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At Your Request: A Personal Annotated Reading List for EfM–Part 1

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

I serve as a mentor for Education for Ministry (EfM) in my Episcopal parish. EfM is an international four-year program in which small groups meet weekly to discuss and reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures, The New Testament, Church History, and theological philosophy. (For more information, visit efm.sewanee.edu)

Earlier this year, members of my group asked me to keep a list of recommended readings to share with them periodically. Here is the first installment I provided them.

1) Theodore Buechner. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. Harper & Collins, 1993.–This is the first of three books Buechner has written about the vocabulary of faith; it is a quick and informative introduction to his theological thinking.

2) St. Benedict of Nursia. Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book. Ampleforth Abbey Press. First Reprint 1994. –Benedict is the famous abbot and author of “The Rule” for the Benedictine Order of Monastics. The full title of this little book is St Benedict’s Prayer Book for Beginners. Roman Catholics appreciate Benedict’s instruction, and all persons of faith should become familiar with it.

3) Corinne Ware. Saint Benedict on the Freeway. Abingdon Press. 2001.–Corinne Ware was a spiritual director and professor of pastoral theology at The Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Her casual and conversational introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict is a perfect handbook for EfM-ers diving into Christian contemplation and meditation.

4) Kathleen Norris. The Cloister Walk. Riverhead Books. 1996.–A reviewer wrote of this book, “Why would a married woman with a thoroughly Protestant background and often more doubt than faith be drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism?” Norris, a prize-winning poet, admits this was precisely her question, and she answers by detailing her experience as an oblate in a Benedictine monastery in North Dakota.

5) C. (Clive) S. (Staples) Lewis. The Screwtape Letters. Harper Collins, 1996 (original, 1942).–If you know nothing about C.S. Lewis, let this classic work be your introduction; if you know lots about C.S. Lewis, go back and tackle this book again. Be prepared to confront your own Screwtape and Wormwood.

6) Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. William Morrow. 1991.–Rabbi Telushkin’s best-selling catalog of “The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History,” reads like an encyclopedia with 346 entries, but contains much more fun and wisdom than most encyclopedias–including Wikipedia! A must read (or perusal) for Year-One EfM-ers.

7) Eugene H. Peterson. Eat This Book. Eerdmans. 2006.–After a long career as a Presbyterian pastor, Peterson became a professor and prolific author. His most widely known book is his translation of the Bible known as The Message. Almost everything he has written provides excellent guidance to readers of the Scriptures. This volume will help anyone become a better Bible reader.

8) Brennan Manning. The Ragamuffin Gospel. Multnomah Publishing. 1990.–Manning was a Franciscan priest who battled alcoholism throughout his adult life to the point of the Franciscan Order laicizing him; that is, defrocking him as a priest. He began writing somewhat late in his life and became a spokesperson for “radical grace.” Before his death in 2013, he wrote or co-wrote about 20 books, and was once accused of out-Luther-ing Martin Luther. He referred to himself as Abba’s Ragamuffin. The Ragamuffin Gospel is his best-known book.

9) Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books. 1998.–Another book that stresses the importance of vocabulary, especially the often esoteric and bewildering vocabulary of faith and religion. Norris writes a great deal about her struggles and growth with the vocabulary of her spiritual journey. I think of this as her Autobiographical Dictionary. As do Buechner and Telushkin, Norris gives us an understanding of the often mysterious and strange words we encounter in our EfM experience.

10) Helen Cepero. Journaling as a Spiritual Practice: Encountering God Through Attentive Writing. IVP Books. 2008.–Cepero’s title is self-disclosing. Keeping a journal can provide a powerful aid to weekly EfM sessions, and to theological reflection. I urge everyone to give it a try. This book is one of the best guides.

11) Sara Miles. Take This Bread. This memoir unveils a woman whose father told her she’d be much better off spending her Sabbath mornings reading The Sunday New York Times instead of going to church. After dabbling in scores of adventures, thrills, and happenings into her adult years, an incidental Eucharistic event in a California Episcopal Church changed her life. She writes of her encounter with “crumbly” bread and “sweet” wine that “Jesus happened.”

