Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Category: Uncategorized

Ghosts

By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves.
				—Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn.

You are not alone here.

The mirror cracks and shatters
In myriad tinkling falling slivers
That whisper like a Judas kiss.
A thousand eyes, framed by a thousand faces
Accuse, forgive, dissect and reassemble.
But the parts don’t match, and symmetry
Is vanity’s vision. 
Did you think your secrets would survive this?

Your name, too, lies 
Shattered among the shards. 
It is not so much that you pretended
But that you trusted the pretending.
It is not so much that you dreamed
But that you thought you were worthy 
of a dream.

No surprise, then, that this mirror broke,
But that it was one piece so long,
So many years allowing the impression
Of one face, one well-considered spirit,
Serenity, solidity, self-control.
But behind the eyes, so many. 
So very many.

Too shattered now for re-collection,
Too many razored reasons,
Too many jagged memories, 
Cut deep the fingers given to repair.
The fissured faces speak with single voice;
From a thousand mouths, they tell
The truth:
No glue can mend the fragments of a shattered soul.

Mirrors are haunted houses.

Matins, Christmas Morning*

O magnum mysterium …
		-Fourth Responsory for Matins on Christmas Day

Mystery needs no consecration.
It sighs in the wind, 
crackles in the hoarfrost,
burrows earthworm tunnels in the loam,
eddies in the water where trout hold, unheard, unseen—
deep writ into the warp and weft of things.
…et admirabile sacramentum… 

I wake before the house,
stand on the back porch in the wintry air 
of the not-yet-dawn of day. 
Cold flash-freezes sleep within my brain. 
The dog is attending to his urges,
aware, I imagine, that the brittle grass he sniffs
and the wisps exhalant from his nose
are pregnant with Mystery.
It waits to be born. 
Or no—
it is already here, has always been here,
before we began these daily offices
of field and forage. 
He knows.
He knows because he is Mystery. 
He clothes Mystery in the soft swaddling of his fur. 
…ut animalia viderunt…

Borrowed Question: Why is this night different from all others?
Answer 1: It is the same as every other.
Answer 2: There has never been another like it. 
Answer 3: It is the womb of a new creation.

Dawn breaks, a birthing mother.
Fluid light soaks the horizon.
Mystery is being born. Again. 
Each morning is birth, 
each evening is death,
…dominum natum iacentem in praesepio…

Sanguine and pure,
Mystery pulses in the veins of creation, 
coursing with the nourishment of life—
or spills, pouring out onto the land,
a death that does not die
but seeps between the living rocks 
into light-starved caverns of creation,
an aquifer recharged by wonder,
semen come at last 
to the womb’s dark heart.
It gestates there, in night-bound silence, waiting...
O beata virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt portare dominum Iesum Christum…

The dog has finished his oblations.
I cinch my robe against the cold
and reach behind me for the doorknob. 
Inside is warmth, and food, and she, asleep.
the stuff of today, each day.

Why is this day different from all other days?
It is no different.
There will never be another like it.
Mystery is born this day. Again.
Alleluia.


*slightly edited from the version published 12/25/22

Solstice

We stand on evening’s verge
Where laps the night at daylight’s shore 
And wonder at time’s dwindling store
Of light, while light and darkness merge,
And life, against death’s whelming surge.

The heart would take to flight
And soar above the reach of fear,
The anguished cry, the baleful tear,
The dark’ning dread of deep’ning night—
O lift our hearts; O raise our sight!

To evening’s edge we bear
Both day and night, still torn in twain.
But distant whispers Love’s refrain:
Be not afraid: my peace I share;
Let not your heart be troubled there.

Then watch ‘til night is done,
And o’er the soul’s horizon, see
That Day that Love shall cause to be,
That Dawn of time’s eternal sun,
That Light where light and dark are one. 

Crossroads

Standin’ at the crossroads, I b’lieve I’m sinkin’ down.—Robert Johnson

Somewhere down a Delta road, a cross
Stark and white against the greenleaf, raised 
By some fervent Baptist, otherwise at loss
To understand why some souls are saved

And others lost. Robert Johnson, tale is told,
Met the devil at the crossroads south of Rosedale
And the devil wrapped his hand ‘round Robert’s soul
And squeezed ‘til every song was a blues-y wail. 

The one chord digs the hole where the soul should be;
The four’s the soul’s last struggle, though in vain.
The five’s the height from which the soul can see 
The one again, like a long black train

Arriving at the graveyard. Could we choose,
We all would sell our souls to sing the blues. 


