Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Robbers’ Dens and Barren Trees

A sermon preached in observation of the 160th anniversary of the founding of First Presbyterian Church in Fernandina Beach, FL, 18 November 2018.

Jer. 7:1-15 and Mark 11:12-25

It is a daunting thing to step into the pulpit of an old church, and even more daunting to step into such a pulpit on an auspicious occasion like this. Expectations are high, and I suspect more than a few of you are anticipating a pat on the back for a congregational life well-lived to date and a rosy-eyed vision of days yet to come. And you deserve it. God knows, this has been a faithful place for long-numbered years. It has endured storms both meteor-ological and metaphorical, and found a way to offer meaningful ministry to the center of this community since before this community was a community. It has been well-led and well-fed, well-intentioned and well-mentioned for most of its storied existence. You deserve a pat on the back.

Your problem is that pat-on-the-back preaching is not my homiletical strength. If you came hoping for that, you may be disappointed.

To tell the truth, pat-on-the-back preaching is not exactly biblical, either, and so I feel some justification. Take for example the passages from Jeremiah and Mark we read a few moments ago. Jeremiah and Jesus stand up to preach in the outer courts of the temple—the same location, albeit different temples five hundred years apart—but if anyone passing by on either day expected to hear words of congratulations on a job well done, they were, well, disappointed. Rather, Jeremiah and Jesus took a different approach to their messages.

Jeremiah’s context is a moment of extremity. Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar were massing outside the city gates for an assault on Jerusalem, while inside the city two political parties vied for control. One saw surrender to the Babylonians as the only way to preserve the city and interpreted the city’s crisis as God’s judgment on the people’s errant ways. The other pointed to the Temple atop Mt. Zion as evidence that, as long as the Temple stood God would stand with the city, and encouraged resistance to the invaders. In the midst of this desperate political struggle, Jeremiah stood up to preach.

The first words from his lips were all anyone needed to know where the prophet stood. “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord!’” Amend your ways, cried the prophet, or this temple will be of no more permanence and security than the ancient Israelite shrine at Shiloh, once a center of Israel’s worship but long since destroyed and annexed by other invaders. Your hope—whatever hope you have—rests not in the foundation of this Temple but in your return to obedience to the values on which the nation was founded: care for the widow and orphan, justice for those to whom justice is denied, faithfulness to God. And to clarify the point, he uses a most intriguing metaphor: “Has this house,” he says, “…become a den of robbers in your sight?”

When we hear that, most of us think of images of violence and criminality. A robber’s den must be a place of murder, mayhem, and theft. But, in fact, it’s the opposite: it’s the place where the robber gang goes after they’ve committed the murder and mayhem, a place of refuge, rest, and security where they can count and divide the loot and plan their next move. It’s what the old westerns call a “hide-out” where you go when the posse is hot on your trail. Has the temple become a hide-out for the Judaeans, a place of safe refuge where they can avoid the consequences of their actions? Don’t trust in that, says Jeremiah. The law has caught you, the Babylonians are at the gates; God is about to wreak havoc in your haven.

Jeremiah’s point is that faithfulness to God is not wrapped up in what happens inside the church. It’s not what happens inside the Temple that’s a problem; the Temple is in fact just fine. It’s what happens outside in the city that counts. It’s the way you treat the lowest and the least in the world: the homeless man in the street, the undocumented child at your border, the woman who cries for help in the wake of abuse or assault. If you are looking for protection, protect those who need protecting. If you want to be the church, be the church to them.

It is surely no accident that Mark chooses this precise metaphor to place on Jesus’ lips when Jesus ventures into the Temple courts that day. He sees the Temple in full operation, with animal sellers providing animals required for the sacrificial ritual and money-changers exchanging Roman coinage stamped with the image of the emperor for temple coins that bore no image of any living thing so as not to violate the second commandment. He sees, in other words, the Temple doing and being exactly what the Temple should do and be. And he drives them out, bringing that doing and being to a grinding halt. And he says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

We like to think of Jesus as exhibiting anger here, and who knows, maybe he was. We like to think that what he saw that day was dishonest commerce at the foot of the temple doors, and it provoked him to a righteous rage. The problem is that there is nothing in the text to suggest either that there was anything dishonest with the commerce in the temple court or that Jesus was angry or enraged—not a word; go back and look! And there is a good deal to suggest that this was a carefully calculated moment, all to make a point.

The calculation starts in v.12, before Jesus comes to the Temple. On his way there, he passes a fig tree, and Mark tells us, “he was hungry” (the only indication we get of Jesus’ inner state). Looking at the tree, he finds no fruit because—and Mark is carefully explicit about this—“it was not the season for figs.” So Jesus pronounces an end to the fig tree’s function, and moves on. But I have to wonder: was Jesus so out of touch with the natural rhythms of growth and harvest that he expected fruit when no fruit could reasonably be expected? Was Jesus expecting the fig tree to be more than a fig tree, doing and being exactly what it should be doing and being? Or is it that he knows that henceforth, seasonal barrenness can no longer be an excuse, and that being a fig tree in a fig tree world is no longer enough? After clearing the temple, as Jesus passes the barren fig tree, he tells his disciples that “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and it will be yours.”

The point Mark’s Jesus seems to be making is not that Jesus can exhibit righteous indignation, but rather that being faithful is something larger, more encompassing going to church. The Temple, being and doing what the Temple is supposed to be and do, is no longer enough. It is not enough to seek shelter from the storms. Faithfulness forces us out into the weather to give shelter to others. This, I think, is why Mark uses the “den of robbers” quote from Jeremiah. Look beyond the Temple as a place of refuge, he seems to say, and see the Temple as the place where change begins. Pray, he says; believe, and the world itself will move. And then get out there and be part of the movement.

