Thursday, April 29, 2010

The One and Only

She was the first woman I remember being truly crazy about. Janet White was the epitome of loveliness. Beautiful smile, shoulder length dark brown hair, clear radiant complexion, full of life. She lived up the road from our house, just past the fishpond and the old train depot. I was elated any time I got to see her. She must have been 16 or 18 years old at the time. I was six. I don’t know if I understood at the time that such relationships are destined to end, and are often short-lived.

Janet was our baby sitter for a time. She had two sisters who would also baby sit my brothers, my sister and me. On at least one occasion they all three baby sat us for an entire Saturday when our parents had to be out of town. I remember my father telling someone about Janet and what a wonderful baby sitter she was. “Yes," he said," the children are crazy about Janet.” I remember being taken aback by that word crazy as it was applied to me (and my siblings) but I knew he was right. I was crazy about her – there was no turning back. I would cherish each encounter, listening to stories, reading Golden Books, riding tricycles while she supervised our play.

Then it all came quickly and quietly to an end. My mother told us that Janet had moved away and gotten married. I felt some sadness that she would not be our baby sitter any more. I wasn’t really prepared, however, for that next (and last) encounter I had with her. Some time had passed – enough time for a six-year-old to move on to other things and gain some emotional distance from those halcyon days. Then one warm summer night she stepped into my life ever so briefly.

It was a Sunday night. We were all at Jackson’s Gap Baptist Church where my father was pastor. She must have been passing through town, or visiting relatives, but Janet came to church that night. I was not aware that she was there until after the service. I was standing on the front porch of the red brick country church. A single yellow light overhead illuminated the area where people talked and visited after church. Beyond the perimeter cast by that light lay the night filled with the sounds of crickets and frogs, and the warm still darkness of a time still haunted by Sabbath rest.

It was into that yellow light on the front porch of Jackson’s Gap Baptist Church that Janet stepped up to speak to me. She was beautiful and glowing as ever, and she held a baby in her arms that was just beginning to cry with restlessness. I was glad to see her, but did not know what to say. I probably gave her an awkward grin, shuffled my feet and clasped my hands behind my back. But what could I say? There she was, with a baby of her own. It drove home to me the fact that she would no longer be there for me when she had her own life and her own child to care for. She spoke a few words and then stepped back. Turning, she walked out of the yellow light that illuminated our gathering and disappeared into the summer night. That is when I truly knew that she was gone from my life.

It was the natural ending of a chapter in life. I had already made the transition from tricycles to bicycles. Life continued to be full of other things: new playmates at school, hikes in the woods, adventures along the creek bank, kite flying, catching tadpoles and crawfish, running through piles of oak leaves in the fall, and chasing after our collie when she spotted a chipmunk diving into an old tree stump. There would be challenges and changes along the way, but there would never be another one like Janet White.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Three Cheers for Justice Alito

When Justice Samuel Alito was nominated to the Supreme Court, I did not imagine that I would be singing his praises – ever – let alone so soon as this. Last week I was appalled to learn that the Supreme Court had struck down a law that banned videos depicting animal cruelty. Mental health professionals know that one of the early signs of sociopathic behavior in children and teenagers is cruelty to animals. It is unthinkable that the court would strike down this law on the basis of freedom of speech. Justice Alito was the lone dissenter in the 8 – 1 decision. In his dissenting opinion he wrote, "The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it almost certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct."

Apparently videos in question included dog fighting and crush videos in which small animals are crushed by a woman’s high heel shoe or bare foot – a bizarre sexual fetish. I only have two questions:
1. Are these Supreme Court Justices completely out of touch?
2. How soon can congress pass a new law that is not “too broad and vague,” as this court claims, so that we can stop protecting such violent behavior?

The last time I commented on a Supreme Court decision in this blog, I said it was not dark yet, "but it's gettin' there." Now we see another questionable decision and this time the single ray of light comes from Justice Samuel Alito. Thank you, Justice Alito, for being that ray of light!


