Thursday, April 28, 2011

This Fragile Life

Alabama got hammered yesterday by tornadoes. More devastation than I have ever seen, many areas hit hard, many deaths reported. This morning I woke up thankful that our family and property are safe and sound, but realizing that our story could be entirely different had there been a slight change in the winds. It reminded me of a poem I wrote back in 1985 when I was contemplating a much smaller scale event.

Life May Be as Fragile as It Seems

Two rescue attempts in the evening;
   Two deaths in the morning.
Life may be as fragile as it seems.

A tree survives when tended;
   Flourishes when left alone.
Life is silently adamant;
   Submissively reigning.
Hope may be as near as it seems.

A light goes out;
   The fire remains.
A door shuts tight;
   A window invites.
Freedom may be as enduring as it seems.

God hides his face
   And his image becomes clear;
He is manifest
   And the knowing are blinded.
Sight may be as inward as it seems.

Justice is slow;
   Pain is frequent.
Who does not welcome mercy?
Love may be as needed as it seems
If life is as fragile as it seems.


Monday, April 25, 2011

The Distraught Man

The kingdom of God is like a man who became distraught when he could not find his USB thumb drive. “Every time I am finished with the thumb drive, I always place it in the left hand corner of the top drawer of the cabinet beside the computer,” the man said, “but now when I need it, it is not to be found!”

The man then searched through the drawer. When he could not find the thumb drive, he emptied the drawer completely. He found many things that were no longer needed, but the thumb drive was not there.

“What am I to do?” the man asked with increasing alarm. For the thumb drive had 8 gigabytes of memory, therefore all manner of important information was contained therein. There were photos of family and many pictures taken in various places. Other files held great numbers of music recordings stored for future listening. There were also files upon files of essays and writings; there were works in progress, and there was important information for projects at work.

The man then began to straighten up everything around the desk, which was not in his nature, in order to see if the thumb drive had been inadvertently set to one side on the computer desk. When that yielded no results (except to provide a very clean orderly desk top, which was not in the man’s nature) the man then pulled out the computer desk and searched on the floor and along the wall behind the desk. Next he went to the cabinet and searched throughout, to no avail.

“What if the thumb drive inadvertently dropped from its usual place in the top drawer into the waste basket?" The man was somewhat relieved that the garbage truck had not run last Friday because it was Good Friday, so he went out to the garbage pails and sorted through the refuse contained therein, still to no avail.

“Perhaps, I was negligent the last time I used the thumb drive – I might have put it in my pocket instead.” Heartened by the possibility, the man then went through all the pockets of his pants, those in the dirty laundry and also those yet hanging in the closet. Yea he searched even through shirt pockets and jackets that he had not worn in months, but what could he do except search, for so much was contained within that thumb drive.

When his wife came home, he said, “Lo, but I am distraught!” and he recounted his day to her. Every suggestion she had had already been tried by the man. Then she said, “We will ask our daughter when she comes home from school if she has seen it.”

When his daughter arrived, the man asked her if she had seen his thumb drive. “Oh yes,” she said, “I borrowed it to do some work for school. Here it is on the end table.”

Then great was the man’s rejoicing, for so much that he had invested in that USB was now in his hands again! He was exceedingly glad and relieved, and he also had a new appreciation for that lady in the Bible who lost her coin.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Truth As We Know It vs. Truth As We Shall See It

I heard Emily Dickinson quoted last night in a homily for the first Mass of Easter. The bishop who was officiating revealed that he had been an English major in college. I must confess my ears perked up since I, too, am part of that society of English majors that Garrison Keillor often speaks of on A Prairie Home CompanionOf course, Emily Dickinson makes my ears perk up as well. Here is the poem:

     Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant (# 1129)
              By Emily Dickinson

     Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
     Success in Circuit lies
     Too bright for our infirm Delight
     The Truth's superb surprise

     As Lightning to the Children eased
     With explanation kind
     The Truth must dazzle gradually
     Or every man be blind --

May we continue along those slopes of truth and may our eyes ever adjust to that light revealed.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Inequities and Disparities in Healthcare

Earlier this month I went back to my alma mater to attend a conference on healthcare at Samford University. It was presented by the HEAL Institute (Healthcare, Ethics, & Law) and the conference topic was “Eliminating Health-care Delivery Disparities: An Ethical Quagmire?”