Now what am I suggesting to good folk gathered in good clothes in good faith on this good day? Just this: don’t get caught up in doing and being church to such an extent that you forget what doing and being church is really all about. It isn’t about how long the building has stood here on 6th Street in Fernandina Beach. It isn’t about whether the building is on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. It isn’t about the warm feeling you get when you walk in the door or how much you love the people you walk in with. Important as those things are—and they do have importance—they are not the point. And when you make them the point, well…that’s when the trouble starts.

In the last decade of the previous century, I served as pastor of a congregation in Atlanta; in fact, it’s where Wain Wesberry served as intern for three(?) years while in seminary. When I was there, Rock Spring was a medium sized Presbyterian congregation of about 250 members. I left in 1999 for other callings, and in the succeeding years the Rock Spring congregation went through some hard times. There were leadership controversies and financial struggles, and people found other places to go. I read an article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution the other day reporting that the now 80 members of the congregation have sold off two and a half acres of its prime mid-town Atlanta real estate, including the church’s former manse and lower playground and parking lot, just to keep the fiscal life support machines running a little longer. I’ve often looked back on years and wondered what we could have done differently that might have set the congregation on a different course.

The people of Rock Spring loved their church, and they loved their church building. Loved it so much, in fact, that changing anything about it was anathema to more than a few. The bitterest argument I had as a pastor arose when we removed—temporarily—the front modesty rails and first two pews to make room for a small orchestra for a musical performance. It was as though the sacred ancestors were rolling in their graves. Love of that sanctuary was so overwhelming that the church did little else to reach beyond its walls. There were individuals in the congregation who gave out blankets and soup to the homeless on cold Atlanta nights, and there were a few intrepid souls who occasionally volunteered to staff the homeless night shelter at a nearby congregation, but for the most part “church” to most of those good people meant “sanctuary building” and the beloved friends they met therein and the warmth and security they felt in that building among those friends after a week’s buffeting in the rough-and-tumble world of Atlanta business.

Not that there is anything wrong with that: that is, in fact, the church being and doing what the church is supposed to be and do. The problem is that it isn’t enough. That congregation, for all its warmth and insular love, has become—to borrow Mark’s metaphor—a barren tree. One of the members of the congregation was quoted in the interview saying, “We know we have to change in order to attract young people.” Much as I love that woman, I can tell her that attracting young people won’t do it. It does nothing to reach out to widow and orphan. It does nothing to attend to the needs of migrants or undocumented or homeless. It doesn’t bind the wounds of the emotionally bleeding in the community. Most significantly, I think, it doesn’t follow the God whom no building can contain and who never stops moving in the world. It isn’t that God doesn’t love the good folk of Rock Spring; I know it is true that God does. But perhaps it is also true that God has seen that the church has ceased bearing fruit and simply moved on.

Both Jesus and Jeremiah would have us understand that faithfulness is not about individual morality and getting right with God. Faithfulness is not a private me-and-Jesus coziness, not some spiritual snuggle that allows me to feel safe and warm and special. It is rather a commitment on the part of the whole community—whether that community is a congregation like this or a nation that would call itself Christian—to be less concerned with its own security and more aware of the world God loves enough to risk dying for. The faithfulness to which Jeremiah and Jesus summon us does not separate religion from ethics. Rather, it understands that moral life in covenant with God involves rejecting the ways that harm neighbor. That moral covenant may start in this building, but it cannot stay here. It must bleed out into the spaces of our lives: work places and home places and voting places and learning places and commercial places and private bedroom places. It must be upheld in White Houses and state houses and migrant workers’ houses and your house and my house. If there is anywhere that covenant is not upheld, we cannot claim to uphold it here. Church—whether in 6th century Jerusalem or on 6th St in Fernandina Beach—is no shelter from the hard decisions about love and ethics. It is the place we learn how to make those decisions.

Here’s a poem.

Gods of Small Things

Let us be gods of small things,
lords of mice and roaches,
bastard sons and daughters
of happy, smiling gods
who bless their acolytes
with touchdowns and close-in parking.

Let us stand to the ends of things:
parting notes of postludes
in empty sanctuaries
apologetic exits
whispered at the door,
the echo of the deadbolt.

Let us walk the hallways after
light and hope burn out,
read from silent liturgy
prayers addressed to no one,
hear from mislaid hymnals
music no one sings.

Let us raise the chain-link fence,
last fence around the Table,
that bars the way to all
lest any come unworthy
to take the meal, until
the meal is taken from us.

Let us be the wrecking-ball;
swung from moral heights
we bring down the house
then hang condemned when done,
the evidence against us
stone not left on stone.

But let us be at last the rain
that falls on wrack and ruin
to wash away the stain
—see, even now it falls—
and waters wheat and vine
and pools in broken fonts. (1)

Here is my prayer for you. That you may be more than a robbers’ den and a barren tree. That you may be the rain that waters wheat and vine, until grows the grain for bread and the grape for wine. That you may be the font that, though broken, still holds the baptismal waters. That you may follow God into a strange new world where God is not in the temples but on the loose, and dwells with people of every sort, and wipes away every tear from their eyes. That you may move mountains. Indeed, that you may go out of here and move mountains.

(1) Paul Hooker, Days and Times: Poems from the Liturgy of Living. Eugene OR, Resource Publications, 2018, pp.8-9.