Wildness vs. Domestication

In wildness is the preservation of the world.
- Henry David Thoreau

One thing led to another last week and I found myself posting blogs addressing domestication vs wildness. After I posted my poem “An Early Time” which had a plowing image, that reminded me of “Shaphat’s Field” which I'd had as a draft for quite a while and never published to the blog, so I decided to go ahead and present it. “Shaphat’s Field” led me to ponder, which is better, wildness or domestication? I found two past essays, “Genie, Jesus; Bottle Book” and “Friendship with God,” both of which gave somewhat different takes on the interplay between wildness and domestication. With that, I remembered my “Dream Train” entry from my dream journal which demonstrated the stuffy, paralyzing effect of domesticity and the appeal of a liberating, creative wildness.

So which do I really think is more important, domestication or wildness? My answer would be a resounding “YES!” We must have the order and restraint found in our social customs in order for society to be secure and predictable. On the other hand, we must all remember the wildness that is in each of us. We must acknowledge that the wildness can break out into society at any time (especially if we deny the wildness for too long). We need that creative energy that leads us to new concepts and breaks us free from structures that are no longer needed. The structure provided by domestication allows me to know what to expect in my day to day encounters at work, at home, and at play. The creativity provided by wildness reassures me that I am alive and convinces me of the endless possibilities that lie ahead. Sometimes I need the quiet structure; sometimes I need the creative fire. I am glad for both.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dream Time: Where Domestication and Convention Are Upended by Wildness

Dream Train

I watched as my primitiveness
Rode out on a west-bound train.
I could only take a deep breath,
Clinch my jaw,
And fight back the tears
As one does when the lover he cannot live without
Says good-bye.

For on that train
Along with those ape-like instincts
Rode all that is lovely, fair and glad.

A priest was talking and did not notice.
A professor chuckled with half interest.
A poet was wide-eyed and shouted
In soft whispers that focus the heart,
"Look, feel, and remember.
This is the way of the soul!"

We have many kinds of dreams. Often they are what I call “little” dreams - interesting brief scenes that probably tell us something about ourselves. Then there is the “big” dream that you know contains something important from your unconscious. Sometimes these big dreams occur at a time of transition in life, and sometimes it seems that they occur when one’s subconscious self knows that the conscious self needs to be aware of something. The poem above was inspired by one of those big dreams that left me with strong sensations and strong emotions. I tried to boil down the experience into as few words as possible. If you are interested in seeing where the poem came from, I’ve included the entry from my dream journal below. This was a dream in which I was re-examining some previous vocational considerations and realizing their paralytic effect. I also met my muse, who apparently lives with the wild things.

Dream of the Train

I went to a gathering at A.J. and L.J.’s house. (In real life A.J. is a college theology professor and L.J. is a church choir member and a refined southern lady). It was a large, spacious house with many rooms. There were many pictures, artifacts, and decorations all over (In some ways like a museum). I sat down on a wide staircase in one of the great rooms (it actually looked like open steps going up to a porch, like on a big country house). Just as I sat down, I saw an alligator run out from under the steps. I was startled - I tried to move up and away from the alligator - then I noticed that the alligator was muzzled so he couldn't open his jaws. At that point I realized that the creature was a family pet. L.J. said it was time to feed the alligator. She brought out a cooked chicken. The alligator took it. He could open his jaws just enough to get the chicken in his mouth, but no further because of the muzzle.

The gathering was some kind of meet-and-eat social. There was talk about re-examining the priesthood. I heard someone talk about seeing the priesthood from a different vantage point/ different perspective/ new phase in life. The one talking said he had never been so tempted to enter the priesthood as he was now at this juncture in life. I found myself saying, "Hey, yeah! That's right"

As this conversation was going on, I walked around to a winding staircase, away from the crowd, and lay down on the stairs as if asleep - unable to get up, paralyzed. My mind was sleepy, but eyes open and awake to everything. I watched a young woman with long, light-brown hair come into the house. She walked through the gathering of people in the other room and around to the staircase where I lay motionless. She said nothing, but looked at me and took hold of my foot (left foot, I think). Immediately my body was fully energized and my mind completely clear. I was instantly up and standing. The woman then walked back around the corner into the great room where others were gathered. I immediately realized the truth of my encounter - that this woman was my anima who could fully enliven.