12) Dee Brown. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1970.–One of my sad admissions as I grow older is this: I should have read this book 40 years ago. Some might say this book doesn’t belong on a spiritual booklist. However, every American who has any concern about social justice, and every person who believes in “loving one’s neighbor as oneself,” ought to read this tragic chronicle of history that followed Christopher Columbus’s first encounter with “Indians” in the Carribean. I will never again blithely refer to our American heritage as “a nation of immigrants.” This brutal history also can teach us much about the ugly tribal events recorded in parts of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

The wonder of wondering

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Many years ago I conjured up a meditative note that may well be the best thing I’ve ever written. It went:

“The wonder of wonders is that I am able to wonder.”

My blog has been silent for about two months–part of it is technical with my server–but let me jump start it again with some gathered wisdom from a desk calendar of meditations I purchased for myself at Christmas time of 2017.

“Whatever you do, Carpe the heck out of that Diem!”

–attributed to the Roman poet Horace, slightly paraphrased by Gabriel Brangers, a writer/reviewer at Google, and popularized in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society.”

“Be the ball.”

–a line from the 1980 golf comedy film “Caddyshack.”

“Forget about enlightenment, just become a nicer person; this is already a difficult practice.”

–Tenzin Palmo, Tibetan Buddhist, born Diane Perry in Herefordshire, England.

“When you have to make a choice, and you don’t make it, that is itself a choice.”

–William James, psychologist, and philosopher.

“The first key to wisdom is assiduous and frequent questioning. For by doubting we come to inquiry and by inquiry we arrive at the truth.”

–Peter Abelard, French theologian, and philosopher of the 13th century.

“Teach me, like you, to drink creation whole/And, casting out my self, become a soul.”

–Richard Wilbur, American poet (1921-2017); two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

“Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever you already are.”

–The Dalai Lama

“Life is an unanswered question, but let’s still believe in the dignity and importance of the question.”

–Tennessee Williams, American playwright.

“One bird sits still/ Watching the work of God:/ One turning leaf, /Two Falling blossoms, /Ten circles upon the pond.”

–Thomas Merton, Cistercian monk, and writer.

Aboard my virtual cruiser called QWERTY

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

(This entry is copied for the most part from my journal entry of November 2015, in a notebook I called “Writing as Athletic Activity.”) 

This post probably should be called “My Life as a Vicarious Travel Writer.”

Armchair travel is an outdated term. (For one thing, how many 21st-century scribes write from an armchair?) Armchair travel has been supplanted by travel aboard a computer screen and a laptop keyboard.

A few years ago, I jumped aboard my QWERTY keypad and traveled to Greenland, to a tiny outpost on the western side of the icebound colony of Denmark called Ilulissat Icefjord. The city, formerly known as Jacobshaven, has more sledge dogs than people but is the third largest city in Greenland.

This place lies near the Arctic Circle, and its residents live in darkness for a good part of the year during winter. Its November temperatures hover around 5 degrees or 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tourists can cruise into Ilulissat, but I went aboard Microsoft’s Bing gallery on November 6, 2015, aboard an Edge web browser.

Going pictorially into Ilulissat and its Disko Bay environs had me extending my trip (via Google Maps) due south to Newfoundland where I scouted and probed several of the northern bays around the birthplace of my parents in Bonavista Bay.

I plan to make several more vicarious trips.

I was surprised to find in an issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly (November 8, 2015) a brief essay written by Robert Klose, a kind of flash non-fiction piece called, “I find warmth in Greenland.”

As a child, Klose dreamed of polar bears, ice, vastness, and Vikings after first hearing and understanding the word “Greenland.” As an adult, he decided to visit and planned a trip that required him to fly to Iceland first and then from Reykjavik on a prop plane to Greenland and by boat to a south coastal settlement beside a fjord called Qassiarsuk. In that remote location, he had arranged to stay in the family-run Illunnguujuk Hostel that welcomed visitors to the outpost with a population of 89.

