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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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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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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.


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Guilty

Lately, my words have been hurting someone I deeply love. My temptation is to be self-righteous, self-justifying and defensive, but I hate that tendency as much as I hate being hurtful, however unintentionally.

I want to come easily and without self-aggrandizing explanation to the notion that I am wrong (see previous post). The details don’t matter — if I am wounding someone I am, in some way, wrong. Insensitive. Not listening. Putting myself above. Defending myself when I ought to be defending them. Shrinking the acceptable space instead of expanding it. I am not loving well.

I’ve spent a lot of waking hours — even the ones I should be sleeping — praying about all this, and have come back over and over again to my Psalm 7 poem. I wrote this in the spring of 2011, but it is as true today as then.

I cannot wait to be rid of this body of sin.

***

Superscript: In Psalm 7 David represents the typical worldview of his day, namely that he is experiencing persecution as a direct result of his sin, that God is inflicting him with dire circumstances to force his repentance.  But David emphatically rejects this as the case, deciding instead that his enemies are unjust in their assault and that God will vindicate him.

This turnaround should give us pause to observe that David has just rewritten the “rules” that governed his theology. God is supposed to be like this, he says at the beginning, but then as his poem takes shape he discovers to the contrary that God’s dealings with him are less punitive and more faithful than he first supposes.

It only took one reading of this psalm for me to conclude that I was fully unlike David; whereas he was innocent, I was guilty through and through. God unflinchingly directs my attention to the breadth and depth of so many ways I fall short of His standard every day; my sin is ever before me. But God is also more than willing to painstakingly unmake me, beginning ever again to create in me a pure heart. It is the greatest hope of my life.

Guilty
(Psalm 7)
 
If I have done this
If I have taken what is not mine
If I have spoken what should be left unsaid
or been silent when words were required
 
If I have played the part
If I have played pretend
If I have dug my own well
or forced new wine into old wineskins
 
If I have whitewashed my own tomb
If I have forgiven my own sin
If I have been deaf to Nathan and Shimei
or the donkey, even
 
Then Hound of Heaven
Rend me limb from limb
Tear flesh from bone
Leave no sinew or tendon whole
 
Trample my life to the ground and
make me sleep in the dust.
Then, El ‘Elyon, from the dust I will
sing praise, finally, with a pure heart.

 

 


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Poetry Friday: “Follow”

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Supper at Emmaus (Caravaggio)

Follow

Can you love who you do not love
even crushed beneath the
weight of your own pain?

Can you swallow evil down
bile turning to acid yet
not vomit it out?

Can you hold rejection in your own hands
while it blisters and burns
trusting Me to heal the scars?

Can you let Me kill you with the hope
I’ll raise you from the grave
and not forget?

I think I knew from that first moment
Dove resting on My head
How it all would end
Not the horror of it, mind you
No one could have foreseen that.

Can you feel the welts rise on your back
from the lash that loves to
separate flesh from bone?

Can you hold your tongue amid snarls of accusation
when you know better
when you know all there is to know?

Can you face the man who thinks he is your enemy
grip the table as he strikes you in your face
see him convulsed in confusion and fear?

Can you let your tears mix freely with your blood
without needing to explain
from whence they came?

Can you follow Me there
where theology fails and
evil plays every card?

Can you live without answers?
walk an untrod path?
die for a man’s choice to hate you?

Will you follow Me there?

Then take My hand
end My loneliness
walk with Me
to the cross
the tomb
wait for Me
to rise
journey with Me
to Emmaus
hear it all explained
until the ground
beneath our feet
turns to gold
in the New Jerusalem.

I am the Lord’s servant
May it be to me according to Your word.
Tho’ a sword pierce my soul
and my heart shatter,
do not send me away.
Let me go where You go
show me what it means to be 

Your beloved.


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From the Rabbi: Tears in the Night

by Brian Morgan

Slide01Though Paul tells us that “all Scripture is  inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for  training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), I’ve discovered that some texts are revolutionary. They are what I call “signature texts,” ones that speak right into our broken hearts and lift us up out of the miry clay, set our feet upon the rock and put a new song in our mouth (Ps 40:2-3). After experiencing the poem’s power in Romania in 1988, it was David’s lament over Jonathan (2 Sam 1:17-27) that began to answer many of my questions as to how and why the poem is such an effective tool to process grief. Embracing this poem became a touchstone for my soul, coalescing countless channels of Divine love and sacred memories from divergent lands and distant ages.