The HEAL Institute was organized as an educational and interdisciplinary effort for addressing ethical issues in decision making and delivery of patient care. Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. Surgeon General , was among the presenters at this year’s conference.

Just and Unjust Disparities

Robert Veatch began the conference with “Healthcare Disparities: Just and Unjust.” He gave a striking example of unjust disparity: a young boy on Medicaid who eventually died from complications due to an abscessed tooth because of inadequate access to the healthcare system. If the system had been more equitable, he could have had the tooth treated at a cost Medicaid of $80. As it was, his Medicaid cost was $250,000 and the result was death. The tragedy was that there was a needless death and unnecessarily high costs due to the fact that the system did not allow for equal access to healthcare. To Veatch, universal access to healthcare is a right that should belong to all citizens.

Examples of justified disparities:

  • Rationing of healthcare is logical - we have limited resources and must prioritize how those resources are used.
  • People are voluntarily less healthy than they might be. “The goal of maximizing health conflicts with the goal of maximizing well-being.” (Think about what you had for breakfast today, or your choices to exercise or not to exercise).

Smoking is an example that leads to a disparity in healthcare costs and it is a monitorable disparity. Obesity and elevated cholesterol, on the other hand are non-monitorable disparities. If a behavior is monitorable and there is a linear cause-effect on health, there should be a health fee, according to Veatch,  to offset costs rather than to have insurance cover all justifiable disparities.

Dr. Veatch is professor of medical ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a professor in the Philosophy Department at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Patient Heal thyself: How the “New” Medicine puts the Patient in Charge.

New Horizons in Healthcare

Gregory Pence, Professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) gave an interesting presentation “From Stem Cells to Cloning: Where Are We Now?” Dr. Pence offered some fascinating benchmarks from the field of genetics and stem cell research:
  • Japan's Shinya Yamanaka won the Kyoto prize for figuring out how to make any cell into a pluripotent stem cell.
  • Tim Townes, a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, created sickle cell anemia in a mouse and cured it, offering hope for a genetic cue for sickle cell anemia.
  • At Atlanta’s Shepherd Center a partially paralyzed Alabama nursing student recently became the first to be infused with a drug made from human embryonic stem cells.

Pence also mentioned that James Wilson cautions stem cell research. His own work resulted in death when he was driven to be first in his field of research.

Panel Discussion about Healthcare for Undocumented Immigrant Workers

Denyse Thornley-Brown, associate professor of internal medicine at UAB and medical director of Davita Birmingham North Dialysis Unit, presented a case of a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant who was diagnosed with end stage renal disease (ESRD). The young man had moved to Alabama at age 13. Treatments for ESRD are either dialysis or kidney transplant.

Dr. Thornley-Brown gave statistics of Alabama’s changing demographics with the growth of the Hispanic population. She also mentioned that the Alabama state legislature has recently passed a reactionary Arizona-styled immigration bill.

Other facts to consider in the case:
  • Medicaid is a federally funded and state run program for the poor. 
  • Ten states provide Medicaid coverage for undocumented immigrants, Alabama does not.
  • Most dialysis clinics in the state are for profit enterprises.
Her questions for the panel discussion were: Should the patient be treated? And if so, who should pay?

The panel discussion addressed, or in some cases simply raised questions about needed course of action:
  • Why start treatment when the patient will be unable to follow up with outpatient treatment?
  • The U.S. needs a more liberal immigration policy to allow for legal residency.
  • What are the ethical obligations of the doctors?
  • What are the ethical obligations of the hospital?
  • Should life-saving treatment be done by for-profit companies?
In her follow up to the discussion, Dr. Thornly-Brown told the audience what actually happened in the young man’s treatment. He has not been able to get a kidney transplant. He has had at least 29 ER visits, most of which resulted in emergency dialysis.