Arriving at the hostel, he discovered that another lone traveler, mistaken by the hosts to be Klose, had been booked into his reserved spot.

Klose’s hostelers, embarrassed but undeterred, told him, “don’t worry,” and while he spent some time visiting local Viking ruins, a berth was prepared for him in a tiny house the family owned in the settlement. He was not only welcomed to a comfortable bed, but also invited to dine with the family, where three generations of Inuit natives speaking an Inuit dialect, Danish, and English, introduced him to their homeland and its way of life.

Klose had planned this to be his only trip to Greenland, but the hospitality of his newfound friends made him think again. He wrote, “I can now say that I have friends in Greenland and that even a cold, empty, and silent landscape is worth visiting, so long as one has a warm and welcoming place to go.”

Inspired by Klose’s discovery, I got aboard my Google Maps and Wikipedia vessels and went in search of Qassiarsuk, vicariously seeking the wisdom of his words.

E-nerds may call it browsing, but I was on a luxury cruise.

FLASH DIARY: (from a dream) Remember the Sabbath

Friday, August 10th, 2018
Jay advises his wife on the running of her event-planning business.

One of her employees plans to take the day of the event off as a family day. The group labors over last-minute plans for the event, and Martha, Jay’s wife, says “Oh! This is going to be so much harder with Evelyn taking the day off.”

“She should be there,” Jay chimes in. “Every employee should be required to work every day, especially the day of an event.”

Alice, Martha’s mother, a gentle woman who rarely speaks–especially to contradict another–says, “If you’re going to require that every employee has to be at work every day, then there ought to be a day when every employee doesn’t have to be at work.”

“Sort of like a Sabbath,” Martha says.

The conversation stalls for a long minute.

“I never thought of it that way, but, yes, there ought to be such a day,” Jay says.

Pondering a career–another memoir episode

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018
The first week I was assigned to the local news desk as a reporter for The Boston Globe, my city editor asked me to make a list of a dozen stories I’d like to explore. I came up with about 15 projects and eventually wrote news or feature stories on four or five of them.

One of those stories began with an interview at Harvard with the semi-retired B. F. Skinner, the icon of behaviorist psychology (he preferred his field be called operant learning). My story on Skinner ran in a weekend edition and also ran later in The Los Angeles Times.

It was a memorable opportunity for me as a young reporter. On the phone when I called to try to set up the interview, Skinner asked about my background and was pleased and much more cordial and open upon learning that I’d been an undergraduate psychology major.

We met in Skinner’s office/lab on the Cambridge campus, and during my time with him, he was visited by a daughter and grandchild. It became an insightful human and relaxed time for me to be with him as his doting-grandfather personality leaped to life.

At the time, Skinner battled cancer of the saliva gland. He carried a roll of toilet paper with him wherever he moved about the room, frequently wiping his mouth and lips, and he spent several minutes expounding the practical benefit of his toilet paper over a box of tissues in dealing with his symptoms.

During our discussion, I learned he had graduated from Hamilton College in New York and dreamed of becoming a writer. As an undergraduate, he attended the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.

Of course, Skinner became a best-selling author, first with his fictional technological vision called Walden II, and later with Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a treatise on the application of deterministic behaviorism to social and political issues.

Did his career determination fulfill his collegiate writing dream?

Why didn’t I ask him that question?

—————————————

My published story is among several collected at: 
https://arainprint.blogspot.com/

Memoir: Journal Writing

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018
I began keeping a journal, probably something I called a diary, in my late teens, mostly for recording my thoughts and feelings about life as a late adolescent grappling with self-identity. I cannot locate that collection now.

My first attempts at poetry were in an English class at Brooklyn’s P.S. 154 (also known as The Windsor School because of its location in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood). Mrs. Bjornson, I recall, taught us how to write cinquains.

I’ve never forgotten those poetic efforts; though; again, I can’t put my hands on my earliest manuscripts. The experience, however, probably implanted a preference for short forms like haiku, tanka, six-word stories, epigrams, and–yes–cinquains. Additionally, my cinquain awakening probably explains my delight at the recent popularity of so-called “flash” fiction.