Driving through the Mississippi Delta not long ago, I saw a sight. Made me think about the blues. This sonnet has been knocking on the inside door of my brain ever since, trying to get out. 

Parting Words

For Ted*

Here at time’s edge, we seek those words that know
What time portends within its spinning gyre,
What path to other hearths, to other fires,
That passes on the flame you’ve sought to grow.
We would assume the task to fuel the glow
And nurture what your labors yet inspire
Until such time as time itself acquires
That holy place whence Fire itself must flow.

Yet ‘tis only in that Fire that hearts perceive—
And not by human art but by divine—
The greatest treasure: not what we achieve
But what is giv’n: the long eternal line
That binds together hearts in heaven’s weave
Where minutes measure not, nor words define. 

*In honor and on the occasion of Rev. Dr. Theodore J Wardlaw as president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The Tree at the Edge of the World

A juniper tree grows at the edge of the world.
Bony-fingered roots claw at the face
of limestone, white-knuckled with the pain;
tenacious, they clutch the fragile hope
of strength to grip the ledge in howling wind,
of one more day to gaze into the void. 

Gnarled and twisted limbs lean toward the void,
silent hands outstretched reach to the world.
What the tree gives up to scouring wind
it keeps in tortured lines etched on its face.
This stony perch the last outpost of hope,
last station in the dolorous path of pain.

What hand would plant you here to bear such pain,
such silent, lonely vigil in the void?
What mind create you testament to hope,
a stele at the frontier of the world?
What heart inscribe its suffering on your face?
What voice cry Eli, Eli to the wind?

No answer. The eternal moaning wind 
soon or late will bring an end to pain,
will pry your grip from off the stony face
of life and send you spinning in the void.
Nothing so strong lives in this windswept world
As wind that wearies of the hope of hope.

And yet. You have been centuries of hope.
Half a thousand years lived in this wind
have shown you stubborn to the world,
inured to hardship, resilient in pain,
rooted in the rock before the void,
the suffering of joy writ on your face.

I have not the courage of that face
nor have I the reservoir of hope
to brave the emptiness, the void,
and cling to rocky ledges in the wind.
What I offer is my share of pain
To mingle with your joy before the world.

So shall we stand at edge of void to face
The world—the sun, the rocks—and dare to hope?
Who knows? The wind may yet bring joy in pain.
		--Paul Hooker, 2022

photo credit: Paul K Hooker, 2022.

What I Believe

She asked, in substance if not in these words, “What do you believe?” 

It may be easier to start with what I do not believe. 

I do not believe in believing, at least not the way most people define that term. For most people most of the time, “believe” is a synonym for “think” or perhaps “agree with.” As in, “I believe it will rain this afternoon.” Or perhaps, to say, “I believe in the Virgin Birth” is to some the religious equivalent of “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” As though believing were a matter of acquiescing to a creed, be it religious or political. If that is what it means to believe, then I do not believe in much of anything at all. 

But that is not what believing means to me. Rather, I think believing is a far deeper, non-logical, reflexive response to something outside my control, like falling love or withdrawing my fingers from a hot stove. Better yet, believing is the constriction that tightens my throat and the tears that flood my eyes when I hear the second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and the trusting, unadorned voice of a boy soprano singing Adonai ro’i lo’ echsar (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) above the roiling, angry chorus of male voices grumbling lama rag’shu goyim, lama rag’shu (“Why do the nations rage?”)Believing rises from the same place as the stunned silence to which I am reduced when I watch the rising sun set fire to the clouds at dawn above the lake as I take my morning walk. Believing is what happens when a fourteen-inch brown trout, just released from the hook, arches its muscular back, leaps free from my grasp, and returns to its own sovereign universe in a spray of watery gold and light. I do not choose to believe. Believing happens.

Once, when I was a Boy Scout, my troop took a trip to Cumberland Caverns, near McMinnville, TN. We were led through the cave by the guides, who ushered our group into a large chamber lit by bare electric light bulbs, deep in bowels of the earth. My troop was among the first to enter the chamber, and we were instructed to move all the way across and sit down on the floor along the far side of the room. I did as I was told, sitting next to the chamber wall, within arm’s reach of rocks so unimaginably old and massive that they must surely have been among the pillars that held up the world. Once we were settled, the guides told us they were going to turn out the lights.” We live in a world where there is almost always at least some light,” said one young man, wiser than his years would have suggested. “Very few of us experience what total darkness actually feels like. You’re about to find out.” And with that, he turned out the lights, and my world abruptly ended. 