I went back into the great room - did not see her. I asked A.J. if he saw the woman who came through. He halfway chuckled and said, "Oh yes, She was here but saw the alligator and then took off." (as if she were frightened away). I thought, "Oh no!" I ran to look out the window. I found myself looking out a huge window overlooking a city, looking down on what appeared to be Grand Central Station with trains leaving out, other trains loading up and preparing to disembark. Suddenly I realized that this was a dream perfectly depicting the feelings of at once being touched by, inspired by the anima/muse, being seized by beauty, but then being unable to hold the moment; realizing that you have momentarily grasped the unattainable, and longing for that life and beauty once more as it slips beyond your grasp.

I turned to A.J. and said, "This is it! It's incredible. These are dream images communicating those creative feelings about my anima! I turned back to look out the window to watch the trains leaving. I wanted to savor the feeling that was a combination of longing/ regret/ hopefulness/ gladness/ gratitude/loss/sadness/ a fullness on the verge of tears. I continued to watch the trains leaving, knowing that she was on one of them. One train was being loaded with gorillas, several rows of them, on their way to a natural environment after being kept in a zoo. I said to myself, "They are all leaving," still savoring that feeling of loss/ sadness/ gratitude/ longing. Then I turned back to A.J, walked through the house - amazed that it was a dream but just as clear and vivid as life.

Later I found myself back home. A few friends were there. Vicki came in. I said, "Vicki, do you want to hear about my incredible dream?"
Vicki said, "No, I'm about talked out." She had been on the phone with a client. I said, "Okay. I've got to go write this one down." Thus ended the dream.

[Note: Some time after this dream was written down (and after the poem had been written) I was re-reading it and realized something else about the anima’s departure: A.J. said, “She saw the alligator and then took off.” It was not the alligator that she feared. What she feared was being domesticated like that alligator. Wildness was her natural state. Apparently creativity is connected with a wild spontaneity. Just as the apes were leaving the zoo to go to a natural setting, she was leaving a highly domesticated scene and going to that wild and natural state – at least that is how I interpret it.]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Human Reason Calms an Angry Deity

If you think outwitting a genie in yesterday's blog was impressive, how about talking down the Almighty Himself? This is another essay that was originally printed in an early edition of Oasis. It almost didn't make it to print, however. The one who was editor at the time feared it might be too controversial, but after some consultation with a colleague he decided to include it.

Friendship with God
(Or, What to Do When God Shows His Ass)

Note: In this essay, I will sometimes use the masculine pronoun when referring to God. My intention is neither to offend feminists nor to dismiss political correctness. I am intentionally trying not to "clean up" biblical stories, or to domesticate encounters with the divine. If it is any consolation, in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the divine is often at its best when described in feminine aspects, and often at its worst when adhering to conventional masculine attributes.

The Bible tells us that God spoke to Moses "as a man speaks to his friend." There is a story of one of those encounters that is quite troubling to those who envision God as all sweetness and light. The fact that it is troubling may be indicative that it is an "honest" portrayal, and one that may be helpful to anyone seeking the spiritual life. You can read it for yourself in Exodus 32 - 33. The story takes places shortly after Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt. He is up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments in stone, while the others are at the foot of the mountain, dancing around a golden calf.

God takes Moses into his confidence and lets off a lot of steam about how he has had it with these people. He tells Moses that he's a good mind just to obliterate everyone and start all over. "You want to see some Holy vengeful wrath, Moses? Well I can show it to you, and don't think I won't do it, either. I am God and I am ticked off. I am going to revoke my promise to those little ingrates. I'll just wipe 'em out, show 'em who's boss. Then I'll start all over with this people-of-God thing. You know that covenant I made with Abraham? Well I'll make the same deal with you right here and now. I'll make your descendants a great nation and we'll just forget about those little piss ants down there prancing around that false idol!"

Moses, however, took the high ground and talked God down, and he did it in a way that would make any Jewish lawyer proud. He was able to remind God of his nobler attributes and his more altruistic qualities. (Okay, he reminded God of his obligations, and he laid a little guilt on him. He told God to consider what other people would think. It's a really Jewish story). He was able to convince God not to do anything rash that he would surely regret later after he had cooled off. The Bible tells us that God then "repented of the evil" that he had so majestically calculated.