Also, my lifelong journal-keeping has probably implanted in me a hoarding of short, meaningful quotations, sayings, and inspirations, the kind that fill Page-A-Day calendars.

The first poem I remember spending painful days constructing produced my teenaged lament concerning the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team relocating to Los Angeles. Into that poem, now lost, I poured my love of baseball and favorite players along with a teenager’s anguish and anger with the ownership that absconded, taking my heroes to the Western Ocean.

A couplet lingers in my brain:

“I still see you, Carl Furillo,
Ajax-armed defending Bedford’s wall.”

Incidentally, I remain a faithful and avid fan of the Dodgers. I never liked or respected the blowhard cheerleading of Tommy Lasorda who managed the Los Angeles team to a few championships. Nevertheless, I understand his sentiment that he “bleeds Dodger blue.”

More importantly, the Brooklyn Dodgers and their early owner Branch Rickey taught me powerful lessons about courage and brotherhood. Against the customs and prejudices of organized baseball, the team signed the most talented player of the decade, an African-American, UCLA All-Star named Jackie Robinson, who made baseball and social justice history before he was forty.

And, the Dodgers provided me with new heroes such as Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, their Kentucky-born shortstop who openly embraced and defended Robinson against the racist sins of other players.

——————————————-

Baseball–a cinquain

Baseball:
a game for men
who remain boys throwing,
batting, catching, sliding, without
a clock.

Additions to my anthology of favorite poems: Mary Oliver’s Praying–plus one other

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones;  just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Praying” by Mary Oliver,
From Thirst: Poems. © Beacon Press, 2007.

++++++++++

We are in the season of remembrances associated with Memorial Day. So, I share a slightly revised poem I wrote decades ago that has The Korean War in its background. This poem is an imaginary confrontation of a son with his father, but the imagery draws on the Army experience of my late oldest brother, an excellent baseball player. During the Korean War, he was kept back from being shipped to Korea and instead assigned to Special Services to play baseball against teams of GI units stationed overseas as well as national teams in Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia. He was called Mason, after my deaf uncle in Newfoundland. My wife and I named our youngest son after them. (Incidentally, my mother never lost a tooth playing baseball. That image is drawn from my time as a college women’s softball coach and happened to one of our catchers.)

++++++++++

Singing from a Crouch

I am of a line of catchers whose knees creak at the bend
and whose cheeks protrude from their embrace of ’baccy.
Even my mother’s smile shows the legacy: a chipped tooth
smashed by a bat that swung, missed, and slid through
the cross-bars of her mask. And she recalls in her telling,
“I held the third strike.”

My father beat death in Korea with baseball, plucked from
a platoon of gunners who died on an Osan hill and shipped
with Special Services to catch the professional offerings
of Curt Simmons, ex-Cardinal, ex-Phillie, and to tour
the spas of Switzerland and the baths of Russia
between ballgames.

His father before him made it to Double-A
and dirtied his Raleigh-Durham uniform and the spikes
of opposing batters with wads of Red Man expectoration
just before each pitch, or so my father tells it
in boyish admiration that I cannot mimic, as I cannot
hold his pitches.

Dad speaks from a crouch, lowering himself to
Little League level and acting out memories
of the diamond, skipping the dead boot-camp buddies,
lily-white locker rooms, brawls with German teams,
and Curt Simmons cutting several toes off his foot
with a lawnmower.

I pitch him hints that a singer roars in my breast
not a catcher and no chest protector can keep my words
from getting out and hurting in their hatred of
a boys’ game for men. He sees me sitting behind my guitar,
and he tells me I look like a catcher with an oversized
mitt for knuckleballs.

“From behind the plate”—his favorite entree to a story
—“you look into the faces of all your teammates.”
And, yes, one thousand times he reminds anyone
that a catcher squats legally and of the nine waits alone
in foul ground. I fouled his ground as this poem swelled
in my hands and mouth.

