Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Forty Years

Today is the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament (or “Ministry of the Word” as we called it then in the old PCUS). Rather than pride, I am mainly surprised I am still here.

I’ve been thinking lately about the church, aware that the church I serve is not the church I intended to serve, nor would have chosen to serve if I could have predicted the future. That’s just as well. That church belonged to the past. The jury is still out on the question of whether I belong in the future.

I have been inventorying my theological commitments of late, and fewer of them than I thought “bring me joy.” More than a few notions that used to be central confessional commitments now seem, at best, adiaphora, or at worst, irrelevant. I don’t care much who is saved or who isn’t, or if anybody is or isn’t. I don’t know (and don’t particularly care) whether Christ was two natures in one person, and certainly don’t understand the mechanics of such metaphysics. I don’t know whether God’s eye is on the sparrow, but I have the creeping sense he isn’t watching me. I don’t doubt the reality of God, but I also don’t trust that God is in any meaningful way “personal” (let alone that “Jesus is my personal savior”). Curiously, I am daily more convinced that John Leith was right when he taught us about the persistence of sin in the life of the redeemed. Or at least about the persistence of sin part.

I enjoy the struggle to answer disputed questions, more for the dispute than for the answers.

Poetry has given me language that could never be spoken on the floor of a presbytery in an ordination examination, though perhaps it should have been. It has made me want to say the unsayable. It continually surprises me to discover through it what I trust and what I don’t. It has also deepened in me the yearning to come to font and table, to approach the ineffable by way of the tactile reality of water, bread, and wine. It is the rock in the darkness, the first and final thing I “believe.”

I find myself preferring silence to the noise of public prayers (including my own), singing to speaking, and solitude to the company of assemblies. Reading Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens of a morning on the back porch, teacup on the table beside me, seems to me an act of worship. Working the Times crossword puzzle is a spiritual discipline.

I no longer care if I contradict myself.

Like Pilate, I wonder what is “Truth,” or if it should ever be capitalized.

That said, I am not quite yet ready for the glue factory. There are more questions to ask, more classes to teach, more sermons to preach (although I can’t imagine why anyone would want to listen), and more poems to write. There are students who still need something I have to offer (I think), and I still have energy to offer it. I am still enthralled by the possibilities of wonder and mystery.

And I am still here.

Food Groups

Tea and chocolate
make me wonder
if the world
is as safe a place
as it appears to be. 
 
Steak and eggs
prompt me to fear
that the circle
though it turns
is not unbroken. 
 
Wine and cheese
make me think
more highly
of myself
than I ought to think.
 
Whiskey and water
help me trust
that the day’s trouble
is sufficient
for the day.
 
Toast and coffee
persuade me that
the fires of nightmares
are extinguished 
by controlled burns.

The Theologians Awaken After the Storm

                        I

He awoke to the discovery
of holes in the roof above his bed.
Rain was dripping slowly, rhythmically
in great droplets on his head. 
 
All his life, through flush and thin
he had trusted in this shelter
against the storm. It had been
security and comfort. He felt it
 
like a blanket, wrapped around him.
Yet now there was no room for doubt:
the weeping gods had found him
and would force him out
 
of bed. Insistent tear!
He thought of turning on his side
but that would only fill his ear
with heaven's outrageous tide.
 
Get up and find the pitch and patch the hole
that threatens peace;
it might just be good for the soul
to soil the hands in grease…
 
…On the other hand, a moment to reflect
is always wise. 
Less work means less one must correct
or others criticize. 
 
Soon enough the rain will end
and then what use will be the patching tar?
Do the holes not finally portend 
a clear though narrowed focus on the stars?
 
Best to bide the time and see
what clouds the wind will blow away or keep.
Decided it was wise to let it be.
Pulled up the blanket and went back to sleep.
 
 
 
                        II

She woke in wonder.
Thunder, lightning, 
steady rain, a cataclysm in the night,
tore holes in the roof, peeled it back
like opening the doll house of her childhood
to rearrange the helpless little lives.
Gods make such cruel use of wind. 
 
Spent the night in a closet
safe enough, she prayed.
But in the vortex safety is an illusion; 
rather, trust in luck. And she was lucky.
The wind blows where it will, she remembered,
though having heard the sound approach, 
she thought she knew both whence and where.
 
Luck is a relative thing:
it offers and it snatches away
breath in exchange for breathing’s reasons,
heartbeat for habits of the heart.
Not much left of furnishings, assumptions;
find the clock in the neighbor’s yard,
the notebook come to rest just down the block.
 
Nothing left to do
but change her state of mind.
No time to mourn what wind has torn away.
She breathes, and gathers up the remnants
of her thoughts. Other storms
are forming on the far horizon.
She finds a pen, sits down, begins to write.

How Wide the World

The world stands out on either side/No wider than the heart is wide. 
—“Renascense” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
 
How wide the world?
“No wider than the heart is wide.”
 
Enough to gather in the storm
that tears not merely roof from hearth 
but soul from soul as well?
 