David was in Ziklag when he first received the news that Saul and Jonathan were killed on Mt. Gilboa. The poem that David wrote was so significant that the editors of the canon, rather than placing it in the collection of the psalms, left it in the narrative portion of Samuel so that future generations would take time to pause from the story and enter into David’s grief. Perhaps this was in obedience to David’s instructions.Slide02

And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, and he said it should be taught to the people of Judah; behold, it is written in the Book of Jashar. (2 Sam 1:17-18 ESV)

It is a holy act to stand with someone in his or her grief. David didn’t deny his grief, ignore it or bury it. He faced it and embraced it. It was unthinkable to David to continue his journey to the throne until he hewed out deep channels to act as conduits for his tears. David had incredible freedom before God to be honest about all the tensions in his soul. And in the careful selection of each image, he has given his grief a name. David gives voice to everything we have ever felt, but did not feel we had permission to speak. Yet David says it with a bold honesty, in full view of the public, and in the sacred presence of God.

The greatest gift that David’s lament gave me came at the end of the poem, where a national lament for a dead king takes a very personal turn, and David speaks in the first person.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

      very pleasant have you been to me;

your love to me was extraordinary,

      surpassing the love of women. (v. 26)

This is the final destination David has been driving towards throughout the poem–– the chance to speak a final word to his friend. It is always a moving moment at a funeral when the living speak directly to the dead. Years of buried feelings surface and saturate a few well-chosen words with a lifetime of emotion.

What stunned me was that David was able to go back to a past time and place where he was once painfully absent, and now relive the event as if being fully present. Before the poem––Jonathan is dead, David was absent, God was distant, and Gilboa was desecrated. After the poem, Jonathan is alive (in the recitation of the poem), David is present, God is intimately present between the two and Gilboa is sanctified. Once the poem is constructed, it creates a window into heaven that transcends time. And this holy window remains open forever, inviting all to freely relive the event in all the holiness of sacred memory. Every time the poem is read, that transcendence of heaven uniting with earth, of friends embracing, of love bursting the breast, breaks in upon us again and again.Slide15

Through those intensifying cadences of the poet we were mysteriously drawn to a place and time where we did not want to go, to a forbidden place and foreboding time when memories were marred by the tragic and lacerated by loss. But now the tragic has been transformed into the sacred. And those poetic cadences and rhymes we once dreaded now fill us with hope and anticipation of life, beautiful life, holy life that we can relive again and again. The poem creates a window into the sacred that transcends time, a widow that remains open…forever.

Where does David’s poem leave us? We are left to contemplate a love David describes as “more wonderful than the love of women.” When David comes to the depths of his sorrow he somehow embraces an indescribable love. The term David uses to describe Jonathan’s love is from the Hebrew root pala’ that describes something so extraordinary and miraculous that only God could have authored such a reality. The kind of love that sacrifices career and family relationships for another person, and finally gives his life’s blood that someone else might succeed is a love that describes the character of God. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

One of the most painful moments of my life came on Friday, December 2nd, 1976. I had just gotten a call from the hospital to say that Jessica, my newborn daughter, was very sick. One medical test told the whole story. She had the same enzyme deficiency my son David had died from a year earlier. I knew Jessica was destined to die. Accompanied by one of our elders, I made my way to the hospital to see her for the last time. I could only look at her for a short time before I turned away. I could not bear the pain. As I left the hospital waves of grief came crashing over me. I wanted to weep, but was too embarrassed in front of my friend. I was not there when Jessica died. She died alone, abandoned by her father. When the hospital graciously offered to take care of her body, I welcomed that. I could not bear the thought of laying her little body in the ground. How could we endure another memorial service? The thought was morbid to me.

Sixteen years later, God called me back to the same hospital. Again, it was in December and, just as when both my children died, it was raining. There a precious boy of one of our church families was fighting for his life. I did not want to go, but I was mysteriously yet powerfully drawn to watch as a dear couple loved their son and refused to turn away from the face of death. As he lay dying, we began singing hymns and psalms. When we sang the words of the second verse of the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” heaven united with earth and love burst forth from our breasts. There came a transcendent sense of peace, of power and victory over death that I will never forget.