After that little discussion, you may remember that Moses went down from the mountain and things just got messy. Moses broke the stone tablets with God's commandments, there was shouting and killing and then the Lord sent a little touch of plague upon the disobedient among the Israelites. Afterward, Moses went back up the mountain to see if God had another copy of those commandments. Of course, it wasn't as simple as having a backup file. God told Moses, "You cut the stone this time, then I'll write the words, just like on those first tablets that you broke."

Once they got that second set of stone tablets, Moses wanted to actually see God. "Let me see your glory," he said. God conceded to the request with a slight provision. He told Moses that he couldn't look at him directly (the Lord who had repented earlier is back to speaking majestically again with, "No man can see me face to face and live"). If he would just tuck himself into a cleft of the mountain, then God would allow Moses to see him as he passed by. We are then told in the story how Moses was able to see God's backside. As the KJV puts it, "Thou shalt see my back parts." In other words, in the previous encounter, God "showed his ass." Then in the next encounter, God quite literally showed his ass. The whole thing is quite a rich psychological study. It is almost as if those early editors of the sacred scriptures wanted to make sure we got the message, in spite of all the exalted holy talk.

"God spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend." (Exodus 33:11). Indeed, a friend is someone who can see you at your worst, and still stick with you. It is that security of friendship that gives us the freedom to show ourselves at our worst and weakest, knowing that our friend will not desert us. A faithful friend can talk us down if need be, show us a clearer point of view without thinking less of us. That is a true gift of friendship. To be fair, God also saw Moses at his worst and stuck with him, so the gift of friendship goes both ways. The Hebrew Scriptures say something about divine encounter that Christians often miss. It is okay to yell at God. You can be angry with God, you can question God. If fact, all of the above are preferable to ignoring God. That is what friendship is all about.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Domesticating Religion & Taming the Divine

My last entry about Shaphat’s Field seemed to be a good argument for the domestication of religion. In other words, take the wildness out, make things palatable to our sensibilities. There are two sides to every coin, however, and I can argue both sides of the coin. Here is an essay that first appeared in The Oasis Newsletter which takes a slightly different view of our dance with the divine.

Genie, Jesus; Bottle, Book

“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
– Joseph Campbell

“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.”
– W. H. Auden

Myths and fairy tales are stories designed to carry weight. Often they illustrate core truths from the human experience, conveying an unmistakable impact. I can still recall the emotional impact – you might even call it a primal effect – that certain of those stories had upon me when I was a child. I remember hearing my mother read the story of Pandora’s Box, and feeling a sense of utter dismay when Pandora opened that box of troubles. It was a dismay similar to that felt when I heard the story of the Garden of Eden.

Another story that had a profound effect was from The Arabian Nights. It was the story of the fisherman who found an odd bottle in his fishing nets and upon opening the bottle released a powerful genie. You probably remember that in the story, the genie had been imprisoned in the bottle for hundreds of years. He was so angry that he vowed to kill whoever released him. I can remember the terror that I felt while reading that story when I was a boy. There was something about the tale that resonated with me as I saw in my mind the awesome genie who was about to obliterate the poor fisherman. It was such a relief when, by human cunning, he outwitted the genie, tricking him back into the bottle.

Somehow, that story strikes a chord with many people. Often in life one hears the phrase, “You know, once the genie is out of the bottle...” You have probably heard that expression used in many contexts – in business, in politics, in social gatherings, and in religion. It seems to carry a central truth that we know instinctively – keep the terror at bay, keep it out of the picture if possible so you can live a normal, tidy, comfortable life. One place that this attitude is seen most conspicuously is in the practice of religion. We seem to have a need to acknowledge an all-powerful God, but at the same time, we must set definite parameters for that God. We set theological boundaries that we forbid God to cross. We compartmentalize our faith and worship so that it does not spill over and interfere unnecessarily with our lives.

We keep God in a box. We contain the Almighty by our unique and complex human cunning. It seems that those who are more religious and more vocal in their faith are even more adept at keeping God in a box. Church leaders may say, “Our tradition does not recognize thus-and-so.” or, “That is not in keeping with our doctrine," or “Such-and-such is not valid in light of our revealed truth.” The most extreme entrapment of the Omnipotent is to so exalt the scripture that God is seen only in the Bible. We are entirely safe when God is confined to ancient history and within ancient words of a book. We can keep the book closed when we want to, or we can take from it the limited scripture verses that suit our purpose.

