
sends me home empty handed
until the old italian stallions
bike past me
and I, for a few moments,
trail behind
drafting their sleek peloton
as if one of them.


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A “perverted attack”? A difference of opinion? Or a hill to die on?

A funny thing happened the other day.

OK, maybe not so funny, but it happened.

I wrote a post ruminating on what might be an underlying dynamic contributing to the sex abuse climate extant in the conservative evangelical church at the moment. My post got re-posted at the David C Cook Facebook page and folks started to comment, some positive (agreeing or furthering the discussion) some negative (disagreeing or trying to shut it down altogether). One comment in particular called me out with this:

I have never seen such a perverted attack on the complementarian view of gender and the biblical view of marriage.”

Negative comments don’t bother me. I worked professionally in high tech for 15 years and was on the receiving end of many a negative comment — usually from men because this was high tech 20 years ago and high tech was all men — and can I just say, I love men! I love men for lots of reasons, but one reason that has to be at the top of my list of “Reasons Men Are Awesome” is that they tend to be (and yes, I am making a sweeping generalization) direct, confrontational, emotional-in-the-moment, and volcanic, meaning they blow up, say their peace (or is it piece?) and when its all over, they readjust their clothing, smooth down their hair and quite innocently ask if you want to grab a sandwich. As If Nothing Happened.  Because nothing did. We disagreed, argued about it, moved on. No meta-communicating about the process, no grudges, no social punishment. Just sandwiches.

But, as usual, I digress.

I am quite sure the fellow commenting about my perversion and attack on the Bible loves Jesus as much as I do, submits to God’s word as much as I do, and was contending for the gospel as best he can. And so I got to thinking, what is he reacting to? Why the volcanic blow up (offers of sandwiches notwithstanding).  And I think at least part of what’s happening here is that he’s picturing complementarian theology at one end of a fairly broad spectrum, and I was addressing it at the other.

Here’s where it gets sticky and I ask for help, and friends, this is a genuine inquiry. I’m not trying to advance an agenda, I am trying to understand something and need some help from thoughtful people no matter where on the issue they land today.

Is it fair to put complementarian theology on a spectrum from uber-conservative (let’s say Christian Patriarchy) to fairly liberal? What would exemplify the progressive endpoint of the spectrum? Conversely, does egalitarian theology also exist on a spectrum? If so, what might its end points be?

I and others toy with comparing the current debate about women’s roles in the home and church to the centuries-past debate about slavery, where the Bible was used on both sides of the divide toward dramatically different ends. Ultimately, the liberal/progressive reading of Scripture won.

The thing is, in hindsight, trying to make a Biblical case for a spectrum of possibility concerning enslaving Africans (from the uber-conservative “God approves of African slavery because Ham” to the arguably more progressive end, “benign imperialism in the form of compassionate slavery can be good”) is horribly offensive and so clearly an egregious use of Scripture that I can hardly stomach it.

But here I am, asking if the idea that women are subordinate to men by virtue of a Divine edict of beneficent hierarchy, can be put on a spectrum and patiently waited out while the debates rage and the dust settles.

In other words, is there a Biblically-meaningful difference between The Gospel Coalition vs Christians for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood vs the Christian Patriarchs?

I like to think that had I been a contemporary of famed William Wilberforce, I would not have needed a trip to the slave boats to become an abolitionist, I would not have been someone who politely conceded there are “differences of interpretation and we all mean well,” and turned away while African men, women and children were abused in the name of God. I tend to see the call for women’s full equality in church and home in the same terms. I don’t see nuance, I admit that.

That said, I am also quite aware that using slavery as an exemplar leads to conclusions of this kind.  So I ask, what alternate/other/better/more useful metaphors, historical or otherwise, can we employ in our pursuit of a robust theology of gender?

Thoughts?


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Poetry Friday — Psalm 9 &10

Its Friday … which means psalms poetry!

So many of David’s psalms grapple with the enemy. For David, the enemy was usually very specific – Saul, Absalom, the Philistines and other tribal enemies. For me, a big part of engaging with the psalms is to name and fully describe whatever enemy I might be facing in that moment. And of course, my enemy must be re-described in New Covenant terms; my enemy is not another person, not a government or a worldly power, but the father of sin, Job’s Prosecutor, who mocks my weak faith and tempts me to see with physical eyes what can only be apprehended through spiritual ones.