Enough to bind the wounded orb
bleeding from every pore
weeping in every chirp and howl?
 
Enough to reach between nailed palms
opened  out in love’s embrace,
‘til they circle ‘round the realm of pain.
 
How wide the heart?
As wide as all the world is wide. 

In the Morning Mist

John 21:1-19

In the morning mist, along the seashore
boats return from evening’s labors vain;
 “Cast your nets in waters yet uncharted;
trust in me with faith now unconstrained.”
Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.
Those he loves will his commandments keep.
 
Asks the one who breaks the bread at fireside,
“Simon, do you love me more than these?”
Asks the one now broken on the table:
Will you take your cross and follow me?
Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.
Love is your commission from his hands.
 
Learn his way, this watcher from the shoreline,
while the paschal fire still sheds its glow.
Other hands will soon lay hold upon you,
take you where you do not wish to go.
Do you love? Do you love?
Pray that love through all your pulses move.

Jesus’ Dream

Mark 11:12-24
Tuesday night.

He listened while they yammered about the fig tree,
the money changers and the animal sellers.
It was apocalyptic talk, they said: 
a fig tree cannot bear fruit out of season,
a temple cannot operate without 
tradition, and surely mountains do not fly 
into the sea.  He closed his eyes and yawned.
 
They argued on. He fell asleep and dreamed
a little dream. No heaven-rending vision;
just ordinary faces in the crowd: 
a child whose upstretched arms begged to be held,
a woman merely asking to be healed
a leper yearning only to be whole.
They did not ask so much. He saw each one
 
while dreaming of an ordinary world, 
the slow, patient turning of day to night,
the whisper of a breeze to lift the heat,
the juicy, sweetmeat taste of figs in season.
He listened to their ordinary prayers 
as though there was an altar in his heart
and he the priest. He smiled, and mountains flew.

The Wasp

Mark 11:12-14
Monday
 
On a normal day a fig tree is just a fig tree.
Middle Eastern Ficus carica
grows wild where winters aren’t so bone-deep cold 
and summers linger long and hot and dry.
Blastophaga psenes—the female fig wasp—
bearing pollen from a distant tree, 
crawls inside the seed pod, tearing off
her pollen-laden wings, the mortal price 
of fertility. She lays her eggs
and dies. The eggs birth larvae, male and female,
who dance time’s ancient dance there in the dark,
after which he dies, and she emerges
to pollinate another tree. Spring comes.
Without the sting there can be no sweetness.
 
This was, however, not a normal day.
That is, it was normal in every way—
the sun was climbing high above the hills,
the ancient sign of nascent summer nearing, 
the dream of wasp and pollen, seed and fig—
a normal day it was…until he came by. 
En route to other errands, he was hungry
but there were no figs. It was said 
he cursed the tree. But tell me: was he not
a wasp to pierce the seed pod’s tomb-like darkness, 
and spread his wings and die and leave behind
an altogether different sort of pollen 
that yields a sweeter sort of fig? Spring comes.
Without the sting there can be no sweetness.

The Room Where Nothing Happens

Nothing happens in this room.
That is why we come.
 
Pews have ceased to creak beneath their burden.
Elders summing up the worth of lives, 
exhausted careworn parents, antsy children—
all gone now. A gasp escapes an organ pipe.
Like a canyon breeze, it serves to warn
the pilgrim of a fast-approaching storm.
 
We walk in holy canyons before a rain,
before the drowning torrent washes clean
the remnants of unsanctified terrain.
 
This is the honest hour, when all pretense has flown.
Nothing knows and nothing is unknown. 
 
Holy words may yet be said, holy music sung,
holy food broken and poured in holy ware.
Nothing makes them holy, and makes us one.
 
Beyond the reach of prayers for grace, surpassing
justice neither blind nor balanced true,
solace trickles down in wordless blessing,
like drops from canyon walls after a deluge,
oblations to the god whom none can claim,
who obeys no law, and has no name. 
 
Nothing happens in this room.
That is why we come. 

Sixty-Five

I said, “I am old.” You said,
“Do not say that. You’re not old.”
 
You’re right. Age is, as they say,
just a number, and sixty-five
 
is the new forty-five.
I have no idea what that means. 
 
Here is what I mean: I mean 
to rid myself of pretenses I have shouldered
 
since my youth: that I have power
to change the world, or, for that matter, anyone.
 
I mean to leave behind the selves
I have worn like someone else’s clothes. 
 
I mean to grope my way into the shining darkness.
I mean to climb like Moses up the clouded mountain.
 
Somewhere in each day, there is an old man.
He smiles and puts a finger to his lips, 
 
reminding me that I should exhale wisely,
that breathing is a finite, numbered rhythm 
 
and climbing mountains takes a lot of breath. 
He’s right, of course, and so are you. 
 
Age is just a number. Like the number 
of times I have exhaled as I wrote this poem.

Just Call Me Grumpy

y

Transfiguration Sunday afternoon

            I have been asking myself all afternoon why I feel such disgruntlement with worship. 