She also told of three other cases involving undocumented immigrants needing similar treatment, two moved to states providing emergency Medicaid services and one returned to Latin America where he died due to lack of funds for dialysis.

Racial Disparities

In the afternoon, Dr. David Satcher gave his presentation titled, “The Health Impact of Resolving Racial Disparities: An Analysis of Mortality Data.” Satcher is, of course, former U.S. Surgeon General. He is also past director of the Centers for Disease Control, and current director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute. In addition, Dr. Satcher holds the Pouissaint-Satcher-Cosby Chair in Mental Health at Moorehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.

Satcher enumerated various racial disparities are found in cardiac health, infant mortality, cancer mortality, obesity and diabetes. He mentioned that African Americans do not have a higher incidence of breast cancer, but they do have a higher rate of death from breast cancer. If racial disparities in healthcare were eliminated, in the year 2000, for example, there would have been 83,500 fewer deaths among African Americans.

Satcher warned that our current healthcare system is not sustainable. We must reform healthcare in order to move forward. He pointed out that the U.S. is ranked number 1 in healthcare expenditures yet we are number 42 in health outcomes.

Dr. Satcher talked some about his leaving the family farm in Anniston, Alabama to go to Moorehouse College in Atlanta which was his launching into a medical career. He spoke warmly of his indebtedness to the leadership and guidance of Benjamin Mayes, the president of Moorehouse College. He closed his address with a quote from Dr. Mayes:

“It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for.”

Much of the information Dr. Satcher gave a PowerPoint presentation is also included in one he presented in Atlanta which can be seen online here.

End of Life Issues

A final case study presented by HEAL Institute director, Dr. Bruce White, illustrated the sometimes complex means for a healthcare facility to implement substituted judgment in the absence of advance directives. End of life care is certainly an area that summons the need for ethical and compassionate practice. The case study presented highlighted for many of us the need to have an advance directive in place.

This was my third time to enjoy the HEAL conference. In addition to great presentations, there is the opportunity to connect with other healthcare professionals. I attended as a hospital cardiac nurse. During the course of the day, I was able to talk with a physician who is in the field of public health, some hospital chaplains, a university professor, a social worker, and other nurses from different hospitals in the city. It is always good to have the time to reflect on the ethical issues we face in the course of our workday and to hear the perspectives of colleagues from other disciplines.

Monday, April 18, 2011

More on Dylan’s China Tour

With the questions raised about Bob Dylan’s China Tour (see my post on April 13), the effect on me has been that I’ve been thinking more and more about his music. Thinking about his music reminded me that there are still some of my old vinyl record favorites that I have not replaced with CDs. Specifically I had in mind Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. I was running some errands on Friday and decided that I would pay a visit to my favorite record shop, Charlemagne Records on Birmingham’s Southside. As I was driving through town, the radio issued a severe weather alert. I knew that a hard rain was gonna fall so I wanted to go finish my errands quickly. I was lucky to find a parking spot right outside the store, and was soon heading up the stairs to the quaint record shop on the top floor.

Charlemagne’s has long been the go to spot for any type of music recording you are interested in. There are selections of new and used CDs as well as bins of used vinyl records for those still interested in analog recording. I always gravitate to the used CD section because I love spending less if at all possible. As I thumbed my way through the alphabetized arrangement of popular music, there I found them: Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks – the very one’s I was searching for – both in mint condition! It must have been Providence. Afterwards I went to the Folk Music section. There I saw a CD of Carl Sandberg singing some of his favorite American folk songs, and also one of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, the Bulgarian women’s chorus. I was interested, but those would have to be for another day. Today would be a day for Dylan and Dylan alone.