Joseph’s Bones

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the portion of the land Jacob had bought from the children of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for one hundred pieces of money; it became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.

 – Joshua 24:32

Impossibly long the trail
that leads from there to here,
up from parted water
through empty desolations
no one cares to own,
to a stopping place safe
from the whip, beneath a willow tree.
The earth is weeping.
Each step is a tear,
witness to the passage of his bones.

He is laid to rest—
if there is such a thing as rest
in this migrant life, always
moving with the rhythms of the world,
one step ahead of terror,
one step short of grace.
His father bought this land, they say.
He is at peace, they say.
It is inheritance, they say,
this land, this rock-hewn charnel for his bones.

But who belongs here? Who knows
any peace but the sweet caress
of the morning breeze, the fiery breath
of the mid-day sun, the cold rebuke
of the night-wind beneath the silent stars?
You claim this dirt, even
at the cost of blood and bitter gall.
The deed may be in hand
but you will not keep it,
and no case, no defense will be offered by the bones.

Others will inherit, too, in time,
when you have gone, scaled
another chain-link fence, waded
another muddy river, passed beneath
another scowling border guard
with a rifle eager for a lucky shot.
Move on, move on, until the earth reveals
its pillow for your head,
its blanket for your chill,
its inheritance for your lonely bones.

Cloud and Silence

[A sermon preached at Shelton Chapel, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 23 October 2018]

Exodus 20:18-21; Revelation 8:1

According to Exodus, a thick cloud enshrouded Mt Sinai, and when God spoke, it was with all manner of thunder and lightning and the blast of the celestial trumpet, Gabriel blowing his eternal horn. It was enough to make the whole holy host of them tremble like aspen leaves in a mountain breeze. So the people of Israel hunkered down in their tents and from behind their tightly drawn tent-flaps cried out to Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let God not speak to us, lest we die.” Then from a safe distance they watched while Moses climbed the mountain into the dense darkness where God was hiding while the echoes of divine thunder faded in their ears.

This semester, as you are doubtless by now aware, the faculty has accepted the assignment to preach on the theme: Hodie—God’s Today. We are challenged to answer the question: where and in what ways do we see God at work in the world of the present?

And here is my answer: I haven’t got a clue. I wish I did. Honestly, I’m a bit embarrassed. I have listened to my colleagues talk about their senses of God’s presence in the world, and I have been moved by their passion, eloquence, and truthfulness. All of which makes it harder to admit that I just don’t know. But these days, things that once looked to me like God seem now more like shabby idols of my own manufacture, and things that once sounded like the voice of God now seem little more than the tinkling wind chimes of my own wants and will. I am left to wonder if God has absconded into the cloud atop the metaphorical mountain and left me clutching at my tent flaps as the divine thunder dissolves into the silence of the world.

Annie Dillard—you’ve heard me speak of her before—once mused about the silence of the world in an essay entitled, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” Here is a part of what she said:

Nature’s silence is its one remark, and every flake of the world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block. The Chinese say that we live in the world of the ten thousand things. Each of the ten thousand things cries out to us precisely nothing.

God used to rage at the Israelites for frequenting sacred groves. I wish I could find one. Martin Buber says, ‘The crisis of primitive mankind comes with the discovery of that which is fundamentally not-holy, the a-sacramental, which withstands the methods and which has no “hour,” a province that steadily enlarges itself.’

There it is, my friends: the mailing address of the modern world. We live at the intersection of silence and the a-sacramental, in a house that has no room for the holy.

I read an essay recently by Rachel Mennies, a Chicago-based poet and teacher, in which she advocates for a “poetics of bewilderment.” She yearns to teach her students “how not to understand a poem, and to embrace that not everything in a poem can ever be understood, even by its author.” A poetics of bewilderment acknowledges that “bewilder-ment is at the core of every great poem, and in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder.” I suspect Mennies is pointing to the same idea the English Romantic poet John Keats two hundred years ago called “negative capability”: the capacity of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” By whatever name you call it, such a poetic begins with the acknowledgment that in poetry, at least, it is more important to wonder than to understand.

I want to develop a hermeneutic of bewilderment. Its central principle would be a willingness to wonder without any of Keats’s “irritable reaching after fact or reason,” a posture of awe before the truth that not everything is available to be understood. A hermeneutic of bewilderment emerges from its tent and stands staring into the cloud at the foot of the mountain, straining to hear the last dying rumbles of divine thunder in the ever-increasing silence.

Bewilderment, whether poetic or hermeneutic, is a hard thing, not native to us. We like to understand. We moderns are, as a species, largely terrified of the holy, the not-understood, anything we cannot manipulate to our own ends. We want to control our environment. And when confronted with anything we can’t control, we duck behind our tent-flaps and put our fingers in our ears. La-la-la. Let God not speak to us, we cry, lest we discover we are, in fact, not in charge here.

Dillard continues:

It’s hard to desecrate a sacred grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind used to cry, and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few. Birds may crank out sweet gibberish and monkeys howl; horses neigh and pigs say, as you will recall, oink oink. But so do cobbles rumble when a wave recedes, and thunders break the air in lightning storms. I call these noises silence….

The silence is all there is. We are here to witness.

I have been reading apophatic theology lately. That’s the line of thought that runs from Clement of Alexandria and Augustine through a 5th c. pseudonymous author we call Dionysius the Areopagite to a 14th c. anonymous English mystic whose sole known book is that classic of medieval spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing. The common thread in apophatic thought is that we have to be cautious about, even suspicious of, human language and thought about God.

