Sometimes poems can sound like prayers:
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
from Dream Work by Mary Oliver published by Atlantic Monthly Press © Mary Oliver
The Psalms are long poems, 150 of them. They are meant to be recited, even sung. The Psalms are poetic reflections on the lives of the Hebrew people. How might we poetically tell our stories? What would get the priority and what would not?
Hebrew poetry rhymes by repetition. Give ear to my words/give heed to my sighing. In the morning you hear my voice/in the morning I plead my case to you and watch. For you are not a God who delights in wickedness/evil will not sojourn with you. It’s meant to be a memory device. If you can’t remember the first part, maybe you can remember the second part. Those smart Biblical poets.
The psalms fall into different categories, like life is in different categories. There are praise psalms, lament psalms, dark night of the soul psalms. It’s no accident that psalms are often the best scriptures to read at a hospital bedside. They give voice to our deepest fears and our raging longing.
Today’s psalm is a Lamentation psalm. It follows a familiar pattern.
This Psalm contains the five typical pieces of a lamentation:
An invocation vv1,8,10
A complaint vv 4-6, 9
A petition vv1-3,8-11
Words of trust vv4-6
Words of praise v 7
When you lament, do you get to the praise section? The praise and trust words put our present grief in the larger context. “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down towards your holy temple in awe of you. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.” (Psalm 5:7-8)
Over what might you lament?
The speaker in the psalm is in trouble. Someone has brought a complaint against him. From the writer’s perspective, they are bearing false witness. And the writer asks God to take his or her side in the conflict. Convenient, don’t you think? We don’t know the specifics of the conflict, but we sympathize with a brother or sister done wrong. But what if both sides think they are right and both appeal to God using the same language? The psalmist is demanding that God take his side and punish the evildoers. He takes no responsibility for his part in the conflict. He is pleading for vindication and divine retribution. Good thing we can’t see ourselves in such a prayer.
The psalm is directed toward the choir director, to be accompanied with flutes. Flutes are not angry instruments. They are ethereal. I’m not sure they fit. Kind of like a sad banjo song.
Verse 7 affirms that God loves him, the psalmist. Unanswered is the question of whether God loves his opponent. Luckily the Psalmist asks for help in taking the straight and righteous path.
In Israeli theology, God is just and therefore when God rules justice reigns. But in this psalm it doesn’t quite work out that way. Were that it were so much easier.
We know plenty of examples where the wicked get away with murder while the righteous are punished. And when that happens, we get the existential crisis: well if evil triumphs, then maybe God is not just. Maybe God is not in charge. What’s the use? I think the Psalmist struggles with this conviction. He wants to believe that God is in control but the circumstances of life are messing with his sense of reality. Or reality is messing with his theology. We’ve been there and done that.
The writer appeals to God to show divine justice. The psalmist uses poetry to remind God of God’s nature—or is it to remind the writer of God’s nature. It’s almost like a “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude.
The complaint seems to be against words people have said. Words can often hurt more than a physical blow. V. 6 calls people bloodthirsty, wicked, evil, boastful, liars and deceitful. Tell us how you really feel…
I think about this as I prepare for the Biennial. I am looking forward to seeing colleagues and to celebrate the good work that the ABC does in the world. And yet, I have been to biennials before when the words have been toxic and downright abusive. Which will show up this time? Maybe a little of both. Maybe I need the deliverance words of the Psalmist, reminding me whom I serve and whose I am.
Verse 8 calls god to lead the Psalmist in the paths of righteousness. Meaning, don’t let the words or actions of someone, especially if it’s abusive hold your soul captive.
My daughter Becca is a budding poet. Here’s the chorus of a song she wrote last year but posted on Facebook last night:
"As you relive your nightmares, they aren't just dreams,
you cannot help thinking of your soul breaking at the seams.
Higher you try to climb,
the more you realize all the wasted time.
And just when you think you have done right,
you fall with a never ending fright
the rain pours down
but I'm turning around,
gonna walk away
from what you say."
-Becca Donley, chorus of Burning Heart.
Edwin Friedman has noted that when a leader becomes an agent for healthy change in any system—family, church, or nation—one should expect “sabotage” in response to the healthy change. As Friedman says, it “comes with the territory.
Renegade Southern Baptist preacher turned writer Will Campbell died a week and a half ago at the young age of 88. He was a prolific author a poet, or at least his words read like poetry. He worked for integration and rights and was the only white preacher present at the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. He hobnobbed with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy and members of the Ku Klux Klan. He galled his liberal allies by respecting his most racist neighbors as sisters and brothers. He took Jesus’ words to love his enemies seriously and tried to practice it. He reminded those who would listen that poor white folk were victims of an economic system designed to keep rural folk poor and make urban folk rich.
How do we focus our lives?
What is worthy of poetry?
What struggles demand to be put in verse?
What alienation needs to dissipate?
Where do we hear or seek God’s purpose?
I did take the opportunity to put my thoughts into verse way back in January. My Dad was on the cusp of transitioning from this world to the next and fighting insomnia, worry and deep loneliness even though I was surrounded by my loving family, I wrote these words in the dark night of my soul. On Father’s Day, I remember them and I share them with you.
January 3, 2013
Rest, old man, rest.
While your family keeps vigil near and far
You’re already on your way
Beyond the veil
Across the field
Among the trees
Where serenity abounds
And peace surrounds you at last
Rest old man, rest
Thanks for the lessons taught
By intent and by inaction
Thanks for campfires and pup tents
Thanks for pancakes and messy attempts at gourmet cooking
Thanks for standing by me when I didn’t believe in myself
Thanks for being the man I wanted to be,
and then stepping aside when we both saw the flaw
Thanks for recovery and the desire to get better
Thanks for wounds mended as best you could
Thanks for deathbed confessions
Thanks for real-life consequences
Thanks for the lessons of loyalty to family
Thanks for the wonder of possibility—
always out there, always striving, never quite getting it.
Now you get it.
Rest, old man, rest
How might we spend the time we have with each other, our one wild precious life? What words might we use? Or better yet, what poetry will you create by your actions?
Blessings and peace, sisters and brothers.