We like to feel that we have access to divine power, but we also like to feel that we are in control. Sometimes we may feel that God is too hemmed in – the box is too small. We may have the need to broaden the parameters that have been set for divine expression. We may also know that such a task is a dangerous one. How much space do we really want to give to the divine power? How much is too much before the genie is completely out of the bottle?

At other times, we may find that quite unexpectedly divine power is unleashed into our world, upsetting the tidy rooms and orderly spaces. There is another deep truth at work: we are not really in control. Nevertheless, we know that, like the fisherman in the Arabian Nights story, if we keep our wits about us, maybe we can handle it.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Who's Gonna Plow Shaphat's Field Now?

Here's another plowing story I had fun with after reading an Old Testament passage (1 Kings 19:16, 19-21).

Before we had Torah, the spirit of God ran wild upon the earth. It would drop down on someone and make them prophesy to the people, showing them the way, pointing to the light, etc. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it led to conflict, like when the spirit took hold of Elijah and he tried to shake the nation into righteousness. When King Ahab resisted, Elijah spoke a drought upon the earth, then called down fire from heaven. God’s power was made manifest, but that just led to more fighting and killing.

It was going to take more shaking than one man with the spirit of God could do, so one day Elijah headed out to the countryside to direct the wild spirit of God on another. He found Elisha out plowing his father’s field with 12 yoke of oxen. He must have been expecting lots of wheat that year. Then right there in the middle of the day, in the middle of the field, Elijah walked up to Elisha, son of Shaphat, and threw his cloak over the plowman. That was it – no more plowing for Elisha. He wanted to take care of things at home first, see to his mother and father. The old prophet said he could try that if he wanted but what was he going to do about that wild spirit that had just dropped on him? Elisha broke down his plow right then and there, killed his team of oxen, built a fire with his wooden farming tools, had a big community barbeque, and off he went to the city on the hill. The spirit of God was very dramatic in those days.

All of this was good for the nation of Israel, but poor Shaphat was left with a half-plowed field and a desperate need for some new farming equipment. After years of ups and downs, Israel settled down and built a temple so God could have a house and be less inclined to run wildly upon the earth. Nations and temples do not last, however, and things got wild again before the people finally set everything down in a book. Now we have Torah to guide us. We do not need so much drama, and everyone can tend his own field knowing that the spirit of God is alive and well, resting in the written word and enlivening the people whenever the scroll is opened.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three Voices You Need to Hear

It can be frustrating living with a progressive mindset in a state where Republicans and Tea Party activists seem to hold sway. It is even more frustrating when I realize that most of the Republicans in my state are former “Dixiecrat” sympathizers. I’d much rather be contending with the old genuine-article Republicans like we saw in Gerald Ford, Everett Dirkson, Howard Baker, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and, yes even Richard Nixon.

When I see so many of my hard-working peers consistently voting against their own self interest because all they want is “no taxes and less government,” and when I hear of the Tea Party movement in Oklahoma wanting to form their own militia to “protect them from the government,” my frustration level increases. Yet as frustrating as it can get, I can say that it is not dark yet. When I see one of those bumper stickers that proclaims “Another bright blue dot in a really red state” I know there is hope.

There are other reasons for me to be assured that it is not dark yet. This week I read three voices of hope that I want to share with you – two from right here in Alabama. The first is Philip Watts, whose letter to the editor in The Birmingham News appeared Tuesday. My state legislatue recently rejected a proposal that would remove state sales tax from groceries. Alabama’s tax structure places an inordinate burden on the poor and the working poor. Mr. Watts’ letter states very effectively how faith should be at work in the market place, and how a state full of church goers can’t seem to hear the words of Jesus. (To see Mr. Watts’ letter, click on the link, then scroll down to the second letter.)

The second voice is that of public school teacher, Lynne Wilbanks. Ms. Wilbanks’ editorial, “Why I Don’t Hate My Government,” appeared in the Sunday edition of The Birmingham News. She enumerates all the benefits she receives by paying taxes. These benefits include food safety, water and air quality, air travel safety, and a social safety net. Click here to read her article. It is a wonderful, sane voice.