God was gracious to call me back to my Gilboa to see what I did not want to see. Slide22I discovered that even when I left my daughter, he was there all along, caring and loving. Following David’s example, I wrote a poem for Jessica. Through the power of its images I was able to reconnect with her: to tell her I loved her, to experience holy love and the power of God that transcends death. I have gone back to that time and place many times. It has become a sacred memory. Now I tell my friends who are engulfed in pain, “Do not wait sixteen years to write your poem. Write it now, and turn the tragic into the sacred.”

Let it Rain
In appreciation for my daughter, Jessica Lynne
November 30, 1976 – December 4, 1976
 
O Jessica, nine months we waited
for your precious hidden frame
to break through the darkness
and turn our souls into day.
 
Unto us it was given,
morning came, its dawn so bright,
it loosed our sackcloth,
and girded us with light.
 
Your form so pure,
yours the sweetest gaze
a mother’s dream,
a father’s praise.
 
Then on the third night
while I slept, you cried;
your mother held you tight,
she knew, but it was hidden from me.
 
All through the darkness
she cared for you…
then gently laid you upon the altar;
she knelt beside those well-hewn
stones and wept.
 
Then I heard
the shophar’s ringing cry…
 
Terror struck, “Impossible!” I cried,
“Could it be to walk this way again–
conception to pain, never to regain,
when the first born, has already paid?”
 
I pulled back, withdrew,
traumatized by the pain I already knew.
I could not stay and watch,
for now I knew.
 
My eyes could not gaze on your little tent,
which would all too soon,
be broken down and laid to rest,
in the earth, rather than upon a breast.
 
Waves of grief came crashing down,
heaven was calling through the rain,
“Pour out your heart like water,”
but I turned and left, numb from pain.
 
O Jessica, nine months we had waited
for your precious hidden frame
to break through the darkness
and turn our souls into day.
 
O Jessica, O Jessica, where are you now?
Where did the Sower plant the seed?
I long to know,
but it is hidden from me.
 
O could I now go back,
and that dark hour relive,
when you lay limp and still,
I would be your papa and give.
 
I wanted to forget,
it is easy to forget,
but I could not forget you,
my first precious daughter,
Jessica Lynne.
 
Sixteen years past,
and in my wanderings here,
I came across that valley again–
it was raining.
 
This time I did not turn away,
but obeying heaven’s command,
I knelt beside the stones
and stayed until dawn’s early light.
 
O Holy night, angels sang,
The grip of night grew limp,
he appeared
and each soul felt its worth.
 
He did not turn away
traumatized by pain,
but stretched out his hand
and placed it into the flame.
 
Beyond his hand I saw
the wrist, impaled by my spear,
pierced so deep with wounds,
yet draws me near.
 
Beyond the wrist, his gaze,
O that gaze ablaze
with such love it burst my breast,
evoking deepest praise.
 
O death where is your victory,
O grave where is your sting?
 
Captured with awe, I stared
and stared, and then I knew,
that when I left,
he had cared for you.
 
O Jessica,
“Hardly your life clear forth of heaven was sent,
Ere it broke out into a smile and went.
So swift your days, a gift to us was lent
You, now a daughter and saint inextricably blent,
Will one day teach your father in some heavenly tent.”[1]
 
****
[1]Adapted from George MacDonald’s, Diary of an Old Soul, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1975), 131. MacDonald also lost a son and a daughter.


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Poetry (Good) Friday: Re-imagining victory

It is of course Good Friday, and like all my Jesus-following friends, I’m trying to live this day and the rest of the weekend particularly mindful of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and what that all means.

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Exodus by Marc Chagall

I’m not really succeeding though. To say I am distracted is an understatement. Easter is late this year, so these sacred days are falling right when we are entering the final, insane march to the end of the school year — our days are jammed with activities and homework, medical checkups and ortho appointments, end-of-the year party planning and soccer tournaments.

I want to retreat, to find myself a quiet, anonymous corner somewhere and breathe. Pray. Ponder. Read and re-read the full story of redemption, trace my fingers across page after page of Israel’s story and find myself there too as we walk and wander and try to make sense of all that God reveals along the mystifying way of our oh-so-human journeys.

But I can’t.

My dear friend Stephanie assures me this is seasonal, par for the course of having young children and being faithful in the day-to-day life God has set before me. I’m thankful for that word of grace from her, and for now, it carries me.