To say that darkness fell on the chamber is like describing a Category 5 hurricane as a gentle breeze. Darkness opened its gigantic maw and consumed me like some hungering cosmic beast, swallowed me whole, sucked me down beneath the surface of some great demonic flood that obliterated everything I hoped for or understood or relied on. It was a darkness so complete as to engulf all creation and leave nothing left over, not even dreams. It was a darkness utterly indifferent to my existence. In the instant that it took that darkness to chase away the light and possess the chamber, I experienced what I can only describe as the dissolution of my personality. My friends, my scout leaders, the tour guides—and beyond them, my parents, my sister, my teachers in school, my church—my world were gone, vanished, obliterated in the ravening dark. I would say that I became completely confined within my own mind except that I was not sure that my mind any longer existed. I remember deciding to raise my hand to my face as a way of establishing that I still existed in the flesh, and then being startled to the core by the sudden, alien touch of my own fingers against my own nose. 

I remember feeling dizzy and disoriented, as though up and down had lost meaning as directional verities of the universe, as though I was tumbling, wildly pitching and yawing, through an endless, lightless void. I reached out reflexively, blindly, for something—anything—to arrest my fall. My hand struck that solid, immovable, unimaginably ancient rock wall, the foundation on which rested the weight of creation. 

Immediately everything changed. As suddenly as the vertiginous darkness had deprived my senses of orientation, so suddenly did the world right itself and cease its nauseating, rolling tumble. I knew where I was. More important, I knew who I was. I was a child of a family who lived on a street in a neighborhood and went to school and was a member of a scout troop on a tour of a cave. I knew up from down, right from left, good from evil. My hand touching the rock was the essential connection to the foundations of creation that gave my life meaning and purpose and self. 

I did not know it—and could not have said it—at the time, but in that moment, I learned what it means to believe. Believing is the reflexive reaching out to touch the Foundation of Things. It is not a decision one makes. It is not a set of ideas one either agrees to or rejects. It is not a body of doctrine one uses or a canon of stories one recounts to construct a worldview. It is not a choice between competing ideologies. All those things may come later, when the lights come back on, and the cave tour moves out of the chamber and back to the surface. In the darkness, though, none of them matter. 

“God is Three in One and One in Three.” “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” “Jesus is fully human and fully divine.” Born of a virgin. Raised from the dead. Savior of the world. For me, these and other such theological truth-claims are only metaphors for truth, and not the Truth in themselves. They are tiny lights by which I grope my way in the eternal darkness and give imaginative shape to mysteries I do not understand and cannot explain. Their value is not in themselves, but in the unseeable, unknowable, unsayable mystery that they, if only partially, illumine. I use them to give broken, halting language to what I do believe. If I lift them up for a time, it is only for the purpose of dispelling for a few more steps the gloom that forever hovers at the edges of their feeble light. Inevitably, though, they burn out or grow dim and must be abandoned and replaced. I do not believe them. In the end, believing is the involuntary response to the crisis of existence that makes all these metaphors possible, and without which none of those metaphors means anything at all. Believing is trust that somewhere in the darkling existential tumble of human life, there is a rock.

So, what do I believe? 

I believe in the rock in the darkness. 

Disguises

/

Norma Porter Hooker
12 April 1925 - 5 August 2021 
Requiescat in pace

Sometimes death is a thief
who in dark of night gains entry 
through the soul’s unlocked windows
and steals that most precious of all treasure—
breath.
Or else a pickpocket in a surging crowd
who with deftest sleight of hand
snatches a wallet full of hope and expectation,
dissolves into the teeming throng, and 
disappears.

Sometimes death is an enemy
whose ruthless forces, blades in sunlight glinting,
banners waving to declare the fight,
deny the living even one more day, one hour, of
life.
Or else a judge, benched in darkling robes
and somber, grim-faced and dispassionate,
pronouncing sentence upon one standing 
in the well, innocent or guilty, who comes to
die.

But not today. 

Today death is a faithful, trusted servant
late on his quotidian rounds, and hastening
to match his quota of souls who with overdue accounts
must wait, arms akimbo, foot tapping, for promised
rest.
Better still, today death is a friend, long lost 
and long loved if also long delayed, who arriving, 
taps quiet at the door to make us turn and, 
with warming smiles, greet her as she enters, just in
time. 