Jim Burklo, in his blog, Musings, made an entry last week, “The Blessings of Taxes.” He, much like Ms. Wilbanks, celebrates his privilege as an American citizen to pay taxes and to receive such benefits in return. Take a quick visit to his blog and read his entry. When will more people understand that we have a great gift in our democracy, even when our particular candidate is not elected? When will we realize that it is patriotic to support our country by paying taxes? Admittedly, there must always be give and take and debate, but when will we recognize that to have a country that works, we must all work together?


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Memories of Springtime Past

Here is the telling of one of my early memories of a day when the secret of life opened up to a barely conscious lad.

An Early Time

It was early morning.
There was a mist in the air
And dew on the ground.
The clover aroma of spring
Mingled with the scent of moist earth.

It was early morning
As I stepped out the back door
With sleepy eyes.
I was three years old.

At the edge of the yard
I saw a grand white mule
Standing in the springtime mist –
The largest animal I had ever seen.
Beside the mule
Was a dark-skinned man in denim overalls.
My father stood there with them
His laughter rippled the morning air.

I went running across the yard,
Shoes collecting dew,
Lungs sampling the damp air.
I had to see the great white beast.
He stood tall
Shoulders brimming with power,
Head proudly facing the day,
Subdued grunts and clouds of breath
Spewing from his large nostrils.

It was early morning
As I hastily made my way ahead.
Before I could reach the mythic beast
I heard a shout from behind.
“Stop!” cried my mother.
“That mule might kick you.”

I stopped.
Then I slowly edged forward.
How close would they let me get?
If only I could touch
That white behemoth.

It was early morning
And the rhythmic chore began.
A cadence of sound emerged
From leather straps, metal rings,
Wooden handles, steel plow,
Heavy grunts, and slow steady hoof beats.
All moved together like a ship heading out of dock.
Cutting through the ground,
They left a red clay wake
As man and beast crossed the green clover field.

It was early morning
And an early time
When a three-year-old boy
Took more into his heart
Than he could realize.
He walked into a spring day
Humid with promise –
A powerful beast shrouded in mist,
The heavy earthy aromas,
A father laughing
And a mother warning of danger ahead.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Meet Me in that City


Urban Crows

Crows stayed hidden
When I was young
Growing up in the country.
I heard about crows
But I seldom saw them.
I heard about how intelligent they are
And about their raiding of corn fields.
Sometimes I heard their caw
But I seldom saw them.

In the summer
We had a vegetable garden,
But never crows.
Our corn was left intact
Except for the occasional worm.

As an adult
I moved to the city.
Living in an old suburb
On the edge of the business district
I now see crows every day.
They circle and gather
And call to one another.
I am amazed that they have come to town.

Those street-wise birds have seized the day.
They probably gather in oak trees at night
Telling stories of the old days
When their ancestors raided corn fields;
Telling their children of a time
When things were simple
And uncomplicated;
Telling of their old, lean,
Hard-bitten forebears
Who survived on maize
Never imagining
The abundance of urban road kill
And garbage pails
That line the easily navigated
And well protected streets of the city
Where shotguns
Never shatter the day.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Poetry of Baseball

Last week, I was thinking that I needed to veer away from poetry for a while in this blog. Then I was reminded from several different corners that April is “National Poetry Month.” I was also reminded by my sports enthusiast friends that the opening day of baseball season was coming up. It happened yesterday, the first crack of the bat, the President tossing out the first pitch, already an amazing play noted in that game with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

All of this reminded me of the first poem I committed to memory that was not a nursery rhyme. I was in the third grade, and the poem was “Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Thayer. It was spring, and all of my classmates were getting excited about baseball. My mother showed me the poem that was reprinted in The Saturday Review. I read the poem and was thrilled by the words and the drama that unfolded. I took that page from the magazine, folded it neatly to carry in my back pocket. For the next several days, I would read it whenever I got the chance. Somehow I got the notion that I could memorize it. I continued to work at it until I was able to recite the entire piece "by heart." Looking at the poem now, I am a bit amazed that that third grader took on such a challenge. If my teacher had made it an assignment, I’m sure I would have balked.