In the Septuagint, Psalm 9 and 10 are one psalm composed as a Hebrew acrostic, so I have taken them together here in my own acrostic/chiastic poem.

The A, B, Cs of ‘My Enemy’
(Psalms 9 & 10)

Around me, my enemy has encamped
blocking all ways of escape and
pressing closer each moment

Brandishing weapons forged not from steel
but from my weakness, he assails me with words
that make me doubt You.

Crushed beneath his words piled high
like stones I am deaf to Your voice.
Why, Oh Lord, do You stand far off?

Delighting in my failure and Your silence
my enemy boasts of victory while
the world watches, unfazed.

(Enemy is everything I see that
contradicts anything You reveal.)

Deliver me, Oh Lord from my enemy
from everything that would tell me
who You are – but You.

Crush my enemy beneath the heel of
Your Word made flesh,
Jesus, whisperer to the deaf, so that

Before the congregation I can sing praise
from a whole heart with words
to tell of all Your wonders.

Around me, Oh Lord, You are a shield
turning away the arrows of my enemy and
pressing closer each moment.
 


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Harold Fry, Walter Mitty and Me

I am a pilgrim at heart.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming to say goodbye to 4 or 5 year old me in the dark hours of the morning as he headed off on a business trip to a magical, faraway place called Switzerland. That seemed to me to be a lot like Disneyland but for grownups.

I can still smell his cologne, feel his freshly shaven face on mine as he whispered his love and promised soon to return, and I knew the black fancy car was already out front waiting to whisk him away to the airport and off to his adventure. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go too.

The urge to travel, or more specifically, to journey, I am sure is etched deep in my DNA, and throughout the years of my life I have traveled as time, opportunity and good fortune have permitted.books

I have been transported by the requisite trains, planes and automobiles. I have traveled on foot, by bike, by boat and, dare I admit it, even in my imagination, but some of my favorite journeys have been by way of books and the millisecond frames of provocative films. My own story seemed best told as a pilgrimage, a travelogue of interior places, even though physically I rarely left the confines of my living room. The Spirit, however, seems uniquely undeterred by what we think of as boundaries of time and space. The world of the psalms, I discovered, was a place where past, present and future were all accessible, where physical space dissipated in ways that defied explanation, where the longest, most arduous portions of my journey were mysteriously begun and completed in the span of a few silent, still, knee-bent hours.

And so it should come as no great surprise that when my family made a bee-line for the Waterstone bookstore that was a mere stones throw from our Trafalgar flat last week, I hiked up my skirts and joined the mad dash. It should come as no further surprise that the book I selected and started thumbing through on the walk back, nose book-ward and thus running into people and trees, was aptly titled, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The book tells the story of a simple English man, a few years into retirement, who sets out one day — in yachting shoes and a slight jacket — to walk down the lane and post a letter to a dying friend, and ends up walking the entire way across England to deliver the letter in person. His motivations are breathtaking — simple, painful, archetypal — and like most motivations for most of us, they are inaccessible to him until he actually begins to walk. It is in the walking, in the hunger of journeying, the leaving behind and the stepping forward one foot after the other, that he matures, a process that begins with a wrenching self-knowledge and ends with self-offering and joyful abandon.

I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage somewhere over Greenland. The plane was dark, most were asleep, and I felt an exquisite sadness that there was no one else on that plane who knew Harold Fry, no one with whom I could reflect upon his well-traveled road. I blew my nose and dried my tears, sat for a spell in the dark, and pondered it all. Finally, feeling somewhat blue at having to say goodbye to Harold, I decided to see if there were any movies worth watching.secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver7

My sister-in-law had posted on Facebook a few days earlier that she and my brother had immensely enjoyed the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and seeing it there on the console I pushed ‘select’ and settled in to see what it was that captured Joe and Camille’s affection.

