The Peace Thereafter

It is no mistake that the symbol of peace, the dove, is the self-same symbol which Christians use for the Spirit. In the Upper Room, before his crucifixion, Jesus intertwined his promise of the Spirit’s coming with an assurance of peace “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:26-27). Similarly, in the opening verses of Genesis 1, there is the Spirit, hovering, beating its wings like a bird, far above the void and watery chaos (cf. Gen 1:2). In the visage of a dove we see an image of both the wind of God and Shalom—the peace each of us craves.

Jesus taught us to ask for daily bread, but prayers for peace find their way, also, into our daily prayers. We ask for peace—the cessation of war, for reconciliation for our broken relations, for justice for the oppressed, for an end to systemic racism, classism, and strife. We long for an end to the fighting, for peace to reign in our relationships, and closer to home, we wish also for peace in our hearts—freedom from the anxious thoughts that plague us. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Peace,is one of my favorite poems (I’ve shared it here before). In it, Hopkins described our longing for peace:

  When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs? 
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite 
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but 
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it? 

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu 
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite, 
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

Hopkins describes Peace here, not as a gentle dove descending but as shy wild wooddove that darts about, under the boughs but at a safe distance from human hands. He longs for peace to come close. When, when, Peace, will you Peace?  Though he has experienced peace to some measure, it is but a piecemealpoor peace. Wars still rage and we still live under the threat of them. Peace, as we know it, is but a raid on the warmongers, not a full sail abolition of war. That comes later. The Peace thereafter. Until then we wait.

Hopkins was an adult convert to Catholicism. A Jesuit priest and professor of Greek and Latin in Dublin, he wrote this poem at the end (or near the end?) of World War I.  Personally, he was an anxious soul. He worried about the egotism involved in publishing his poetry(thus kept most of his poems from publication until after his death). Though a committed celibate priest, he struggled with his sexuality (attracted to a man in college and instructed by his confessor to sever all contact with him). He knew what it was like to be overwhelmed with anxious thoughts. The world that Hopkins was in was ravished by war. 

This week of Advent, the traditional theme people reflect on is peace. We say Peace, peace but there is no peace. Violence is everywhere. Mass shootings, police violence, war (America’s sponsorship of the Saudi War effort in Yemen is but the latest example). We are stressed and anxious. Injustice abounds.

We love the idea of peace but we bristle against its promise. Really? We have so little experience with anything we can really call peace. Peace is a whole different reality. We cry How Long O Lord? and When, when, Peace, will you Peace?  Peace is our longing but it seems intangible and inaccessible to us. 

“Peace” is the gospel in short form. The biblical concept of Shalom is a world made whole, everything as it should be, where nothing that shouldn’t be is. There is no war, but also no anxiety. No violence, and no sickness. No death, and consequently, no mourning.  The good news is that God’s shalom is the peace thereafter that the world is moving toward.

In the meantime,  when peace comes to our house, 
he comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

My Lean, Unripened Heart

Sylvia Plath struggled to stave off the darkness. She was clinically depressed, treated multiple times with electrical convulsion therapy. When her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes dissolved, because of Hughes infidelity and him leaving her for his mistress, Plath succumbed to suicide by gas oven in her London flat. Her children were asleep upstairs. Six years later, Hughes mistress, Assia Wevill committed suicide the same way Plath did.

I’ve been reflecting on hope and the promise of Advent, how the Christian story tells us that the telos which we are moving toward, is one where all suffering ceases, wars end and all our mourning turns to joy. In the meantime, hope can be a hard thing to hold out for. The pain of broken relationships and biochemistry may make it nearly impossible. Sylvia Plath described the heartache she felt in losing Hughes in her poem Jilted: 


My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar,
Or the bitter blinking yellow
Of an acetic star.

Tonight the caustic wind, love,
Gossips late and soon,
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of
The sour lemon moon.

While like an early summer plum,
Puny, green, and tart,
Droops upon its wizened stem
My lean, unripened heart.

The bitter, the sour, the acetic, the puny green and tart, the drooping, wizened, lean and unripe. 

I believe wholeheartedly in Christian hope, that the story of God’s redemption ends well. But let’s not abstract it. Hope can be a hard thing to hold on to. I don’t know the heartache of being jilted by my lover the way Plath did, nor do I have her struggles with depression. But I know heartache. I know what it is like to a lose a job, and how insignificant and incompetent it makes you feel. I know what it is like to be rejected by those I care about and felt called to love and serve. I know what it feels like to lose hope, and have my life turn sour. 

Christian hope isn’t just for the nameless poor, the migrant, the refugee, or the war-torn in some far off distant land. We, ourselves, need it. When we lose hope, all the sweetness goes out of life. We despair. We give up. If we are to sustain life and joy, we need hope for tomorrow. 

  Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, fell to Babylon in 587 BCE. The city of Jerusalem was captured and destroyed. The temple was torn down. Many of the inhabitants died in the siege. Families were torn apart and many were carried into exile. If there was a time that God’s people lost all hope, that was it. God had abandoned them. Their nation was no more.  They were under judgment for their rejection of their God. 

For 70 years they were in exile. A lifetime. People were born and died in captivity. And yet, God was still at work and he hadn’t really abandoned his people. Jeremiah prophesied:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  (Jeremiah 31:27–29, NRSV)

At the end of 70 years, the sourness was gone, the exiles returned. The walls of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. They experienced what  Martin Luther King used to say, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” It wasn’t as it was, but their hope returned. Tough the fruit of experience was still sometimes bitter there was hope for tomorrow. 

I feel sad for Sylvia Plath—depressed, rejected, despairing. Suicide is a disease that has claimed far too many lives, and I doubt if I was there I could have said any words that would restore Plath’s hopes for another day. I do know one day, maybe soon, maybe many lifetimes away that:

God will dwell with his peoples, and be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will cease. The sourness will go out of life. He will make all things new.  (cf. Rev 21:4-5). 

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

In yesterday’s reflection, I asked if hope asks anything of us. Emily Dickinson said no, not a crumb but I wondered if hope did not at least invite certain actions from us. 

Wendell Berry wears many hats. He is an environmentalist, an activist, a farmer, an essayist, a cultural critic, a novelist, and a poet. No one else has been more compelling and steady as he, in warning us against the environmental and economic dangers inherent in the industrial agricultural complex, and the things we’ve lost in our rush to progress.

I love Wendell Berry. He is incisive in his analysis of the state of things. I’ve read his non-fiction and have devoured his novels—all set in the Port William Township, with the Catletts and the Coulters and Jayber Crow. Yet, it was Berry’s poetry that first drew me to his writings.  His best-known poem is Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. I hesitated to include it in these Advent reflections because it is final exhortation, Practice Resurrection feels more Easter than Advent. But Resurrection runs all the way through Christian hope, even at Advent. No Easter, no Advent hope. Here’s the poem:


Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

The opening of Manifesto describes the state of things in contemporary life, the tedious monotony of a world with no beyond. We scheme for our own personal success—quick profits from get-rich-quick-schemes, jobs with good benefits,  a lucrative 401K. Everything is done for our own satisfaction and security. We are comfortable, but each of us is the center of our personal universe. We have not thoughts of the world beyond our existence. We fear our neighbors (or migrants, refugees and asylum seekers). We fear our own death, and perhaps the death of those who make us happy. Consumerism drives our desire and our behavior. We exist and subsist with a loss of hope for the future, our connection to the past and a sense of transcendence. There is no God, and if there is, it is only the God that makes me happy.  

Enter the Mad Farmer, calling us to each day: do something
that won’t compute
, to Love the Lord, and Love the world; to Work for nothing; to take all that we have and be poor and to love someone who does not deserve it; to denounce government and hope our nation will one day live its ideals of freedom; to approve the incomprehensible and praise ignorance, to be thankful for the things humanity has not encountered and destroyed; to ask the questions with no answers, to invest in a millennium. to plant sequoias and trust in the two-inches of hummus that will build under the trees every thousand years; to listen to the carrion, and hope for the world to come, to expect the end of the world and laugh; to be joyful, even in the face of facts; please women more than men (as long as women don’t go cheap for power), Swear allegiance to our nighest thoughts, lose our minds instead of letting ourselves be co-opted and controlled, to be like the fox, making more tracks than necessary, practice resurrection.

The Mad farmer invites us to enjoy life, to not be driven by our economic interests, to not see Creation and all that’s around us as something to be manipulated for personal gain, but instead, to invest in the far-off future, to expect the end to the world and laugh.

It is possible to go through life and just let it happen to you, to give little thought about how your choices impact nature, others and the future; to drink Keurig coffee because you don’t like the inconvenience of washing out the coffee pot. 

Like the Mad Farmer’s Manifesto, Advent hope is the invitation to see the world beyond us. Jesus is coming! Get ready. All the things that isolate people from one another, all the broken relationships and the things that steal our joy, all the ways that institutions chew people up and steal their soul, will meet their end. The wolf will live with the lamb,  Expect the end of the world. Laugh. If hope asks anything of us, it is this: don’t just let life happen to you. Live mindful of the world to come—the world beyond. 