“My Daddy—your Granddad—was a singer,” he told me,
and I was captive to surprise. “He loved to sing old hymns.”
(My father’s faith died with a letter from Korea:
“God,” he insists, “throws nothing but curveballs.”)
“And your Grandmother played the organ,” he added.
“She loved to play Largo.”

When I hungered for more, he sang me ingrained lines
from “Abide With Me,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
When I was vulnerable, bent in the heart’s probe for details,
he told me Granddad stopped singing when Grandmom died
young. “I guess,” my father concluded, “he discovered
you can’t sing from a crouch.”

*Published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring, 2002, p. 111.

The Royal Wedding and Spiritual Songs

Sunday, May 20th, 2018
An estimated 29.2 million viewers tuned-in to the May 19th televised wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and his American bride, Meghan Markle.

I’ll guess that number diminished during the 13 minutes the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, preached about the power of love.

In my view, those who tuned-out the bishop, for whatever distraction, missed the most compelling 13 minutes of the gorgeous ceremony.

With that in mind, I encourage you to watch or re-watch Bishop Curry’s wedding homily.

[Click underscored links to watch videos.]

I was particularly impressed with the bishop’s noting the language of the spiritual There is a Balm in Gilead, one of many songs I learned in the Baptist Church that nurtured me.

Bishop Curry grew up in Western New York and learned countless gospel songs from his devout Episcopal parents and grandmother.

The bishop has immortalized his hymn-singing legacy in a 2015 book, Songs My Grandma Sang,(1) and he is known to break into song frequently while preaching.

In that book, Bishop Curry demonstrates the power of song and poetry to reach beyond our minds to our spirits and touch what the writer Maggie Ross (2) discusses as our “deep mind” that often learns when we experience true silence.

I have often thought and suggested to others that I learned more theology from hymn books with their poetic renderings than from the many scholarly tomes I was encouraged to read.

Bishop Curry’s scriptural texts for the royal wedding came from The Song of Solomon and the Epistles of John, both focussing on love.

Prince Harry and his bride, the new Duchess of Sussex, chose as their wedding song, the top-hit song “Stand By Me,” recorded in 1961 by Ben E. King. They’ll probably listen to it often.

I’d encourage them to listen also to the spiritual that Bishop Curry suggested, “There is a Balm In Gilead.”

 

(1) Curry, Michael. Songs My Grandma Sang. NY: Morehouse Publishing, (Church Publishing Inc.) 2015.
(2) Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide: Vol. I: Process. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock), 2014.

Introducing my fake haiku, or “faiku”

Sunday, May 6th, 2018
After a two-month hiatus in my postings, I’m ready to return to keeping a fortnightly (or perhaps even weekly) schedule.

To my chagrin, National Poetry Month has come and gone during my quietude, so among my promises will be some favorite poems for your reading and reflection.

My fascination with six-word stories, essays, poems, prayers, and paraphrases continues; although, many undoubtedly find my six-word offerings a kind of “fake” haiku.

So, I’ve employed a new name for these six-word offerings: “faiku,” (best used without capitalization to avoid confusion with persons having the surname Faiku).

With that caveat, here’s three I wrote in the past two months:

  1. Biography of President Trump:
    “Lie, lie, lie; deny, deny, deny.”
  2. A rule from the Sermon on the Mount:
    “But,” Jesus said, “Love Your Enemies.”
  3. A Prayer for Donald Trump:
    “Lord, have mercy on Donald Trump.”

Memoir 4: The Magic of Musical Memory

Monday, February 26th, 2018
I never hear the Kenny Rogers’ recording of “The Gambler” without recalling an editor colleague in Boston who spontaneously broke into singing Rogers’ song while we line-checked stories and wrote headlines on the copy-desk.

During our tenures on the Boston copy desk, I sang in a neighborhood choral group, and I discovered during a summer choral festival that Billy also sang in his neighborhood concert choir.

But even that discovery of the shared love of choral singing didn’t match Billy’s workplace confession that he loved to sing “The Gambler.”

Billy also frequently complimented an investigative writer at the newspaper, noting that particular writer was “Just one of three journalists in the world who understands the proper use of a semicolon.”