I made my way to the check out register with my double find. Marian, the owner of the shop complimented me on my selections and rang up the total as a heavy rain mixed with hailstones began to fall. Heading back outside to rain and heavy clouds in the sky, it was not dark yet, for I would soon be listening to a young Bob Dylan singing "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," “Visions of Johanna,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again."  In a couple of days, I would be listening to "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate" when I moved on to Blood on the Tracks.

The point is, I was spurred to revisit the works of the artist after having read and responded to Maureen Dowd’s New York Times article. Since then, I have found others online who have added their two cents to the discussion of Bob Dylan’s tour in China. I'm glad to see that others agree that Dylan has a body of work that will long be remembered in spite of some government attempts to censor (or some journalist's attempts to discredit), and that even what he was allowed to perform in China can speak to oppressive situations.

Here are some of the online articles I found which you may be interested in for further reading:

"Dylan, Dowd, and China: Did Bob Really Sell Out?," by James Fallows in The Atlantic

Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise carried a column about “Dylan in China”

Ulyssestone, a blogger writing from China has a blog entry, “OT: Bob Dylan's China Tour”

In The New Yorker Ian Crouch posted “Literary Smackdown: Bob Dylan in China” 

“In Defense of Bob Dylan,” a blog post by Joe Kloc in Mother Jones

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Can We Learn from the Passover Seder?

Seder Plate (photo by Robert Couse-Baker)

My family and I attended a Christian Seder tonight at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. The Seder is one of those events that we have come to find very meaningful. The first Seder we attended was about fifteen years ago at the Birmingham Unitarian Church. Over the years more and more Christian churches are incorporating the practice as a means of acknowledging that they grew out of the Jewish heritage. It is also a way for Christians to learn more about what Jesus and his disciples did at the Last Supper (which was probably a Passover observance), when Jesus is traditionally said to have instituted the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist (The Lord's Supper).   

Some of our Jewish brothers and sisters have taken issue with the way some churches have tried to incorporate the solemn remembrance of their ancestors being led out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. I can certainly see how they would feel that way, but I can also state that for me the experience has been enriching, however imperfectly we Christians may have attempted to observe the Seder.

One of the most rewarding things for me to learn is the the wonderful Jewish concept of dayenu ("it would have been enough") which is declared at every Passover supper. It affirms that any blessing that God has given would have been enough, even if others had not followed. I often consider this concept to remind me of the wonders and blessings I have already received.  Here is an excerpt from the Seder service which affirms dayenu:

If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them, 
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had destroyed their idols, and had not smitten their first-born,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had smitten their first-born, and had not given us their wealth,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had given us their wealth, and had not split the sea for us,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had split the sea for us, and had not taken us through it on dry land,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had taken us through the sea on dry land, and had not drowned our oppressors in it,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had drowned our oppressors in it, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and had not fed us the manna,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had fed us the manna, and had not given us the Shabbat,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had given us the Shabbat, and had not brought us before Mount Sinai,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had given us the Torah, and had not brought us into the land of Israel,
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!
If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and had not built for us the Beit Habechirah (Chosen House; the Beit Hamikdash),
     Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

Growing up as a Baptist, we often sang the gospel song, “Count Your Blessings (see what God has done).” The gravitas and rich heritage of the Jewish Passover Seder, however, brought home that truth in an even stronger way. You cannot go through that service without realizing that there have been times of bitterness and oppression, and that there is hardship, suffering and struggle in this life. In the midst of all of that, we still have cause to be grateful for the blessings we have received.

[Note: Thanks to the clarification in the comment from Bradley Farless, in stead of describing Jesus' Last Supper as  "Passover seder meal" I have changed the phrase to "Passover observance."]