The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.” (Isaiah 11:6–9, The Message)



Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Emily Dickinson was a recluse. She spent most of her adult life in seclusion, at her Amherst family home. Publishing only a few poems during her lifetime, she made her sister, Lavinia, promise to burn her papers after she passed away.  Had her sister kept her promise, the world would never know her short lines and slant rhymes. 

 Eschewing Second Great Awakening revivalism and the rigidity of New England Presbyterianism, the Transcendent yet haunts her poetry. I hear it in poems like ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me. 

Dickinson describes hope as a bird, that never quits singing despite storms and cold and roiling waters. This is a poignant metaphor. Hope, for her, was resilient, irrepressible. The bird perches in the soul and “sings the tune without the words—/And never stops—at all—.” Hope is the stubborn songbird whose song is carried by the breeze, all the sweeter in strong winds. A melody that warms us through the storm.

Hope, this buoyant birdsong, doesn’t quit. It persists. Despite the weather, sometimes despite the evidence, “in chillest lands—/and on the strangest sea.” Can hopes be dashed and destroyed? Dickinson allows for the possibility, “and sore must be the storm . . .’ but the emphasis here is on the constancy of this birdsong in our souls. 

Advent is the season where we turn our ears toward the bird singing in our soul. In terms of the Christian story, the song she has been singing, does have words. For two thousand years, she sings, “the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15).” This song is resilient and the songbird keeps singing despite wars, and rumors of war, families being torn apart and placed in detention centers, environmental degradation, disease, the fear economic collapse and personal bankruptcy, poverty, trumped-up legal charges and the wrongfully convicted, death and the raw experience of grief. Through wind and storm, in tundra and tempest, the song rings out, “the kingdom of God is at hand.Dare we hope that God’s redemption and righteous reign would break into our broken worlds? 

Dickinson’s final two lines: 


Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me. 

indicate that the song of hope is not coercive.  A young Emily Dickinson rebuffed revivalism when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She didn’t reject the gospel story per se, she did reject manipulative attempts to get her to respond in a particular fashion to the call of Christ. When Dickinson attended church services with her family, she appeared disinterested. She has cemented her place in history as the patron saint of the spiritual-but-not-religious. 

It is worth asking here if Dickinson is right. Does hope really ask nothing of us? Not even a crumb? I think she is right to say that hope does not demand, coerce, manipulate us. Definitely not. But does not the songbird, invite us, inspire us, and move us to sing along?

The Kingdom of God is at hand.How may we join in the song? 

This Fenced Off Narrow Space

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. Evangelical is kind of a dirty word these days, but for good or ill, growing up evangelical shaped my spirituality. It imparted to me a love for the Bible, for God’s mission of redemption and a stubborn Christocentrism. These are real gifts to me. But with gifts came also limitations and blind spots and unhealthy emphases.

Our beliefs about end-times were our scare-tactic-evangelism strategy. We took the book of Revelations(sic) and described that the world was evil, that Jesus was coming back, and on the great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus would destroy everything, and burn it up! Bound up with our proclamation was a belief that an evil leader would seduce the nations into a false unity, uniting the world under his leadership, forcing citizens who participate in the economy to receive his mark: 6—6—6.
The moon would turn to blood. And there would be pestilence and war, disease, and darkness. 

Of course, Christians would get a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, raptured before the days of cataclysmic devastation. 

There is a lot wrong with this eschatology, but one problem was we struggled to make the return of Christ sound like good news, even to ourselves. Jesus is Coming and he’s going to destroy everything you care about!  Yes! There was the promise of heaven, but our imagination was stoked more by the suffering of the world. All of this will burn! The good news was, for us, just a way to circumvent our personal experience of destruction. The world would burn but we don’t have to. Come, Lord Jesus. We ripped Revelation away from John of Patmos and the second-century persecution of the Church. Our blind spot was our social location as modern white middle-class evangelicals.

It took me a long time to understand that the best way to read the Bible was from the underside—with the oppressed, the marginalized, the persecuted, the discriminated against, and the outcasts.  When you do, even the scary bits of Revelation start to feel like good news.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was one of the best-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry describes the African-American experience—their exclusion from the American dream, and the suffering they endured because of racism and white oppression.  In his poem, I Look at the World, he illustrates the ways society has placed him and his people in a ‘fenced-off narrow space’:

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space   
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

The poem is ultimately hopeful, showing how Hughes and like-minded comrades can remake the world, but he also names the way oppression has been a fence and a wall, something which constricts movement and imprisons.