That comment drove me to strengthen my grasp of semicolon usage.

I only worked with Billy for a few years, but two things I sadly recall: he once severely cut his hand as he pressed down the contents of a trash can at home that was hiding broken glass. Also, I learned several years after I left Boston that Billy had died young–in his mid-40s–from what his obituary described as “a massive heart attack.”

However, my most vivid image of him comes from those times during a lull on the copy desk when Billy broke into song with the lines “you’ve got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em.”

Come to think of it; those words could be an adage for copy editors! And, yes, Billy had a performer’s baritone singing voice.

Then there’s my boyhood remembrance of George, who taught me the word bandolier, and the name of a place called The Vale of Tralee.

George was a late-comer to our conglomerate of friends growing as teenagers in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.

He had dropped out of school and became a member of a street gang. About the time he turned seventeen, George, through the influence of parents, friends, and probably a couple of priests, was re-enrolled in St. Michael’s High School in Bay Ridge.

There he befriended several of my neighborhood friends, and he began hanging out with us, a tiny group of mostly Irish, Roman Catholic choirboys and altar boys, and me, the lone Protestant in the entourage.

George and I discovered a mutual enjoyment of singing, and he began teaching me the Irish songs he knew and loved.

“The Irish Soldier Boy,” one of George’s favorites, taught me the word bandolier, and I can still hear George’s melodious tenor singing the line, “and with loving arms around his waist, she tied his bandolier.” In a way, this song expressed George’s thinking about maternal love and courage. I like to believe these ideas he absorbed from singing had rescued him from juvenile delinquency.

George also taught me the opening verse of “The Rose of Tralee,” a sad Irish love song. Ingrained in my brain because of George are the lines, “Yet, ’twas not her beauty alone that won me; Oh, no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning, that made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.”

This song had been popular during my young years through earlier recordings of the Irish tenor Dennis Day and crooner Bing Crosby, but even those stars didn’t sing “The Rose of Tralee” like George.

I later discovered Tralee is a bay on the southwestern coast of County Kerry in Ireland, and today the Vale of Tralee is the name given the stadium of the Tralee Rugby Football Club.

Memory tells me George, who wasn’t a skilled player in our games of stickball, softball, or baseball in our Brooklyn neighborhood, probably would have been a superior rugby player.

Incidentally, we all learned from boyhood matches at the PAL (Police Athletic League) gym that George was an excellent boxer.

I mostly remember that George and Billy sure loved to sing, and they taught me lifelong lessons about semicolons, Ireland, and the power of singing.

It’s a shame there isn’t a Hall of Fame for singing copy editors and boyhood boxers.

 

Winter installment: My Anthology of Favorite Poems

Sunday, February 4th, 2018
Having fallen slightly behind in steering readers during each season to four poems that I have added to my personal favorites anthology, I’m changing my approach a bit. I am following Robert Pinsky’s suggestion that building such an anthology must come from writing out each poem (not just reading, memorizing, or cataloging it) line by line, word by word, placing each letter, word, and punctuation mark on one’s copy paper with one’s own hand-held writing instrument (3).

I’ve decided that instead of just referencing these poems for readers of this blog to track down, I am going to write a favorite poem out for you to consider. (I’ve done this for myself with each poem I’ve previously selected, but I have only shared my copying once before.)

My poem for the winter of 2018 is “Praise Song” by Lucille Clifton (1).

I discovered Clifton’s poetry as a young professor teaching at a community college. I rediscovered this particular poem of hers last week while perusing Billy Collins’ 2003 anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. (2)

Praise Song
By Lucille Clifton

to my aunt blanche
who rolled from grass to driveway
into the street one sunday morning.
I was ten.              I had never seen
a human woman hurl her basketball
body into the traffic of the world.
Praise to the drivers who stopped in time.
Praise to the faith with which she rose
after some moments then slowly walked
sighing back to her family.
Praise to the arms which understood
little or nothing of what it meant
but welcoming her in without judgment,
accepting it all like children might,
like God.