Friday, April 15, 2011

Here’s a Thought for Poetry Month

The poet often taps into what Jung called our collective unconscious, giving voice to our humanity and meaning to our struggles.  A good poem, therefore, tells us something we already know. When we read it or hear it we say, “Ah, yes.” An exceptional poem tells us something we are on the verge of knowing. When we read it or hear it, we say, “Oh my!”
                                                                            Charles Kinnaird


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dylan in China

In The New York Times this week Maureen Dowd accuses Bob Dylan of selling out in order to tour in China by letting the government pre-approve his play list. “The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout,” the columnist laments.
Since I have a blog which is named for one of Bob Dylan’s songs, I feel a certain obligation to respond.
The thing about Dylan is that he is a poet who has routinely and consistently upset his fans. When he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, he upset his folk music fans (these were the ones who wanted him to keep writing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the rest of his life). Then he upset his rock fans during his Nashville Skyline phase (Dylan made rare use of a clear singing voice as he went country for a brief time). His “Jesus years” upset many more of his fans. There was outrage from the cadres of the music industry as Dylan gained a whole new set of fans on the evangelical Christian circuit. Then when he returned to some of his folk/rock roots (and even his Jewish roots) he upset his newfound Christian fans who wanted him to stay in some narrow mold of their own.

Words That Span a Lifetime
Dylan has written so much, that just about anyone can find something he said that can highlight whatever point they want to make (he’s kind of like Augustine in that regard – all stripes end up quoting Augustine). In those early days, it was not just "Blowin' in the Wind." There was "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and "The Ballad of Emmet Till," which told stories of injustice in our time. Of course, "The Times They Are a-Changin'" spoke of sweeping social changes and it gave the young folk artist the status of a prophet. Then there was the 1966 double album, Blonde on Blonde which has been heralded as one of the best rock albums of all time. 

In my opinion, Infidels, Empire Burlesque, and O Mercy represent the height of Dylan’s creative work (I know others will disagree, but everyone has their favorite Dylan). Yet in Infidels he has songs that range from the energetic celebration of “Jokerman” and the beautifully reflective (and enigmatic) “Sweetheart Like You” to the hauntingly mythic “I and I” to the outright Zionistic and polemical “Neighborhood Bully.” I see Dylan as primarily a poet with a body of work which will not let you pin him down.

A National Treasure?
Now the artist is doing more blues, but his Modern Times recording demonstrated that he has become more of a national treasure than a voice for a generation. It is a nice recording, good music, but nothing profound. If he had done something like it in the 1970s people would have howled, “What is he doing?” Had he done it in the 1980s, they would have talked about how over-produced it was. But in 2006, Modern Times met to generally great reviews, some claiming  it to be some of his best work (Rolling Stone magazine named it Album of the Year) – that’s when I realized that Dylan had gone the full gamut from being the voice of a generation to national treasure.

Which Dylan Do You Want?
 All in all, it is no surprise that Ms. Dowd wants to see “her” Dylan on stage rather than some “other” Dylan.  Before you jump to conclusions about his selling out, look at what he is performing. I haven’t seen the full play list, but I heard that the songs performed in China include a couple from Slow Train (Dylan’s Christian testament): “Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin” has such lines as:
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
I’m gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
Stop bein’ influenced by fools.

         *  *  *
So much oppression
Can't keep track of it no more...
        *  *  *
… You remember only about the brass ring,
You forget all about the Golden Rule.

 And “Serve Somebody” is on the playlist as well:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

So my question is, Is Bob Dylan smiling behind his stage persona at those Chinese officials, considering what they approved for him to perform? How many innocuous Dylan songs are there, anyway? Is he being the trickster poet or is he being the prudent entrepreneur?

 The fact is, he is both a poet and a performer. I doubt that he will ever be pinned down by his fans.

Oh Jokerman, you know what he wants.
Oh Jokerman, you don't show any response.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Love Poetry? Why Does It Matter?

April is poetry month. I had forgotten that fact, but fortunately, I have already begun the month with some tributes to poets and poetry (maybe a subconscious awareness?). In The New York Times Sunday Book Review  David Kirby has written has a very interesting review of  Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, by David Orr. Kirby gives us a great examination of why those of us who love poetry are drawn to it.