When we consider this season of Advent we would do well to listen and look with Hughes. Jesus is coming! When you take in the news from the center, the only good news is that Jesus will give us a bailout before everything gets really bad. When you read Revelation from the underside, you hear the good news that the Oppressor— the one who enslaves, imprisons, deports, turns a blind eye to the suffering of the marginalized—will be deposed. Peace will reign. The dehumanizing institutions will be overhauled. Systemic justice will be our new reality:

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

Reading as Prayer through Lent & Easter: a book (p)review

We are nearing the beginning of Lent. I love this season! I find the preparatory seasons of the church calendar (Lent and Advent) great times to press into devotional practices which are difficult for me the rest of the time. Wednesday, I will find a church service to attend so I can get the Face-palm of Death (AKA the Imposition of Ashes). I will fast. I will engage spiritual disciplines. This season is sacred time and I enter in eager to see what God will do in me. 

between-midnight-and-dawnOne of my conversation partners this Lent will be Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide for  Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press, 2016),  compiled by Sarah Arthur). This is one of three devotionals Arthur has edited following the church calendar (also: At the Still Point: a Literary Guide for Prayer in Ordinary Time, and Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer For Advent, Christmas and Epiphany). At the Still Point was the only one of these devotionals I have read any of before, though my Ordinary Time resolve is nowhere near as resolute as my Lenten devotion.

Between Midnight and Dawn pairs suggested weekly Scripture readings with prayers, poetry and fiction readings. There are seven readings for each week of Lent—six poems and one piece of fiction. During Holy Week and Triduum, there are scriptures and 5-7 literary selections for each day, before returning to the weekly format of Scriptures, poetry, and fiction for each week of Eastertide.

The poems and fiction are selected to lead us deeper into the land of Prayer. Arthur suggests reading this literature, applying aspects of lectio divina—lectio (reading), meditatio (reading it again, several more times, slowly), oratio (paying attention to words and phrases) and contemplatio (shifting our focus to God’s presence, p.13). Certainly, this takes a little bit of time. The story sections are longer (because ‘fiction doesn’t work its magic right away’), so Arthur suggests saving the story for a day of the week when we have time to just focus on the story.

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing. 2002) is a similar sort of devotional, using literature as a way into this liturgical season. Arthur’s selection is different in that she is more focused on reading literature as an act of prayer, and the scriptural readings (absent from Bread and Wine) give focus to daily practice.

As of yet, I haven’t really read the book, only scanned the selections, the poems and stories selected.  Arthur has chosen both contemporary and eminent voices from the past.  Poets like Hopkins, Donne, Rosetti, Herbert, Tennyson but also those like Luci Shaw, Katherine James, Scott Cairns, John Fry, Tania Runyan). There are stories from Buechner, Chesterton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Macdonald. There are some favorite poets and poems I am surprised to not see here, but I am interested to read the ones which Arthur has chosen. I am excited to journey with poets and storytellers on my Lenten journey

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of review.

If you would like to get a copy for yourself for Lent you can purchase it from

Paraclete Press

Amazon (also available on Kindle)

Barnes & Noble

or wherever fine books are sold.

 

Two Recent Poems

These two poems are reflections on recent news and the paltry response to sexual violence in the church. If this topic is an open wound and a trigger, please skip reading this. As a follower of Jesus and a man, I want to have a compassionate response toward the #metoo movement and the stories women are telling. Too often, Christian men have failed to really listen and we have also failed to call victimizers to account. 


You see God, but do You hear?

El Roi—the God who sees.
Well, God,
we all see too much.
Open your ears
and hear the
cries of the broken,
scattered mass
crying ‘me too.’
We don’t want,
anymore,
the mercy
which papers over
the sins of victimizers
demanding we forgive
the things that
they’ve
never owned.

Hear us.
Hear us.
Times up,
enough.


Spring, 1998

 [warning: graphic content, press the link above to read Jules Woodson’s story]

That was Savage there,
at the end of
the dirt road,
taking by force
what was yours alone
to give and then,
quaking with chagrin
pleading with you
to pledge
to him your
everlasting
silences.

Later that savage
told a flock of
horny teens:
True Love Waits—
Take the long view!
your future wife
is a Jewel that 
ought to be
 treasured!

Did you feel treasured, Jules?
When he unzipped his pants
and demanded of you: Suck it?
Or when he had you
unbutton your blouse
and jumped from
the driver seat,
aware in
that moment
of the damage
this would do
to (no, not you)
his career?

You were crying in
the church office,
the senior pastor,
conspicuously absent.
He saw your tears,
but Larry,
Cotton in his ears,
wouldn’t hear.
“So you are saying you participated?”
“We’ll handle it.”

 
Twenty years later,
The rich man fatted
with lamb,
No prophet Nathan
came to stand
before the man
and demand
justice
For what
he took.

But you stood—
yourself—
for you
(but not just you),
for the others,
so no more
Cotton men
could
refuse
to hear.