            After all, the sermon was literate and thoughtful, true to the texts of the day, and full of encouragement to be the people of God engaged in bearing witness to the love and justice of Christ in the world. The children’s sermon was a delight: a meditation on the transformative possibilities inherent in the most basic elements of creation. The Great Prayer gathered up the remembrance of God’s graciousness in creation, re-membered the narrative of Christ, and called forth the power of the Spirit not merely to draw the gathered worthies into the presence of Christ but also to love those unloved and ill-treated by the world. We were benedicted with the injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. All of it accompanied by towering organ music and the best efforts of a choir to represent in song the scriptural paradox of the Christ event. Even the hymns, though hardly my favorites, were true to the spirit and themes of the moment. 

            So what is wrong with that? Or with me, that it leaves me dissatisfied?

            What is wrong, I think, is that there was no space for mystery, for not-knowing. We have, as a people, ceased to be in awe. We have convinced ourselves that we know all the answers to all the questions. We are here to tell you about it. 

            Annie Dillard once observed of the modern predicament that, “We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.” Were she meditating on today’s texts, Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story, she might have said that we have finally managed what poor old Peter could not: we have built booths—what Greek calls skene, source of our word, “scene”—to contain the numinous in the drama of normalcy. 

            You know the tale: Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear, and Peter burps up the instinct to put together a little stage show, perhaps to memorialize the moment, perhaps to take on the road to see how well it will play in Peoria. But before he can design the set, there is a cloud, a blinding light, a heaven-rending voice—and then there is nothing but Jesus, standing alone on the stage to deliver the final monologue. In response to which, Luke says, the trio “kept silent and in those days said nothing to anyone.” 

            The day’s preacher, eager to give the congregation something to do, used the disciples as a foil (something the Gospels do regularly), encouraging us not to remain speechless as they did, but to tell the good news. I didn’t argue the point. 

            But downstream from the moment, I can’t escape the feeling that their silence wasthe point. When you stand at crumbling edge of coherence and peer over into the wild unknowing, there are no words. Talking is a profanity. 

            The Church has become frighteningly good at talking. We preach what Christian Wiman memorably called the “unthunder.” We pray prayers that rarely rise higher than our hairdos. We advocate for this, witness to that, issue calls to action for the righteousness that isn’t happening and demand moratoria on the unrighteousness that is. But does all this talking finally amount to anything more than sound and fury?

            Don’t misunderstand: it’s not that we are saying the wrong things; we are, as a friend of mine used to say, “on the side of angels.” It’s that there is no right thing to say. At the heart of things, there are no words. There is only silence. 

            Where the disciples missed the point was not in their silence, but in their impulse to speak. At least they got it right in the end. Would that we could say as much.

            Where, then, are the moments when we are silent before the mysteries?

            In the Sacraments? Well and truly said. But even here we can’t stand the absence of our own voices. We cram the liturgy full of canticles, set to inane tunes that swing like giddy children’s songs, accompanied by organ explosions that startle the contemplative out of her chair, to say nothing of her contemplation. We drape the Table in prayers that are less pleas to God than preachments to the gathered, second bites at the homiletical apple. We reduce the mystery of body and blood to justice and social action. We might as well be building booths. One expects the voice of God to interrupt with a command to listen, but it seems God can’t get a word in edgewise.  

            Or in the music? One hopes. But even the anthem—ostensibly a paean to the paradoxical Christ—gets lost in its own bombast as the tenor section screeches and claws its way to the triple-fortissimo high F in the final phrase. No mystery here, just strained vocal chords and pitches that echo slightly flat in the wounded air. 

            And so, as Sunday afternoon creeps on, I cannot shake an emptiness I struggle to name. I struggle because its name is silence. I yearn for silence. I yearn for the encounter with That Which Has No Name, or at least no name we can pronounce. I yearn to be struck dumb like old Zechariah, skeptical of the mystery until it was enfleshed before his very eyes. I yearn for the presence of That Which Does Not Need Me to Talk About It. I yearn notto know, but instead to be knownby that which lies beyond knowing. 

            So what does all this ranting suggest that I do? Drop out of the choir and stop coming to worship? Find a quiet spot in the woods where I won’t bother anyone? Perhaps, but no. I love the music, miserable musician that I am, and I need the fellowship, and I hear in sermons truths worth pondering. I thrill to the sensation of the foundations of the earth quaking beneath my feet when the organ rattles the windowpanes with the lowest-of-the-low C. I savor the taste of sweet bread dipped and dripping with the fruit of the vine. I will be there next week and the week after, hoping, waiting. It is as Peter says elsewhere: “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

            But occasionally I will slip away—in mind and spirit, if not in body—and cease listening to the words. There will be moments when I will tune out this everflowing river of talk and attend instead to the silence. I will be here in my seat, but truly I will be gone. Gone into the cloud at the top of the mountain. Gone into the shining darkness. Gone into the echoes of a voice that speaks and says exactly Nothing. I’ll see you on the other side. 

            If there is one.