A warning: this next bit is tricky. All language about God is metaphorical, if only for the reason that finite human words cannot contain the infinite reality of God. And all metaphors operate in the tension between similarity and dissimilarity. So everything we say of God—every theological metaphor—must carry within it both similarity and dissimilarity to God. If I borrow the Psalmist’s metaphor, “God is the rock of my salvation,” I affirm that something about a rock—perhaps its steadfast-ness and immovability—is similar to God. But God is also dissimilar to a rock: God is not unchanging or immovable. Indeed, God transcends such human categories as change or motion. So God neither changes nor remains the same, because God holds all possibilities at all times. God is neither moving nor not-moving, because God holds all places at all times. Thus, God both is and is not “rock.” If I affirm the metaphor of God as “rock,” I must also acknowledge that it stands in tension with the not-rock-ness of God. This tension, applied to all our theological metaphors, ultimately collapses all human language about God: all our metaphors break, all our words fall apart. Better, say the apophatics, to forget what you think you know about God, to recognize that, like Moses and the Israelites, there is between us and God a dense, dark cloud before which we can only stand mute in wonder and awe. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing says it this way:

So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.

I find that language strangely satisfying. Amid all the certitudes ringing through our rhetoric and echoing in the ether—certitudes about God and God’s will for America, for the church, for justice, for moral righteousness—I find myself yearning for the darkness and silence of unknowing. I find myself open to, even eager for, bewilderment. I no longer think I am here to understand. I am here to witness.

In the middle of John’s apocalypse, at the culmination of the vision of the seven seals that bind the Lamb’s Book of Life, there is an extraordinary moment. In the passage just prior, after the opening of the sixth seal, all the angels of heaven and all the elders of the Church triumphant have sung the great chorus celebrating the honor and power and wisdom of God. And then we turn the page, and there is this:

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Rev. 8:1).

Silence for about half an hour. What a striking image! Amid all the theatrics of the apocalypse—trumpets trumpeting and choruses chorusing—abruptly the action grinds to a halt for half an hour. Before the apocalyptic drama climaxes and God’s victory is unveiled and the curtain falls on Satan and his minions—for thirty minutes all the actors freeze in place and the heavenly stage falls thunderously silent. And I begin to think: what if silence and darkness and the bewilderment of unknowing are at the heart of what God is up to in the world? What if the most faithful act is not always to act, but to wait on that darkened stage, to be still while heaven is silent, and to wonder at all we do not know?

Here is a poem about darkness and silence and not-knowing:

Worship
Rev.8:1

The night’s as silent as the shrouded dead.
We mime our parts in plays we did not write.
Stars applaud the empty stage instead.
The curtain falls. We bid you all goodnight.

We mime our parts in plays we did not write.
The cast bows low and utters not a sound
as the curtain falls. We bid you all goodnight;
ushers, pass the offering plates around.

The cast bows low. They utter not a sound
in praise or parody of their feeble play
while the ushers pass the offering plates. Around
You are the words; no one will say

if praise or parody. Our feeble interplay
is all the rage in fashionable conversation.
But You are the words. How can one say
what’s written on the day before creation?

And so we rage in fashionable conversation.
But still no match for chaos, storm, and spark.
What’s written? On the day before creation
we meet no gods awaiting in the dark.

We’re no match for the chaos, storm, or spark
the stars applaud. On the empty stage, instead,
we meet no gods. But, waiting in the dark,
the nights are silent as the shrouded dead.

I do not mean to equate bewilderment with deliberate ignorance, nor silence with callous indifference. I do not mean that the faithful soul may ever give up its brave quest to live out the prophet Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. I do mean however, taking my cue from Micah, to encourage a healthy dose of humility in that walk, and a bewilderment occasioned by the inadequacy and inevitable collapse of our knowledge of God. I do mean to emphasize the provisionality of every conclusion we draw about God’s nature and intent. I do mean to suggest that, while full-throated soliloquies about God’s presence here or God’s justice may be the last words of the scene, they are followed by silence as the curtain falls.

There will be those who say that humility and bewilderment make a poor foundation for ethics, a weak response to the cries for justice from those to whom justice has been too long denied. In such a time as ours, they claim, the need for faithful defense of the defenseless is acute. I do not disagree. Bewilderment and humility must not degenerate into accommodation with evil. There will be those who say that silence is not God’s last word, that God speaks another Word—one with a capital “W.” I do so confess. Still, it is no small source of wonder to me that this Word was born in the starlit stillness of Christmas, died amid the thunder and darkness of Good Friday, and rose in the eternal silence of Easter morning. Perhaps the wonder is that, no matter how God speaks, the message always seems to come wrapped in cloud and silence.

And that is why, in answer to the question, where do I see God at work, I offer not a where but a how, not a place but a posture. I offer a holy bewilderment and a cautious humility, and I place them respect-fully alongside the passionate certainties of our day as a reminder that not all things are available to be understood. There are moments in the life of faith when the most faithful way to live may be to live in wordless wonder, resting in the cloud of unknowing, and listening to the silence in heaven. Who knows? Perhaps this is one of them.

Annie Dillard, one last time:

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is the face of God brooding over the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things…. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, even to address the prayer to ‘World.’ Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

[Annie Dillard quotes are from “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters,San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982, pp. 85-95.]

[Rachel Mennies quote is from “Less Than Certain,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org, 3 September 2018.]

[Poem, “Worship,” is an unpublished poem by Paul Hooker.]

Testimony

Exodus 20:18-21

I wandered in this country then;
I do not recognize it now,
having spent too long in tents
beneath the mountain, storm, and cloud.
Its monuments are nowhere clear.
In place of towering obelisk
proud beside the silvered pool
is raised the phallus and fist,
a pornographic tale of fools.