There were many other great memories generated by baseball. We could walk down to our small town ball park on warm summer nights to watch the teams play. We kids enjoyed the snow cones and the gatherings before we understood the game. Then there were the peanuts. There was a fellow in our home town who was at every outdoor event (which meant baseball or football) selling his own roasted peanuts. Everyone called him “Jam-up,” I suppose it was because he was a thin man, with a hunched back, but that was how he was known. Everyone liked Jam-up, and his peanuts were always perfectly roasted.

We call it our national pastime. The game has inspired such movies as Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, Bad News Bears, The Natural and Angels in the Outfield. The game is so full of fun that we are disturbed when things go awry. The country was shocked by the “Black Sox Scandal” in which eight major league members were barred from the game for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series game. The memorable line from that story, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” was reportedly uttered by a boy to “Shoeless" Joe Jackson, one of the eight team members indicted in that scandal, as he left the courtroom. I felt the same way the year that Sammy Sosa’s bat cracked, revealing a cork interior, and many have felt that way with the issue of performance enhancing drugs.

Maybe it is the memory of those small town little league games that is where the true essence of baseball lies. There we saw the magic of teamwork along with the impressive individual feats of skill. We learned about winning, losing, and those especially harrowing moments when we were “Oh so close.” Then we all went back to our homes, talked about it a little bit, maybe recounted it with friends the next day, and then it was on to something else.

I may get out to the ballpark more this year. These days, the television producers won’t let you actually see the game. Instead, we are given a montage of three-second close-ups of players throughout the game along with frequent head shots of the play-by-play announcers. You don’t get that broad panoramic view of the field, showing the delightful symmetry of the game. That is were the poetry of the game takes place.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Living in a New Light

Adam lay ibounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thoght he not too long.

– Anonymous (15th century ode)

The Easter vigil at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church was a night of symbol and ritual. The new fire was kindled outside, the Paschal Candle lit, and then came the procession into the darkened sanctuary. As I stood there in the darkness, there were only two sources of light available. There was the Paschal Candle at the front of the church. The second light came as a surprise. Halfway back, emanating from the darkness was an illumined apple with a bite taken out of it. It was the unmistakable Macintosh logo shining in the darkness (I later learned that a technician was digitally recording the choral music that night – the reason for the laptop in the sanctuary).

Of course the apple has been a deeply ingrained symbol since long before Macintosh acquired it. It has served as a symbol of the despair that followed disobedience in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It has also been a symbol that celebrates knowledge. How many times have we seen those happy back-to-school images that include a stack of books, smiling children, and that familiar apple for the teacher?

As I stood there in the darkness of the night, awaiting the coming of Easter, I thought about how that apple is the reason we are gathered here to remember the Paschal mystery, and to celebrate our redemption. The bishop spoke that night of how we all have dreams that die – things do not turn out the way we had hoped – and how we must let those dreams die in order to find new resurrected life. He described that life as a creative fire carrying us onward and beyond. As I stood there between the apple and the Paschal Candle, I felt that I knew about dreams that die, new life that arises, and fire that carries us forward.

The anonymous medieval poet certainly knew the drama and hope of redemption. A traditional interpretation of the poem quoted above is that Adam, as a result of the apple, was trapped in Limbo for 4,000 years until being liberated by Christ’s cosmic redemption that included the harrowing of Hell. It can also allude to humankind being in bondage to sin until the coming of Christ. To me, the power of that poem is in re-imagining bondage and hope. Consider that before the apple in the garden, Adam was just as bound by Eden’s bliss. It was a bliss that included a lack of consciousness and a lack of struggle; where 4,000 years could pass as a long weekend. The poet has the wisdom to speak of that fortunate fall which brought us life as we know it, with all of its joys and sorrows. The ode that begins in bondage ends in thanksgiving:

Blessed be the time
That appil that take was.
Therefore we moun singen
‘Deo gracias.’

Like the anonymous poet, whose identity I wish we knew but whose anonymity makes him or her truly one of us, I stood there in the darkness of the Easter vigil celebrating two lights. The apple’s light of consciousness and struggle, and the Paschal light of hope and redemption. “Therefore we may sing, ‘Thanks be to God.’”