I have found my mind wandering a bit today though, back through Israel’s history and what the Cross must have looked like at that fateful moment. We Westerners with our short historical attention span, we don’t (maybe can’t) fully appreciate how rich was the tradition that was re-inacted, re-framed and then exploded into enormous, life-altering proportions there in Gethsemane by Jesus. But those with ears to hear and eyes to see bore witness to the beginning of the eschaton. As the rabbi says, “What the Jews were expecting at the end of history God did in the middle of history” and that gets right to the heart of why (for any who are not Jesus followers and wonder what the fuss is all about), why we believers get so excited at Easter.

Back in my year in the Psalms I wrote a poem about this based on Psalms 20 & 21. So, here it is for Poetry Friday … have a great Good Friday everyone.

Victory Redux (Psalms 20-21)

Psalm 20 and 21 seem to be companion poems, with 20 describing (as Kidner titles it) “A Day of Trouble” and 21 describing “A Day of Rejoicing.” Psalm 20 and 21, when taken together, are clearly Messianic, but I was struck by how differently the Day of Trouble and the Day of Rejoicing played out for David and Jesus.

One man
crowned with gold stands in for the people.
Victory means freedom
Defeat means slavery
Life and death are at stake.

The people
chosen as one nation stand by their king
They pray for help
They trust in God
Weapons of war are futile.

Oh Lord, give victory;
Let the king answer us.

One man
crowned with thorns stands in for the people.
Victory means death
Defeat means escape
All creation holds its breath.

The people
drawn from every nation mock their King.
We divide his clothes
We pierce his side
The crowd is rabid with the kill.

Oh Lord, give victory;
Let the king answer us.

TETELESTAI!

The Son of Man
crowned in glory enthroned among the nations
Hair white as snow
Eyes blazing as fire
Feet glowing as hot bronze
Voice like rushing water
Face brighter than the sun

I AM THE ROOT OF THE OFFSPRING OF DAVID
THE BRIGHT MORNING STAR.
I AM COMING
SOON.

 


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Psalm 13 — for my sisters worldwide

I struggle daily with the profound frustration of wanting to get involved in some practical, tangible way with alleviating the suffering of women and girls around the globe and empowering them to live self-directed lives within their families, their churches and their communities. My passion for women’s rights globally was galvanized by 9/11 — before then, I had only incidentally paid attention to the lives of women outside my own Western affluent world. Then terrorists, of all people, opened my eyes to the oppressive circumstances most women and girls were living under, and having seen it I could not again look away. I had to get involved — both my humanity anjpegd even more, my allegiance to Jesus Christ, required it.

I started by educating myself, reading everything I could get my hands on that concerned women’s oppression worldwide. I started with Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDun, and if you have not read it I urge you to do so. It is not easy reading — in fact, it will rip your heart out. But it is important. We must not look away.

From Half the Sky I eventually came to Carolyn Custis James’s book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, and together these books hit me like a one-two punch in the gut, forcing me to re-examine all my theology and really, all my assumptions, about what the Bible says regarding women and God’s gifting and role for us. As I prayed and studied and wrestled, God began a major overhaul in me, reclaiming me as His image bearer and calling me to contribute to His kingdom in ways I had previously thought “off limits” because of my gender.

jpeg-1Someday in the future I hope to be involved full-time, at least partially overseas, in bringing God’s shalom to women and girls — through education, through healthcare, through spiritual formation, through church leadership. Who knows what the future holds? But for now, I am a stay-at-home mom involved locally in the anti-trafficking effort here in the Bay Area. I don’t want to miss my daughters’ growing-up years, so my contribution is limited at this stage. Truthfully, this makes me feel a bit restless, and I know this registers to people around me as being “too much” – I am too opinionated, too verbal, too curious, too intense, too driven.

In Psalm 13, David seems restless too. I don’t know if there are historical markers for this psalm, or why he is restless, why his thoughts are in turmoil.

Restless (Psalm 13)

Half a world away
my sister watches
her daughter die of a curable disease
knowing her father won’t
waste money on medicine for her
for the sin of being born a girl.

Half a world away
my daughter sits in a
doorless shack outside of town,
terrified of the jackals her father hopes
devour her tonight
for the sin of a obstetric fistula.

half a world away
my other daughter smiles
at the man who paid another man
to rape her, for if she does not
smile she’ll be beaten until she
smiles so she smiles at him, and

the next
the next
the next
the next
the next
all those smiles in just one hour.