References:

(1) Clifton, Lucille. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poetry (1988-2000), Rochester: BOA Editions. 2000.

(2) Collins, Billy. Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. New York: Random House. 2003.

–Collins compiled this anthology as a project during his years as America’s Congressional Poet Laureate. It is aimed primarily at high school students encouraging them to read a poem every one of the 180 days they are required to be in school.
The Library of Congress maintains an annually updated version of Collins’ anthology at https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/p180-list.html. Sadly, the poem of Clifton, who died in 2010, has been replaced in the latest online iteration.

(3) Pinsky, Robert. Singing School: Learning to Read (and Write) Poetry by Studying With the Masters. New York: W. W. Norton. 2003.

To be known by God (Psalm 139:1-6)

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018
“Even before a word is on my tongue (or in my pen), O Lord, you know it completely.” (Ps. 139:4, NRSV, emphasis mine).

Anyone seeking a confident statement about belief in an omnipotent and immanent God need only reflect on this Psalm.

The spiritual writer Laura Mariko Cheifetz, writing in These Days, the Presbyterian devotional she edits in Decatur, Georgia, notes that being known is both disconcerting and comforting.

Cheifetz includes a prayer with her meditation:

Holy One, you know me better than I know myself. Thank you for loving me. Amen.

Agreed.

And, Holy One, thank you also for knowing me better than I know myself.

Many Christians learned as children in Sunday School the poem turned song called “Jesus Loves Me,” written in 1860 by the New York poet Anna Bartlett Warner. (A musical update was published in 1865 adding verses and the familiar “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” chorus.)

A few years ago during a Christian Formation discussion in my parish, I mentioned my memory of the song of my Sunday School days: “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

A woman in the group jotted down the verse the way it had been modified in her experience: “Jesus Knows Me, This I Love.” Her shared note revolutionized my reflection.

The writer of Psalm 139 seems as concerned and grateful for being known by God as for being loved by God.

Of course, knowing and loving are intimately linked.

Being known by God: Don’t you just love it?

Re-discovering a contemplative aid

Saturday, December 30th, 2017
I tried to keep a devotional reading schedule for the Advent season of 2017. Well ahead of the first Sunday of Advent I began surveying various aids and booklets produced from a variety of sources.

Keeping this schedule proved more difficult than I anticipated. I almost settled on a booklet produced by The Living Compass Ministry associated with the Episcopal Church entitled Living Well Through Advent 2017, and subtitled Practicing Wonder With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind.

Being a big fan of the human ability to wonder, I began a daily reading of this little booklet.

Alongside that, I planned to read N.T. Wright’s newest book in his “For Everyone” collection called Advent for Everyone: A Journey With the Apostles, published by the Westminster/John Knox Press.

I struggled to continue through Christmas with these small books, but on the evening of the Second Sunday in Advent, I fell across a 140-minute filmed concert of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Collegium 1704 of Czechoslovakia, conducted by its director, Vaclav Luks.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28ywAdw5slY).

The concert reminded me of an exposition I’d read about this classic oratorio nearly ten years ago: Messiah: The Gospel According to Handel’s Oratorio, by Roger A. Bullard. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).

I began re-reading Bullard’s book and discovered it to be as much the devotional guide I’d been seeking as any of the others I examined.

Let me note that Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio especially for Easter and thus provides a devotional for the church’s Lenten Season. However, the text–or libretti–is an anthology of scripture compiled by Handel’s friend, Charles Jennens. Relying on the King James Bible and the Psalms as rendered in The Book of Common Prayer, Jennen’s text is dominated by the prophets, the Psalms, and the gospels.

Bullard’s excellent commentary proves itself a devotional for the entire Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-Lenten seasons. Reading it while listening to the aforementioned concert is providing me with a wonder-filled time of contemplation and joy.

Anne Lamott on Jonah and God’s Mercy

Thursday, December 14th, 2017
In analyzing the Biblical story of Jonah, Anne Lamott skips to the chase, reminding us that children love the story of Jonah and a whale swallowing a man even though the “big fish” (for textual purists) plays a surprisingly minor role.