I was a believer then
though hardly now would make the claim.
Hoary text, old prayer, and hymn
seem out of rhythm, vague, and strained.
Measured words mean nothing here.
This is the hour of rage and lies,
and sacred passions made absurd,
and grief that dwells too deep for sighs,
and sighs that dwell too deep for words.

I was a man then, but no more
would dare to boast of manhood’s sway,
such shame the boast must hold in store;
would rather walk a simpler way.
Is walking such a way allowed?
Beside the path are souls. They weep;
their anguish haunts men’s heartless dreams.
It is not mine to catch and keep
their tears, nor soothe their hurts, it seems.

I am a witness, then. I see
what cultured blindness keeps from sight,
the whir of wings as angels flee
abandoning the fading light.
God is not here, but in the cloud.
Yet in the cloud, draped like a pall
around the shoulders of the mountain
in grumbling thunder, flash, and squall
may yet be found the healing fountain.

After the Storm

Silence hovers like humidity
in the room. Prayers and sympathies
rise like steam in post-diluvian heat,
offerings to absent-minded gods.
He has little else to say or try or hope for.
But there is work, and so he rises too.

Gathers what the gale has left behind—
wedding photos, dancing hula-skirted
doll from Honolulu, Amtrac postcards
of snow-capped vistas in the Rocky Mountains,
the little Eiffel Tower made of pewter.
Each goes in the cardboard box he tries
but cannot muster strength to throw away.
For now, at least, the box is laid to rest
on the top shelf of the hallway closet
among the sprung umbrellas, widowed gloves,
detritus left by other, smaller storms.

In years to come, he will stumble over
pieces of remembrances once cherished,
but wind-torn, lost, and blown to god-knows-where
(Is there still a god who knows, or cares?)—
a candle-gilded dinner conversation
now come to ground in some neglected cornfield,
a shared purpling sunset repurposed as
a planter-box beside a front porch swing,
a pillowed smile before the lights go out
at night, now drained of warmth, mud-caked and drenched,
half sunk in standing water in a ditch.

He will stumble over them, and think
how strange they are and how alien,
will wonder were they ever really his,
and ask what sort of life would gather up
such random relics of aborted memory,
and rising, turn, and slowly walk away.

Angels in the Laundry

A Convocation Address to Austin Seminary
September 2018
Paul Hooker

Here is a poem, by Richard Wilbur, written in 1956:

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”

I love this poem. The poet awakens to the “cry of pulleys” as the morning’s laundry, sheets and shirts and smocks, is cranked through the air pinned to clotheslines. In the liminal moment between sleep and wakefulness—before the brain begins dictating to the eyes what they may see and to the soul what it may believe—in that moment, “the morning air is all awash with angels.” The world is an enchanted place, and the land of the imagination knows no limit. Wilbur’s poem invites us to linger in that moment, to imagine angels in shirts on the backs of thieves and bed sheets that embrace lovers and, yes, even the white undergarments beneath the dark habits of nuns, “keeping their difficult balance” in a morally ambiguous world.

I want to talk about poetic imagination, the realm of poets like Richard Wilbur. I suppose these remarks are a rudimentary theopoetic: theology informed by elements of poetic expression—four in particular: imagery, mystery, form, and hospitality. To tell the truth, though, what I really want to do is read poems, and to invite you through the reading to see the world as I see it, a world where the boundary between theology and imagination is no thicker than a line of poetry. In my world, imagination pokes holes in the surface of the status quo and lets me to peer beneath to a deeper beauty, one that that drifts in the direction of the divine. In my world, there are angels in the laundry.

Imagery

As the word suggests, the heart of imagination is image. Poetic images are made of words, but are always more than words. They are the peculiar collusion of the specific and the abstract, the poetic “thin place” where the mundane has truck with the transcendent. Poems, wrote the Modernist poet Marianne Moore, are “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Ezra Pound once defined an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Images are windows into the workshop where we manufacture meaning. They are not symbols, exactly; they do not “stand for” something. Rather, they evoke something—often multiple somethings—that tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the image itself. Poets—and theologians—pay careful attention to images…

…because the language of believing is the language of images. Let us take the most obvious: we are created in imago dei, in the image of God. To look at each other is, poetically speaking, to look into the face of God. But I wonder: is not our yearning to see God is also a way of yearning to see ourselves? And when we stare into the face of Christ, whom Colossians calls “the image of the Father” (Col 1:15), do we not yearn to be seen by the very face we see? The language of faith is full of images, and to speak the faith is to speak in images, each one an invitation to part the conventions of the ordinary and peer into a deeper truth, and to be seen by truth in return.

Last year, Eric Wall asked me to write a poem about the tendency of Protestants to “splinter”—his word—into sects and denominations. That word, splinter, put me in mind of wood, and wooden things like chairs and tables and the crosses my father used to cut out of pine scraps with his bandsaw. An image sprang to mind: a photo I had seen of the hands of a friend of mine, a very skilled amateur woodworker, holding a table leg he had just finished turning. His hands were nicked and bleeding from wounds made by flying splinters, the inevitable result of turning wood on a lathe. I began thinking about the image of blood, and the relationship of blood and wood, about the blood-price burned up on altars and bled out on crosses, and about the Body of Christ bleeding on the table, the One Cup speaking words of unity even as we who hear them tear each other apart. Here’s the poem:

Woodwork
It’s about the blood—
joining boards at angles,
edges are negotiations, prone to pinch,
and nails pierce like
talking points,
splinters burn like lightning
beneath the skin—
red stains in the palms of hands.