To my surprise and delight, Walter Mitty — like Harold Fry, like me — is a pilgrim.   I won’t spoil the movie for anyone interested, but suffice it to say that Walter, like Harold, can’t entirely figure out exactly how he ended up in the life he’s got. In his imagination, Walter is a different sort of person living a different sort of life, a life diametrically opposed to the real one he finds himself occupying. In the beginning, his journeying is all in his imagination, but as the film unfolds we realize that Walter’s imaginary life has imperceptibly done a deep work in Walter, enabling him to take an actual journey in the real world — a pilgrimage by plane and helicopter, by skateboard and bicycle, in the company of drunks and gurus and in the end, entirely alone. He traverses continents, runs toward active volcanoes, travels backwards in time to his childhood, and forward into an unknown future by way of relationships. In the end, Walter — like Harold, like me — is made new by his quest which began in imagination, was fueled by hope and hunger, and resolved ultimately in a quiet assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Perhaps all pilgrimages are ultimately about faith.


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How does a Christian magazine end up posting a letter defending statutory rape?

A week ago, the Christianity Today (CT) imprint, Leadership Journal (LJ), published a letter written by a man in jail for statutory rape of a teenage girl in his youth group.

It was published as a cautionary tale for pastors and other (male) church leaders lest they too “fall into sin” which, in this case, was positioned as an extra-marital affair between consenting adults. Only at the end of the letter does the reader learn with horror that the female participant was in middle school when the abuse began.

Within hours of the article being posted, a huge — and I mean huge — backlash walloped CT and the Journal, and after an appalling 5 days (the editors’ first instinct was simply to delete all negative comments), the letter was replaced with a genuinely awesome apology and retraction (it is included in the link above) demonstrating that finally, after countless emails, blog posts, comments and tweets, the publishers understood just how warped their point of view was that allowed them to publish a rape apologia couched in Christian vernacular and supported with Bible stories.

A number of bloggers have written about the ordeal — some of them sexual abuse survivors themselves, others who have grasped the consequence of gender discrimination in the church and the ways in which warped theology contributes to a climate wherein abuse thrives. One blogger in particular caught my attention and it is to her ideas that I wish to add.

She unmasks the nuance that had the predator/prey relationship been between an adult male and a teenage boy, CT and LJ would never have published the letter. It would have been so obviously despicable, unrepentant and narcissistic. The same holds true had the rapist been an adult female pastor, teacher or coach and her victim a teenage girl (or boy). We are crystal clear in these scenarios that these are not “extramarital affairs” or “consensual relationships.” We are crystal clear that one person is a target of sexual deviance and the other a predator who manipulates others for their own gratification.

So why — how — did the editors at CT/LJ miss this?  Why could they not see the same dynamic in this situation?

Surely a part of the answer is that in many Christian circles, a relationship between a dominant male and a submissive female is normative. It is proffered as the ideal model for marriage and the operating model for church governance.

When I was growing up, I picked up the message that the “ideal” Christian wife was younger than her husband, less educated, less professionally accomplished, embraced her calling to be submissive, and above all desired to be shaped by her husband’s wishes, ideas and leadership. The “ideal” Christian husband was the exact opposite: he was older than his wife, well-educated, had professional or pastoral aspirations and above all desired to be the spiritual authority and leader in his home. Authentic partnership and mutual submission were nowhere in the story line, although looking back I find it funny how few of us actually lived out this leader/follower narrative. Either we were terrible church-goers or God was particularly merciful. I’m thinking it was a combination of both.

Lest you think this mentality has gone the way of all flesh, look no further than the embarrassingly popular Duck Dynasty patriarch and his encouraging of child marriage to see this idea alive and well. The clear message from Phil is that a man should marry a girl — 14, 15, 16 tops — so that he can mold her into a well-trained, subservient wife. Her humanity and the giftedness and calling of God on her life are irrelevant at best, and more likely simply non-existent. She exists solely for him, the argument goes, because Genesis says so. He is entitled to her.

