Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

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
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. 


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


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.

Things Divide

For my siblings in the United Methodist Church

Things divide
and fall apart
that once were one
at heart.

Streams divide
when points of land
refuse to move,

new channels form,
however hard
the parting ways.

though it may seem,
the future’s share
is neither dream nor

Island shores
amid the flow
appear eternal.
But slow,

beneath the waves
an inkling change,
and waters over time

to wash downstream
what once seemed sure.
Water—not the land—

Divided things
once held apart
will yet be one
at heart.

We Who Are Alive

We Who Are Alive
1 Thessalonians 4:17; Mark 11:13
We who are alive
wait for fig trees to bear fruit.
Not yet time for figs.
Temples not torn down
wait still for their rebuilding.
Three days is not long.
No sign of rain, but 
clouds of possibility
gather in the east.
Therefore encourage
one another with these words.
It is time for figs.

For Mary Oliver

Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear
                        —Mary Oliver, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”
Where you walk, I only look through windows. 
Not because I fear the woods, or the wind 
that ever brushes clean the window sill
and sends the dry leaves roiling in the clouds, 
but because there are the words to read
before they too roil away, and the time
to put on coat and hat seems like a treason.
And so your owl with unfurled fernlike wings
becomes in mind a strange transcendent angel—
oh, not a jovial, chubby, red-faced cherub, 
but as you said, oblivion’s memorandum.
Rilke knew: every angel is terrifying. 
The darkened cottage opens to us all,
and all of us in time approach its door. 
Yesterday you stepped across the threshold.
I peer through the window in my coat and hat. 

The Magi Recall the Star

Matthew 2

Epiphanies always have consequences.
Apocalypses always require assembly.
A star. A distant pin-prick—maybe
            light from an ancient orb gone supernova—
portends the end of something, and the birth
            of something new. But what? And why?
What difference should this faint illumination
            make to those in shadow on the journey?
The journey. Set your foot to paths uncharted
            impelled to some uncertain destination,
ask inconvenient questions of those whose power
            disinclines them to acknowledge answers,
barter time from old, bloodthirsty fools
            who sit on queasy thrones and dread the star. 
The star. It moves, yet night to night the same 
            point of light in the aching windswept darkness,
the cold black emptiness of space.
            Like you, it makes its own strange journey,
setting sail to catch the breath of God.
            It finds its destination in those eyes.
Those eyes. The child sees you, and calls your name—
            a name you had forgot, or did not know
you knew, a name whose riches, undeserved,
            will cost you everything you have, and more.
He looks at you, and in his eyes you see
            the rising and the setting of your hopes.
Your hopes. Leave them behind, these selves you carry 
            the journey long, like treasures of the heart;
return, then, empty-handed, knowing nothing
            but the light behind the dark eyes of the child.
Be haunted by that light. It does not fade
            even as the dark absorbs the star. 
Darkness falls. You are night-blind, and groping. 
Go home a different way, if home at all.     

Christmas Rose

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
— Traditional German Carol
Were there roses before there were thorns?
Or did thorns give rise to roses?
Rilke said, 
Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang…. *

And Stevens, 
“Death is the mother of beauty….”
I say 
blood and beauty are identical twins
born of love, and laid in a manger.
And to love is to live 
and to live is to die
and to die is to love. 
I have held a rose.
I have been pierced by thorns.
Truth has not one nature
but two.
* “For beauty is nothing other than the beginning of terror.”