It’s about the blood—
a lifetime of little cuts
saw-blade nicks
chisel slips on turning lathes
scrapes from roughened surfaces
in rapid motion,
currency to pay
for chalices and tables,
for chair legs in church parlors,
and for crosses. Always crosses.

It’s about the blood
smeared on every lintel, doorpost,
pulpit, pew—
forensic faithfulness:
a wound for every wonder.
Impassive as a judge’s smile, the paschal lamb
has nothing more to say
after the planer’s blade has smoothed
the ragged faces of the cross,
and with every hammer-blow the blood
sinks deeper in the heartwood
unseen and silent,
until all that’s left is argument, quid pro quo.
Leave the dead behind
in the night when angels pass,
and head for parted water.

But it’s about the blood
crying out from every field
and every brother without a keeper,
every lamb laid on every altar,
every cup on every covenantal Table.
That’s where the wounded Body lies
awaiting autopsy
while survivors lurk in hallways
fighting over the personal effects.

Mystery

If it is true that an image is a porous boundary between the mundane and the transcendent, then perhaps we should ask what we mean poetically by transcendence. I want to suggest that transcendence is a theologian’s word for mystery. Mystery is the realm that stands over against us, inaccessible and yet inviting, defying explanation while demanding exploration. Mystery is the darkness beyond the ring of light, the eternal “no” to our persistent, inquisitive “yes.” Unseen but not unreal, mystery hovers at the edges of imagination…

…and at the edges of theology, too. The landscape of Christian faith is littered with mystery, with liminal spaces where we stand at the edge of our experience and peer over into the wild unknowing. And yet, so ubiquitous are those liminalities that we grow accustomed to their presence in our vocabularies. We speak of the Trinity—the perichoretic oneness-in-threeness-in-oneness—or of the Incarnation—two natures, unconfused, in a single being—and our sentences trip merrily from our tongues as though we were making sense. We stand at font or table and evoke the presence of the divine in Basin, Bread, and Cup, yet nary a lip quivers nor finger trembles. It is as Annie Dillard once observed about us: we “saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.”

Poetry knows better. Poetic imagination is always on high alert in the presence of mystery. It strains to peer into the darkness, but knows cannot always trust what it sees. Poems refuse to know too much. So they retrace their steps, second-guess their assumptions, are constantly aware of their own fragility. A poem is a candle in the darkness, easily extinguished when the Spirit exhales. And yet occasionally, as much by luck as by design, a poem illumines an enduring truth dwelling in that darkness. Here’s a poem:

Resurrection
Before the dawn, he slips into the flow
so silently no star in heaven hears
nor earth beneath, nor even hell below.
It seems it hasn’t been like this for years.

Silence reigns. No star in heaven hears
the subtle, scuttling last retreat of death.
He thinks it hasn’t been like this for years;
it would be such an effort to draw breath.

The subtle, scuttling last retreat of death
rolls the stone aside, and now the breeze
suggests the effort of unsteady breath.
Nothing in this life is done with ease.

Stone rolled aside. The movement of the breeze
wafts the acrid dust stirred from the floor.
Not so, he thinks; the one thing done with ease
is dying. Living always summons more.

Wafting, acrid dust stirs on the floor.
Another moment: could he just abide
in dying? Living summons. There is more:
they want his blood, their fingers in his side.

Another moment. Rest, and just abide.
But then the nostrils twitch and muscles move;
the blood flows into fingers at his side,
rising from the deep abyss of love.

The nostrils twitch, and now the muscles move.
Neither earth beneath, nor hell below
can stop this rising river, deep with love.
The time has come. He slips into the flow.

Form

If you were listening carefully to that poem, you detected the repetition of lines, verbatim or in substance. The poem is a pantoum, a form characterized by its repeated, interwoven lines, a sort of dance with four steps forward and two steps back. The pantoum is a wonderful form for speaking of mystery, because its structure disciplines the poet to proceed cautiously, reverently; to be patient and wait for the nuance within the already-known.

Poems are imagination disciplined by structure. This is true of any poem, even free verse. A poetic form is like a riverbed that channels the currents of the poet’s imaginative vision. Form helps imagination flow downstream toward poetry, instead of flooding the page and inundating the literary landscape.

There is a significant sense in which what we do in this seminary is to give form to the wild rivers of faith. It’s no accident that a chunk of our curriculum is called “ministerial formation,” but formation is not just Supervised Practice of Ministry or Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s formation all the way through. To study theology is to be formed by creeds, confessions, and the work of great theologians. To learn to preach is to be formed by styles and methods of beloved preachers. Liturgy shapes the flow of the Eucharist between the riverbanks of anamnesis and epiclesis. Biblical studies tracks the trails carved out by scholars, following the blazes of their hermeneutics left on the tree trunks of the text. Christian education teaches methods both ancient and modern that lift up the practices of the faith. From its very beginnings, theological study structures thought to clear a path for discovery and nuance.

If you’ve studied poetry, you’ve probably come across a classical form called the sestina. Sestinas are complicated beasts: thirty-nine lines, gathered in six sestets (stanzas with six lines), followed by an envoi (a tercet, or three-line concluding stanza). The ending-word of each line in the first sestet must be used as the ending-word of a line in each of the remaining five sestets, but in a specific order. The envoi then employs all six ending-words within the three lines of the tercet. If the description of a sestina confuses you, you should try writing one. But here’s the thing: making yourself arrive at the end of each line in a predetermined word uncovers nuances of meaning in that word. You begin to discover a world of imaginative possibility beneath the surface of those six words. I tried writing a sestina, prompted by a photo of a garter snake as it was shedding its skin. When snakes shed, I have learned, the skin first loosens over the eyes, forming a bluish-gray cataract that renders the snake temporarily blind. The ending-words I chose for the first stanza about the blind snake got me thinking about other kinds of snakes, and other kinds of blindness. Here’s the poem.