(This is a reflection on a past Easter experience and was first published in SPAFER's The Oasis Newsletter)


Friday, April 2, 2010

Striking a Chord

Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, says that every poem is about death and gratitude. April is National Poetry Month and today is Good Friday. So today, I will use poetry to illustrate how Good Friday strikes a cord within humanity. During this Lenten season, I spent some time following the Stations of the Cross at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church each Friday. On one occasion we used a modern set of meditations which at times brought into focus the suffering that occurs in humanity; suffering that brings to mind the passion of Christ.

Today I am offering one of my poems, “An Ancient Harp,” and lyrics form two of Bob Dylan’s songs, “Not Dark Yet,” (for which this blog is named), and “Shelter from the Storm.” Not Dark Yet has some “Why have you forsaken me?” moments: “my sense of humanity has gone down the drain,” “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” “Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer.” Note in Shelter from the Storm some specific Good Friday references such as “my crown of thorns,” and “they gambled for my clothes.”

An Ancient Harp
by Charles Kinnaird

When have I ever been far from pain?
Its shadow varies with humanity’s seasons.
And when have I ever been far from the rain
That sweetens the forest breeze?

A gunman appeared, that pursuing one,
His weapon cold and quick.
His bullet traced a familiar pain,
Making my old wound visible.

You have seen the gunman
Stepping briefly from the woods.
When you refused to give him credence
I felt the pain.

A mountain gorge speaks to the heart.
A beautiful cleft in violence torn.
And in my solitary pain I think
That I am not alone.

A madman runs down city streets
to bring redemption to our insanity.
A saint gives flesh to a common hope
to bring redemption to our personhood.
A poet weeps upon an ancient harp
to bring redemption to our pain.

Not Dark Yet
by Bob Dylan (From Time Out of Mind, 1997)

Shadows are fallin' and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is runnin' away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, I've been to London and I been to gay Paris
I've followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down on the bottom of the world full of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Shelter from the Storm
by Bob Dylan (From Blood on the Tracks, 1975)

'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I'll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.
Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an' blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin' there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

Now the bounds are broken and they can't be retired
A one more journey to the woods, the hole were spirit tired
It's a never ending battle, for a peace that's always torn
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it's doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

I've heard newborn babies wailin' like a mournin' dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love.
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

Now there's a wall between us, somethin' there's been lost
I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed.
Just to think that it all began on a long-forgotten morn.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an' they gave me a lethal dose.
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'

Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Thursday

Today I am taking a page from my past writing. The following meditation was written 17 years ago after a Maundy Thursday service:

As I walked up the street toward All Saints Church, I saw the purple banner draped across the doorway. There was a flash of recognition, an acknowledgment, even a welcoming of the pain of brokenness. I realized that as I have grown older and experienced life more fully, I have a greater identification with Christ’s passion. I thought of how my three year old daughter experiences life, and I flashed back to my own awareness at that age, comparing it with other stages of my life. At the earliest stages, I knew happiness and sadness. Later I came to know greater disappointment and sorrow. I also came to know greater joy.

Tonight there is an immediate recognition of the pain of brokenness. There is an acceptance that this is a part of life. There is also a satisfaction and a hope, supported by experience, that new life -- resurrection -- will follow. In the church calendar there is a built-in cycle of life, suffering, pain, brokenness, sorrow, death, resurrection, celebration, joy, life.

My own experience confirms that we must pass through these stages. They come just as surely in real life as they are reflected in the church year. Would I have it any other way? Certainly not! The joy and completeness that I have known as I have grown older more than match the sorrow and brokenness that I’ve known. I welcome life as a whole. That is why I greet the penitent banner and the brokenness of the season with satisfaction. The church calendar and my own memories tell me that resurrection will follow.

Just as Christ entered into the brokenness and rebirth cycle of my own world, I am baptized into the passion and resurrection of his. It is only with time and experience that I slowly come to realize this and readily accept it.


Postscript: While we all experience pain and brokenness, the following work by William Blake can serve to remind us not to inflict unnecessary pain and brokenness upon the innocent. These words from over 200 years ago are especially poignant in light today's church scandals.

Holy Thursday by William Blake

Holy Thursday (Songs of Innocence)

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green,
Grey-headed beadles walk'd before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames' waters flow.
O what a multitude they seem'd, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.


Holy Thursday (Songs of Experience)

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song!
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor,
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill'd with thorns
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.


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