Sister, daughter, I reach for you through
tears and words and screams
but it is not enough
you don’t know my name and
I don’t know your touch.
How long, O Lord, will you forget?

How long would You leave me
buried beneath laundry
crushed beneath boredom
mocked by passion
that has nowhere to go
and vision nobody shares?

How long can I
cry without weeping
talk without speaking
scream without raising my voice?[1]
Why give me tears and no one
whose feet I can wash?

Lord, I cling to Your hesed
my nails torn and bloody but
still I cling despite all I see trusting
You can hear me and my
daughters and sisters and our
blood that cries out to You
from the ground half a world away.[2]

****

[1] U2, Running to Stand Still, (Joshua Tree, 1987).
[2] The images in this poem are drawn from the book by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).


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Poetry Friday Guest Post … from my DAD!

Friends, let me introduce you to my dad.

DSC_0640

He’s 78, an avid cyclist, mechanical engineer by training, awesome dad and grandfather and (my mom tells me) husband too. He was born in 1935 and grew up fairly stoically during the Depression. For most of my life, emotions — feeling and expressing them — has lets just say not been his strong suit. He has been a Jesus-follower his whole life, but only in the past 10-15 years has his relationship with God taken him toward a more available emotional life. All of us who love him really really love this change — my children most of all, who have only known their Bop Bop as a man who laughs and sings and cries too, and now who writes his own poems and reads them in community! My dad is living proof that the journey of faith is always, always further up and further in.

I asked my dad if I could post his very first sacred poem, and so with his permission, here is the ‘superscript” and poem. He was a little hesitant because he’s no poet laureate and I reminded him duh, none of us are! We write, not because what we produce is necessarily “good” by some professional standard but because the act of writing is an act of faith that creates sacred space for us to develop our own voice with God and be better able to hear God in antiphony.

Part of why I love his poem is that it is subversive of good old fashioned “christian culture” — he takes aim at that poem, Footprints in the Sand (a poem which I truly despise — I’m so sorry if you like it!  Its like Thomas Kincade art to me … wonderful people adore it but, friends, for me “Footprints” and Kincade art are just a huge, giant, um NO).

So without further adieu … I’m proud of you dad!

*****

About six months ago, a really good friend of mine emailed to me a copy of a poem entitled “Buttprints in the Sand.” As you may have guessed, this poem was a take-off on the original poem “Footprints in the Sand” which expressed the author’s view of the way in which God deals with His children during tough times. He carries them Himself.

By contrast, the poem my friend sent to me posited that God gets tired and annoyed carrying me when I lack the willingness or am too afraid to step-out in faith. He just drops me on my butt in the sand and leaves me there to get my attention. Well, I did not believe that God deals with me, His child, that way nor did my friend. So I wrote a sequel (really a rebuttal, no pun intended) entitled “Faceplant in the Sand.” I know my friend shares this view of our God because she said after reading my attempt at poetry “it’s all of grace, isn’t it”.

Faceplant in  the Sand*

A Fellow Traveler’s  Sequel to “Buttprints in the Sand” (Anon) and what happened to him when the LORD did not leave him there, butt in the sand

 

So then, ere just a moments pause

with butt still in the sand,

I hear You plainly telling me

I’ll not permit you stay.

 

For You had called me long ago

to Follow and Obey,

Not count the cost, or weigh the load,

just walk and talk with You.

 

So off we went, my LORD and I,

on path you chose for me.

It’s narrow, slippery, perilous and steep,

no ease, as I want it be

 

Now weary again, I lose my way

my strength and will too weak

In such a state I fall anew,

My Faceplant in the Sand

 

I’m finished I think, no one to help

just full dirt and grime,

Afraid to move, Fear overcomes

I lie Face Down In The Sand.

 

But then I sense a gentle nudge

and feel You lift me up

With feet again on path You chose

By Grace, my walk renews.

 

I did not stay long with Face in Sand

With sin and self atop

Your Grace was sufficient and Love overcame

My Faceplant in the Sand

 

So when I fail and sink anew

and sin so easily besets,

I have no fear, for now I trust,

Your Grace will see me through.

 

By: A Fellow Traveller

AMAZING GRACE

Third stanza

By John Newton

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come

T’was Grace that brought me safe thus far

And Grace will bring me home

*For those of you that have never experienced the joy of downhill skiing in powder, a “Faceplant” occurs when you fall, head first, and go face down in the snow.  Not pretty!