Blue-eyed Snake

What in the world is a blue-eyed snake?
A sign that things are surely changing,
that what is old is sloughing off,
not yet replaced by something new.
It’s hard to know just where you’re going
when you can’t see just where you are.

Snakes shed their skin. It’s how things are.
It must be hard to be a snake:
about the time you get things going
your eyes grow dim and things start changing.
You have no choice: you face the new
blind as a bat. The first thing off

is eyelid skin—before it’s off
it turns opaque, and your eyes are
useless and blue. It’s nothing new,
unless you don’t know you’re a snake,
can’t understand why things are changing,
can’t see which way the way the world is going.

I can’t help wondering if what is going
on with us is not far off
from snakes whose skin is always changing.
How vulnerable it seems we are
to fear of change. Like a snake
reflexively we hiss at new

threats perceived though unseen, new
phantoms in the fog, going
past in the dark. A shedding snake
will strike at you to warn you off.
I have a sense that’s how things are
with us. Our lives are always changing—

new people keep arriving, changing
settled ways, demanding new
accommodations in how we are
used to speaking, used to going
about our days. Something’s off,
we think, and learn to strike like snakes.

We’re holed up like a blue-eyed snake.
The old skin’s changing. Shuck it off.
We need new skin where we are going.

Hospitality

I think of that poem as a poem about hospitality, although perhaps a blind and temperamental snake is an odd image of welcome. As a practice, hospitality is the habit of opening one’s life to accept the presence of others, attending to their needs, accommodating their differences, making room for those who otherwise have no room. Hospitality changes both guest and host, making friends of strangers and community out of separation. Hospitality is Leviticus’s demanding that we love the neighbor as ourselves. It’s Deuteronomy’s command to welcome the widow and orphan. It’s Hebrews’s injunction to “show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:1). Hospitality makes space for the other.
Poetry practices hospitality, too, in the form of imaginative openness, a willingness to make space for the stories the story doesn’t tell, narratives ignored or squeezed out by the dominant metanarrative of faith and life.

A few years ago, President Wardlaw preached a sermon using the Joseph narrative in Genesis—Joseph’s arrogant dreams and his brothers’ hatred, his sale into Egyptian slavery, his rise to power in Pharaoh’s court, and his ultimate reunion with his family, now safely within his protection. Ted focused on Joseph’s final speech, in which Joseph looks back over the long arc of his story, and says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” When Ted read those words, the thought sprang into my mind: “Well, that works if you’re Joseph. But how about if you’re Issachar, the only brother whose story the story doesn’t tell?” That thought snatched up my imagination and ran off like a pickpocket down a crowded street. I didn’t hear another word Ted said. I decided to give Issachar a story. It’s not a hero story, but a story about what it feels like to be the not-chosen: the kid not picked for basketball, the dunce in the back of the class who never gets the answer right, the second choice for the coveted job, the runner-up, the also-ran, the guy who one day gets enough of it all and walks into school or work carrying a loaded AR-15. It’s not a hero story, but it is someone’s story, perhaps someone you know. Poetic hospitality invites us to imagine stories we do not hear, and visit worlds we do not live in. Maybe if we practiced a bit more hospitality, there would be fewer mass shootings. Here’s a poem:

The Dream-Coat: Issachar’s Tale
Gen 37 and 50:20

You meant it all for evil, but God meant it all for good
was what he said. Perhaps, but not from where I stood.
I was drowned in his endearment, undone in his desire,
rejected in his rescue, yet kindled by his fire.

Had it been left to me that day when Joseph topped the rise
I’d have stabbed the little prick as soon as I laid eyes
on that dream-coat—stuck him like a slaughtered sheep
and left him lying in the dirt to beg and bleed and bleat.

That dream-coat—so he called it, for he always wore his dreams
like blazes on its panels and piping at the seams—
See here, he said, the sun and moon and stars bow on my sleeves
and here I stand so tall and gold amid your sodden sheaves.

Don’t kill him, pleaded Reuven—always one to work the con—
and Judah said let’s sell him to those slavers coming yon
and divvy up the proceeds while they tie him to the board
and soak his coat in goat’s blood and tell Pa he was gored.

So we did the deed. Afterward I kept the coat—
A keepsake? A trophy? A hospice for a hope?
Lesser son of Leah, scion of the unloved spouse,
cursed to dream of flocks and streams and even of a house

of Issachar—I liked the sound of that. But years
of famine, death, and desert burn up everything but tears
and drive a man to Pharaoh’s land to barter dreams for food.
You meant it all for evil, but God meant it all for good.

They sing of Joseph’s wisdom, but it catches in my throat,
and even after all these years I scarce can touch the coat.
But dreams were written on it. They were written in my blood.
I do not know the difference between evil and the good.

