Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Lord, may your Spirit course through us today,
this day of mourning for those lives blown out,
of impotence transmuted into rage,
of fear that’s masquerading as a shout.

Breathe, Spirit, that the one deprived of breath
may in his perishing bring something new
in this divided, dismal land; may death
bring life to justice, righteousness, and truth.

Come, Spirit, bring your love, defeating hate,
convict obdurate hearts of racial sin
burn off what separates us with your flame,
and blow away excuses with your wind.
Lord, we are lost unless you offer aid;
come recreate us once again as kin.

Pentecost, by El Greco

Listen.

All is still.
The wind is barely breathing.
Trees unstirring stand and meditate.
Clouds slide along the pliant sky.

Listen.

Stillness isn’t silence.
A single car sighs along a road;
aside from that, bird voices
are the only sounds
that palpitate the air.

Listen.

There’s an incessant trilling
that perforates the soundscape,
next a sharp scold, a deep-throated caw,
a quiet moan, and two notes flipped
back and forth incessantly
like fidgeting with sound.

Listen.

Hear the lavish chorus:
yearning and supplication,
thanksgiving and lament,
the full psalter percolates in song.

Listen.

Receive.

Listen.

Rest.

Listen.

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

I continue to write poems every Sunday. Recently, I’ve focused on the devastation caused by the coronavirus. Yesterday I wrote about the remarkable ways in which our life in the public places of society have changed. The poem ends with Lamentations 3:26: “It is good to wait in silence/for the salvation of the Lord.” The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC., so it has much to say about life in times of sorrow and hardship.

Chairs sit in shuttered restaurants,
waiting like forsaken dogs for the return
of those who might not come.

Plazas have been emptied of the thousands
who once poured through them like sand;
just a few grains remain.

Cars that used to prance about mostly stand
in their stalls, hoping for the day they will
return to roaming.

The city’s hum and throb has ceased,
engines stilled as the hands that goaded them
suddenly slack from their endeavor.

Life is paused in midstep as an enemy invades,
we listen to dispatches from the front,
mourning all the fallen.

I rest in the stillness, where comfort is
proportional to trust: it is good to wait in silence
for the salvation of the Lord.

I am practicing the discipline of writing a poem every Sunday; I’ve posted a couple of them on this site. I’ve recently finished reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of the poems I’ve written were in response to Dante the pilgrim’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. For example, in Canto III of Paradiso, Dante arrives at the lowest sphere of heaven, where he encounters Piccarda Donati, the sister of an old friend of his. He asks whether she is satisfied here or instead yearns for a higher position. She replies that she is completely content, telling him to:

“think carefully what love is and you’ll see
such discord has no place within these rounds,
since to be here is to exist in Love.” The Portable Dante, tr. Mark Musa)

Dante reflects, “Then it was clear to me that every where of Heaven is Paradise.”

It seemed to me that Piccarda’s mindset could serve us well here on earth, that we, too, can everywhere live in God’s love, if only we look at the world through that lens. As I wrote, I thought about walking the day before through a park. The calendar still said winter, but spring was clearly afoot. Here’s the poem:

If “every where of heaven is paradise,”
then what in all creation is excluded?

Today’s a joint where winter bends towards spring:
snowpiles wounded by the warmth
bleed bracing rivulets;
the sun’s become a bright and blushing debutante;
trees yet unbudding stretch tall so golden rays
can trace their fuzzy silhouettes;
marsh grasses from last summer weave tan tangles
that, like oldsters everywhere, murmur
about their former days of glory.

Where can I go that heaven won’t infuse?
Even in a darkened room
sunlight pokes its fingers through the blinds
and, in the splay, blissful dust specks dance.
So I sit in my cell as in paradise.
To be here (or anywhere)
is to exist in love.

 

 

In a remarkably short period of time the coronavirus has changed how people throughout the world are living their lives. Here in the U.S., we are exhorted over and over again to practice social distancing—to stay home as much as we can and, should we have to venture out, to remain at least six feet away from those we encounter. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tells us that we’ll need to practice these restrictions for several more weeks at minimum. That degree of restriction will be difficult for many of us to handle.

I was thinking of all of this when I read the lectionary passages that a large number of churches will read this Sunday (or would read if they could have services). I was particularly struck by the psalm that the Revised Common Lectionary uses this the fourth Sunday in Lent. It is Psalm 23, David’s psalm of thanksgiving for God, the shepherd of his flock. It begins as follows:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.  (Ps. 23:1–3, RSV)

That passage speaks to me in this time of trouble. Many now fear want; David tells us that the shepherd anticipates the needs of his sheep and makes provision for them. It’s interesting that the first thing the shepherd has the sheep do is lie down. That suggests that what the sheep needs most is rest and stillness. Though I’m partly retired, most of the time I have a variety of projects going on, so rest is usually in short supply. Maybe the coming weeks will be a time to stop the busyness and “lie down.” And then I might discover that I don’t need to look elsewhere for green pastures; God has already provided them where I am.