Reading this review brought to mind  Dana Gioia’s book of essays, Can Poetry MatterGioia’s theme is that poetry has become the province of the academic elite and as a result, the mainstream of society has tragically lost ownership of an art which once belonged to the people.  If you are interested in poetry, I recommend checking out both of these resources.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On Death and Gratitude

Billy Collins said that every poem is about death and gratitude. Recently I had the privilege of attending a small discussion group examining the works of the English metaphysical poets. John Donne was discussed one night. While reading his famous poem, “Death Be Not Proud,” we discussed the way Donne addresses death. He personifies death and seems to use his traditional Anglican faith to show death to be an insignificant thing – “one short sleepe past, we wake eternally.”

As I looked at the poem, however, it struck me that Donne does not actually seem to be acknowledging his own mortality. He belittles death and says things that one would think appropriate and expected when affirming one’s religious faith. But does he really come to terms with the fact that he indeed will die? How does his recognition of death affect the way he lives his life?

As synchronicity would have it, on the same day we discussed Donne’s poem, one of my blogger friends posted the following poem by Mary Oliver. Perhaps it is due to the times in which each poem was written – Mary Oliver is a contemporary American poet, John Donne a 17th century English poet – but it seems to me that Oliver demonstrates a healthier recognition of death, and a more overt expression of gratitude. Read the two poems for yourself and see what you think. Feel free to disagree or offer a different opinion on the topic.

Death Be Not Proud
By John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.



When Death Comes
By Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.



Saturday, April 2, 2011

On Poetry, Prayer, and Gratitude

I mentioned in one of my past blog entries that my own experiences of mystery and wonder led me first to poetry then to theology, and later back to poetry. I think poetry is a more primary response. Theology, like philosophy and psychology are secondary responses in that they require categories, definitions, rules, and analyses. Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, says that every poem is about death and gratitude. The awareness of death heightens the beauty of the world as we see it. As one who attempts to write poetry, I heartily agree with that notion. Poetry conveys that sense of awareness and gratitude.

I consider poetry to be an open canon of scripture, one that is still being written every day, but that’s just me. You have your own canon of scripture, I’m sure. Maybe you are like John Muir who saw “the scripture of nature” and marveled in the presence of nature and its author. Perhaps music is your doorway to the divine.

I must also consider the great souls, such as Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, who made service to others their witness of God’s presence on the world. Jim Wallis (Sojourners, Washington, D.C.) and Birmingham’s own Jim Douglass (Mary’s Catholic Worker House, Ensley) are examples of people who bear witness to the divine by way of social activism. I believe the mystery of God is conveyed through words, beauty, and actions.

So how does prayer fit in? I was in an online blog discussion a while back in which the question was posed, “Is it okay to pray for material things?” That same week another blogger friend was writing about how he had been influenced by encounters with different faith expressions and wanted to know what others had experienced. Both of those discussions prompted me to take a look at my own attitude toward prayer and faith.

Certainly one’s concept of God will affect that person’s understanding of prayer. I am one who is enlivened by the contact with many faith expressions that we are seeing more and more as our society becomes more pluralistic. I grew up Baptist in a rural, provincial setting and that was enough for awhile. Later, I came to enjoy worship in the liturgical settings of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches. It was like learning a new language for worship. As with any new language, new insights arise in the learning. I have also benefitted in personal devotions by reading the works of Quakers (e.g. John Woolman, Rufus Jones, Elton Trueblood), Catholics (e.g. Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Basil Pennington) as well as Buddhist practitioners (e.g. Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

To me, gratitude is the most enriching kind of prayer. It immediately assumes a relationship with the divine and a trust even in uncertainty. Throughout my pilgrimage, my image of God has certainly changed, but I have never lost that sense of gratitude toward a loving ultimate force behind an ultimately friendly universe. This brings me back to Billy Collins’ statement about poetry: every poem is about death and gratitude. Every prayer, every poem, every offering of service we can make is undergirded by the awareness of our own mortality and by our gratitude for the wonder of existence.

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