(As an aside, are you aware that the Duck Dynasty patriarchs are putting out a Bible? Yep. Thomas Nelson is publishing a new King James version with commentary from Phil and his son Alan. Words fail). DC FF Bible

As sex scandals continue to rock the conservative evangelical world, comparisons are being made to the Catholic abuse scandal of years past. I am convinced that part of the reason we all reacted so vehemently to the news of widespread sexual abuse of altar boys by priests was precisely because we could all understand deep in our bones just how powerless, how un-equal, how un-consenting these boys were. We didn’t have to be told that a teenage boy does not willingly, naturally become a sexual submissive to an adult male for the purpose of that man’s pleasure. But we have to be told this very thing when a man’s victim is a girl. Especially if she is a teenager.

So here’s where it hurts: we could see the horror of male clergy abuse of boys clearly because it violated our worldview, wherein boys are agents in their lives and have full and unfettered rights to their bodies. When they are made powerless (we even have a word for that: emasculated) we can see straight away that something is horribly, egregiously wrong.

But girls, in this worldview, are powerless by design, by divine edict. Their bodies belong to their male protectors, the men who are entitled to them. It is their God-given role to be powerless, to require male leadership in order to thrive, and so when girls are victimized, we don’t recognize it as such. At first blush it looks normal, maybe slightly off but only slightly. The man was a little too old for her. She was maybe a little too young. Things will even out eventually. 

(Interestingly, there is no equivalent word for what happens to a girl or woman when she is robbed of agency or power — linguistic relativity would argue that this is both a reflection and a cause of female powerlessness).

I am not the only person to wonder if this horrible rape-apology letter would not have been published had there been women on the CT/LJ editorial board. Strong, opinionated, educated women, women who were viewed by their male peers as equals, whose voices were weighted equally in shaping editorial decisions.

For me, this week-long decent into a necessary yet excruciating discussion of sexual abuse in the Church that I love so much has reminded me again why I am a proponent of women’s full equality in marriage and church. The Bible I read says God made men and women to complement each other (no, I am not a “complementarian”). We are not the same. We see differently, experience differently. We are shaped by different forces in our culture, by our biology and the ways we were nurtured. Equality does not imply sameness. To the contrary, it is our difference that is our strength. We need each other — in marriage, in friendship, in church governance, in ministry.

In our equality, in our diversity, as peers, in partnership, we bear God’s image and accomplish God’s first, formative call on our shared humanity:

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.


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Where Dead Poets and faith meet

MV5BMzA5MTE0NTUwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgyMDUxMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

This quote is from an early scene in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society. I first saw this film when I was in college and loved it. At the time I thought my future involved a PhD in rhetoric, a small liberal arts classroom and a lifetime of teaching, so Robin Williams’ character was more than just momentarily inspiring.

Last night, happily ensconced in our flat with the chatter from the Sherlock Holmes pub providing the perfect city din below, I watched it again, and it was just as captivating.

More than 20 years have passed since I first saw the movie, and although it is exactly the same, I am not. Those intervening years have altered my perspective in much the same way as climbing up on their desks’ critically and forever altered those school boys’ point of view. Once you climb up, there’s simply no going back.

What struck me in this viewing was the sympathy I had for Neil’s father, the antagonist in the film, pitch-perfectly played by Kurtwood Smith. When I first saw the film so many years ago, I read him quite flatly as the villainous, domineering parent who refused to nurture even the slightest hint of passion in his son.

But now I am a parent.

Every day I think about the future my children will have, and even if I try not to, there’s always Facebook and the Mommy Wars to remind me that other parents are making wildly different choices — in school choice, in extracurricular activities, in priorities — that throw shade on my own.

Neil’s father was doing the best he could. He loved his son, and he envisioned his son’s future unfolding in a particular, certain way — ripe with meaningful achievement, financial security, social acceptance.

The fatal flaw in Mr. Perry, of course, is not what he wishes for his son; it is that he lacks all self-awareness. Having (conveniently) fixated on Neil, he excuses himself from doing the hard work of understanding where he ends and his son begins, where his own fears and lusts, forged in the crucible of “real” life, threaten to overwhelm the adolescent hopes and dreams of his child. Controlled by dark, unexamined emotions, Mr. Perry will not — indeed cannot — let Neil make his own choices; the consequences are perceived as life-threatening. Mr. Perry’s self-ignorance is so oppressive it robs Neil of his future, backing him into a corner from which he will not escape.