Once the shepherd has brought the chaos we’ve created to a halt, we are more inclined to hear his voice and follow him as he leads us beside still waters–places of peace and refreshment. I’m inclined to be on the outlook for tumultuous waters, and I find plenty of those in the news stories that my phone, computer, and TV direct me to every day. The challenge will be to push those aside and notice the still waters I’m being led to walk beside. Following him there, my soul will be restored.

And that in turn will prepare me to be led in the paths that are right for me. For some of my life I think I’ve been on such a right path; other times I’ve strayed far away. I didn’t set out to stray; I was on a good and healthy path, then I wasn’t, and was uncertain how that had happened. Perhaps I stopped listening to the shepherd. Perhaps he wanted me to just lie down for a while, to let him take care of me until I relaxed and trusted enough to see what was the best path to take going forward. I hope I can use the next several weeks of social distancing as a time to lie down in God’s good pasture, follow him beside still waters, and, restored, listen to his guidance for the path ahead.

 

Sirius XM Radio has recently been playing in rotation what it regards as the top 1000 country songs of all time. Country music aficionados are critically evaluating the selections here. I don’t listen to much country music, it being about my fourth favorite musical genre, but I’ve always appreciated how a good country song tells something true and occasionally even profound about the human condition. I thought I would comment on the three top songs on the Sirius XM list, which are a prison song, a heartache song, and a drinking song, respectively. Here they are:

#3 – Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash (1957)
#2 – Crazy – Patsy Cline (1961)
#1 – Friends in Low Places – Garth Brooks (1990)

These are all great songs, and I’ve loved them all for years. Is “Low Places” the best of the three? The protagonist crashes a fancy party that his ex and her current heartthrob are giving, then goes to a bar to drink his sorrows away. Not really the way your average life coach would tell you to deal with your problems! There’s even some intimidation in how the party crasher acts:

And I saw the surprise
And the fear in his eyes
When I took his glass of champagne
And I toasted you
Said, “Honey, we may be through,
But you’ll never hear me complain.”

If his redemption came just from drink, this would be just a cut above the typical drinking song, albeit with more recognition of how class differences affect relationships. But I don’t see the alcohol as the most important aspect in how he’s addressing his problems:

‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases
My blues away
And I’ll be okay
I’m not big on social graces
Think I’ll slip on down to the oasis
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places.

It’s the friends that make the difference, and we hear them in all their glory towards the end of the song. The friends are in low places; the implication is that they are genuine and accepting in a way that friends in high places could never be. So there’s a lot of truth in the song, though it only presents part of the picture; we don’t get any glimpse of what the next morning will be like.

How about Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”? It’s as soulful as “Friends” is rowdy, a beautiful tribute to heartbreak. She begins:

Crazy
I’m crazy for feeling so lonely
I’m crazy
Crazy for feeling so blue.

Mourning for a lost love is indeed crazy, but it’s a craziness that most of us have experienced at one time or another. She can’t even console herself by claiming she didn’t expect this. In fact, she knew it would happen:

I knew you’d love me
As long as you wanted
And then someday
You’d leave me for somebody new.

This is the sort of thing we do; we trust the wrong person, we tell ourselves we’re likely to be hurt yet go ahead anyway. This is based in a deep truth; we are profoundly relational, made so by a relational God, and that yearning drives us relentlessly. What a beautiful, sorrowful song.

What about “Folsom Prison Blues?” Cash assumes the voice of a prison inmate who hears the sound of a train whistle. The protagonist reflects on how he committed a senseless murder, then imagines the scene on the train:

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me.

Wow! What a beautiful portrayal of how we imagine the lives of others and wish we could be in their place. What a portrayal of guilt tinged with remorse, of the human desire for freedom, of how our minds can torture us. I’m deeply moved by both “Crazy” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” I’ve known lovesickness, but I’ve never known incarceration, and Cash touches me deeply with the plight of the prisoner and relates it to universal longings. That means that, of the three, I pick “Folsom Prison Blues” as the top country song of all time.

Most of my recent posts have been of poems I’ve written and this one is no exception. I regularly drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to St. Louis, Missouri, and the poem describes something I see during a portion of the drive. A couple words of explanation: Joliet and Normal are cities along I-55, while Nimrod and Antaeus are giants consigned to the ninth level of Dante’s Inferno. That level is kept frozen by the wind made by the devil flapping his giant wings.

 

WINDMILLS

South of Joliet
Illinois looks like an ironing board—
flat and featureless. Thus it’s welcome when,
north of Normal, windmills appear.
They never seem to peek discretely
over the horizon, but stand up suddenly
beside the road, so that I always wonder
why, miles before, I hadn’t seen such giants
c r e e p i n g
in my direction. All of them are white,
pure against the sky. Unlike the mills
my ancestors used, these grind no grain
and show no sign of corpulence. Slender
as sticks, they flail their arms against the
aggravation of the wind, as if Antaeus
and Nimrod had been annoyed by the gusts
conjured by the devil’s wings.

But that’s not it at all. The invisible breath
that the sails then mill to energy comes not
from hell’s pit but from Wyoming’s mountaintops,
gifted by our ever-giving God.