Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Advent

by Thomas Merton

Charm with your stainlessness these winter
Skies, and be perfect! Fly vivider in the fiery dark,
  you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed
   by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over
   all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets' stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent, Insanity, and William Blake

The Ancient of Days, William Blake

It's my birthday and also the birthday of William Blake, English mystic, poet, and artist born in 1757 whose works were once ignored and now considered genius. During his lifetime, he was considered insane because he challenged the prevailing cultural institutions and wrote and painted with abandon. Well, that, and he also had "visions" and conversations with people who weren't there. Minor point.

It feels appropriate to read Blake during Advent since it is, if anything at all, a season of paradox, even absurdity. We look for Christ's return and celebrate it, singing "rejoice, rejoice" knowing that on December 25, we will still be bound by earthly existence and its accompanying suffering, death, and decay. All perfectly logical, right? We believe that a baby was God incarnate, born of a Virgin, crucified and resurrected from the dead. Nothing insane there. We say we are ransomed, but we have not been released. Advent rationality includes light in the.darkness, faith within fear, power within vulnerability, already here and still to come, valleys raised, mountains made low, crooked places straight. Blake, even with his visions, is no weirder than these things. He believed that to understand who we are, we have to live in the tension between "complementary opposites." His Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are flip-sides, even to the point of his writing and illustrating them on the opposite sides of one sheet of paper.
Joy and Woe    
~William Blake 
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go. 
Sounds sane to me, but what do I know?

Did Blake have visions or were they hallucinations? And what is artistic vision, anyway? Are these lines impossible, or are they truer than what our five senses know? Are these lines the secret to walking on water? Because, we believe that happened, right?
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  William Blake

Like all good Romantic poets, Blake valued the imaginative over the rational, but Blake's imagination was all-encompassing. Everything had symbolic or metaphoric significance. His goal was "raising other men into a perception of the infinite," and he wielded his cryptic, fiery pen like a wizard's wand to bring the infinite into view.

I'm trying again to write some poetry of my own, and finding that my logical mind is my biggest hindrance. I end up writing explanations and arguments, not poetry. But, Advent is a visionary season, and it begs for wild, keening siren songs that pull us into the night to look for the angel host descending rank on rank. Do we have ears to hear them? Do we have eyes to see this?

Descent of Peace, William Blake

Ponder nothing earthly minded...

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Begins

Ready for Silence

Madeleine L'Engle

Then hear now the silence
He comes in the silence
in silence he enters
the womb of the bearer
in silence he goes to
the realm of the shadows
redeeming and shriving
in silence he moves from
the grave cloths, the dark tomb
in silence he rises
ascends to the glory
leaving his promise
leaving his comfort
leaving his silence

So, come now, Lord Jesus
Come in your silence
breaking our noising
laughter of panic
breaking this earth's time
breaking us breaking us
quickly Lord Jesus
make no long tarrying

Photo by Michal G

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Words On Wednesday: Thanksgiving


Related Poem Content Details

Thanks for the Italian chestnuts—with their 
tough shells—the smooth chocolaty 
skin of them—thanks for the boiling water—

itself a miracle and a mystery— 
thanks for the seasoned sauce pan 
and the old wooden spoon—and all

the neglected instruments in the drawer— 
the garlic crusher—the bent paring knife— 
the apple slicer that creates six

perfect wedges out of the crisp Haralson— 
thanks for the humming radio—thanks 
for the program on the radio

about the guy who was a cross-dresser— 
but his wife forgave him—and he 
ended up almost dying from leukemia—

(and you could tell his wife loved him 
entirely—it was in her deliberate voice)— 
thanks for the brined turkey—

the size of a big baby—thanks— 
for the departed head of the turkey— 
the present neck—the giblets

(whatever they are)—wrapped up as 
small gifts inside the cavern of the ribs— 
thanks—thanks—thanks—for the candles

lit on the table—the dried twigs— 
the autumn leaves in the blue Chinese vase—
thanks—for the faces—our faces—in this low light.

Photo by Dmitry Marochko

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Words on Wednesday: "By The Rivers Dark"

I like this poem by Leonard Cohen, even if I don't really care for the recorded song. He passed away recently, and the world will be darker without his words. A young boy emailed him to ask what had inspired him to write his most famous song, "Hallelujah." His answer;  “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case — it was given to me. For which I am deeply grateful.”

It's timely that Cohen's songs are in the forefront of the public consciousness right now. Cohen recognizes darkness in the world and voices lament without giving in to despair. There's a gritty, raw honesty in his writing that we need. There's also faith, and at a time when many in our culture are turned off by Christianity, Cohen's Jewish faith is at least keeping God in the conversation. The song is based on Psalm 137. Cohen's faith language is always wrapped in humility, and that contributes to the appeal and challenges the caricatured depiction of faith so prevalent in secular culture.

"By The Rivers Dark" is inspired by Psalm 137. Titus Techura has written a good analysis of the poetry. He calls it "a song about trying to live with the darkness in the world that reveals the darkness in the soul that longs for God."

By The Rivers Dark

By Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

By the rivers dark
I wandered on.
I lived my life
in Babylon.

And I did forget
My holy song:
And I had no strength
In Babylon.

By the rivers dark
Where I could not see
Who was waiting there
Who was hunting me.

And he cut my lip
And he cut my heart.
So I could not drink
From the river dark.