The meat of the story unfolds after Jonah, en route to Tarshish, is swallowed and “burped onto dry land and, despite his best efforts, ends up in Nineveh, where God had told him to go all along.”

Lamott, in her latest book (Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. Riverhead Books: New York, 2017), is describing how Jonah comes face-to-face with a lesson about God’s mercy, and it has very little to do with this minor prophet surviving a storm after being swallowed by a sea beast.

Simply put, Jonah hates the Ninevites, which in part is why he tried to escape his mission by going in the opposite direction. He anticipates they are a despiteful and despicable lot who won’t pay any heed to a prophet’s message from God. As Lamott notes, these are the Evil Empire of Jonah’s day. Jonah thinks God should simply destroy them and be done with it. So, after his regurgitation to Nineveh, the prophet grudgingly spends one day bringing the Word of the Lord to these ingrates, and, would you believe, they listen and repent! (To borrow Lamott’s vision: Imagine Captain Kirk preaching repentance to the Klingons).

Their conversion doesn’t impress Jonah, however, and he sullenly goes off moaning, and groaning, and lost in his meanness because God has not destroyed the Ninevites.

Here, the story seems to get anticlimactic and boring as Jonah, still feeling sorry for himself, asks God to take his life. He sits under a bush to sulk about the unlikely genuineness of the Ninevites repentance. And God causes the bush to grow and shade Jonah in his discomfort, and–another barely noticed mercy–to make Jonah “very happy about the bush” (Jonah 4:6b).

Then a worm attacks the bush, leaving Jonah hot and unhappy again, and God asks the crucial question: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

With a touch of contemporary crudeness, Lamott rephrases God’s question and argument: “Jonah, WTF? Mercy for a tree but not a people?”

Even before revising God’s query, Lamott beautifully expresses the lesson of Jonah’s experience: “Even when the worst people on earth undergo a change of heart, God in God’s infinite love and goodness changes his mind.”

Jesus expresses God’s mercy similarly: “Love your enemies.”

Read Lamott’s book. She tells how she came to write about mercy: “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

How to become a writer–just do it.

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017
When Bill DuBois, the managing editor of The Muncie (Indiana) Star during the ’60s and ’70s, asked what moved me to give up graduate school and apply for a job as a reporter, my response was: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”

I had this interview in the late 1960s when I was in my 20s. DuBois gave me an editing test, told me he’d get back to me, and a week later called to offer me a job as a county reporter.

I spent a year in Muncie covering the Delaware County government. Mostly, I wrote about the county commissioners, the courts, the school board, and several other county officials.

I got to cover state officials when they visited Indiana to campaign for some project they were pushing or showed up to support a colleague seeking reelection.

When DuBois learned that I’d spent a year in graduate school mostly trying to master statistical analysis (the psychologists I worked with called it multivariate analysis), he assigned me to do a pre-election survey of the county and try to predict the winners. (We predicted every winner but one!)

DuBois turned out to be one of the best editors I’ve had in my twenty years in newsrooms (and he is among the best of colleagues I’ve known in another two decades in classrooms). He not only was an excellent hands-on editor, but he was an intelligent and caring teacher.

However, DuBois did not (nor did any other editor I’ve worked under) divulge journalism’s dirty little secret; which is: Journalism does nothing to make one a writer, except perhaps introduce you to an army of generally competent line editors, few of whom are committed writers.

Incidentally, I’ve discovered that colleagues at the places where I’ve served as a teacher also lack a drive to write unless they are in writing departments where they would, for the most part, rather write than teach.

Journalism does provide an exciting playground for someone who likes words; one gets to play with them all day.

The author W.H. Auden once was asked how one could learn to be a poet. He responded that it appeared to him that people who become poets “like to hang around words.”

Journalism will provide a chance to hang around words, but if one wants to be a writer, the best advice comes in one word: WRITE! Or as the Nike ad puts it: “Just Do It!”

That sounds like something Bill DuBois might have said decades before Nike.