The Hole in the Heart of God

Pleased to announce that my new book, The Hole in the Heart of God: Stories of Creation and Redemption, is now available for purchase. The book consists of two parts: Part One is a series of poems and poetic prayers arranged for use as an Easter vigil, but also simply for reading and reflection. Part Two is a series of “ruminations” in prose form on themes and ideas arising from the poetry. In both, I’ve sought to lay alongside each other the mythic retellings of the story of the creation and redemption of the world that play through both Jewish and Christian mysticism.

If you’re interested, the book is available from Amazon.com or directly from the publisher at http://www.wipfandstock.com. In either case, type my name in the search line and the book will come up. Cost is $13.00.

I would love to hear from you about your reactions. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

— Paul

The Crimson Cord

Joshua 2:1-21
A sermon preached at the ordination of Andrew Aaron Lemlyn
Paul Hooker

	I once had a conversation with a military historian. I don’t often have such exchanges; my circles don’t include many folk well versed in the strategies and tactics of the world’s great battles. But as it happened a number of years ago, one of the commissioners from my presbytery to the church’s General Assembly was a retired Army officer, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, and during a lull in Assembly business we got into a discussion of the high drama of invasions. He made a statement that I remember whenever I read Joshua 2. He said that behind every successful invasion there are effective spies, and behind every effective spy there is a willing traitor. 
	Rahab, of course, is the willing traitor in the story of the spies Joshua sent to scope out the defenses of the city of Jericho. She is a “prostitute”—an isshah zonah, in Hebrew—which could mean that she has some cultic role in the fertility religions practiced in ancient Palestine, or only that she is a sex worker in the ordinary and historically common sense. In the end, I don’t suppose it matters. The point of the text is that she is someone disposable, someone without access to the levers of power in the city. Her house is located in a hollow place in the city wall—the place in every ancient city that is most vulnerable to attack and therefore riskiest to occupy. People with means live closer in and higher up in ancient cities, as they seem to do in modern ones. Rahab is not one of those. Whether religiously or economically, Rahab is a prisoner of her society. No wonder she is willing to be disloyal to it. 
	But Rahab seems to know something the rest of her city does not. Over the hills and out of sight of the city’s sentinels, the Israelites are gathering in preparation to attack. Part of their preparation is to gather strategic intelligence on the place: number of defenders, strength or vulnerabilities of the fortifications, etc. That, of course, is what Joshua sent the spies to find out, to scope out the place even as they remain unnoticed. 
	Ah, but they don’t remain unnoticed, or at least unanticipated. The ruler of the city seems to suspect they have arrived, and he sends his soldiers to arrest them. And the first place the soldiers go in the prostitute’s house-in-the-hole-in-the-wall. Where are they, demand the soldiers, these Israelites who would know our secrets and use them against us? And Rahab, already a traitor for receiving them, becomes a liar, too. “I did not know where they came from,” she lies, “but when it came time to shut the gate, the men went out.” Nevermind that the spies were at that very moment hiding beneath sheaves of flax drying on her roof. Nevermind that she had already told them that she no longer believed in her own society and was putting all her trust in them. Nevermind that she was prepared to give up what little she had in exchange for a share in what might await her on the other side of the war. I did not know where they came from, she lies.
	But, of course, she did know. She knew they came from the future, from the power and pattern of a new world order that would turn her world upside down, that they stood for the possibility that a house in a hole in the wall might not be all she could dream of, that they represented the possibility that she might cease to be a victim of society and become a full-fledged member of it. Rahab knew they came from the future, and she was prepared to stake everything she had on the apparently slender possibility that that future might come true. 
	Here is a poem. It is entitled, “The Crimson Cord.”


The Crimson Cord

Everything depends upon a crimson cord
hanging in a window, gentled by the breeze.
Everything depends upon these last few words

said in haste, in hope that others will be pleased
to make them true. Everything depends upon
fragile promises made in times like these.

It matters not so much who will have lost or won
as whose promises are kept and whose forgot
and who when all the words are said and deeds are done

spies the crimson cord tied with a faithful knot
to the window and, recalling, stays the sword
and protects this door when the fight grows hot.