And he covered me,
And I saw within,
My lawless heart
And my wedding ring,

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark
I panicked on.
I belonged at last
to Babylon.

Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, ‘This heart:
It is not yours.’

And he gave the wind
My wedding ring;
And he circled us
With everything.

By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life
In Babylon.

Though I take my song
From a withered limb,
Both song and tree,
They sing for him.

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon.

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark,
Where it all goes on;
By the rivers dark
In Babylon.

Photo by Teddy Kelley

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Comforting Angels

"Why do you think she's so sad?" Our sweet youth choir singer wanted me to take a picture of her giving the sad angel a hug. She was the one I wanted to hug. She restored my faith in goodness on a day when division was in the air. Our public schools were closed on election day to serve as polls, so we took our church's youth choir on a field trip. Augusta, Ga's Sacred Heart Cultural Center was once a Catholic church but is now used for concerts, art exhibits, and receptions. After learning the history of the building, we studied the statuary and the stained glass windows.

Our own church is a modern building. For the kids, this church's architecture - Victorian Romanesque with a hint of Byzantine - was impressive and foreign. Ahead of our trip, I had privately wondered how interested they would be, and I had thought our director wise to call it a mystery trip. I'm not sure they would have signed up to come if they had known where we were going. They may have only been using good manners when they listened to our tour guide tell the history of the building, but I was heartened to see their imaginations captured by the beautiful windows with their rich colors and symbolism. And the angel.

We usually think of angels as deliverers of messages or comforters themselves. We don't think of offering them empathy or compassion. But we should. Hebrews 13:1-2 says "Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

Strangers are those folks who are not like us, the people we don't identify with. Maybe they are immigrants or refugees. In that hard-to-accept passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus talks about dividing the sheep from the goats who will be sent to eternal punishment, the criteria He uses has to do with hospitality and empathy. To the goats, He said, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison, and you did not visit me." To the sheep, Jesus says that if we have done these things for others, we have done it for Him. Forget the irony of comforting an angel - we are comforting Christ.

These verses are hard for me. It's easy to be fearful of strangers. Maybe I'll be taken advantage of or hurt. Maybe. But, I can't get away from that scripture. God commands hospitality, and He does it with one of the Bible's most explicit references to eternal punishment. I think He meant it.

Last Sunday morning, on my facebook page, I saw a post from my friend Anne that broke my heart. Her husband is the rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Silver Springs, MD. They woke up to find "Trump Nation Whites Only" spray painted on their church sign and on the wall of their memorial garden which also serves as a cemetery. Their congregation is made up of over 80% immigrants. Anne and I lived across the hall from each other in college. She was Presbyterian at the time, and I was Baptist. I remember long, respectful conversations late into the night about the differences in our churches. Now, she's episcopal and politically independent, and I am a methodist republican (metho-angli-cumenical and lately-leaning-independent are probably more accurate) even though I couldn't bring myself to vote for Trump. We've stayed in touch on facebook, and engaged in more respectful conversations about our differences over the years. I love her, and by extension, I love her husband and their congregation. This hurts.

Trump supporters have suggested that the vandalism might have been done by Clinton protesters trying to make the Trump crowd look bad. Nobody can rule that out, although I adhere to the idea that if it looks and quacks like a duck, it's more likely to be a duck than a rat in disguise. White supremacy is actually a thing in our culture; it was not something made up by democrats during this election cycle. Dylan Roof was not a Clinton plant or a media conspiracy. I'm not suggesting by sharing this story that all Trump supporters are racist. But for goodness sake, folks - what is wrong with our world when two political sides stand over a wounded victim and instead of empathizing with the victim, we point at each other saying, "Not me! He did it!" The strangers in our midst are bleeding while we argue about who to blame. Why is the angel so sad? This is why.

On the other side, we have seen anti-Trump protesters do abhorrent things as well. In one of many protests, a pregnant woman experiencing an emergency was attacked by protesters as she tried to get through the crowd to get medical care. One of my former piano students was threatened by a man asking if she had voted for Trump and brandishing a handgun. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. The only thing I know to do is to pray and continue to beg our citizens to be instruments of peace. 

The story of my friends' church ended up being inspirational. Dozens of  news agencies picked up the story, and the result was an outpouring of support from their own community and beyond, including members of a local synagogue who came to worship and comfort. It reminds me of a famous quote of Leonard Cohen. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." The world may be broken, but the light shone through the cracks in Maryland this week.

There are angels. They worship. They bring messages. They sometimes show up disguised as those we should be helping. And if they rejoice, surely they must sometimes cry. 

This hymn is ringing in my ears today.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Words on Wednesday

All Saints Day 
by Warren Leamon

A solitary tree atop a mountain rises
straight against a cloudless sky, and I remember
what the medieval painters would have seen:
a cross devoid of depth, flat from head to foot,
from nail to bloody nail, all lines of vision ending
in the innocent agony of a dying man.
We can’t say what they saw was mere distortion
(any serf knew well the depth of hill and sky);
nor can we say they saw no beauty in the world
(like us they loved lush color, reds and blues and yellows
split by smoke twisting up through icy air).
We can only say they knew too well the limits
of the flesh and caught on stark flat surfaces the truth
that haunts me now in the cold fields of November.

Leamon, W. "The Cold Fields of November." Sewanee Review, vol. 120 no. 1, 2012, pp. 30-33. Project MUSE,