I empathize with Mr. Perry now in a way I didn’t before. But I don’t want to be like him. I want to parent my daughters the way my mom and dad parented me.

They gave me my life and let me live it, let me choose it, knowing fully well the risk they were taking. They flooded my world with all sorts of ideas, even ones they disagreed with, to teach me ideas matter and to train me to be unafraid in a world much larger than my own. Our home was flush with literature, poetry and all sorts of music. And we dreamed. Big dreams, together dreams.

Even still I made naive choices in my adolescence that would impact me for decades to come, choices that would eventually break my heart and my spirit too, almost to the point of no return.

But they didn’t just let me choose my life and then stand at a distance and watch it unfold. They walked every step of the way with me and still do. They accompany me on my journey even when they disagree with the road I choose. And they pray a lot, entrusting me — oh what faith! — to the God who promises to make all things brand new.

As I lay awake in the dark hours of the morning, thinking about Mr. Perry and his spirited, doomed son, thinking about my parents and the scars they carry, my daughters and the wounds that surely wait for them, I come back to the same thing John Keating did, but with a God-shaped twist:

Carpe diem, my sweet little girls, as you daily place all your faith, all your hope, all your love in I AM. Live life large and unafraid, for there is no road you can take that will not lead you further up and further in, no suffering He will not redeem, no locust that can forever steal the years. Find the voice God gave you and write the poem of your life for His great Kingdom play. Here: take my hand, hold it when you wish and let go when you must. I promise you will never walk alone. 


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From the Rabbi: The Most a Poem Can Do

Bringing Four Worlds Together 

Slide1Stanford professor John Felstiner, reflecting on Paul Celan’s poem Es Stand, 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.

When we apply the four worlds of the poet to David’s psalms, we can begin to appreciate their enduring significance through their many layers of memory. First, there is the historical situation that places them in the context of David’s story. Second, we find Israel using David’s psalms in new situations with different liturgical settings. Third, these prayers take on greater significance as they give shape to Jesus’ prayers. Finally, as we are “in Christ,” David’s psalms become our prayers.

I experienced the explosive power of the poem on my second visit to Romania in 1989.

While we were studying the David/Jonathan story, several agents from Romania’s secret police (the Securitate) were searching for us in the forest in order to arrest our hosts for housing us (it was illegal to have foreigners in their homes without reporting it to the police) and conducting a Bible conference. In the midst of their intrusions into our camp, four brothers (all were named Jonathan, as if by divine coincidence) put their lives on the line to protect us from the police. img124

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. 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.” The David story and song that had shaped Jesus’ story, was now shaping our lives in this new setting on a hillside in Costeşti, România. I was overcome with the joy of having a small part on the stage of God’s wondrous drama of redemption.

This explains why certain hymns or spiritual songs evoke strong emotions within us, while others may not. When specific lyrics give voice to significant experiences in our lives, or to emotions we haven’t yet been able to articulate, or evoke layers of memory and accumulated emotions, they can stir our hearts to the core.

The hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” has always been a favorite of mine. I came to appreciate it first for its lyrics that give voice to trust and contentment at a time of loss. My appreciation was heightened when I learned the occasion for which it was originally written.

But it wasn’t until I sang it with a couple grieving over their six-year-old son at Stanford Hospital, that its power became explosive. As Timothy had only hours left to live, we lifted our voices to sing the hymn. I didn’t remember the second verse, but the nurse taking care of Timothy did. And she did not hold back. With her full-throttled voice she boomed out the second verse. When she did, it was as if angels came into the room and flooded us with a peace I can only describe as transcendent. Suddenly the hospital room was transformed into the gate of heaven. I watched in awe as a mother held and caressed her dead son. Then Timothy’s nurse washed his body with as much dignity as if he was Jesus. The sting of death had disappeared, totally.

That Sunday at church our worship leader had selected the hymn not knowing what we had experienced earlier in the week. As the words rang out, I looked behind me and saw Timothy’s mother singing, tears streaming down her face. We made eye contact in the secret acknowledgement of what God had done that week. Such is the power of the poem.

[1] John Felstiner, Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 268.