Everything depends upon a crimson cord
binding past to hope of what is yet to be:
a home, a place, a life. According to your word

so let it be. Leave now, and on the third of three
cold daybreaks rise and go. Neither pause nor turn
until you reach the future. Yet remember me

and these secrets I have kept that I might earn
a place at table when at last you’ve kept your word,
and safety in your house, a Fire that, when it burns,

consumes all. From this window like a bird
I would soar, borne aloft by gentle breeze,
no longer tethered here by this crimson cord.

	In the drama of my imagination, I envision Rahab standing in her window, watching the spies she has just let down beyond the wall run free across the city plain, back to Joshua and the future, bearing the information that will set her free. She knows she is a traitor to her city. She knows she has signed the death warrant for the way she has lived. She knows there is no turning back. She looks at the crimson cord she has knotted to the window, and realizes that just like those spies, her life, her hope, her security, her future—everything—depends on that cord. 
	You know the story of the battle of Jericho. The Israelites march around the walls the spies have explored for six days, and then seven times on the seventh day. The war trumpets blare, the people shout, and the walls fall down, and the Israelites rush in to make an end of Jericho—all except for Rahab and her house-in-the-hole-in-the-wall. Rahab was true to her word, and kept the crimson cord tied in the window, a sign of her faith in the spies, a downpayment on the possibility of a future. No less true to their promise were the spies. After the battle, says the text later on, 
…the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her—they brought all her kindred out—and set them outside the camp of Israel….Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family has lived with Israel ever since (Josh 6: 23, 25).
——
	I don’t know if you have noticed, but crimson plays an important role in the color scheme of the Church. It is the color of the Spirit, and therefore of every Spirit-inspired gathering of the people of God’s Spirit. It is the liturgical color of Pentecost. It is also the liturgical color appropriate to occasions of ordination and installations to ministry.
	This is true partly, I think, because we hope that something of that Pentecostal fire will yet smolder in our hearts and ignite our praise and illumine our actions in the world. But I can’t help wondering if crimson plays such an important role because it is the color of Rahab’s cord, tied in the window as a symbol of hope.
	You see, I think the church is—we are—that crimson cord, tied in the window of our little hole in the wall of the world-as-it-is. I think the church is—we are—the sign that a new future is coming, and that we have faith in that future and are willing to stake everything we have—even our lives—on it. I think the church is—we are—an affirmation that things-as-they-are are not things-as-they-will-be. I think we are tied in the window of the world as it is to mark the place where begins the world as it ought to be. 
	There is a passage in our Book of Order that speaks about the calling of the Church. The Church, it says

"is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life"(F-1.0301).

The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation (F-1.0301).

We live in the present on the strength of a promised future. And in so living, we are a symbol to the world of the possibility of that future. 
	A little further on in that same passage from the Book of Order, we read these words:

"The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself in work and word to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord" (F-1.0301).

The calling of the Church, argues our polity, is bearing witness to the possibility that the awful sameness of things—the lies and deceit and self interest of politics, the senseless gun violence that tears at the social fabric of our lives, the grinding poverty to which so many are condemned for no fault other than the accident of their birth, the blind hatred and prejudice aimed at communities of people for no reason other than the color of their skin—that this awful sameness is not the final reality, but a way of life that is doomed to die at the hands of a new creation and of that new creation’s lord. To be sure, we live in that awful sameness, spend our days so mired in it, saturated with it, that we lose sight of the fact that it is not the only way. Our entrapment in that sameness persuades us that there is nothing to be done about mass shootings in shopping malls or racially-motivated assaults on city streets. 
	But the fact of our entrapment in that sameness does not mean that the sameness is permanent, and certainly not that it is God’s creative intent. And to be the Church is to believe that God is even now breaking the trap, shaking the foundations, transforming the landscape of reality, making a new creation. Our calling is to point beyond ourselves in our work and our words to that transformation, and to the possibility of a future.
	Be warned. To live this way is to be disloyal to things as they are. To live as a witness to the possibility of a future is to be a traitor to the reality of the present. To bear witness to the transforming grace of God is to deny the permanence and ultimacy of gun lobbies and white supremacist groups and power structures that privilege some while imprisoning most. To be a community of faith, hope, and witness is to be a place that swears no allegiance to what is and owes all allegiance to what will be. 
	Every time we gather as Church, and especially on those occasions when we gather to ordain and install a new servant of the Church’s call to ministry, it is worth reminding ourselves of this calling. A calling to be disloyal to things as they are and deeply loyal to things as they will be. A calling to be the sign and symbol to the world that a new creation is being born. A calling to be the crimson cord that hangs from the window to announce our faith in the transforming grace of God.