This is what I know: here’s his body, wrapped and dressed,
encoffined for the nether world that waits upon the blessed.
Alone of all the brothers now I stand at Joseph’s pyre
and return the blood-stiff dream-coat to the one who lit the fire.
___________
A last word. In this place we engage in the enterprise of theological education. We pursue that enterprise with any of several aims in mind: preparing for ministry, exploring one’s faith, learning the classical disciplines of theological study. Allow me to add: peeling back the surface of the ordinary in order to peer into the face of the enchanted beauty that pulses beneath; listening for the voice of God humming the ancient, wordless song that vibrates below the basement vaults of creation. Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest poet of the imagination in the English language, once wrote of listening to a woman sing as she walked along the seashore, and how the words of the song she sang restructured the way he imagined the woman and the song and the sea and, ultimately, even himself. He ended the poem with these lines:

Oh, blessed rage for order, pale Ramon!
The makers rage to order words of the sea,
words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,
and of ourselves, and of our origins,
in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Here is my hope for you: that something of Stevens’s “blessed rage for order,” his yearning for “words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,” will begin to stir in you while you study here. I hope you will build a life-long friendship with your imagination. Let it restructure the way you look at everything: yourself, your loves, your world, even your God. Who knows? It might even make you a poet. It all starts when you look for angels in the laundry.

The Fire at Ensley High

Perhaps the fire began in the same room
where we read lines from Tempest and Othello,
or broke the bones of sentences with diagrams,
or probed the mystic realms of frog anatomy.
Perhaps the flames caught on where he taught civics
and government became too much a burden
for the floor and set the French ablaze—
Allons, enfants de la Patrie (“Tout ensemble!”)
le jour de gloire est arrivé! (“C’est bon!”
)—
At last the weight of Latin conjugations
amo-amas-sed, collapsed, and fell on trig,
reducing calculus to noxious slag.
Charred and smoldering soot, as black as coal,
dark Venus on a half-shell birthed in smoke.

Yet is this not but latest of the fires
lit where Hamlet questions his ontology
and language conjures magic on the tongue
and democracy is more than happy theory
and derivatives chart changes in our functions?
The fires sparked in these empty rooms
burn in a thousand places, for weal and woe,
where chemistry is more than fills a test tube
and physics limns a path to the divine.

Burn on! Give everything to fuel the blaze!
Bright against the blackboard of the night,
nec tamen consumebatur, nor shall be,
nor yet succumb to new day’s waxing sun.
Burn on! It is the maintenance of memory
will buff the floors and wipe the dust from desks
and clear a windowed prospect on the stars.
Burn on, and never let be thrown the deadbolt
to bar the possibilities of hope.
Burn on, bright beacon, burn while there is time.
The dawn is soon and we have much to learn.

[Note: The abandoned building that once housed my high school alma mater, Ensley High School in Birmingham, AL. burned a few nights ago. The building is almost certainly beyond repair and will, after standing for more than a century, be torn down. ]

All It Takes

for Allen

Tennessee creek at the bottom of the hill,
ankle deep at the waterline,
two young boys with a summer to kill;
and all it took was a little time.

Humid mornings, after a rain,
swollen current all stained with clay;
wait ‘til noon for the creek to drain
and the water to wash the stain away.

Crawfish pinchers can raise some blood;
learn to scoop them up from behind
before they scurry beneath the mud.
All it takes is a little time.

Flip a rock in the bed of the creek,
see them scuttle for a hole to hide in;
like children playing hide-n-seek—
the one game we would never win.

She calls from the porch when it’s time to go;
leave the water and begin the climb
up the hill and along the road.
All it takes is a little time.

So many rocks we never pried
up from the mud beneath the flow,
so many doors we never tried,
so many things we didn’t know.

Up the hill and along the road—
you from your house and me from mine—
and never a thought how far we’d go.
All it took was a little time.

The Quest for the Mythical Jesus

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, beside the lake….
—Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus

He comes to us.
We know his name.
It is the cause célèbre of the day—
we brook no opposition, are assured of
the purity of our own righteousness.
‘Tis the hour of the advocate, the true believer.
We believe. No room for doubt.

He comes to us.
We know the question.
It is Pilate’s query, writ anew:
What is justice? (Let alone, what truth?)
The answer on the lips is passion’s howl.
The time for talk is done: the streets are ours.
We march. No time for waiting.

He comes to us.
We know the story.
It is the fantasy of resurrection:
a managed little death, and then tomorrow
stones roll aside and we emerge unscathed
to build proud towers that will touch the sky.
We are kin. No king in “kin-dom.”

He comes to us.
We do not recognize him.
He is the eternal watcher on the shore
beside the lake, his mystery unguessed,
while we flail the water with empty nets.
His kingdom is not here. He weeps because
he knows no life but dying.

Blue-eyed Snake

What in the world is a blue-eyed snake?
A sign that things are surely changing,
that what is old is sloughing off,
not yet replaced by something new.
It’s hard to know just where you’re going
when you can’t see just where you are.

Snakes shed their skin. It’s how things are.
It must be hard to be a snake:
about the time you get things going
your eyes grow dim and things start changing.
You have no choice: you face the new
blind as a bat. The first thing off

is eyelid skin—before it’s off
it turns opaque, and your eyes are
useless and blue, like a new-
born. Don’t see blue eyes in snakes—
unlike with us, though ours keep changing,
a sign of how things may be going.

I can’t help wondering if what’s going
on with us is not far off
from snakes whose skin is always changing.
How vulnerable it seems we are
to fear of change. Like a snake
reflexively we hiss at new

threats perceived though unseen, new
apparitions in the fog, going
past us in the dark. A snake
will strike at you to warn you off.
I have a sense that’s how things are
with us when life is always changing—

new people keep arriving, changing
settled ways, insist on new
accommodations in how we are
used to speaking, used to going
about our days. Something’s off,
and we have learned to strike like snakes.

We’re holed up like a blue-eyed snake
blind and changing. But always off
ahead the new is where we’re going.